March 14, 2013
This is the 21st in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 21st episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on February 17, 1963 and was titled “TV or Not TV.”
Much like both “Elroy’s Pal,” and “Elroy’s TV Show,” this episode ostensibly gives viewers another look behind the scenes of television production. George and Astro are involved in a misunderstanding (isn’t that always the way?) where they think they’ve witnessed a robbery. In fact, it was just a TV shoot for “Naked Planet,” a spoof on the late 1950s ABC show “Naked City.” Thinking that mobsters want to snuff him out, George goes into hiding with Astro at Mr. Spacely’s vacation home in the woods.
That vacation home – Mr. Spacely’s “old fishing cabin” — is one of my favorite examples of Jetsonian architecture. Probably because the building bears a striking resemblance to the villain Vandamm ‘s hide-out in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North By Northwest.
Sadly, the home in North by Northwest is not a real house that you can visit, but was instead built on an MGM set.
Both the Jetsons version and the Hitchcock version have the signature of midcentury hyper-modernism or, as it came to be known, Googie: dramatic sloping roofs, plenty of glass, steel, maybe a little plastic, and some stone when you wanted a touch of that comfortable earthy flair.
Danny Graydon, author of The Jetsons: The Official Guide to the Cartoon Classic, has deemed the look “mid-21st century modern” — a play on the term “midcentury modern,” back when the century in question happened to be the 20th.
The architecture from “The Jetsons” clearly takes cues from architects who worked in the midcentury modern/Googie style, like John Lautner and Oscar Niemeyer. Jetsonian architecture also seems to draw from the work of Charles Schridde in his series of ads for Motorola in the early 1960s which ran in the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine.
But as I pointed out in my post about Googie architecture from last year, the artists and animators working on “The Jetsons” didn’t really need to leave their own backyards for inspiration. The Hanna-Barbera Studio which produced “The Jetsons” was in Hollywood and in the late 1950s and early 1960s buildings all across Los Angeles had that mid-20th century modern look that would become identified as Jetsonian.
The people working at Hanna-Barbera could find inspiration at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in Anaheim, dozens of Googie coffee shops in Southern California, and maybe the most iconic Googie building in L.A. (if only for its visibility to tourists), the Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Another building which clearly inspired the architecture of the Jetsons universe was the Chemosphere. Designed by John Lautner and built in 1960, the home looks like it could take off into the sky like a flying saucer at any moment. The Chemosphere sits in the Hollywood Hills and has been an incredibly popular shooting location for films and TV shows that need a futuristic feel — including a 1964 episode of “The Outer Limits” set in the 21st century.
The architecture of the Jetsons is a reflection of the future, but even more so a reflection of that late-1950s and early 1960s Space Age design we so associate with the golden age of futurism. Well, someone’s golden age.
And just as we’ve seen mention of the Jetsons become a kind of shorthand way to talk about the technology of past futures, so too has “that Jetsons look” eclipsed Googie as the descriptor of choice for people talking about architecture from the futures that never were. People may think you’re saying Google, when you mean Googie. But fifty years after its debut, there’s no mistaking the Jetsons landscape.
December 6, 2012
“No person will walk where automobiles move,” is how British architect Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe described his town of the future, “and no car can encroach on the area sacred to the pedestrian.”
Jellicoe was talking to the Associated Press in 1960 about his vision for a radically new kind of British town—a town where the bubble-top cars of tomorrow moved freely on elevated streets, and the pedestrian zipped around safely on moving sidewalks. For a town whose main selling point was the freedom to not worry about getting hit by cars, it would have a rather strange name: Motopia.
Planned for construction about 17 miles west of London with an estimated cost of about $170 million, Motopia was a bold—if somewhat impractical plan—for a city built from the ground up. The town was envisioned as being able to have a population of 30,000, all living in a grid-pattern of buildings with an expanse of rooftop motorways in the sky. There would be schools, shops, restaurants, churches and theaters all resting on a total footprint of about 1,000 acres.
Motopia was to be a town with no heavy industry; a “dormitory community” where people largely found work elsewhere. The community was imagined as modern but tranquil; a town where accepting the bold new postwar future didn’t mean giving up the more peaceful aspects of daily living. But what about all the noise from the roads above? The planners were quick to point out that a special kind of insulation would be used to block out any of the noise from all the cars roaring along on your roof.
“In this town we are separating the biological elements from the mechanical,” Jellicoe told the Associated Press at the time. “The secret is as simple as that.”
Britain passed the New Towns Act of 1946 after World War II, which gave the government the power to quickly designate land for new development. Even before fighting had ceased the British began planning how they might rebuild London, while funneling population to less dense towns just outside the city. London had been battered during the war and the rapid development of towns was necessary to accomodate the overspill of population. Fourteen new towns were established between 1946 and 1950 after the passage of the New Towns Act, but according to Guy Ortolano at New York University, these modestly designed communities didn’t impress the more avant-garde planners of the day.
As Ortolano explains in his 2011 paper, “Planning the Urban Future in 1960s Britain,” just one new town was established by Conservative British governments in the 1950s. But the baby boom sparked new interest in town development as the ’60s arrived.
The September 25, 1960 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” was devoted to Jellicoe’s Motopia and gave readers in North America a splashy and colorful peek at the city of tomorrow. Radebaugh’s cars were less bubble-top and more mid-century Detroit-tailfin than his British designer counterparts, which was only natural given that Radebaugh was based in Detroit. He also made the moving sidewalk a much more prominent part of his illustrations than the designs coming from Jellicoe and his team.
Ortolano explains in his paper that between 1961 and 1970 new town development in Britain became much more ambitious and experimental, incorporating the private automobile, monorail and even hovercraft as more central characters in its designs. But Motopia was not to be, despite the rosey predictions of Jellicoe.
“Motopia is not only possible, but it is practical because it is economical,” Jellicose told the Associate Press. “The dwellings would be no more expensive than housing for a similar population in tall buildings, such as those used by the London City Council in some of its developments.”
Jellicoe described the futuristic city of Motopia as like “living in a park,” which again, begs the question of the name. But this wasn’t Jellicoe’s only vision for the city of the future. As the January 30, 1960 issue of Stars and Stripes explained, Jellicoe had many ideas for the British landscape of tomorrow: ”‘Soho in 2000,’ a plan for ripping out the famed old section of London and rebuilding it for 20th Century life; a High Market shopping center for the small industrial cities of the Midlands that don’t have adequate shopping facilities at present; and St. John’s Circus, a modern development south of London that would utilize a huge traffic circle and heliports.”
Alas, none of these futuristic visions were realized, but you can watch a short newsreel of Jellicoe’s plans for Motopia at British Pathe.
October 29, 2012
This is the sixth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
As a child, did you ever think that one day you might be able to vacation on the moon? You weren’t alone. A permanent settlement on the moon wasn’t some crackpot scheme only touted by fringe elements in the mad science community. Scientists, politicians, clergymen and journalists were all promising that once humans inevitably set foot on the moon, permanent settlements (and vacation resorts!) were sure to follow.
The sixth episode of “The Jetsons” revolved around this assumption that the moon would soon be the perfect destination for a Boy Scout-like camping trip. Titled “Good Little Scouts,” the episode originally aired on October 29, 1962 and was probably a pleasant distraction for U.S. viewers from the previous week’s headlines which were all about the Cuban missile crisis. We follow Elroy’s Space Cub troop and their new scout leader, George Jetson, to the moon. The only problem for George? His boss’s son Arthur is along for the ride and—when he goes off wandering the moon by himself—he causes George to get lost and look like a fool.
It’s not stated explicitly, but the sixth episode might provide the first look at a building on the earth’s surface — Grand Central Space-tion. Grand Central clearly takes its architectural cues from the Googie style — more specifically New York’s JFK airport TWA terminal, which was opened in 1962 (the same year as the Jetsons premiere) and designed by Eero Saarinen.
In this episode we learn that the moon is a bit like Yellowstone National Park — it has a hotel and some accommodations, but it’s largely unexplored and makes for a great camping trip. The moon has a Moonhattan Tilton Hotel, a play on the name Manhattan Hilton Hotel.
Fans of the AMC TV show “Mad Men” may recall a storyline wherein Conrad Hilton, the head of the Hilton hotel chain, wants an advertising campaign that includes a Hilton on the moon. This story arc wasn’t entirely fictional. The Hilton company (most especially Barron Hilton, one of Conrad’s sons) was known for their various promotions in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s that promised they would be the first hotel on the moon. They even had futuristic moon hotel keys made, which you can see over at BBC Future, where I’ve written about various visions the people at Hilton had for hotels on the moon.
Just as “The Jetsons” was inspired by futuristic ideas of the day and turned them even more fantastical, so too did Arthur Radebaugh‘s “Closer Than We Think” sift through the news stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s looking for predictions that could be heightened through fanciful illustration. As we looked at in February, the techno-utopians of the late 1950s were convinced that the Space Age would bring about a wondrous future of moon tourism. The June 1, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think” showed two couples dancing the night away in low gravity as they honeymoon on the moon; the earth sparkling in the distance.
Scenic spots on the moon, in years ahead, may become honeymoon havens, like Niagara Falls today. Newly wedded couples will be able to fly to a low-cost lunar holiday in a space craft propelled by thermo-nuclear energy. Space expert Wernher von Braun foresees pressurized, air-conditioned excursion hotels and small cottages on the moon. Couples could dance gaily there, whirling high in the air due to reduced gravity pull, and look out on a strange, spectacular scenery — part of which would be a spaceman’s view of the familiar outlines of the continents of the earth.
And it wasn’t just comic strip illustrators who saw humans living on the moon as a certainty. Insurance companies, banks and other financial institutions aren’t usually known for their exaggerated science fiction claims in advertising, but the early 1960s saw just that with a newspaper advertisement from 1962 for Michigan Mutual Liability. The ad imagined that by the year 2012 we’d be picnicking on Mars and have suburban-style homes on the moon.
This Jetsons episode is a perfect example of the Jetson formula that uses absurdist cartoon logic (complete with green, two-head Martians on the moon) but still manages to plant the seed of a wondrous future for 21st century humans in space. Recognizing how many kids were watching this episode on repeat throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it’s easy to see why so many people continue to ask, where’s my vacation on the moon?
September 19, 2012
It was 50 years ago this coming Sunday that the Jetson family first jetpacked their way into American homes. The show lasted just one season (24 episodes) after its debut on Sunday September 23, 1962, but today “The Jetsons” stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. More episodes were later produced in the mid-1980s, but it’s that 24-episode first season that helped define the future for so many Americans today.
It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future. And it’s for this reason that, starting this Friday, I’ll begin to explore the world of “The Jetsons” one episode at a time. Each week I’ll look at a new episode from the original 1962-63 series, beginning with the premiere episode, “Rosey the Robot.”
Five decades after its debut, not a day goes by that someone isn’t using “The Jetsons” as a way to talk about the fantastic technological advancements we’re seeing today. Or conversely, evidence of so many futuristic promises that remain unfulfilled. Just look at a handful of news stories from the past few days:
- In fashion. (“Who better than the Jetsons to be inspired by for an out of space theme?”)
- Johnny Depp talks about the West Memphis Three emerging from prison after nearly two decades. ( ”By the time you came out, it’s ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s a whole ‘nother world.”)
- James Cameron talks about the future of interactive movies. (“There might be a certain amount of interactivity, so when you look around, it creates that image wherever you look,” Cameron says. He concedes it is far off: “You’re talking ‘Jetsons’ here.”)
- The future of cars, as depicted at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (“Considering that 2025 is only 13 years away, you would think that nobody’s going to go ‘Jetsons’ with their presentation, but the LAASDC doesn’t roll like that.”)
- The sound of kitschy futurism in modern music. (“Silencio allows Sadier’s various musical influences to breathe and linger, without being upstaged by the motorik propulsion, and ‘Jetsons’ kitsch, of the Stereolab formula.”)
Thanks to my Google Alerts for words and phrases like Jetsons, Minority Report, utopia, dystopia, Blade Runner, Star Trek, apocalypse and a host of others, I’ve been monitoring the way that we talk about the future for years. And no point of reference has been more popular and varied as a symbol of tomorrowism than “The Jetsons.”
Golden Age of Futurism
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
The years leading up to “The Jetsons” premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techo-utopianism and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.
I spoke over the phone with Danny Graydon, the London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons.” Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam [protests], when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”
Where’s My Jetpack?
As Graydon points out, “The Jetsons” was a projection of the model American family into the future. The world of ”The Jetsons” showed people with very few concerns about disrupting the status quo politically or socially, but instead showed a technologically advanced culture where the largest concern of the middle class was getting “push-button finger.”
It’s important to remember that today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching ”The Jetsons” on repeat during their most impressionable years. People are often shocked to learn that “The Jetsons” lasted just one season during its original run in 1962-63 and wasn’t revived until 1985. Essentially every kid in America (and many internationally) saw the series on constant repeat during Saturday morning cartoons throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone (including my own mom) seems to ask me, “How could it have been around for only 24 episodes? Did I really just watch those same episodes over and over again?” Yes, yes you did.
But it’s just a cartoon, right? So what if today’s political and social elite saw ”The Jetsons” a lot? Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
This nostalgia for the futurism of yesteryear has very real consequences for the way that we talk about ourselves as a nation. So many people today talk about how divided we are as a country and that we no longer dream “like we used to.” But when we look at things like public approval of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, those myths of national unity begin to dissolve. Public approval of funding for the Apollo program peaked at 53 percent (around the first moon landing) but pretty much hovered between 35-45 percent for most of the 1960s. Why is there a misconception today about Americans being more supportive of the space program? Because an enormous generation called Baby Boomers were kids in the 1960s; kids playing astronaut and watching shows like “The Jetsons”; kids who were bombarded with images of a bright, shiny future and for whom the world was much simpler because they saw everything through the eyes of a child.
Why Only One Season?
If ”The Jetsons” is so important and resonated with so many viewers, then why was the show canceled after just one season (though it was revived in the 1980s)? I’ve spoken to a number of different people about this, but I haven’t heard anyone mention what I believe to be the most likely reason that “The Jetsons” wasn’t renewed for a second season: color. Or, more accurately, a lack of color. ”The Jetsons” was produced and broadcast in color, but in 1962 less than 3 percent of American households had a color television set. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 that 50 percent of American households had a color TV.
The Jetsons’ future is bright; it’s shiny; and it’s in color. But most people watching on Sunday nights obviously didn’t see it like that. The immersive world of “The Jetsons” looks far more flat and unengaging in black and white. And unlike the other network shows it was up against on Sunday nights (which was in most markets “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC and “Car 54 Where Are You?” on CBS) “The Jetsons” suffered disproportionately more from being viewed in black and white.
NBC also had an incumbent advantage. If you’d made “Walt Disney’s Wonderful of Color” appointment viewing for the past year (Disney jumped ship from ABC to NBC in 1961 where they not only began broadcasting in color, but added “color” to the name) it’s unlikely you’d switch your family over to an unknown cartoon entity. “The Jetsons” was the first show ever broadcast in color on ABC, but it was still up to individual affiliates as to whether the show would be broadcast in color. According to the September 23, 1962 New York Times only people with access to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles were guaranteed to see the show broadcast in color—provided you owned a color set.
I’ve takens some screenshots from the DVD release of the first season to show just how dramatic a difference color can make with a show like this.
There’s also this promo from 1962, which gives us a taste of what “The Jetsons” looked like devoid of color. It’s bizarre for those of us who grew up on “The Jetsons” to see their fantastical world reduced to black and white:
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in “The Jetsons” universe that may have had substantial bearing on politicians, policymakers and the average American today. If we accept that media has an influence on the way that we view culture, and our own place in the future—as “The Jetsons” seems to ask us to do—we have to ask ourselves how our expectations might have changed with subtle tweaks to the Jetson story. What if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character? These questions are impossible to answer, of course, but they’re important to recall as we examine this show that so dramatically shaped our understanding of tomorrow.
1985 and Beyond
Obviously the 1985-87 reboot of “The Jetsons” TV show played an important role in carrying the futuristic toon torch, but it’s in many ways an entirely different animal. The animation simply has a different feel and the storylines are arguably weaker, though I certainly remember watching them along with the original reruns when I was a kid in the 1980s. There were also movies produced—1990′s The Jetsons was released theatrically and the made-for-TV movie crossover The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones first aired in 1987. But for our purposes, we’ll just be exploring the first season and its immediate influence during the American Space Age. With talk of a live-action Jetsons movie in the works, it will be interesting to see how a revamped Jetsons might play today.
A few style notes that I’ll get out of the way:
- I spell Rosey the way it appeared in merchandise of the 1960s. Yes, you’ll sometimes see it spelled “Rosie” in video games and comics of the 1980s, but since our focus is the first season I’m sticking with Rosey.
- The show never mentions “within world” what year the Jetson family is living, but for our purposes we’ll assume it to be 2062. Press materials and newspapers of 1962 mention this year, even though the characters only ever say “21st century” during the first season of the show.
- Orbitty is from the 1980s reboot of The Jetsons. Orbitty, a pet alien, is essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the Jetsons’ world and you probably won’t see me mention him again.
Meet George Jetson
The Jetsons, of course, represents a nostalgia for the future; but perhaps more oddly, it still represents the future to so many people who grew up with it. I’m excited to get started on this project and welcome your comments throughout this process, especially if you have vivid memories of the show from when you were a kid. I know I certainly do — I turned it into my career!
Update: The first paragraph of this post was revised to clarify that more episodes of “The Jetsons” were produced in the 1980s.
September 10, 2012
When we look at visions of the future from the 20th century we often imagine the lone inventor or solitary artist concocting the fantastical world of tomorrow in isolation. But it’s amazing how frequently both government regulation and the lack of regulation can influence the future of a given city in ways we don’t often think about.
While researching a column I wrote recently for BBC Future about fighting the skyscraper fires of tomorrow I came across a fascinating anti-skyscraper law from 1912 that would have a lasting impact on Australia’s largest city. Fearing that fighting fires was nearly impossible in tall buildings, Sydney passed the Height of Buildings Act of 1912, limiting new buildings to just 150 feet tall. As a result Sydney spent almost half a century growing predominantly outward rather than skyward.
A July, 1901 fire in an 8-story department store building had left five people dead–prompting concern among the residents of Sydney, where modern architecture was quickly sprouting toward the heavens. Firefighters were helpless to reach a young man who clung desperately out of a window in the building 120 feet up. Sadly, firefighters could do nothing to help save the poor man who was well out of reach from their tallest 80 foot ladders. He jumped to his death in front of a lunchtime crowd of horrified onlookers.
Sydney’s skyscraper debate would rage for a decade, coming to a head in 1911 when a record 6,503 new private buildings (many of them taller than ever before) were built in Sydney. The city’s tallest building was completed the very next year in 1912. That building was called the Culwulla Chambers and rose to just 14 stories (165 feet). But it sparked a serious debate about the future of the city and the safety of its inhabitants. How could the people of Sydney be kept safe when skyscrapers inevitably faces the threat of fire and no one had the technical capacity to put it out?
As Alex Roberts and Pat O’Malley note in their 2011 research paper, “Skyscrapers, Fire and the City: Building Regulation in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Sydney,” politicians in 1912 were concerned as much with safety and international reputation as they were with aesthetics when they passed the Height of Buildings Act in 1912. Aside from limiting the construction of new buildings to just 150 feet tall, the Act also states that any building built above 100 feet must show that “adequate provision has been made in respect of such building for protection against fire.” The Act wasn’t amended until 1957.
Today, Sydney is a beautiful modern city with a stunning skyline. But one wonders what the city would look like had vertical growth continued unabated, or the 1912 law had remained in effect after 1957.