Saturday, July 30, 2011

Isaac Asimov and "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" (1974)

The cover of the November 23-29, 1974 issue of TV Guide declares "What A Week!", and lists a variety of upcoming programming for the week of Thanksgiving. Apparently that week was traditionally one filled with a lot of interesting shows, movies and sporting events. Of course it's still a big week for pro and college football, but I don't think it's really all that much of a standout week for general programming anymore as it was then.

While a lot of stuff was listed, one thing really stands out for me: the Smithsonian Special: "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?". I've been a big fan of Bigfoot and pretty much any other cryptozoological, paranormal or supernatural mystery since I was a little kid. I hadn't heard of the "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" show before, but I learned quite a bit about it while preparing this blog. More on that later. First, let's see what TV Guide wrote about the show and the rest of it's "What A Week" coverage...

It's pretty impressive that the Smithsonian Institute would lend its name to the "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" special. At least as impressive is the fact that TV Guide got none other than Isaac Asimov to write a little piece in honor of the occasion. Interestingly enough, this article is more of a look at how man has traditionally invented various "monsters" to deal with his strange world and to explain things that were hard to understand or comprehend. Instead of giving information on mysteries like Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster, Mr. Asimov pretty much tells about how the monsters invented by man over the centuries (sea monsters, the Hydra, dragons...) were in fact figments of his imagination or simply fabrications made up to explain things which were very much based in reality (snakes, octopus, squid...). While it's an interesting piece by a great writer, it is a bit of a disappointing thing to read while gearing up to watch "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" that week. The article isn't specifically about the monsters featured in the special (Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman). It only mentions them at the end. The gist of the article is that all of the so-called monsters from man's history were false, and the monsters featured in the Smithsonian Special are most likely false too. He ends the article with the statement:

"The giant snakes and dragons that once fought with the gods and terrorized mankind have shrunk to a possible sea serpent reported to be cowering at the bottom of Loch Ness. The giants, the ogres, the monstrous one-eyed cannibals that towered over our puny race of mortals have diminished to mysterious creatures that are said, by some, to leave footprints among the snows of the upper reaches of Mount Everest or show their misty, fugitive shapes in the depths of our Northwest forests. Even if these exist (which is doubtful), what a puny remnant they represent of the glorious horde man's mind and imagination have created."

Not only are the monsters in the special probably not real, even if they were real they'd be puny fugitives hiding from us and cowering in dark places rather than being true "monsters". Oh well. Here is Isaac Asimov's "They Don't Make Monsters Like They Used To":

Page 13

Pages 14-15

Here's the listing from the TV Guide for "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" as it appeared on page A-51 of the November 23-29, 1974 TV Guide:

Page A-51

Now, as far as the special itself... I am a big fan of Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman and The Loch Ness Monster, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?". I would have been five years old when it first aired--probably a year or two before I really got into the subject matter. I've always considered the mid-1970s to be the "Golden Age" of Bigfoot, but have never really been able to pinpoint exactly why the creature suddenly became such a part of the world's interest and a mainstay of pop culture. One review of "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" on indicates that it was this very special that propelled Bigfoot into the mainstream. It's only a review by one viewer, and I can't speak for its authority, but it does seem to make sense. Here's what this reviewer--"a l i e n"--wrote at IMDb:

"After CBS ran the prime time special 'Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?', Bigfoot, overnight, became a pop culture phenomenon. Reports of encounters (even one of an alleged kidnapping committed by the forest giant) increased receiving major media attention. Indeed, 'Monsters...' became the highest-rated television documentary ever broadcast (a record that was still intact as recently as the early 1990's and may possibly even hold to this day)."

All of this made me even more disappointed to think I had never seen this special and might never be able to. But, of course, we're living in the age of the internet--where it seems like pretty much anything you can think of is online somewhere. Turns out that the entire show can be found pretty easily. Here it is (in five parts) on YouTube:

Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

In addition, I also found out that the special was so popular that it was later re-edited for theatrical release and re-named "The Mysterious Monsters" (1976). This is a movie I had seen as a kid on TV. Not only that, I was able to pick it up on DVD in recent years (I actually have about three copies of it from different sources). Not only that, I even have a full-sized movie poster of the film which I picked up from eBay pretty cheaply a couple years back.

My "less-than-official" DVD of "The Mysterious Monsters"
And here's the back of the DVD cover
My original movie poster for the film
The movie version added Peter Graves as the host, replacing Rod Serling's narration from the original special (probably due at least in part to Rod's death in 1975). Serling had also narrated a couple other specials on paranormal phenomena and ancient astronauts that became the basis for the classic TV show "In Search of..."--which premiered in 1976. Apparently Rod was supposed to have been the host of that show, but was replaced by Leonard Nimoy after his passing. "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" also would seem to have been an influence on "In Search of...".

Times have changed in the past few decades, but reports of Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, UFOs and other unexplained mysteries still pop up in the mainstream media every once in a while. The general consensus is that Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman and Nessie don't exist. After all this time no definitive evidence has ever been presented. But, while none of these monsters have ever been proven true, none of them have ever been proven false either. Until someone manages to do that I will always hold a place in my imagination for these shadowy, mysterious creatures--regardless of how puny and insignificant Isaac Asimov may have considered them in 1974...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tomorrow's History... (1974)

I stumbled on something very small, but very interesting, while checking out an old TV Guide recently. This item came from the September 21-27, 1974 issue (#1121). This was the annual Pro Football preview issue.

While the item in question did appear on the "Sports and Specials" page in the local listings section (page A-13), it has nothing to do with sports. For that matter, it's not even a listing for something that appeared on TV that week. It was simply a little "blurb" that was put in the lower right hand corner of the page--apparently as more of a filler to complete the page than anything else. It's a paragraph called "Tomorrow's History", which seems to be similar to what today we'd call a "mission statement". I don't know if that term existed in 1974 or not, but that's what it seems like. It goes beyond the simple fact that TV Guide is a place to find out what is going to be on TV and read some related articles. In fact, this little paragraph has a lot to do with what the TV Guide Time Machine is all about! Read it and keep both the Time Machine and your ideas about TV Guide in mind:

While this item as a whole does indeed seem to relate to the TV Guide Time Machine, one line really stands out: "It is a basic element in modern culture--an element worth analyzing, studying, writing and reading about." I couldn't agree more!

I don't know whether this was actually some sort of official "mission statement" for TV Guide or not (and it does indeed end with the proclamation "This is the reason for TV Guide"). I also don't know whether it was printed in other issues before or after this one. It seems like something that may have been occasionally used as a final touch for pages that weren't quite full for printing (maybe because of differences between regions that made some ages longer or shorter and possibly messing up the pagination?) and pulled out every once in a while to remind viewers/readers that there was more to TV Guide than simply guiding your TV viewing. I haven't seen this little item before, but will now keep an eye out for it in the future...

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment (April 1977)

Remember VCRs? That may seems like a dumb question, but there's a whole generation of kids growing up who will never own a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder). It is an example of a technology which was once pretty much as ubiquitous in homes as televisions. Without much fanfare those VCRs simply disappeared from those homes--replaced by a newer technology (DVD) which itself is already in the process of being replaced. I can remember a time when VCRs were a brand-new idea which offered a seemingly magical power to its owners--the ability to record TV programs to watch later and to keep indefinitely. At first these machines were prohibitively expensive. It wasn't until 1985 that the first VCR became a part of my own household. While it did pretty much the same thing that a tape recorder did (albeit with the added feature of images to go along with the sound), it just seemed like such a miraculous machine to me. I had always wished there was a way to hook a machine up to my brain and record my memories or my dreams. Recording a TV program is quite a bit less exciting than the idea of having a hard copy of your memory or your dreams, but it seemed almost as amazing at the time.

VCRs also could also play pre-recorded tapes as well, and that led to thousands of movies (and eventually TV shows too) being sold and rented for a brand-new market which didn't even exist a few years earlier. Suddenly video stores popped up all over the place. Large chains like Blockbuster were competing with smaller local shops and even modest selections in grocery and convenience stores. It all became very familiar and comfortable. ...At least until DVDs came along and shook things up a bit. The DVD offered all the same playback features of videotapes with much better quality (and lots of special features as well). The recording ability of VCRs kept them a part of most households until other options came along. Now it is pretty rare to find anyone with a VCR in their house (or at least a working unit that's still connected to a TV). It's also extremely rare to find a VCR for sale in a major retail store too. About the only way you can get one new these days is if it's part of a DVD/VCR-combination machine. Like so many technologies, VCRs have gone the way of the dinosaur.

We've seen this kind of technological shift happen many times already. The vinyl record album was the undisputed king of home music collections for many, many years. 8-Track players came along and put a dent in records' sales, but never really threatened to replace them. Reel-to-reel machines were another option that didn't really take much business away from records. It wasn't until audio cassettes came along that the record had its first real competitor. Still, records hung on until the first digital competitor--the Compact Disc--came along. CDs were the death knell for cassettes. Vinyl records were also finally supplanted by CDs, though they still manage to keep a small but devoted audience even today--and are still being pressed in small numbers. Digital Audio Tapes were also supposed to be in the mix, replacing either cassettes or even CDs, but that was one of those technologies that got caught in the middle. It never caught on and fizzled out before finding any real audience. The CD was king for quite a long stretch, and is still the main way of buying music--if you want to physically walk into a store and buy something you can hold in your hand. Further advances in digital technology, as well as the rise of the internet, has threatened to make CDs and the stores that sell them obsolete. Now people can download MP3s from iTunes and build a collection of music without having to own a single "album" or having to physically hand over a ten dollar bill to a salesperson.

The story of home-recorded video is also filled with different technological advances which either flourished or died in an attempt to dethrone the VCR. The VCRs used in American homes from the mid-1980s right up until a few years ago played VHS cassettes. But when the first machines came out in the 1970s and early 1980s there was actually another type of video cassette available--Betamax. The VHS/Beta battle waged for quite some time before VHS eventually won the war--making for a lot of obsolete Betamax machines and tapes in peoples' homes. Laserdisc also vied for an audience for pre-recorded movies. While the Laserdisc ultimately never found a wide enough audience and faltered, its digital technology and idea of special features would eventually return as the much more compact DVD (Digital Video Disc). The DVD took a while to catch on. There were simply too many VCRs in peoples' homes and people had large collections of videotapes built up over many years. For quite a while there was a slow progression in video stores whereby a few DVDs would show up on shelves still dominated by VHS tapes. Later the DVDs were being released at the same rate as video tapes as more households bought players for them. Finally the video tapes were completely replaced by DVDs--and sold off in "sidewalk sales" for a dollar or two. When pre-recorded VHS tapes first came out it wasn't uncommon to see newly-released feature films being sold for close to a hundred dollars!

DVDs are still around, despite the fact that movies are now downloadable just like music is. Of course Blu-Ray has also arrived and risen to the point of being the heir-apparent of the DVD. It's not much of a revolution though--Blu-Ray discs use the basically the same technology, look the same as DVDs and most Blu-Ray players made today will even play all those "old" DVDs. The bigger revolution in digital movie viewing occurred a few years back when Blu-Ray first came out and competed with HD-DVD as a platform to replace DVDs. Very much like the bitter Beta vs. VHS battle from a couple generations earlier, both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs and machines were available to the public with no one knowing which one would eventually be the victor--thus leaving a number of obsolete machines and discs in the homes of consumers who made the wrong choice.

Actually, even having a physical object to record TV shows or movies on (such as a DVD) has also become a bit passe. DVRs, TiVo and other technologies now allow people to have more flexibility than ever before when it comes to recording and viewing TV programs. Plus nearly everything that one can watch on TV is also available in some form or other online (some perfectly legal, some a bit shady). It would seem likely that even before Blu-Ray manages to completely bury DVDs it will itself become obsolete.

With all this information of the past thirty or so years of home entertainment in mind, it is interesting to step into the TV Guide Time Machine and travel back to 1977--a time when VCRs were still a magical (and very expensive) idea to most people. The April 9-15, 1977 issue of TV Guide had a fascinating (in retrospect) article in it called "The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment" by David Lachenbruch. As can be inferred by the title, the idea of being able to record programs, keep them on videotape, and then watch them whenever one felt like it was a very novel and groundbreaking one at the time. Something that seems so commonplace today (and which used a technology that seems old-fashioned and outdated now) was a very exciting prospect at the time. Apparently the Betamax cassettes were the standard at the moment this article was written. Two competing platforms are mentioned in the piece. I can only assume that one of these competitors was the VHS tape (and I can only wonder what the other one was...).

At the time of this article there were approximately 40,000 of these "time-shift machines" in households across America. While this number is miniscule compared to the number of VCRs that would be in use ten years later, I was actually a bit surprised that there were that many of them around in 1977. Mr. Lachenbruch mentions that home video recording had been promised as being around the corner since the late 1950s and the first commercially sold set came out (without much success) in 1972. In 1977 the machines available were still selling for well over thousand dollars. Competition and other factors would start making the price a little more realistic for most Americans in a few years, but at the time video cassette recorders were really only likely to be found in the wealthiest of households.

Another interesting aspect of this article is that it mentions that Universal City Studios and Walt Disney Productions attempted to sue the makers of these early VCRs (and even one poor consumer who bought one) claiming copyright violations. These complaints are somewhat understandable in light of the recording possibilities of this new technology. Obviously a whole new angle opened up for entertainment lawyers around this time. I'm sure that initial lawsuit led to a lot of litigation, complaints and compromise on both sides that lasted for years. It can still be seen today with the problem of online movie sharing, downloading and pirating. I'm also pretty sure that first lawsuit was at least partially responsible for all those boring legal warnings and announcements from the FBI and Interpol that appear onscreen (and which no one reads) when you pop a DVD in to watch a movie to this very day.

Without further delay, here is David Lachenbruch's article "The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment" from the April 9-15, 1977 issue of TV Guide (pages 4-8):

Cover of April 9-15, 1977 issue

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

Page 8

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Welcome to the TV Guide Time Machine

Hello. About two years ago I suddenly became very interested in old TV Guide magazines. While I've always liked TV Guide (at least the "real" TV Guide, not the new version that's more of a celebrity gossip rag than anything resembling what TV Guide used to be), but was never really a "collector"--at least not beyond keeping a few issues that had covers related to stuff like "Star Trek" and "The Simpsons".

My recent interest has a lot to do with the old Boston-area Saturday afternoon show Creature Double Feature. It was produced by WLVI channel 56 in Boston and featured tons of old monster/horror/science-fiction movies. While a lot of these kinds of movies were aired on Boston-area TV back in the 1970s and 80s, the stuff on Creature Double Feature really made an impression on my impressionable young mind and were a big influence on me. I didn't realize how big an influence the show was until a few years ago when I discovered a website and message board dedicated to the memory of Creature Double Feature. It was the first time I realized just how many people beside myself were big fans of the show. It also brought back a lot of memories and a strong feeling of nostalgia for the show. I started doing research on old TV listings from my local newspaper (via microfilm) to try to figure out specific details about the show and its history.

Another member of that message board mentioned above was doing similar research, but using TV Guides rather than old newspaper TV listings. He found a number of print ads for Creature Double Feature that WLVI put in TV Guide. A few years later I decided I wanted to try to pick up where this individual left off. He wasn't able to track down all the issues of TV Guide (on microfilm) that might have had ads on them. I suddenly had a mission to find these old issues of the magazine and create a complete record. While it started slowly, eventually I began to amass a pretty sizable collection of TV Guides from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (the basic timeline of Creature Double Feature.

There were both good and bad aspects to this new "hobby" of mine. I wasn't interested in the "collectible" aspect of TV Guides. Rather than being all concerned with the condition and who was on the cover I was specifically interested in the actual listings themselves. This meant I could look for lesser-condition issues to save money. It didn't matter if the cover was beat up (or even if the cover was missing for that matter), if it had water stains or some other condition issue, if it had an address label, if the crossword puzzle was done, if it had random notations among the listings... Unfortunately, I also needed Boston or "Eastern New England" editions of the magazine. Different editions were printed for markets all over the country (and even Canada I believe). While the covers and features were the same in all the various editions, the listings were different (obviously). It's pretty easy to find TV Guides (at flea markets, on eBay, Craigslist or other online sources...), but many of the ones I was finding (especially online) came from different markets--which were interesting, but pretty much useless for my research.

I soon discovered that WLVI 56 only put print ads in the TV Guide for a short period of time from September 1975 until about the spring of 1976. While this was a bit disappointing, it also gave me reason to look more deeply into those TV Guides than just at what was playing on Saturday afternoons. By looking through them more thoroughly I discovered those old TV Guides had a lot of useful and interesting information beyond Creature Double Feature. It was eye-opening to see all the great programming that was on Boston-area TV back in those days of my youth--both stuff I remember watching and stuff I had no idea was on. While it was only specific to what was on TV, it really did feel just a bit like climbing into a time machine when I'd read those old magazines and the listings therein. Plus, sometimes I'd recall other events that occurred either before of after a show that was on at certain time or on a certain day. Along with all the listings themselves I also found a greater appreciation for the other articles and information in the old issues of TV Guide. While many of them seem severely outdated now, they really give a nice look into a little piece of what was going on in the world (at least the world of TV) at a specific time in the past. The overall experience of holding and reading an old TV guide thus became about the closest thing to what it might be like to be in a time machine that I have ever felt. I have a great nostalgia for those days of my childhood when I'd be likely to be sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday afternoon watching Creature Double Feature, and reading an old TV Guide from that era seems to be the nearest thing there is to a way to re-live those old days. If they're not true time machines, I think it's pretty safe to think of old TV Guides as neat little weekly time capsules from those days.

This blog will give examples of TV Guides time-traveling possibilities. Most of the stories will come from my collection from the 1970s and 80s. If you remember this period, or grew up during it, some of this random stuff might just be of interest to you. If not, it will probably be pretty boring. I'm sorry if that's the case, but I will continue to write...even if it's only for myself.

I've actually already written a couple stories on my other blog--Monster Dad--which would fit in perfectly here. Long before deciding to start a whole blog on the subject I wrote an entry called "TV Guide Time Machine" on that other blog. I also did some research in TV Guides and newspaper listings to confirm an old, hazy memory I had from a family New Year's Eve party when I was very young. I'd always had these memories, but couldn't be sure if my mind was combining different memory snippets together in some random way or if they were as accurate as they seemed in my head. Strange as it may seem, looking at TV listings for a number of years in the mid-1970s gave me the information I needed to figure out not only that those memories were indeed accurate, but also to inform me as to exactly when those memories came from. See "Happy New Year 1976" to read about this little successful time travel excursion.

I've got a lot of stuff to write about here, but it will take some time to put it all together in a coherent way. There's a lot of research and scanning of old TV Guides that needs to be done. Hopefully the time travel will begin in earnest soon. Meanwhile I figured I'd do this little introduction to explain what to expect from the TV Guide Time Machine.

Stay Tuned...