Friday, February 10, 2012
A room with a Viewmaster (or two...)
Like a youngish lady who lets herself go prematurely grey, sometimes I think I make myself seem a lot older than I actually am by saying stuff like: "I wrote all my college papers in longhand on yellow legal pads!" Or: "I've seen Benny Goodman and Count Basie perform live!" And of course: "I remember when we got our first color TV—and the first show I watched on it was The Lone Ranger!" Yeah, I am somewhat old-ish, depending on the context, but I'm not yet a card-carrying member of AARP. Still, it's probably fair to say that my tastes have always skewed a little old, or old-school. Old-school sounds a lot better, doesn't it?
Here comes another fogeyish admission: The first time I saw Disney's Cinderella was on my Viewmaster; I never saw the actual movie till my three-year-old daughter got the DVD. I only knew Cinderella distilled to 21 eye-popping three-dimensional or "stereoscopic" images. And as swell a movie as Cinderella is—I might even say it was one of my favorite Disneys if its charms hadn't been somewhat eroded by repeated (and repeated and repeated) viewing—I'm not sure if you really need more than those 21 images.
Like most cool stuff, the Viewmaster was introduced to an incredulous public at a World's Fair (in this case, the 1939 fair). Back then, it was marketed as a high-tech alternative to the postcard, so most of the early reels feature tourist attractions, scenic landscapes etc, but they eventually started making reels of popular TV shows, movies and other fodder for kids. The old-fangled Viewmaster is still being manufactured as a novelty toy, though the $12 Fisher-Price version, while more or less the same product, isn't nearly as lovely to look at as the ones I've collected from the ’40s-’60s. Like the ’50s model pictured here (incidentally I did NOT pay 12 bucks for it—I'm sure it was half price).
I wonder if there's a way to share the images from the Viewmaster reel on the internets, because as cute as this object is, the awesomeness of the Viewmaster is what you get to view. Generally when you score one at an estate sale, it'll come with a bunch of reels. This one came with more than just highlights of the Grand Canyon and The Rescuers and Snow White: the three-part "Movie stars of Hollywood, USA" (featuring glam publicity stills of Debbie Reynolds, Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Dick Powell et al). Something called the Eighth World Boy Scout Jamboree (a wholesome good time, for sure). Tarzan, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Rin Tin Tin and several reels of Tom Corbett Space Cadet, including "The Moon Pyramid" and "The Mystery of the Asteroids." Apparently Tom Corbett was one of those midcentury cultural juggernauts—it was a Sunday comic strip! a series of novels! a TV show! a radio show!—that's pretty much been lost to the sands of time, unless of course you're still consuming your culture via the Viewmaster.
Bonus fun with the Viewmaster? Watching your digital native children, who've been effortlessly troubleshooting Mommy's iphone issues pretty much since birth, fumble with technology that is neither seamless nor intuitive. "Now, honey, don't get frustrated, you've just put the reel in backwards..."