Category Archives: Mad Men

Timeless: How ‘Mad Men’ changed history on television

In 1972 the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H was turned into a weekly half-hour situation comedy series. In retrospect I’m stunned that anybody thought to make this. The landscape of television comedy was cluttered with novelty premises and perfect families dealing with contrived scenarios which always, always resolved in a happy freeze-frame.

There was no sense of reality to television before 1972. Westerns set in the 19th century had no historical sense to them.  Gunsmoke and Bonanza rarely if ever referenced an understandable place and time. The Ponderosa was somewhere in Nevada, set vaguely in the 1860s.

Television’s M*A*S*H broke both of these molds. It was real life, affected by real history. It was in a recognizable place, and its characters were changed by events that were vividly real. For the first time it felt like a show was operating by the same cosmic rules as its viewers.

The year that Altman’s film was released is the year that the last season of Mad Men, which finishes its run this Sunday, is set.  We know this because creator Matthew Weiner and his writing team make very sure to watermark almost every scene.  Every detail — from the buttons on Joan’s dresses to the brand of cigarette in Betty’s hand — speaks to the show’s obsessive need to plant its coordinates into the narrative.

  Mad Men has re-envisioned the historical television show in exactly the same way that M*A*S*H reinvented the sitcom.  You can no longer make a television show set in the past without following (or rebelling against) the example set by the adventures of Don Draper and crew. Cognizant of the harsh mistress of social media, Mad Men has created a flawless timeline, leaving a masterful, rarely obvious path of breadcrumbs that have led viewers through the 1960s.  The first episode “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is set in March 1960. The last episode, named “Person To Person,” will be set in either November or (most likely) December 1970. 

 

Episodes are crammed with historical and pop cultural references, but very rarely are they front and center. Don ate and drank his way through the finest restaurants in New York. Joan made out with somebody at the Electric Circus, while Peggy went to a happening at Washington Market. Kinsey joined the Hare Krishnas!

Shock treatment, LSD, race riots, Weight Watchers, moon landings, assassinations — the entirety of America in the 1960s was fully and richly presented, in far greater volume and diversity than perhaps even a college course would provide.  But not once — not a single time in its seven seasons — did the events of this tumultuous decade overtake the storyline. The characters, their lives, were always front and center.

  It has been an extraordinary pleasure the past few years to Tweet along with live viewings of Mad Men on Sunday night. I’m not paid to do it. It’s just a total blast. I just love a good scavenger hunt. Weiner and the Mad Men production team can infuse entirely new themes, sometimes with traces of irony, that only reside within the borders of an episode. Far from history being a binding and limiting framework, Mad Men has turned it into a set of playground monkey-bars from which to playfully swing.

 

Setting the show in New York, but not filming it here, seemed, at first, like a troubling and even annoying decision. But it worked because the Manhattan skyline is a dead giveaway, like the rings of a tree.  And Mad Men‘s not the kind of show that uses CGI. (A New York-filmed show might have been tempted to have Don swagger down the street with the under-construction World Trade Center in the background. Thank god Mad Men is not that show.)

History has been a vivid hue on Mad Men, as vivid as one of Pete Campbell’s most flamboyant ties. They don’t just plan episodes “in the spring of 1967.” There are usually clues that accurately pinpoint a scene to an actual day and, sometimes, an actual minute. You never had to be consciously aware of this information. It sits like a juicy footnote at the bottom of the page, waiting to reveal another facet of the story.

Will this formula work for future historically based television programs? Mad Men had the luxury of a cast of fictional characters, so history can coalesce around them with convenience.  Shows like Turn or Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, have characters based on real-life individuals, and negotiation around historical events is trickier.

I wonder where the Mad Men effect will turn up next. The Knick, set in 1900s New York, makes obvious nods to Weiner’s precise use of historical detail, but understandably, it’s not consistent. (Being set over a century ago, it has a higher degree of difficulty.)  The writers of Downton Abbey love their history, but it’s often an interloper.  It invades more than informs.  Outlander would probably not be a good show if characters stopped to wonder what day it was.  Halt and Catch Fire could be a successor to Mad Men if it pulls its storylines together in the next season.  

 

Farewell Mad Men! And thank you for the best time-traveling adventure on television. Throughout this article is a sampling of a few of my Mad Men Tweets over the past few years to illustrate some of the details that the production team has incorporated into its shows.   You can find the complete list of my Mad Men Tweets right here!  And for other Bowery Boys articles on Mad Men, you can check them out here.

 

 

 

 

This Is The End: ‘Mad Men’ at the Museum of the Moving Image

Mad Men begins its final season on AMC next Sunday, April 5th. If you live in New York, this has been bludgeoned into your brain though city-sponsored banners, ‘60s era dining specials and even a Mad Men-themed bench in front of the Time & Life Building.  There’s also a fine new exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image which serves dual purposes.  Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men — the show’s creator, front and center — is a fashion-based shrine for fans to salivate over the show’s ubiquitously chic style.  But it also allows audiences to look behind the production process, from original scripts and notes to an up-close view of period props.

The star attractions are the vivid re-creations of Don Draper’s office and kitchen (the Season One version, sans Betty), so chockablock with precise details that it feels less like a set and more like a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Draper kitchen, one of the rooms carefully recreated in the museum's exhibition. Credit: Carin Baer/AMC

The Draper kitchen (theoriginal) and the Draper kitchen (the recreation at the Museum). Credit: Carin Baer/AMC (1) and Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image  (2)
The Draper kitchen (theoriginal) and the Draper kitchen (the recreation at the Museum). Credit: Carin Baer/AMC (1) and Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image (2)

 

In Don’s office, heaps of magazines, ad campaigns, liquor-bottle labels and cigarette boxes place the room in so defined, so exact a context that it feels familiar (and subsequently disturbing) like somebody took your parent’s old photos and re-created them.  Then you look out the window to a fake New York skyline, knowing you’re in the actual city of New York, standing in the set of a television show that films in California. You might pass out from the whole experience.

There’s a more unusual recreation at the beginning of the exhibit — the Mad Men writers’ workroom. It’s equally festooned with vintage artifacts, interspersed with laptops and other signs of modern life.  Somebody who’s never watched the show might find this just a bit audacious. (“Hey folks, this is where the magic happens!”) But seasoned fans will instantly see this as a parallel to the brainstorming room in Mad Men’s fictional ad agency.  You can almost see Peggy in the corner, twirling her pencil in deep creative overdrive.

The show also serves as a miniature fashion exhibition with displays of color-crazy costumes from the show’s most popular characters.  If the only props on display were the outfits worn by Christina Hendricks,  it would probably still be a show worth seeing.

Perhaps we’ll see other New York museums tackling other great examples of period television. Downton Abbey at The Met? The Knick at the Museum of the City of New York?

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, presented by the Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, Queens. Visit their website for more information.  The exhibit runs through until June 14, well after Mad Men’s final episode on May 17. 

And follow me on Twitter at @boweryboys where I’ll be Tweeting out history and trivia bits during the show’s broadcast starting on April 5th!

The frills and frocks of Mad Men, displayed at the Museum of the Moving Image.
The frills and frocks of Mad Men, displayed at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Museum photography courtesy Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image

 

 

‘Mad Men’ ends this Sunday, and ‘Copper’ begins, but war and assassinations unite both

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about the current season ‘Mad Men’ on AMC and a few on last season’s ‘Copper’ on BBC America.  

While 1968 comes to a close on Sunday night with the season finale of ‘Mad Men‘, another version of New York history returns on another channel.

Copper‘, starting season two on BBC America, will open in the early months of 1865, in the wake of a failed attack by Confederates that past November.  Just as in this season’s ‘Mad Men’, set in a year of two assassinations, you can only begin watching a show set in early 1865 with the anticipated dread of one future tragedy.

If it makes you feel better, keep it all in the world of pop culture and imagine the events of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln occurring simultaneously to those on ‘Copper’.   Abraham Lincoln, fresh into his second term, was only just employing often cynical efforts to get the Fourteenth Amendment passed as the war between the states wound to its eventual completion.

Lincoln was still a divisive figure.  In 1864, New York City, a Democratic stranglehold, had voted to replace him with George B. McClellan.  Indeed, the city has such affection for McClellan Sr. that, fifty years later, they installed his son George B. McClellan Jr. as mayor.  For many in New York, Lincoln represented a strike against common prosperity, flagrantly destroying America’s future — both literally, on the battlefields, and figuratively, with the freeing of slaves, weakening Southern commerce (and New York’s Southern interests).

Below: A stereoscope photograph of Five Points in 1865 (NYPL)



‘Copper’ follows the adventures of streetwise police officer Kevin Corcoran through the streets of Five Points, interacting with both the disreputable characters of that neighborhood (including one sassy brothel owner) and few genteel sorts from Fifth Avenue.  Between thwarting criminals and Confederate plots, Corky also found his amnesiac wife in an asylum.  He also seems to have developed a morphine problem.

What’s might we see in Season Two in regards to New York? 1865 was the year the city got serious about cleaning itself up physically — construction of city sewers was commissioned in this year — even as its government infrastructure was getting ever more corrupt (as in, Tweed was now the ‘Boss‘).

The new episode is set on the date February 5, 1865.  The new New York Stock Exchange opened a few days before that date, reinforcing New York’s real center of power. The consequences of a long war were still ever-present; that February 4th, on Governor’s Island, a Union deserter was even executed.. And there’s still loose ends from that ugly Confederate ‘Greek fire’ business, namely the captive Robert Cobb Kennedy, held in old Fort Lafayette.

But the most tumultuous event of the year came with Lincoln’s assassination, throwing the entire country — and especially the city — into chaos.

Two political assassinations played central roles in this season of ‘Mad Men’, and some professional ones too.

Season Six was a full-on assault on the early ’60s complacency of the show’s initial premise.  In prior seasons, New York City was almost solely depicted via bars and restaurants.  In this season, we got grimy squatters apartments, rat infested walk-ups and allusions to race riots in far-off neighborhoods.

The sky-high haven of  Don and Megan Draper was invaded by imposters, glamorous lesbians and even the encroaching sounds of a dangerous city.  This was a season of menace, the usual bedroom/boardroom operatic antics, scored with the violent tones of the Vietnam War and a cynical presidential campaign forever in the background.

Maybe that’s why some of Don’s storyline this year felt so labored. Why should we care so much about his perpetual indiscretions when the world around him has shifted? How can we keep focused on him?  Characters like Joan Holloway (above, fetching in orange) used the changing times to her seeming advantage.  Pete Campbell, once again, tripped over himself.  Peggy was forever caught between the old and the new, from her lifestyle and career to even her romantic interests.

And then we got an enigmatic new character, one who I fully expect to see hanging out at Stonewall in the summer of 1969, his Greek coffee cups replaced with watered-down cocktails.   I mean, will the creators of ‘Mad Men’ be able to resist it?

As always, you can follow along with me on Twitter at @Boweryboys during the live airing of New York City history-based shows like AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ and BBC America’s ‘Copper’ (along with ‘Boardwalk Empire’, later this year).  As the season finale of ‘Mad Men’ and the season premiere of ‘Copper’ are on at the same time this Sunday (10pm EST), I’ll be Tweeting along with ‘Mad Men’ first, then immediately following with ‘Copper’.

In Central Park, heated reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King, while business booms at movie theaters

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC.  If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

The 1960s were obviously momentous for American culture and for New York specifically. But that decade was especially strange for Central Park.

Olmsted and Vaux’s urban oasis was a well-trodden destination for protest in the 1960s, a haven for “be-ins” and demonstration (with a little free love thrown in, I imagine).  In December 1967, agitated anti-war protesters even burned a Christmas tree.  Two years later, the first gay pride parade would also culminate here. (Here’s some video of the second pride celebration in Central Park the following year.)

Almost 24 hours after DrMartin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, angered New Yorkers — mostly students — gathered for a rally in Central Park at the Naumberg Bandshell to honor the man’s extraordinary life and to cope with the sudden, inconceivable loss.

At right: The unusual headline from the New York Daily News. This particular front page popped up on last night’s show. Did you catch it?

The city was in a veritable lock down throughout the day, with many businesses and schools closing early on April 5.  In case you couldn’t make it into the city that evening — and given reports of rioting, many chose to stay home — the ceremonies were actually broadcast by WBAI.  (You can download a recording of the broadcast here, courtesy Pacifica Radio Archives.)

Those invited to speak at the gathering were friends and admirers from a variety of fields.  Looking at the list of speakers, perhaps the most unusual one that jumps out is Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famed pediatrician and best-selling novelist. Spock was an ardent, high-profile protester of the Vietnam War and a friend of Dr. King’s, frequently seen at his side in 1967 at war protest events.

Others who spoke at the rally included actor Ossie Davis and activists Florynce Kennedy and James Forman.  Perhaps the most damning words were spoken by Jarvis Tyner, chairman of the DeBois Clubs of America, who declared that Mayor John Lindsay was poised to send armored tanks to Harlem.

Below: Crowds cross 23rd Street on their way to City Hall. Picture courtesy NYT

Things got rather out of hand once the rally turned into a march down Broadway to City Hall.  According to the New York Times, throngs of students filtered down the streets, occasionally breaking windows along the way.  Trying to stem the violence among their number, others were heard shouting. “Let’s keep order for Martin Luther King.”

The following day, mourners marched from Harlem to an all-faith rally held by local religious leaders in the park.. (It seems likelier that this was the event attended by Megan and her step-children!)

On last night’s episode of ‘Mad Men’, we see Don’s own reaction to the tragedy — going to see ‘Planet of the Apes’ with his son!  According to the same article, this was not an unusual reaction after the tragedy.  While other forms of entertainment saw a notable decrease in attendance, movie theaters saw no such effect, even with fears of a possible riot awaiting moviegoers when they left the theater.  “Times Square movie theaters reported either normal or better than usual crowds and both the Baronet and Coronet Theaters on Third Avenue at 59th Street said they had long lines of people waiting to buy tickets for the early evening shows.”

The April 5th rally for Martin Luther King wasn’t even the most unusual thing to happen in Central Park that day.  That distinction would go President Lyndon B. Johnson, who planned a surprise trip to the United Nations that day and touched down his helicopter in the park!

‘Mad Men’ notes: New York City on January 31, 1968


A press photo from Hair, the hottest show in town in early 1968, photographer Kenn Duncan

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC.  If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

Don Draper and the gang were too busy with their mistresses and their ‘self-immolating’ pitch meetings to properly react to the headlines of the day on January 31, 1968.  Word of the U.S. military’s devastating setback — today called the Tet Offensive — only briefly interrupted dinner conversation; by the time Draper’s dinner companion ordered steak diavolo, the subject had floated to another table.

In the year 1968, it will be become increasingly difficult to tune out the world.  Pete Campbell, with blank eyes, tunes into Johnny Carson, who has devoted his entire show that evening debating New Orleans district attourney Jim Garrison regarding the assassination of JFK.  Garrison was readying a case against Clay Shaw for conspiracy to kill the president (he was acquitted):

The most vibrant movements in the city involved protest and aggravation. The hottest show off-Broadway, Hair, was prepping for its official Broadway opening that April.  Hair was the very first musical to ever transfer from off-Broadway to Broadway.

What else is going on in January 31, 1968?

—  The finishing touches are placed on the new Madison Square Garden which will open a couple weeks later, on February 11. A few seasons ago, the admen of Sterling Cooper took to wooing the organizers of MSG who were prepping the destruction of Penn Station.  All traces were gone by 1968, replaced with the  drab concrete cylinder which presently sits at 34th Street.

— And things were brewing below it as well.  The following day, New York’s two largest train companies — Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad — announced their merger to form the eventually-named Penn Central.  This would eventually incorporate other services, including Pete Campbell’s favorite train. And it would all go bankrupt by 1970!

— The number one song that week? The parody number ‘Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) by John Fred and the Playboys.

The number one film that week was the throwback Western Firecreek.  This was a rare lapse into the traditional, as most filmgoers were talking about two other big releases — Planet of the Apes and The Graduate.

— In a sign of protest (and grim foreboding), the head of the city’s anti-poverty programs George Nicolau resigned out of frustration with lack of support from the federal government.  [source]

— Has somebody shown this to Betty? The cover of Life Magazine that week presented an expose on dangerous diet pills. The picture below grandly illustrates the problem.  (This issue from the week before is actually seen on a coffee table in this episode.)

— But never fear. The New York Times fashion section announces a fabulous trend — dress the entire family as cosmonauts, courtesy Pierre Cardin! “The era of the fully fashion-coordinated family is at hands,” they declare.  You could buy this extraordinary set of garments at Bonwit Teller at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street

(Edit: A prior version of this story listed the address at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, next to the still-surviving Lord & Taylor. It was indeed there for two decades, but by 1930, it had moved to the tonier uptown address.) [source]

Odds and ends: Mad Men, NY Observer and great books!


Drinks with the Drapers: we may see the end of 1967 in the opening episode. (courtesy AMC)

‘Mad Men’ Season 6 begins this Sunday 9EST.  If you’re a fan of late ’60s New York and American pop culture from that period, follow along with me on Twitter at @boweryboys.  As I do with ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and BBC America’s ‘Copper’, I’ll be doing running historical commentary featuring details from the episode.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil any significant plot points (in case you’re watching later).  There won’t be any Tweets like “The gun Joan uses to shoot Draper with is an Anschutz 164, a ’64 original from J.C. Penney.”  Perhaps more like “Before the 1968 Gun Control Act, it was possible to buy firearms at retailers like J.C Penney and Sears.”  (That’s actually a real gun, but no, I don’t think Joan shoots Don Draper.)

Below: In case you’re worried about spoilers, here’s some examples of Tweet from the a May episode from last season:

Click here to read past blog posts regarding episodes from Seasons 4 and 5.  My last article on Mad Men (about the season finale last year) was about shock therapy on Riverside Drive.
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Our thanks to the New York Observer for including us in their roundup of favorite NYC-centric podcasts!  We’re on the list with Alec Baldwin, Julie Klausner and Ophira Eisenberg’s ‘Ask Me Another’, so we’re honored to be included. [NYObserver]

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The Bowery Boys Book of the Month for April will be revealed on this month’s podcast with a review and an interview with the author next week.  Have you checked out our first two selections from February (Sailor Twain: Mermaid On The Hudson) and March (The Measure of Manhattan)?

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The latest trailer for ‘The Great Gatsby’ reveals new shots of old New York, including The Plaza and Central Park:

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And our big Episode #150, coming up tomorrow!  Bringing back a tale of rivalry between Manhattan and Brooklyn….

‘Mad Men’ notes: New York City and electroshock therapy

Modern Mechanix celebrates an exciting new use for electricity! (Courtesy the great Modern Mechanix blog)


WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

And so, in the end, we find that the biggest historical influence within the fifth season of ‘Mad Men’ wasn’t a race riot, a Southeast Asian war, a counter culture movement or a reduced hemline. It was Sylvia Plath.

(This article is so spoiler-y, that I’m placing the rest of it after the jump)
 

The tortured poet is not mentioned a single time in the final episode. (Although she was clearly nodded to in the episode entitled ‘Lady Lazarus‘.) But the themes of her only novel, The Bell Jar, partially set within the publishing world of New York, unfurled throughout this entire season of ‘Mad Men’ in a variety of ways, manifesting in the fragile, even scarred, mentality of several characters. The novel, originally published in 1963 under a pseudonym, was finally released under her own name in the same year the fifth season of ‘Mad Men’ ends — 1967.

The season evokes Plath not only literally (with the suicide of Lane Pryce) but figuratively among the psychic states of the ‘Mad Men’ women, dealing with anxieties brought about by male chauvinism (Peggy), sex (Joan), career (Megan) and body image (Betty). Then there’s the abuses upon Sally Draper, presented with several clumsy introductions to adulthood this season, enough to drive her to the prescription drugs her grandma so inappropriately gave her.

Episodes this season have plunged abstractly through the recesses of the mind — chemical experimentation (with LSD), spiritual enlightenment (with the Hare Krishnas), even feverish hallucinations (Don Draper‘s strange murder evening).  And finally, bluntly, a most surprising cruelty — the submission of one character to electroshock therapy, a drastic antidote to her ‘feeling blue’ that literally leaves her blank.

That character, Beth, pines for some reason for Pete Campbell, who’s been stubbornly transplanted to the suburbs, and it’s that attraction that indirectly get her admitted into a mental ward. The actress who plays Beth, Alexis Bledel, is most famous as the character of Rory on ‘Gilmore Girls‘, a character possessed by the work of Sylvia Plath. Of course, Plath also went through electroshock therapy for depression, just like Bledel’s character Beth. A rare pop-culture Mobius strip!

By 1967, submitting a loved one to this sort of treatment would have been considered a form of abuse in the public imagination, if not legally so. (The first lawsuits against shock treatment wouldn’t arrive in the courts until 1975.) But for decades, it was the catch-all treatment for almost any psychological problem.

Previously, the hot medical solution in the 1930s for certain mental illnesses was insulin therapy (putting patients in a comatic state), practiced in various hospitals in New York, including Bellevue Hospital. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which debuted in Italy in 1937, made insulin therapy basically obsolete when it was introduced into the United States in 1939 at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (below).

From its patient care facilities on 1051 Riverside Drive, the Institute displayed a technology that seemed to have unlimited application to many mental illnesses thought untreatable. Modern Mechanix heralded its use on insanity, “a single shock achiev[ing] what seems to be a medical miracle, restoring the patient to sanity.” It became “psychiatry biggest fad,” despite such obvious side effects like memory loss.

According to authors Edward Shorter and David Healy, two-thirds of all the patients at the Institute were there to receive ECT. It became a sort of mecca for electroshock, with doctors from around the country coming to observe the treatment.

ECT reigned as the primary form of treatment for depression for almost two decades. However, with the undeniable violence suffered upon a patient who received the treatment — and the fact that well over half of ECT patients were women — most considered it a barbaric practice by the 1960s. Ken Kesey‘s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest‘, published in 1962, accelerated public distaste with the treatment and was pretty much responsible for its near-elimination by the time the film version, starring Jack Nicholson, was released in 1975.

Electroconvulsive therapy has returned in recent years as a last-ditch therapy for severe depression and certain kinds of catastrophic mental illness. But I’m quite sure that having an affair with Pete Campbell would not have been placed in any of those categories today. What we saw in the season finale was yet another example of the abusive power men sometimes wielded over women, a theme ‘Mad Men’ will most likely continue to visit well into its final season.

Bottom pic courtesy NYPL, Wurts Brothers.

‘Mad Men’ notes: The 1960s enlightenment of New York’s natural history museum leaves taxidermy in the past



WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

Theodore Roosevelt did not donate all the mounted animals at the American Museum of Natural History, as Glen casually suggested to Sally Draper (below) in last night’s episode. Just a great, great many of them, not least of those prizes from his 1909 post-presidential safari, literally thousands of African specimens captured, killed and presented for display here, at the Smithsonian, and other American museums. New York’s museum even holds the contents of Roosevelt’s ‘natural history cabinet’, his collection of taxonomy which he started at age nine from his home on East 20th Street.

With Roosevelt’s African collection also came expert taxidermist Carl Akeley, who had gone on safari with the former president in 1909 and remained at the Natural History museum to mount and curate its African exhibit. The hall of African mammals is named in his honor and continued to define the museum in the popular imagination.

The early 20th century was a golden era for taxidermy, as greater understanding of natural habitats allowed curators to present their specimens in ‘realistic’ settings and lifelike poses. But such understanding placed a deadline upon classical museum taxidermy; the more one understood the underpinnings of the natural world, the more absurd such displays seemed.

With the 1960s came a greater awareness of the plight of rare animals and their disappearing habitats that rendered the presentation of mounted taxidermic displays into antiquated, often vulgar set pieces. The first federal endangered species act was passed in 1966 and greatly expanded upon with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, ‘the Magna Carta of the environmental movement‘.

The staid animal galleries at the American Museum of Natural History faced other surprising challenges. The museum reached record attendance in 1967, but people weren’t necessarily there for the mounted elephants. The American Apollo missions ignited a public passion for space science, and with the installation of the awe inducing Zeiss projector in 1960, the museum’s Hayden Planetarium easily became its hottest attraction.

Leading up to its centennial in 1969, the museum prepared several new halls (including several of the current anthropology exhibits) and renovated many others; thus Glen and Sally most likely would have seen many ‘Closed for Renovation’ signs during their trip here.  Had Sally not had a certain emergency which sent her from Glen’s side, the pair might have wandered over to the bright, new exhibits in the Hall of the Indians of the Plains, which opened in February 1967.

A refreshed Milstein Hall of Ocean Life would dazzle audiences upon its reopening in 1969, and the museum’s trademark blue whale was presented in a new context — the 1966 worldwide ban on hunting the endangered ocean mammal. The extensively revitalized exhibition also presented a new 1960s museum trend — the use of artificial, plastic models over actual animal carcasses.

By 1967, New York’s natural history museum — which once touted a staff of 20 full-time taxidermists — employed only two. “There’s not much left to collect and mount (we don’t say stuff),” lamented staff taxidermist David Schwendeman.

Taxidermy would live on in the worlds of hunting and fishing. One need only take a trip today to the Bass Pro Shops World Headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, to witness a world where the art of taxidermy continues to thrive, as though there was nothing creepy at all about it.

But in the vaunted hallways of the American Museum of Natural History, the elder animal displays serve a new educational purpose — a preservation of science’s evolving views on the natural world.

NOTE: Since ‘Mad Men’ doesn’t film in New York,  Jen Carlson at Gothamist deftly notes that the exhibit displayed in the episode is from Los Angeles’s natural history museum.

Top picture courtesy flickr/Getty Images
Lower picture: Prepping the blue whale in 1968, photo by Yale Joel, Life/Google images

‘Mad Men’ notes: Hare Krishna blossoms in the East Village

Prabhupada in his early days in New York (Courtesy the Hare Krishna Movement blog)

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

An unusual subplot takes Harry Crane, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s smug television liaison, down to Second Avenue and the temple of the Hare Krishnas where he finds new recruit Paul Kinsey, a former agency employee. In his prior existence as a pipe-smoking gadabout, Kinsey always made note of his own hipness, and, in this case, as an acolyte of a religious thought only a few months old, we can confirm that he’s ahead of the curve again.

The Hare Krishna movement, derived from Hindu philosophies and reformatted for the groovy ’60s, was actually fostered and popularized here in the East Village.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a Hindu teacher and proponent of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, left India in 1965 to spread his religious teaching. Eschewing material possessions, he arrived in New York in 1966 and gravitated towards the East Village, the nucleus of cultural counter-culture.

His reputation preceded him and soon gathered a small group of followers, including artist Harvey Cohen, who soon set up Prabhupada in an apartment on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side and a small studio for religious practice on the Bowery. From here the swami formed the core of what would become the Hare Krishna movement, aka the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Given the location, most of his early followers were young people, fascinated by Hindu imagery in books and music and in particular by Prabhupada’s expressions of religious thought, purifying secular consciousness expanding rhetoric into a simple spiritual regiment.

For many, he was as much a mystery as an answer. One early follower confessed later, “I didn’t know what Prabhupada was about. I mean we understood about one-millionth of what Prabhupada was saying.”

Key to religious practice is the ubiquitous mantra, rhythmically repeating the name of God. Said Prabhupada in a lecture in 2010. “[T]his sound, this Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is the sound representation of the Supreme Lord.”

Prabhupada and his followers would frequently be heard chanting their familiar mantra throughout the East Village, but they would be known for one particular destination. On October 19, 1966, Prabhupada led an outdoor chant underneath a elm tree in Tompkins Square Park that lasted for almost two hours, so transcendent that even the New York Times took notice: ‘Swami’s Flock Chants in Park to Find Ecstasy.’ Today that tree (called the Hare Krishna tree) is one of the park’s most popular spots and a mecca for current adherents.

Above: From the late October issue of the East Village Other, in front of the  Hare Krishna tree [source]

By this time, Prabhupada had a new home, a former curio shop at 26 Second Avenue (between First and Second Streets). They kept the old sign ‘Matchless Gifts’ over door, while followers decorated the interior with handmade tapestries. This became the central New York temple and remains central to local worshippers to this day. “[I]n this small room on Second Avenue, guest found themselves transported into another dimension, a spiritual dimension, in which the anxieties and pressures of New York City simply did not exist.” [source]

In that first year, 1966, Prabhupada had only a few dozen followers, but at least one famous one — Allen Ginsberg.


Below: Video of Prabhupada and followers at Tompkins Square Park in 1966

 

‘Mad Men’ notes: Between Julia Child and Weight Watchers

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC. If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

This week’s episode was set in the week before Thanksgiving 1966, certainly a moment of great apprehension for many American housewives like the embittered Betty Francis (the artist formerly known as Betty Draper).

The cover of Time Magazine that week (11/25/66) featured a psychedelic portrait of Julia Child, framed in a chorus of saucepans with some kind of odd,decorated fish below her. Her Boston-based program The French Chef had been on the air over three years by then, bringing rich, savory delicacies into American homes. “Her fingers fly with the speed and dexterity of a concert pianist. Strength counts, too, as she cleaves an ocean catfish with a mighty, two-fisted swipe or, muscles bulging and curls aquiver, whips up egg whites with her wire whisk.” [source]

Child made classic, wholesome dishes with generous portions of high-calorie ingredients. But the 1960s also shoehorned greater artificiality into American kitchens — a barrage of food products loaded with preservatives, in unnatural shapes and presentations. The two food products most substantially featured on this week’s episode were canned whipped cream and Hostess Sno Balls, pink mounds of firmly molded, processed cake coated in a gelatinous frosting of uncertain origins. Even as Child stressed classic meals with fresh ingredients, actual food production was moving further away from easily digestible ingredients.

Made available to American grocery stores between 1965 and 1967: Bac-Os bacon bits, Shake ‘N’ Bake, Doritos, Easy Cheese, SpaghettiOs, Tang, Cool Whip.

If eating patterns in the 1960s set the county on a path of future health problems, they also spawned America’s first significant weight loss regiment. Betty, mortified by her extra pounds and judging herself against the lanky frame of her ex-husband’s new wife, turns to a community group that would grow to become the most successful weight loss program of the 20th century — Weight Watchers, a Queens-based company formed in 1963 that brought weight control to the mainstream.

Founder Jean Nidetch described herself in a 1971 biography as a “fat Brooklyn girl who grew up to be an even fatter Queens housewife.” She graduated from high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1940s and worked for the Internal Revenue Service before marrying in 1947. By the 1950s, she found herself in the massive garden apartment complex Deepdale Gardens in northeast Queens raising two sons and developing a compulsive eating habit.

Trying every available fad diet to no avail, she eventually visited a city-run obesity clinic in the neighborhood of Kips Bay in Manhattan, where she was advised to eat a so-called ‘prudent diet’: “two pieces of bread and two glasses of milk a day, fish five times a week and a weekly meal featuring liver.” [source] What they didn’t prescribe was camaraderie.

Nidetch took the food plans back to her apartment complex and organized a small cluster of neighborhood women to support each other in their quest to shed pounds. By 1962, she had lost dozen of pounds and had gained valuable insight into the power of group support to control eating habits. Using the ‘prudent diet’ as a rough guideline, she moved her regular meetings into a loft above a movie theater in Little Neck, charging $2 per meeting — the same price as the movie tickets being sold downstairs.

As depicted in this week’s episode, set in November 1966, Weight Watchers was still very much a regional program. Nidetch’s first Weight Watchers cookbook was released earlier in the year, debuting the regimented eating plan and structured point system.
A sampling: “Luncheon: 4 ounces fish or lean meat or poultry, or 2/3 cup cottage cheese or pot cheese or 4 ounces farmer cheese or 2 ounces hard cheese or 2 eggs. All you want of unlimited vegetables. 1 slice bread.”

As she confesses from the back cover: “Weight Watchers began when I invited to my house six overweight friends – have you ever noticed that most fat people have fat friends? – and much to the surprise of all of us we found that there were other people hiding cookies in the bathroom and eclairs in the oven.”

By the end of the decade, Nidetch’s new company — incorporating its famous food-points system and a methodology of daily calorie targets — would go worldwide. By 1972, Nidetch would invite 20,000 national devotees to a tenth anniversary party at Madison Square Garden, featuring guest appearances by Bob Hope and Pearl Bailey. (Ad below from Lubbock, TX, newspaper)

In 1978, Weight Watchers was acquired by the H.J. Heinz Company (which, in ‘Mad Men’ continuity, has been a most frustrating client for our favorite ad staff) who would mass produce Weight Watchers frozen foods.