Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Halloween

Once again, it’s that time for ghastly ghosts, ghoulish goblins and glowing jack-o-lanterns so I have put together a list of important stuff everyone should know before they go trick-or-treating:

  • Halloween's origins date back 2,000 years ago to the ancient Celts who celebrated their new year on November 1st.  They believed that on the last night of the old year (October 31st), the dead returned to wreak havoc on earth.
  • The first jack o'lanterns were carved out of turnips in Ireland.  It was Americans who decided that pumpkins worked better.
  • During the eighth century, the Catholic Church designated November 1st All Saints Day and declare the night before All Hallow's Eve
  • Trick-or-treating had its beginnings in ninth-century Europe.  Back then, it was called Souling.  People trudged from place to place begging for soul cakes (square pieces of bread made with currants.  The more soul cakes they collected, the more prayers they promised to say.
  • The name jack o'lantern came from an Irish tale about a mean drunk named, (what else?) Stingy Jack who tricked the devil into climbing a tree. Jack then carved a cross on the tree trunk effectively trapping the devil out on a limb.  When Jack died, neither God nor the devil wanted him, so he was forced to roam the earth carrying a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way.
  • To protect your home from evil spirits on Halloween, walk around your house three times backwards in a counterclockwise direction before sunset--after all you can never be too sure.
  • If you happen to see a spider on Halloween, pay close attention.  It could be the spirit of a loved one who is watching you.
  • If the spirit is no one you know, you may scare the spider away by ringing a bell.
  • All the single ladies, if you wish to see an image of your future mate in the mirror, wait until Halloween and then carefully peel an apple in front of it.  If the peel remains unbroken, your intended will appear in the mirror.  Sorry guys--it only works for girls.
  • In ancient times, people disguised themselves after dark on Halloween to confuse the evil spirits.  Nowadays, they just confuse each other.
 So now that you know the important stuff--go out and have a.....

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Black Maria (pronounced ‘muh-ri-uh’)

On the grounds of his Menlo Park laboratory, inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his right-hand man, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, designed America’s first motion picture studio.  While many believed that Dickson was really the brains behind the operation, Edison was still the boss after all and demanded his due credit.  They called their creation the Revolving Photograph Theater, or more formally, The Kinetograph Theater, when it opened in early 1893.  With a total cost of $637.67, the odd-looking building would not have won any architectural prize for beauty.  Wrapped in black tar paper on the outside, the austere structure’s interior was also painted black to ensure that filming resulted in the sharpest of images.  It was no wonder that Edison’s employees began calling the unwelcoming place ‘The Black Maria’—a contemporary term that referred to another inhospitable spot—a police paddy wagon.  
Lacking indoor lighting, sunlight was a crucial element in those early days of filmmaking so the studio’s hinged roof opened via a series of ropes, pulleys and weights.  The building itself even sat on heavy rollers allowing it to rotate and follow the sun’s movement throughout the day.  
All of the action occurred on a single stage and was captured by a Kinetograph (early camera) that rested on a nearby table. The table was mounted on tracks allowing limited camera movement.  Films were approximately 50 feet in length and ran for about one-half minute.  With Dickson acting as producer and often directing as well as manning the Kinetograph, subject matters included anything or anyone that might entice a spectator to take another look when visiting their favorite nickelodeon or peep show.  
Sports were highly favored.  Even boxing champion James J. Corbett took on his challenger Peter Courtney inside The Black Maria.  Corbett knocked Courtney out cold right in front of the camera on September 7, 1894.  Agile gymnasts, flexible wrestlers and quick-footed fencers also performed at the studio.  Even strongman Eugene Sandow, often referred to as ‘The Modern Hercules’ and the ‘Father of Modern Bodybuilding’, flexed his considerable muscles on film.  
Animals mimicking humans were another crowd pleaser.  Dancing bears, boxing cats and drum-beating elephants almost always brought spectators back for another peep.  Celebrated names also graced the laboratory grounds.  Wild West stars Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley both took aim and demonstrated their sharp-shooting skills complete with smoking guns.  And those that couldn’t shoot straight simply whirled their guns.  Rifle twirler Hadji Cheriff who was better known as Sheik Hadji Tahar, left the live stage long enough to perform part of his high-speed act at Edison’s studio. Exotic dancer Little Egypt, with her titillating hips, shimmied her way around the camera.  Even Ena Bertoldi, a female contortionist, happily twisted her limbs inside The Black Maria. 
Despite the wide assortment of subjects, it was a simple sneeze and an ordinary kiss that many spectators liked to see again and again.  When it was originally filmed, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), the footage was only supposed to illustrate an article appearing in Harper’s Weekly.  The moving picture featured the mustachioed Fred Ott, Edison’s chief mechanic, as he inhaled a pinch of snuff, which resulted in a substantial sneeze.  As viewers experienced a good laugh, Edison had the film officially copyrighted.  
While Fred Ott caused giggles, stage actors Mae Irwin and John C. Rice set off some moral outrage—but that didn’t hamper ticket sales.  Re-enacting a scene from their hit play The Widow Jones, the pair engaged in what seemed a tender conversation resulting in a kiss that lasted a scandalous 15 seconds.  The film, so brazenly called The Kiss (1896), was condemned for such a lewd display.  Many declared it unfit for any decent citizen to view.  Some even thought the police should be summoned.  Of course, the negative buzz didn’t stop the paying patrons who just couldn’t help themselves despite, or perhaps because of, the ballyhoo.  
Eight years and hundreds of films later, America’s first movie studio had served its purpose.  Edison shut the place down opting for a modern filming facility in New York.  In 1903, he demolished the building, but the fledgling industry he launched there was about to soar.