Friday, January 21, 2005

Piracy in 1974

I may not have mentioned it before, but I have always been fascinated by pirates. Like many boys I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island as a child and eagerly watched any pirate movie that happened to be on televison. With regards to pirates, however, one year in my childhood stands out most clearly in mind: 1974. I don't know if there actually was more pirate related merchandise in 1974, but it certainly seemed that way to me.

Indeed, at least two different companies came out with pirate action figures. One was Mego, which brought out a small line they called the World's Greatest Super Pirates. The line included three figures: Blackbeard, Captain Patch, Jean LaFitte, and Long John Silver. Unlike their ever popular World's Greatest Superheroes line, Mego never produced any playsets to go with their pirate action figures.

That same year, Matchbox, better known for miniature cars, came out with a series of pirate action figures as part of their Fighting Furies series. Initially it consisted of two figures, Captain Hook and Captain Peg Leg. Eventually they added other figures: Ghost of Cap'n Kidd and Captain Blood. Two different playsets were sold in connection with the Fighting Furies line, although both were called the Sea Fury. The one sold at every store except Sears was basically just a vinyl ship that also served as a case. The other, sold exclusively through Sears, was a fully equipped toy ship. Matchbox produced a large number of accessory kits to go with the action figures, from the Hooded Falcon Adventure set to Cap'n Kidd's Treasure. Unfortunately, neither Mego nor Matchbox saw much success with their pirate figures. As far as I know, the World's Greatest Super Pirates lasted only one year. The pirates of the Fighting Furies (there was a Western series) managed to last into 1975.

In 1972 MPC released a series of model kits based on Walt Disney's Pirates of the Carribean ride. Seven kits were released in all--five in 1972 and two more in 1974. The models featured such titles as "Hoist High the Jolly Roger" and "Dead Men Tell No Tales." I have to admit that I am surprised that they did not reissue the kits in the wake of the success of Pirates of the Carribean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. Of course, pirates were nothing new to MPC. They had long been making plastic toy pirates, along with their plastic soldiers, knights, and cowboys.

Speaking of the Pirates of the Carribean ride, I have to wonder that, if there were more pirate related toys in the mid-Seventies, it wasn't due to the popularity of that ride. It opened on March 18, 1967 and soon became one of Disneyland's most popular attractions. Indeed, the apparent popularity of pirates in the mid-Seventies may have started in the late Sixties. While people were buying tickets in Disneyland for Pirates of the Carribean, 1969 a pirate themed fast food restaurant opened--Long John Silver's Fish 'n' Chips. I first became aware of Long John Silvers in the mid-Seventies when they would advertise on the St. Louis and Kansas City TV channels. I remember that they used pirate characters in their commercials. I have no idea why they ceased using pirates in their commercials, as those commercials held my interest much better than the generic ones they use today!

As I said, I don't know if there were more pirate related items available in 1974 or if I just took more notice of them. Regardless, it helped fuel a fascination with pirates that has stuck with me for the rest of my life. To this day I must confess to fantasies of unfurling the sails on fast ship and hoisting the Jolly Roger...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Two Great Actresses

This week two great actreses passed on. One was Virginia Mayo, the gorgeous blonde who was equally adept at both comedy and drama. She died on January 15 at age 84 from pneumonia and heart failure after an extended illness.

Virginia Mayo was born on November 30, 1920 to an well established St. Louis family. Her father was a newspaper reporter. She took dance lessons at her aunt's dance studio starting when she was six years old. Following high school, Mayo joined the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Mayo toured with the musical comedy act "Pansy and the Horse," then joined Billy Rose's revue at the Diamond Horseshoe. It was there that Samuel Goldwyn spotted her and signed her to a contract.

She received her first big break in film starring opposite Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate in 1944. She would go onto star opposite Danny Kaye in a number of films, among them Wonder Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Kid from Brooklyn, and A Song is Born. It was during this period that she took a dramatic turn in The Best Years of Our Lives.

Following her years at Goldwyn Studios, Mayo signed with Warner Brothers. It was there that she made one of her best films, White Heat, with James Cagney. She also starred in a number of costume movies, among them Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N, The Iron Mistress, and King Richard and the Crusaders. Of course, she continued making comedies, one of her famous coming from this period--She's Working Her Way Through College.

On stage Mayo appeared in everything from Hello Dolly to Butterflies are Free.

Mayo continued to work throughout the Sixties, appearing in such films as Castle of Evil and Fort Utah, as well as guest starring in such TV series as Burkes Law. She made her last film appearance in The Man Next Door in 1997.

Virginia Mayo has always been one of my favourite actress. She was a striking beauty, with natural blonde and big green eyes. While her beauty was her most obvious quality, however, Virginia Mayo was also a very talented actress. She was equally at home in both comedy and drama. Her talent also transcended genres, as she made everything from comedies to medieval epics to Westerns to dramas. It truly saddens me to hear of her passing.

The other great actress who has passed on was Ruth Warrick. Warrick was best known for her long run on All My Children, but to tell the truth, I did not even know she played in a soap opera until I read her obituary. I have always thought of her as Charles Foster Kane's first wife. She also died January 15, from pneumonia at age 88.

Like Mayo, Ruth Warrick was a native Missourian, born in St. Joseph, Missouri. After graduating from the University of Kansas City, she went to New York City where he joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Naturally, her film debut was then in Citizen Kane, as Kane's first wife Emily Norton Kane. Warrick would go onto star in several other notable films, among them The Corsican Brothers, Journey into Fear, and Song of the South. On television guest starred on Studio One, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and Daniel Boone. She was a regular on The Guiding Light, Father of the Bride, Peyton Place, As the World Turns, and All My Children. She continued to make movies, such as The Great Bank Robbery. She also appeared on stage in the musicals Take Me Along and Irene.

While I must admit to being ignorant of much of Warrick's television work, I also admired her performances in such films as Citizen Kane Journey into Fear, and The Corsican Brothers. Sadly, I always thought Warrick was underused in film. With her talent it seems to me that she should have made many more movies than she did. Regardless, she was very skilled, playing the gracious Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane and alcoholic in One Two Many. I have to say that her death does make me sad.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Advertising Slogans

Advertising has probably been around for as long as there have been merchants with goods to sell. In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists found advertisements for various wares engraved into the walls of the city; however, it was with the advent of printing that advertising really took off. By the 17th century advertisements were a regular part of the English newspaper. The demand for advertising grew as the economies of the United States and United Kingdom did. It was for that reason that in 1843 the first advertising agency, Volney Palmer, was opened in Philadelphia. Naturally, among the advertising agencies' tools is the advertising slogan.

An advertising slogan is simply a short slogan which is meant to promote a product. Ideally, an advertising slogan should help the consumer remember the product, not to mention distiguish the product from other similar products (say, Coke from Pepsi for instance). It must be noted that the best advertising slogans usually bring to mind the brand they are promoting any time that they are mentioned. "Fly the friendly skies" immediately brings to mind United Airlines. "The King of Beers" brings to mind Budweiser.

Of course, while advertising slogans are meant to be memorable, some are more memorable than others. I sometimes believe that Coca-Cola has been responsible for more memorable advertising slogans than any other company. One of its most famous slogans was "The pause that refreshes," coined in 1929. The slogan may have taken its inspiration from an earlier 1924 slogan, "Pause and refresh yourself." Coca-Cola's other famous slogan, "The Real Thing," from 1970, also had its roots in an earlier slogan. In that case, it was "It's the real thing" from 1943.

Of course, Coca-Cola is not the only carbonated soft drink to have catchy slogans. Seven-Up has been the Uncola since 1967. A & W Root Beer has been "that frosty mug sensation" for many years now. Curiously, it seems to me that Coke's rival, Pepsi, has always had a problem developing memorable slogans. The only one I can remember is "the Pepsi Generation," a slogan they adopted in 1964, and I think that is only because they insisted on repeating it in one form or another for literally years.

The best advertising slogans do last literally for years. The New York Times has touted that it has "all the news that's fit to print" since 1896. Morton Salt has used the slogan "When it rains, it pours" since 1911. Maxwell House Coffee has been "good to the last drop" since 1915. FTD has been encouraging people to "Say it with flowers" since 1917. And Wheaties has been "the breakfast of champions" since the Thirties.

Even when a company stops using a particular slogan, it may well persist in the public's minds. Kentucky Fried Chicken touted itself as "Finger lickin' good" beginning in 1952, yet, while they long ago abandoned that slogan, it is the one that people tend to think of when they about Kentucky Fried Chicken. For all that M&Ms might proclaim that "Chocolate tastes better in colour," most people probably think of the slogan "M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand (started all the way back in 1954)" when they think of the brand. General Electric abandoned the slogan "G.E. We bring good things to life!" in 2002, but more people probably associate it with the company than other slogans.

It also seems to me that often a company is lucky to get one classic slogan (Coke must be very lucky). In 1971 the classic slogan "You deserve a break today" was used to promote McDonalds. To this day, people still associate it with the brand. And yet the past few years have seen a succession of, in my humble opinion, some rather lame slogans used to promote McDonalds: "We love to see you smile," "Smile," and, worst yet, "I'm Lovin' It." One thing I can say about Burger King; they have never wholly given up on the classic "Have it your way..."

I have often pondered why companies sometimes change their advertising slogans. I would suppose it is to keep up with the changing times, to give the appearance they are still "hip (I don't even know if it is hip to say "hip" anymore...)." As I see it, however, it might be best to simply find a good slogan that the public remembers and stick with it. Everyone thinks of Wheaties when they hear "the Breakfast of Champions." "Leave the driving to us" brings to mind Greyhound Bus Lines. Can anyone tell me the product that was promoted with the words "Generation Next?" That was Pepsi Cola's slogan from 1997. I doubt anyone will remember that slogan 60 years from now...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Dime Store

There was a time when the dime store loomed large in American pop culture. The movies Five and Ten, Alice Adams, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean all involved dime stores to one degree or another. An old song proclaimed "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store." The dime store was as much a part of the main streets of American towns as the drug store or barber shop.

For those of you who are too young to remember, a dime store was a store which sold a wide array of inexpensive items. Dime stores carried everything from toys to clothing to jewellery to candy. Many items would be priced at five or ten cents, hence the dime store's many synonyms. Dime stores were also called "five and dime stores," "five and ten cent stores," or, more simply, the "five and ten." They were also called "variety stores," due to the fact that they carried a wide variety of merchandise. Dime stores differed from department stores in one important way. Quite simply, dime stores were decidedly downscale from the average department store.

The origins of the dime store can be traced back to the wholesalers Butler Brothers and a man named William Moore. Butler Brothers was founded in Boston in 1877 as a company that sold wholesale to merchants, primarily through catalogues. In 1878 the company developed the idea of a "five cent counter." The idea was that a five cent counter would be placed near the front of the store to attract customers. Customers would come into the store to buy the five cent items and would usually wind up buying some more expensive items as well.

This brings us to William Moore, who operated Augalbury and Moore's Drygoods in Watertown, NY. Among his employees was one F, W, Woolworth, the most prominent figure in dime store history. Perhaps noticing the success of other stores with five cent counters, Moore introduced one to his store. In charge he placed his young employee F. W. Woolworth. Woolworth picked out the items for the counter and was charged with restocking it. On the very first day the five cent counter sold out, so that Woolworth had to order more items for the counter. It was then that Woolworth realised that if a five cent counter could be a success, then what about an entire store filled with items for five and ten cents? Woolworth opened his first dime store in Utica, New York on February 22, 1879. Unfortunately, the store went out of business within a few months. Undeterred, Wooworth opened another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 21, 1879. The store was a success. Indeed, by 1911 Woolworth had over a 1000 stores. By 1919 Woolworth owned the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building in New York City. In 1919 alone the company boasted $107 million in sales.

Woolworth was the most successful dime store chain, but it was by no means the only one. Bulter Brothers, who had set the events in motion that would lead to the development of dime stores, had been among the most successful companies in the United States. By the turn of the 19th century, they had 100,000 customers nationwide. Unfortunately, by the 1920s they had seen their business eroded by the advent of chain stores such as Woolworth. In 1927, then, Butler Brothers decided to open a chain of dime stores under the name "Ben Franklin." The Ben Franklin stores proved fairly successful. Butler Brothers sold the chain in 1959, but it continues to this day.

Another giant in dime stores was the S.S. Kresge Company. The company's beginnings go back to J. G. McCrory and Sebastian Spering Kresge. McCrory opened his first store in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. A year later he entered into a partnership with Kresge and the two opened a store in Detroit, Michigan. In 1899 Kresge paid $3000 to McCrory and gave up his interest in the Memphis store to become the sole owner of the Detroit store. In 1900 Kresge found another partner in his brother in law Charles Wilson. Wilson was to operate store #2 in Port Huron, Michigan. By 1907, however, Wilson had tired of the business, so Kresge bought him out. It was then that S.S. Kresge Company was founded. It was incorporated in 1912, at which point its annual sales exceeded $10 million.

The stores of S. H. Kress & Company may have been better known for the architecture of their stores than their stores themselves. Samuel H. Kress in 1896 opened his first "five and ten cent store" in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. Eventually, Kress would own 300 stores in thirty states. Their stores stood out from any other dime stores in their architecture. They were built in an art deco style, complete with curved display windows and yellow or buff coloured brick with off white trim. In the late Twenties and Thirties, the architectural division of S. H. Kress & Company had about l00 people in its employ, all to design stores. In 1965 the Kress chain was taken over by Genesco Inc. In 1980 Genesco liquidated the company, making Kress one of the first giants of dime stores to fall.

Of course, there were many other smaller chains. TG&Y was a chain of variety stores that was at one time found across the Midwest. It was named for its three founders: Don Thompson, Les Gosselin, and Raymond A. Young. The stores once covered much of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and other parts of the western Midwest.

I can remember that Moberly boasted three dime stores at one point. I remember the old Woolworth store from when I was fairly young. I can't remember if it had a lunch counter, as many Woolworth stores did (I think it may have), but I can remember the rest of the layout to some degree. The toy aisles were towards the middle of the store. At the very back was the pets section. There was also a Ben Franklin store in Moberly, as well as one in Salisbury. The Ben Franklin stores were more nondescript than Woolworth stores, although I seem to recall that their toy aisles were towards the back. I have better memories of TG&Y. It opened in 1972 and remained open until I was a young adult in the early eighties. Indeed, I remember Burt Ward (Robin on the old Batman TV show) was there for the store opening (I still have his autograph). Naturally, I remember that the toy section was near the middle of the store. Clothes were towards the right and the records and tapes (yes, we didn't have CDs back then) were towards the left, outer edge of the store.

Dime stores are a rare thing today, although they still exist. And arguably, the "dollar store" is their direct descendent. Ironically, the demise of the dime stores grew out of the dime stores themselves. In 1950 a man named Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin franchise in Bentonville, Arkansas under the name "Walton Five and Ten." Walton went onto found other Ben Franklin franchises. Eventually he fell upon the idea of buying goods wholesale and selling them at discount prices. Walton tried convincing the Ben Franklin chain that his approach was valid to no avail. As a result, Walton decided to strike out on his own. In 1962, in Rogers, Arkansas, the first WalMart was opened.

During this same period, Harry B. Cunningham, president of S.S. Kresge Company as of 1959, set his corporation on a new course. In the years following World War II, competition increased in the world of retailing. Studying various discount stores, Cunningham struck upon the idea of Kmart, a discount chain which would be owned and operated by S.S. Kresge Company. The first Kmart store opened in Garden City, Michigan in 1962, to be followed by seventeen more stores that same year.

One need look no further than the history of Kmart for the fate of the dime store. By 1977, a mere 15 years after the first KMart had opened, KMart stores accounted for 95% of all sales for S.S. Kresge Company. That same year the name of the company was changed to Kmart Corporation. In 1987 the remaining Kresge stores were sold to McCrory Corporation (the company founded by Kresge's old business partner, J. G. McCrory). By 1992 McCrory Corporation would file for bankruptcy. Others also suffered Kresge's fate. Woolworth, the giant of dime stores, would go out of business in 1997. Ben Franklin has survived, but only by changing from a dime store chain to a craft store chain. Unfortunately, the competition from the discount stores such as WalMart and Kmart drove many of the dime stores out of business.

Of course, there are still dime stores in existence. Some are mom and pop operations. Others are run by small, regional chains. Arguably, the dollar stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree could be considered the descendent of the dime store, although most do not carry the variety of merchandise as sold at the old dime stores. For myself, the demise of the dime is regrettable. Many of the old dime stores (particuarly those belonging to the Kress chain) were beautiful art deco buildings with stylised windows and signs. The interiors of the stores were cozier than the typical WalMart or Kmart. Indeed, it seems to me that items were easier to find in Woolworth than they are our local WalMart. Another superior feature of the dime stores is that, unlike WalMart and Kmart, check out stations were scattered throughout the store (just like the old department stores). One did not have to make his or her way all the way to the front of a store just to pay for an item.

I suppose that with the success of dollar stores it is possible that the dime store could make a comeback in a new form. Unfortunately, I can't see Dollar General adding a lunch counter any time soon or Family Dollar adopting art deco designs for their stores...