Roller Derby’s Roots in Depression-Era Dance Marathons

This trailer for the 2008 roller derby documentary Hell On Wheels covers the sport’s unlikely 21st Century revival. But there’s an even more surprising story of how this modern all-female, full-contact sport has its roots in dance marathons of the 1920s which were endurance competitions for couples that sometimes lasted a thousand hours.

Those live events were also a predecessor of contemporary reality TV as they mixed celebrities with regular people and drew huge interest by offering thousands in cash prizes during the Great Depression. They also profited their organizers, grossing millions each year. Here’s more details on this fad of the 1920’s and 30’s:

Contestants and spectators alike bought into the staged excitement and competition. Spectators could cheer, make wagers and root for their favorite team, even interacting with the dancers, chatting with them and throwing money. Contestants were enticed by the potential for fame and fortune, from prizes of several thousand dollars to performing contracts, and were fueled by the audiences’ support and applause. Like professional wrestling, the contests were fixed, but both sides bought into the simulated reality of it and participated heartily, provoking each other and egging each other on. The newest episodic entertainment, spectators would return day after day to follow their heroes and see more drama unfold.

In 1935, former film promoter and cinema owner Leo Seltzer was the first to put the coupled competitors on wheels, and so dance marathons evolved into (the term Seltzer trademarked) “Roller Derbies“. The debut event drew a crowd of 20,000 in Chicago. Roller derby historian Jim Fitzpatrick gives more details about those co-ed derby marathons in this interview:

For a roller derby research marathon: visit “roller derby” on How Stuff Works and see lots more roller derby videos here. And watch this documentary for fantastic details on early dance marathons and roller derbies, if you don’t mind it’s own slow-pace…

Animated Primer on Mexican Drug Cartel Violence

The Violence of Mexican Drug Cartels” is beautifully diabolical, an impeccably designed animation telling the troubling tale of the current Mexican drug cartel war and how the United States is tied to the violence.

“Tens of thousands are being murdered, and over a million are being forced to flee their homes. U.S. laws and policy play a major role in the conflict’s violence. This video is about understanding the complexities of the war and why it is happening.”

Designed by ishothim and published by

via Boing Boing

Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd TV Interview and Performance (1967)

Syd Barrett, the original lead singer for rock band Pink Floyd was born 66 years ago this week. This clip from May 1967 shows the band on the BBC television show “Look of The Week”, where Austrian interviewer Hans Keller, who had “grown up in the string quartet” says he finds the Floyd sound too loud after hearing them play “Astronomy Domine” live. Here’s how the exchange is described on Wikipedia:

Keller was generally puzzled by, or even contemptuous of, the group and its music, repeatedly returning to the criticism that they were too loud for his taste. He ended his interview segment with the band by saying the words “My verdict is that it is a little bit of a regression to childhood – but, after all, why not?”

Keller’s commentary throughout is laughably un-hip and blind to the emerging culture of the 1960s, but there is some truth in that last line. Syd was destined to end up in a rather child-like state due to his prodigious experimentation with psychedelics and other drugs. Less than a year after this appearance Syd was out of the band, effectively replaced by David Gilmour, due to his increasingly unpredictable behavior and reduced creative output.

Barrett released a few solo albums after leaving Pink Floyd, but none of it rivals the heights of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Floyd’s first album, on which Syd wrote most of the songs. He lived largely as a recluse until he passed away in 2006. But his legacy is immense, not only from the band he co-founded. Amongst those who have acknowledged his influence are Paul McCartney, Marc Bolan, Brian Eno, The Damned, XTC, Tangerine Dream, and Robyn Hitchcock.

Syd Barrett in 1969

photo by Mick Rock via Wikipedia

CLOUDS Interactive Documentary on Digital Art

The CLOUDS project is a documentary by James George and Jonathan Minard about current hacker-art practices. It features interviews with thirty artists, curators, designers, & critics and was created with an open-source software library called RGBDToolkit in the RGBD 3D cinema format. CLOUDS software gives viewers the ability to chart different paths through a database of footage via keywords or search queries rather than having a single static version of the film.

CLOUDS Data capsule with laser etched 3D pointcloud

The interview subjects in CLOUDS include Bruce Sterling, Casey Reas, Daniel Shiffman, Diederick Huijbers, Elliot Woods, Golan Levin, Greg Borenstein, Jer Thorp, Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, Jessica Rosenkrantz, Joel Gethin Lewis, Josh Nimoy, Julia Kaganskiy, Julian Oliver, Karolina Sobecka, Karsten “Toxi” Schmidt, Kyle Chayka, Kyle McDonald, Lindsay Howard, Marcus Wendt, Marius Watz, Nick Fox-Gieg, Paola Antonelli, Philip Whitfield, Rachel Binx, Regine Debatty, Satoru Higa, Shantell Martin, Sofy Yuditskaya, Theodore Watson, Vera Glahn, and Zachary Lieberman.

The CLOUDS Kickstarter is fully funded and will end on Jan 8, 2013.

Rodney Dangerfield 1978 Standup Routine With a 16-piece Band

This 1978 footage shows the great no-respect-getting comedian Rodney Dangerfield (aka Jack Roy aka Jacob Cohen) doing his signature schtick in front of a 16-piece band who play after his punchlines, like a drummer doing rimshots.

Via Wikipedia, here’s some great trivia about the origin of the “Rodney Dangerfield” name and character:

He took the name Rodney Dangerfield, which had been used as the comical name of a faux cowboy star by Jack Benny on his radio program at least as early as the December 21, 1941, broadcast and later as a pseudonym by Ricky Nelson on the TV program The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The Benny character, who also received little or no respect from the outside world, served as a great inspiration to Dangerfield while he was developing his own comedy character.

Winning a New Ice Cream Truck on Price Is Right in 1962

You were wondering what The Price Is Right game show was like 50 years ago, right? Now you know: this clip from New Years Day 1962 shows a very different game where players guess the cost of expensive jewelry instead of a box of Rice-a-Roni. This first version of the show debuted in 1956 and was hosted by Bill Cullen with announcer Don Pardo (later famous as the voice of Saturday Night Live).

The final round has a Jolly Roger Ice Cream truck up for grabs instead of “a new car” which became the pinnacle of prizes on the Bob Barker-hosted “New Price Is Right” starting in 1972. The clip also includes ads for show sponsors Newport cigarettes (“the soothing coolness of menthol”) and Anacin (“Fast fast incredibly fast relief”).

jolly roger ice cream truck, 1960

The Quest For A Copyright-Free Happy Birthday Song

FMA New Birthday Song contest illustration by Greg Harrison

Art by Greg Harrison

Everyone knows the song “Happy Birthday to You“–the Guinness Book of World Records says it’s the most recognized song in English. Most of us sing it several times a year, for free. So it may surprise you that Warner Chappel music owns the rights to the song and charges thousands of dollars for its use in public. They make $2 million a year in royalties from TV shows and filmmakers. But now WFMU and the Free Music Archive are trying to set birthdays to music anew, for free.

The Birthday Song Contest seeks a few new Happy Birthday songs that are simple and catchy, with great earworm potential that can be sung in restaurants, bowling alleys, and even in TV shows and movies – free of charge.

It’s a great way to say Happy Tenth Birthday to Creative Commons. Songwriters can add their new birthday ditties to a national repository of alternate Birthday songs. Submissions are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution license. The deadline for submitting songs is Jan 13 at 11:59pm ET. The judges include Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Coulton, and members of Deerhoof and Yo La Tengo. They will select 3 winners to be announced on 1/29/2013. More info here.

The song was originally written in 1893 by two sisters, but wasn’t copyrighted until 1935. If you want to go academically deep on its copyright history, check this paper. The video below highlights replacement birthday songs used on TV and film over the years as they try to save a few thousand bucks by not singing the song that everyone knows.

Happy Birthday Alternatives in Film and Television from Free Music Archive on Vimeo.

Veteran Rocker Bob Mould’s 2011 See A Little Light Concert DVD

In November 2011 legendary rocker Bob Mould played a show in LA with some friends. Now a year later there’s a Kickstarter to fund a DVD of that concert. The funding deadline is Saturday December 22.

The venue was The Walt Disney Concert Hall and these are the friends who 2000+ lucky people got to see Bob jam with:

Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Britt Daniel (Spoon), Ryan Adams, No Age, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler (The Hold Steady), and Margaret Cho with Grant Lee Phillips will perform songs from Bob’s catalog.

The set covered Mould’s entire career including both his 1990s band Sugar and 1980s hardcore punk icons Hüsker Dü. Mould played live with No Age and with a band including Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters). Margaret Cho recounts her experience attending and performing at the concert. Here’s Hüsker Dü in 1983 rocking the fuck out with Bob on vocals:

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades Through the Years

This Newsreel of the 1965 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade features cast members from The Munsters and their custom “Munster Koach” hot rod built by George Barris. The “Koach” was a modified 1926 Ford Model T with a custom hearse body. It cost nearly $20,000 (a lot of money back then). Thus continued, with a little help from the monsters next door, a tradition of holiday spectacle in New York City dating back to 1924.

1st Macy's parade flyer

Photo from Macy’s, Inc. Photo Gallery

The first Macy’s Parade in New York City took place in 1924, featuring live animals, clowns, cowboys, and Macy’s employees in costume. It drew 250,000 people (a lot of people back then). Today more than 3.5 million attend the parade live and more than 50 million watch it on television. But the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving parade was arranged by founder Rowland H Macy in 1854 in Haverhill, Massachusetts the location of his very first dry goods store.

Live animals made way for giant floating animals in 1927 when Felix the Cat became the first of many many cartoon characters to appear as balloons in the parade. In 1928 they first filled the balloons with helium and released them into the air at the end of the parade. Unfortunately they all soon popped loudly above the crowd. The next they were made durable enough to float around for a few days after being released, and had a mailing address on them so they could be returned (in exchange for a gift from Macy’s).

Felix the Cat on parade in the 1920s

Photo from Macy’s, Inc. Photo Gallery

Mickey Mouse debuted in 1934. This remarkable 1935 British newsreel shows his buddy Donald in the parade, too. Get ready for a very un-PC representation of a Native American and a short bit at the end of President FDR carving the turkey.

Macy’s hired German-American puppeteer Tony Sarg to design the balloons in-house. He oversaw the creation of original balloons like the “sea-serpent” below. Sarg worked on the parade through the 1930s and also designed Macy’s elaborate animated holiday window displays. There’s a really cool children’s book about Sarg. More photos of the sea serpent here.

Tony Sarg's Sea Serpent balloon for the Macy's parade at rest on a Nantucket beach.
Mouth of Tony Sarg's sea serpent balloon in the summer of 1937

Photos via the Nantucket Historical Association

This 1939 footage of the parade features characters from Disney and the Wizard of Oz. See our previous post for more details about this rediscovered home movie. 1939 was also the first year the parade was on television broadcast on New York’s W2XBS as an experimental broadcast with Tony Sarg as a host.

Cartoons weren’t the only celebrities immortalized as giant helium balloons. Here’s the inflated Eddie Cantor of 1940:

Eddie Cantor balloon 1940 parade

Here’s a treasure trove of historical parade photos from the Macy’s website:

Macy's Fantasy of Christmas

Uncle-Sam Macy's Parade

Rockettes kick Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

Giant Spaceman in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

Linus the Lionhearted in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

Pirate in hanger awaits Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade

A cluster of  clowns in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade 1966

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1979. Bob Keeshan rides the Tom Turkey chased by the Underdog balloon

Parade photos from Macy’s, Inc. Photo Gallery

In this 1954 8mm home movie shot near Times Square you’ll see Felix the Cat still in the show 27 years after his debut.

There are many more videos of recent years on YouTube. But that’s not always a good thing. Do you remember the live Rickroll we blogged a few years back? Or this horror from 1984 when Tim Conway and The Cabbage Patch Kids gave us this utterly forgettable musical number.

As an American and New York City icon the` parade has featured in lots of media over the years, most famously the 1947 film Miracle On 34th Street. On the small screen it figures in episodes of Family Guy, Friends, and Seinfeld amongst others. Macy’s celebrated their 150th anniversary in 2008 with a commercial showcasing the brand in popular culture…

What’s next? Well according to the Hollywood Reporter there may be a feature film about the parade in the works.

“We’re aiming to make a four-quadrant, family-friendly film somewhere in that Night At The Museum, Elf sweet spot,” Glassgold says.

The duo have begun meeting with writers and are exploring various concepts, even one where the floats spring to life.

To convince the department store to bless the project, Glassgold and Brothers commissioned artist Joel Venti, who storyboarded Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Thor, to help with the presentation, which won over Macy’s execs.

“We are always searching for the next Miracle on 34th Street,” says Macy’s senior vp Robin Hall.

Macy's Parade movie storyboard: A little help?

The article is from 2011, but this IMDB listing suggests there could be something to it: Untitled Macy’s Parade Project (2013).

The Long Now Foundation Salon Redesign and Limited Edition Spirits

The Long Now Foundation is building a new event space at the site of their current museum / store in San Francisco’s historic Fort Mason. Their Help us build it… video announces details of the project including design by Because We Can, a fundraising distillation collaboration with St George Spirits and unique bottles by Adams & Chittenden. Today they posted more video clips with additional details about the design of both the space and spirits, some of which you’ll find below.

[We] have designed a salon space that will not only house our prototypes, and a hand curated library, but also serve locally roasted coffee by day, and inspired cocktails by night. The goal is to build a social place to help make long-term thinking more automatic and common rather than difficult and rare.

Dedicated to fostering long-term thinking in an age of fractured attention spans, Long Now is best known for building a 10,000 year clock. The Foundation’s name comes via Brian Eno, who sits on their Board and was their first speaker. Their work has inspired a Neil Stephenson novel, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is now funding their clock’s construction in Texas. Full disclosure, I’ve helped out with this project, from advising on their “bottle keep” spirit club to picking juniper berries for their new gin. My lady works for the Foundation, so I’ve got a lot of insight on what makes this project special.

Long Now bottle stand and gin prototypes at St George Spirits / photo by Jillian Northrup

In this video, from footage for a forthcoming documentary short about the salon redesign, Jillian Northrup of Because We Can talks about the design challenge of a bar that is not primarily a commercial space.

Here’s Lance Winters of St George Spirits talking about his approach to crafting a special gin for Long Now using juniper berries picked from their property in Nevada and how his creations are an “olefactory archive” of a place and time.

Lance and team created the line of Hangar One vodkas, and have since moved on with St George Spirits to smaller run, hand-crafted spirits including a line of distinctive gins. They’re creating two unique products for Long Now:

St George Spirits in Alameda has created two exclusive spirits for us. Each one is truly a distillation of long-term thinking. The first is an aromatic gin made with juniper berries harvested by hand among the five-thousand year old bristlecones from our site in eastern Nevada.

The other spirit is a whiskey with a specially tailored grain bill. It will be fermented and distilled in such a way that it'll be delicious without aging, and grow more intricate and complex with every year. We will bottle a small amount, each year for the next 15 years, allowing you to taste its annual progression.

Photo by Jillian Northrup

Long Now gin and whiskey will only be available at their Fort Mason space. The redesign construction is funded in part by donors who join Long Now’s Founders Spirit clubs modeled after Japanese bottle keeps. Each bottle that is purchased ($1500 for the gin, $25,000 for 15 years of whiskey) stays at Long Now with the donor’s name on it, ready for when they visit. This approach fits Long Now’s mission of heightening people’s attention to the passage of time.

Juniper berries are the most distinctive ingredient in gin, and the Long Now gin features remarkable berries harvested from property they own on Mount Washington in eastern Nevada at elevations of up to 11,000 feet. Here are photos I shot there including a closeup of a juniper bush rife with tiny berries, and a several-thousand-year-old bristlecone pine tree:

View from Long Now's property on Mount Washington in Nevada

Bristlecone pine tree on Long Now's Nevada property

Photos of Nevada by Mikl-em

Here Lance talks about the unusual flavors and characteristics of the juniper berries from Long Now’s property.

Long Now has additional videos about the project here.

Back in 2006 Laughing Squid’s primary tentacle Scott Beale shot photos of the opening of Long Now’s space at Fort Mason. It hasn’t changed much since. Here are a few “before-and-future” comparisons of the redesign with 2006.

Long Now public space “Before-and-future” (front room with Orrery):

The Long Now Foundation Public Space Opening photo by Scott Beale

Above: photo by Scott Beale of Long Now’s space in 2006. Below: similar view of Because We Can’s planned redesign.

Long Now Salon design by Because We Can, front room view

Long Now public space “Before-and-future” (back room, two perspectives):

The Long Now Foundation Public Space Opening photo by Scott Beale

Above: photo by Scott Beale of Long Now’s space in 2006. Below: similar view of Because We Can’s planned redesign.

Long Now space viewing toward the back... BWC design

Long Now Bar design, forward view, by Because We Can

Above: the bar viewed in the opposite direction (via Because We Can). Below: how it looked in 2006 (by Scott Beale)

Long Now Bar space 02006, chime generator, photo by Scott Beale

When will the new space open? No date is set but, at least relatively to the 10,000 year clock, it won’t be long now.

Alexander Rose from Long Now and Lance Winters of St George Spirits

Alexander Rose from Long Now and Lance Winters of St George Spirits. / photo by Jillian Northrup.

Here are all of Scott’s photos from the day the space opened at Fort Mason in 02006:

And more images of the Because We Can interior design:

All videos by Sustainability Media / Shoulder High Productions