Nov 182017
 

On this date in 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film directed by Walt Disney and mostly drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (who rarely gets credit for his substantial part in making early Disney cartoons), was first shown publicly at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City. Walt Disney Studios considers the cartoon to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie, although both the characters appeared several months earlier in a test screening of Plane Crazy. In fact, Steamboat Willie was the third cartoon featuring Mickey’s films to be produced, but was the first to be distributed because Walt Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to producing the first fully synchronized sound cartoon. Because this date is Mickey’s public debut, the Disney corporation considers it to be his birthday, so we should celebrate too. But remember it is Minnie’s birthday as well.

Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (an earlier Iwerks and Disney creation), save for the ears, nose, and tail. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey’s body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey’s success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences. Mickey’s circular design is most noticeable in his ears. In animation in the 1940s, Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective. Later, they were drawn to always appear circular no matter which way Mickey was facing. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark.

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In 1938, animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey’s body away from its circular design to a pear-shaped design. Colleague Ward Kimball praised Moore for being the first animator to break from Mickey’s “rubber hose, round circle” design. Although Moore himself was nervous at first about changing Mickey, Walt Disney liked the new design and told Moore “that’s the way I want Mickey to be drawn from now on.” I wonder if at this point the similarity between Disney and Thomas Edison has dawned on you. Both men were skilled in business and marketing, yet get credited with innovations that they did not create. Edison did not invent the light bulb and Disney did not draw Mickey Mouse.

Each of Mickey’s hands has only three fingers and a thumb. Disney said that this was both an artistic and financial decision, explaining “Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one-half minute short has saved the Studio millions.” In the film The Opry House (1929), Mickey was first given white gloves as a way of contrasting his naturally black hands against his black body. The use of white gloves would prove to be an influential design for cartoon characters, particularly with later Disney characters, but also with non-Disney characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, and Mario. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there is no question that Mickey’s early appearance, particularly the gloves, and facial characteristics, evolved from blackface caricatures used in minstrel shows.

Mickey’s eyes, as drawn in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, were large and white with black outlines. In Steamboat Willie, the bottom portion of the black outlines was removed, although the upper edges still contrasted with his head. Mickey’s eyes were later re-imagined as only consisting of the small black dots which were originally his pupils, while what were the upper edges of his eyes became a hairline. This is evident only when Mickey blinks. Fred Moore later redesigned the eyes to be small white eyes with pupils and gave his face a Caucasian skin tone instead of plain white. This new Mickey first appeared in 1938 on the cover of a party program, and in animation the following year with the release of The Pointer. Mickey is sometimes given eyebrows as seen in The Simple Things (1953) and in the comic strip, although he does not have eyebrows in his most recent appearances.

Besides Mickey’s gloves and shoes, he typically wears only a pair of shorts with two large buttons in the front. Before Mickey was seen regularly in color animation, Mickey’s shorts were either red or a dull blue-green. With the advent of Mickey’s color films, the shorts were always red. When Mickey is not wearing his red shorts, he is often still wearing red clothing such as a red bandmaster coat (The Band Concert, The Mickey Mouse Club), red overalls (Clock Cleaners, Boat Builders), a red cloak (Fantasia, Fun and Fancy Free), a red coat (Squatter’s Rights, Mickey’s Christmas Carol), or a red shirt (Mickey Down Under, The Simple Things).

Steamboat Willie is especially notable for being the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound, including character sounds and a musical score. Disney understood from early on that synchronized sound was the future of film. It was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons such as Inkwell Studios’ Song Car-Tunes (1924–1927) and Van Beuren Studios’ Dinner Time (1928). Steamboat Willie became the most popular cartoon of its day.

Music for Steamboat Willie was arranged by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis, and included the songs “Steamboat Bill,” a composition popularized by baritone Arthur Collins during the 1910s, and “Turkey in the Straw,”  a traditional fiddle tune popularized by minstrelsy in the 19th century. The title of the film is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), itself a reference to the song by Collins. Walt Disney performed all of the voices in the film, although there is little intelligible dialogue.

The production of Steamboat Willie took place between July and September 1928 with an estimated budget of $4,986. There was initially some doubt among the animators that a sound cartoon would appear believable enough, so before a soundtrack was produced, Disney arranged for a screening of the film to a test audience with live sound to accompany it. This screening took place on July 29 with Steamboat Willie only partly finished. The audience sat in a room adjoining Walt’s office. Roy placed the movie projector outdoors and the film was projected through a window so that the sound of the projector would not interfere with the live sound. Ub Iwerks set up a bed sheet behind the movie screen behind which he placed a microphone connected to speakers where the audience would sit. The live sound was produced from behind the bed sheet. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, and Johnny Cannon provided sound effects with various devices, including slide whistles and spittoons for bells. Walt himself provided what little dialogue there was to the film, mostly grunts, laughs, and squawks. After several practices, they were ready for the audience, which consisted of Disney employees and their wives. The response of the audience was extremely positive, and it gave Walt the confidence to move forward and complete the film. He said later in recalling this first viewing, “The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!” Iwerks said, “I’ve never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it.”

Disney traveled to New York City to hire a company to produce the sound system. He eventually settled on Pat Powers’s Cinephone system, created by Powers using an updated version of Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm system without giving De Forest any credit, a decision he would later regret (but typical of Disney). The music in the final soundtrack was performed by the Green Brothers Novelty Band and was conducted by Carl Edouarde. The brothers Joe and Lew Green from the band also assisted in timing the music to the film. The first attempt to synchronize the recording with the film, done on September 15, 1928, was a disaster. Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. This was a success with the addition of a filmed bouncing ball to keep the tempo.

Steamboat Willie’s initial run lasted two weeks. Disney was paid $500 a week which was considered a tidy sum at the time. It played ahead of the independent feature film Gang War, setting up a theater pattern that would last for decades, showing a short cartoon before the feature film. That was the norm when I was a boy.The success of Steamboat Willie not only led to international fame for Walt Disney, but for Mickey as well. On November 21, Variety magazine published a review which read in part “Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. [Steamboat Willie] represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony [Theater] they were stumbling over each other.”

Let’s turn to another cartoon, Mickey’s Trailer (1938), featuring Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy, for recipe inspiration:

You could make pancakes or corn on the cob, of course, but popcorn is my choice because popcorn is a perennial favorite of moviegoers. Popping corn is about as old as the domestication of corn itself. Corn was first domesticated 9,000 BP in Mesoamerica, and the earliest corn produced in this way could be popped (although it probably wasn’t). However, archaeologists have discovered remnants of popcorn in Mesoamerica dating to around 5600 BP. Popcorn has been around for a very long time.

These days there are popcorn poppers, microwaveable popcorn packets, prepackaged stovetop popcorn assemblages and the like, but when I was a boy my parents made popcorn (very rarely) in very traditional manner using a heavy pot with a lid. It is a lot easier to use a home air popper if you are a big fan of popcorn because the results are always consistent and there is no expertise involved: add unpopped kernels, turn the machine on, and catch the popcorn as it comes out of the spout. Effective, but hardly a challenge. Popping corn the old fashioned way is fun.

Popping results are sensitive to the rate at which the kernels are heated. If heated too quickly, the steam in the outer layers of the kernel can reach high pressures and rupture the hull before the starch in the center of the kernel can fully gelatinize, leading to partially popped kernels with hard centers. Heating too slowly leads to entirely unpopped kernels: the tip of the kernel, where it attached to the cob, is not entirely moisture-proof, and when heated slowly, the steam can leak out of the tip fast enough to keep the pressure from rising sufficiently to break the hull and cause the kernels to pop. So . . .

Use a large, heavy pot with a tight lid. Place a tablespoon of vegetable oil in the bottom of the pot, add three popcorn kernels, cover and place over medium-high heat. Count the pops, and when all three have popped, remove the pot from the heat, discard the popped kernels and add ⅔ cup of unpopped popcorn. Cover and let sit for about 20 seconds. Then put the pot back on the heat, shaking it from time to time. As you begin to hear the popping, shake the pot more vigorously. After about 2 minutes the popping will virtually stop. Immediately remove the pot from the heat. Toss the popcorn in a large paper bag with the seasonings of your choice (e.g. butter and salt or honey and butter), fold over the top of the bag tightly trapping air in the bag.  Shake vigorously a few times then pour the popcorn into a bowl and dig in.

Dec 202016
 

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Today is the birthday (1901) of Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, a US physicist, noted for his design and construction of high-voltage Van de Graaff generators. When I was studying physics in England in the 1960s my school’s Van de Graaff generator was one of my favorite “toys” although I was not aware that at the time its inventor was still alive. It seemed rather Victorian. These generators can produce well over one million volts, but they are not necessarily dangerous because the current (amperage) is weak. The high voltage is, however, useful in certain applications in physics.  I will also note that today is the birthday of physicist David Bohm who I wrote about 3 years ago http://www.bookofdaystales.com/david-bohm/  Definitely a physicists’ day.

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The Van de Graaff generator uses a motorized insulating belt (usually made of rubber) to conduct electrical charges from a high voltage source on one end of the belt to the inside of a metal sphere on the other end. Since electrical charge resides on the outside of the sphere, it builds up to produce an electrical potential much higher than that of the primary high voltage source. Practical limitations restrict the potential produced by large Van de Graaff generators to about 7 million volts. Van de Graaff generators are used primarily as DC power supplies for linear atomic particle accelerators in nuclear physics experiments. Tandem Van de Graaff generators are essentially two generators in series, and can produce about 15 million volts.

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The Van de Graaff generator is a simple mechanical device to build. Small Van de Graaff generators are built by hobbyists and scientific apparatus companies and are used to demonstrate the effects of high DC potentials. Even small hobby machines produce impressive sparks several centimeters long. The largest air insulated Van de Graaff generator in the world, built by Van de Graaff himself, is operational and is on display at the Boston Museum of Science. Demonstrations throughout the day are a popular attraction. More modern Van de Graaff generators are insulated by pressurized dielectric gas, usually freon or sulfur hexafluoride. In recent years, Van de Graaff generators have been slowly replaced by solid-state DC power supplies without moving parts. The energies produced by Van de Graaff atomic particle accelerators are limited to about 30 MeV, even with tandem generators accelerating doubly charged particles. More modern particle accelerators using different technology produce much higher energies, thus Van de Graaff particle accelerators have become largely obsolete. They are still used to some extent for graduate student research at colleges and universities and as ion sources for high energy bursts.

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Van de Graaff built his first  generator in 1929 at Princeton University on a fellowship, with help from colleague Nicholas Burke. The first model used an ordinary tin can, a small motor, and a silk ribbon bought at a five-and-dime store. After this initial success he went to the head of the physics department requesting $100 to make an improved version. He did get the money, but with some difficulty. By 1931 he could report achieving 1.5 million volts. According to his first patent application, it had two 60-cm-diameter charge-accumulation spheres mounted on borosilicate glass columns 180 cm high. The apparatus cost $90 in 1931.

In 1933, Van de Graaff built a 40-foot (12-m) model at MIT’s Round Hill facility, the use of which was donated by Colonel Edward H. R. Green. One of Van de Graaff’s accelerators used two charged domes of sufficient size that each of the domes had laboratories inside – one to provide the source of the accelerated beam, and the other to analyze the actual experiment. The power for the equipment inside the domes came from generators that ran off the belt, and several sessions came to a rather gruesome end when a pigeon would try to fly between the two domes, causing them to discharge. (The accelerator was set up in an airplane hangar.)

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In 1937, the Westinghouse Electric company built a 65 feet (20 m) Van de Graaff generator capable of generating 5 MeV in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. It marked the beginning of nuclear research for civilian applications. It was decommissioned in 1958 and was demolished in 2015.

A more recent development is the tandem Van de Graaff accelerator, containing one or more Van de Graaff generators, in which negatively charged ions are accelerated through one potential difference before being stripped of two or more electrons, inside a high voltage terminal, and accelerated again. An example of a three-stage operation has been built in Oxford Nuclear Laboratory in 1964 of a 10 MV single-ended “injector” and a 6 MV EN tandem.

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By the 1970s, up to 14 million volts could be achieved at the terminal of a tandem that used a tank of high-pressure sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) gas to prevent sparking by trapping electrons. This allowed the generation of heavy ion beams of several tens of megaelectronvolts, sufficient to study light ion direct nuclear reactions. The highest potential sustained by a Van de Graaff accelerator is 25.5 MV, achieved by the tandem at the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Static electricity is not much use for cooking except under very special circumstances. This, and dozens of videos like it, is fake:


Static electricity can generate millions of volts, but it’s not just voltage that matters. You have to have a current as well. Without a current you can’t cook much of anything. Use your microwave and make some popcorn to celebrate Van de Graaff.

Oct 062016
 

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Today is the anniversary of several significant events in the development of motion pictures.  On this date in 1889 Thomas Edison gave a public display of his first motion picture and in 1893 on this date he received the first copyright for a motion picture filmed with his Kinetograph camera. Edison’s contribution to the motion picture industry has been highly exaggerated and disputed, but the events are milestones of a sort. What cannot be disputed is that the first “talkie” which completely revolutionized motion pictures, The Jazz Singer premiered on this date in 1927 at the Warner Theater in New York.  Let’s dispense with Edison first.

Although Edison’s tireless self promotion and business acumen have left a permanent legacy in the U.S., and the world, of him as a genius inventor – the light bulb, the phonograph, etc. etc. – with his name permanently enshrined in place names and business enterprises, modern historians have picked apart the legend, showing that others who preceded him in fields that he claimed credit for have, until recently, languished in obscurity, and that even in his own laboratories other scientists and inventors were ultimately responsible for inventions which Edison patented and took credit for. What he was undeniably a genius at was funding and selling commercially viable products, using his name as a selling point (remind you of anyone currently in the public eye?), and profiting from the work of others. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Edison’s promotion of motion pictures.

In the late 1880s a number of people were working on ideas pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/eadweard-muybridge/ ) to take multiple still photographs in rapid sequence and string them together so that, when projected, they become “motion pictures.” That concept is still, in essence, the basis of celluloid movies. In the mid-19th century, inventions such as Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope and the later zoetrope demonstrated that a carefully designed sequence of drawings, showing phases of the changing appearance of objects in motion, would appear to show the objects actually moving if they were displayed one after the other at a sufficiently rapid rate. Each sequence was limited to a small number of drawings, usually twelve, so it could only show endlessly repeating cyclical motions. By the late 1880s, the last major device of this type, the praxinoscope, had been elaborated into a form that employed a long coiled band containing hundreds of images painted on glass and used the elements of a magic lantern to project them on to a screen.

The use of sequences of photographs in such devices was initially limited to a few experiments with subjects photographed in a series of poses, because the available emulsions were not sensitive enough to allow the short exposures needed to photograph subjects that were actually moving. The sensitivity was gradually improved so that in the late 1870s Eadweard Muybridge created the first sequences of  images photographed in real-time which could be animated. He used a row of cameras, each in turn capturing one image on a photographic glass plate, so the total number of images in each sequence was limited by the number of cameras, about two dozen at most. Hand-painted images based on the photographs were projected as moving images by means of his zoopraxiscope.

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By the end of the 1880s, the introduction of lengths of celluloid photographic film and the invention of motion picture cameras, which could photograph an indefinitely long rapid sequence of images using only one lens, allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film. Edison was granted a patent for his motion picture camera or Kinetograph. He helped with the electromechanical design, while his employee W. K. L. Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. The bulk of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson.

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The Kinetograph was used initially with a Kinetoscope for viewing motion pictures made by the Kinetograph. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was copied by Edison in 1889, and subsequently developed by Dickson between 1889 and 1892.

This video gives a little bit of the history, and at the end shows what is claimed to be the first motion picture – a quick, blurry clip of a woman twirling.

It is not undisputably the first motion picture, although it is probably the first that Edison’s company produced. It does give the basic idea from which Edison and others developed short movies. Claims about dates of production and priority are murky at best.

In 1893, what is sometimes claimed as the world’s first film production studio (it isn’t), the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was completed on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. Construction began in December 1892 and was completed the following year at a cost of $637.67 (around $18,000 in current dollars). In early May 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted his first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer. The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

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The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Fred Ott’s Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison’s Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s Weekly.

It was the earliest motion picture to be registered for copyright — composed of an optical record of Ott sneezing comically for the camera. While Edison was not a great inventor, he was a shrewd enough businessman to know that copyright was important for his commercial success. Patenting and copyrighting of inventions can most definitely be attributed to him.

The first films shot at the Black Maria, which Edison had little to do with other than financing, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Many of the early Edison moving images released after 1895, however, were non-fictional “actualities” filmed on location: views of ordinary slices of life — street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.

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In April 1896, Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison’s name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film. Some of the early Kinetoscopes also had synchronized sound which could be heard through earphones. So, “talkies” had been around since the beginning of motion pictures. But until the 1920s they had mechanical problems and were not commercially viable.

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The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound; its release on this date in 1927 heralded the commercial ascendance of the “talkies” and the decline of the silent film era. It was directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.  The film, featuring six songs performed by Al Jolson, is based on a play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories “The Day of Atonement.”

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The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden he is punished by his father, a cantor, prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Brothers’ flagship theater in New York City. The date was chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie’s plot revolves. The buildup to the premiere was tense. Beside Warner’s precarious financial position at the time, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:

Each of Jolson’s musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long…there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.

None of the four Warner brothers was able to attend: Sam Warner— the strongest advocate for Vitaphone—had died the previous day of pneumonia, and the surviving brothers had returned to California for his funeral.

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According to Doris Warner, who was in attendance, about halfway through the film she began to feel that something exceptional was taking place. Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” After the show, the audience turned into a “milling, battling, mob”, in one journalist’s description, chanting “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!” Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine’s Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as “fraught with tremendous significance…. I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight.”

Critical reaction was generally, though far from universally, positive. The sound quality was fine for the songs, but critics complained that it was not able to capture the nuances of dialog as effectively. For the film to be shown nationwide theaters had to be modified at considerable expense. The Jazz Singer was certainly a commercial success, but its impact was not felt immediately. Silent films continued to be popular for some time for many reasons. One that tends to be forgotten these days is that large, cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, had sizeable immigrant populations who did not speak English, and they preferred silent movies where the main action was visual.

Here’s the famous, or infamous, conclusion to the film.

This leads me to a discussion of racism in the film. Nowadays minstrelsy and blackface are universally condemned as racist holdovers from vaudeville and earlier, and people without any knowledge of the era or Jolson simply dismiss The Jazz Singer as one more chapter in perpetual racism. In fact film historians see the film quite differently. Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history. Historian Michael Alexander describes The Jazz Singer as an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the “imagined music of African Americans,” noting that “prayer and jazz become metaphors for Jews and blacks.” Playwright Samson Raphaelson, after seeing Jolson perform his stage show Robinson Crusoe, stated that “he had an epiphany: ‘My God, this isn’t a jazz singer’, he said. ‘This is a cantor!'” The image of the blackfaced cantor remained in Raphaelson’s mind when he conceived of the story/play which eventually led to The Jazz Singer.

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Jolson first heard music from the African-American community, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, and he enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. He often performed in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as “Swanee”, “My Mammy”, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”. Jolson’s black stage persona, called “Gus” was a wily and wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters, frequently helping them out of problems they created for themselves. In this way, Jolson used comedy to poke fun at the prevalent idea of white supremacy. In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In The Jazz Singer, he performed only a few songs, including “My Mammy”, in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of “donning a mask” that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.

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As a Jewish immigrant and the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the U.S. at the time, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation’s eligible voting population, 4–5 million men. While The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing African-American music to audiences worldwide.

While growing up, Jolson had many African-American friends, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who later became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies. At a time when African-American people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage, he promoted a play by African-American  playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-Black cast ever produced on Broadway. In addition he brought an all-Black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show (without success); he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid; and he was supposedly “the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem.”

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Al Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner, “insisting he’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!” Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:

This didn’t have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.

Film historian Charles Musser notes that “African Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.” There’s plenty of racism to go around these days; I’d advise not pointing fingers because of current sensitivities. Attention to context goes a long way.

Popcorn is the obvious recipe to go along with the movies although it’s hardly gourmet fare and you don’t really need a recipe in these days of popcorn machines and microwave bags. Movie theater popcorn tends to range from mediocre to barely edible, but you can do a better job at home even without special equipment. When I was a boy we made popcorn once in a while using a heavy lidded skillet. It’s a matter of greasing the skillet well, adding a small amount of popcorn, covering, and heating over medium-high heat whilst shaking vigorously until the popping has stopped. This type of popcorn was not popular or common in cinemas in Australia or England when I was growing up. Packaged caramel corn was the norm. You can make this yourself if you wish.

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Caramel Popcorn

Ingredients

10-12 cups freshly popped popcorn
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ tsp baking soda

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 250°F.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

To make the caramel sauce, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until the sugar is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3-4 minutes while stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously.

The exact cooking temperature is not absolutely critical with this recipe, but ideally you should use a sugar thermometer and let the sugar mixture reach between 250°F and 300°F. The higher the temperature, the crunchier the popcorn, but do not let it go over 300. At this point smoke will appear.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla, salt, and baking soda and stir until combined. The sugar mixture will bubble up violently. Continue stirring until you have thick, glossy sauce.

Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn and continue stirring the sauce into the popcorn until all of the kernels are coated.

Divide the popcorn between two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into an even layer. Bake for one hour, checking and stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps.

Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to a week.