Monday, January 30, 2012

Did the French invent Star Wars?

Like most sentient creatures who were born when I was born, I have a certain powerful regard for the Star Wars trilogy. Note I say "trilogy"—I saw the later three "prequels" and consider them...well, abominations would suggest that I'm more of a Star Wars fan than I actually am, but they were lame. Except for the flying Yoda part. And I might have just liked that because I saw the premiere of that film (I don't even know which one it was) at the Ziegfeld in NYC and the audience was just SO INTO IT, that it was hard not to get swept away by the euphoria of the moment. The truth is that when I was 9 or so, I took the very unpopular position that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was better than Star Wars. Even then I liked to be contrary about movies.

Enough disclaimers.

No, wait—one more. I have daughters, not sons, and thus have not been afflicted by any of the Clone Wars/Star Wars cartoon spinoffs and all their expensive Lego incarnations. I don't have to read Star Wars bedtime stories or make beds with Star-Wars-for-Pottery-Barn sheets. Parents of boys could smugly point out that they've been spared the horrors of Disney Princesses, Barbies, Strawberry Shortcake et al—fair enough. But my kids' taste is slightly off the beaten path, so I too have been (mostly) spared from having to read too many Barbie books (one could argue that even one Barbie book is too many but if nothing else, parenthood increases one's tolerance for just about everything).

The point is I have no dog in this fight. If the seeds of Star Wars can be found in some Lefty French comix, I've got no quarrel with that.

L'Empire Des Mille Planetes
("Empire of a Thousand Planets") is the second volume of a French comic book series Valerian and Laureline created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres. I paid a dollar for this hardback published in 1971 and it seems like kind of a score, a rare edition of a series superpopular among devotees of time-traveling space operas—a series that's also credited with inspiring not only the Star Wars movies (apparently Valerian-reading Frenchies were among the film's designers) but The Fifth Element, Conan the Barbarian and Avatar. The books were published in many languages, including English, but my edition is French and I don't read French so anything I know about this I know from wikipedia (and therefore it is unassailably true). Unfortunately, I neglected to scan the scene most often cited as proof that George Lucas and his French henchmen ripped off the comic, when the Han Solo-ish anti-hero Valerian is encased in plastic during an interrogation, much like studly wiseacre Han Solo gets the carbon treatment at the end of Empire Strikes Back. (If anyone cares, I'll add it later.) But even I can see that the airships look an awful lot like all those, uh, ones in Star Wars, whatever they're called. Anyway, you know an estate sale has done its job if it's raised your awareness of an obscure pop-culture controversy. George Lucas ripped off the French? Mon dieu!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Portrait of the artist as a young Cindy Brady

In honor of the estate sale I went to this morning where I bought a dozen Walter T. Fosters for a mere two bucks, I bring you the already scanned How to Put Life into Your Portraits by S.M. Shinn. May your weekend be lively with smiley cherubs like these.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


When I was a little kid, my primary source of tunes was an AM radio made by GE in the early ’70s. It was a clear plastic cube and you could slide photos into the sides. I never bothered changing the photos; I remember really liking the samples it came with, particularly a sunny blonde you can see here. Of course I was able to confirm the accuracy of this ancient memory because I found my old radio on etsy (sold, alas).

The second I clapped my eyes on this Photo Block, atop a faux wood-grain desk in some sad little office in some drab house, I thought about my old radio sitting on my dresser, about that sunny blonde, about Dan Ingram spinning the top 40—Wings, Olivia Newton-John, the Stones—on WABC, long before WABC became just another voice in the cacophony of talk radio. According to wikipedia, WABC had an incredibly strong signal so "especially in the afternoons and evenings, WABC was the station teenagers could be heard listening to on transistor radios all over the New York metropolitan area." So true—but it wasn't just teenagers.

Yes, I had another one of my sentimental moments, and it only cost me 50¢ to prolong it.

This photoblock, which is unfortunately not a radio but does still have its original sample photos, was manufactured in 1971. What is it about me and 1971? I'm only just now noticing, some 60-odd posts later, that so many roads on this blog seem to be leading back to that year, when I was three.

Nothing earth-shattering happened in my world when I was three. Three is pretty much summed up by one mental image: me, a sunny day, walking across the grass in my backyard, wearing a white shirt with a pale green mushroom on the front, and matching pale green pants. That's all I've got for three. (Four is me sitting on my mother's best oriental rug, cradling a red-patent leather purse I got for my birthday. Two is sitting on a tall black stool at the kitchen counter eating a hamburger with my brother, possibly on the day we moved into our house. At least something exciting happened when I was two.)

My kids are now 5 and 8, same age as me circa the 1970s. My mother saved some of my finer items of clothing from that era—a long patchwork skirt purchased for a Bicentennial celebration, a yellow Indian cotton caftan embroidered with tiny mirrors—and my kids actually wear them. Sometimes that freaks me out.

But what freaks me out more is trying to imagine what will evoke Proustian cravings for madeleines in them thirty years from now. Obviously my house is replete with vintage midcentury stuff, so will they be waxing nostalgic over Danish modern candlesticks or Knoll furniture or plastic photo blocks? I don't think it works like that. I grew up in a Victorian house chockablock with Victorian furniture and bric-a-brac, as well as some Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts. None of that stuff sets my heart racing at an estate sale. It tends to be the ordinary household objects, the books, records and the toys.

From my vantage point at the kitchen counter, I'm gazing around my house trying to figure out what is contemporary enough, of the aughts enough, to lodge in my daughters' memories. All-Clad pots and pans? OXO kitchen gadgets? MacBooks, ipads, iphones? US Weekly? Nespresso machine? Weird to imagine them on their hovercrafts, flitting from estate sale to estate sale (what more useful application could there be for a hovercraft?), exclaiming over a Braun travel alarm clock or a Hello Kitty bath mat or a pair of Missoni for Target rubber rain boots—shelling out whatever wampum passes for future currency in exchange for a wallow in aughts nostalgia...

I recently read a Kurt Andersen essay in Vanity Fair in which he laments the blah samey-sameness, the lack of originality, of the past few decades. If you compare the art/design/pop culture/hairdos of the 1950s with the 1970s, or compare any 20-year span, things look wildly different. But once we hit the ’90s, the needle kinda got stuck in the groove—music and fashion become indistinguishable. You can certainly quibble with many of his examples (namely music) but the fellow is certainly right for the most part:

"Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past."

Somehow, by the end of the essay, I was feeling a little bad about myself, like I'm part of the problem. But not bad enough to change my ways... Next time I try to catch up with my backlog of scanning, I'm going to do the armload of Kurt Andersen–edited Spy magazines I picked up at a library sale a couple years back. For some reason, I didn't save any of my Spys from back in the day when I was a subscriber so I was pretty thrilled to find them, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My side of the mountain mystery

I don't remember ever reading My Side of the Mountain, and I'm not sure how that is considering it was written by the author of Julie of the Wolves and how awesome is Julie of the Wolves? Pretty darn awesome. And My Side is about a kid who runs away from home and moves into a hole in a tree, where he befriends a falcon and a weasel. Seems like a no-brainer. I'll try to get my 8-year-old to read it with me, but she'll probably be put off by the cover—the kid does look pretty grumpy and unappealing (whither the weasel? the falcon?).

Anyway, I bring this find to everyone's attention not because the book is intrinsically exciting but because of the bonus between the pages—this somewhat freaky sticker, which resembles a Wacky Pack but is not a Wacky Pack. What is it? Got me.

Friday, January 20, 2012


So go nuts, alright?

This is either the world's smallest nut bowl (decorating nut bowls with kookie imagery commonplace on midcentury nut receptacles) or one of those personal ashtrays that adorned everyone's place setting at the dining table back when folks were fun and slowly killing themselves with their dirty, delightful habits. You tell me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hometown heroine #2: Heloise

One of the immutable laws of used-book foraging: Every thrift shop in America will have at least one Hints from Heloise; if not Heloise, then it shall be Erma Bombeck's If Life's a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits? Or else: Helter-Skelter.

In San Antonio, the likelihood of running across a Heloise book increases exponentially—have I ever been to a Goodwill or garage sale without spying a volume or three of her handy hausfrau hints? Don't think so. The proto-Martha Stewart, who's written a ton of books and whose columns are still syndicated in some 500 newspapers—who knew there were so many newspapers left?—is one of San Antonio's few local celebrities (I already addressed the city's meager supply of those here). Owning one of her books is pretty much a given, like having a big metal star on your garage, a windmill on your lawn and a copy of Lonesome Dove in the guest room.

The brief history of Heloise is that her mom was a very resourceful military wife, who started writing a column for the Honolulu Star in 1959. She groomed her daughter, whose name was not Heloise at the time, as her successor, and by the time Mom died, the daughter had given up her dream to become a math teacher and was ready to dispense hints about eradicating body odors, wine stains and ring around the collar to an eager populace. Now an attractive 60something woman with silver shoulder-length hair, Heloise seems pretty cool. According to her website, she tools around her neighborhood—which I think is rather near mine—on an old-school Russian motorcycle. Her schnauzer rides shotgun in the sidecar (I recently saw a similar photo of Brad Pitt in Us Weekly, but son Pax was riding shotgun, not a schnauzer. Stars: so like us!). My husband swears he saw her driving a black Lexus with tinted windows over by our supermarket—the HINTS vanity plate was the tip-off. As far as I know, Heloise doesn't have a daughter who plans to change her name to Heloise upon her mother's death and assume the mantle of homekeeping maven, so you have to wonder—like the employees of Oprah's Harpo media, or Martha Stewart Omnimedia's stockholders—what will happen when Heloise passes on.

So, her books are pretty ubiquitous in these parts but the series I've collected here, plucked from three different sales over the past seven years, seems to be fairly rare. Published by Pocket Books in the early ’70s, they feature a sex kittenish fantasy of a housewife on their covers. From her pantyhose to her sexy orthopedic shoes and deer-in-the-headlights expression, this chick is a ’70s wet dream. She reminds me of the women in the Playboy magazines my friend's father used to hide in the back of his bedroom closet (he didn't hide them well enough, obviously). The laundry-themed cover is so "Oopsie, I pulled a Bobby Brady!" And the one where she's pulling a little red wagon full of Coke bottles—WTF? Where is she going?? And the career gal cover with the totally random St. Bernard is just baffling.

These covers are a tad misleading, however. I regret to report that the tips inside these books aren't even a teeny bit racy. Just the usual collection of chestnuts culled from readers' letters about how to eliminate shower curtain mildew and how to throw a "stew party"—alas, no tips about how to throw a key party.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The strippers and the sewing book

Often at an estate sale I find myself mulling over some combo of the usual questions: How could people live like this? Why didn't their family want to keep this deeply personal item? What accounts for this fascination with Hummels? And what, exactly, is that smell...?

Sometimes I'll open up a book and something interesting and unrelated will fall into my lap. Then the question becomes, How did this end up in here...?

Like, how did this strip club table card end up inside this 1961 edition of the classic Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Book?

It's challenging, but fun, to try to fathom a scenario that'll explain it. Here's one version: Back in the early ’60s, a Don Draper-ish husband takes a business trip to L.A., joins some fellow execs for a "meeting" at Al Deitch's Body Shop on the Sunset Strip. Drink their two-drink minimum and then some. Don decides to keep the card on the table as a souvenir, stuffs it in the pocket of his gray flannel suit and promptly forgets about it (so much alcohol—how did they remember anything?). Days, maybe weeks later, the wife is about to take Don's suit to the cleaners but checks his pockets first—it is an unwritten hausfrau law that any cash a husband neglects to remove from his pocket before depositing laundry on floor immediately becomes the property of the hausfrau. But instead of a few loose bills to add to her mad money fund, she finds the fulsome Kim and lovely Lolita. What happens next?

1) She freaks out on husband, brandishing the evidence and later, after she's calmed down, thinks "Hmm. This would make a great bookmark."

2) Husband never left it in his pocket; he brought it home specifically as a souvenir for his very understanding wife who happens to be an amateur artist. He thinks she might find inspiration for her Vargas-and-Walter T. Foster inspired work in the figures of Kim and Lolita. Instead, she uses it as a bookmark.

3) There was never any business trip. Husband and wife were vacationing together in L.A. Decide to trawl the clubs of the Sunset Strip, and perhaps pick up an interested third party. Wife cherishes card, a memento of awesome love vacays she used to take with husband, before they had kids, and the kids grew up, and they grew apart, and she became a prisoner of her capacious craft room. Decides to use it as a bookmark.

Seriously, this could go on for hours, for days, years and would we ever hit on the truth? What was Really Going On in that modest split-level ranch? All theories are welcome.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mule madness

Raise your hand if you used to watch Francis the Talking Mule on Saturday mornings!



I used to watch Francis movies. Abbot and Costello movies. Charlie Chan movies. Okay, so maybe my TV viewing wasn't confined to the morning—it must've seeped into the afternoon... Because I also used to watch actual shows, like The Bugs Bunny-Pink Panther Laugh and a Half Hour and a Half Show. See, right there—90 minutes of morning television. I can't imagine what my kids would watch if I just let them have unfettered access to the TV for an entire Saturday. As it stands, their weekend morning viewing depends on how early they rise and how busy our day might be. If fairly early and not too busy, they crawl into bed with us and watch an hour of TV, mostly retro cartoons saved on our Tivo, while we lie there with pillows over our heads wondering why we bother even pretending we can stay up late and get crazy on weekend nights. Sigh. Anyway, right now Space Ghost, The Herculoids and Galaxy Trio are in heavy rotation. Left to their own devices, who knows.

I digress. Francis. Apparently the popular 1950s film franchise about the droll Army mule was based on this novel, not the other way around. I am sure I will never read it, though I dig the cover (especially the back cover). (But is that grounds for keeping it?) The guy behind the movies went on to create Mr. Ed, which is quite possibly one of my favorite shows of all time—and talk about having a good idea and running with it, huh? A little peanut butter on the gums and voila! Wisecracking equine! Never gets old!

On the subject of Saturday-morning animal shows, I am reminded of Run Joe Run. I'm not sure if I ever loved a show as much as I loved this one. The drama, the heartache. Imagine The Fugitive but the wronged protagonist on the run is a German shepherd, falsely accused of attacking his beloved trainer. Unlike Francis, Joe was a very intense, taciturn fellow. Watching this clip makes me a little verklempt. Don't think my kids could handle it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The resolution will be televised

Happy New Year, all...In honor of resolution-makers everywhere, I bring you the Disco Body Shaper. So much more awesome than resolving to go to the gym! Not to mention cheaper. This was $3 but I bought it on the last day of a sale so it was half price. Back in 1977, it retailed for $9.95—adjusted for inflation that would have been... I have no idea, but certainly more than $1.50 and a lot less than a gym membership.

If you're wondering if I've actually taken the Disco Body Shaper for a spin, the answer is hell no. I'm sure the foxy ladies (and the dude wearing silver spacesuit) in these completely rad late-night commercials all popped their knees, dislocated their hips and knocked their spines out of alignment using the "scientifically designed, precision made, ball-bearing action exerciser." Seriously, it looks dangerous, doesn't it? I get rug burns just looking at these commercials.

There are two things I can generally count on when I go to an estate sale: that there will be an assortment of walkers/canes/wheelchairs/hospital beds/shower seats, and that there will be at least one piece of exercise equipment—hat rack/nordictracks, deflated stability balls, dumbbells, Thighmasters and Soloflex knock-offs. This probably says something meaningful about the cycles of life—despite our strivings for physical perfection, our bodies inevitably crumble—or maybe just that this is the kind of fungible crap none of your surviving family members wants to inherit. Perhaps a resolution to join the gym isn't such a bad idea after all.

And here, the once-ubiquitous Soloflex print ad that used to hang on my bedroom wall. Just cuz writing this post made me think of Soloflex man for the first time since, like, 1983.

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