Saturday, August 31, 2013

Boddie Records

The photo above shows Tom and Louise Boddie, whose Boddie Records recording studio and pressing plant was a platform for independent music in Cleveland back in the heyday of vinyl. Boddie recorded every kind of music imaginable; of course there was a healthy dose of R&B and gospel, but also Hungarian folk music, Bar Mitzvah '45's, sermons, country music, and the world's first (and last) Punk-Bluegrass crossover single, the Hotfoot Quartet's cover of Devo's "Mongoloid," which I produced there in 1980, along with my own two solo guitar LP's in 1979 and 80. We're fortunate that, although the business has been closed for some years since Tom's death, Louise is still going strong, and thanks to her and the Numero Group, you can get either a three-disc boxed set of Boddie recordings, or the one-CD Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie (which includes a track from my second LP, A Stone's Throw). You can read more about the Boddies on this extensive post at

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Atomic Cigarettes

Image courtesy the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland Memory
This particular trail of history started with a postcard given me by a friend. The front showed Cleveland's Public Auditorium; the back bore a postmark of December 15th 1955. The sender, a man who signed himself "John," spoke of his having attended the "Nuclear Engineering and Science Congress." But what, exactly, was this Congress? My friend wondered if perhaps my late father, who had a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Commission in graduate school, and went to Cleveland to work for General Electric in 1952, might have attended -- and he might! Searching the web for any evidence, though, of what this "Congress" consisted, I found this astonishing photo at the Cleveland Memory Project pages. Apparently, tobacco giant Philip Morris sent one of its cigarette-making machines, along with its famous company spokesman Johnny Roventini (the bellboy who hollered "Call for Philip Morris!" in its ads) to this event, billed as "the first demonstration of the use of an atomic energy device in the manufacture of cigarettes." How exactly this cigarette machine was powered by "atomic" energy is unclear -- there was no nuclear plant in Ohio prior to 1970 --  and I suspect that my father, a lifelong non-smoker who hated cigarettes, would not have been amused!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Is Radio Menacing Civilization?

The attention-grabbing headline and illustration for this article from the Radio Mirror in 1934 belies the technical nature of some of its arguments. Like those who today fear radiation from cell phones, many in the 1930's, misunderstanding the nature of radio waves, believed they could cause fevers in humans, ignite fires, or even cause airships to crash. Let us just say that humanity was not swept away in an apocalypse of radio-ignited heat. It's also interesting to note that the argument soon shifts to the cultural influence of radio broadcasts, with Shaw claimed "lowered our cultural standards" while Tesla (who has a certain pride of place as the man who discovered the basic principles of radio) took a much more measured stand: ""You can't blame lowering our culture on radio," he insisted, "blame it on yourself and myself. The type of program that comes over the air is the type you and I want to listen to."

Monday, August 26, 2013


Not many outside of Cleveland will remember Ghoulardi -- a.k.a. Ernie Anderson -- the late-night horror-movie host known for his inimitable film-side manner and memorable catch phrases ("Turn blue," "Ova-dey!" and "Hey, group!"). There was no one else quite like him on television, then or now. His habit of cutting weird sound samples (e.g."Papa Oom Mow Mow") into the more inane of his films was another trademark, and he's been cited as an influence on, among other shows, "Mystery Science Theatre 3000." In this 1963, photo from The Sponsor he's shown with a group of fans, who dubbed themselves the "Ghoulkateers," after a certain other group of adolescents with matching cartoon shirts. Oh, and you may have heard of his son, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Man from Beyond

He's just been discovered aboard an icebound ship in the remote wastes of the Arctic, and chopped out of a block of solid ice in which he's been frozen more than a century. And yet, he's alive! Who else but Harry Houdini could think of such a scene, and bring it to life -- not on stage, of course, but through the magic of cinema. Few people realize that Houdini not only had several starring roles, but managed his own Harry Houdini Film Company, of which the above feature -- 1922's The Man from Beyond -- was perhaps its finest achievement. Happily, the film itself survives, and can be seen online, or in better resolution as part of Kino-Lorber's wonderful DVD boxed set, Houdini the Movie Star.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Finding "Negro Audiences" in 1954

Image via the fabulous Lantern media history site
People often forget the virtual apartheid of the radio airwaves in the 1940's, '50's, and early '60's -- but here's one powerful reminder that none of it happened by accident. Not only are stations here competing for bragging rights in reaching the biggest share of the "Negro Market," but there's a mention of Alan Freed's Moondog show having "Negro-appeal"! Perhaps this was in the wake of the Moondog Coronation Ball, the year before, which revealed that nearly all of Freed's audience was Black, or perhaps Freed was in fact quite conscious of who was listening to his show all along; its popularity with Black listeners seems to have been a key selling point in plans for syndication.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Zenith Radios in the Arctic

Image via the fabulous Lantern media history site
Product endorsements from Arctic explorers are nothing new -- way back in 1863, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane had given his seal of approval to Borden's Meat Biscuits, and MacMillan's old boss Robert Peary had endorsed, among other things, Howard Watches (not to be outdone, Peary's wife Jo appeared in ads for Jaros Hygenic Underwear). But unlike biscuits, watches, and underwear, radios had an enormous capacity to decrease the hazards of Arctic travel -- not only, as this ad notes, by reducing one's sense of solitude, but by enabling lost explorers to, well, not be so lost.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Horrific Letter From Greely

In the annals of bad handwriting, there are few exemplars to compare with the letter -- facetious, yet fabulously plausible -- cooked up by Mark Twain in Roughing It. A purported reply from Horace Greely to a young man who wished, against nature, to grow turnips upon vines, its inane readings, as given by Twain, are among the strangest and most hilarious in the history of American letters. The narrator's increasingly desperate attempts at decipherment -- "sausages wither in the east," "potatoes inherit and condemn," and "my beer's out" -- rival the nonsense of English as She is Spoke, a favorite of Twain's. Alas, the solution --a typescript of the letter -- arrives too late, and the lad who dreamed of such novel cultivars expires before it arrives. They bury him with a turnip in each hand.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hooray for Charles Frederick Schweinfurth!

Image courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project
This curious house was designed by noted Cleveland architect Charles Frederick Schweinfurth in 1896. I happened upon it about eighty years later, as a good friend at my high school actually lived in it. By then, the neighborhood on East 75th street was a good deal rougher around the edges, and the awnings were gone -- but inside, beyond the ornately carved front door, there will still many marvels, including a balcony window in my friend's room that overlooked the staircase. Schweinfurth designed many larger houses for the élites of his day, as well as a series of stone bridges over East Avenue, now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Every time we drove under one of these bridges, my friend would always say 'Hooray for Charles Frederick Schweinfurth!" -- and I still say so today.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Read it and Weep

Image Courtesy Suzanne O'Connell
Back in the nineteen-teens, there was a time when Hollywood was losing interest in "Wetserns," and a seemingly new genre, the "Northern," was taking hold. Set in the frozen north -- but often filmed in winter in the California mountains -- these "snow pictures" in fact had nearly all the same features as "Westerns," with an added dose of melodrama; there were damsels in distress, bad guys with black (fur) hats, and chase scenes (only with dogsleds instead of horses). This still is from a lost film, Rollin Sturgeon's 1916 epic God's Country and the Woman; the actor on the right -- who seems to be quite satisfied with the contents of the paper in his hand -- is George Holt. I'm grateful to Holt's granddaughter, Suzanne O'Connell, for sharing this rare still.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Water Kings

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink -- at least, to drink safely. One of the principal health hazards of Victorian London was its water, and one might be far healthier with a glass of beer, or even a flagon of rum, than with a drop of the swill that passed in some parts for drinking water. The "Water Kings" parodied in the Punch cartoon here were the three large water companies of London, whose water intakes were all downstream from significant storm drains and sewers, and thus quite frequently their product would be safe only after boiling, and then hardly palatable.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Loie Fuller

The American dancer Loie Fuller, who became a smash hit in Paris, is also the namesake of a delightful little French restaurant just around the corner from my house. Her most famous performance, the "Serpentine Dance," was the subject of numerous photographs as well as several popular short films featuring her and her imitators. Here, though, is a less familiar image, from a CDV in the collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale, which happily makes much of its digital collections freely available online.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Anne of Green Gables

Not many realize that Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables was first adapted as a film back in 1919, starring Mary Miles Minter. The film is lost, and all that remains are a few stills, such as the one shown in this theatrical lantern slide from the W. Ward Marsh collection at the Cleveland Public  Library. The prominent -- and, given the book, inexplicable -- presence of a watermelon is perhaps one sign that the film wasn't especially faithful to the book; Montgomery was said to be incensed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 1851 Crystal Palace

John Jabez Edwin Mayall, daguerreotypist (British, 1810 - 1901); The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London, 1851, Daguerreotype. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Here's another fabulous image from the Getty -- a Daguerreotype of the Crystal Palace at its original 1851 location in Hyde Park. Daguerreotypes possess an incredible level of detail, as their grain size is microscopic -- perhaps as small as a few molecules of silver halide -- but this can only be appreciated at the highest resolution. The Getty has made an 800 dpi version available, which is a start at least -- one can clearly see the equestrian statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Osler's Crystal Fountain is there in all its glory. There are also two figures in the foreground, along with the ghostly image of a third, who lingered only for a moment before wandering out of the camera's frame and into oblivion.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The 'Annie' Daguerreotype of Poe

Unknown maker, American, daguerreotypist; Edgar Allan Poe, late May - early June 1849, Daguerreotype; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
There are two reasons for celebrating the 'Annie' Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe -- first, the portrait itself, named after Mrs. Anne Richmond, Poe's friend and the original owner of the photograph, and the curious story of its making and her care of it (she survived Poe by fifty years), and secondly, because it is among the images being made freely available by the Getty Trust as part of its new Open Content program. Following the lead of the Rijksmuseum, the Getty is making a wide array of high-res images of its collections -- any in which no other copyright is known -- available for free to anyone. It is a bold move, and one I personally welcome; there's nothing that so irks a researcher as inordinate fees for images which -- other than the fact that the museum owns their originals -- would long be out of copyright.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dad in the Lab

Given the 35 years he worked there, it's always strange to me that there aren't more photos of my dad in  his lab at General Electric's NELA Park. Still, among the few that have survived are some doozies -- the one above is among my favorites, as a) my dad is actually testing a lamp;. and b) the loud print shirt with the big collar, along with the long sideburns, mark this definitely as mid-1970's. 

The Women of ENIAC

Each of the women shown in the photo above is holding a unit with the same storage capacity; the first two decreases in size are due to improvements in the tubes and wiring, but the last is due to the invention of the transistor. These were the calculating components of (respectively) ENIAC, EDVAC, ORDVAC, and BRELESC-I. One unit contained 108 tubes, the equivalent of 108 transistors; the CPU of the computer on which I'm writing these words has 774 million of them, which would require more than seven million of the units shown above. These early computers were hand-programmed, and these women were the first programmers of the electronic computing age; you can learn more about them here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Jives of Dr. Hepcat

Dr. Hepcat" -- real name Lavada Durst -- was a highly successful DJ on KVET out of Austin, Texas in the 1940's and 1950's. He spun platters (played music), called Negro League baseball games, and mastered his own brand of "jive," to which he published this guide in 1953. The best parts of this little booklet are the 'lessons' that come before the word-list -- in one dialogue, when a college professor asks his students 'What are the major problems that confront us in community welfare and organization?" they are to reply "Prof, we must definitely pick upon a head knock to manipulate the controls, one that's in the know, one that all the squares and ickies believe that his knowledge-box is hitting on all eight cylinders." Hopefully, the Prof had a copy of Durst's guide handy -- you can get yours here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Aunt Sally

Way back in the day, when number lotteries were run by guys at the corner instead of state governments, the racket was known as "Playing Policy." The name was a sly reference to an insurance policy, and the ways in which the insurer might try any means necessary to limit their liability; the numbers game was only as honest as its local purveyor, and many ended up singing the 'Playing PolicyBlues.' By the 1970's, the state lotteries had put the numbers games out of business -- still, as recently as 1980, I can recall an elderly African-American woman, who sat across the aisle from me on a Greyhound bus going from Greensboro NC to Cleveland OH, extolling the virtues of her "policy book." These books -- Aunt Sally's was just one of many -- told you what numbers to bet on, based on your dreams. If you dreamed of a ball, 'money would be left to you' -- assuming you laid yours on 39, 53, and 68; to dream of monkeys 'shows many evil enemies' but recommends 1, 2, 4, and 44. You can read more about Aunt Sally at luckymojo.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The First Photo-Montage

Photography was yet in its infancy when David Octavius Hill began taking Calotypes (sometimes referred to as Talbotypes) in Scotland in 1843. The Daguerreotype had been announced to the world only four years previous, and it remained unclear whether Daguerre's patent, which he had assigned to France, permitted unlicensed photography elsewhere. Licenses were issued to Claudet and Beard in Britain, but since Hill was in Scotland he believed his work did not infringe on these licenses. Having been present at the meeting at which the Free Church of Scotland was formed, Hill hit upon the idea of photographing every person present, then transferring their likenesses to a group portrait. Unfortunately, with so many heads to squeeze in to the scene, it wasn't always possible to insert them in a natural manner; if you look closely you can see heads growing in clusters like grapes, perched at unnatural angles, and out of proportion with their neighbors.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lecture Tonight

In the days before electronic mass-media, ordinary people who wanted to learn about things outside of a school or college could do so one of two ways: read about it, or attend a public lecture. Back in 1926, my great-grandfather Elbert H. Clarke offered a series of lectures on the stars, illustrated with lantern slides made using the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson, which had been completed just eight years previously and was at the time the largest in the world. For his lectures, he charged just 25 cents, the equivalent of about $3.50 today.
(with thanks to the Ohio Memory Project where this item from the Canton Sun is archived).

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The "Ultima Thule" Portrait

It is, perhaps, one of the most famous portraits in the world, so ubiquitous in print and online that no one seems to realize that the original has gone missing. I refer to the "Ultima Thule" Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, which was stolen along with its large black walnut frame from the photographer's store window at 33 Westminster Street, Providence, sometime in the late 1850's. Daguerreotypes, of course, are "one offs" -- there is no way, strictly speaking, to print another from them -- but one can take a fairly good, though far from perfect, Daguerreotype of a Daguerreotype, and it was through this means that the "Ultima Thule" portrait has come down to us today, and become so common. Indeed, the source for most reproductions is a third-generation copy at the Library of Congress, which bears its maker's attempt to obtain copyright in 1904.

But who stole the original of this Daguerreotype? And where is it now? Click here to find out more.


Back in 1977, long before the Tolkien boom that began with Peter Jackson's films -- and long before the Internet -- Tolkien fans came together in small local groups such as the Cleveland Tolkien Society. The CTS had a journal, run off on a Gestetner duplicator, known as "Kelvaquenta" (Quenya for 'The Speech of Living Things'), which ran to perhaps five or six issues. This one included news of our recent meeting, an excellent "Tengwar Fact Sheet" on Elvish writing systems, a short essay of mine on Elvish, and a Hobbit crossword puzzle. Those curious to read the entire issue can download it as a .pdf here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

White World

"White World" was a short-lived attraction -- it ran only from 1905 to 1906 -- on Surf Ave. in Coney Island -- showcasing the accomplishments of polar explorers. It was built in the form of a giant iceberg, and was probably a variety of what's known in the trade as a 'dark ride' -- a slow indoor roller-coaster type ride that passed through dioramas and views of various subjects. The designs for this ride were made by the Italian-American artist Albert Operti -- you can just make out his name in the high-resolution version at the Library of Congress -- who had travelled with Robert Peary to the Arctic on one of his earlier expeditions. It's hard to know what the exhibit contained, though it's safe to assume it was based in some way on the illustrations Operti made for the book of the same name, published in 1902.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The (Middle) Namesake

Most people know something about the person after whom they were named -- I do -- but middle names are often a more curious business. Some have just 'been in the family,' or represent a shout-out to a favorite aunt or uncle. In my case,  I was named after my father's childhood best friend, Alan Laxdal. I knew him as a balding, cherubic, dry-witted man, a man who taught in the Snohomish school system for many years, and whose audiophile stereo system was a thing of wonder. His mother was from Iceland -- the Laxdals even have their own saga -- but I knew her only as the quirky old lady who once lived next door to my grandmother. This photo, found among my father's papers after his death, reveals another Alan Laxdal -- a young boy who made this dramatic self-portrait by flashlight, and developed it in his own photo lab.  There is something quite powerful in his gaze -- he almost seems to look through you -- the intensity is visceral. I'm certainly proud to carry his name.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Terrific Register

Writing to his friend W.H. Wills in 1851, Charles Dickens recalled his boyhood fascination with a periodical known as The Terrific Register.  Every issue featured a grisly woodcut of some horrid murder, disembowelment, beheading, or massacre, and Dickens thought the subscription well worth the cost: "I used, when I was at school, to take in the Terrific Register, making myself unspeakably miserable, and frightening my very wits out of my head, for the small charge of a penny weekly; which, considering that there was an illustration to every number, in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap." The images seem to have had quite a lasting effect on the young Dickens, as many of them re-appeared in his mature works; Mr. Foscue, the 'Miser that eats himself' may have been one of the inspirations for Ebenezer Scrooge!