Monthly Archives: February 2013

It Must Be a Sign

Hunh.  I wonder what that sign means?(photo by Sally Reeder)

Hunh. I wonder what that sign means?
(photo by Sally Reeder)

You see her everywhere:  She’s wearing an above-the-knees, flared skirt that was probably never stylish in any country of the world.  She’s not trying to make a fashion statement, though; she’s making a “this-is-a-women’s restroom” statement.  Her ludicrously square-shouldered male companion stands nearby.

They are among a collection of symbols that we encounter daily, communication without language.  There’s that universal “no” sign — a circle with a slash — that is superimposed on the image of a cigarette (“no smoking!”), or the letter P (“no parking!”), or an arrow bent at a 90° angle (“no left turn!”)

Public information signs started appearing in train stations in the mid-19th century, but they weren’t standardized until almost a century later.  That got me wondering:  Who decides?  Is there some governing body that rules that the symbol for restaurants is a fork and knife, even in countries that use chopsticks?

The answer is yes, there is sort of a governing body, the International Organization for Standardization.  The thing is, there are a lot of other organizations that make their own proposals and ignore the ISO at times.

For instance, many of the symbols now in use were developed in the 1970s by AIGA (originally the American Institue of Graphic Arts), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation.  The work of AIGA had been influenced by some Austrian designers in the 1930s who had experimented with symbols as substitutes for words.

The history of the stop sign helps to illustrate the point that these symbols don’t spring into existence when some authority renders a judgment for the entire planet.  Michigan was starting to make automobiles in the early 20th century, so it figures that it also made the first stop sign, in 1915.  It was square — two feet by two feet — and had black letters on a white background.

In 1922, there were enough stop signs around the United States that a committee was convened by the American Association of Highway Officials to standardize them.  The committee made its recommendations,  but that didn’t stop those who had other ideas about stop signs.

A group of engineers in the Mississippi Valley insisted that the more sides a sign has, the more it conveys danger.  That’s when the octagon shape began to be used — lots of sides, you see.

Let’s skip over the many modifications that were made during the next several decades, such as the change in 1954 from yellow to red as the background color.  The current shape and color became U.S. law in 1966, and two years later they were adopted by — get this — the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which was part of a UN Economic Commission.  That applied the stop sign standards world wide — more or less.

There are still some countries, like Zimbabwe and Pakistan, that prefer their own stop-sign design.  Let’s face it — getting a couple of hundred countries to agree on anything isn’t easy, and can take many years.  That’s why some committee had better get to work right away on a new symbol for women’s restrooms.  In fifty years, do you think anyone will know what a skirt is?

Meet the Foleys

Just a few tools of the Foley artist's trade

Just a few tools of the Foley artist’s trade

When a movie ends, audience members either dab away their tears, try to get some feeling back in their legs, or rearrange their clothing.  Some wake up from the best sleep they’ve had in days.  Hardly any of them are paying attention to the names and titles that are rolling up the screen.

If you’re among the minority who stay through the end credits of a film, you probably can guess what the Costume Designer’s function was, or what the Production Accountant did, but you may have wondered — what the heck is a Foley Artist?

Well, it’s a person who specializes in performing sound effects to augment the audio track of a movie.  Strangely enough, the original production sound recorded in the studio or on location can sometimes seem artificial, or be missing altogether.

When there’s a scene involving a brawl, for instance, obviously the stuntmen aren’t really punching each other.  The noises you hear in the finished film were created by a Foley artist smacking a phonebook or a slab of meat.  During post production the original footage is played back, scene by scene, and the artist syncs up with it, adding a kiss here, a slap there, the rustle of a cape, or footsteps on creaky stairs.

Foley stages have an array of props and floor surfaces to generate those effects, and a technician at a sound board records them as the artist produces them.  With that sophisticated equipment, the pitch of a piece of wire swinging through air can be adjusted by an octave or two to create the illusion of, say, an alien spaceship.

It’s not a coincidence that the first Foley artist was named Jack Foley.  Born in 1891, he had found his way to Hollywood and in spite of the fact that he did not have a degree from a prestigious film school — there were no film schools then — he talked his way into the movie business.

Jack Foley worked as a stuntman, directed a couple of silent films and had writing credits on several others, including “The Perils of Pauline”.  He was employed at Universal Studios in the late 1920s, when Warner Bros. had changed the business by introducing sound to motion pictures.

Foley and some of his colleagues basically taught themselves how to use sound recording equipment, and he developed techniques that are still in use today.  He never received screen credit as a Foley artist, but he worked in that capacity until his death in 1967.

One of Jack Foley’s specialties was “walking”, matching the stride of the on-screen actor with his own footsteps.  The 250-pound Foley admitted that women were more difficult for him to imitate, since their steps tended to be quicker and closer together.

Around the same time that Jack Foley’s name became a job description, another Foley got a similar sort of anonymous fame.  Frederic Foley was born one week before Jack, but took a very different career path.

That Foley graduated from Yale and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  Although he doesn’t seem to have been specifically trained as a urologist, his name is associated with his invention:  a device that is threaded through the urethra and into the bladder.  The Foley catheter (as the tube and its accessories are known) is often used on surgical patients.

It is also used for other medical procedures on that part of the anatomy.  Patients who are not under anesthesia when the Foley catheter is inserted usually supply sound effects that, thankfully, are not recorded.

Chick and Donna

Not your typical Lakers fan --   "Donna", c. 1968

Not your typical Lakers fan —
“Donna”, c. 1968

“Suh-LAMM dunk!”

That’s how Chick Hearn shouted it into the microphone, making “slam” a two-syllable word, and punctuating it with at least three exclamation points.  As the announcer for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chick coined the term “slam dunk”, along with “air ball”, “garbage time”, “no harm, no foul” and lots of others that are now commonplace in basketball’s lexicon.

Hearn called Laker games from 1961 until 2002, at one point reeling off a stretch of 3,338 games without an absence.  He had a rapid-fire style; it was once estimated that he occasionally reached a breathless 200 words-per-minute pace.  Now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Chick Hearn was one of the most popular Lakers ever.

Among his admirers was an elderly woman we called Donna.  No one in the family knows exactly when she became a Laker enthusiast.  To the best of anyone’s recollection, she had never shown any interest in sports.  Donna became captivated by Chick’s accounts of the games, though, so on February 26, 1979, I sent Hearn this letter to tell him about her…

Dear Chick:

The whole family called Alice Stephens “Donna”.  It was more a title than a nickname, like those given to Italian noblewomen.  She was that sort of lady — courteous, proper, and unfailingly pleasant.  But she also had unabashed enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Lakers.

I didn’t get to know Donna until she was in her eighties (she was my wife’s grandmother), but every time I saw her, we always talked basketball… no, not just basketball.  Laker basketball.  They were her team, and through your descriptions, she stayed current on Jerry and Elg and Kareem and, for that mattter, John Q. (Trapp, a Laker reserve).

There was one occasion at a dinner party when she brought a portable radio to the table with her.  It seems the meal conflicted with an important game, and in spite of her otherwise impeccable manners, she wasn’t about to miss that broadcast.

My wife Sally and I want to thank you and the team for all the enjoyment you gave to an old woman.  And somehow, we also thought you should know about the loss of such a loyal fan.  Donna died in her sleep yesterday at the age of ninety-seven.

Sincerely,

Tom Reeder

♦     ♦     ♦

A couple of weeks later, I got this handwritten note from Chick.  One thing I treasure about it is the strip of adhesive that still clings to the paper where he ripped it from the note pad, suggesting that he wrote it in his usual high-velocity style…

Dear Tom + Sally

What a meaningful message!!!  I am so grateful to you for sharing “Donna’s” love of the Laker team.

God bless you both + God have mercy on Donna’s soul.

Gratefully,

Chick Hearn

♦     ♦     ♦

If you ever heard Chick Hearn call a game — that is, if you ever heard Chick give his “word’s-eye view from high above the western sideline” — his voice echoes in this note, doesn’t it?

Venus on the Half Shell

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1482)  Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1482) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the most popular subjects for medieval artists was the Virgin Mary with a little old man sitting on her lap.

Many of these paintings are entitled Madonna and child, but next time you’re in an art museum, see if you think it looks like a child.  Nope — that baby appears to be your department-store tailor, but he’s naked.

By the time of the Renaissance, artists were generally more skillful at painting babies that looked like babies, and the scope of their subject matter had broadened.  But some of it is still pretty strange.

Consider the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), who could paint a reasonably lifelike baby, but is far more renowned for a very different nativity scene:  It’s called The Birth of Venus.

The image is so familiar, it may not seem peculiar anymore.  It is based on the ancient myth of Venus emerging, full-grown, from the sea.  On the left, Zephyr and Aura are blowing a gentle breeze; on the right of the picture, another goddess offers Venus a beach cover-up.

Even though the central figure is discreet about her nudity, there was still plenty of shock value to that pose in the 1480s.  Females depicted without clothing hadn’t been in favor with church authorities for several centuries.

The Medici family ruled Florence, though, and they were interested in the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and Rome.  They gave Botticelli many commissions, including The Birth of Venus, and the painting is clearly based on a pose from classical sculpture.

It’s odd, though, that this sculptural pose has a sort of weightless quality, a lack of mass, you might say — almost as if Venus is floating on air, not on a seashell.  Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend standing in this Venus pose.  The center of gravity is so far left, you’d fall down.

We don’t know if that happened to the young woman who modeled for Botticelli, but art historians do believe that she was Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci.  If that name sounds familiar, he was the explorer and cartographer for whom America is named.

Anyway, the aristocrats of Florence admired Boticelli’s painting and read all sorts of philosophical, religious and political meanings into it.  Then a stern Dominican friar named Savonarola stirred up popular opinion against… well, all sorts of things, including the Medici and their “pagan” finery.

In 1495 and 1498, Savonarola oversaw bonfires to consume these “vanities”, including a lot of paintings.  Some of them were probably by Botticelli, but The Birth of Venus survived because the Medici had stashed it in an undisclosed location.

Following that turmoil, Botticelli’s subject matter changed back to standard religious (rather than mythological) themes.  He doesn’t seem to have produced much of anything after 1500, and was pretty much forgotten until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.

One of Botticelli’s later paintings sold at auction recently (Jan. 30) for $10.4 million.  It is a work referred to in art circles as the Rockefeller Madonna.  I know what you’re thinking, but no — it’s called that because it was once owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  It’s not because the baby on her lap looks like a naked little tycoon.