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?
October 3, 2012
EPCOT Center opened on October 1, 1982 as the single most expensive private construction project the world had ever seen. It was immediately viewed by Disney purists as a shadow of Walt Disney’s utopian dream to build a dynamic city of technology and innovation. EPCOT was originally supposed to be a real city; alive with mass transit systems, a vibrant city center and a healthy dose of residential life. Corporations, as Walt explained in a 1966 film produced just a few months before his death, were to use Epcot as a proving ground for new innovations. One imagines this might include new chemical solvents or food additives aside from the more obvious examples of postwar gadgetry like small appliances and robot maids.
Disney believed that by the mid-1960s urban America was beyond repair and that the answer to our nation’s problems lie in starting from scratch. A new city was to be built with the interests of both massive multinational corporations and pedestrians in mind. But after Disney’s death in late 1966, the vision for “the Florida Project” was scaled down dramatically. Instead, EPCOT — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — became a theme park. This theme park was to be a permanent World’s Fair at the end of the World Fair’s golden age.
But if you could get past the fact that it was just a theme park, and not a radical experiment in building a futuristic city from the ground up, Epcot was still pretty neat. It’s a sprawling park divided into two parts: Future World and World Showcase. Future World purports to show off the latest in science and technology and has pavilions dedicated to such topics as energy, the ocean, agriculture, transportation and space. While World Showcase includes pavilions featuring various countries from around the world, including Norway, Mexico, Japan and Germany among others.
I’d argue that Walt Disney World’s Epcot (it’s no longer an acronym) is an important bellwether of America’s comfort with science and technology. Today, a trip to Disney World is a rite of passage for many American families. Epcot, one of the four theme parks that comprise Walt Disney World, is the third most visited theme park in the United States. Only Disneyland in Anaheim and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando (another Walt Disney World park) surpass it in attendance. This place of prominence in the American psyche means that at its best Epcot should function as a kind of ever-changing monument to science — much in the same way that the great American World’s Fairs of the last century did.
My first trip to Epcot was in 1989 at just five years old. I’ve quite literally grown up there, having been numerous times since. My parents and two brothers have made it a habit to dissect the minute changes that take place in the park each year, but as I step back and take a more distanced view of this admittedly artificial environment that I’ve grown up with, I become concerned for what it means to Americans as a reflection of what we value.
With kids competently pushing pixels on their parents’ iPhones before they can even speak, what kind of role does Epcot play in the education of the American family? What does the pathetically static exhibit Innoventions communicate to kids about the future of technology in a theme park that purports to be about the future? Does Epcot offer the latest in technological wonders that it promised when it opened in 1982? What kind of tone does Epcot set for science education in this country? And am I overthinking what is supposed to be an entertaining experience for people?
I credit Epcot with introducing me to retro-futurism — exploring how generations of the past viewed the future. It was in the early 1990s (when I was still a kid) that I started to think of Epcot as retro-futuristic. I hadn’t yet heard such a word, but I knew even then that Epcot was a vision of the future from the past. The monorails and the Dippin’ Dots and the silver rainbow jumpsuits didn’t represent the futuristic world of 50 years hence, it was the Mickey Mouse future as imagined in 1982.
The last time I visited Epcot (in 2010) the Innoventions pavilion in the heart of Epcot showcased Segways as the hot transportation technology of the future. But of course you’re more likely to hear the word “Segway” used as a punchline than see it as a practical mode of transportation these days. When Segways represent the future of transportation a decade into the 21st century, you begin to wonder where the last ten years went. And how Epcot, a place of tremendous nostalgia for me, can become a symbol of the future again.
June 18, 2012
After Ellis Island was closed in November 1954, no one was quite sure what to do with it. The 27-acre government facility located in New York Harbor had stopped processing immigrants coming into the United States and no government entity was stepping up with a plan for the site. So in 1956 the U.S. government started soliciting bids for any private corporation or person that wanted to buy it.
As Vincent J. Cannato notes in his book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, there were a number of different proposals:
“…a clinic for alcoholics and drug addicts, a park, a “world trade center,” a modern and innovative “college of the future,” private apartments, homes for the elderly, and a shelter for juvenile delinquents. Other proposals were less realsitic. Bronx congressman Paul Fino suggested a national lottery center would be in keeping with the history of the island, since immigrants “gambled for a new life in this land of ours.”
But perhaps the most lavish idea came from the highest bidder, Sol G. Atlas. Mr. Atlas offered the government $201,000 and wanted to build a $55 million resort. According to the February 17, 1958 issue of the Monessen Valley Independent in Pennsylvania, “The plans call for a 600-room hotel, museum, language school, music center, swimming pool, convention hall, shops and a promenade. The island would also have a heliport, seaplane base and ferry slip.”
The government declined Mr. Atlas’ offer — they thought that the facility was worth at least $6 million — and Ellis Island sat dormant for years. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, dashing once and for all any plans for a swanky resort. A museum about the history of immigration was opened at the site in 1990 and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the National Park Service—even without swimming pools.