May 15, 2013
On the eve of the release of the latest feature-film from the “Star Trek” mega-brand, scholar and curator Margaret Weitekamp argues that the fictional series of space exploration helped define and inspire real world parallels. From advancing diversity in NASA to anticipating new technologies, “Star Trek” left its mark on American culture. Weitekamp, the Air and Space Museum’s curator of space science fiction materials, including a 11-foot model of the Enterprise, says, it will continue to do so.
Since the original series aired in the 1960s, “Star Trek” has grown to include five different series, 12 movies and a vibrant fan culture that supports a multi-billion dollar industry.
Many of the people working in the spaceflight industry, says Weitekamp, are also huge fans of the franchise. That includes Mike Gold, chief counsel at Bigelow Aerospace, who is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Gold and Weitekamp will be joined by two more Trek fans for a panel Thursday May 16, “Star Trek’s Continuing Relevance,” at the Air and Space Museum.
We spoke with Weitekamp over the phone about her career, why “Star Trek” matters and her own spaceflight ambitions.
How did you turn “Star Trek” into a scholarly pursuit?
I have a Ph.D. in history from Cornell and while there, Cornell has a rather innovative program of writing in the discipline, where for their freshman composition classes, you can create a course about anything you want because the content is not what is graded, it’s the teaching of writing in sociology, or history, or philosophy.
So I created a space history and science fiction class that I taught a few times while at Cornell.
How does “Star Trek” inspire industry?
The original ‘Star Trek’ series, from 1966 to 1969, had a very diverse cast as the command crew of the Starship Enterprise. When NASA was recruiting astronauts in the 1970s, they weren’t getting the diversity of female and minority applicants that they had hoped that they would. So they actually hired Nichelle Nichols, who is the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, an African American actress who was part of that command crew, to do a public relations campaign in the 1970s with the theme that “there’s space for everyone.” They saw the number of women and people of color applying go up after her campaign in 1977 and 1978. So there have been some instances of a very direct relationship. And then also just the broader sense of being interested in what’s possible in terms of space flight and thinking about the ways in which who we are gets translated when you go into space.
How close are we to the future “Star Trek” envisions?
Not as close as people would like. The lack of a transporter and the lack of a warp drive has kept humanity a lot closer to home than I think people had hoped we would be being this far into the 21st century.
On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which, in terms of global communication, people are much farther in ways ‘Star Trek’ didn’t necessarily anticipate.
People had hoped that some day they would be able to walk around with a thin tablet or with a communicator on their belts and, in fact, we now have moved passed flip phones to having a kind of mini-computer in your hands when you’re on your smart phone.
There are some ways in which I think we’re living the dream but the physical transportation of people out between star systems is still hundreds if not thousands of years out.
Would you consider going into space?
If there’s some need to send a historian mother of three into space, I think that would be tremendously exciting.
What do you like about “Star Trek?”
I personally, as a scholar, am really intrigued by the ways that it can be both a driver for social change but also a commentary on the political and social situation at the time. The original ‘Star Trek’ series, for example, had a lot of discussion about racial integration and gender roles and was very self-consciously a social commentator. As someone who is interested in American culture and society as a historian, it’s a really rich source for looking at the ways in which people have engaged with those issues.
And as a fan, what do you like about it?
I am more of a Next Generation fan and was also a kind of closet Trek fan and a ‘Star Wars’ fan. I am always interested in gender roles and ‘Star Trek’ has had some very innovative plot lines where they talked about women’s roles in society. Despite the mini-skirts of the original series, they have done some very innovative gender stuff.
Which is better, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars?”
Actually, I’m very ecumenical on this. I really like both. I grew up more as a ‘Star Wars’ fan but I have really come to like how rich ‘Star Trek’ is in terms of the scholarly analysis and that’s something that’s a lot of fun for me personally and professionally. I’m going to have to come down solidly on the fence of saying I like both.
‘Star Trek’ has more self-consciously, commented on its social and political context…Although the ‘Star War’ universe has all of those six movies kind of working to tell one continual arc of a story, the ‘Star Trek’ universe has really worked to knit together many disparate pieces: TV shows, movies, fan culture, novels, merchandise, into one, what has been called by scholars, megatext.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” will be showing at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s IMAX theater.
May 10, 2013
The drinks were freer, the music brassier and the times, well, Gatsby-er. At least, that’s the picture F. Scott Fitzgerald creates with his tales of high society run wild in his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Now set for yet another screen adaptation, this time thanks to the energetic hands of Baz Luhrmann, the novel continues to resonate today.
Its appeal is a dark but undeniable one, enough to let you weep alongside Daisy as she marvels inside Gatsby’s closet at his exquisite shirts. The clothes, the alcohol, the music–we get it, it’s a heady and seductive mix. So go ahead and throw your Gatsby-themed party (skipping the murder and suicide–oops, spoiler alert) and let the experts at Folkways supply the playlist.
Thanks to David Horgan and Corey Blake of Smithsonian Folkways for the inspired lineup that includes three tracks referenced in the novel itself, including “Three O’clock in the Morning,” which narrator Nick Carraway calls a “neat, sad little waltz.” The novel also mentions “The Sheik of Araby” and “A Love Nest,” which, in some versions, includes the poignant lyric:
Ever comes the question old,
“Shall we build for pride? Or,
Shall brick and mortar hold
worth and love inside?”
April 16, 2013
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke major league baseball’s color barrier, the world was still 16 years away from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as just getting organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was eight years away and housing discrimination based on race would remain legal until 1968. In his first season with the MLB, Robinson would win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He was a perpetual All-Star. And in 1955, he helped his team secure the championship. Robinson’s success was, by no means, inevitable and in fact he earned it in a society that sought to make it altogether impossible.
Unsurprisingly, his story seemed bound for Hollywood and in 1950, still in the midst of his career, he starred as himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Now Robinson’s story returns to the screen in the new film “42,” this time played by Howard University graduate, Chadwick Boseman, who was at the American History Museum Monday evening for a special screening for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught up with him there.
Are you happy to be back in D.C.?
I’m excited, you know, this room got me a little hyped. It’s fun coming here after having been here a few weeks ago after meeting the First Lady and the President for the screening at the White House. I went to college here and you always think, oh, I’m never going to get to go in that building, I’m never going to get to do this or that so coming here and doing it, it’s like wow, it’s a whole new world.
You said you can’t remember ever not knowing who Jackie Robinson was, but that it was important not to play him as just a hero. How did you get all those details? Did speaking with his wife, Rachel Robinson, play a big part?
The first thing that I did was, I went to meet her at her office on Varick Street. She sat me down on a couch, just like this, she just talked to me very frankly and told me the reasons why she was attracted to him, what she thought of him before she met him, what attracted her once they actually started conversing, how they dated, how shy he was, everything you could possibly imagine. She just went through who they were.
I think she sort of just started me on the research process as well because at the foundation, they have all the books that have been written about him. It was just a matter of hearing that firsthand information.
Then I met her again with children and grandchildren and in that case, they were sort of examining me physically, prodding and poking and measuring and asking me questions: Are you married, why aren’t you married? You know, anything that you could imagine. Actually, before they ever spoke to me, they were prodding and poking and measuring me and I was like, who are these people? And they said, you’re playing my granddad, we gotta check you out. It was as much them investigating me as it was me investigating him.
So they gave you a seal of approval?
They did not give me a seal of approval, but they didn’t not give it. They were willing to gamble, I guess.
What were they looking for, what did they want to make sure you got right?
She was adamant about the fact that she didn’t want him to be portrayed as angry. That’s a stereotype that is often used, just untrue and one-dimensional with black characters and it was something that he had been accused of, of having a temper. In some senses, he did have a temper but it wasn’t in a negative sense.
I, on the other hand, after reading the script knew that it was necessary to not show him as being passive or a victim, which is another stereotype that’s often used in movies. I didn’t want him to be inactive, because if he’s passive, he’s inactive and you run the risk of doing another story that’s supposed to be about a black character, but there’s the white guy, there, who is the savior. There’s a point where you have to be active and you have to have this fire and passion. I view it more as competitive passion as Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns said to me today, that he had a competitive passion, competitive temper that any great athlete, whether it be Larry Bird or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they all have that passion. That’s what he brought to the table. . . .My grandmother probably would call it holy anger.
Was that dynamic something you were able to talk about with Harrison Ford, who plays the team executive Branch Rickey, and the writer?
First of all yes. But they already had really advanced and progressive points of view about it anyway and were very aware. Harrison was also very clear, even in our first conversations about it, that he was playing a character and I was playing the lead and that there are differences in the two.
There were instances where I might voice, this is what we need to do, and everybody listened to it and that’s definitely not always the case, definitely not always what you experience on the set. But I think everybody wanted to get it right. I can’t really think of a moment, I know that they came up where it was like, well I’m black so I understand this in a different way, but they do happen and everybody was very receptive to it.
Was there any story that Mrs. Robinson told you about him that stuck in the back of your head during the process?
She just talked about how he adapted after very difficult scenes where he was being abused verbally or threatened. She said he would go hit golf balls because he would never bring that into the house. The question that I asked that brought her to that was: Did he ever have moments where he secluded himself at home, or where he was depressed, or you saw it weighing on him? And she said: ‘No, when he came into our space, he did whatever he needed to do to get rid of it, so that our space could be a safe haven, and he could refuel, and could get back out into the world and be the man he had to be.’
And she’s going through it just as much as he is. She’s literally in the crowd. People are yelling right over, calling him names right over her or calling her names because they know who she is. That’s something people don’t really think about, that she was actually in the crowd. She has to hold that so she doesn’t bring that home to him and give him more to worry about and that’s a phenomenal thing to hold and to be strong. I love finding what those unspoken things were that are underneath what’s actually being said.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of who he really is. I think what’s interesting about it is that he played himself in that original 1949-1950 version. . .What I found is that him having to use the Hollywood script of that time does not allow him to tell his own story because he couldn’t really be Jackie Robinson in that version.
It wasn’t his exact story, if you look at the version it says all he ever wanted to do was play baseball and he didn’t. Baseball was his worst sport, he was a better football player, better basketball player, better at track and field. He had a tennis championship, he played golf, horse back riding, baseball was the worst thing he did. I’m not saying that he wasn’t good at it, I’m saying that it’s not the truth. He was a second lieutenant in the army, he was All-American, he led his conference in scoring in basketball and he could have been playing in the NFL, but he had to go to Hawaii and play instead.
So what is that? Why did he end up playing baseball? Because baseball was where he could actualize his greatness, it wasn’t the only thing that he was great at and so just that little untruth in the script skips all of the struggle that he had getting to the point of being in the minor leagues. He’s doing this because it’s one more thing that he’s trying to do in that United States at that time that maybe will allow him to be the man that he wants to be. He could have done any of those other things, it just wasn’t an avenue for him to actualize his full humanity, his full manhood and so that version doesn’t allow him to be Jackie Robinson.
When I look at this version, we live in a different time where you can tell the story more honestly. Ultimately I think that’s what you should take away from the film, I get to see who he is now because we’re more ready to see it.
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.”
December 4, 2012
It’s that time of year again when the airwaves jingle with a potpourri of holiday music, performances and mashups, featuring songs and artists with jazz, pop culture, film, classical and sacred music roots. Some of the chestnut classics are playing 24/7 on radio stations (for those of you who still listen to radio) across the land.
Speaking of chestnut classics, during his 29-year career, jazz vocalist and pianist Nat King Cole recorded four versions of his chestnuts roasting by open fire “The Christmas Song” before arriving at the 1961 version that became the perennial favorite. Surprisingly, the tune was composed on a hot summer day in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. Whitney Houston released her stellar version in 2003. Two years later, the music licensing organization ASCAP noted that the song was number one among the ten most performed holiday tunes during the first five years of the 21st century. Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, were two and three, respectively.
I always keep my ear out for Eartha Kitt. The original Cat Woman purrs for holiday furs, cars and jewels in Santa Baby, a satirical tune co-written in 1953 by Philip Springer and Joan Javits, niece of U.S. Senator Jacob Javits.
Whether your tastes veer towards the traditional or something a little funkier, here’s an eclectic mix of jazz and other music by seasoned and emerging artists to explore this season, along with some interesting bedtime stories you probably didn’t know. So curl up with your hot cocoa and click through some of my holiday favorites.
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite. Tchaikovysky swings in the hands of these classically trained jazz masters. In 1960 the duo reinvented the ballet classic, mixing rhythms and musical styles. These two selections bring sass to the Nutcracker Overture and make the Sugar Plum Fairies sound like they’re hung over from too much partying at the Sugar Rum Cherry Dance.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. At four foot nine, country music-rock star Brenda Lee was known as Little Miss Dynamite. She was 13 when she recorded this classic in 1958. Her version became a chart buster in 1960 and reigns as the all time favorite, played by radio formats from Top 40 to Country Music to Adult Contemporary and Adult Standards. Nielsen Sound Scan rated digital track sales at 679,000 downloads. Miley Cyrus also had fun with the song .
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Composed by Hugh Martin Jr., who also wrote “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. This song from the film might have become the most depressing holiday song ever written. Luckily studio executives and Garland intervened, requesting rewrites to give the public a more hopeful classic. Compare the original lyrics to the holiday friendly versions sung by Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross.
The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late). What more can I say? Gotta love Alvin and the Chipmunks in this song composed by Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, who had a knack with novelty music. The son of Armenian immigrants, Bagdasarian was a bit stage and film actor whose first musical success, ”Come-on-a-My House,” was a dialect song that became a hit for Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of actor George Clooney. The song was co-written with Bagdasarian’s cousin, the famous writer William Saroyan. Go ahead, do your best impersonation. ALLLLLVIN!
Oh Chanukah. This traditional song commemorating the Jewish Festival of Lights was standard fare in the New York City school programs when music appreciation and performances were used to explore cultural diversity and heritage. Enjoy the traditional song by this young choir and an offering of Klezmer holiday music by a high school sax quartet. Klezmer Jazz a fusion of the rhythms and traditional music of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe with American jazz, evolved in the U.S. in the 1880s.
Carol of the Bells. One rarely hears jazz played on the Hawaiian ukelele or such performances compared with Miles Davis, unless you’re Jake Shimabukuro — a largely self-taught virtuoso who was introduced to the instrument by his mother. Listen to his take of the classic Carol of the Bells, a song based on a traditional Ukranian folk chant, followed by a rocking jazz performance .
Yagibushi. Okay it’s not a holiday carol but if music by jazz performer Chichiro Yamanaka, a standout at the 2012 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, doesn’t rouse you for the holidays, nothing will.
Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 in Canada and the U.S. to honor African and African American cultural traditions that teach valuable life principles.
And Now for Something Completely Different. Jazz pianist/composer and NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has made African and world culture the core of his creative process. Blue Moses is a composition influenced by time Weston spent in Morocco learning the traditions and musical culture of the Gnawa people—West Africans taken to North Africa as slaves and soldiers around the 16th century. In an interview with Jo Reed, Weston said that within the Gnawa music ”I heard the blues, I heard Black jazz, I heard the music of the Caribbean, I heard the foundation which proved to me that the rhythms of Africa, they remained alive, but disguised in different forms, whether in Honduras, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Mississippi. ”
Happy Musical Holidays!
Joann Stevens is program manager of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an initiative to advance appreciation and recognition of jazz as America’s original music, a global cultural treasure. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April. Recent posts include Danilo Pérez: Creator of Musical Guardians of Peace and Jason Moran: Making Jazz Personal.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here