Saturday, 3 July 2004

Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil

At least when it comes to fiction, I suspect my greatest influence as a writer comes from Lester Dent. For those of you who don't know who Lester Dent is, he was the man who wrote the vast majority of Doc Savage novels. In the Sixties, Bantam Books Inc. began reprinting the Doc Savage novels. My former brother-in-law (who is 17 years older than me) bought them from the beginning. He was the one who introduced me, when I was about 11, to the Man of Bronze. I have not read every single Doc Savage novel, but I have probably read the majority of them. That means I have probably read around 100 books by Lester Dent, albeit under the pseudonym of "Kenneth Robeson."

In the early Thirties, Street and Smith Inc., the biggest publisher of pulp magazines, had met with amazing success with a magazine devoted to a single character, The Shadow. Since The Shadow was a hit, they decided to try another magazine devoted to a single character. Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston came up with the idea for a new character, "Doc Savage." Ralston brought editor John L. Nanovic into the project and also brought on board writer Lester Dent. Dent was a prolific pulp magazine writer, born in La Plata, Missouri (just up the road from my hometown of Huntsville). Dent had been a telegrapher for both Western Union and Empire Oil and Gas Co. He also built his own Ham radio set, passed both the electrician and plumbers' exams, learned to fly a plane, and climbed mountains. If ever there was a writer for Doc Savage, it was Dent. In fact, while Ralston came up with the initial idea for Doc Savage, it was Dent who fleshed out the character. For this reason, Dent is generally considered the creator of Doc Savage.

Doc Savage (born Clark Savage Jr.) was an amazing specimen of a man. His skin was naturally a bronze colour, as was his hair. His eyes were flecked with gold and had a hypnotic quality to them. Doc stood over six foot, although he was so well proportioned that his height was not obvious unless he was near someone else.

Doc was raised from birth to fight crime and help people in need. He was educated by scientists and experts in nearly every field of human endeavour. He also underwent rigorous physical training. Doc kept both his mind and body in shape by undergoing two hours of mental and physical exercises each and every day. As a result, Doc was both a genius and nearly superhuman physically. While his primary field was medicine, Doc was also an expert in such diverse fields from chemistry to law. He possessed a nearly photographic memory. His skill in deduction was equal to that of Sherlock Holmes. Physically, Doc was a trained gymnast and he had the agility to go with it. His physical strength equalled that of many men. His senses were more acute than the average human being. Naturally, he was also trained in a variety of hand to hand combat techniques.

As if Doc's physical and mental prowess was not enough, he also had limitless wealth stemming from a gold mine his father owned in the country of Hidalgo. Obviously, such wealth could buy what he needed to fight crime. Doc's head quarters was in the 86th floor a New York skyscraper (thought by some to be the Empire State Building). Connected to the Doc's HQ by a tunnel were hangers and warehouses labelled "the Hidalgo Trading Company," where he kept his vehicles. In the Arctic, Doc owned a fabulous structure called the Fortress of Solitude, where he sometimes went to be alone in order to develop new inventions, undergo further training, and so on.

Although Doc was an expert shot, he preferred not to use a gun. Instead, Doc relied on his many gadgets. He often carried tiny, glass balls which contained a powerful sleeping gas. He used both infrared and ultraviolet goggles long before anyone else. His men were equipped with small, hand held, automatic weapons. A complete list of Doc's inventions could easily fill an entire page.

Doc was assisted by what became known in the Sixties as "the Fabulous Five," experts in their fields whom Doc had known and trusted for years. There was Andrew Blodgett Mayfair, better known as "Monk." Monk took his nickname from the fact that he was "half a man tall and two men wide," with arms too long from his frame. Despite his appearance, Monk was an expert chemist. He owned a pet pig called Habeas Corpus, so named as a jab at his best friend and verbal sparring partner's profession, law. Monk's best friend and sparring partner was Theodore Marley Brooks, also known as "Ham." Ham's nickname stemmed from his service in the Great War and an incident involving the theft of some hams. Ham was an extraordinary lawyer and a skilled fencer (he always carried a sword cane). Monk and Ham were engaged in an ongoing battle of words, although in truth they were the closest of friends. Ham owned an ape (usually thought to be an orangutan) which he named "Chemistry" as a jab at Monk's profession. Ham and Monk are the only two members of the Fabulous Five to appear in every single Doc Savage adventure

Besides, Monk and Ham, there was also John Rennwick, known as "Renny." Renny was nearly as impressive as Doc physically. He stood six foot four and had enormous fists, which he could easily drive through the average door. Renny was also the world's greatest engineer. William Harper Littlejohn, also called "Johnny," constantly looked as if he was near death's door. Despite his frail appearance, Johnny was actually very strong. He was also one of the world's greatest geologists and archaeologists. Thomas J. Roberts, also known as "Long Tom," was the group's electrical expert. He could build a radio from scratch, as well as more novel gadgets. Long Tom's pet project was an electrical device which would kill insects, which he detested.

At times, Doc was also assisted by his cousin, Patricia Savage, known as "Pat." Pat had a bronze tan like Doc and she was also extraordinarily beautiful. She was the equal of the Fabulous Five in many ways, yet Doc usually disapproved of her getting involved in adventures. He felt they were too dangerous for women.

Doc Savage Magazine went on sale for the first time on February 15, 1933. It was an immediate smash. It should then come as no surprise that Doc and the Fabulous Five found their way into other media. A radio show, scripted by Lester Dent himself, ran from February 1934 to October 1934. In 1936 a Doc Savage comic strip was proposed, although it never got off the ground. Street and Smith started publishing a Doc Savage comic book in August 1941. A radio series based on the comic books ran briefly in 1943. Curiously, a movie serial based on the Man of Bronze was never made.

Perhaps a greater measure of success is perhaps the influence Doc Savage had on other characters, particularly superheroes. Batman's use of gadgets may largely have been inspired by Doc's use of gadgets. Similarly, the Batcave may well owe a lot to Doc's headquarters on the 86th floor. Doc Savage probably had an even greater effect on the creation of Superman. In creating Superman, writer Jerry Siegel appears to have drawn in equal parts from Philip Wylie's 1932 novel Gladiator (which was about a man who gains superhuman strength) and Doc Savage. Indeed, while Doc is the "Man of Bronze," Superman is the "Man of Steel." Both share the same first name, "Clark." Even after Siegel and co-creator Joe Schuster were forced to leave Superman, Doc's influence could continue to be felt. Superman's "Fortress of Solitude" is so much like Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude that it is a wonder Street and Smith never sued DC Comics for copyright infringement.

The pulp magazines declined in popularity in the Forties and Doc Savage was no exception. In November, 1949, the last issue of Doc Savage was published. That would seem to be the end of the line for Doc and the Fabulous Five. It wasn't. In 1964 Bantam Books Inc. decided to reprint eight of Doc's adventures in paperback. Sales proved so strong, however, that it was decided to continue reprinting Doc's adventures. Indeed, from 1964 to 1990, Bantam managed to reprint every one of Doc's 181 adventures, an unprecedented achievement for a pulp character.

Bantam's reprints revived interest in the character in the Sixties and Seventies. Nearly each decade since Bantam started reprinting the pulp novels, someone has tried launching a Doc Savage comic book. Gold Key tried in 1966 with a one-shot, to be followed by Marvel in the Seventies, DC Comics in the Eighties, and both Millennium and Dark Horse in the Nineties. Of course, a feature film, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze was released in 1975. The film took a "camp" approach to Doc and his aides and it did poorly at the box office. Although a script for a sequel, Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil, had been completed, there was never another Doc Savage movie made.

In 1990, once Bantam had finished reprinting the original novels, they commissioned a series of new Doc Savage novels. The first was Escape from Loki by Philip Jose Farmer. Following Farmer, Will Murray wrote several new novels featuring the Man of Bronze. Unfortunately, Bantam discontinued the new series because of poor sales.

For now it seems that Doc Savage is enjoying a bit of quiet time. There are no new books, not even new comic books. Despite years of rumours of a new Doc Savage movie, no new film has emerged. Despite all of this I rather suspect that this will not be the last we hear of the Man of Bronze. After his pulp magazine folded, little was heard of Doc Savage until Bantam started reprinting the old pulp novels. It is only a matter of time before someone reprints them again or makes a movie based upon the character. Once that happens, I have no doubt that Doc Savage will once again ride a wave of popularity.

At any rate, the Man of Bronze has had an enormous impact on my life. As I've said, my style of writing fiction is no doubt influenced by Lester Dent. My taste in reading material has also probably been influenced by the Man of Bronze, as I have always been a fan of similar characters, from James Bond to Remo Williams. And I cannot say that the honour and integrity which Doc displayed in his novels have not made me strive to be a better man. As far as I am concerned, even before Superman, Doc was the greatest superhero of them all.

Friday, 2 July 2004

Batmania

In 1966 Batmania took America by storm. The TV series Batman, based on the comic book character of the same name, was a hit from its January 12 debut. It aired twice a week in two part episodes that would begin on Wednesday and end on Thursday, the first episode always ending in a cliffhanger. Batman ranked twice in the Nielsen top ten for the 1965-1966 season--the Wednesday night showing at #10 and the Thursday night showing at #5. The series was successful enough to spin off a feature film released in the summer of 1966. The movie also proved to be a box office bonanza. With the possible exception of The Beatles, nothing else probably inspired as much merchandise in the Sixties as Batman.

I am not sure when I became aware of the Batman TV series, but it must have been very early. I cannot remember a time when the show did not exist. With the exception of Underdog, Batman was probably the first superhero of whom I was aware. At any rate, like many youngsters, and many adults as well, I was caught up in Batmania. Batman has remained my favourite superhero ever since. As a child the colourful series featuring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin were deadly serious adventures. As I grew older I realised that it was actually one of the funniest comedies of the Sixties, a great parody of the superhero genre.

What makes the Batman phenomenon all the more remarkable is that all the hoopla surrounded a character who was nearly 27 years old when the series debuted. Contrary to the TV series, however, Batman was hardly a comedic character when he made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman was Bruce Wayne, a millionaire who had sworn vengeance on crime when his parents had been gunned down before his eyes as a child. He adopted a costume that resembled a bat in order to strike fear into cowardly and superstitious criminals. And in the beginning the Caped Crusader was hardly gentle with felons, sometimes dispensing justice as brutally as possible. In fact, in his earliest adventures, Batman even carried a gun! From the beginning, Batman was one of DC Comics' most popular characters, second only to Superman.
Batman softened a bit after the introduction of his sidekick Robin (who was Dick Grayson, a circus acrobat whose parents had also been murdered), but the character continued to be popular throughout the Golden Age of Comics. In fact, he was popular enough to inspire two serials produced by Columbia: The Batman in 1943 and The Adventures of Batman and Robin in 1949. There was also a Batman newspaper strip that ran from 1943 to 1946. Starting in 1945, Batman and Robin appeared regularly on the radio show The Adventures of Superman. A pilot for a Batman radio show was made circa 1950, but failed to sell.

As I stated above, with the introduction of Robin, Batman softened a bit. From that point on, Batman gradually drifted away from the idea of a dark night avenger who struck fear into the hearts of criminals. A greater emphasis was placed on Batman's various gadgets as time went by and a love interest was even introduced in the form of Vicki Vale. After coming under attack in psychiatrist and comic book detractor Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent and following the introduction of the Comics Code Authority (the comic book industry's self censorship entity) shortly thereafter, drastic changes came to Batman comic books. Increasingly, the Dynamic Duo found themselves involved in rather silly, pseudo-science fiction stories featuring space aliens and time travel. With the exception of The Joker, Batman's rogue's gallery fell out of use. Perhaps as a result, sales for the Batman magazines fell to a point that DC Comics even considered cancelling them.

Fortunately, editor Julius Schwartz had other ideas. He revamped the character and introduced the "New Look" in 1964. Batman's costume was subtly changed, with the addition of an oval around the bat insignia on his chest and minor alterations to his utility belt's design. The pseudo-science fiction stories fell by the wayside, as a greater emphasis was placed on Batman's detective abilities.

Of course, with the success of the Batman TV series, the comic books veered towards a campier style starting in 1966. And while sales for Batman comic books soared when the TV series was successful, they plummeted as the show fell in the ratings. It seemed that Batman once more had to be revamped. Fortunately, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Addams brought Batman back to his roots as a dark avenger of the night. This was the period when I was first able to actually read Batman comic books. In fact, I remember the first Batman story I read--it was "Half an Evil" in Batman #234, August 1971. Although I didn't know it at the time, this story was significant as it was the first appearance of the villain Two Face since 1954! At any rate, I must say that as much as I enjoyed the campy TV series, I loved Batman as a dark avenger of the night even more.

Since Neal Addams and Denny O'Neil returned Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight, his popularity has continued unabated. The 1989 movie Batman was the most successful superhero movie of its time, unsurpassed until Spider-Man was released in 2002. Its sequels strayed a bit from the portrayal of the Caped Crusader as the dark avenger of the comic books, but even they were not enough to damage the Dark Knight's popularity. Indeed, even as I write this, a new Batman movie, Batman Begins, is in production. As a Batman fan since the late Sixties, I must say that I am looking forward to it.

Anyhow, hard as it is to believe, I do owe a good deal to the 1966 TV series Batman. It was because of that TV show that I took an interest in comic books. And it was because of comic books that I took an interest in writing. In a round about way, then, the old Batman TV show is why I am a writer!

Thursday, 1 July 2004

Comedy Movie Shorts

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, Hollywood produced huge numbers of live action, comedy shorts. For decades they would be part of the movie going experience, which generally consisted of a cartoon, a live action short, a newsreel, and a feature film. With the advent of television, many of these comedy shorts entered syndication. People like myself, who were born long after live action shorts ceased to be a part of the movie going experience, were then able to see movie shorts that had entertained others in earlier decades.

Possibly the most successful studio to produce comedy shorts was Hal Roach Studios. In 1915, Hal Roach and his partner Dan Linthicum founded the Rolin Film Company. Roach produced comedies featuring the legendary Harold Lloyd, comedies which proved successful enough for Roach to buy out his partner. Afterwards, Roach renamed his studio "Hal Roach Studios."

While the Harold Lloyd films were successful, perhaps the most successful series of shorts to emerge out of Hal Roach Studios were those featuring Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel was a slender Englishmen with a gift for slapstick. Oliver Hardy was a husky Southerner with a gift for the "slow burn (the facial expressions and body language which show that a character is getting angry). The two both appeared in the movie The Lucky Dog in 1921, although it would be many years before they worked as a team. The two later appeared together in the Hal Roach production Forty-Five Minutes From Hollywood in 1926. The two had an unmistakable chemistry in the film. Legend has it that producer Leo McCarey suggested that the two be made a permanent team. Regardless, the first official Laurel and Hardy short was The Second Hundred Years in 1927. Thereafter, they made 106 films together. In addition to their popular shorts, they also made feature films, starting with Pardon Us in 1931. The two ceased making shorts in 1935, by which time the relationshp between the two of them and their relationship with Hal Roach was under stress. In 1940 they left Hal Roach. They 8 more films between 1940 and 1945, with one final film together made in 1950.

I grew up with the Laurel and Hardy shorts. They were aired on various local TV stations throughout the years. Most notably, KRCG aired them on their kids' show, Showtime, for years. I remember in high school that once a eyar our science teacher would tell us to make sure to come class the next day, as we would be covering very important material. The "important material" would be two of the classic Laurel and Hardy shorts! I have always loved Laurel and Hardy and to this day I regard them as the greatest comedy team of all time, even surpassing Abbott and Costello. Only the Marx Brothers may be greater.

The Our Gang comedies made by Hal Roach nearly matched the Laurel and Hardy shorts in success. Roach started the series in 1922 under the title "Hal Roach's Rascals;" however, the first film was titled "Our Gang" and that was the title that critics and the general public used for the series. Eventually, Roach officially changed the series' name to Our Gang. There was naturally a bit of turnover in the cast of the series, as the child actors eventually grew out of their roles. Perhaps the most successful and best loved run of the series were the shorts made in the mid-Thirties, when the series centred on George 'Spanky' McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, and Darla Hood. Indeed, both Spanky and Buckwheat had among the longest careers in the Our Gang comedies. Spanky first appeared in an Our Gang short in 1932 and appeared in his last in 1942, a total of 95 episodes. Buckwheat appeared in his first short in 1934 and his last in 1944. In 1938 Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series to MGM, who had distributed Roach's films for years. Produced by MGM, the Our Gang comedies went into decline. MGM ceased production of the series in 1944. Hal Roach eventually bought the films back, but not the Our Gang title. When the series was released to television synidication in 1955, then, it needed a new title. The series was renamed The Little Rascals.

Like the Laurel and Hardy shorts, I grew up with the Our Gang shorts. KRCG also aired these as part of Showtime. Like many people, my favourite shorts were those from the mid-Thirties, featuring Spanky and Alfafa--arguably the two most popular "Rascals" of all time.

Another popular series of shorts produced by Hal Roach were those featuirng Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. Hal Roach cast Thelma Todd alongside many of the popular comedy stars of the day--Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Harry Langdon. She was teamed with Zasu Pitts in a series of shorts, although she also appeared in such feature films as the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and Palooka. Todd was a gifted comic actress and one of the great sex symbols of her day (the press referred to her as the "Ice Cream Blonde" and "Hot Toddy"). Unfortunately, she died under mysterious circumstancs in 1935.

As a child my only exposure to Thelma Todd was in the films she made with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Even then, I thought she must have been one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked the earth (I preferred blondes even back then). I got to see many of the shorts she made with Zasu Pitts when the Hallmark Channel started running various Hal Roach shorts years ago. Not only was Todd extremely beautiful, but she was a great comedic actress. She had perfect timing and was capably of both verbal word play and slapstick. It is a shame that her life ended all too soon.

Of course, Hal Roach Studios was not the only studio to produce comedy shorts. Columbia produced what may be the most successful comedy shorts of all times, The Three Stooges. The origins of the Stooges were as part of comedian Ted Healy's act. In 1922, Healy decided he needed someone for his slapstick comedy routines. He hired Moe Howard. Moe's brother Shemp later joined the act. In 1925, Healy hired violinist Larry Fine, bringing the number of Stooges to Three. The Stooges appeared with Healy on Broadway and, with the 1930 20th Century fox film Soup for Nuts, on film. In 1934 the Three Stooges left Healy's act and signed with Columbia to make a series of comedy shorts. In all, the Stooges made 190 shorts and 20 feature films.

Even as a child I was not a huge fan of the Three Stooges. While I have often found myself laughing out loud at their shorts, I have always found their routines to be somewhat repetitive. They have never seemed nearly as funny to me as Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. While I can watch one Laurel and Hardy short after the other, I find I can only watch the Three Stooges sorts a few at a time.

Unfortunately, with the possible exception of the Three Stooges, it seems to me that the classic comedy shorts are being shown on television less and less. American Movie Classics once showed them a good deal and I believe that Turner Classic Movies shows them once in a while, but the classic comedy shorts have all but disappeared from local TV stations. That is a shame, as I feel they are among the funniest things ever made. Indeed, the shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and Todd and Pitts are far funnier than most modern day sitcoms.

Wednesday, 30 June 2004

Remembering Vinyl Records

I suppose that my generation is the last to actually play music on vinyl records. In the Eighties, the Compact Disc or CD was introduced. And while vinyl records held onto the market for some time after that, the CD soon made the vinyl record obsolete.

Of course, records were not always made of vinyl. The original flat disc records (invented all the way back in 1888 by Emile Berliner) were made of a combination of shellac and slate dust. These records were somewhat durable. Unfortunately, they were also somewhat brittle. They could be easily broken. It was during World War II that the U. S. government first used vinyl in the manufacture of records. The government would send records to our POWs overseas to keep up morale. Unfortunately, the shellac and slate dust records often broke in transit. The government then started making the records on vinyl, which was much less likely to break. It was in 1948 that vinyl was first used commercially. Columbia Records introduced the LP (Long Playing) record. Perhaps because of the size of the discs (about 11 inches), they were made of vinyl. Vinyl then replaced shellac and slate dust in the manufacture of records.

While vinyl was much more durable than shellac and slate dust, it also had its downsides. Vinyl could be scratched, resulting in a record hanging. Vinyl records also had to be cleaned regularly to preserve their quality of sound. Unlike CDs, the music on most vinyl records would be accompanied by popping, crackling, and hissing sounds. Vinyl records were also very susceptible to heat. A vinyl record left in the sun would warp completely out of shape. And although more durable than shellac and slate dust, they could be broken.

An alternative to vinyl records had been invented before the vinyl record even had been. Audio tape was developed in 1944. In the beginning, audio tape was a bit too awkward to be commercially viable for home use. With the development of the 8-track tape and then the cassette tape, however, audio tape became a viable alternative to vinyl records. The advantages of 8-track tapes and cassette tapes were that they were portable. They could be played in a car on a a car stereo or anywhere else on a portable player (such as a "boom box" or Walkman). Despite this, neither 8-track tapes nor cassette tapes never really challenged the supremacy of the vinyl record. I suppose this is because tapes wore out much more swiftly than vinyl records did and in some ways were more vulnerable. Tapes were just as vulnerable to heat. The tape could also get torn or, more often, eaten by a tape player.

The Compact Disc was invented by James T. Russell, developing the prototypical disc in 1965. Russell continued his work on the CD throughout the Seventies, despite the fact that very little interest was being expressed in his ideas. Finally, in 1979, Russell and his company, Battelle, licensed his system to Sony and Philips for mass production. After two years of development, the first CDs were on store shelves by 1982. The prices of the average CD (much more than either vinyl records or audio tapes) and the scarcity of titles available on CD prevented people from adopting it over night. Over the Eighties, however, as CD prices dropped, more and more CDs were being sold. By 1992, CDs were the dominant audio format and vinyl was more or less obsolete.

CDs are more durable than vinyl records, but I must admit that in some ways I miss vinyl. Actually, I am not so sure that I miss vinyl as much as I miss the packaging. The relatively large size of vinyl LPs allowed for detailed art on their sleeves' covers. The sleeves of some LPs would even fold out like a book, with additional art inside. Yet other LPs included "extras," such as posters. Perhaps the most famous "extras" were the cutouts included with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Because of their relatively small size, CD cases have little room for extras.

Regardless, vinyl dominated the audio market for nearly fifty years. It will be interesting to see if the CD lasts as long before another format is invented that could replace it.

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Fads

I have always been fascinated by fads. Indeed, to me they seem to defy explanation, even though sociologists have developed various theories regarding collective behaviour over the past century. Gustav Le Bon put forth what is known as the contagion theory around the turn of the twentieth century to explain the behaviour of crowds.. Le Bon theorised that the anonymity of being in a crowd gave individuals a sense of power. He also theorised that ideas or concepts can spread through a group of people, from one individual to another, like a contagious virus. Finally, he thought that individuals become more susceptible in crowds, so that they are more likely to accept the suggestions of a speaker or leader. It seems to me that contagion theory is inadequate to explain fads. First, Le Bon's theory applies to crowds, large groups of people, while fads are spread amongst individuals. Second, most viruses begin with one person who has contracted a virus--Patient Zero. While I have little doubt that many fads begin this way, others do not. Millions of people watched the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland in the Fifties and the TV series Batman in the Sixties. In both cases, millions of people took to both of these fads at once. There was no Patient Zero.

Another theory of collective behaviour is convergence theory, set forth by psychologist Gordon Allport. Allport theorised that being in a crowd alone does not create strange behaviour, but rather certain sorts of crowds attracts certain sorts of people, resulting in the behaviour to which such individuals are inclined. The problem with Allport's theory is that it while it might explain the behaviour of people at a pro-life rally or a rock concert, it does not explain why diverse individuals might take up the same fad.

Yet another theory of collective behaviour is Ralph Turner's emergent-norm theory. According to the emergent-norm theory, norms of behaviour (the expectations of how one should behave) emerge within a group and become accepted as the foundations for the behaviour of the crowd. Again, while the emergent-norm theory might explain the behaviour of a crowd at a county fair or a political rally, it does not explain the behaviour of individuals caught up in a fad. Again, how did the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland or Batman emerge as norms? For that matter, if they had emerged as norms, why did both crazes eventually fade away?

I'm not sure that any single theory can explain why fads happen. I am not even sure that there is a rational explanation as to why fads happen. Regardless, they do interest me a good deal. I suppose the classic example of a fad occurred even before I was born. In 1958, not long after Wham-O had introduced the product, the Hula-Hoop had become a veritable craze. One hundred million were sold. Amazingly, the fad lasted less than a year and faded nearly as swiftly as it had began. I remember the Hula-Hoop my sister owned quite well. My brother and I "inherited" it. It was a yellow colour, although it had faded with age. Still, it was rather fun.

The earliest fad I can remember centred on another Wham-O product, the Super Ball. The Super Ball was a ball created by placing synthetic rubber under thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. The result was an extremely resilient ball that could be bounced over rooftops. Introduced in the summer of 1965, seven million Super Balls had been sold by Christmas. The Super Ball fad lasted longer than the Hula-Hoop fad. It did not end until late in 1966. It was at that point that I can remember seeing the Super Ball advertised on TV. Of course, I wanted one. And eventually I got one, as did my brother. The extremely resilient Super Ball was fun.

From roughly the same era, I can also remember when Batmania swept the nation. The TV series Batman was a smash hit and soon Batman products were everywhere. I remember looking through the Sears catalogue at several pages of nothing but Bat-merchandise. Unfortunately, the TV show's success did not last. Debuting in January 1966, it was gone by March 1968.

A fad I remember from 1970 were Clackers. This was a toy consisting of two balls connected by a string, which was in turn connected to a ring. By placing one's finger in the ring and moving it up and down, one could get the balls to clacking. I remember that in second grade Clackers were extremely popular. They were also swiftly banned from school. I cannot recall what the Clacker balls were made of, but it seems to me that it was probably hard plastic (I am tempted to say glass, but somehow that doesn't sound right). Whatever they were made of, the balls would sometimes shatter. This sometimes resulted in eye injuries. As a result, in 1971 Clackers were yanked from store shelves. Naturally, this ended the fad.

Another fad I remember well are the smiley face buttons that took the nation by storm in 1971. The origins of the smiley face are obscure, but most accounts I have read credit it to a man named Harvey Ball. Harvey Ball was a graphic artist for State Mutual Insurance Company. In 1963 he was assigned the task of creating a smile button to boost company morale. For his work, Ball was only paid $45. Years later, in 1970, N. G. Slater Corporation started making buttons with the smiley image that Ball had created. By 1971 the smiley buttons had become an outright craze. At the height of their popularity in 1971, 50 million were sold. Of course, unlike other fads, the smiley face has persisted throughout the years.

Two of the strangest fads I have ever seen came about when I was 13. One was the mood ring. The mood ring was a ring which could supposed reflect one's mood through changes in the colour of its stone. The mood ring's stone was actually heat-sensitive liquid crystal; hence, the ring's stone changed with one's body temperature. Mood rings were hot items for much of 1975, but faded from view by 1977. An even stranger fad, perhaps the strangest fad of all time (discounting flag pole sitting), was the pet rock. The pet rock was a rock sold in a package, complete with an owner's manual. Pet rocks were introduced in August. In October Newsweek did a story on the pet rock, after which the fad picked up even more steam After Christmas, however, the popularity of the pet rock fell like, well, a rock. One of the most bizarre fads was over in under six months.

Of course, there have been many more fads throughout the years. Since I was born, slot cars, black lights, puka shells, CB radios, Hackey Sack, Koosh balls, and Pokemon have all come and gone in popularity. And I can't say I haven't been caught up in any fads myself. I owned a Super Ball as a child. Batmania caused me to become a lifelong Batman fan. I even owned a smiley button (7 year olds have little in the way of tastes). On the other hand, there are fads which I have passed up. Even as 13 year old I could not understand the appeal of Pet Rocks.

As I said earlier, I am not sure any one theory can explain each and every fad. In some cases, I think fads may be an effort to escape the stresses of the time--the TV show Batman became popular at a time of extreme social unrest. In other cases, I think it may just be a case of seeing another boy with a cool toy and wanting that toy for oneself--Johnny has a Super Ball, so I must have one too. In yet other cases, I think the best explanation may be mass insanity--Pet Rocks are a good argument for that. Regardless, I think fads will always overtake society at times.

Monday, 28 June 2004

Requiem for the Department Store

I suppose that my generation, beyond those youngsters living in larger cities, may be one of the last to remember department stores. For those of you too young to remember them or even know what one is, The American Heritage Dictionary defines a department store as "A large retail store offering a variety of merchandise and services and organized in separate departments." Macy's is then a "department store," as it is large. offers a variety of merchandise and services, and is organised in separate departments. WalMart is not a department store. While WalMart stores can be large, while WalMart stores do offer a variety of merchandise, and while WalMart stores are also organised into departments, they do not offer the variety of services that Macy's and other department stores do.

It is not known what the first department store was. Some claim that it was the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, which was founded in 1670. Unfortunately, no one seems to know at one point it may have become a department store. Regardless, in the United States department stores started springing up in the 1800s. In New York, Macy's opened its doors in 1858. It moved to its current location at Herald Square in 1902. And while it is still New York's largest department store, it was by no means its first (both McCreary's and Abraham and Strauss pre-date it). Marshall Field's in Chicago is even older. It was founded in 1852.

Growing up, I can only remember two department stores in Moberly. One was Montgomery Ward (popularly known as "Monkey Ward"). I remember as a child that the Montgomery Ward store seemed absolutely huge. It also seemed very elegant. It had a tiled floor and a spiral staircase that went up to the second floor, complete with a brass railing. It also seemed to have a little bit of everything. I remember that on the first floor the store had bicycles, lawn mowers, electronics, and so on. The upper floor was dedicated mostly to clothing. Unfortunately, the fortunes of Montgomery Ward began to decline in the Sixties. I suppose it was because of this and the railroad leaving Moberly that our Montgomery Ward store closed in the Seventies. Montgomery Ward itself went out of existence in 2000.

The other department store in Moberly was J. C. Penney. In fact, it was the oldest J. C. Penney store in all of Missouri, having opened its doors in 1918. The J. C. Penney store was smaller than the Montgomery Ward store, although no less impressive to a child. The main floor was where one could find clothing and shoes. The lower floor was where one could find such other goods as electronics, toys, lawn mowers, and bicycles. Unfortunately, as the years wore on, the J. C. Penney store seemed to shrink. It had stopped carrying everything except clothing by the end of the Seventies. By April of last year it disappeared entirely.

I suppose that the disappearance of Montgomery Ward and J. C. Penney from Moberly are nothing unusual. Since the Seventies, department stores have been in decline. They have disappeared from small towns everywhere in America. The larger cities have fewer department stores than they once had. Even the giant of department stores, Macy's, filed for bankruptcy several years ago. Thankfully, they managed to survive. By the Sixties, dicount chains such as WalMart and K-Mart came to dominate America's shopping habits. Unable to compete, department stores started closing their doors everywhere.

I must admit that I miss the department stores of old, particularly the Montgomery Ward store. They had an elegance that the modern day discount stores such as WalMart and Target lack. There is something to be said for shopping in a store with spiral staircases and brass fittings.

Sunday, 27 June 2004

A Glut of Legal Dramas

I just recently saw an ad for a new fall show on ABC. It is called Fleet Street and stars James Spader and William Shatner. It is yet another legal drama from David E. Kelly, as if televison has not had enough legal dramas in the past decade. Indeed, television was glutted with legal dramas in the late Nineties and early Naughts. Between 1995 and 2003 I counted up 18 different series which had debuted in that time, each of which dealt with lawyers or courtrooms in some way. I am sure that there were probably more. I can only think of two other cycles in television history that may have been bigger than the whole trend towards legal dramas from 1995 to 2003. One was the whole cycle towards Westerns that took place from 1955 to 1960. The other is the current cycle towards so-called "reality shows." The sad thing is that for the most part the legal dramas are hard to distinguish from each other. At least with the Westerns and the reality shows (as much as I detest them--the reality shows, not the Westerns) there was and is a bit of variety. One legal drama is pretty much the same as the others.

Indeed, every single episode of most legal dramas seem to have the same plot. A client comes to the law firm with a unusual problem. There are some plot twists (some unexpected, some expected). And the whole shebang climaxes in court, where the lawyers make bombastic speeches and use the courtroom as a soapbox from which to moralise. Given how interchangeable most legal dramas are, it's no surprise most of them don't last. Who remembers Michael Hayes or Family Law? I am willing to bet with but few exceptions, nearly all of the legal dramas that aired in the late Nineties will be forgotten in ten years.