Monthly Archives: November 2010

Let’s See That Again!

In case you missed it, here is Rollie Stichweh's TD...

Evolving technology has changed sports so much that it is now possible for viewers to see replays of a ballplayer spitting from many different angles, and in super slow motion.  The fan in the stands sees the game in a very large format, but the fan at home sees a lot more details, and sees each play several times.  (Also, the home viewer has shorter lines for the rest room.)

We have grown so accustomed to video replays that it may be hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist, but I happened to be watching the day the first replay appeared on national television.  The date was December 7, 1963, and the event was the Army-Navy football game, which had been delayed a week due to the assassination of President John Kennedy.

CBS was carrying the game, and a young director named Tony Verna was in charge that day.  Verna had been experimenting with the idea of video replay since the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and he was sure he had figured out a way to play back the action moments after it happened.  He persuaded his bosses to let him ship a 1,200 pound Ampex videotape recorder from New York to Philadelphia for this game.

Those machines used large reels of tape that was two inches wide — digital recording didn’t come along until decades later.  Verna’s plan was to keep a camera hooked up to that recorder and trained exclusively on the two quarterbacks, Roger Staubach of Navy and Rollie Stichweh of Army.  An audio engineer would insert a “beep” on the tape before each play began; then, if something exciting happened, the video replay technician could rewind to the “beep”, and then hit play within a matter of seconds.

That’s how it was supposed to work, but there were problems with the replay machine throughout the game that day.  Sometimes it took too long for the image to stabilize, so there was just visual static.  In other instances, the recording heads on the machine simply failed to record anything at all.

The engineers managed to get it working for one play:  Army QB Stichweh (rhymes with ditch day) ran into the end zone from one yard out with 6:19 remaining in the game.  As I recall, that touchdown was replayed only once, and at normal speed — there was no slo-mo back then.  Army’s two-point conversion was not replayed, nor was the subsequent on-side kick, which happened to be recovered by Rollie Stichweh.

Navy held on to win the game 21-15, and although Midshipman QB Roger Staubach didn’t figure in the historic first replay, he got the consolation prize of winning the 1963 Heisman Trophy, and eventually made the pro football Hall of Fame.  Tony Verna went on to a storied career at CBS, receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America.  Rollie Stichweh served in Vietnam and lived to tell about it; from what I read, he and Staubach remain close friends.  As for instant replay — you already know what has happened to it since 1963.  I mean, can you believe the ump blew that call!?

The Face Is Familiar

In Western art, the one individual depicted more than any other is  Jesus of Nazareth.  Even though I don’t have statistics to back up that statement, it’s a reasonable assumption, don’t you think?  Jesus has been a subject of paintings almost since the invention of paint, and because artists were commissioned by the Church for centuries, different images of Jesus must number in the thousands.  (That does not include apparitions of Christ on grilled cheese sandwiches or tree stumps.)  Some of the most memorable art objects in history, and by the most renowned artists, feature Jesus:  just to name a couple, there are Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s “Pietà”.

The one image that has been reproduced more than any other, though, is by an artist whose name you probably don’t know.  If you have ever set foot in a Protestant Sunday School or church social hall, especially in the southern or midwestern United States, it’s highly likely you have seen “The Head of Christ” by Warner E. Sallman.  Estimates vary, but a 2007 article in Newsweek pegged the total number of copies of this painting at a billion.  Yes — billion, with a b.  That number includes reproductions on clocks, coffee mugs, lamps, calendars, and other objects of religious devotion.

Sallman was a Chicago commercial artist; a charcoal illustration he sketched in 1924 for a denominational publication was the prototype for the famous oil painting he did in 1940 — the one shown here. 

During World War II, pocket-sized reproductions were given away to soldiers and sailors by the YMCA and the Salvation Army; presses churned out tens of thousands of them.  In the 1950s, framed prints of “The Head of Christ” showed up on the walls of libraries, schools, and community centers in addition to churches.  The painting became so popular, hardly anyone stopped to wonder why.

Among those who did wonder why were art critics, who pointed out that Sallman’s painting was not in the tradition of great religious art.  I suspect that may have been a big part of its appeal.

The thousands of art works in which Jesus had previously figured usually put him in a scene:  He was a baby in a manger, or a suffering savior on a cross, or an unearthly figure working a miracle of some sort.  There were a few “portraits” (the Met has a nice one attributed to Rembrandt), but in most cases, Jesus is shown in some activity; some historical context.  What was unusual about Sallman’s painting is that the subject doesn’t appear to be centuries old.  It looks like Jesus had his picture taken in a shopping mall.

Dr. David Morgan of Duke University wrote that the “…blurred contours and soft lighting recall the retouched studio photographs that replaced portrait paintings in the 19th century.”  Erika Doss, an art historian at Notre Dame, remarked that “‘The Head of Christ’ is a pose common to high school yearbooks.”

One might also quibble that Warner Sallman, who was of Swedish descent, has made Jesus look sort of Scandinavian in this painting.  What may have turned it into an iconic image, though, is that Christ was presented to the viewer as more or less a contemporary.  That idea of Jesus as a friend — someone whose picture you could carry in your wallet — seems to have been powerfully attractive to 20th century Protestants.

Fresh Laughter

A view from the seats

You’re sitting at home, watching an alleged comedy on television.  A character in the show says, “My butt hurts,” or something else that falls well below your standard of what constitutes funny, but unseen people inside your television are roaring.  Some are even applauding a line of dialogue that made you sneer.  You dismiss the crowd reaction as “canned laughter”, assuming that it must be a recording stolen from some other show and cynically edited into this one. 

Well, you’re wrong.

OK, maybe not completely wrong (as I’ll explain in a bit), but generally the laughter you hear on a TV show soundtrack is supplied by people who are reacting to what they are seeing and hearing in person:  a real studio audience, in other words.  When you’re watching at home, you have no way of knowing that the actor had flubbed that mediocre line three takes in a row.  The studio audience knows, though, and when he finally gets it right, their boisterous laughter and applause is sort of a sarcastic cheer.

Now, here’s where you’re not wrong about canned laughter:  Occasionally there are jokes that do get the benefit of “sweetening”, as it’s called, but usually that means adding a few recorded chuckles, not major guffaws.  And that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you suspect.  For the most part, you’re hearing the honest audience reaction, whether you think it’s deserved or not — it’s fresh laughter, not canned.

So who are these studio audience people, and why do they find everything so darn funny?  There are the agents, managers, and current spouse of the star; the writer’s wife; some relatives of other cast and crew members.  Those people all have a financial interest in laughing loudly, but they represent a small percentage of the total audience.  Most of the 200+ seats are filled with people who are under no obligation to even smile.

There is an outfit in Los Angeles called Audiences Unlimited that is used by most of the show production companies to recruit guests and distribute tickets, which are free.  It probably was a breeze to find people interested in seeing Cheers or Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond.  On less popular shows, recruiters may have to resort to, “Hey, man, at least it’s a chance to get out of the rain for a while.”

Once inside the studio, the audience is greeted by a “warmup man” (or woman) who keeps convivial patter going during the breaks in filming —  it often takes 2 or 3 hours to film a half-hour show.  The warmup man also reminds the audience about plot developments in previous scenes.  I’m guessing that when you watch the show at home you don’t have a warmup man; you have a sour stomach from that leftover pizza you probably shouldn’t have eaten, and the dog is clawing at the door so it can go outside and do its business.  Distractions like that may make the show seem less funny to you than it does to the people who are seeing it in person.

There’s also something to be said for the collective experience they’re having — laughter is contagious, as the saying goes.  (The star’s spouse may also be contagious, but that’s just a rumor.)  Real laughter — fresh laughter, not the canned stuff — is definitely a live virus.

Something’s Burning

These days, everything comes with a warning.  If you carefully read the tag on your couch, it is probably identified as a potential choking hazard.  That sort of caution is a recent development; in previous centuries, risks of all kinds were pretty much ignored.

There was some dim awareness in 17th-century London that it might not be a good idea to build houses out of wood and sticks and paper and then warm those houses with open flames — but they did it anyway.  They also stored pitch, coal, alcohol and gunpowder in their makeshift homes.  A further risk was the practice of building these tenements with jutting upper floors, so that the tops of the thatch-roofed buildings almost met over the narrow streets.

It’s easy to look back now and say, “They should have seen it coming,” but the residents of London in 1666 had other things on their minds.  People were probably feeling fortunate to have survived the Great Plague of the previous year, which had claimed something like 80,000 lives.  And the summer of 1666 had been so uncomfortably hot and dry…

In the early hours of Sunday, September 2, a fire broke out in a building on Pudding Lane that was a baker’s home and shop.  It quickly spread through central parts of the city.  There was no 9-1-1, of course, and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have done much good since there was no fire department.

The law required every parish church to have ladders and buckets and firehooks, which were used to pull down buildings, and in one section of London there were even some primitive water pipes that were supposed to help in case of fire.  By that Sunday night they had become useless, though — the pipes were fed by water wheels under London Bridge, and the water wheels had been incinerated.

Much of what we now know about the Great Fire of 1666 is thanks to a Member of Parliament named Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) who provided an eyewitness account.  Pepys is often referred to as a diarist.  That means he kept a diary, which was what people did before they had blogs.  Here is a portion of the Pepys-eye view:

…We saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of  (London) bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch of above a mile long.  It made me weep to see it.  The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine.

Over 13,000 houses and 87 churches were destroyed by the time the winds abated and the fire died on September 5.  St. Paul’s cathedral was lost as well, partly due to bad luck:  At the time the fire broke out, its exterior was covered with wooden scaffolding to facilitate some restoration work.  The scaffolding caught fire, which ignited the roof beams, which caused the lead roof to melt.

How many human lives were lost in the Great Fire of London is still a matter of dispute.  Some contemporary reports mention as few as 6 or 8, but that low number is probably due to the fact that in those days, deaths of poor people and tradesmen were not recorded.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that several hundred may have perished in the fire or the privation that followed.

Soon after the disaster, a monument was erected that marks the location where the fire was finally snuffed out.  Get this:  You’ll recall that it started on Pudding Lane?  Well, it stopped at Pye Corner.

What Might Have Been

King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velazquez (1644) -- Frick Collection, New York

Had he not lost almost five years to military service at the peak of his baseball career, Ted Williams’ batting statistics would have surpassed every player in history.  That’s how the conversation goes with some fans, anyway, and they may have a point.  In a similar vein, art lovers sometimes speculate that Diego Velázquez would be recognized as the world’s greatest painter if he hadn’t “sold out” and become court painter to King Philip IV of Spain.

That argument is even more hypothetical than the one about Ted Williams, and it should be noted that a lot of artists and experts — including Manet and Picasso — already consider Velázquez to be the all-time best.  You can’t help wondering, though, what he might have produced if he hadn’t taken the job with King Philip at the age of 24.

Velázquez was born in 1599, and by his teens he was producing paintings of astonishing beauty; they were of everyday subjects, often with still-life elements.  An outstanding example is The Waterseller of Seville, which has, among other masterstrokes, exquisitely rendered water condensation on the side of a foreground jug.

His skill caught the attention of one of the king’s ministers, and Velázquez was soon brought to Madrid.  He was an ambitious young man, and when the king offered him the court-painter gig, Velázquez accepted the offer to be rich and famous.  Hey, who wouldn’t?

The problem, from an artistic standpoint, was that the job basically involved painting portraits of the king and his family, and King Philip was… well, not what you’d call handsome.  The king wasn’t a very good subject, you might say.  His forehead was a vast, empty expanse, and he had the distinctive Habsburg facial structure:  Generations of royal inbreeding had resulted in a prominent underslung jaw.  (As bad as Philip’s was, his son and successor Charles II was so disfigured, the poor guy was unable to chew.)

Velázquez accepted the challenge, though, churning out portraits of Philip in closeup, Philip full-length, Philip seated, Philip standing, Philip on horseback, and so on.  We may look at the results now and say, “oh, dear”, but the king was delighted.  That’s how bad it must have been — Philip found the likenesses flattering.  He developed a friendship with Velázquez, and gave him additional responsibilities.  Diego became an event organizer, furnished the royal apartments, and even handled the occasional diplomatic mission.

In 1649 Velázquez was sent to Italy to buy some paintings for King Philip’s collection, and he scooped up some masterpieces that are now among the most important pieces in the Prado museum.  While abroad, Velázquez also had the opportunity to paint the unforgettable portrait of Pope Innocent X, whose expression seems to be commanding you to kneel.

The most famous picture Velázquez painted was almost his last.  It’s now called Las Meninas (The Ladies-In-Waiting), although the picture centers on the Infanta Margarita, a little girl in a ridiculously large dress.  As you study the painting, you notice that Velázquez has put himself in it, standing at his easel.  The king and queen are reflected in a mirror on a back wall, as though they are posing for Velázquez at the spot where we are standing.

If he hadn’t taken the job as Court Painter, we can only speculate what else Velázquez might have produced, but he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to paint Las Meninas.  Could he have gone on to paint even greater works?  Who knows?  It’s enough that he was among the best who ever lived.  For that matter, so was Ted Williams.