August 12, 2011
One of my great pleasures of writing The Object at Hand column, along with the chance to find and report wonderful “back stories,” has been the opportunity to interview remarkable people. Sometimes these interviewees aren’t well known, and sometimes they’re famous. Not being a household name is no indicator that an interview won’t be fun, any more than fame guarantees an intriguing conversation. But when fame and fascination mix, so much the better.
I found that happy mix interviewing the great clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, whose music had given so much joy to my parents, when he told me that after he retired, rich and successful, in his 50s, he never touched the clarinet again but went on to win many international shooting contests. And again when I talked to Mel Brooks about his time as a writer for Sid Caesar—on my cell phone on a California freeway, unable to take notes. But certainly one of my most memorable conversations was with the comedy star Phyllis Diller—memorable in large part because after getting off the phone with the comic, now in her 90s, my sides hurt from laughing.
The National Museum of American History now has on display Diller’s 48-drawer metal filing cabinet, each drawer filled with neatly organized cards that contain 50,000 jokes—give or take a knee slapper or two. Diller, whose career began in 1955—a bit late in life for someone taking on the rigors of standup comedy—told me that while jokes should seem spontaneous, collecting, recording and organizing material so that an act can be constantly refreshed is a key to success. Her cabinet of whimsical wonders was her way of doing that, and her long career as one of the pioneer women in comedy is testimony to how well it served her.
But back to the pain in my ribs. I have spent time with comedians and comedy writers who know what’s funny, and can make people laugh, but who are not notably funny in person, offstage. So I was prepared, as I dialed Diller’s number in Southern California, to have a sober talk about the business of comedy. I got plenty of good information, but what I also got was half an hour with a woman who is truly, spontaneously hilarious. There was nothing canned about her humor—for instance, she didn’t tell one joke of the vast trove she donated to the Smithsonian in 2003, not even any of the gags about “Fang,” her oft-targeted husband. But her response to my questions, and her way of telling tales from her long life, had me gasping for breath. Perhaps the most delight revelation of all was that Diller’s odd, three-beat laugh—Ha! Ha! Ha!—that I’d always assumed was part of her act when I watched her on television, is actually the way she laughs in life. And it’s infectious. When she laughed during our talk, I almost found myself laughing back the same way. She. Was. So. Funny.
-by contributor Owen Edwards
Watch the Smithsonian Channel video about the Gag File.
July 27, 2011
When pilots of an earlier era talked about “cross country hops,” the operative word was “hop.” In slow aircraft with limited fuel capacity, they flew from airport to airport, covering a distance in a day that modern planes cover in an hour or less.
So it was with Captain Matt Quy, who in his Spirit of Tuskegee Stearman biplane, is on a journey across the United States to deliver his historic aircraft to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum will open on the National Mall in 2015 and the aircraft will become a tribute to the Tuskegee Airman who flew in it.
Quy took off from Lincoln, CA, just after sunrise on July 9, in a temporary mini-formation with a friend in another Stearman. His pal peeled off and went home, and Quy continued eastward toward the snow covered Sierra Nevada mountains with a flight plan that has taken him to the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where Quy spent time with cadets and with eight Tuskegee Airmen. Then, he flew on to his home state of Minnesota for three air shows as well as meetings with Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol members, and community groups.
As of today, July 27, the intrepid captain is in his fourth day at what some have called “the mother of all airshows” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “It’s been great being here,” he said in a telephone conversation. “Everybody who sees the plane seems to appreciate what it represents.” One visitor to the show with a special appreciation for the Stearman was Lt. Col. James Warren, one of the most renowned of the original Tuskegee Airmen. Matt wasn’t able to give the colonel a ride in a plane he may well have flown because, as he points out, “Just now this is the busiest airport in the world, with several thousand airplanes on the ground. It took me half an hour to cross the active runways when I arrived.”
There has been the expected storm-dodging, but the seven-decade old plane has performed well, according to Quy, having reached 10,500 feet climbing over the Rockies. “We had a minor maintenance issue a few days ago,” he said, “but other than that the flight has been trouble free.”
Tomorrow Matt and his plane will leave for Tuskegee, Alabama, where the Stearman spent its youth as a trainer for America’s first black military fliers. And then on to Washington, DC, with a planned landing on August 2.
Weather permitting, of course.
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions. Each month in Smithsonian magazine, he selects one artifact from among the Smithsonian Institution’s 23 million and tells its story.
July 12, 2011
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March 16, 2011
If the prospect of spring cleaning brings dread, just be glad your home isn’t the Smithsonian castle. Or for that matter, any of the Smithsonian museums or its support facilities. Imagine cleaning up your house every day after guests pop in for some 82,400 visits. (The Smithsonian Institution says its museums recorded 30.2 million visits in 2010.) And the only day off you get is Christmas.
It’s housecleaning on a grand scale at the museums and support facilities, says Jeff Ridgeway, a manager with the Institution’s Office of Facilities Management and Reliability. Ponder these housekeeping numbers, while you sweep away the dust bunnies under your bed this spring.
244. That’s how many people each worker must tidy up after every day.
11. That’s how many 2,200-square-foot houses a Smithsonian worker would have to clean each day to match the square footage he or she keeps neat here at the Smithsonian.
12,633 miles. The visitors flush the toilets incessantly. They use 66.7 million feet of toilet paper a year, or 12,633 miles. That’s half the Earth’s circumference. BTW: to conserve paper, Smithsonian workers use a sly trick; they overhang the paper to slow down the toilet paper rolls’ momentum.
6,588. That’s how many restroom fixtures there are at the Smithsonian. Twenty fixtures per worker each day.
$868,617. That’s the annual cost of cleaning supplies, roughly equivalent t0 14 Cadillac Escalades, or 86 Kias.
by Jeanne Maglaty
June 17, 2010
Pop-up books? Sure, they sound like kid fare, but as the recent new exhibition at the National Museum of American History proves, they are far more than just that. “Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn,” on view until next fall, not only showcases the history of the pop-up book, (which dates back to the 11th century), but also the intricate complexities that artisans have employed in creating these endlessly fascinating works.
When this visitor recently entered the darkened exhibit (many of the oldest pieces must be kept sheltered from light), the fantastical array of spinning carousels, giant spaceships, moveable skeletons, and airplanes poised for flight brought on an almost childlike giddiness.
Each book—the product of the author, the illustrator and the paper engineer—is ingeniously endowed with pull tabs, cut paper, string, boxes and cylinders. In some cases, the paper engineer proves to be doubly talented and serves as the illustrator as well. The exhibit showcases 53 of these works of genius, dating from the 14th century to modern times. A video explores the collaborative efforts among the three artists and a stop-motion film details the impressive feat it is to construct the pop-up book’s most revered and anticipated feature—the large centerpiece that unfurls in splendor when the book is opened and collapses between pages when the book is closed.
Modern assumptions make children the popular target of these wondrous works, but the exhibit quickly renders that notion myth. Anatomy, astrology, geometry, astronomy, theology, technology are just a few of the subjects the pop-ups in this exhibit cover. In fact, the oldest pop-up books were intended as instructional tools for adults, rendering difficult concepts into a kind of 3D instruction manual. The pop-ups in Euclid’s 1570 book, The Elements of Geometrie . . . help readers visualize geometrical forms and three-dimensional figures. More recent pop-up books, such as Sharon Gallagher’s 1984 Inside the Personal Computer uses similar strategies to help readers identify and understand the workings of a personal computer. Of course, books for children are featured in the exhibit. An 1850 rendering of the popular tales the Little Glass Slipper and Cinderella are sure to delight young visitors.
Stephen Van Dyk , director of the library at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, said that the hardest part about putting together the show was deciding what would be displayed. “I had over 1,200 books available to showcase, but could choose just 53 books that best show the diversity.”
– by Jacqueline Sheppard
Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, and Turn will be on view through the Fall of 2011 at the National Museum of American History.