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Monday, May 10, 2021

What Early 20th Century Boys Chose First

 


Memories of When Everything Seemed New


Have lately daydreamed I was born around 1900, illusion aided by writings of several who were. All are gone of course, but they sure bring that past alive, nearly to a point of my being able to share it with them. Passage of time, effects of change, weighed heaviest on folks who took a twentieth century's ride, in a saddle, or rumble seat, eventually aboard a plane for many, but not all. My father (b. 1907), sat astride Dobbin, made the whole of 32 miles from Statesville to here. Bet he never saw pavement for whole of the trip. Imagine mounting a horse today for anything other than novelty, or sport. As means for necessary travel, I’d say the Dobbins are long since glue. Are folk of the aughts and teens to be envied? (and being 2021 we must ask, which aughts and teens?) Writers of that era were much moved by ways they had known, but saw disappear by adulthood, calling up a past in columns, sometimes a book devoted to what had been meaningful, but since lost. Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) did a history, The Movies In The Age of Innocence, dealing with the silent period, nearly all of which he knew first-hand (he may even have been there for The Great Train Robbery when new). Wagenknecht would later team with Anthony Slide on Fifty Great American Silent Films 1912-1920, A Pictorial Survey. He also taught and wrote on English and American literature. Wagenknecht ended up with sixty books to his credit, including one most personal, As Far As Yesterday (1968), where he, at about age I am now, stirred embers of youth and told of emerging lively arts and which of these engaged him most. There were moments reading when I would have traded my boyhood for his, but couldn’t we say as much of anyone fortunate enough to have come up in the teens, 20, 30, 40’s?



Wagenknecht reflects on comic strips carried in abundance by newspapers. His heroes were many … Happy Hooligan, Foxy Grandpa, most of all Little Nemo in Slumberland. Latter remains a cult favorite, hypnotic for being leagues ahead of anything drawn elsewhere. Windsor McCay of dinosaur Gertie fame was the artist. His strip, outsize to full-sheets and in color, began in 1905, ran for a decade, was revived in 1924, lasted three more years, then quit. Wagenknecht was mesmerized by Nemo, which well I can imagine, as it mesmerizes still. To a boy in 1905, this must have been like a circus come to town each Sunday. Wagenknect’s impressions, from his adult perspective, reveal an impact I hardly got from anything growing up, certainly not from comic books accumulated to age 12, unceremoniously dropped after, ultimately sold. I miss none of them. Was there defining difference between comic strips and eventual comic books? Wagenknect said the latter meant nothing to him … maybe because they arrived post-his childhood, but consider master collector and archivist Bill Blackbeard (1926-2011), who single-handed saved our whole history of comic strips by crisscrossing the US time and again to fill transfer trucks with old newspapers that would fill his San Francisco home to bursting. Blackbeard catalogued millions of strips that otherwise would have been lost to time and decay, as few survive except on yellowed pages he rescued. Blackbeard largely disdained comic books, thought they stood small beside strips, him for instance calling Superman “meretricious dreck.” Was there magic on those daily pages that ten-cent Dells and DC’s could not approach? Have comic book collectors settled all this time for meretricious dreck?

Bill Blackbeard, Famed Rescuer of Comic Strip Art


I never lost myself to comic books as did plentiful peers. There was interest, but never in characters that would have stood me well once time came to unload, my bag being Archie, Hot Stuff, rather than Spiderman, the Marvel crop. Did dabble with Batman, if briefly, when ABC in January ’66 made him meaningful. I had drawn comics during downtime at school, which for me amounted to all time spent at school. My sheaves were stapled, had a cover, introduced characters like “Civil and Pokey,” modeled somewhat after Top Cat and friends, sci-fi the format for “Southern Space Slowpoke,” whose logo was a Big S in front of letters that spelled three words of the name. I graduated from these to penning horror stories, which sometimes they let me read to the class. There was even a fictitious pair of “stars” who played in whatever transition my tales made to film. Parents would have preferred my deeper immersion in studies even as they arranged with our local news-and-mag dealer to let loose one of spinning racks from which one pulled latest comics, this so I could display my collection just like a real store. Diehards surely dreaded cretins that got to these first at newsstands and bent back issues to see what was behind, creases there to stay. And what of brats putting paws on what we collectors tenderly preserved, cover and pages folded so the comic fit in one rather than both their grubby hands. Many treasures of mine plunged from a 9.5 to a 4.0 (comic certification talk) as result of such abuse, damage once done being for keeps.



Had to ponder by adolescence the point of continuing, movies engaging me way more by then. What I wanted was theatre ads out of old newspapers, not comic strips. Certainly admire Bill Blackbeard’s herculean effort though, and wish in a way to have better appreciated drawn panels and magic applied to them. Wonder how many, if any, comic fans went on to study so-called “fine” art, though chances are most considered comic art plenty fine enough. Saw where the San Diego Comic-Con was cancelled for a second time, two years deprived must be agony for those devoted. Interesting how collectors serious enough will “slab” their books, vacuum-packing to thwart what age inflicts upon all things, a way comics might outlive their owners. Unknowing civilians remain incredulous: You spend a fortune on the thing, then seal it up to where it can’t even be read? Like Ann who inquires rhetorically upon my receipt of yet another lobby card, “You paid that for a piece of paper?,” words fairly spat out in derision (Gee, at least I don’t slab them, my meek reply). To collect is to live one’s life in martyrdom.



Occasional “Children’s Plays” during the early 1900’s went under heading of treats for tots, each sensitive to “propriety of taking children to the theatre,” this preamble to a 1903 review of Babes In Toyland when it opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York. “It may be wise to keep their youthful minds from the stimulating and exciting influence of stage performances,” said James Metcalfe for LIFE magazine, even as he cited “few more enjoyable things in the life of a critic than the frank and outspoken joy, laughter, and wonder of an audience of children,” youth at the theatre OK so long as closely supervised. New Yorker columnist Wolcott Gibbs (1902-1958) recalled from 1935 vantage a policy wherein youngsters “couldn’t go in alone” to Broadway sites, in particular one he wanted to attend by name the “Nemo,” located at B’way and 110th Street, which Gibbs took for a playhouse devoted exclusive to Little Nemo and his dream travels, Gibbs, like Edward Wagenknecht, a fan. “I was able to only stand wistfully on the sidewalk outside, watching the happy crowds on their way to see Little Nemo,  “miraculously translated into flesh and blood.” When finally an accommodating aunt escorted him inside, Gibbs saw a “disastrous performance … with a troupe of performing dogs … and a mystifying scene in which a fat man spanked a young lady repeatedly with a board,” Gibbs “tricked and furious, in the smelly dark.” A purest pastime for boys like he and Wagenknecht was books. Like with comic strips, these would not so betray expectation. A literary happening to quietly launch in 1900 was The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I never appreciated impact of his Oz series (fourteen in all) until reading Gibbs, Wagenknecht, others, who came to these at ideal age and were captured fully by the alternative universe Baum created.




A modern parallel to the Oz books may be Harry Potter, each awaited by fervent readership. Baum eventually felt trapped by Oz, tried to quit, but followers would not let him. He finally relented and made new entries an annual event. Wagenknecht remembered this as happiest aspect of Christmas, sentiment unabated by age eighteen when he wrote L. Frank Baum to convey all that Oz meant to him. Baum’s reply, written two months before he died in May 1919, was chatty and appreciative, a balm for his “heart trouble,” the letter concluding, “Thank you for writing me. It helps.” Wagenknecht discovered movies during the aughts, said “practically all the great stories of the world were retold in one-reelers.” These included Oz tales, which Wagenknecht and Wolcott Gibbs also saw staged by troupes travelling to venues the to-be writers might frequent. Could a reader expect absolute fidelity to narratives spun by favorite books? Gibbs attended The Wizard of Oz as limned by vaudeville team Montgomery and Stone. “For grownups,” he said, Oz “must have been charming,” but for Gibbs, who had committed text to memory, “it was just more perfidy and foolishness.” Gibbs later wrote “of a period in almost every childhood, when we can accept simultaneously the reality of actual life and the reality of supernatural happenings in books.” What he saw in the theatre “was all wrong,” Dorothy “definitely grown up … had a habit, unknown to the real Dorothy, of detaching herself suddenly from the events around her and singing a song.” The Cowardly Lion was Gibbs’ “bitterest disappointment … a miserable fake … just an actor dressed up … prancing idiotically on its hind legs.” The play sadly ruined Oz books for Gibbs, his lion no longer living, but mere “cloth and cardboard” (bet he boycotted the ’39 version)



Gibbs was as put out with mock-upping done to Peter Pan, “synthetic animals … Nana (the dog) … transparently not a Newfoundland, any more than the creature that swallowed the alarm clock was an alligator, or could sensibly have been regarded as an alligator by anybody over the age of ten.” So far as Gibbs was concerned, live treatments debased the books he, and others of his generation, adored. Before our era of rife and repeated stage, screen, TV versions of literature, it was easy to imagine harm done by such travesties as permanent, image of the original work libeled from there onward. “It never let up, and presently I began to suspect that all so-called “children’s entertainment” was designed to provide adults with a bogus and condescending nostalgia.” Such plays were “violation of my private ideas,” escape from which came the movies, which Gibbs knew also to be distortions of things he read, but they had at least a patina of realism. Lions eating Christians on screen (“sandals and all”) were real lions. Edward Wagenknecht too found comfort in film, as did Gilbert Seldes, who saw movies as most popular of new-minted “lively arts.” There was integrity also in the circus and “parlor magicians,” these honest enough to admit fooling you, the challenge being to figure out how. Wagenknecht was enraptured by “Master Magician (Howard) Thurston,” sought out the vet performer years later to tell him so. Blackstone, “The Greatest Magician The World Has Ever Known” was also a quest to meet in person. Wagenknecht freely admitted to being a “very childlike adult,” this a badge of honor so far as he saw it, and all more reason for me to enjoy his writing. Birds of a feather, you know.

8 Comments:

Blogger DBenson said...

Few things mess up childhood pleasures so much as adults elbowing in. When collecting comics or anything else became remunerative enough to draw grownup participation; when playsets and train layouts grew too intricate for a kid to mess with (see "The Lego Movie"); when those early stage spectacles played to old boys with pulchritude and vaudeville; and when modern comic book movies go in for Wagnerian strum und drang topped with dark and gritty.

There's also the technological/commercial advances that would eventually make everything available, in and out of time. I had a foretaste of the coming weirdness back in the 60s, when Annette Funicello was around my age on the syndicated Mickey Mouse Club but absolutely adult on World of Color.

Used to be, the kids who read certain series books as they first appeared, or read newspaper adventure strips, or watched certain movies or TV shows, had to wait for each new installment. Nothing was guaranteed. The main drivers of Pottermania were kids who grew into adolescence alongside Harry and friends, the characters' futures as mysterious as their own. As you observe, this was even more true for those who grew up with the 20th century, who gawked at frail biplanes as preteens and casually downed drinks on commercial airliners as adults. Boomers saw huge changes in the wake of WWII, but they didn't see the comprehensive, mind-boggling transformations their parents and grandparents experienced.

Modern kids discovering Harry Potter, the Land of Oz and other series, print or film, know they can be had as tidy complete sets, heroes' fates already cast in stone, widely discussed and dissected (My father got me into the Hornblower novels, and Hornblower's progress from midshipman to lord was already a row of paperbacks on his shelf). There may never again be a moment like the magazine publication of "The Final Problem", when readers of all ages were simultaneously blindsided by the death of Sherlock Holmes.

I count myself as perfectly aged to fully enjoy not only the abundance of once-unseeable movies and television on disc, but the extravagance of comic reprints. I read comic books, but collecting meant having a cardboard boxful to drag out on rainy days. I made a few tries at collecting newspaper strips, but they'd perversely print my Sunday favorites on front and back of the same page. Now I have a whole lotta classic adventure strips and even soaps in nifty volumes, and a half century of "Peanuts" in the living room where most people would once display their complete, unopened Great Books.

5:37 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I subscribe to the approach that childhood joys are meant for children. This was echoed in TOY STORY 2, of all things. What was a toy's purpose? To be locked away, as a collectable? An investment? Note that Woody was stolen by a collector for the purpose of making money, and his fate was to be locked in a display case, for all time.

No, a toy is intended for a child, to be played with, to be a "friend", to encourage imagination. Likewise comic books, "character" book series, or comic strips. Sure, they're art forms. But they're meant for kids, perhaps to be handed down to multiple generations, but for that brief time of youth when they can be best appreciated.

Rod Serling's advice in the TZ episode "Walking Distance" still holds true: maybe there's only one summer per child. Don't make him share it.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That Straw Man looks truly terrifying as he cuddles up to the Tin Man. I remember discovering the paperback reprints of Sax Rohmer's FU MANCHU and eagerly devouring every one of them. LITTLE NEMO remains a treasure that twice a week I take in on GO COMICS: https://www.gocomics.com/ . In Canada the late Captain George Hendersen with his VIKING BOOKS and most powerfully, his MEMORY LANE bookshop in Mirvish Village in Toronto introduced legions of us to old paper. George invited me to show my 8mm silent films in a backroom of his store. There I discovered the joy of sharing treasures with strangers who valued them as opposed to with friends who didn't. All that paper you value will fall into the hands of people who don't value it. In the days of 16mm many wives called me after the death of their husbands eager to get those dusty reels out of the house. When Forry Ackerman was trying to find a home for his collection I brought him to Toronto where THE TORONTO PUBLIC LIBRARY gave a home to Judith Merril's collection. Toronto, unfortunately, has a log up its ass. That never happened. Now as I'm approaching my check out time I'm looking to see my archives in some place where they can prove useful for the future. That won't be Toronto. Toronto has too much of everything to value anything. Neat post.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Reg Hartt said: "All that...you value will fall into the hands of people who don't value it..."
Indeed, if that should happen, the hope must be that those hands will know of yet other hands which will value it, and hand it all over to them - rather than tossing it all into an incinerator.
So it was with a bin of old DVDs and VHS tapes, collected by a late elderly relation over the final years of their retirement, in which their immediate family took no interest whatsoever, and which some time later (years later, in fact) came into my possession after one of them recalled that I watched "antique movies" from time to time, and took the time to call so as to ask if I wanted to take them, just prior to them literally throwing them out with the trash. The price they asked? That I carry it away. ( It appears that people who don't value what they have don't drive hard bargains.)
One big plus of modern data storage and communications, regardless of their transformative effects on those participating in either the production, distribution or use ( A digression: I was going to write 'consumption', as in 'production, distribution or consumption' - but does the word 'consumption' really apply when one watches a movie or listens to a recording or reads a book or poem? Should it? What's being "consumed" when one watches an old movie?) of such media, is that one can now by using the internet often explore the background and history of these items in depth as to when and where, how and by whom they were created, the critical responses to the work when first released, costs of and profits resulting, who was paid what, etc etc etc.
The computer age is a golden age, compared to what we had before, when it comes to finding out more about the media products we use.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The pattern seems to be that the things we value as kids we dismiss when we think we're grown-ups (late teens, early twenties). How many have heard our mother say, "It's time you got rid of those."? Then in our '30's, 40's on we spend fabulous sums to recover that stuff we threw out when we thought ourselves grown-up. I want to a FAN CON because I had a guest pass and Malcolm McDowell and William Shatner were going to speak. Both were eminently worth hearing as far as I'm concerned. I overheard a kid say to a friend, "My father paid X hundred dollars for an autograph from a TV star." I work too hard for my money. Glad to see the TV star get the money though. Note to anyone in their late teens/early twenties reading this, keep that stuff your mom wants you to dump.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I still mourn the day my mom threw out my Mad magazines and original Three Stooges trading cards.

On the other hand, I had been lugging around dozens of old 78s for years until I decided to unload them on a collector who was happy to oblige. His delighted look upon my handing them over (gratis) was equaled only by feeling the metaphorical weight of them finally lifted off my shoulders. That collector died a few years later, but I hope his collection has gone to the right person.

As for my movie poster collection... I sold them in two different batches to the same dealer. Made a nice profit, but I couldn't tell you more than three titles, if that. I saved some that have some weird emotional connection over me, but are of near zero monetary value.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"I saved some that have some weird emotional connection over me, but are of near zero monetary value." Funny how that is true of myself and probably quite a few others. I was never interested in posters which is wicked because I had the pick of them at just a few dollars each back in 1967, 68 when I worked with Captain George at Memory Lane in Toronto. This was before the collectors' boom started.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Some items possess that most precious and personal of all values: sentimental value.

5:17 PM  

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