March 11, 2013
What do Batman’s batarang, Charlie’s golden ticket and a gremlin have in common? They’re all from famous Warner Bros. films and they’re all part of the American History Museum’s entertainment collection, as of March 8 when the studio’s chairman, Barry Meyer signed over the deed for 30 items from 13 different films. Highlights from the donation, which represents films spanning 63 years, include: stop-action puppets from Tim Burton’s 2005 film, The Corpse Bride, Halle Berry’s Catwoman suit from her 2004 movie, and prop candy bars and a golden ticket from the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp.
“All of these artifacts,” says curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, “will allow us to tell stories about Hollywood film, . . .one of America’s great industries.”
Joining objects like the Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Kermit the Frog, the items represent everything from Hollywood classics like Bette Davis’ 1942 film, Now, Voyager to the wizardry of sci-fi flicks like Gremlins 2: The New Batch from 1990.
“I think all of the items have a unique kind of perspective and a unique kind of position in this,” says Meyer, “but in a way the most beautiful and the most intricate items up there are those models from the Corpse Bride.” Calling the puppets, individual pieces of art that resonant as much off the screen as on, he adds, “but I love them all, including the gremlin!”
His studio marks its 90th anniversary this April and he says, in many ways, its “own story mirrors that of the entertainment industry with a number of firsts in the areas of film and television and home entertainment.” From early ventures merging sound and moving picture to pioneering days in the television industry, and even its patents in the development of DVD and other digital technologies, Warner Bros. has seen phenomenal changes to the film industry.
Through it all, Meyer says, “as these experiences move further into the digital realm. . .it’s really important to remember that every movie, every television show at its heart, at its core, tells a story.” And critical to bringing that story to life, he adds, are “the sets and the props that dress the sets, the costumes worn by the actors and the models used in pre-production and many other non-digital, very tangible items that help us tell the story that is the core of the movie.”
Talking about the ongoing relationship with the American History Museum, Meyer says, “Our partnership is a great way of reminding people that movies and televisions shows are an important part of our shared culture.”
August 20, 2012
Phyllis Diller, the much-loved comedic star of zany wigs, painful gag lines and an inimitable blast of a laugh, died this morning at her home in Brentwood, California. She was 95.
Last fall, the National Museum of American History debuted a collection of highlights from Diller’s multifaceted career. The show, entitled “Have You Heard the One . . ?” included a relic from the star’s life that might be among the most unique artifacts in the history of the performing arts—Diller’s joke file. The 48-drawer, steel file cabinet, which the star called “my life in one-liners,” contains 50,000 jokes, each typed on an index card and filed under such prophetic taglines as “Science, Seasons, Secretary, Senile, Sex, Sex Symbols, Sex Harassment, Shoes, Shopping…” and “Food Gripes, Foreign (incidents & personalities), Foundations (bra & underwear), Fractured Speech, Freeways, Friends, Frugality, Frustrations, Funerals, Funny Names…”
Diller’s famous one liners took self-deprecation to new limits. “When I first got into this business, I thought a punchline was organized drinking.” One can almost hear the ensuing blast of her famous laugh. And of course her relationship with her husband Fang was without exception, always good fodder. “Fang has some very strange ideas about housework. He thinks I should do it.”
“The [joke] file is like a tree,” Diller told the magazine’s Owen Edwards in 2007. “Leaves drop off, and new leaves are added—the new stuff pushes out the old.”
Diller, it turns out was not only the boisterous comic of late night television. She was a multifaceted artist who besides stand-up comedy enjoyed painting and sculpture and was a classical pianist. According to American History’s curator of the performing arts, Dwight Blocker Bowers, she also harbored tendencies toward museum curation. Bowers remembers arriving at Diller’s home in 2006 to arrange for the donation. “She was the most organized donor I’d ever met.”
“She had a rack of her costumes that she wished to donate. Each costume came with a plastic bag attached to it and inside the bag, she had carefully included not only the props—her cigarette holder, the head-dress, the gloves, the shoes—but also a photograph of her wearing the entire ensemble. She was better at curation than I was,” Bowers jokes.
The museum is now home to an impressive Diller collection that includes ten of her costumes, a wig, and a cigarette holder, one of Diller’s signature props. (The cigarette was wooden: “I’ve never smoked,” Bowers says she always insisted.) The cache also includes a number of photographs—including one of her wearing the green and gold lame gown from her Vietnam tour with Bob Hope in 1967—three of her comedy albums, and the scripts from two of her 1960s television shows. She also donated several of her sculptures including a self-portrait bust and one made of her hands. A curious relic of her artistic talents includes the painting she called “The Phyllis Fuge.” It depicts the notes of a musical score that she wrote.
“She was an artist,” Bowers says. “She was an accomplished pianist, she painted, she sculpted and she did stand-up comedy.”
“We even received two recordings of her singing,” Bowers added.
But did she have a good voice? “Well, she was not the recording industry’s best singer,” Bowers demurs, “but she was the best comedian.”
“I think the most important thing I can say about Phyllis Diller,” says Bowers, “is that she was like Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Just like Friedan, Phyllis Diller chronicled the daily lives of woman. But she did it with laughs.”
September 27, 2011
Diosa Costello was the first Latina on Broadway. She was a pioneering night club performer. As a producer and club owner, she set trends in entertainment; as a film star and popular musician, she personified them. “I was the original J. Lo.,” Costello says. Last week, as part of an on-stage program and conversation with curators, she donated a set of 11 stage costumes from her storied career to the American History Museum.
The 94-year-0ld Costello grew up in Puerto Rico, performing for her father sick in bed and soldiers on the street . “I was born dancing,” she says. “All my life I danced.” After moving to New York with her family as a teenager, she worked her way up the ranks, catching a major break when she was cast in the Broadway musical Too Many Girls.
During her long and diverse career, she would record music, appear in Hollywood films, perform alongside Rodney Dangerfield in Catskills comedy clubs and launch Desi Arnaz to fame. In an era when racial diversity was nonexistent on stage, she performed as everything from Latina stereotypes to a Pacific islander, as “Bloody Mary” in South Pacific.
Her routines, in particular, were remarkably racy for the time. “I would stick my behind out, and I put a glass of water on top of it. When I was dancing all over the place, and I didn’t spill one drop,” Costello says. “I’m very uninhibited. If I think something, I do it.”
“She is a pioneering performer and a significant figure in American entertainment,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, a curator of the American History Museum’s entertainment collection. He hopes that, after renovations that will create a larger exhibition space for the popular culture artifacts, the museum will be able to put Costello’s costumes on display.
Despite her longevity and popularity, Costello never expected for her work to be honored in the Smithsonian. “I’ll tell you, I didn’t even know. I had never been to a museum, I didn’t even know what the heck it was all about,” she says. But Bowers feels the honor is fitting for a career of Costello’s magnitude. “You’re a legend,” he says, “to us and to the American people.”
In the upcoming November issue of Smithsonian, don’t miss Around the Mall’s Q&A with Diosa Costello.
June 10, 2011
It was two teenagers from the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio, that first imagined a caped superhero dressed in red, blue and yellow, with a giant “S” on his chest. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were geeky 17-year-olds wanting to create a character to look up to. They found it in Superman.
According to Gerard Jones’ book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Superman’s story—of being catapulted from planet Krypton to Earth, where he was raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife, as Clark Kent—came to Siegel in pieces over the course of a single night: “I hop out of bed and write this down, and then I go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two-hour intervals. [The next morning] I dashed over to Joe’s place and showed it to him…. We just sat down and I worked straight through. I think I had brought in some sandwiches to eat, and we worked all day long.”
Siegel and Shuster began writing comic strips from their homes, and eventually from their New York City base. In 1938, though, they sold their superhero for a mere $130 to DC Comics. (Hold your gasps. After winning a lawsuit in the 1970s, Siegel and Shuster each received $20,000 a year for life.) The character made his first appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics and, 73 years later, remains a household name.
For admirers looking for a place other than Cleveland to pay homage during this anniversary month, the National Museum of American History is home to a few artifacts related to the superhero. He stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” after all. Superman’s cape from the 1987 film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, starring Christopher Reeve, is in the collections, as well as an “Action Comics” comic book from 1940, featuring the vigilante on its cover. The museum even has a Superman lunch box and thermos from the late 1970s, showing how popular a character he was, especially in the wake of the Superman films. (They remind me of a Superman cup—a promo from Burger King—my older brother had in the late 1980s. I had the Wonder Woman one.)
“The presence of the superhero plays a real role in American culture, whether it is Superman or whether it is Indiana Jones,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator in the museum’s division of culture and the arts, in a Smithsonian.com video. “[It's] the presence of a larger than life figure who can save society.”
July 15, 2010
I know I’ve done and seen about everything when I see an elephant fly. And the truth is, I have—well, only at the Disneyland theme park courtesy of the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, which was built shortly after the park opened 55 years ago this weekend on July 17, 1955.
Though it’s easy to cynically write it off as a perennial cash cow for an entertainment empire, the theme park is indeed a culturally meaningful piece of Americana.
“Disneyland deals a lot with the idea of wish fulfillment and fantasy in American life and both of those play a role in the American psyche,” says American History Museum curator of popular culture Dwight Blocker Bowers. And if that’s the idea behind the theme park, Dumbo could not be a more apropos poster boy.
“The character itself represents the underdog,” Bowers says. “He encounters unspeakable roadblocks and yet he triumphs. And I think that says something about the rags-to-riches undercurrent in American culture and that Dumbo’s journey from lowly circus animal to big top hero is a triumph of the American dream.”
The Dumbo theme park attraction is based on the 1941 Disney film about a baby elephant whose unusually large ears incur ridicule from his fellow circus animals, but he learns that they give him the uncanny ability to glide through the air and he ultimately attains celebrity status.
The elephant-shaped gondolas were originally planned to be pink, recalling a scene in the film where Dumbo and his mouse pal Timothy accidentally imbibe a bucket full of champagne and experience hallucinations of neon-colored elephants on parade. However, this visual conceit was rethought and the actual ride has always sported the classically gray fiberglass pachyderms.
The Dumbo car on display at the American History museum dates to around 1956. ”The reason we know that,” Bowers says, “is that the first Dumbos designed for the ride had articulated ears and they broke very frequently and required constant repair. So they redesigned them to have permanently aloft ears. One of the things I had asked Disney was that if they had any of the ones with the articulated ears and they said, ‘No, they all broke and we would not have kept anything like that.’”
And in spite of its age, the artifact looks pristine. “The amazing thing is that Disney did send a fellow to wax it and as he was waxing I said, ‘Don’t make it look so new.’ And how you can tell its age is if you see where the metal pole attaches to the body of the elephant, there are elements of rust that shows the age of the car.”
Dumbo was donated to the Smithsonian by the Walt Disney Company in 2005 on the occasion of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary and you can currently see him on the third floor of the American History Museum. Unfortunately, this one is for viewing only—you’ll have to travel to a Disney theme park if you want to ride a flying elephant.