In 1913, Marcus Loews, founder of Loew’s Theatres and later the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, hired a young press agent named Nils Granlund to market a vaudeville show called Hanky Panky. Granlund must have turned out to be pretty good at his job because he was soon promoted to publicity manager for all of Loew’s Theatres.
In this position, Granlund used live revues to encourage more interest in some of Loew’s underperforming theaters. Then he thought further outside the box and spliced together some rehearsal footage from the Broadway show The Pleasure Seekers and tacked it onto the end of a film. The viewing audience was intrigued. People whispered furiously to one another to express whether or not they might want to see the play and to ask for their turn with the ultra-large mega-tub of popcorn with extra butter.
Okay, I don’t really know about that last part. The history of movie popcorn is another post. But the point is, the movie trailer was born. And it caught on with other promoters who, eventually moving it to the front end of the film so an audience would suffer through it, used them across the United States and throughout the world.
Of course we see trailers everywhere now. Thanks to the genius of Nils Granlund, trailers make up the first fifteen minutes of any movie-going experience. That’s just about enough time for you and your friends to get through the ultra-large mega-tub of extra buttery popcorn. Don’t worry. It comes with free refills.
Trailers are also some of the most emotionally stirring ads on television, the conversation pieces shared across social media platforms, and the third most watched type of video on the Internet, behind news and I guess maybe those hours-long YouTube productions featuring some guy playing a video game in his mother’s basement.
And though it took nearly a century for it to catch up, the book industry is now making trailers, too. Most aren’t as fancy as the slick media masterpieces made by people who know what they’re doing. Many are created by the authors themselves on shoestring budgets and with no discernible talent for movie-making.
But they serve the same purpose as both that early collection of rehearsal footage slapped together by Nils Granlund and the first glimpses of the most highly anticipated thirty-seventh retelling of the story of Spiderman. They stir in us an emotional response, and spark in us a desire to share in the enthusiasm of an artist who has poured time and energy and heart into his or her art.
So, of course, I made one.
Exactly two weeks from today my novel will make its official entrance into the world. I know that it won’t be for all of you. Every book has its reader and every reader has his or her book. But I hope you’ll watch the trailer I made on a shoestring budget and with no discernible talent for movie-making. If you do find yourself emotionally stirred or mildly interested or even if you just want to show your friends the worst example of a book trailer you’ve ever seen, I hope you’ll share it.
Lately my youngest son, who tends to like to play the pessimist anyway, has become obsessed with things that don’t work. It’s something of a family joke that stems from our recent vacation to Disney World in Florida, and it started with the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster in the Magic Kingdom.
My son had picked out our first Fastpassed ride of the day and it was a good choice. Neither of my kids love roller coasters, but this one was just the right kind: not too fast and not too jerky, not too upside down or backwards, and not too dark.
We had a great time on the ride. Then, as soon as we exited, they shut it down temporarily because of technical difficulties. We counted ourselves pretty lucky at that point and felt it was a great start to our adventure. And it was.
But it turned out that this was the beginning of a trend, because it began to seem to us that every ride we either went on or were just about to ride had to be shut down. We thought it must somehow be us.
It happened when we were in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Test Track, and Splash Mountain. The Kali River Rapids, Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarf’s Minetrain, and even the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover and the oddly fascinating Carousel of Progress, all shut down for a while not long after we exited them. And either all or part of our group was actually caught in a mid-ride shutdown on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Great Movie Ride, and Spaceship Earth.
It really got to be pretty funny. But our greatest shut-down adventure occurred on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride on which we remained stuck, three boat lengths from the exit, for about half an hour.
Opened at California’s Disneyland in March of 1967 and at Florida’s Disney World in 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the older rides in the Disney collection, spawning the billion dollar movie franchise and wowing Disney guests with animatronic creepiness and complete historical accuracy.
Well, that might be a stretch (the historical accuracy, not the creepiness), but the ride does make great use of its theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio, paying loose homage to that old timey sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest.” That song, featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Islandpublished in 1883, has allegedly been around so long the origin of it is unknown.
Except that it’s not. Stevenson’s book itself was probably the most influential work of fiction defining the image of the Golden Age pirate until 2003 when Johnny Depp hit the big screen as Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out Stevenson’s pirate song was pretty influential, too. When versions of it began to show up on the stage and the small screen decades later, the origin of the words had become muddled, lending credence to the rumor that this was a song that had been in the air for centuries.
And that’s how folklore is born. Because “Dead Man’s Chest” is a Stevenson original, and “Yo Ho” is a sort of Disneyfied version of it, written for use in the creeptastically wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Of course it also appears in the movies and is a favorite of Jack Sparrow’s. If you ride the attraction at Disney World, you can hear animatronic Jack sing it to a parrot while resting comfortably on a chair in a room full of treasure, about three boat lengths from the exit.
If you’re lucky enough to get stuck on the ride at that point, you might even have time to learn some of the lyrics, if you can hear them over the complaints of the nine-year-old sitting beside you insisting that he needs to use the restroom.
I have to give Disney World some credit, though. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, they did raise the lights and turn off the sound, leaving only a kind-of-creepy Jack and his parrot moving silently to the tune. And for our trouble, we received Fastpasses that fortunately did not have to apply to the same ride.
Actually, I think it was a highlight of the trip. We got a great story out of it, a few laughs, and when anyone asks my son about his vacation, he smiles and happily responds, “We broke Disney World.” In a strange way, the experience has even continued to help him work through his impatience since we’ve been home, too. When something doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, he shrugs and says, “We’re just experiencing technical difficulties. It figures.”
This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.
I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.
So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.
I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem. In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.
I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.
And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.
When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.
The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.
And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.
Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.
The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.
Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.
Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.
Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”
For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.
And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.
This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.
Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.
Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.
Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.
The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.
For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.
For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.
But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.
And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.
I’ve mentioned before that Halloween is not my favorite time of year. Not that I don’t like a fun costume or a good sugar high. I just really don’t enjoy scary things. Horror movies, haunted houses, and Ouija boards are not for me. If something frightening startles me, I’m likely to scream and punch (scary clowns be warned).
And as far as monsters go, unless they live on Sesame Street or spend much more of their time in philosophical reflection upon their own nature and creation than they do engaging in actual scaring, then I’m not a big fan. But I do have a soft spot for one particularly friendly rock ‘n’ roll loving, purple people eating, flying monster in short shorts from my childhood.
Because I have fond memories of setting the needle of my Fisher Price record player on a Wacky Winners record and dancing around the living room to Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.” (Once in a while, my actual age startles me, and I’m likely to scream and punch.)
The story goes that the son of one of Wooley’s friends came home from school with a joke one day: “What has one eye, one horn, flies and eats people?” The answer, so obvious to us now, was, “A flying purple people eater!” The joke struck the funny bone of the kid’s dad, who shared it with his friend Sheb. He liked it so much, the actor/songwriter sat down immediately to scribble some lyrics.
Then in 1958 (and just to clarify, that was long before me and my Fisher Price record player came along), Sheb Wooley had a hit on his hands, with “Purple People Eater” becoming the only novelty song to ever to sit in the top spot of the Billboard pop chart.
Wooley went on to record a number of novelty songs, and had a run of successes as an actor, particularly in western films. But while he is certainly best known as the voice behind everyone’s favorite pigeon-toed, under-growed flying monster who plays a mean head horn, his voice has been heard most in something else.
Because most likely the songwriter/actor is also the man responsible for the most famous scream in the world. Performed in a sound studio for use in the 1951 film Distant Drums, the scream was a response to the need to fill in the sound a guy would make if he were suddenly attacked and dragged under water by an alligator.
Personally, I think Wooley nailed it.
And apparently so did a lot of filmmakers, because after the unique scream became a part of the Warner Brothers sound library, it got plopped into a whole lot of movies. So many movies, in fact, that a group of film students at the University of Southern California took notice and set out on a quest to uncover the first movie that ever featured Wooley’s well-used scream.
The earliest they found was a 1963 western movie called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg and lets out a scream that, to my mind, sounds a lot like the noise a guy would make if he were being attacked and pulled under water by an alligator.
Of course the film students were off by a few years, and who knows how many movies, but the sound clip took on the nickname “the Wilhelm scream” anyway. And that might have been the end of a fun little story, except that among the USC classmates that discovered the unique little piece of movie sound was Ben Burtt, the sound designer who worked on a unique little movie called Star Wars.
As a nod to his friends, Burtt decided to include the Wilhelm scream in the movie, because it turns out the sound a storm trooper makes when falling down a chasm is pretty much the same sound a man makes when getting attacked by an alligator.
In fact, the sound makes it into every Star Wars movie, as well as each Indiana Jones. And basically all the filmmakers you’ve heard of have picked up on the joke, too. Wooley’s iconic scream has been included in The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, Titanic, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some estimates put the number of films that have used the clip close to 300. I would attempt to verify that, but there’s a good chance at least a few of those are horror movies.
Nearly 300 Hollywood folks have been attacked and dragged under the water by an alligator because of the otherwise harmless purple people eater. And that’s pretty scary stuff. Man, I hate Halloween.
This little history blog tends to skip around a lot through time. From week to week, I am as likely to share a story from the middle of the 20th century as I am to relate a tale of ancient man. And still, you the readers are kind enough to follow me down the rabbit hole. So this week, I am hoping you’ll allow me to push the already very wide historical boundaries I have informally set for myself. I’m going to hop into the way back and arrive many many years ago, at the height of 1980s America.
Specifically, I’m turning my attention to October 9, 1987. I had recently turned ten and the greatest movie I would ever see was released into theaters. But I didn’t see it. In fact, like most people, I didn’t see it for another year or two, when my older brother brought it home from the video store one day.
Even though The Princess Bride has since been included in the list of 100 Greatest Love Stories by the American Film Institute, the list of 100 Funniest Movies by Bravo, and the list of top 100 screenplays ever produced by The Writers Guild of America, it initially fell kind of flat.
Because as a “classic tale of true love and high adventure” the film is difficult to categorize, it also proved difficult to market. And so, until people began to watch it in their homes on so-and-so’s recommendation, the film that would eventually appeal to almost everyone, was seen by almost no one. Leading man Cary Elwes recently commented that for years it was “mostly dead.”
He’s making reference, of course, to that wonderful scene in which Miracle Max, determines that Westley is only mostly dead, which is important, because “with all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do…go through his clothes and look for loose change.”
On the off chance that you’ve not seen the film (and if you haven’t, you really should), I’ll quickly set the scene. In the course of mounting a rescue, the hero Westley has been murdered by the prince who wishes to wed Westley’s true love. The body is recovered by two of his enemies-turned-friends who are seeking his help in exacting revenge against one of the prince’s evil agents for another past murder.
The two men take Westley’s body to Miracle Max, played brilliantly by Billy Crystal, made up to look approximately 900 years old, and in one of the funniest movie scenes ever, Max, with the assistance of his wife Valerie (played equally brilliantly by Carol Kane), decides to make a miracle pill, coated in chocolate, to revive Westley. The hero unsurprisingly turns out to be a quick healer and has little trouble then defeating the prince and saving the girl.
I’ve written about this film once before, in a more historical context. A couple years ago much of the cast reunited at the New York Film Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release. It’s my all-time favorite movie, filled with quirky characters, witty dialogue, thrilling adventure, and just plain fun. So the 25th anniversary brought back to mind the experience of falling in love with it. Of course I couldn’t attend the celebration screening and Q & A, but I felt I had to write about it to express my love in a practical history sort of way.
It turns out my reaction was similar to that of Cary Elwes (Westley). After the Film Festival and flood of memories, he decided to write a memoir about the making of the film that was both his first big Hollywood break and the one that will in some ways forever define his career. The result was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.
If you’re a fan of the movie (and there’s a pretty good chance you are), you’ll find the book delightful. It will have you watching the film again, searching for hints of the behind-the-scenes stories. You’ll learn that Westley’s hurried skipping along the ravine floor leading into the fire swamp is the least awkward way Elwes could run after breaking the snot out of his toe not long before the take.
You’ll discover what gave Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant such a terrible case of giggles on top of the castle wall. And you’ll find remembrances from many members of the talented cast and crew that brought to life the story and characters we have all come to love.
Now, two years ago it was inconceivable that I would go to New York to celebrate the film’s anniversary, but a month or so ago, my friend Michelle let me know that a friend of hers is an events coordinator for Anderson’s Bookshop, a large independent bookstore in Naperville, IL (southwest of Chicago), and that she had just booked Cary Elwes for a signing on Valentine’s Day. I told her I was in.
With traffic, Naperville is probably a little over a five-hour drive from where I live near St. Louis. I met Michelle on the way for a crazy-fun, if slightly ridiculous road trip and I met the man in black himself, who, I have to say, seems a decent fellow.
Of course the book has been out since October, long before the planned road trip and so I already owned a copy. But with such a large name coming in, the bookstore had to make this a ticketed event, and, as is customary, the ticket was the price of a reserved book. That means I now have an extra copy of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, signed by the author.
So here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to give it away to one of you. If you are a fan of the movie and think you would enjoy the book, simply like my author page on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (which you can do from the sidebar of this page) and share this post. If you’ve already connected with me on one of those platforms and would like a chance to win, just share and drop me a comment to let me know you want in. Make sure you enter by noon (12:00 pm, US Central Time) on Wednesday, February 25.
I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on my regular Thursday blog post, which I promise will contain much (or slightly) more practical history, from way back in the years before 1987.
In 1933, renowned spiritual medium Eileen Garrett entered the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University where she met with botanist turned clinical parapsychologist J.B. Rhine to participate in his quantitative study of extrasensory perception (ESP).
Rhine brought out a deck of cards, specifically designed with his partner Karl Zener for the experiments. Each of the Zener cards contained one of five simple shapes. Ms. Garrett simply had to identify, without seeing the shape on the card, which one Rhine presented her with. The assumption was that an accuracy rate more than 20% would indicate ESP.
A few years prior, Rhine had gleefully exposed medium Mina Crandon as a fraud, so no one was more surprised than he when Garratt did identify the correct shapes more than 20% of the time. The medium herself, however, was not pleased with the results, claiming that she would have performed better had the cards not lacked a certain psychic energy.
She would have been better off graciously accepting her results because later testing by other researchers failed to find any ability to correctly identify the cards above that of normal chance. Actually Rhine’s methods attracted a lot of criticism, particularly claims that he inadvertently cued his subjects to the proper shapes on the cards. His results were never verifiable in subsequent tests.
But still, Rhine is credited with coining the term “parapsychology” and with being the first to honestly attempt to study it quantitatively. He continued his research at Duke until the university discontinued its support in the early 1960s and he founded the Journal of Parapsychology, the Institute of Parapsychology, and the Parapsychological Association. There’s no question he made himself into the foremost expert in his field, the guy you would call with all of your parapsychological concerns.
And in 1984, his dedication to his field of study brought him a great honor. In one of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, uses Rhine’s Zener card methodology to test two students for ESP, torturing a young male student who fares at least as well as Garratt did, and hitting on a pretty young lady who always seems to guess correctly even though she doesn’t.
Like Rhine, Venkman faces the end of his university funding with grace and increased dedication to his chosen field of study. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, he and his associates move into an old firehouse and establish themselves as the guys you’re gonna call with all of your parapsychological concerns.
Perhaps you think it is a stretch to call this small nod to Rhine a great honor, and, well, of course you’re right. Because it would admittedly be a stretch to call Ghostbusters one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Or of the 1980s. Or of 1984.
But even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, I was a child in the 1980s and Ghostbusters was surely the closest thing to a scary movie my parents ever let me watch. Because of that, it has formed an important part of my childhood. And maybe of yours, too. If so, you’re in luck.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Ghostbusters with (and if you have ESP then you can probably know this already) a theatrical release.
That’s right. Starting today and going through this next week, you can celebrate this momentous anniversary by donning your eighties garb and heading to a theater near you to experience the Stay Puft marshmallow attack on New York City in its full big-screen glory.
I think you’re going to do it. I see parachute pants, teased bangs, and a whole mess of ectoplasm in your future. And there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.