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“There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told”*…

… and some that do:

Edgar A. Poe landed in Philadelphia in 1838. He had been raised among the elite of Richmond, Virginia, but in Philadelphia he was an impoverished outsider seeking recognition and stability as a professional writer. Strikingly, Poe’s first publication in Philadelphia—and the one that sold the most in his lifetime—was a scientific textbook…

Poe’s best-selling book during his lifetime was a guide to seashells, and The Conchologist’s First Book was good enough to elevate the entire field: the fascinating story in this excerpt from John Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science (available June 15).

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we comb the beach, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that motorists lined up for the opening of America’s first drive-in theater, in Camden, NJ.

Park-In Theaters–the term “drive-in” came to be widely used only later–was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products, in Camden. Reportedly inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats, Hollingshead came up with the idea of an open-air theater where patrons watched movies in the comfort of their own automobiles. He then experimented in the driveway of his own house with different projection and sound techniques, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinning a screen to some trees, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound. He also tested ways to guard against rain and other inclement weather, and devised the ideal spacing arrangement for a number of cars so that all would have a view of the screen. [The first feature was a 1932 film, Wives Beware]

The young entrepreneur received a patent for the concept in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later, with an initial investment of $30,000. Advertising it as entertainment for the whole family, Hollingshead charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar…

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[For a more contemporary photographic update on the phenomenon, see here.]

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“I daydream about a high school where everybody plays the harmonica”*…

Lee Oskar, seen here performing with WAR in 1970, was so frustrated with the quality of Hohner’s harmonicas at the time that he eventually founded his own harmonica company

In the late 1960s, as the general manager of Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, Reese Marin sold guitars, drums, keyboards, and amps to the biggest psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. His customers ranged from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Guitarists as musically diverse as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller could find what they were looking for at Don Wehr’s; so did jazz virtuosos George Benson and Barney Kessel, who would walk down Columbus Avenue from Broadway in North Beach—where the jazz clubs competed with strip joints for tourists—whenever they were in town.

These legends were some of the most demanding and finicky musicians on the planet. So it should have been easy for Marin to sell a couple of $5 harmonicas to Lee Oskar, whose melodic riffs on hits like “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto,” and “Low Rider” gave one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, WAR, its signature sound. Oskar, however, heard imperfections in his chosen instrument that Marin didn’t know existed. Oskar was not tentative in his quest for what he considered a “gig-worthy” harmonica. “I spent all my money on harmonicas,” Oskar told me recently, “just to find 1 out of 10 that was any good.”

Marin says Oskar was exaggerating, but not by much. He was actually behind the counter when Oskar made his first of many visits to Don Wehr’s and asked to play all of the harmonicas the store had in stock in C, A, F, G, and E—the keys where rock bands live and die. On any given day, Marin maintained an inventory of 10 to 20 harmonicas in each key for each model they sold. That was a lot of harmonicas for Oskar to put his mouth on, so Marin decided to be firm. “I said, ‘You can’t play ’em unless you buy ’em,’” Marin told me, “and he said, ‘I don’t mind.’”

Shrugging, Marin rang him up, then Oskar proceeded to play every single harmonica on the sales counter, which he then divided into two piles—one for the gig-worthy harmonicas and another for the rejects, which were 80 to 90 percent of the total. “When he was done, I said, ‘Lee, what do you want me to do with all these harmonicas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t really care. I can’t use them.’” Marin ended up giving away a lot of used Lee Oskar-played harmonicas. “Lee did this over and over, every time he was in town,” says Marin. “It was crazy.”

Until relatively recently, playing a harmonica was sort of crazy, too, since doing so was essentially the same thing as destroying it. For harmonicas like the Hohner Marine Bands Oskar road-tested that day at Don Wehr’s, a player’s saliva would soak into the wood inside the instrument, causing it to swell. At the end of a gig, the wood would dry out and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls Steve Baker, a London-born harmonica player and an authority on the Marine Band. Most players would never do that, of course, content to just toss their worn-out wrecks in the trash.

For Hohner, this must have seemed like a very good business model. After all, the Marine Band had been Hohner’s most popular harmonica brand almost since 1896, the year it was introduced. In the United States, in the first half of the 20th century, American folk musicians and blues artists alike embraced the Marine Band as their own, giving the instrument originally designed to play traditional German folk tunes an aura of cool. With sales soaring after World War II, Hohner found itself making an instrument everybody wanted, even though it needed to be replaced regularly. How could a manufacturer’s product get any better than that?

Well, answered harmonica players and a small but influential community of harmonica customizers, how about an instrument that doesn’t wear out, is built to be serviced and tuned to a musician’s needs, and is made out of materials that don’t cause our lips to bleed?

In the 1970s, Lee Oskar and Steve Baker were at the forefront of a movement to get those questions answered…

In the 1970s, Hohner, the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, changed its flagship model– and in the process, its signature sound. A few musicians and harp customizers waged a quiet rebellion. And they won. The full (and elegantly told) story: “The Return of the Harmonica.”

* Richard Brautigan

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As we blow, we might recall that it was on this date in 1979 that the classic film Rock and Roll High School was first publicly shown. (Some sources report that the movie opened on August 4 or August 24 of that year– and “officially,” one of those dates is likely right.  But according to director Allan Arkush, in an interview with The Village Voice, the movie played in April in Texas and New Mexico, and did not reach New York City– and national consciousness– until August.)

A Roger Corman production featuring a remarkable cast, it is nonetheless probably best remembered as “the movie with The Ramones.” Amusingly, Corman originally wanted Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren to play the band, but schedules didn’t mesh, so he was forced to find an alternative… at which point Paul Bartel (who played a key role in the film) suggested The Ramones.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 25, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The most beautiful sight in a movie theater is to walk down to the front, turn around, and look at the light from the screen reflected on the upturned faces of the members of the audience”*…

Back in the early 1990s, movie theaters weren’t that great. The auditoriums were cramped and narrow, and the screen was dim. But in 1995, the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas changed everything. It was the very first movie megaplex in the United States. This is the gigantic, neon, big-box store of moviegoing that we’re all used to  today, and it’s easy to dismiss as a tacky ‘90s invention. But the megaplex—specifically this first megaplex in Dallas—upended the entire theater business and changed the kinds of movies that got made in ways you might not imagine…

A plethora of choice, stadium seating, a surge of independent films, the move to 3-D and IMAX– how the rise of the multi-cinema shaped movie-going and movies: “The Megaplex!” from the ever-fascinating 99% Invisible.

* François Truffaut, as quoted by Gene Siskel

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As we salt our popcorn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in the U.S., roughly a year after it’s release (as Das Kabinett des Doktor Calagari in its native Germany. Directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, it is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema… and was hailed by Roger Ebert as arguably “the first true horror film” and by Danny Peary as cinema’s first cult film and a precursor for arthouse films.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 19, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”*

 

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In “Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove,” Kristan Horton imitates the glorious satirical film Dr. Strangelove, using common household objects to re-create the world created by Kubrick—silverware become an airplane, plastic and coffee grounds become the sky…

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The sublime, recreated with the mundane: “Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove,” via the ever-illuminating The Morning News.

See also the “3-D Rooms Project.”

* Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, one of three roles he played in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, produced, directed, and co-written (with Terry Southern, very loosely based on a novel by Peter George) by Stanley Kubrick

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As we ride it down, we might recall that it was on this date in 1883 that the volcano at Krakatoa (Krakatau) erupted with full force.  The sound was heard over 2,000 miles away (that’s over 7.5% of the earth’s surface– the equivalent of an explosion in New York City being heard in San Francisco); tsunamis caused by the great blast killed 36,000 people in Java and Sumatra.

But there was another sense in which Krakatoa was importantly “the sound heard ’round the world”:  While news of Lincoln’s assassination (only 18 years earlier) had taken almost two weeks to reach London,  Europe and the U.S. knew of Krakatoa in about four hours.  In the years between 1865 and 1883, there had been three interrelated developments: the global spread of the telegraph, the invention of Morse Code, and the establishment of Reuter’s news agency… and the world had become much smaller.  (C.F., Tom Standage’s marvelous The Victorian Internet for the details– both remarkable and altogether resonant with today.)

As big as the explosion was, it was not the biggest in history: experts suggest that Santorini’s eruption in 1628 BCE was three times as powerful.

300px-Krakatoa_eruption_lithograph source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people”*…

 

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Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century

 

Picture someone who spends hours each day debating politics, indiscriminately consuming serious news and dubiously sourced gossip, yet takes no part in actual political action. That might describe many twenty-first-century Twitter users. As philosopher Uriel Heyd writes, it’s also how satirists depicted obsessed news consumers in eighteenth-century Britain.

The turn of the century brought a flourishing of print media, Heyd writes. By the 1710s, artisans and shopkeepers filled coffeehouses, discussing and debating the events in political and foreign affairs that they had read about in the day’s papers.

Soon, satires appeared in theaters, depicting regular citizens absurdly focused on the political sphere, to the detriment of their personal lives. In the 1711 play The Generous Husband, a woman dismisses a news-obsessed man as “a walking News-paper: his Head is the very Emblem of the dirty Houses he frequents, full of foul Pipes, News, and Coffee—Foh, methinks I smell him hither; he stinks of Tabacco like an old Gazette.” In the 1769 comedy The School for Rakes, a female character asks to have newspapers and magazines sent to her: “My mental faculties are quite at a stand—I have not had the least political information, these four days.”…

Hooked on viral news (or is it gossip?), today’s Twitter hordes owe a lot to history’s coffeehouses: “The News Junkies of the Eighteenth Century.”

* Socrates

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As we watch what went around come around, we might send insinuating birthday greetings to Louella Parsons; she was born on this date in 1881.  In the movie business from its earliest days (she supplied a script to the Eassanay Company before they discovered Charlie Chaplin), she became a film columnist in 1914– and a few years later, became the lead gossip columnist for the Hearst papers.

There was persistent speculation that Parsons was elevated to her position as the Hearst chain’s lead gossip columnist because of a scandal she did not write about. In 1924, director Thomas Ince died after being carried off Hearst’s yacht, allegedly to be hospitalized for indigestion. Many Hearst newspapers falsely claimed that Ince had not been aboard the boat at all and had fallen ill at the newspaper mogul’s home. Charlie Chaplin‘s secretary reported seeing a bullet hole in Ince’s head when he was removed from the yacht. Rumors proliferated that Chaplin was having an affair with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, and that an attempt to shoot Chaplin may have caused Ince’s death. Allegedly, Parsons was also aboard the yacht that night but she ignored the story in her columns. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure…   – source

In any event, Parsons became an influential figure in Hollywood; at her peak, her columns were read by 20 million people in 400 newspapers worldwide.  She was the unchallenged “Queen of Hollywood gossip”… until the arrival of the flamboyant Hedda Hopper, with whom she feuded for years.

LouellaParsons source

 

 

 

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