April 4, 2017

Captain & Tennille: "Love Will (Not) Keep Us Together", or Has It?

In 2014, Toni Tennille (her real name is Cathryn Antoinette) announced to the world that she was divorcing her longtime husband Daryl Dragon.  Mr. Dragon was the (largely) silent piano player accompanist and sea captain hat-wearing part of the duo, which was largely a showcase for Toni Tennille.  The couple's separation was somewhat surprising given that they were married for 39 years.  But she was always the better-known as a half of the 1970's duo "Captain & Tennille", and the duo released a string of chart-topping pop-hits during that era, with perhaps the best-known of those songs being "Love Will Keep Us Together" (apparently, that was not meant to be) which was actually a cover of Neil Sedaka's and Howard Greenfield's song, which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart nine weeks after its 1975 debut, and went on to win the 1975 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.  Indeed, the couple was reportedly discovered by Neil Sedaka himself at The SmokeHouse restaurant in Burbank, near NBC, which apparently remains in operation as of 2017.

Other Captain and Tennille hits included "Do That To Me One More Time", a cover of "Shop Around" and the ├╝ber-annoying single "Muskrat Love" just to name a few.  The duo also had a TV variety series called "Captain & Tennille Variety Show" on ABC back in 1976, which was later followed by a syndicated show called "The Toni Tennille Show" which ran from 1980 to 1981.  My personal suspicion all along was that Toni Tennille had been bitten by the celebrity bug, and she made numerous guest appearances (often by herself) on the daytime television circuit, TV game shows and she even landed a few roles on television shows including on Aaron Spelling's "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island".  But she was never going to win any Emmy's for her acting.

All that said, as we learned several years ago in Toni Tennille's memoir/book "Toni Tennille: A Memoir" she suggested that the duo's marriage had been 'arranged' for them by their record label, which was A&M Records.  She also gave interviews with the NBC Today Show and other television programs claiming that she was seeking something he just could not give her, namely a deeper personal connection.  Although she was already a divorcee by the time she met Dragon, the fact that she remained married to him for 39 years in spite of that raised B.S. alerts for many.

Tennille wrote that her mother, being a conservative Southern Baptist (Tennille herself was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama before moving to California at age 19 with her family in 1959), wasn't pleased with the couple living together out of wedlock.  Tennille surmised that "the record company was uncomfortable with it, too" (although the record company wasn't uncomfortable with other couples being unmarried, married to someone of another race, etc., as long as they sold records).  The latter point was speculative on her part.  Remember, this was in the mid-1970's, and numerous other Baby Boomer couples were routinely cohabitating at the time.  One need look no further than the ABC sitcom "Three's Company" which first aired in 1977 as a vivid example (catch my post on that show at https://goo.gl/Jtobxe for more), whose entire premise was based on two single women and one single man who all lived together to share housing expenses.  Although their relationships were strictly platonic (indeed, the characters all regularly dated other people), there was plenty of double entendre in the show.

She claimed that a company publicist at A&M Records announced that Tennille and Dragon had married on Valentine's Day, which she said was surprising to the couple, who were apparently content to be living together as they had been for a few years.  At the time, Toni Tennille had already been in one failed marriage to Kenneth Shearer which ended in divorce in 1972, and Ms. Tennille never really discussed how her devout, Southern Baptist mother felt about her divorce from Shearer, which was really no better or worse than unmarried cohabitation for Evangelical Christians).  For that reason, I suspect that the couple was likely content doing gigs at local bars in Southern California before they later toured with the Beach Boys, for whom Dragon played the keyboard (it was Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love who reportedly gave him the nickname "Captain").  Tennille added nudging from their accountant, who said the couple would do "a lot better with taxes" if they were actually married helped prompt them to go Virginia City, Nevada and quietly marry in late 1974.

News of the January 16, 2014 divorce filing by Toni Tennille, 73, from Daryl Dragon, 71, in Prescott, Arizona, also coincided with the release of Tennille's then-new memoir.  That was subsequently followed by widespread speculation that the divorce may have been prompted (at least partially) by Mr. Dragon's 2009 diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease (she announced that on her own website) may have also had something to do with it.

According to TMZ, the divorce papers filed by Ms. Tennille in Arizona described the marriage as "irretrievably broken."  Arizona, like California, is a community property state; as well as a no-fault divorce state, thereby only requiring irreconcilable differences for a courts to grant a divorce.  But TMZ also reported that the divorce filing also made "special mention about health-insurance coverage."  But apparently a disclosure of that is required in Arizona divorce filings.  Still, it's certainly not unheard of for couples facing health crises to divorce for solely financial reasons, so that the sicker spouse could legally deplete his or her assets and then qualify for health-coverage assistance from Medicaid.  Although Tennille and Dragon were both Medicare-eligible at the time, its worth noting that Medicare doesn't cover long-term rehabilitative therapy, nor does it cover most kinds of at-home nursing care or assisted living.

As I write this, there is still speculation that the couple may have divorced because they still love each other and were doing what they needed to do in order to preserve some portion of the wealth they'd built together while they still remain life partners.  There is no law mandating that a couple must hate one another to be granted a divorce.  Tennille, famous for her love of the spotlight, has remained fairly tight-lipped in the time that has followed, but she's also known to love her wealth and fame, which supported the notion of divorcing for largely financial reasons.  In the time immediately following the divorce, the couple was reportedly still living together in the same house.

Her announcement on NBC's Today Show can be seen by visiting http://on.today.com/1RRcVjE.

In addition, she spoke with the television program Inside Edition which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/ogPjvEKOEag.

She claims that there was no "deep connection" in her marriage to 'The Captain' Darryl Dragon.  Something about it just sounded very, very suspicious.  In the few years that have passed, the story has calmed down, and because the musical duo are older and no longer releasing music as regularly they previously did, nor are they everyday fixtures on television, it has largely fallen off the radar.  Still, in a strange way, I think that nearly everyone can understand why a seemingly happy couple would suddenly divorce to help them deal with the Captain's declining health, as that's something many older people have to deal with.  Several years prior to his death, my own grandfather "sold" his home to his two children (my father and uncle) so that if he later needed nursing care, his legal assets would already be depleted, plus it saved my dad and uncle from having to deal with annoying probate court when he actually passed away.  It was a way around the system, as many CEO's do all the time with special compensation packages, generous health benefits, stock options, etc.  In other words, its really the American way.

In the end, while I empathize with Mr. Dragon's health concerns, I'm also suspect that the couple was unable to get proper care for him without this kind of legal trapeze given that in the 1970's, with a string of musical hits and television appearances, they no doubt were paid for that and likely better than more ordinary Americans.

March 16, 2017

Gen X Author Claims Too Many Baby Boomers Are 'Sociopathic'

If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you are by definition a Baby Boomer whether you admit it or not (the exact start and finish of a generation is not universally defined, but the consensus is that each generation lasts about twenty years, though people at the beginning or end could likely fit into the generation that precedes or succeeds it).

Yet contrary to the Boomer-centric publishing industry (or television, radio, movies or any other media outlet within their control) of years past, today Baby Boomers are no longer most of the authors, readers or publishers anymore, which means that's no longer a Boomer pep rally as it previously was (indeed, the publishing industry is struggling somewhat these days, which means that today, publishers more likely make decisions on what to publish based on what will actually sell).  It began when a venture capitalist questioned why technology hadn't improved as fast as it did previously (leading to slow economic productivity growth, listen/see http://bit.ly/2imEfHQ for more detail), or the recession lasted longer and saw a weaker recovery, and all of his research suggested that Boomer behavior and the economic/political policies implemented under their watch was largely responsible.

In that environment, Bruce Cannon Gibney, who is a 40-something Gen Xer (he was born in 1976), has published a new book entitled "A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America".  He says the Boomer attitude of "Me first and damn the consequences" has been a disaster for the country.  In short, He posits that too many Boomers are selfish, lacking in empathy and financially irresponsible and its been a disaster for the U.S. economy.  Known as the "Me Generation," the Baby Boomers have long been described as self-interested, but never quite in such damning terms.

"My assertion isn't that all Boomers are sociopaths, but that a sufficiently large percentage of them behave in ways that appear to be sociopathic and because they're such a large generation ... any personality defects could easily translate into political dysfunction. I think that is what happened."

Suffice to say, Mr. Gibney's new book is making headlines not only because of the provocative title, but because he uses a lot of verifiable facts to validate his central thesis that as a whole, the Baby Boomer generation have some sociopathic tendencies, and they have undermined the prosperous, progressive America they were raised in.  He uses credible statistics to show how Baby Boomers have turned American dynamism into stagnation, inequality, and bipartisan fiasco.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bruce Cannon Gibney has also been getting a lot of angry mail since his new book, "A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America," came out in early March 2017.  Of course, a lot of that correspondence is still snail-mail paper letters, since Boomers tend not to e-mail as instinctively as subsequent generations do.  Still, he has wisely not published his own e-mail address, just in case.

There was an interesting video accompanying the typical news promoting a new book, which can be viewed below, or at http://ow.ly/CZKe309WwHa:

This Salon Talks Video was produced by Alexandra Clinton

Men's Journal had an interview with Mr. Gibney at http://mjm.ag/2nSdMWI which is worth reading. Also, the Boston Globe interviewed him which can be seen at http://bit.ly/2l9KXCA.

Similarly, WBUR, which is Boston's NPR news station had an equally interesting radio interview with him.  The central thesis is not Baby Boomer narcissism or sociopathy per se (he doesn’t claim to be a psychiatrist who can diagnose anyone), but the tendencies of the generation as a whole have failed to save for their own retirements as they should have, and are therefore are over-reliant upon their own children.  As proof, he notes that we see this in the national data based on cohort savings levels and national savings levels, for which there have been in significant declines in savings rates since the 1970's when the Baby Boomer generation first entered the workforce.

Beyond that, he also cites data that supports the claim that Boomers have largely failed to support public policies that maintained critical infrastructure on things like roads, airports, schools and the like, putting future generations at a disadvantage relative to the environment Boomers grew up in, which he claims is sociopathic behavior.

"I don't posit that all Boomers are sociopaths, just that a large fraction of them are," Mr. Gibney said.  "The study done by the National Institutes of Health speculated in the '80s that the consequences [of Boomer behavior] would get worse over time, and I think it has," said Gibney.

Raised in an era of seemingly unending economic prosperity with relatively permissive parents, and the first generation to grow up with a television, Baby Boomers developed an appetite for consumption and a lack of empathy for future generations that has resulted in unfortunate policy decisions, argues Mr. Gibney.

"These things conditioned the Boomers into some pretty unhelpful behaviors and the behaviors as a whole seem sociopathic," he said.

Not surprisingly, he also cites the Boomers' unprecedented divorce rates.  Mr. Gibney told WBUR:

"Prior generations did not divorce frequently, in substantial part because no-fault divorce wasn't around until '69. But the odd thing is that the Boomers actually have higher rates of divorce than even their children at comparable points in the marriage. So their rates of divorce are lower. And that's relevant not because divorce is a moral good or bad, per se, in any given situation, but because one of the key sociopathic indicators is an inability to form a lasting relationship, and I think divorce certainly falls into that category."

To listen to WBUR’s interview with Mr. Gibney, listen below, or visit http://wbur.fm/2mJId1d:

Canada's MacLean's magazine covered it from a non-American perspective, which some have equated to being the equivalent the U.S. magazine Time or Britain's Economist, and that can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2m1nHvK.

"A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America" is an important work because it systematically dismantles many of the claims that Baby Boomers have made for the past several decades.  He also argues that several hallmarks that Boomers have attributed to themselves are simply them taking credit for the work of others.  He notes that it's time that we dispense with this meretricious Baby Boomer rebranding that's gone on.  For example, items Baby Boomers like to give themselves credit for, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not occur because Baby Boomers decided to protest, rather that legislation was passed into law by their parents.  He also notes that Brown v. Board of Education was not decided by 14-year-olds, and that would have been the oldest Baby Boomer at the time.  It was decided by nine old, white men on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Clean Air Act that was passed in 1963. Again, that's not a Boomer victory either.

Although his core thesis is negative, it's probably not completely unexpected.  Gen X has been told by Baby Boomers for its entire existence that there would never, ever be a generation as 'great' as the Baby Boom was (although now we have the Millennial generation which not only outnumbers Baby Boomers, but will eventually surpass them in votes, too).  Gen X was also force-fed Boomer music, movies and television for decades.  But keep in mind that Gen X fought Baby Boomers over our name, as many Boomers wanted to call Generation X (unoriginally) "Baby Busters", but we know how that turned out.  Similarly, Millennials followed the same path and rejected the labels "Gen Y" and "Boomer Babies" for a label that's better suited to them.  As a result, there is deep-seated resentment of the Baby Boomer generation, especially among the generations that follow.  As a result, they don't always write glowing endorsements that Baby Boomers have grown accustomed to.

Forbes does suggest that Gen X seems destined to assume political power in the not-too-distant future due to no other reason than demographic reality (see http://bit.ly/2n1HQ4d for the article), and Politico suggests (see http://politi.co/1K9zu1t for the article) that the country as a whole will likely be better off once Gen X assumes political power in Washington, DC.  But Boomers have been slow to relinquish power, perhaps to ensure that they keep policy benefiting them as long as possible.

Bruce Cannon Gibney does say "I do have hope [for the future]. Young people do seem to embrace an empathetic agenda, up to and including supporting senior entitlements, I think in part because they've been misled about it. They're certainly much more progressive about climate change and civil rights than the Boomers are. So I am hopeful, but it will be some time before they're in control. The Boomers still hold 69% of the House. They're obviously in the White House for some time. Whether that's four more weeks or eight more years remains to be seen. And they control substantial chunks of the judiciary and the administrative state. So we are going to be living in a Boomer America for some time, in part because the policies themselves will carry forward for some time."

March 2, 2017

Pop Culture Reunion: Who's the Boss?

On October 5, 2016, the main cast of the 1980's sitcom "Who's the Boss" reunited 25 years after the show ended in 1992.  The reunion video appears on Time's (relatively) new streaming video service (which launched in September 2016) called the People/Entertainment Weekly Network.  A link to the news can be seen at http://ew.com/article/2016/09/30/whos-boss-ew-reunion/ and the video (and link to it) can be seen below.  The re-united cast dished on one of their show's most iconic episodes, "Samantha's Growing Up". The basic synopsis of that episode was Samantha was growing up fast, only Tony was reluctant to admit it. Reality set in when he had to buy her first bra.  When Samantha was upset over his purchase, Tony asked Angela for her help with shopping for Samantha's first bra.

In the reunion, Tony Danza (Tony Micelli), Judith Light (Angela Robinson Bower), and Alyssa Milano (Samantha "Sam" Micelli) shared how they could only say the word "bra" on broadcast television once at that time because the network censors were still very actively controlling what could (and could not) be said on the show.  Although all of the cast is present, the conversation was dominated by Tony Danza, Judith Light and Alyssa Milano, whereas Danny Pintauro (Jonathan Bower) and Katherine Helmond (Mona Robinson) are a bit quieter, although we don't really know how much was edited out of the final reunion video.  The video clip can be found below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/dTcTYKJy2Zc .

About Who's the Boss?

The title of the show refers to the clear role reversal of the two lead actors, where a woman was the breadwinner and a man (although he was not her husband) stayed at home and took care of the house.  It challenged then-contemporary stereotypes of Italian-American young men as macho and boorish, but wholly ignorant of life outside of urban working-class neighborhoods like Brooklyn where the character Tony was from, whereas Tony was depicted as sensitive, intelligent and domestic with an interest in intellectual pursuits.

The premise of the show was that former major-league baseball player (he was reportedly a second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals) Tony Micelli, who was forced to retire due to a shoulder injury, along with his young daughter Samantha, takes a job as live-in housekeeper at the suburban Fairfield, Connecticut household of advertising exec Angela Bower.  Angela was uptight and obsessed with her work.  But Tony was eager to move his daughter out of crowded Brooklyn, New York, so the gig in Connecticut seemed like a perfect place to raise his daughter.  Tony and Sam had to adjust to their new lives with the Bowers -- Angela, her son Jonathan, and her mother, Mona.  Mona Robinson was Angela's feisty, sexually progressive mother, and Mona dated all kinds of men, from college age to silver-haired CEOs. That portrayal of an "older woman" with an active social and sex life was also unusual for TV at the time.

In terms of sitcoms, Who's the Boss premiered at a time when broadcast TV was still king (1984), which was just before cable (and later, streaming) commanded a growing share of public attention and ratings (and therefore ad dollars), or industry creativity and awards.  As a result, it was somewhat unique because it shares something with true television classics like I Love Lucy which came from an era where TV was only broadcast over the airwaves and was still a relatively new technology.  While Who's the Boss? got mixed reviews from critics, it was a ratings success for ABC, and continued for an impressive eight seasons.

Cast of Who's the Boss?

The cast was also an interesting ensemble.

Tony Danza was a TV sitcom veteran (in addition to being a former professional boxer in real-life), having previously starred in the ABC sitcom Taxi roughly a decade earlier.  Judith Light was a veteran of the stage and of TV soap operas, having been a popular and longstanding cast member (playing character Karen Wolek) on ABC's One Life to Live for a number of years before stepping into primetime TV.  Katherine Helmond was another sitcom vet, having starred on the sitcom Soap among others.

Both of the children in the cast pretty much got their start on "Who's the Boss".  While Alyssa Milano (age 44 as of 2017) continued to work periodically in entertainment, as did Judith Light (age 68 and as of 2017, she regularly appears on Amazon's series Transparent), and Katherine Helmond played recurring characters on both the sitcom Coach and Everybody Loves Raymond, Helmond has since largely retired (she's now age 87), and Tony Danza (age 65) has also unofficially retired, while Danny Pintauro has basically left show business.

Life After Who's The Boss?

A year earlier, former child actor Danny Pintauro announced that he was HIV positive and had been living that way for over 15 years (see http://usat.ly/1KFryBK for more), making him one of a few celebrities along with Charlie Sheen and Magic Johnson to do so.  He broke the news when he told told talk show host Oprah Winfrey that at the advice of his former Who's the Boss? co-star Judith Light, he shared the story with the celebrity tabloid the National Enquirer, which threatened to out him, but instead, he said he felt that the Enquirer's coverage of his news was fair and balanced rather than salacious, and that was mainly because he was forthcoming with his story.   Catch his interview with Oprah for the OWN cable network on YouTube at https://youtu.be/GUCJgQndgGQ for more.

Because Pintauro's diagnosis took place a number of years after medications were developed to effectively treat the HIV virus, his story was quite different from earlier celebrities diagnosed in the late 1970's or early 1980's (think of people like Rock Hudson as the most notable example), and he's now a happily-married gay man, rather than a tragedy.  But he's also avoided staying in show business, preferring to live his adult life outside of the Hollywood spotlight, making him an anomaly among former child stars, which has a sordid history of leaving child-stars-turned-adults devastated with drug/alcohol addiction and ruin, or religious cult membership to give a few examples.

One need look no further than the cast of the 1970's sitcom Diff'rent Strokes as an example, where Dana Plato went from TV star to robbing convenience stores before her untimely death in 1999 at the age of 34.  She wasn't alone.  Her co-star Todd Bridges battled a crack cocaine addiction in his twenties, and the other child co-star Gary Coleman, struggled financially later in life.  In 1989, he successfully sued his parents and business adviser over misappropriation of his assets, only to declare bankruptcy a decade later.  Unfortunately, Gary Coleman died in 2010 at age 42.  But Coleman was also parodied in the Broadway show Avenue Q, which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, and a character presented as Gary Coleman in the show works as the superintendent of the apartment complex where the musical takes place.  In the song "It Sucks to Be Me", he laments his fate.  Initially, the producers intended for Coleman to play himself, but he never showed up to the meeting with them, and subsequently threatened to sue them, although the lawsuit never materialized.  Given the track record of child-stars-gone-bad personified by the cast of Diff'rent Strokes, the fact that Danny Pintauro left show business should be viewed positively.

As for the others in the cast, former child castmate and on-screen pseudo-sister Alyssa Milano is, perhaps due to her age, been one of the more active cast members still working on-screen (aside from Judith Light), but her work has also been more limited by comparison, consisting of  a number of made-for-television movies, guest-star appearances, occasional TV celebrity game-show and daytime talk-show appearances, as well as a few television commercials.

As already noted, Judith Light has likely had the most active acting career after her work on Who’s the Boss?  Having really begun her acting career on Broadway, Judith Light has continued to return to working on the stage, having received several Tony nominations and winning two Tony's (one in 2012 and another in 2013).  She's also played in a variety of different television roles since starring on Who's the Boss, including recurring roles on both the NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and on ABC's Ugly Betty (for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in 2007), and on the short-lived TNT reboot series Dallas.  Most recently, she's been starring as Shelly Pfefferman on Amazon's successful series Transparent, for which she received noms for the Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy, and Critics' Choice Television Award.

Although Tony Danza continued to work on television immediately following the conclusion of Who's the Boss?, mostly in made-for-television movies, and he briefly had his own syndicated daytime talk show known as The Tony Danza Show which ran from 1997-1998, as well as various standalone appearances, his work has been considerably less frequent in the past decade, and the consensus is that he is now semi-officially retired now (he may still work in entertainment occasionally, most likely when his agent brings something of interest to his attention).

As for the sitcom Who's the Boss, I think the reunion episode was cute (there had been previous reunions, but the timing seemed right this time around) and the length was right for an environment where short clips seem all the American attention-span can accommodate.  Whether the the People/Entertainment Weekly Network releases any others remains to be seen.

February 17, 2017

Joy of Sex & Our Bodies, Ourselves Became Huge Bestsellers in the 1970's

In 2011, a surprise hit for the publishing industry was the huge success of an erotic novel (a trilogy, actually) from British author E. L. James called Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sex involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).  Fifty Shades of Grey depicted BDSM as a relatively normal part of the spectrum of human sexuality; all things that were once considered sexual deviation and depravity, even though what truly occurred behind closed doors was never really known.  The book was followed-up with a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey.  While BDSM had its day in the sun thanks largely to Fifty Shades of Grey, in hindsight, the English-speaking world should not have been surprised by any of it.  In fact, over forty years earlier, the publishing world was similarly surprised when another book about sex made the bestseller lists in the UK and in North America for many weeks.

The book was The Joy of Sex, an illustrated sex book (it was written as a sex manual) written by British author Alex Comfort MD PhD (he died in 2000) that was first published in the UK in 1961.  It became a bestseller there, and was then successfully published in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1972.  The Joy of Sex book was very loosely modeled on the cookbook the Joy of Cooking, which in the UK was a culinary how-to book that helped to transform the way most of its readers thought about food.  The very first edition of the Joy of Sex considered sex on moving motorcycles (which is now generally outlawed, mostly due to safety concerns). The original book wrote: "If you have access to a private road, the hazards are yours," counseled the book's ironically surnamed author Dr. Alex Comfort.  Doing it on horseback (also mentioned in the 1972 edition) is also now outlawed in many places.  But the locations were never the point, rather it was that sex is supposed to be enjoyable for those involved, not merely a very dark means of potential or accidental reproduction.

At the time The Joy of Sex book was published, the UK, the US and the Anglo provinces of Canada, Australia (all unlike most other Continental European countries) were still very prudish about sex, perhaps due to outdated Victorian laws still on the books, and because the English/Anglo-American culture never openly discussed sex.  That meant that sex was something that was done (as birth rates in all English-speaking countries prove), yet was certainly never talked about in an open matter.

Yet in the US, The Joy of Sex became a huge bestseller (making the publisher very, very happy), spending 11 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remaining in the top 5 for more than 70 weeks (from 1972–1974).  All told, it spent a total of 343 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  With a publishing success like that, it wasn't surprising that it was followed-up by a sequel called More Joy of Sex.  With the book's discreet cover, its content was divided into what could kind of be described as appetizers, main courses, and special sauces (consistent with the cookbook design for The Joy of Cooking).

The "hairy man" and his female lover from The Joy of Sex book
Because obscenity laws still existed in the UK and US, visual depictions of the act of sex presented some challenges, but the publisher creatively got around that with illustrated drawings, rather than with actual photography, which conveniently avoided potential controversy that might have accompanied explicit photos of people having sex, which could have been considered pornography.  That said, The Joy of Sex emerged around the same time that mainstream pornography was then starting to appear in theaters (at least in the US), including the bestselling movie of all-time (including all non-porn films) Deep Throat, would challenge decades of religious dogma which until then, had largely dominated American society almost without question (catch my post on the mainstreaming of pornography at https://goo.gl/9FG5K for more).

Although Playboy had successfully operated since the 1950's, it initially operated within a very complicated barrage of restrictions and prohibitions in certain local counties, meaning it could operate as long as there weren't local restrictions, but that was ever-changing.  Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its decision on Miller v. California that dramatically narrowed and simplified the definition of obscenity, which resulted in dramatically fewer prosecutions nationwide.  In that case, the definition of obscenity went from being an extremely broad understanding of "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacked "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."  That meant that many serious sex publications were suddenly allowed under the nation’s newer understanding of obscenity laws.

Marilyn Monroe was the centerfold of the 1st
edition of Playboy in December 1953
Note that the 2016 decision for Playboy to eliminate the nude centerfolds it helped popularize didn't last long.  As of February 2017, the publication announced that its nude centerfolds would be back.  Founder Hugh Hefner was critical of the decision, and predicted it wouldn't last, and he was right.  Evidently, in spite of quality articles (really!), that really wasn't enough to sustain the magazine's subscriber base in an era where nudity can be attained free online from virtually anywhere in the U.S.  Buzzfeed covered the reversal at Playboy to feature nudes and did a good job covering that ill-fated decision.  Catch the article at https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimdalrympleii/playboy-is-bringing-back-nude-photos for more.

As noted, because The Joy of Sex was illustrated, rather than with actual photos, it managed to avoid the same kind of scrutiny as actual photography might have.  The illustrations were very graphic, but looking back on them 50 years later is almost comical, with hairstyles better left in the 1960's and bushy pubic areas.  The man in the illustration was heavily bearded; his hair was long, and, and frankly, his hair seemed to be a little greasy, too. His eyelids were usually at half-mast.  He came to be popularly known in the the UK as the "hairy man" and his only slightly-less-hairy female partner (some hipsters are now doing the same thing, so I guess they haven't really learned from their elders' mistakes, even if the porn they consume looks dissimilar to them).

Our Bodies, Ourselves: the feminist alternative
There was also a feminist alternative to The Joy of Sex called Our Bodies, Ourselves which came out around the same time. That book announced on its original jacket that it was By and For Women.  But Our Bodies, Ourselves covered almost all of the same material as The Joy of Sex, just with a slightly different tone, mainly from the female perspective. That book, too, had very similar hand-drawn illustrations of a couple having sex in a series of different positions.  Interestingly, both of these books also explained that everyone was basically bisexual, so it meant that gays and lesbians weren't suddenly being as casually dismissed as society as may have tried to do (so much for Anita Bryant's initially successful, but ultimately failed efforts a few years later … men and women were still having sex with one another in a variety of combinations, no matter what she tried to ban).  This was the world in which kids of the 1970's came of age.  Kids of that era were basically left to figure things out for themselves, with the help of a very, sexually-explicit book (or two).  I later learned that these books had been banned in some parts of the country.  Maybe they could easily be removed from school libraries, but the books could still be found in many public libraries.  And kids did just that.  At least where I grew up.   And, if it wasn't available in our local public library, we could order it via an inter-library loan (ours had it, I checked for myself).

I recall finding a copy of The Joy of Sex at home (or maybe it was More Joy of Sex, I don't recall exactly, it was one of them) as a kid.  But to my surprise, I wasn't punished for finding it, I was actually allowed to read the book in its entirety, by myself, and was told to ask if I had any questions (I could tell they didn't want to do that, but felt obliged to offer that).  I guess if I found a book that someone at home was reading, they really couldn't lecture about my reading it, and not another word was ever mentioned about it.  When we had sex education in school a few years later, I remember thinking that we were kind of short-changed with the stuff we were taught in school because that book had so much more.  In school, we were taught that sex consisted of a man "inserting the penis into the woman’s vagina".  Um, "insert", as if that was a single second in time, and that was it?

Evidently, I lived in an area of the country that was more progressive than some other parts of the country.  Some places (like Utah, or Mississippi or Alabama) were trying to ban these books and some continue to do so in 2017.  They also tried to ban Playboy and/or Penthouse.  And others, like Judy Blume books.  (see my post on her at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/06/tales-of-4th-grade-nothingjudy-blume.html)  Like we kids weren't talking about this stuff openly on our playgrounds?!  And there was always some kid who had moved in from out-of-town, maybe where books were banned, but school kids quickly indoctrinated them on the taboo content, so it didn’t stay secret for long.  This stuff has a way of being shared on the school playgrounds.

I guess many kids of the 1970's had a very similar experience.

See also:

February 14, 2017

Mama's Family: From Network TV Also-Ran to Star of Syndicated TV

During the 1970's, analog broadcast television (and that's pretty much all that existed, as cable and satellite TV wouldn't really appear for more than a decade, and digital wouldn't emerge until the 2000's) was dominated by the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC, all of which were evolved from successful, national radio networks a generation earlier), PBS and in some metropolitan areas, so-called "independent" stations (these often appeared on the UHF channel spectrum, where there was considerable broadcast capacity) which focused mainly on local news programs, occasional local programs and a battery of network television re-runs long before TV Land would even claim the space.

Although News Corp. converted a number of previously "independent" television stations to Fox television in the 1980's, and other networks including Paramount and Warner Brothers followed the same path before bowing out in the late 1990's as a drain they couldn't make work work financially, there was some programming success from independent TV stations, and those shows sometimes went into syndication.  Some examples include the seventies children's program The Magic Garden which originally aired on New York's WPIX (Channel 11), and Sally Jessy Raphael (later shortened to simply Sally) daytime talk show which ran during the 1980's, having begun on the KSDK-TV (Channel 5) NBC affiliate in St. Louis before quickly moving into national syndication.

Broadcast syndication is the licensing of the right to broadcast television programs without going through a broadcast network.  The success of broadcast syndication peaked in the 1970's and 1980's.  Some of the best-known syndicated television shows included various game-shows, among them: Hollywood Squares, Name that Tune, The Gong Show, Wheel of Fortune and others, musical-variety shows starring the likes of Dolly Parton, Andy Williams and Sha Na Na, as well as more traditional TV programming including Jim Henson's The Muppet Show, Mama's Family, which was spun-off from the popular 'The Family' skits that aired on The Carol Burnett Show, as well as Charles in Charge, Silver Spoons, Webster, Too Close for Comfort, and What's Happening!!.

Like Mama's Family, which first began as a series on network television (NBC), some syndicated TV shows saw new life in syndication after being dropped by network television, including 9 to 5, which originally aired on ABC, but was later rebooted for syndicated television distribution, as well as The Nanny which began on CBS and was later run in syndication, principally on the Lifetime cable network.  Mama's Family's subsequent success is impressive since it came in spite of the absence of such famous stars as Carol Burnett, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (the latter two left to star in The Golden Girls, see https://goo.gl/DD3pCP for more).

In addition to game shows and sitcoms, some animated shows ran in syndication, too, including the cartoons Underdog (which started as a network program that ran on NBC), He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Pink Panther.  Meanwhile, syndication also brought us a number of talk-shows, including the most successful late-night talk-show The Arsenio Hall Show, as well as the daytime talk-shows including Sally, Morton Downey, Jr. and Rosie O'Donnell, which had brief periods of impressive ratings and influence; while others, such as Oprah Winfrey and Maury Povich, had a much more sustained run.

As already noted, one of syndicated broadcast television's more popular programs was Mama's Family, which had its origins as a popular skit called The Family that ran on The Carol Burnett Show.  That program had a brief run on network television (NBC), but was even more successful in syndication.  First-run syndication in the 1970’s made it possible for some shows that were no longer wanted by TV networks to remain on the air.  The syndicated version of Mama's Family garnered substantially higher ratings than did its network version, eventually becoming the highest-rated sitcom in first-run syndication.  Set in the fictitious southern town of Raytown, many have speculated it could be Raytown, Missouri, but that town is in Kansas City suburbs, not the rural Ozarks locale on the Arkansas border that is most likely the Raytown of the show.  Its never stated in the show itself, leaving it up to the viewers to decide.

The Me-TV network featured a 30-second story/summary of Mama’s Family which can be viewed below, or at https://youtu.be/CeL1YkgKp3o:

In 2016, after a several-year hiatus from cable and broadcast television (in most markets, anyway), reruns of Mama's Family returned to television.  As of 2017, the show was airing on Me-TV as well as MTV's Logo cable network.  Also, in 2013, the entire series of Mama's Family (both its network seasons 1 and 2 which originally aired on NBC, and the subsequent reboot in syndication) was released on DVD.  Previously, only Season 1 had been released on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video, but DVD releases of all subsequent seasons were delayed, as various legal entanglements kept the remainder of series from being released on DVD.  Those issues were finally resolved in late 2012, and resulted in the series being released by mail order initially, and subsequently retail distribution.  The mail order DVD series had some cast reunions (at least the cast from the syndicated iteration of the show, including regulars Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman) from the syndicated iteration, but excluded Vinton 'Buzz' Harper, Jr. (played by Eric Brown) and Sonja Harper (played by Karin Argoud)  The syndicated iteration of the show included the delinquent grandson from Thelma Harper's daughter Eunice and her husband Ed Higgins named Bubba (played by Allan Kayser), and also included prissy neighbor Iola Boylen (played by Beverly Archer).  One of those reunions can be seen at https://youtu.be/7btllhE33mg:

Me-TV's website also has an entertaining personality test which asks users a series of questions about which character from all of Mama's Family is most like you.  Visit that at https://www.metv.com/quiz/which-mamas-family-member-are-you to take the quiz.

January 25, 2017

Linda Ronstadt: Voice Silenced Due to Health

In 2013, the smooth-voiced singer Linda Ronstadt, who racked up an impressive 11 Grammy awards, 2 Academy of Country Music awards and an Emmy award during her lengthy recording career, revealed that she had Parkinson's Disease, which meant that she, in her own words, "can't sing a note" anymore.  Both AARP interviewed her at http://bit.ly/2cCqiaD and People magazine interviewed her at http://bit.ly/2cBC3JJ which are worth reading.  Evidently, the Parkinson's Disease has also impaired her daily movement, but she said that she can still get around, although certainly not like she used to.

With a recording career that spanned rock, pop, country and everything in between, Linda Ronstadt really did not belong in a single musical genre, only what her voice could accomplish.  Indeed, few pop singers have been as successful, as durable, and as wide-ranging as Linda Ronstadt.  She began her career back in the 1960's in a band called the Stone Poneys, and one of her best-known songs "Different Drum" came from her time there.  Below is a recording of Ms. Ronstadt performing one of her songs with the band in the late 1960's (there is an "official" Vevo video of a live performance on YouTube, but I actually like the sound of this version a little better).  Watch below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/ZhtnB6kSCyA:

Ms. Ronstadt is a music-biz anomaly for many reasons.  For one thing, she grew up on a ranch in the Arizona desert near Tucson, but she is part Mexican even though she speaks (and formerly sang) English perfectly.  Indeed, as a child she grew up with Spanish-language music that her grandfather taught her, although few would mistake Ms. Ronstadt as a Mexican immigrant.  She also spanned musical genres years before others did (I've talked about country cross-over artists before, check the archives for details).  For example, anyone who thinks Taylor Swift is unique because she began in country before moving to rock likely doesn't know Linda Ronstadt, even if they know her famous music.  The former songstress has collaborated with some of Nashville’s best-known recording artists, including her friend Dolly Parton.

Ms. Ronstadt also released a memoir in 2013, reflecting on her long music career.  NPR's Terry Gross, who is the host of the program Fresh Air spoke with Linda Ronstadt, which can be listed to below or at the following link:  http://www.npr.org/2013/09/17/223172521/in-memoir-linda-ronstadt-describes-her-simple-dreams.

Similarly, WNYC's Studio 360 interviewed Linda Ronstadt in August 2014, well after her public disclosure of her Parkinson's Disease diagnosis, which can be listened to below, or by visiting: http://www.wnyc.org/story/linda-ronstandts-curtain-call/.

Finally, NPR's popular Diane Rehm show interviewed Linda Ronstadt in July 2014, around the time her new book was published.  Although I cannot embed that interview, the link can be found at: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-07-29/singer-linda-ronstadt-her-life-music.

Although Ms. Ronstadt's voice has been silenced because of her health, her impressive library of recorded music will remain with us.  If you aren't already familiar with her music, now would be a great time to discover her musical library!

January 19, 2017

Odd Way Race Was Depicted in the 1970's

For most of TV's history, the images on screen were anything but diverse.  Instead, TV reflected a depiction of the U.S. as an almost exclusively Caucasian-American, heterosexual, Christian population (in spite of the fact that most of the industry's most important executives were Jewish).  But following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became clear that either they started depicting people outside of that narrow population (usually, that meant including African-Americans) or it might be imposed upon them by lawmakers or the courts.  This meant that people who grew up in the 1970's were the first generation of people to grow up in this "new" world.

The cover of a Ginn basic reader circa 1973
It wasn't just Hollywood, even publishers of grade-school textbooks faced the reality that the U.S. was never truly as white as they'd portrayed it to be, so the readers used in grade-schools across the country suddenly faced revisions to accommodate reality as it actually was, rather than as some racists wanted it to be.  Most notably, that meant the inclusion of African-Americans in the dialogue and illustrations, although far less of smaller demographic minority populations at the time, including Hispanics, Asians, Hawaiians, Native Americans and certainly no sexual minorities.  Of course, those groups did not include a legacy of slavery as was the case with Southern blacks.  Ironically, in many parts of the country, "integration" as it came to be known at the time was largely something that was talked about, but didn't really exist except in conversation because many Americans had self-segregated themselves by living near people who looked like them, worshiped as they did, and thought like they did.  But integration had to start someplace.  The problem was that publishers and TV execs did not exactly "embrace" integration in the beginning, rather they stumbled into it.  That meant that kids growing up during that era were seeing failed integration experiments in person.

Some of my favorite examples were the late-1960's to mid-1970's TV sitcoms.  For example, in early in 1970, the sitcom Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery was at the top of the ratings (catch one of my posts about that sitcom at https://goo.gl/olfrdW for more).  The show featured a husband Darrin Stephens and his stay-at-home, witch-turned-wife Samantha and their daughter Tabitha (they added a son Adam towards the end of the show).  The show also featured regulars including Samantha's meddling mother Endora (played by Agnes Moorehead), and occasionally others including her uncle Arthur, portrayed by gay actor Paul Lynde, Darrin's boss Larry Tate (played by David White) as well as nosey neighbor Gladys Kravitz, and Larry Tate's wife Louise, and a few others.  Although the replacement of actor Dick York who played Darrin Stephens with another actor Dick Sargeant (who like Paul Lynde was a gay actor) got the biggest headlines, the show replaced other recurring characters with different talent, including the actress who played Gladys Kravitz, originally played by Alice Pearce, but following her death, the role was played by Sandra Gould, and also the replacement of  character Louise Tate from actress Irene Vernon subsequently with Kasey Rogers.  Note that a 1980's sitcom, The Golden Girls acknowledged the character-switching.  In season 2, episode 24 "To Catch a Neighbor", the character Sophia (played by Estelle Getty),  has a dialogue in which she tells her daugher Dorothy that she's going to their criminal neighbor's house because they need her experience, noting that she's lived through "two world wars, 15 vendettas, 4 operations and 2 Darrin's on Bewitched".

From my perspective, I think its appropriate to acknowledge how race was addressed on television in the years that followed the late 1960's civil rights battles (including such notable U.S. Supreme Court victories as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Loving v. Virginia).  While those legal issues may have been resolved, public acceptance among many still lagged the Courts, and continue to this day.

The origins of the Bewitched episode "Sisters At Heart" show were actually quite noble.  Actress Elizabeth Montgomery and her then-husband/producer William Asher had visited a Los Angeles area high school Thomas Jefferson High. It was early in 1970 and they were touched by the plight of the students at that school, especially the minority students, some of whom they stayed in touch with through their graduations.  Because of that interaction, they also took an idea that the students themselves came up with, and turned it into an episode of Bewitched.  Elizabeth Montgomery even gave a special message to the audience before the show including acknowledgement of the show's sponsor Oscar Mayer.

The episode originally aired on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1970, and yet these days, you might legitimately wonder how the episode ever made it on the air.  The episode was called "Sisters At Heart" began with Tabitha introducing her friend (who is African-American) and McMahon-Tate wanting to entertain a new client. The client wants to investigate the home life of the people he's working with. The client also happens to be a racist. Tabitha and her friend declare themselves as "sisters" and the African-American child answers the door when the client enters. The client assumes that Darrin Stevens has a black child. Tabitha's friend then tells the client that she has a white sister.  After the meeting, Tabitha tries to rationalize how they could be sisters. First, Tabitha makes both girls white.  Then she makes them both black, but remember, she's a child who hasn't mastered the art of "wishcraft" yet.  She finally tries again and they both end up polka-dotted with the other girl's skin color as dots.

In 1970, rather than generating an outcry for showing blackface on network television, the show was actually awarded a special Emmy. These days, some would likely completely lose it if actors appeared in blackface on national television regardless of the reason.  But "Sisters At Heart" now stands as a rather unique piece of television history.  Indeed, the late Elizabeth Montgomery stated this was one of her favorite episodes of Bewitched.

But the episode stands out for another reason in my mind.  The fact that the African-American characters are never seen again on the show, not even the character Keith Wilson (played by actor Don Marshall), who supposedly worked at McMann-Tate, the advertising firm where Darrin is employed, nor is daughter Lisa Wilson (played by Venetta Rogers) ever seen again.

It wasn't only Bewitched that stumbled on the race issue in the 1970's with odd, one-off depictions of characters who are never mentioned again, many other TV series did things in a very similar way.  Only legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear, who began with the smash hit All In the Family, really included some of the first African-Americans (others featured black cast members, even if those weren't always regular cast members).  Mr. Lear pushed the proverbial racial envelope even further in subsequent years with several hit sitcoms featuring African-American casts, including Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times.  The Jeffersons, in particular, was among the most popular, running for an impressive 11 seasons, making it one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of American television.

Although content rights come and go, for the time-being the "Sisters at Heart" episode can be seen at http://dai.ly/x2q5030, or below:

Bewitched S07 E13 - Sisters at Heart

December 21, 2016

Bye Bye, Darling. Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor.

On December 18, 2016, we lost celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor (see her obituary at http://lat.ms/2hJBnpL, note that she changed her name from Sari to Zsa Zsa), a Hungarian-American celebrity, who began her celebrity existence with a title of Miss Hungary in 1936.  In  1941, shortly before the Russians installed a puppet government in Hungary in 1943, her family fled the country and ultimately ended up in the U.S.  Her parents were both of Jewish ancestry (although they were reportedly not adherent to their faith), necessitating their immigration from Europe in World War II.  She was the last of the three famous Gabor sisters to die: her sisters were Magda and Eva, each of whom became celebrities in their own right.  Zsa Zsa was considered the epitome of twentieth-century glamour and celebrity, but it's the twenty-first century now, and Zsa Zsa's later years were not especially kind to her.  Her famous catch-phrase was to call everyone "darling" in her distinctive Hungarian accent (which came out "dah-link"), usually because she had forgotten or never bothered to learn their names (often because of alcohol-induced intoxication).

A 1958 movie ad for one of the films that featured Zsa Zsa Gabor
Zsa Zsa's older sister was Magda Gabor, and she was perhaps the least famous of the three Gabor sisters (she passed away in 1997), and her younger sister was Eva Gabor (and considered to be the nicest and perhaps most talented of the Gabor sisters, perhaps best known for her TV role as Lisa Douglas on the late 1960's TV sitcom Green Acres and vocal talents as Miss Bianca in Walt Disney's 1977 animated movie The Rescuers, and she also operated a very successful wig business; but she passed away in 1995).

What was the Gabor's appeal?

A photo of a younger Zsa Zsa Gabor
First of all, as movies and photos from the 1950's era attest, the Gabor sisters were attractive (and they all worked very hard at being beautiful — one of her many ex's [Mr. Hilton's] chief complaints about Zsa Zsa Gabor was that it could take her several hours to get ready just to go out someplace).  But the Gabor sisters were perhaps the first generation of people who were more famous for being famous, rather than because of any innate talent or skill.  (see an A&E movie at https://youtu.be/_ItYkQ0Cfmg)

Zsa Zsa was more famous for her off-screen antics than for her entertainment talents.  She was married  nine times, and her only child Francesca resulted from her marriage to the late hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (Francesca died at the age of 67 in January 2015).  In Zsa Zsa Gabor's 1991 memoir "One Lifetime Is Not Enough", she claimed the baby had been conceived after she was allegedly raped by the hotel tycoon.  But her marriage to Mr. Hilton was also reported to be one of her only marriages that was not for love, but for money, so we may never really know.

In 1989, Zsa Zsa (in)famously slapped a Beverly Hills police officer in the face and yelled vulgar obscenities at him from her Rolls Royce, and she even spent some time in prison for that incident.  The judge stated that she already had a prior criminal record, adding that Ms. Gabor had been convicted in Britain of hitting another police officer with her purse, and was fined $5,000 for that incident.

Zsa Zsa & then-husband Conrad Hilton sometime in the 1950's
In 1991, Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared on daytime talk-show The Phil Donahue Show to promote her then-new autobiography, which we know was ghost-written on her behalf.  But by that time, it was really a tell-all about her many lovers and marriages.  She denied sleeping with them all, and often joked about never sleeping with a man unless he agreed to marry her first.  That is on YouTube below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/Wj5sOfWZbtM.

In 1994, she and TV talk-show host David Letterman drove around Los Angeles stopping at different fast food joints (see a clip at https://youtu.be/fEn8QdI8-24 for more), which kind of epitomized her self-mocking celebrity humor, especially in her later days.

Zsa Zsa Gabor did have some legitimate 'acting' credits (although mostly cameo appearances) to her name, having appeared in some 40+ films, including both American and European films, starring as herself in the movie A Very Brady Sequel in 1993, as well as a number television movies and TV shows (including an appearance on the sitcom Gilligan's Island in 1965, on Batman in 1968, as a cast-member on the soap opera As the World Turns in 1981 and on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 to name a few, see more by visiting http://bit.ly/2hSVVMr).  Perhaps her most famous acting credit was for the original 1952 film production of Moulin Rouge.  But she was never considered true, Oscar-worthy acting talent, and to her credit, she often parodied herself in some movie and TV appearances.  According to her longtime publicist, the official cause of her death was heart failure, but TMZ reported that she had a heart attack.

An older, frailer Zsa Zsa Gabor in more recent years
At the time of her death, Zsa Zsa Gabor herself was reportedly age 99 (we now know her actual date of birth was February 6, 1917), although throughout her life, she routinely lied about her true age, so the public was always left to speculate about her real age.  But we know that prior to her death, she had been in a steadily declining state of health.  She suffered head and other injuries which left her in a wheelchair, and then suffered a stroke in 2005.  In 2010, she underwent hip-replacement surgery, but in 2011, her right leg was amputated above the knee in order to save her life from an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Whether Zsa Zsa Gabor will be remembered for much outside of her narcissistic, gold-digging behavior will only be seen over time.  But while she was alive, she certainly made a name for herself, and lived her life to the fullest.

December 3, 2016

Jell-O: A Processed Food Icon Struggles to Retain It's Relevance in the 21st Century

As recently as the mid-1980's, Jell-O was one of the twentieth-century's biggest, supermarket food brands and was still a very common staple in many American homes (the top-selling gelatin brand was Jell-O, although rival brands popped up including Royal which is now part of the Jel Sert Corporation's offerings after changing hands a few times, as well as various store brands and a few now-defunct brands, such as Boston Crystal Gelatine, circa 1910 also existed).  Gelatin sold in the U.S. is a coagulated protein/collagen substance (that usually comes from cow and pig hooves and bones, which otherwise would have been a discarded byproduct of meat production).  But as a processed food, the cooking element comes when people add fruit or other ingredients to powdered gelatin mixes along with boiling water.  In addition to fruits like pears, oranges, peaches, etc., and people soon discovered that various other types of foods like olives, peas, carrots, celery, tomatoes, radishes, onions, tunafish, shrimp ... pretty much any food you could imagine, could become encased in Jell-O!  Hence, the Jell-O "salad" was the embodiment of this.

Origins of Jell-O

Jell-O's origins actually began just before the twentieth century began.  In 1845, Peter Cooper dabbled with and patented a product which was "set" with gelatin. Suffice it to say, it never really "jelled" with the American public. Then, in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in the small town of LeRoy, New York was making a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatin and came up with a fruit-flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. He tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.  The product, and the brand, changed hands a number of times more, before becoming a stand-alone company.  But around 1902 or so, ads for Jell-O began appearing in publications like Ladies Home Journal magazine.

Around that time, the product changed from being a hand-packaged business to a highly-mechanized factory, and at that time became one of LeRoy, New York's most important industries.  In 1964, Jell-O left its upstate New York hometown to make its way in the wider world.  Now, Jell-O brand gelatin is reportedly manufactured by Kraft in a plant in Dover, Delaware as of 2015.  A Jell-O Museum still exists in Jell-O's hometown of LeRoy, a few minutes off of the New York State Thruway but that's pretty much all that remains there aside from a few boxes of Jell-O sold in the local stores.  But the company's unique advertising and merchandising breakthroughs developed a phenomenal record for this product.  On December 31, 1925 the Jell-O Company, Inc. was sold to what was then known as the acquisition-crazy Postum Cereal Company, Inc. by exchange of stock, thereby becoming the first subsidiary of a merger that would eventually become General Foods Corporation, which would later be merged with Kraft by tobacco company owners at Philip Morris and then, later, spun off as Kraft Foods, only to be merged with Heinz foods in a merger orchestrated by private equity managers.

Utah's Peculiar Role

Strangely, gelatin desserts are especially popular in the state of Utah (see HERE for more, or listen to the NPR program State of the Re:Union's Season 4 Utah episode, and a short clip about Jell-O at HERE and HERE for more).  Utah food culture, if one can call it that, can basically be dubbed Mormon cuisine.  One of the reasons for its popularity in there is because gelatin salads are relatively cheap to make, and homemakers are able to make them colorful and interesting as a way of brightening up the dinner table – it's a way to be creative on a budget.  It may well be that's a reason Jell-O remains so popular in Utah, since that state is more religiously homogeneous than most other states, and has a great deal of Latter Day Saints' (LDS) activities like church potluck suppers that drive the product's usage there.

According to a 2001 article in The Atlantic (see http://theatln.tc/2jdH0vS for the article), the love of Jell-O resonates so deeply there that in 2001, Utah narrowly beat out Iowa in annual Jell-O consumption, when state officials elected Jell-O as the official state snack and even named Bill Cosby, who was the brand's longstanding spokesman back in the 1980's, as an honorary Utah citizen (this was likely before Mr. Cosby's sex abuse scandals became common knowledge).

A Packaged Food Giant Emerges

Jell-O's development mirrors the beginning of one of American packaged foods' giants.  Along with that business came some very effective marketing of the product itself.  As noted, by the 1950's, American homemakers were eagerly buying processed foods to save themselves hours of prep time in the kitchen.  It was viewed at that time as modern convenience and a way of improving one's life by making the laborious task of cooking a bit easier.

Processed foods now constitute, plus or minus, about 70% of what most Americans eat.  In recent years, the term "processed food" has become a synonym for unhealthy foods, often junk foods.  To some degree, that's true.  However, virtually ALL of of the food and drink we consume is processed to some extent.  Any alteration to foods, including cooking, is a process; hence, in the modern diet, it's nearly impossible to find someone who consumes a wholly unprocessed diet.  In addition, many foods when unprocessed are simply unpalatable and/or indigestible.

But there are various degrees of food processing, ranging from minimally-processed foods (such as dried beans, fresh baby carrots, a carton of milk or a head of lettuce one buys in the produce aisle at the supermarket) to ultra-processed (such as cookies, dried pasta, chicken nuggets, for example).  Typically, the more processed a food, the less nutritious it becomes.  Most highly-processed foods are characterized as having very high energy density (packing lots of calories in small volumes of food), low in vitamins and other nutrition and their consumption is usually aided by extensive ad campaigns. Ultra-processed foods are also usually confectioned out of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients.  Their over-consumption has been associated with obesity and various other ailments worldwide.  Some processed foods have even been described as 'edible, food-like substances' since they actually contain ingredients which are edible, but aren't really food!  For example, the Twinkie dessert cake (see http://goo.gl/RUlww7 for my post on that), contains ingredients which are actually MINED, not grown or farmed as one might expect just to provide one example (see http://www.twinkiedeconstructed.com/ for more information)!

Processing food in itself is not really the problem that is faced by public health experts; rather it is the degree of processing and the displacement of otherwise nutritious ingredients with less-than-nutritious or even harmful ingredients instead, sometimes to an extensive or even exclusive degree (usually by adding a lot of salt, sugar and fat), that concerns public health professionals.

Regardless, as noted, food processing was not always seen as the pariah it is today.  Following World War II, food processing was rightly viewed by housewives of the day as a big time-saving miracle, and it did make many housewives' lives vastly easier.

I've written about various food products, such as Pillsbury Space Food Sticks (see my post at http://goo.gl/mq56s4), and cereal (see http://goo.gl/m8wpb0) in the past.  However, as I've written in some of my other posts on food (catch my post on the "Dead Celebrity Cookbook" at http://goo.gl/50BQEh), once upon a time, a majority of Americans ate meals they (or someone in their household) actually cooked for themselves, rather than simply reheated already-prepared food in a microwave oven, in a skillet, ordered for delivery, or took prepared food home from their local supermarket, or any variation of this theme.

Today, cooking is something that many people watch celebrity chefs do on TV (and occasionally amateurs who have considerably less skills in the kitchen, just ask anyone who's ever watched Worst Cooks in America on Food Network if you need proof), but don't do much of themselves.  It's not that Americans can't cook, it's that our busy lifestyles make it far less practical today, combined with the convenience of buying something that's ready to simply heat up.  While celebrities cooking was probably more of a publicity ploy back in the 1950's through the 1970's, historically, that responsibility often fell on the stay-at-home housewives who cared for the home, children and made sure meals were on the table for their husbands when they came home from work.

But that whole idea of gender-specific roles went out the window in the 1970's, when a combination of factors including stagflation resulted in a mass of women entering the workforce not necessarily by choice, but by economic necessity, plus widespread divorce that impacted Generation X, and the women's lib(eration) movement, all of which pretty much made stay-at-home housewives an anachronism of days long passed (check out my post about a woman who gave modern feminism one of its anthems at http://goo.gl/cYgDPF).  Some tried to follow it as closely as they could, but the American family of that era more resembled One Day at a Time's Ann Romano's family (see my post on her at http://goo.gl/DSznq) more than it did Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver's 1950's idealized version.

Jell-O: A Miracle of Processed Foods

All of this brings me back to my topic du jour: the food product many of us know by the brand name Jell-O.  As already noted, there are/were competitors, including Royal gelatin and My*T*Fine puddings, both of which are now made by The Jel Sert Company, as well as many generic store brands, and as I'll note later in this post, even Kosher (and also halal) and vegan/vegetarian versions of the product) aren't very easy to find.  But Jell-O pretty much set all the standards by which all competitors followed, at least in the last century.

As noted, Jell-O has a long history in the U.S., having been introduced back in 1845, and it was one of the most successful processed, packaged foods sold from the 1950's through the 1970's.  My own great grandfather once ran (his part ended in 1926) one of the many companies General Foods had acquired over the years.  General Foods as it was known for a number of years and would later become part of what is now known as Kraft (a spinoff called Modelez International separated the massive baked goods and cracker/cookie business including Nabisco), although General Foods itself was considered one of the best U.S. consumer goods marketers in the post-WW II era.

General Foods Corporation's logos
In many important respects, General Foods' marketing was superior to even Kraft's.  General Foods (as noted above, was known at one point as the Postum Cereal Company before taking the General Foods' name, which would later be sold off; today the cereal business persists and is known as a stand-alone company called Post Cereals) used creative recipes to market its products, and quite successfully I might add, catch my cereal post at http://goo.gl/m8wpb0 for some more examples).

Michigan State University Library has an interesting, scanned document called "Jell-O Gelatin's Hostess Guide" which was published in 1967. They describe it as follows:  "There are 38 cards in this collection. The first card has the title on the front panel and the table of contents on the back. The remaining cards have a description of the party or event for which one is preparing a meal, and the back panels have recipes."

Visit https://www.lib.msu.edu/exhibits/sliker/detail.jsp?id=1802 to have a look.

They also have an Adobe Acrobat version which can be downloaded at:


All of this demonstrates some of the General Foods' innovation in reaching consumers in the late 1960's.  Note that this was a recipe-card sized booklet that could be distributed in supermarkets, but enabled homemakers to retain the cards in their recipe files, as many did (and still do), as the 3x5 cards are easy for a cook to refer to as they assemble the ingredients in a recipe.

Ladies magazines of the day (think of titles like "Ladies Home Journal" and "Good Housekeeping" just to name a few, for more see https://goo.gl/xqqBNn for details) featured various recipes for using the processed food products -- initially in articles, then later in advertising inserts, while supermarkets often featured free recipe cards near the products themselves in racks found in the aisles of the stores and maybe even product demonstrations in stores (today, retailers like Costco still deploy this).

The company's many recipes were featured in newspapers, magazines and sent via direct mail.  I won't bore you with a long company history, although you can catch a few relevant pieces of its lengthy history HERE and HERE and HERE or https://www.scribd.com/doc/248082864/General-Foods-Corporate-Timeline in case you're curious.

As already noted, General Foods was previously considered, along with several other companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg, and Unilever, as a master marketer and a king of the supermarket aisles.  Even today, a number of the company's drink mixes remain on the market and are still being sold by Kraft including Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and Maxwell House Coffee remains a marquee brand for the company.

Other big General Foods' brands include Minute Rice (and Minute Tapioca, where the brand name originated), and Jell-O gelatins and puddings endure under Kraft ownership, although other products have morphed over the years.  For example, Dream Whip instant whipped topping mixes, Kool-Aid and Crystal Light drink mixes are still sold by Kraft largely in their original formats, as are Cool Whip frozen dessert toppings, Stove Top instant stuffing and others.  But the company discontinued brands such as D-Zerta sugar-free dessert mixes (re-branding them as sugar-free Jell-O, which was probably a good idea).  Other brands that company created still exist today, even though they're not necessarily under the same corporate umbrella anymore.  These include Grape Nuts, Alpha Bits, Honeycomb, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereals, and Birdseye frozen vegetables to name a few.

To understand the reason for their marketing success, just imagine all the time-savings all of those modern, processed foods provided for a housewife of the day.  Instead of cooking for hours, they could cook a meal in considerably less time (remember, this was at least 25 years before the microwave oven would be introduced).  It's little wonder why General Foods was so incredibly popular (and successful) back in the day.  Alas, all of that kind of ended when women had more to do than just prepare meals for the family; they actually had to bring home the bacon, too.  Their priorities shifted.  To be sure, Kraft has been pretty good at identifying trends and adapting to them for the times.  For example, back in the 1990's, the company recognized hardly anyone was still at home cooking anymore, so they repackaged prepared Jell-O gelatin and puddings into refrigerated items people could buy for consumption at home already-made; today the company sells products like prepared Jell-O gelatin and pudding cups which can typically be found in the dairy aisle of supermarkets in the U.S..  The Jell-O brand endures largely because of those innovations or migrations from the company.

The Wonders of Processed Foods in Your Kitchen, With Help from General Foods' Chefs

1959 General Foods Kitchens Cookbook
As noted, from their marketing machine of the 1950's through the 1970's, the company employed a large team of chefs who were tasked with developing recipes that people could make using General Foods' large portfolio of processed foods.  That era was really known for "better living through chemistry", with new and inventive processed foods that were convenient to use.  In 1959, the company even published a hardcover cookbook entitled "General Foods Kitchens Cookbook".  General Foods took full advantage of this, and the company developed hundreds of (or more) recipes for suburban housewives to show off their culinary skills while stretching their family's food budget. While some of these recipes were actually quite good; others deservedly belong in the culinary trash heap of history.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the less memorable aspects of Jell-O.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the Jell-O mold, one of the biggest creations of the brand that endures, albeit not at the same level it once enjoyed.  To be sure, some people still regularly make Jell-O molds (Does your local Tupperware dealer sell them anymore?  What, no Tupperware dealer?!  Welcome to 2016!), and these tend to be desserts or sweetened side-dishes rather than the meals themselves.  But some did try to change that paradigm, by creating "meal" recipes out of gelatin.  There are some, let's just call them, questionable (gross?) variations of this theme, including a 1938 recipe for Sauerkraut Jell-O, which can be found in print in the cookbook "Mama's in the Kitchen: Weird and Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950" if you're really interested, but if you visit http://goo.gl/Bbj5XS someone has saved you the trouble of getting the actual cookbook from where this recipe was found, plus the recipe was reduced in size (its better to sample this recipe first before making enough to feed an army!).  This points to a broader vision of using processed foods like Jell-O to make the household chore of cooking for one's family easier.

At its extreme, just imagine that back in the 1950's and 1960's, when supermarket shoppers could actually buy vegetable-flavored gelatin mixes!!  Jell-O flavors like celery, seasoned tomato and mixed vegetable were on sold on store shelves across America.  These weren't just desserts, they were meant to be part of the meals themselves!  They were molded Jell-O salads that featured fish or meats, vegetables, etc., although the recipes sometimes contained the term aspic rather than Jell-O or gelatin.  Modern variations use the term too, and often rely on Knox unflavored gelatin rather than sweetened, fruit-flavored varieties commonly sold today.

Today, while a few original Jell-O flavors remain (lime, for example), many other flavors have largely come and gone, although they may remain in certain geographic areas.  As noted, remember that plain Knox gelatin mix remains on the market and the cook can add whatever flavors they might imagine, including celery if that floats their boat.  A few, like pistachio Jell-O pudding mixes are still around, although even those are harder to find on supermarket shelves nowadays (many only carry vanilla and chocolate and those may even be the retailers' own store-brands), although creative chefs can find the products available for sale online and mailed to them, that takes time and you usually pay for shipping, too.  Not all of the original products remain; for example, D-Zerta sugar-free whipped topping mix, which was a non-dairy dessert topping (at least before assembly by the cook) that someone could make at home (it was also made with gelatin as a main ingredient) are no longer sold, although the sugar-laden variety known as Dream Whip remains on the market.  Enterprising cooks have created their own versions of these products (see http://goo.gl/Z5CyG5 for example) and some are quite good, but the idea of using processed foods to save time does kind of go out the window when one has to recreate the processed food products used in various recipes at home.

These days. Jell-O has some major problems of its own.  In 2012, an article entitled "Jell-O can't stop slippery sales slide" pretty much summarized the situation (see it on CNBC at http://ow.ly/B67y306MyWM for more).  It simply isn't as popular as it once was, and the assembly part of the product required of the cook is a big reason.  True, ready-made varieties of Jell-O gelatin and puddings (such as Jell-O Temptations) sold in the dairy aisle are out there and seem to be doing reasonably well, but the classic boxes of powdered Jell-O gelatin and pudding mixes on the supermarket shelves tend to be more slow-moving in today's era.  Also, the ingredients are full of many of the things modern shoppers try to avoid, including a cheap alternative to sugar called high-fructose corn syrup which surveys show shoppers would rather avoid, as well as bright, artificial colors which are another thing shoppers would prefer not to be in their food.

As the article noted: "Part of the problem is that people have become more finicky about what they eat. They're increasingly seeking out foods they think are natural or wholesome, and Jell-O's bright reds, greens and blues may inadvertently serve as warning signals to moms about the artificial dyes they contain." The second ingredient listed for the prepared Jell-O gelatin cups is also high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sugar substitute that more and more people are shunning, so their marketing machine may still be asleep at the wheel!

Nutrition more broadly is another issue. Jell-O has long positioned itself as a "lighter" alternative to cakes and pies (as one slogan went, "There's always room for Jell-O"). But the trend now is toward foods that claim some sort of benefit, such as protein and fiber.

The article notes: "Even for those who have fond memories of eating Jell-O, the problem is just that — it's a treat associated with the past."

Whether Kraft (which merged with Heinz), now divested of many products including the big portfolio of Nabisco cookies and crackers (spun off to a new company called Mondelez, noted above) that dominated so much of its marketing budget for years can turn things around remains to be seen.  To be sure, bloggers using unflavored Knox gelatin have emerged online and I would think Kraft should be encouraging more of such activity (though Knox is not in Kraft's list of brands anymore), but turning Jell-O into a trendy product when so many people still associate it with Bill Cosby who hasn't endorsed the product in years is yet another challenge for the brand.

Today, some enterprising 21st century people went through their grandmother's old recipes (many came directly from the companies, including inserts found in magazines or even microwave ovens of the day) and made cookbooks from stuff housewives once got for free.  I'll bet they never dreamed their great granddaughters would be able to sell this stuff, but they are doing it now.

Some of the most humorous food inventions from those days are actually kind of vile.  Check out some photos of ads from Jell-O in the post below, or at https://flic.kr/s/aHskPPayoG:

Odd Jell-O Salads

It's logical to ask why would someone would want to put vegetables and canned foods (Shrimp? Spam?  Yep ... they were all in Jell-O recipes back in the day) in gelatin nowadays?  It seems a bit of a stretch.  Although a number of bloggers have gone on record having tried some if not all of the recipes they uncovered from a generation ago.  My personal favorites are the cookbook entitled "Hello, Jell-O!" and "Jell-O: A Biography - The History and Mystery of America's Most Famous Dessert", with the latter one being more of a history book than a recipe book, and almost all are sweetened recipes for Jell-O rather than using the product in other ways.  Each has their merits, but for those simply not into eating gelatin, the history book might be the better choice.  Check them out at your public library.

With all of this in mind, if you adhere to a Kosher (similar to halal) diet which requires that the gelatin be made from an animal collagen other than pork (so beef gelatin can be Kosher, even if its not vegetarian), or you're a vegetarian or vegan (by the way, there ARE variations of gelatin made from plants, usually referred to as agar powder, which is actually made from seaweed, but getting those things may cost you, and the consistency [and preparation]), gelatin options may not be exactly the same and aren't sold by Kraft.  Some natural food purveyors do sell these alternatives.  But if Kraft is really serious about taking the brand into the 21st century, they might look at selling, Kosher, halal, vegan and vegetarian versions of the product, knowing that the old, 19th century versions are now having more trouble finding consumers, even if they are still popular in Utah.  But for a brand that once sold salad-flavored gelatins (including tomato, mixed vegetable and celery flavors), I would think such innovations really shouldn't be especially problematic, but what do I know?