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Posts Tagged ‘television history

I feel the need, the need for speed….


So, how fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?  Randall Munroe explains in his ever-illuminating companion to xkcd, What If?


As we shift into overdrive, we might send receptive birthday greetings to Marvin P. Middlemark; he was born on this date in 1919.  A prolific inventor, Middlemark created such consumer appliances as the water-powered potato peeler; but he is surely best remembered for having developed the dipole television antenna– AKA, “rabbit ears.”  Obviating the need for roof-top receivers, rabbit ears made TV available to the mass market, and are considered by many to be the single most important force behind the 1950s-60s boom in television in the U.S.

rabbit ears

middlemark source

Written by LW

September 16, 2013 at 1:01 am

Dancing with scissors…


From Brazilian designers 18bis, a very different application of the animation technique– stop motion cut-outs– made famous by South Park:  a beautiful dance inspired by Pablo Neruda’s “The Me Bird,”, set to original music.

[TotH to Wall to Watch]


As we contemplate the cornucopia that is construction paper, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Jack Paar said “good night” and signed off of The Tonight Show for the final time.  The late night format had been pioneered by Steve Allen, who inaugurated the slot for NBC locally in New in York in 1952, then as a network offer in 1954.  It was structured as a traditional variety show (though it ran 105 minutes), and was quickly tag-team hosted by Allen and Ernie Kovacs, who alternated nights.  Carried on very few affiliates, it failed to satisfy the network, which switched to a news format in that time slot in January of 1957.  The news was even less popular, so in July of the network tacked back, and named Jack Paar the sole host of Tonight.

Paar established the format and tropes that we currently associate with late night shows:  the opening monologue, the regular cast of sketch and skit players, the catchphrase (“I kid you not”), the musical guests, and most centrally, the interviews with celebrities– of all walks, but largely entertainers.  The toll of doing 105 minutes five nights a week was sufficiently wearing that Paar convinced the network to reduce the length to 90 minutes, and later, to produce only four shows a week (starting the trend of “Best of” Fridays that survived him).  The show was a tremendous hit, steadily building carriage and audience; it was Paar who turned The Tonight Show into an entertainment juggernaut.  But he salted his guest list with intellectuals (Paar helped William F. Buckley become a celebrity), politicians (Sen. John F. Kennedy initiated the practice of the “Presidential candidate appearance” on Paar’s show; see photo below), even world leaders.  Indeed, Paar was the center of a firestorm of criticism for interviewing Fidel Castro in 1959.

Exhausted by demands of the show, Paar left to do a prime time series.  His hand-picked successor, who’d been a frequent substitute host during Paar’s vacations, was Johnny Carson.





Written by LW

March 29, 2013 at 1:01 am

Speak, Memory…

Proof that there actually was a “Golden Age of Television”:  Vladimir Nabokov (above, left) and Lionel Trilling (right) appearing together in 1958 on the CBC’s Close Up, discussing Lolita.

Part one of the segment is here; part two, here.

As Thomas McGrath observes in Dangerous Minds,

Nabokov himself, shuffling his famous index cards (he insisted upon preparing his answers in advance, and reading them aloud), was in the midst of a very rich vein of form indeed, one that resulted not only in Lolita but also Pnin and Pale Fire. He is bright-eyed, ironical, eccentric, amusing and wholly indifferent to the kind of impression his controversial masterpiece (which has since sold more than fifty million copies) was making to 1950s America.

And as for those index cards, Paris Review explains


As we settle down on the heels of Banned Books Week, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky premiered Aaron Copland’s third and final symphony– known ever since, as Leonard Bernstein put it, as “the epitome of a decades-long search by many composers for a distinctly American music.”

Copland’s Third Symphony is in the traditional format (four movements; second movement, scherzo; third movement, adagio), and, at 40 minutes, is his longest orchestral composition.  He wrote it explicitly with Koussevitzky in mind– and succeeded mightily, as the conductor called the the work “simply the greatest American symphony ever written.”

Aaron Copland


Written by LW

October 18, 2012 at 1:01 am

Fitting the crime?…


Recently, The Economist took a look at the fines being levied against corporations found guilty of crimes. Their assessment was rather bleak:

The economics of crime prevention starts with a depressing assumption: executives simply weigh up all their options, including the illegal ones. Given a risk-free opportunity to mis-sell a product, or form a cartel, they will grab it. Most businesspeople are not this calculating, of course, but the assumption of harsh rationality is a useful way to work out how to deter rule-breakers.

In an influential 1968 paper on the economics of crime, Gary Becker of the University of Chicago set out a framework in which criminals weigh up the expected costs and benefits of breaking the law. The expected cost of lawless behaviour is the product of two things: the chance of being caught and the severity of the punishment if caught*

The always-amazing David McCandliss at Information is Beautiful has put the issue into graphic perspective.

We’ve gathered and visualized the biggest corporate fines of the last seven years, not just as raw amounts, but also as a percentage of each company’s profits. That way you can see for yourself if the punishment was painful or puny…

See the full graphic (full size) here, and see the underlying data here.

*Becker had created the model as a framework for considering appropriately-discouraging penalties for malfeasance. He was horrified later to learn that it was being taught by business school colleagues as a decision aid.


As we contemplate crime and punishment, we might recall that it was on this date in 1950 that the first television show with a recorded “laugh track” (The Harry McCune Show) aired in the U.S.

CBS TV engineer Charlie Douglass, the “father of the laugh track”



Written by LW

September 9, 2012 at 1:01 am

Dream homes…


Facit Homes has claimed to be the first builder to use digital technology to fabricate a bespoke home on site (the one above, built for a couple in the UK).  Managing Director Bruce Bell explains, “we bring our compact high-tech machine to site and make it there and then—its an amazingly efficient way of designing and making a house.”

As GizMag reports,

Facit Homes first designs the house using a 3D computer model, which contains every aspect from its orientation, material quantities, even down to the position of individual plug sockets. The patented “D-Process” then transforms the 3D digital designs into the home’s exact physical building components, using a computer controlled cutter. These components are usually made from engineered spruce ply and are light and easy enough to then be assembled together on site. Since the components are produced on demand, costs are kept to a minimum and lead times are eradicated. “It’s not a building system but a way of working,” said Bell…

Read the full story here; and watch the process in the video here:


As we work on a new welcome mat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that Oprah first entered homes across America:  this is the anniversary of the first national airing of The Oprah Winfrey Show.  It went on, of course, to become the highest-rated syndicated show in television history.

A September, 1986 ad from TV Guide

source (and other such ads)



No Joy…


For over half a century, from 1949, Joyland was Wichita’s family fun park… Toddlers could ride one of the oldest miniature steam trains in the U.S.; grade school kids could bring their reports cards and trade A’s of B’s for ride tickets; and teens could get an adrenaline rush in the Whacky Shack or on “Nightmare”– an H.P. Schmeck-designed wooden roller coaster, one of only 44 original coasters designated as an ACE Coaster Classic… it was central Kansas’ Xanadu, its Oz, its… well, its Joy-Land.

But Joyland is no more; in 2003, it closed for the last time.

Photographer Mike Petty returned recently to the park; the resulting montage is an essay on the fragility of fantasy and the inexorable erosion of time.

The history of Joyland and photos of the park in its prime (and after) are here.

And for a different kind of desolation on the midway, readers should check out Carnival of Souls, a 60s masterpiece that is available in the Criterion Collection (and thus streaming on Hulu Plus and Amazon– and for free here).

As we make sure that we keep our heads down and our hands inside the cart, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that The Pinky Lee Show aired for the last time.  Lee, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, had parlayed a career as a “baggy pants” burlesque comedian into a brief 1950 run with a variety show on NBC.  He returned in 1954 with the children’s show that made him famous (he was the lead-in for Howdy Doody).  But Lee’s success was short lived:  he collapsed on camera in late 1955.  The show continued without him, but was never the same; it was cancelled on this date the following year.  Though his abrupt disappearance spawned wide-spread rumors of his demise, Lee returned to television in 1957 as the host of Gumby.  And of course his influence stretched well into the future, helping set the tone of, for example, Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

    Yoo hoo, it’s me,
My name is Pinky Lee.
I skip and run with lots of fun
For every he and she.
It’s plain to see
That you can tell it’s me
With my checkered hat
And my checkered coat,
The funny giggle in my throat
And my silly dance
Like a billy goat.
Put ’em all together,
Put ’em all together,
And it’s whooooo?
(Audience): Pinky!

– Pinky’s opening song

Pincus Leff, aka “Pinky Lee” (source)

Here we are now, entertain us…

Hannah and her patron (source)

Readers may have encountered the storm that’s arisen online over the release of a video of Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana in a Quito concert covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  It is, in fact, execrable.  But then, in fairness to Ms. Montana, so are many of the attempts to capture Kurt Cobain’s lightning in a different bottle… as is amply (if not indeed painfully) demonstrated in Flavorwire’s “10 ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Covers That Are Worse Than Miley’s.”

From the louche stylings of Paul Anka and Michael Bublé, through folk, a cappella, pop, R&B, even classical, to a stunningly-bad rendition by Limp Bizkit, there is video evidence for review.  But lest readers click away with bad tastes in their mouths, the good folks at Flavorwire conclude with “Nyevana”‘s delightful “Smells Like Air Pressure.”

(Readers may recall that RD has visited “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before– in what may be the strangest mash-up ever… some songs are just so good that no one can leave them alone…  Your correspondent’s own favorite cover: by the always-astounding Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.)

As we promise to pay our exemplars more respect, we might recall that it was on this date in 1660 that Isaack B. Fubine of the Hague patented macaroni… and thus made possible, on this date in 1947, the launch of the first-ever weekly TV series – “Kraft Television Theater.”


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