It is with great trepidation that I present today’s I Remember JFK memory to you.
You see, according to the legalese that I encountered in researching this particular piece of our pasts, I may be going away for a long, long time. Read on.
Woodsy Owl made his debut in 1970. That year was perhaps the pinnacle of the ecology awareness movement that had suddenly sprung up in response to the very dirty condition that the world, particularly the US, found itself in after all of that jet age progress. 1970 was the year that Iron Eyes Cody was featured in his unforgettable commercial decrying the effects of pollution.
Pollution was certainly on the minds of the nation’s youthful movers and shakers, and Woodsy Owl was introduced to get involved. That would be you and me, Baby Boomers.
According to Wikipedia, which has a terse, fraught-with-terror-at-breaking-federal-law entry on Woodsy Owl,
The “Give a Hoot, don’t Pollute” slogan was created in 1970 by US Forest ranger Chuck WIlliams, who was the Forest Service’s technical consultant for the “Lassie” TV show which featured a Forest Service ranger and his family. Williams, along with Glenn Kovar, also of the US Forest Service, and Harold Bell of Western Publishing (producer of Smokey Bear and Lassie TV show) then brainstormed the idea for the Woodsy motif.
TV commercials, magazine ads, and posters on school walls followed, and we kids were all soon chanting Woodsy’s catchphrase.
The ads were effective, too. I can recall any kid who would dare to throw a candy wrapper to the ground would be sternly rebuked by the ecologically conscious among us.
About this time, my favorite aunt signed me up for an annual subscription (faithfully renewed by her every year until I was fifteen) for Ranger Rick magazine, which also stressed taking good care of our environment.
The result was that I wouldn’t be caught dead tossing trash to the ground. And even today, I’m loath to toss anything out the window that won’t be consumed by a hungry animal. However, apple cores are occasionally contributed to the nation’s critters without guilt.
The reason for all of the big-brother paranoia in this column? Well, the federal government recently decided to revamp Woodsy’s image. Perhaps in a politically correct decision aimed at discouraging corpulence, the newer Woody is slimmer, trimmer, and, notably, wears shoes.
Er, Woodsy is an OWL, right?
Anyhow, old costumes are to be (violently) disposed of as soon as possible, according to this USDA Forest Service directive. A frustrated author who may be a Boomer himself waxes about Woodsy’s new look at BoingBoing.
And, most frightening of all, note this federal law:
TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 33 > § 711a “Woodsy Owl” character, name, or slogan Whoever, except as authorized under rules and regulations issued by the Secretary, knowingly and for profit manufactures, reproduces, or uses the character “Woodsy Owl”, the name “Woodsy Owl”, or the associated slogan, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
Honest, officer, this is just a humble website. Please don’t shoot.
My budget-conscious father was very particular about where his money went, particularly when it came to monthly subscriptions. But he enjoyed his magazines. That’s why we had all three big weekly magazines coming in the mail for a period of time in the 60’s.
The big three were Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post (I just remember it as the shorter-named Post).
While the big three are certainly treasured Boomer memories, you have to go back a lot farther than that to see where they started. And they were one of the few things that youngsters of the Now generation enjoyed along with their much more conservative parents.
It all stared in 1821, when the Saturday Evening Post began to be published. The magazine was intended to be a general-interest offering of news, fiction, poetry, cartoons, and editorial comment. It soon became a mainstay of American literature. Later in the 20th century, it became renowned for its illustrations by prolific painter Norman Rockwell.
Life Magazine showed up in 1936, founded by publishing magnate Henry Luce. He purchased the name from a general interest magazine that originated in 1883, and that offered fare similar to the Post.
Luce envisioned a publication that would present its content photographically, with the pictures dominating the text. While it would feature top-notch writing, readers would primarily remember the photos.
Look magazine came along a year later, and took the same approach. While a quality offering in itself, it would always play second fiddle to Life.
The Post saw the light as well, and began featuring more photos and less writing around this time.
After WWII, the soaring economy was good for all three magazines, and our parents subscribed to them in droves. Consequently, many of us kids grew up with the great photos contained therein. In fact, many of America’s most loved photographs once graced the pages and covers of the big three. Who can forget the ecstatic sailor kissing the girl in Times Square on VJ Day, captured by Life photog Alfred Eisenstaedt?
But television began capturing our attention in the 50’s. Subscriber rates for all three began to fall. They tried shifting their focus to the younger generation, publishing articles with a more liberal slant about protests, rock and roll, and the Vietnam War. The Post changed its cover look from the classic style it had owned since the Rockwell days to a Life-imitating simple Post logo in the upper left corner. The struggling publications still offered quality stuff, but our generation was simply too busy watching it all on TV to bother. Plus, that formerly booming economy was having problems.
By the late 1960’s, the end was near. Post was the first to go under, publishing its last issue on February 8, 1969. Look quit in 1971, Life ceased regular publication in 1972.
All three have made comebacks of sorts, but gone are the days when every living room in America had a large, colorful magazine on the coffee table that had arrived in the mail within the last week.
These mailmen today have it made. Why, back in my day, they used to haul a hundred pounds of catalogs five or six times a year!
One of the most pervasive memories we Boomers have locked away is a big catalog or two sitting on the coffee table right next to the ashtray. They would come in the mail annually from companies like Montgomery-Ward, Sears, J.C. Penney, and Spiegel. All it would take to receive them was to buy something at the store. If they got your name and address, the monstrous consumers of wood pulp would begin showing up automatically, generally laid on your welcome mat by those poor abused postmen of the 1960’s.
And there was something for everyone in those massive tomes. It seemed that women’s clothing took up the most real estate, for good reason. I’m sure it was female shoppers who comprised the bulk of the mail-order catalog business of the era. The customer is always right, load those books up with pretty pictures of dresses.
But kids got their share of cool stuff to look at too, particularly with the Christmas wish books. More on that in just a bit.
Back in the days before the internet, when discount stores carried stuff that was, well, discount (aka junk), consumers knew that they needed to deal with department stores for the good, high-quality stuff that would last years. Thus, the previously mentioned retail establishments would invest money in the big catalogs that would end up in our living rooms. It was good business.
The big catalogs provided a return on the investment of the retailers pretty much year-round, but as Christmas approached, things got really crazy. Crazy enough that the big boys would send you a second catalog in the fall, a bit smaller than the regular version, but this one aimed at the biggest customers of the period: KIDS!
Thus, we would grab that wish book, as they were known, and nearly wear it out looking at the monstrously wonderful toys to be found therein. After all, Sears didn’t mess with 99 cent toys in the wish book, they displayed absolutely gorgeous full-color images of race car sets, erector sets, model trains, Easy-Bake ovens, chemistry sets, and other expensive doors to paradise. It worked, too, our parents were relentlessly hounded right up until the big day.
It was a pleasant time for all but local retailers. They were losing sales to the catalog merchants. In fact, when the Montgomery-Ward catalog first began showing up in consumers’ mailboxes in the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for local business owners to stage bonfires where piles of catalogs went up in smoke as a form of protest. More retailers joined up with their own catalogs, most notably Sears-Roebuck, who would become known as the most ubiquitous of the mail-order retailers, and local businesses had to learn to just deal with it.
Mail order catalogs had their heyday when we Boomers were kids, during the 50’s and 60’s. As stores began expanding into more and more areas, the shopping mall concept helping to spur this trend, the significance of the catalogs providing an easy way for customers to purchase things through the mail began to wane. The automatic mailings changed into a request-only service, you would receive a card in the mail and were required to mail it back in (free of charge) indicating that you wanted the latest offering. You also had the option of picking one up at the store down at the mall.
The big mail-order catalogs survived many economic ups and downs, but it was the internet that made them virtually disappear. The Sears catalog went away in 1993. Montgomery-Ward had problems maintaining their profitability, their catalog disappeared in 1985. You could recently request a J.C. Penney catalog through their website, but this has apparently been discontinued. However, don’t despair, at presstime you can still get a Spiegel catalog by requesting one at (link removed, no longer available)
Unfortunately, getting a Spiegel catalog in the mail won’t magically change the year to 1966, though.
Many of the memories that are dredged up here span multiple generations. For example, Leave It to Beaver first rang with the elder Boomers as a Saturday night prime time show. Every single generation that has come since then has watched it as daily reruns.
Today’s reminiscence will hit home with us younger Boomers who grew up in the 60’s, as well as Gen X’ers, Gen Y’ers, and kids born in the 21st century.
Wacky Packages first appeared in 1967. Trading cards were a big hit back then, but this was a new idea altogether. Wacky Packages depended entirely on the concept of the pun. Familiar household products received a roasting, depicted in recognizable form, but with bizarre twists. The one Package that I recall is the depicted Tied detergent.
Another different concept about them was that they weren’t really trading cards, they were stickers. That ensured that they would liberally cover our Pee-Chees, three-ring binders, and whatever other notebooks we carried to school.
And there was one other thing. Cutups LOVED them.
Topps was the father of Wacky Packages. The baseball card manufacturers put some serious talent to work creating the lampoons. They hired a talented team of cartoonists, including Bill Griffith (Zippy), George Evans (EC comics, National Lampoon, Classics Illustrated), and Jay Lynch (lots of underground comix). Quoting from Wikipedia, here’s Lynch’s account of how things went at Wacky Packages:
I would get a phone call from Len Brown or Art Spiegelman telling me it was time for me to do some roughs for a new series of Wacky Packages. I would usually submit a dozen roughs at a time. Len would tell me, usually on the phone, which food conglomerates I could not parody, based on cease and desist letters from prior series. I had a master list of taboo companies — and this would be added to, by phone, until a new master list would be compiled and sent to me. In those days I had a pretty good working knowledge of who made what, though. So I would give Len a verbal list of maybe 20 or so products, of which he would pick a dozen. Sometimes he would suggest products, sometimes he would come up with the gag title on the phone, and I would add to it on the rough. Sometimes Spiegelman, or Bhob Stewart, or Woody Gelman would phone the assignment to me. In the 80s, Mark Newgarden would phone the assignment to me. In the 90s Ira Friedman would phone the assignment to me. But mostly it would be Len. I think in the 60s I got $8 a rough. By the 70s it had gone up to $20 a rough. By the 80s it was $125 a rough, and so on. What I got for a rough always remained the same amount in actual buying power. It has gone up with inflation, though. One rough pays about the same as a week’s worth of groceries. Always has — and always will. Anyway — after I had some idea of the initial dozen products that I would parody, I would go to the supermarket and buy these products. Sometimes I would get ideas for additional products as well — and Topps would reimburse me for this cost of the actual products when I would send them the receipt along with my bill, which I would enclose with each batch of roughs. These roughs were done in India ink and colored with Magic Markers. I would just send them in by regular mail, and I didn’t bother to retain Xerox copies of them until the mid-1970s when the drugstore down the block from my house installed a pay Xerox machine. I was living in Chicago then. I would only go to Brooklyn to meet with the Topps guys once every six months or so. Usually this was to work on a vast variety of other Topps and Bazooka projects. Wacky Packages was just one of the countless series in development then, only one in ten of which would ever see the light of day.
So, the money wasn’t huge, but it lured genius nonetheless. It also shows that there have always been companies run by insecure, humorless morons who don’t see the value of free publicity.
The Wacky Packages I remember ran for two years, followed in 1969 by Wacky Ads, whose stickers were more like billboards.
The thing about Wacky Packages is that they are universally loved by kids of every generation, therefore they keep making comebacks. The first was in 1973. Sixteen series of about 30 cards each were produced between 73 and 76, then reissued from 79 to 80.
More new series were produced in 1985 and 1991. A revamped set of series began in 2004 and ran until 2007. The most recent new series was released in this year of 2010. Thus, there has not been a generation since us Boomers who haven’t enjoyed Wacky Packages. The 21st century series are notable for the return of Jay Lynch, who had parted ways. More underground comix artists were also hired, and truists say that the most recent products have the genius of the earliest releases.
Besides school folders, Wacky Packages have also made their way onto T-shirts, and we’re not talking throwaways here. These are top-quality tees sold at the likes of Bloomingdale’s. And, if you’re so inclined, you can get massive Packages to hang on your wall.
Don’t you love it when an idea proves timeless enough to stick around forever? So far, Wacky Packages have passed this test.
Richard Nixon was in tall cotton in 1972. His overall approval rating with the public was respectable. His opponent, George McGovern, was so far to the left that he had alienated many Democrats. It should have been an easy ride into his second term as President.
Only it wasn’t. Sure, he won the election with a monstrous landslide, but it turns out that there was something brewing in the background that would eventually explode into the biggest political scandal of the 20th century, quite an accomplishment, considering that it would make us forget all about Warren Harding’s infamous Ohio Gang. In fact, the scandal would come to dominate the news for two years, and cost the next President an election thanks to a pardon of, in the opinion of many, the head instigator of the whole mess.
The Watergate scandal began with an unremarkable burglary which took place on June 17, 1972. A security guard at the Watergate Complex noticed that someone had taped the latches on a few doors. He removed the tape, only to find that it had been replaced again afterwards. The guard called police, and five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee’s office located at the complex.
On January 30, 1973, the five men were tried and convicted. It turns out that they all had ties to the Committee to Reelect the President (officially known as CRP, but many in the news and late-night talk shows had fun calling it CREEP). In March, 1973, one of the five, James McCord, wrote a letter to the judge who had convicted him, John Sirica, claiming that he was pressured into pleading guilty, and that forces over his head were actually responsible for the break-in. Sirica read the letter in court, with many reporters present, and the race was on to find out more.
As the investigations progressed, it was learned that the burglars had received large sums of money, which were eventually traced back to CRP. John Mitchell, head of CRP, denied knowing anything about it.
This would be a statement repeated endlessly by nearly all who would be proven to be involved, and imprisoned. As they say, “The first liar ain’t got a chance.”
One of the burglars, Bernard Baker, had a company in Miami that was used to funnel the checks from CRP in an effort to launder them, removing any traceability back to the committee. Turns out that the Miami banks involved were found innocent of any malfeasance, the blame was instead placed on a number of CRP officials, including G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, Hugh Stone, and Maurice Stans.
Prior to the trial and conviction of the burglars, in fact before the 1972 election, it was revealed on September 29 that John Mitchell controlled a secret fund used to finance intelligence-gathering against the Democrats. On October 10, the FBI reported that the Watergate break-in was part of a huge operation of political spying and sabotage on behalf of CRP.
This didn’t faze the public, who still preferred Nixon over the far-left-leaning McGovern. One wonders how history might have turned out if the Dems had chosen a more moderate candidate. The aforementioned landslide took place on the first Tuesday of November.
However, as more and more revelations began to come forth, the pressure began to mount on President Nixon himself.
Reporters aggressively pursued the connections between the burglary and the higher powers, particularly Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Their investigations revealed that the scandal reached all the way into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House itself.
All of those stories appearing in Washington DC’s biggest paper had their effect on the Senate. Sam Ervin, the gentlemanly senator from North Carolina, was set up as chairman of a committee to get to the bottom of the burglary and the conspiracies behind it.
Nixon had to replace disgraced Attorney General Mitchell, and did so with Elliot Richardson. Richardson then appointed Archibald Cox as an independent special counsel to the Watergate investigation.
The hearings took place on daytime TV from May 17 to August 7, 1973. On Friday the 13th of July, it was revealed that the White House had a tape recording system in place that automatically captured conversations inside the Oval Office, as well as other rooms. Cox immediately subpoenaed the tapes, and the White House was compelled to dig them up. Nixon refused, stating that the tapes were his personal property, exempt from the investigation. Cox refused to back down, and Nixon demanded his head on a pole.
Nixon canned Richardson, who refused to fire Cox, and replace him with Robert Bork, who promptly did his master’s bidding. Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski. Transcripts of some of the tapes were eventually provided by the White House, although parts of them had been erased, particularly one eighteen-and-a-half minute section which was allegedly done accidentally by Nixon’s secretary. The press had fun demonstrating just how difficult that would have been for her, supposedly keeping her foot on a pedal in an uncomfortable position while talking on the phone.
On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ordered the tapes to be turned over. One of the tapes proved that statements that Nixon had earlier made concerning the involvement of the CIA pressuring the FBI were not true, and also implied the President pretty clearly in being knowledgeable of the whole operation. Impeachment proceedings were begun.
The writing was on the wall. On August 8, Nixon announced his resignation.
President Gerald Ford, on September 8, issued a pardon of Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as President. He explained that he did it to heal the nation, and he may well have been altruistic in his intentions, but by and large the country was angered that justice wasn’t being done. The Senate gained five Democratic seats and Congress gained 49 themselves that election year. Ford was soundly defeated by Jimmy Carter three years later.
Seven officials were tried, one was found innocent, the others, Robert Mardian, Chuck Colson, H.R. Haledeman, John Erlichman, John Mitchell, and Gordon Strachan, were found guilty and did prison time. John Dean and Jeb Magruder pleaded guilty in their own trials. A number of others were also convicted of lying to the grand jury.
Thus ended one of the sorriest sagas of US history. It seems that any scandal that comes along these days has “gate” added to the end of its name. Nixon had some admirable accomplishments during his tenure, but Watergate cast a long, black shadow over everything else he did. The White House tapes were intended to provide a record of his Presidency. They did so, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.
Inspiration for I Remember JFK comes from a variety of sources. One more or less constant provider of ideas is The History Channel. I was watching a show on the 70’s the other night and was intrigued by the origin and history of that enigmatic symbol of optimism: the smiley face.
The smiley face originated on the drawing table of one Harvey Ball, who was a freelance graphical artist in Worcester, MA. In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company hired him to design a logo that would raise company morale.
Ball sat down and designed a simple bright yellow smiling face in about ten minutes. The insurance company liked it, and Ball pocketed his $45 fee and forgot about it.
The insurance company produced 100 7/8″ button pins with the logo. They soon had to order thousands more. Morale was raised dramatically, and the smiley face became immensely popular among employees, customers, and their friends and family.
As time went on, the smiley face took on a life of its own. One thing that neither Ball nor State Mutual Life ever bothered to do was trademark the logo. Ball, in particular, would later come to rue that oversight.
The unauthorized commercialization of the smiley face began in the year that it was created. A syndicated children’s cartoon show called The Funny Company appeared in 1963. One of the series’ characters sported a smiley face logo on his hat.
As the 70’s began, the smiley face took off big time. In September, 1970, two enterprising ideamen named Bernard and Murray Spain took the smiley face logo and added the words “Have a nice day” underneath it. They then copyrighted the image and words.
The smiley face, now in control of the two Philadelphia brothers, soon began appearing on t-shirts, buttons, notebooks, bumper stickers, and practically everywhere else that an image could be printed. Kids in my school who used to sport peace signs were now seen wearing the ubiquitous smiley face.
Ball didn’t pay a lot of attention to his creation’s usage. If anything, he was pleased with the “feel-goodedness” that it promoted among its wearers.
Two years after its introduction, the smiley face fad was passe. But the optimistic icon never disappeared completely. Some chose to dot their handwritten i’s with a smiley face. Others continued to wear their smiley face t-shirts despite its no longer being cool, and demand remained high enough that smiley face merchandise continued to be sold in modest numbers.
In 1996, the smiley face began its ultimate commercialization. Retail giant Walmart began using the logo in its stores, and soon afterwards on TV ads. Eventually, the behemoth tried to take over ownership of Ball’s design through court action, but was stymied primarily by a Frenchman who claimed that he had laid claim to the logo’s copyright in 1971. I couldn’t find any mention of the Spain brothers in the litigation.
The trial (which Walmart lost) took place in 2006. But Ball had years earlier grown disgusted with the commercialization of his creation by the time he saw Walmart and others using it to hawk products. So in 1999, he formed the World Smile Corporation in an attempt to bring the focus back to the message behind the logo: spreading good will and good cheer.
Ball died in 2001, but he might be satisfied in knowing that despite the fact that many people have made many millions from the logo that he never bothered to register as a trademark, it continues to make countless people feel just slightly better and more friendly after encountering it on a t-shirt, coffee mug, or what-have-you.
In 1892, Angelo Siciliano was born in in Calabria, Italy. Thirteen years later, he and his family moved to Brooklyn. Like many Italianos, he Americanized his name. He became known as Charles, and became a leatherworker.
Charles was on the scrawny side. One day, on a visit to the zoo, he noted that big cats stayed extremely muscular, even in the confines of cages, without the luxury of running free. He concluded that the animals gained and maintained their strength by pitting muscle against muscle.
He tested his theory by devising exercises that did the same thing. They worked. Adding muscle mass as he stayed with his program, he eventually took the name “Charles Atlas” after a friend told him he resembled the statue of Atlas on top of a hotel in Coney Island.
Atlas had just achieved the title of The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man by Physical Culture magazine. That was big stuff in 1922. So Atlas began marketing his secret workout routine to the general public. It sold like, well, Edsels.
Why on earth wasn’t the public snatching up his secrets?
It was all in the presentation of the product. In 1928, he hired adman Charles Roman. The first thing Roman did was give the workout a name. He called it “Dynamic-Tension.” Catchy. Next, he created advertisements that took the form of single-page comics, in which a skinny kid gets picked on, begins using Dynamic-Tension, and bulks up. “Mac” gets revenge on the bully by popping him one in the jaw. The girls, of course, swoon with delight.
The ad began going into pulp magazines, the predecessors of comic books. That was sheer genius. Who reads the like of pulps and comics? Why, skinny kids, of course! Hey, I’m speaking from personal experience! Soon, 98 lb. weaklings from all over the country began sending in their money in droves to get the course that would allow them to look like Mr. Atlas themselves.
As the pulps gave way to their more colorful successors, the “Mac” ad became one of the most recognized in the free world. As the decades passed by, the look of comic books changed, but the Atlas ads continued to appear, virtually unchanged.
As the 80’s dawned, comics made one of their most dramatic changes. While once inexpensive and printed like newspapers, they had entered a more mainstream market, and now bore a slick look (that cost a lot more to produce). The audience had become more sophisticated. Gone were the classic ads for Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Specs, and, sadly, Charles Atlas courses.
In 1997, Marvel reintroduced the ads, but political correctness had once again reared its ugly, ugly head. Mac, instead of popping the bully the well-deserved sock in the jaw, now simply waved his fist while the bully cowered in fear.
(heavily heaved sigh)
Nowadays, you can still order the venerable Dynamic-Tension course from charlesatlas.com. And guess what? Mac still decks the bad guy at the official website. Hooray!
A mention should also be made of one Tom Manfre, who was frequently illustrated in the comic book ads. In the days before steroid use turned bodybuilders into grotesque parodies of themselves, Manfre won the 1953 Mr. World contest after training with the Atlas course. Manfre is still around, and is in the process of redesigning Dynamic-Tension into something more appropriate for senior citizens. How cool is that? Read his bio at the Atlas site.
Oh, and I’m no longer a 98 lb. weakling. Nowadays, I’m trying hard to stay under the 190 lb. mark.
We youngsters certainly paid close attention to commercials in the 60’s. One I’ll never forget involved a guy climbing into a Beetle, driving it into a pond, and explaining to the audience as he bobbed up and down in the water that Volkswagen engineered their cars to be watertight, or something to that effect.
And the commercial had an effect on me. I spent thew rest of my childhood feeling like if a car DIDN’T float, it was inferior.
Strangely enough, I haven’t owned a VW Bug. Both of my older brothers have, as have a large percentage of the earth’s driving population. I DID own a 1974 bus.
But still, the commercial filled me with a high regard for the ubiquitous little car.
In the 1940’s after WWII, it barely survived. It was viewed as Hitler’s pet project by much of the rest of the world.
But sales started picking up. By the 1960’s it was an extremely common sight on American roads.
As pollution increased, and legislation was put in place to fight it, the Beetle was phased out in the U.S. While it was still a big seller, particularly in Latin America, here in the States dealers were now pushing Rabbits, Sciroccos, and Jettas.
Eventually, the Beetle resurfaced in its 1998 introduction as the New Beetle. It has proven to be a success worldwide.
Witness the crowds at press time clamoring for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series. They’re cheering loudly now, but Philly fans are notorious for turning on their beloved team very quickly when mistakes are made.
Or witness Jesus of Nazareth, who was welcomed by a Jerusalem crowd shouting praise and lining his path with palm leaves, only to have the same group screaming for his head a few days later.
And look at the example of John Lennon, who was a member of the most popular musical group in history, who made a statement about that very popularity that turned public opinion against him and the rest of the Fab Four very quickly.
Elvis never had such issues. Colonel Parker would only allow him to make statements like “yes, sir” and “no, maam” at interviews. But John Lennon was very plain-spoken, so it was inevitable that he would say something that the rest of the world wouldn’t like. And the original publication of the interview wasn’t the spark that set of the blaze of public opinion against Lennon, it was an otherwise obscure fan magazine that grabbed the statement out of context.
The interview where Lennon made his remarks was with Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard. Cleave was a friend of Lennon’s, and so was granted the elusive right to speak with him.
The article was published on March 4, 1966. It went over quietly. The context of the entire piece made it clear that Lennon’s statement was not about dissing Jesus, it was in fact an ironic comment on how popular he and his Liverpool buddies had become, much to his amazement.
Enter a disposable fan mag called DATEbook.
On July 29 of that year, this obscure rag hawked an article on its front page called “The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate The Most.” In the article was this snippet from the Cleave interview:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The sensationalist magazine sold about a million copies. Angry hordes began organizing Beatle album burnings.
The whole thing had a very Klannish air about it, and, in fact, the KKK joined in, In South Carolina, for example, at one particular rally, the Klan nailed a Beatles record to a large cross and set it on fire. Other Klan spokesmen were quoted as saying that not only were the Beatles blasphemous, but that they were not really ‘white’ either.
Horrified, Cleave publicly stated that the interview should be read in its entirety, but the cat was out of the bag. Manager Brian Epstein also tried in vain to calm things down by speaking out. With a looming US tour in jeopardy, it would be up to Lennon himself to try and squelch the fires of controversy.
In Chicago on August 11, 1966, Lennon held a press conference and publicly apologized for the remark. He didn’t disguise his bewilderment and disappointment that a statement taken out of context could cause such a stink, but apologize he did, much against his wishes.
When the apology hit the airwaves and the print media, the burnings were called off.
But even now, some 42 years after the incident, there are still those who harbor animosity towards the always-outspoken Lennon for a statement that truly did take on a life of its own.
“Effective January 31, 2006, Western Union discontinued all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage.”
Those words can be found at Western Union’s telegram section of their website. After being one of the most reliable communication means for well over a hundred years, its time has passed.
We Boomer kids have a few memories of telegrams, even though their decline was already quite evident when we were growing up. The telegram was viewed as a way to convey urgent news. And, as often as not, the ringing of the doorbell and the appearance of a Western Union employee with a telegram meant BAD news.
The telegraph was invented by Samuel F. B. Morse, as any kid who paid attention in school knows well. The Western Union company sprang into existence in 1851, using the exciting new technology to send messages all the way across the USA in less than a day. That was a quantum leap in an era when mail was the primary form of communication, and mailed letters would frequently disappear.
As steam trains sped along as fast as sixty miles per hour, communications needed to increase in speed as well. Telegraph wires crisscrossed the nation within a few short years, and soon, telegrams were sent out for things like birthday wishes, announcements of births or deaths, and, of course, bad news of emergencies.
The 1920’s and 30’s were when telegram usage hit its peak. Long distance calls were astronomically high in cost, and sending a telegram was the next best thing. Punctuation cost extra, so the familiar “stop” was thrown in to signify the end of a sentence. The four-letter word was no extra charge.
Our parents sent and received telegrams in WWII, as soldiers overseas were occasionally allowed to send them to their loved ones free of charge, and they would respond knowing that Western Union would reliably deliver their words back, regardless of where they were serving.
Telegrams were sent via a national system of printers called Telex. Teletype machines were tied together in their own network, and messages were printed on strips of paper that were cut and pasted onto the familiar yellow telegram.
I remember my parents getting a telegram or two back in the 60’s. Fortunately, neither one was to inform them of the deaths of any of their sons in the Vietnam war. Sadly, many parents were the anguished recipients of such carefully worded announcements that their sons would not be returning home alive.
So the knock on the door of a Western Union man carrying a yellow envelope is no longer something to be nervously answered. But that’s okay. We can get news even faster these days, be it bad or good.