Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Lights

If you're like me, your house is probably decked out with coloured lights right now. For that matter, your Christmas tree probably is as well. I am not sure how the tradition of decorating one's house with lights for the Yuletide got started, but it seems to have been firmly rooted well before I was born.

Many of the traditions connected with modern day Christmas in those countries which speak Germanic languages (England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and so on) grew out of the pagan celebration called Geol (modern English Yule) in Old English, Jol in Old Norse, et. al. Decorating with holly and mistletoe, mummer's plays, and even eating ham for Christmas may well stem from Germanic paganism. But I am not so sure that Christmas lights are one of those traditions. Granted descriptions of ancient Yule are pretty sparse and we really don't have much to rely on, but it seems to me that lights may not have played a role in the holiday. About the only thing remotely related I can recall off the top of my head is the Yule log.

For the origin of holiday lights, then, it might be better to look to Christianity, where the season of Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) is celebrated with candles. Each Sunday a candle is lit, each symbolising a different thing. It seems possible to me that the association of candles with the holiday season could then have made its way from the church into the home, or more precisely, to the tree.

Christmas trees are first attested in Germany in the 16th century. By the 18th century there are references to wax candles being used on tannenbaums in the Rhineland. By the time the Christmas tree was introduced to the United Kingdom in the 18th century (by King George III's consort, Queen Charlotte), it apparently came complete with candles. As a child, Queen Victoria described in her journal their Christmas tree "...hung with lights and sugar ornaments..."

Of course, placing candles on Christmas trees obviously had its dangers, so it was perhaps natural that they would eventually be replaced by electric lights. The first tannenbaum illuminated by electric lights was done so by Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company. In 1882 he decorated his tree with electric lights. By the early 1900s, businesses were not only decorating their trees with electric lights, but their window displays as well. It would not be long before people would decorate the outside of their houses with lights. The first time that Christmas lights were used outside appear to have been in San Diego in 1904 and New York City in 1912. These lights were well beyond the budget of most families at the time--in 1903 electric Christmas tree lights would cost the equivalent of $2000 by today's standards. It is perhaps for this reason that average American families did not start decorating the exteriors of their homes with lights until the Fifties.

At any rate, holiday lights are among my fondest memories of the Yuletide as a child. I remember as a child my father would always decorate our porch in early December. The lights then were fairly large by today's standards, about the size of a small walnut. And while today you see houses decorated in lights of one colour (yellow, red, even blue), ours were always multi-coloured. To this day I prefer multi-coloured lights on both my house and my tree.

In those days the cities would go all out with lights for the Yuletide. I remember both Huntsville and Moberly would string lights along the electric wires of their downtowns. As a child it always looked impressive to me. Sadly, the custom ended with the energy crisis of the Seventies. I also remember as a child that there was a place around New Franklin that had an enormous Christmas light display. Every year would we make the drive to see it. It was incredible, with light displays in the shape of Santa in his sleigh and so on. Sadly, the energy crisis brought an end to it, too. Fortunately, though they did not start until recently, Moberly started decorating Rothwell Park (the 885 acre park here in Randolph County) with Christmas light displays. The past several I have enjoyed driving through the park this time of year for that reason. My favourite display is set on Rothwell Lake, a fisherman with his line animated by lights.

When compared to much older Yuletide traditions, decorating Christmas trees with lights is a relatively recent tradition. Decorating houses with lights is even more so. Regardless, I suspect most people today immediately think of them when they think of the holidays. I know I do. I don't think the holiday season would be the same without them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Joseph Barbera R.I.P.

The past two weeks have been one of those times when I have worried that this blog might turn into "the Death Blog." Both actor Peter Boyle and Green Lantern creator Martin Nodell have passed on. Now Joseph Barbera has died as well. He passed on of natural causes at the age of 95 on December 18. For those of you don't know, Joe Barbera was one half of a team with William Hanna (who died in 2001), the animators who brought life to Tom and Jerry and whose studio produced such cartoons as The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, and Space Ghost.

Joseph Barbera was born on March 24, 1911 in Manhattan. Born to parents of Sicilian descent, he started work early as a delivery boy for a tailor. He tried to become a cartoonist for the magazine New York Hits. In 1932, however, he found his calling as a cartoonist with the Van Beuren Studios. In 1937, after Van Beuren shut down, he joined MGM. He was hired within two days of his future partner, William Hanna. They first worked together on what would also be the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, "Puss Gets the Boot," in 1940. The animated short was nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons. Curiously, in that first cartoon, Tom was called by the name "Jasper!" Hanna and Barbera would work on the Tom and Jerry series until 1957. During that time the Tom and Jerry series won an impressive seven Academy Awards for Best Short Subject, Cartoons, more than any other animated short series. While at MGM they also worked on other series as well, most notably cartoons featuring Droopy. Among the most notable achievements that the duo had during this period was animating the sequence from the movie Achors Aweigh in which Jerry danced with Gene Kelly. Even Walt Disney was impressed.

In 1957 MGM closed their animated unit, leaving Hanna and Barbera out of work. It as then that the two founded their own studio. Initially called H-B Enterprises and quickly renamed Hanna-Barbera Productions, the studio entered the new field of creating animated cartoons for television. Their first series, The Ruff and Ready Show, was the second animated series created specifically for television (the first was Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit). Hanna-Barbera kept their costs down by using limited animation. For that reason, while the Tom and Jerry cartoons often emphasised action, the cartoons produced by the Hanna-Barbera studio would emphasise dialogue.

The Ruff and Ready Show is largely forgotten today, but Hanna-Barbera Productions would go onto create some of the most successful animated TV series of all time. Debuting in syndication in 1958, The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of the studio's many hits. The series not only featured the title character, but also segments featuring Yogi Bear (who would go onto to get his own series, not to mention a feature film) and two mice named Pixie and Dixie. The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of many hits for the studio.

Indeed, Hanna-Barbera would even break new ground with regards to animated TV series. In 1960, Hanna-Barbera produced The Flintstones, one of the first animated TV shows created specifically for primetime. The series would run a total of six seasons on ABC and, until The Simpsons, would be the most successful animated show to ever air in primetime. Indeed, it started a short cycle towards cartoons in primetime, a cycle which produced two other memorable Hanna-Barbera shows--The Jetsons and Top Cat.

Most of Hanna-Barbera's early output was comedic in nature, although in the Sixties they started turning out more serious cartoons as well. Among the cartoons that debuted on primetime in the wake of The Flintstones was Jonny Quest. The series centred on the adventures the title character had while travelling the world with his scientist father. It was the first action-adventure series produced by the studio, and would be followed by other Hanna-Barbera action-adventure cartoons such as Space Ghost and Birdman. Hanna-Barbera would go onto produce some of the most recognisable cartoons in American pop culture, among them The Atom Ant Show, Where Are You, Scooby-Doo, and many others.

Like many who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, I have fond memories of watching many of the cartoons produced by William Hanna and Joe Barbera. As an adult I have to admit I am not particularly fond of the Tom and Jerry cartoons (it seems to me as if they all have the same plot--it is hard for me to believe they racked up all those Oscars) and I did not like Where Are You, Scooby Doo even as a child. And as an adult I don't find The Flintstones terribly entertaining. But then I have to admit that Hanna-Barbera produced some of the best cartoons of all time. To this day I will gladly watch Jonny Quest, The Jetsons, Space Ghost, and Hong Kong Phooey. If Hanna-Barbera was the most successful studio specialising in animated series for television, it may have been because they had a special gift for creating memorable characters. Indeed, many of their characters and their catchphrases are immediately recongisable by a majority of Americans. Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, Scooby, and Shaggy became an established part of American pop culture long ago. At their best, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were matched only by a very, very few in creating memorable characters. It is sad to think they are both gone now.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Green Lantern and Pillsbury Doughboy Creator Passes On

Comic book artist and commercial art director Martin Nodell died December 9, 2006 at the age of 91. If the name doesn't sound familiar to you, I am sure the names of his creations will. With writer Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman), Nodell created the Green Lantern. With his creative team at the Leo Burnett Agency, he also developed the Pillsbury Doughboy, one of the most successful advertising icons of all time.

Martin Nodell was born November 11, 1915, in Philadelphia. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and then attended the Pratt Institute in New York City. It was in New York, around 1938, that Nodell started freelancing for various comic book publishers. He worked on such series as The Raven and Buck Steele. Nodell found that freelancing was not particularly lucrative and decided he needed steadier work in the comic book industry. He contacted National Comics (publisher of the ever popular Superman and Batman) seeking work, but was informed that they had all the artists they could handle. Fortunately for Nodell, they put him in touch with their sister company, All-American Comics. Initially editor Sheldon Mayer did not give Nodell very much work. Nodell then decided to create a superhero for the company's flagship title, All-American Comics. He was on the subway home when the idea for the Green Lantern occurred to him. Nodell showed Mayer some preliminary sketches and the first few pages of the Green Lantern's origin which he had written. Mayer brought in Bill Finger to finish the story and flesh out the character. Green Lantern made his first appearance in All-Star Comics #16, July 1940.

The original Green Lantern was was Alan Scott, an engineer for a railroad company. Scott's company had beat out a rival company in a bid to build a bridge. Unfortunately, this cited the owner of the rival company to violence. He planted explosives under the bridge so that they would detonate when the first train travelled over the bridge. When Scott's company sent a train across the bridge, then, there was a huge explosion. Everyone aboard the train was killed, except Alan Scott. Scott's life was saved by a green train lantern made of some unknown metal. To make a long story short, the lantern told Scott to remove a bit of its metal to make a ring. By touching the ring to the lantern every 24 hours, the ring would have the power of the lantern's magic green flame. The lantern's green flame was a very potent weapon. With it, Scott could fly, create various objects using the flame, fire bursts of energy, deflect attacks, and so on. Green Lantern became one of the most successful superheroes of the Golden Age. He was a founding member of the Justice Society of America. And at the height of his popularity he appeared in three different magazines. Although his own title ended in 1949 and the Justice Society made their last appearance prior to the Silver Age in 1951, the character's popularity would result in versions of the character being created over the years.

Nodell would continue to work on various Green Lantern stories until 1947. At that point he left National Periodical Publications (the company which resulted from the merger of National Comics and All-American Comics) for Timely Comics (which would later become known as Marvel Comics). There he worked on such characters as Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner. By 1950 superheroes had seriously declined in popularity, with many of the classic characters of the Golden Age (including Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner) no longer being published. Nodell then left the comic book industry for the world of advertising. He was hired by the Leo Burnett agency that year as their art director.

It was in 1965 that, with his design team, Nodell created his other famous character. C.A. Pillsbury and Company wanted a stop-motion character for their commercials. Nodell and his team developed Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Poppin' Fresh made his television debut in October, 1965. Paul Frees, the voice of Boris Badenov on The Bullwinkle Show, was the Doughboy's original voice. He proved popular enough to last 41 years and to star in over 600 commercials. He also inspired a good deal of merchandise and even parodies (the most famous of which may be the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame).

Martin Nodell retired in 1976. In the Eighties he did a few drawings for DC Comics (the re-christened National Periodical Publications). He also pencilled Harlan Ellison and John Ostrander's adaptation of "Gnomebody" for Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor Quarterly #1, August 1986. Having been re-discovered by fans, Martin Nodell and his wife Carrie were regulars on the comic book convention circuit. After 63 years of marriage, his wife Carried died in 2004.

I must say that I was truly saddened to read of Martin Nodell's death. As I have said in this blog before, Green Lantern is my second favourite superhero of all time (the first being Batman). And while there have been different versions of Green Lantern over the years, my favourite was always the original, Alan Scott. Nodell may not have been the best artist to have ever drawn the Emerald Crusader, but his work had an energy to it and a liveliness about it that other, better artists often did not match. Green Lantern became one of the most popular characters of the Golden Age, largely due to the life with which Nodell infused the character. The various incarnations of Green Lantern would influence such diverse artists as singer Donovan Leitch, writer Harlan Ellison, and director Francis Ford Coppola. Nodell would be worth remembering if all he had done was create Green Lantern, but he had the privilege of also being involved in the creation of another pop culture icon, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Arguably, Poppin' Fresh is one of most successful advertising icons of all time. At the very least, there aren't many that have lasted 41 years. Again, it is a tribute to Nodell's creativity.

Of course, it is not enough that Martin Nodell created two pop culture icons. From nearly every fan who met him, he and his wife Carrie were two of the friendliest, nicest, and most polite people one could ever meet. By all accounts, he was the perfect gentleman and his wife the perfect lady. Quite simply, Martin Nodell was one of those artists who truly appreciated his fans. I must say that I am truly saddened by his passing.