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Black space with stars, Earth, space capsule, astronaut model; also floating in space are bees, a brick, a die, and a Topo Chico bottle

Dan Winters surveys a shifting landscape—his own backyard. On a mid-August morning, the 59-year-old photographer, author, and filmmaker is in the kitchen of his Austin, Texas, home, detailing the impending relocation of his studio and workshop (headquartered in a converted post office, general store, and Texaco station 25 miles south in unincorporated Driftwood) to just steps from his front porch. Anyone who has worked with Winters—presidents, astronauts, publishers of the country’s most influential publications—could grasp the challenge, given Winters’ lifelong accumulation of equipment, archives, and personal collections, which range from apiaries (beehives) to pieces of Apollo spacecraft.


The shuffling of workspaces feels natural, almost expected, given the rotational history of his surroundings. Winters’ home, which he; his wife, Kathryn; and son, Dylan, moved to from Los Angeles in 2000, was built in downtown Austin in 1938 and later transported to this quiet enclave on the north side of town circa 1975. Their detached garage will soon supplant the Driftwood studio. It was originally Winters’ model-building workshop, but that migrated a decade ago to a pitched-roof room on the second floor. The model shop is a place of refuge cocooned in paint sets, kit parts, and books on the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Man in fedora sits in a workshop crowded with models (mostly space-related), books, and other items
Dan Winters’ first serious profession was that of a motion picture special effects model builder. He still builds miniatures today, finding the act of creating for the sake of creating rewarding. / Photo by Dan Winters

Winters vividly recalls the first model he ever built (a British SE5a biplane), around age 6, with his father, Larry Winters—a welder from Ohio who moved the family to Ventura, California, in 1959. “I would ask him to draw me something, an airplane or a rocket, and it would be on the breakfast table when I’d get up in the morning for school,” Winters said from his own breakfast table. “He would also make little spaceships out of wine corks and put screws in them or paper clips for skids. He’d leave them as little surprises.”

Seeing Possibility


Model-building has been a constant in Winters’ life. “When you start a model,” he explained, “the only thing that exists is your intent and whatever tools and materials you need. You work through the thing, create it, and then it exists. You will it into being. There’s an unbelievable satisfaction in that. In the ability to see what the model is going to be before it gets to a point of unification.”

Growing up, Winters remembers the yard on the working farm where he was raised as always strewn with spare parts, and he was often tasked with repurposing them. “The engine in our Volkswagen threw a rod, and we had to rebuild the whole thing,” he recalled. He assisted his father on nights and weekends, staving off resentment for missing idle time with his friends. “I remember the weekend we put the motor back in. We had it on a jack, and my dad slid it in, and I had to balance it until it speared the spline of the transaxle. He got in and pushed the clutch and it started up—I mean, right up. We took it for a drive, even though the bumper and deck lid were off. I remember driving down the street and reflecting on what it took to do that. As a kid, it was way out of my wheelhouse. But seeing that it was possible to do that was massive.”

In 1978, Winters’ father drove his 16-year-old son 50 miles to Van Nuys to visit Apogee, a special-effects company operated by John Dykstra, the Oscar-winning effects supervisor on Star Wars. Winters had cold-called Steve Sperling, who ran the office, and sent several photographs of his model spaceships by mail. A tour with Grant McCune, chief model maker on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, was arranged. As Winters wrote in his 2014 book, Road to Seeing, “Once inside, it was surreal to see the same model shop firsthand that I’d studied in dozens of photographs published in movie magazines. I was captivated by the artistry I witnessed at every turn…. I cannot describe the profound inspiration and affirmation this visit gave me.”

Gray book cover with white text and photo of person's head and torso in landscape
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters explores his journey to becoming a photographer and significant moments in his career.

In the months that followed, Winters’ mailbox remained packed with special-order plastics, and his fleet of scratch-built spaceships grew. The photos of his progress eventually led two Apogee veterans to recommend him for employment at Design Setters, an effects house in Burbank. Through a work-experience program during his senior year, Winters attended two classes in the morning, then drove to the San Fernando Valley to build models, including one for the Neil Young film Human Highway. It was a creative utopia disguised as a pass/fail.

Man in suit sits with hands on thighs in room with skewed perspective
This portrait of actor Denzel Washington, seated in a set singlehandedly constructed by Dan Winters and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1992, was an inflection point in Winters’ career, opening the door to decades of world-class editorial and portrait work. / Photo by Dan Winters

After attending college at Moorpark, studying abroad in Munich, and assisting for photographer Chris Callis in New York City, Winters began incorporating his skills as a model builder and production designer into his portraiture, creating fictitious worlds unique to each image. An assignment to photograph Denzel Washington for the New York Times Magazine in 1992 was instrumental. Winters stayed up through the night and singlehandedly built a forced-perspective set that evoked the rural outposts documented by photographer Walker Evans during the Depression. The set also emphasized the body position of a seated Washington, whose hands were resting against his dark suit, causing his fingertips to pop. The secret, in a sense, was the human touch.

Man sits behind machine with magnifying glass in front of one eye, enlarging it, in front of architectural details and lit-up doll's head
Winters’ subjects have included Ryan Gosling (above), the Dalai Lama, Tupac Shakur, Helen Mirren, and Fred Rogers, who, according to Winters, “treated the photo shoot sacredly.” He’s also photographed two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; his portrait of Obama is featured prominently as the back jacket of the president’s memoir, A Promised Land. / Photo by Dan Winters

Another World


This approach carries through Winters’ latest and most immersive project, the film Tone, which he wrote, directed, and photographed. It’s a love story set in a dystopian future where a laborer—the eponymous Tone, whose vocal cords have been stripped by a surveillance state—returns to Earth from Mars and helps heal another broken soul. At nearly 40 minutes, the project far exceeds the scope of Winters’ previous short-subject documentaries and music videos, and visualizing both the earthbound and cosmic elements of the story demanded extensive model and miniature work.

The majority of those Mars miniatures, both piecemeal and whole, still reside in Winters’ Driftwood studio. (Before driving from his home for a studio tour, he cautioned not to crush a box of spare plastics on the car seat, which a hobby shop owner had recently reserved for him. It was an F/A-18C Hornet kit affixed with a handwritten Post-it note that read: WINTERS DAN PARTS GIFT.) Built in 1903 as a post office and general store, the sandstone building in Driftwood expanded in 1942 to accommodate a feed store. A subsequent owner extended that addition, turning a water cistern out back into an interior structure, surrounded by closets, one of which Winters converted to a darkroom. The facade is adorned with a defunct fire-engine-red Texaco gravity pump, occasionally confusing gas-strapped passers-by on the highway.

A Photographer’s Thoughts on a Photograph

 Man bows his head, eyes closed, among three illuminated light bulbs

Portrait of Charles Batchelor, "First Photograph Made with Incandescent Light," 1880 / THF253728

“As a practitioner of the craft of photography, I frequently employ the use of artificial light when making my photographs, the distinction being that the light emanates from a manmade source and not from the sun.

One artifact among The Henry Ford’s vast holdings that I feel a kinship to is an otherworldly black-and-white portrait of Thomas Edison’s longtime collaborator Charles Batchelor. The text on the border of the photograph informs us that it is the first-ever photograph taken using an incandescent bulb.

Though it is widely thought that the incandescent bulb was Edison’s invention, his work stood firmly on the shoulders of over 20 inventors who had success in the development of the light bulb before him; however, none to the degree Edison achieved. The use of incandescent light in photography would eventually prove to be almost as significant a tool as film and camera. As the technology evolved and higher-output lighting was developed, filmmakers and photographers alike would discover the benefits of their ability to control not only where they could make images but also when.”

— Dan Winters


Inside, Winters stands beside a bay of humming computer monitors with a Topo Chico. The cold bottle of sparkling water is perfect for slaking thirst and, as tradition holds, providing the next building block in a backyard pile of empties he’s dubbed Mount Topo. Through hundreds of annual deposits, the glass mountain now hosts a rotating colony of pill bugs, snakes, silverfish, and eleodes (beetles). It’s another world within worlds on the studio grounds, where nature and Winters’ collection of artifacts from nearly two centuries of photographic history meet the realities of an increasingly digitized future.

The encroachment of the elements proved calamitous in 2020, when winds clocking 75 mph tore at the metal roof and rainfall destroyed thousands of negatives in storage lockers below. While taking solace that well over a million negatives were safe, including those amassed from anonymous collections he’d found at junk stores and paper-goods shows, the incident nonetheless prompted the decampment for his Austin backyard, where proximity alleviates the increasing sense of vulnerability.

With another Topo tossed to the beetles out back, Winters begins detailing the international origins of the books on the shelves lining the original exterior wall of the post office. It called to mind the 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library,” in which German theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient.… How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

Winters settles on Photography Album 1, edited by Pierre de Fenoyl, purchased at 23 while biking across Australia. “There’s amazing work in it, work that made me feel like photography was boundless,” Winters said. “I was riding from Sydney to Adelaide, and I had two panniers on my bike for storage. I rode that book for 1,300 miles, in a brown paper bag. I still have the bike; it’s at the house.” A casual flip through the book revealed a preserved leaf tucked inside. “We want to have a memory,” Winters added. “Certain objects will anchor us to a place and time.”

Desk littered with models, framed images, knickknacks, and more, with even more items hanging on wall above desk
Dan Winters considers his desk, an old drafting table, the anchor of his studio. Littered with objects collected over time, he said of this space, “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history.” / Photo by Dan Winters

The undisputed anchor of the studio is Winters’ work desk, an old drafting table festooned with his full range of interests. “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history,” he said. “I’m inspired by the intrinsic value of these objects. Some have historical significance, certainly, and some are significant to me and my own path in life. Oftentimes they’re just beautiful objects I like to contemplate. One of the drawbacks of the collection is I feel it would be pretty quickly marginalized by whoever was settling my estate. At first glance, it probably looks like junk.”

According to theorist Benjamin, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.” Winters senses the necessity of cataloging these objects in the moment and imparting their meaning. There’s the National Supply badge that belonged to his grandfather, whose company made transmissions for Sherman tanks. Or a rivet from the Golden Gate Bridge, flecks of international orange paint still visible. (Ironworkers presented the rivet ceremoniously to Winters after a photo shoot.)

Lost in Space

 Silver cylinder with hexagonal shape on top and writing on body

Photo by Dan Winters

Bag with printed label filled in with handwritten text 

Photo by Dan Winters

Among Dan Winters’ desktop mementos are two pieces of equipment from the Apollo program: a pressure transducer (left above) and an RCS check valve assembly, still bagged (right above. Both were procured from a Los Angeles scrap dealer who capitalized on the closure of a Van Nuys plant operated by Rocketdyne, manufacturer of the Saturn V engines. The keepsakes have remained within reach ever since.

Winters’ childhood love of the space program carried over into his career as a photographer, beginning with a portrait in the late 1990s of Harrison Schmitt, the first geologist on the moon. Other subjects include Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Soviet Space Research Institute; American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad; Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit for Smithsonian Magazine; and a package of images for National Geographic’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo program, which included a trip to Kazakhstan in 2019 to photograph a Soyuz spaceflight to the International Space Station.

Winters was granted close-range access by NASA to document the final launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, all captured in his 2012 book Last Launch. His contributions to the literature and historical record of space exploration began humbly, with a childhood fixation on Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, which he spotted on the cover of a back issue of Life published the year before his birth.


There’s also a swab attached to a wine cork, which is in fact a vital tool, one that facilitated a series of portraits for National Geographic that quickly became among Winters’ most widely seen images. Published in May 2021 and intended to draw attention to World Bee Day, the subject was actress Angelina Jolie covered in bees. Before the shoot, Winters and friend Konrad Bouffard contacted Ronald Fischer, an entomologist now in his 90s, who was “bearded” in bees for an iconic Richard Avedon portrait in Davis, California, in 1981. They also reached Avedon’s on-set beekeeper, who still had the cork swab he’d used to dot Fischer’s skin with queen-bee pheromone, thus attracting a swarm. As a lifelong beekeeper, Winters was honored to use the very same swab for his shoot and to be told he could keep the cork among his treasures.

It was hard not to draw a line to the cork-and-paper-clip spaceships Winters’ father left for him in the mornings, the ones that inspired him both to build and to collect. Asked if a cork ship was docked on his desk, Winter was convinced, though he couldn’t pinpoint one. “I know I have one in these boxes,” he said, sifting through cardboard stacks. He reminded himself to check later. For now, the day was still young, and the sun was out. In the shadow of Mount Topo, this message in a bottle would remain open, awaiting its cork.


James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago. This post was adapted from an article in the January–May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

books, movies, space, making, photographs, photography, The Henry Ford Magazine, by James Hughes

GIF cycling through toy images: frog in top hat and scarf, pig in dress and bonnet, and blue creature with hooked nose in yellow top hat and holding a book
Muppet Christmas Carol Kids’ Meal Toys, 1993 / THF304874, THF304875, THF304876


Released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson’s death in 1990. His son Brian, along with his siblings, had taken over the company. Brian had previously worked on several of his father’s projects, including building the first penguin puppet for The Muppet Show, helping create the bicycle sequence in The Great Muppet Caper, and providing voices for the film Labyrinth (as Hoggle) and the TV series The Storyteller (as Dog).

Bill Haber, the Hensons’ agent, was the first to pitch the idea of creating a version of A Christmas Carol. While Brian—who was interested in continuing his father’s work, but wanted to avoid too much of a direct comparison—considered the idea, Haber took the initiative to sell the rights to ABC TV, who planned to make a television film. When longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl submitted his final script for approval, however, executives at Walt Disney Pictures opted to purchase it and make it into a feature film.

Green book cover with gold text and illustrations and black decorative elements
1876 edition of Christmas Stories, which included A Christmas Carol / THF624009

Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol, first published in 1844, was hugely popular during its time. The first edition, published on December 19th, sold out by Christmas Eve, and four more editions would follow by the end of the year. During his lifetime, Dickens would adapt the piece for public readings, which he himself would perform until his death in 1870. Stage productions would soon follow, and even today it is common to see A Christmas Carol on offer from theater companies during the holiday season. The earliest surviving screen adaptation is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, from 1901. Between then and 1992, 14 other adaptations had hit the silver screen, and the plot of A Christmas Carol was familiar to many, even if they had not read the original story.

Man with beard and mustache seated in chair, holding cane and top hat, next to a table with a statue on it and drapery
Portrait of Charles Dickens, 1865-1870 / THF121158

Originally aiming to make The Muppet Christmas Carol into a parody of the original story, in keeping with the irreverence for which the Muppets were famous, Henson and Juhl soon realized that no previous film adaptations had truly captured Dickens’s prose. Rethinking their approach, they decided to cast Gonzo in the role of Charles Dickens, and make him the omniscient storyteller—a device that not only allowed them to include dialogue that was 95% faithful to Dickens’s original work, but also mirrored the earlier public readings of the story. Rizzo the Rat joined in as Gonzo’s sidekick and a form of Greek chorus, interjecting often-humorous commentary throughout the film.

Blue creature with hooked nose, wearing yellow top hat and holding a yellow book
Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304876

Having decided on this approach, it was time to “cast” the rest of the story’s characters. As Brian Henson explained in a 2015 interview, “Bob Cratchit was a natural role for Kermit. He was almost playing himself.” The role of Mrs. Cratchit went to Miss Piggy, Tiny Tim was assigned to Robin the Frog, Fozzie Bear became Fozziwig (previously known as Fezziwig in Dickens’s original), and Statler and Waldorf served as the ghosts of the Marley brothers (a notably drastic change from the original, where there is only one Marley ghost—yet a necessary one, as you can’t have Statler without Waldorf, or vice versa). Other Muppets filled out the rest of the supporting cast, and brand-new Muppets were created for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, to detract less from the ghosts’ ominous nature.

Frog wearing blue top hat and jacket and red scarf
Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Kids’ Meal Toy, 1993 / THF304874

The one principal human actor in the production was Michael Caine, who played Ebenezer Scrooge. Upon accepting the role, Caine said, “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.” This choice continued the tradition of blending the world of the Muppets with the real world, seen in other Henson projects such as Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, arguably adding to the “realness” and accessibility of the works and worlds Henson created.

Although it opened to mixed reviews, and achieved only modest box-office success, the film went on to become a beloved part of the Muppet filmography. For some, the appeal lies in its faithfulness to Dickens’s original story. Others appreciate the film’s songs, written by Paul Williams (who also wrote “The Rainbow Connection”). For many, though, the best way to sum it up is that the film is simply delightful, marrying the best of the Muppets with the traditions of Dickens. In doing so, The Muppet Christmas Carol serves an example of the power of imagination to transform the familiar into something totally new.

Page with text and image of child with crutch, waving
Tiny Tim’s famous final line in A Christmas Carol, "God bless us every one," featured on the title page of Christmas Stories, 1876 / THF624011


Rachel Yerke is Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

holidays, popular culture, Muppets, movies, Christmas, by Rachel Yerke, books

Page with black-and-white photo of about 18 Muppets; also contains text
Sheet music for “The Rainbow Connection,” 1979 /
THF182956

How do the Muppets retain their appeal after all these years? Yes, they’re silly. And entertaining. And very clever. But I would argue that part of their enduring—and endearing—quality is that it doesn’t take much to imagine that they are real. Sure, you can see the materials they’re made out of. And occasionally catch a glimpse of the rods that make their arms move. But sometimes—when they talk like us, act like us, even think like us—we can suspend disbelief for a moment and believe in the magic. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the opening scene of the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, in which Kermit the Frog sits alone on a log in the middle of the swamp, plucks his banjo, and wistfully sings “The Rainbow Connection.”

The Muppet Movie (1979) was the Muppets’ first foray into feature films. Muppet characters had already been known for more than two decades. The particular Muppets who starred in The Muppet Movie had become familiar to us through The Muppet Show, the breakout television series that ran from 1976 to 1981. But, unlike the rapidly changing vaudeville show format of the TV series, the full-length feature film needed a plot, character development, and several songs to keep the story moving. That’s where The Rainbow Connection came in. Through this song, we find out that Kermit—The Muppet Show’s “straight man” around whom all the mayhem and the other characters’ antics revolve—has hopes and dreams of his own. This was something new, something deeper, something more serious and spiritual than we had seen from a Muppet before.

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Muppets, popular culture, music, movies, Jim Henson, by Donna R. Braden

Light blue car with distinctively pointed headlights and center front grille
The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649


Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.

For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.

But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.

Man leans over miniature pool table in front of a wall filled with posters
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260

Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.

The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.

Close-up of car grille with pointed areas at either end housing headlights and in the middle
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652

In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.

Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.

Man with mustache wearing suit and striped tie leans on a surface holding a small car model
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005

That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).

It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.

Advertisement with picture of yellow car at airport next to airplane; also contains smaller pictures and text
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021

The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Muppets, popular culture, music, movies, Jim Henson, Henry Ford Museum, Driving America, design, cars, by Matt Anderson

Curved theater with visor-shaped image of race car driver on screen and blue and green bars extending outward

The multisensory theater in Driven to Win at The Henry Ford.

American innovation knows no bounds, and racing, which combines technical excellence with the human endeavor, speaks to our constant need to push the limits of what’s possible. That’s why Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has gathered one of the finest collections of innovative, powerful, record-busting race cars and automotive artifacts in the world.

Building on this unparalleled collection, The Henry Ford’s newest exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, gives guests a visceral sense of just how thrilling it is to “go faster and push the limits of racing.” BRC Imagination Arts partnered with The Henry Ford to help bring its incredible collection to life through emotional storytelling, and to get guests excited about “the lives of those who invented their way into the winner's circle and often changed the world in the process.”

The result: Fueled by Passion, the exhilarating, immersive experience at the heart of the new exhibition. The 15-minute sensory-filled experience shares the stories of five people who have empowered themselves to push their personal limits, and ignites the drive we all have to power our passions.

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cars, race cars, race car drivers, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, movies, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing

We are truly living in unprecedented times. On Friday, March 13, 2020, The Henry Ford closed its doors due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. We did not open them again until Thursday, July 2—and even then, only on certain days, with many new guidelines in place about masks, social distancing, and capacity, to protect our visitors and staff. None of us predicted that we would remain closed for 16 weeks—but then, there is much happening now in the world that would have been difficult to predict.

One of the many unusual things that happened over that four-month period is that the most-viewed section of our website was our Digital Collections. While our online collections typically get tens of thousands of views each month, they’ve always fallen well short of our “Visit” section—until COVID-19 shut our doors. Between mid-March and late June, visitors viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections about 285,000 times. This whetted our curiosity about what artifacts people were looking at during our closure, and why—so we decided to put a list together and take a closer look.

Open car with green upholstered seat and visible mechanics
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760

Over half (58%) of the artifacts that were the most popular during our closure are also on the list of the most popular artifacts of 2019. Not surprisingly, this covers many of our national treasures and our visitors’ favorite artifacts, like the Quadricycle, the Rosa Parks Bus, the Lincoln Chair, and the Allegheny steam locomotive.

One group of artifacts that was not on last year’s list, but that was highly viewed during our closure (and since), is items related to the challenging history of race in America. Given the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, many Americans are seeking to broaden their understanding in this area, which might explain this uptick in interest. A slave collar, a “Whites Only” drinking fountain, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, and an Emancipation Day photograph are all artifacts on exhibit in “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation illustrating this disturbing history—and all were sought out by hundreds to thousands of online visitors between mid-March and late June.

Collar with three tall prongs extending upward and heavy lock.
This slave collar was featured in an online article called “Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About George Floyd’s Neck.” / THF13425

Another group of items that seems pandemic-specific are documents and photographs from the World War II era. In George Washington Carver’s last agricultural bulletin, published in February 1942, he encourages Americans to consider wild plants (what many might call weeds) as an alternative to green vegetables, should the war cause shortages. In March, journalist Nicholas Kristof referenced our Willow Run expert set as an example of ramping up production in a short timeframe in a New York Times editorial about the coronavirus. Likely as a result, a B-24 Liberator bomber production flowchart and a photograph of a B-24 in flight made it into our top artifacts over this period. A “United We Win” poster speaks to both World War II and issues of race relations.

Black-and-white image of airplane flying over tall buildings.
Ford Motor Company’s fast ramp-up of B-24 Liberator bomber production during World War II provides insight on the ramp-up of coronavirus testing and treatment supplies in 2020. / THF251440

The last pattern we noticed was the popularity of artifacts related to recent films, at a time when many Americans stayed at home and increased their movie watching. Three auto racing photos—including the single-most viewed item during our closure, this photograph of race car driver Ken Miles at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—demonstrate the continuing popularity of Ford v Ferarri, the 2019 movie about that very race. This letter, allegedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford, has been popular ever since last year, when Netflix released The Highwaymen, a movie about the race to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde. During our closure, it was the fifth-most viewed artifact in our online collections.

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This portrait of Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in 1966 was the most-viewed artifact from our Digital Collections during our closure. / LeMans06-66_441

It’s interesting to see patterns in views of our digital artifacts that map so closely to what has been going on in the world. To see if you can find any additional patterns we missed, check out the entire list of the most-viewed digitized artifacts during our COVID-19 closure here. And check out our Digital Collections for yourself—you might just find something there of value to you during these strange times.


Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

movies, African American history, COVID 19 impact, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl

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June 1955 magazine advertisement for the release of Lady and the Tramp. THF145583

Although this animated feature film received mixed reviews when it was first released on June 22, 1955, Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp has since become a classic.  It is beloved for its songs, its story, its gorgeously rendered and meticulously detailed settings, and its universal themes of love and acceptance—not to mention that scene with the spaghetti!  Numerous story artists and animators contributed their talents to creating this film, but it would take years before Walt Disney would finally give it his nod of approval. 

Unlike other Disney animated films of the time, Lady and the Tramp is not based upon a venerable old fairy tale or a previously published book.  Its origins can be traced back to 1937, when Disney story artist Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches and told him of his idea for a story based upon the antics of his own English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who was “shoved aside” when the family’s new baby arrived.  Walt encouraged Grant to develop the story but was unhappy with the outcome—feeling that Lady seemed too sweet and that the story didn’t have enough action.  For the next several years, Grant and other artists worked on a variety of conceptual sketches and many different approaches. 

In 1945, the storyline took a drastic turn, which ultimately led to its final film version.  That year, Walt Disney read a magazine short story called, “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.”  Here, in the story of a cynical, devil-may-care dog, Walt found the perfect foil for the prim and proper Lady.  By 1953, the film had evolved to the point that Walt asked Ward Greene, the short story’s author, to write a novelization of it.  It is Greene—not Joe Grant—who received credit in the final film.  Walt couldn’t resist adding a personal tidbit to the story.  According to his telling of the story, the opening scene came from his own experience of giving his wife a puppy as a gift in a hat box to make up for having forgotten a dinner date with her. 

Interestingly, the spaghetti-eating scene was almost cut, as Walt Disney initially thought it was silly and unromantic.  But animator Frank Thomas had such a strong vision for the scene that he completed all the animation for it before showing it to Walt, who was so impressed he agreed to keep in the now-iconic scene.

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1955 charm bracelet of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, likely a souvenir obtained at Disneyland. THF8604

Since the dogs were the main characters of the film, it seemed only natural to both show and tell the story from the dogs’ point of view.  The animators studied many real dogs to capture their movements, behaviors, and personalities, while the scenes themselves were shot from a low “dog’s-eye-view” perspective.

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A depiction of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland from the 1955 Picture Souvenir Book to the park. THF205154

The film’s setting—early 20th century small-town America—referenced Walt Disney’s own return to his roots, particularly his growing up in the small town of Marceline, Missouri.  As the setting was coming to life on film, a real live 3D version of it was being constructed at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s new park in Anaheim, California.  Disneyland opened a mere three weeks after the film was released.

Although the setting hearkened back to the past, the filmmaking technique that Walt chose was typically state-of-the-art.  As Walt marked the growing interest in widescreen film technology, he decided this would be the first of his animated films to use CinemaScope.  To fill in the extra-wide space of this format, the animators extended the backgrounds—resulting in settings that are unusually breathtaking, detailed, mood-setting and, when the story called for it, filled with dramatic tension.  Unfortunately, many theatres were not equipped with CinemaScope, so Walt decided that two versions of the film had to be created, forcing layout artists to scramble to restructure key scenes for a standard format as well.  CinemaScope ultimately proved too expensive and did not last past the early 1960s.  But its influence on Lady and the Tramp lives on—a testament to Walt’s commitment to filmmaking innovation.

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Although souvenirs related to Lady and the Tramp are hard to come by these days, I was thrilled to find these salt-and-pepper shakers and collectible pins over several visits to Walt Disney World.

I saw Lady and the Tramp when it was re-released in theatres in 1962.  I was nine years old at the time and I was completely enraptured.  The details and setting—from the frilly ladies’ dresses, dapper men’s suits, and overstuffed furniture inside Lady’s house to the horses’ clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets—seemed like old photographs come to life.  Taking in these details on the big screen as a girl, I was transfixed.  Is this where my interest in history began?

After seeing Lady and the Tramp at the movies, I also became obsessed with wanting a dog.  Not just any dog.  I wanted Lady, or a cocker spaniel as close to Lady as I could get.  I dreamed of her, drew pictures of her, transferred her personality onto the stuffed dogs I inevitably got as presents.  When I was in eighth grade, my parents finally relented.  One day my Mom surprised us and took us kids down to the animal shelter to get a dog.  It wasn’t a cocker spaniel.  But we did find a little golden-haired puppy that was a fine substitute. 

I don’t know that I thought much of Tramp when I was a girl.  He was wayward, a nuisance, too different.  But from my older perspective, I see that Lady meeting, and ultimately falling for, Tramp was really a symbol of what happens in your life.  Forced out of your comfort zone, broadening your horizons, seeing things from new perspectives, taking life’s curves with grace until, rather than resisting it, you accept it—even embrace it. 

Who knew, when I was a girl, that this movie was not just about dogs but about life? 

Note: The complete story of the making of Lady and the Tramp, including Joe Grant’s contributions, can be found in the bonus feature, “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp,” in the 50th Anniversary DVD of Lady and the Tramp.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

by Donna R. Braden, popular culture, movies, Disney

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An early version of Kermit the Frog appeared in Henson’s
Sam and Friends TV puppet show, but Kermit became a breakout star during The Muppet Show. THF304042

It’s hard to believe that May 16, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. His influence can still be seen in so many places: on-demand TV shows, movies, and specials; related books, toys, games, and other merchandise; and modern-day puppets, puppet performances, and puppeteers.

In his lifetime, Henson’s titles included puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur. But titles can be misleading because he was so much more than these. A brilliant innovator, he continually questioned the status quo, broke boundaries, and experimented with new ideas. By stretching the known capabilities of both puppetry and the medium of television (and, then, of motion pictures), he created a new art form. And, in the process, he inspired us—the viewers—to use our imaginations, to take ourselves less seriously, and to treat others with greater tolerance.

Jim Henson (born 1936) was drawn to the arts at a young age, including an early fascination with puppetry. When he entered college, he thought about majoring in fine arts. But he found—buried in the course list of the home economics department at his school—a class on puppetry. So, even though most of the students majoring in home economics were females learning domestic skills for future homemaking, he decided that would be his major.

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Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
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As a freshman in college, Henson developed his own TV puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared briefly twice each evening. While working on this show, Henson started questioning many long-standing puppetry traditions. Why not, for example, use the entire frame of the TV screen as the actual puppet theater stage rather than bringing a separate puppet stage into the TV studio? Wouldn’t it follow, he then asked, that the puppet operators could work from off-camera rather than appearing to viewers on the screen?

Henson moved from there to questioning the puppets themselves. Why not make them more lifelike, with flexible fabric-covered foam rubber rather than the traditional carved wood? Why not use rods to move their arms—rather than the more traditional strings—to give them greater flexibility? Why not make the puppets’ mouth movements more precise to match their dialog—enhancing their believability and letting their full range of emotions be conveyed through words as well as actions? Finally, why not give the characters distinct personalities? Better yet, imbue their personalities with whimsy, playfulness, and humor. As Henson continued to refine his ideas and his characters, an entirely new kind of puppet was born—part puppet, part marionette, and all Henson. He called his new creations Muppets.

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During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe.
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The publicity that Henson gained with his Sam and Friends show led to his invention of a host of new Muppet characters for a range of TV commercials. By this time, the 1960s, it seemed that people were coming to appreciate humor, irony, and satire more than the serious “hard sell” that had been the norm.

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Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity.
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Though he was initially reluctant to collaborate on a TV show aimed specifically at kids, Henson experienced their first major breakthrough with Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969 (for more on Sesame Street, see this post).

But Henson’s greatest claim to fame came with The Muppet Show (1976-81)—produced in England because American TV networks wrongly assumed that Muppets would just appeal to kids. Hosted by his somewhat “bolder” alter-ego, Kermit the Frog (whom he controlled and voiced), this show introduced millions of viewers to Henson’s unique blend of humor and imagination. The Muppet Show would go on to air in more than 100 countries, win several Emmy awards, and lead to several spin-off motion pictures.

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The song “Rainbow Connection,” first written to provide depth and humanity to Kermit the Frog’s character for the 1979 film,
The Muppet Movie, has gone on to become a sort of Muppets anthem. THF182956

Jim Henson went on to contribute his talents and ideas to new fantasy/adventure films, most famously aiding in the creation and articulation of Yoda for the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back. He tried his hand with a few of his own fantasy/adventure films, including The Dark Crystal (1981) and Labyrinth (1986)—both of which were destined to become cult classics. He also created two additional popular TV series—Fraggle Rock (1983-87) and the Saturday morning animated show, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies (1984-91). Just before his passing, Henson worked with The Walt Disney Company to develop the themed attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World.

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Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.
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Inspired by a flashback sequence in the film,
The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies were represented in the McDonald’s 1994 Happy Birthday Happy Meal promotion. THF319291

Today, Jim Henson’s Muppets delight children of all ages. Henson once claimed that, with puppets, you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. The Muppets may not be people, but they certainly reflect who we are as people, providing a mirror to our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

Jim Henson had plenty of his own dreams. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives in positive ways—through laughter, delight, and imagination. Henson once said that, “I decided that there are many situations in this life that I can’t do much about: acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. So what I should do is concentrate on the situations my energy can affect.” Wise and timeless words for the times we live in today!

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Appearing in short segments on
Sesame Street, ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie demonstrate to kids that good friends can be tolerant of each other’s differences. THF309817, THF309818

During his lifetime, Henson was deeply committed to encouraging, mentoring, and recognizing the talents of a new generation of puppeteers. In 1982, he established the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop puppetry in the United States. Today, the Jim Henson Foundation’s web site is the go-to place to find out what’s happening in contemporary puppet theatre and currently features extensive listings of online puppet shows to “help people collectively navigate the COVID-19 Health Crisis.” Instructions for making your own puppets are included here as well. Through his efforts, and those of his family who carry on his vision, Jim Henson’s legacy has ensured that puppetry is no longer relegated simply to home economics classes but has become a highly respected art form.

Jim Henson and his legacy live on, through Muppet programs and specials; Muppet operators and performers; those who have cherished memories of growing up with Muppet characters and pass these on to younger generations; new audiences who have discovered the old classic characters and shows; and the modern-day puppeteers Henson has inspired.

At a special tribute by the Muppets for Jim Henson back in 1990, Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) remarked that, “Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here too, inside us, believing in us.”

I like to believe this is true.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

Additional Note: Just down the road from The Henry Ford, The Detroit Institute of Arts recently brought out on exhibit a 1969 version of Kermit, donated to them by Jim Henson himself in 1971. See more here.

Muppets, TV, popular culture, movies, making, Jim Henson, by Donna R. Braden

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Thanks to some digging into our collections, Chicago-based writer and editor James Hughes, son of director John Hughes, discovered some surprising connections between National Lampoon’s Vacation, which his father wrote, and The Henry Ford. In 2017, James joined Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson for a discussion about that connection, his father’s writing inspiration, and the time-honored tradition of the family road trip, both then and now.

Matt Anderson: James, of course it should be noted that your father wrote the screenplay for this picture, and here we are. And, of course when think about your father's films, whether it's Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, right up to Uncle Buck, we tend to think of Chicago. The films are always rooted in that city or that area. But in fact, he's got some connections to southeast Michigan.

James Hughes: My father was born in Michigan in 1950, in Lansing, and spent his childhood in Grosse Pointe. It was probably around junior high age, I want to say around 12, possibly older, when his family moved to the North Shore of Chicago, to the suburb of Northbrook, which became the inspiration for the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, where my father set many of his films, particularly in the ‘80s. I was thinking about this relation to Vacation—there are several Michigan connections. For one, Vacation was a summer movie, released in 1983. Within a few weeks of it, Mr. Mom was released as well, another screenplay he wrote, which was set in suburban Detroit. The Michael Keaton character, at the beginning of the movie, is fired from his job at Ford Motor Company. But before there was the screenplay for Vacation, there was my father’s short story, titled Vacation ’58. The Griswold family lived on Rivard Boulevard in Grosse Pointe. So, that was where the journey began.

You know, it's interesting, I've said this many times about my dad. He took a pretty significant step back from the movie business in the late '90s and early 2000s. But he continued to write every day. He was a very disciplined writer. And in his later years, before he passed away, he was working on developing his prose style. He was writing hundreds and hundreds of short stories. And there was an interesting series of stories within that about his Grosse Pointe childhood. He made himself the narrator, in much the same way that the Vacation short story was from the point of view of Rusty, the son. To tell his own stories, he created a character based on himself and wrote under the pseudonym JL Hudson, as a nod to the Detroit department store, in much the same way that the Griswold family is a nod to Griswold Street in downtown Detroit.

Matt: Your father, in the early-mid 1970s, he's working at an ad agency, right? For Leo Burnett in Chicago? Really one of the best-known ad agencies in the world, at that point. And he's got a successful career, but as I understand it, he also has kind of a shadow career. He's moonlighting on the side, right?

James: All throughout the ‘70s my father was a freelance humor writer. He got his start at a relatively young age. He was in his 20s, maybe, I want to say 22. And he was writing jokes for stand-up comedians. Rodney Dangerfield was one, Phyllis Diller was another. He would maybe write 10, 20 jokes a day and mail them off to comedians, and would get paid per joke, if that line was used in their acts. He was able to roll that into writing for publications. At the time, in the mid-70s, Chicago had a deeper publishing footprint than it has now. And the big magazine was Playboy, so he wrote a few humor pieces for Playboy, and conducted an interview or two for them as well. Concurrently, he was a copywriter and, ultimately, a creative director at Leo Burnett.

The big prize was to write for National Lampoon, which was, to him, the preeminent comedic voice in the country. He was really honored to contribute to the Lampoon. And he was able to pull this off in part because he often commuted from Chicago to New York. In particular, he was servicing the Virginia Slims campaign for Phillip Morris, which was based in Manhattan. So, either before or after meetings, he was able to sneak off to the National Lampoon offices, which were also in the epicenter of the New York advertising row, on Madison Avenue.

It's common for advertising writers to, say, work on their novel at night, or work freelance on the side. My father actually wrote at work quite often, at his desk. And his boss, Robert Nolan, allowed it because he wanted to keep him working on ad copy. Rob wrote an interesting piece for the Huffington Post soon after my father died, in 2009, where he recounted what it was like to be John Hughes' boss, knowing he was living this sort of double-life as a comedy writer. He likened it to a kind of Ferris Bueller/Principal Rooney dynamic, where my father was always able to stay one step ahead, and somehow get all of his work done, and somehow get to work on time, while also contributing steadily to the Lampoon, where he eventually earned a spot as an editor on the masthead, all while living in the North Shore of Chicago and skirting a move to New York. 

Matt: Fantastic. Well, let's talk about that short story, Vacation ‘58. This is a real defining moment. Sort of a milestone in your father's career, right? He makes this decision now to move away from Leo Burnett and commit himself to writing full time.

James: This story was published in September 1979, which was about six months or so after I was born. So he was a young father of two and had all the commitments that come with that. But he enjoyed writing and contributing to the Lampoon so much that he took the risk and quit his job at Leo Burnett. He was on the verge of becoming a VP, though he quit to pursue writing full-time. Fortunately, for him, the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 was such a smash that several Lampoon writers were being poached by the studios or offered development deals. And without my father even knowing, his short story was optioned by Warner Bros., pretty much upon publication. And though he had to work in the trenches on several projects between, let's say 1979 and 1983, when Vacation was released, it really did help launch his career.

Matt: Let's talk for a moment about the short story. The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation, going from that short story. But there are a few changes here and there, and one of the major changes, in fact, was quite a big change to the ending. And I should, just to do it justice, read the opening line:

"If Dad hadn't shot Walt Disney in the leg it would have been our best vacation ever."

I think that pretty much sets up the story beautifully. But that gets to the ending, which is quite different from what we see in the film.

James: Of course with the film, they weren't able to have Walt Disney portray himself—that might've been a bridge too far. The Roy Walley character was created for the purpose of the film. And yes, the ending of the short story is pretty rough, as much of the humor in the Lampoon was back then. Clark uses live rounds, it’s not a…

Matt: Not a BB gun?

James: No, not a BB gun. But when Clark arrives at the park, only to find that it's closed for repairs, he snaps and takes the family to the Bel Air home of Walt Disney and shoots Walt in the leg. Walt’s security dog doesn’t fare well, either.  

Matt: Just the happy ending everyone wants. My understanding is they originally shot something like that for the film, and then realized it didn't play all that well with the test audiences.

James: True, yes. You know, perhaps because of my father’s advertising background, he was open to the test-screening process—the kind of diagnostics you learn from test audiences, and how you can adjust the picture accordingly. Of course, he wasn't the director of the film, but he was, as a result of the rather rough ending, which audiences rejected, brought back in to write an entirely new ending at the request of Harold Ramis, the director.

Matt: Speaking of that, when you think about your father's films, really starting in the mid-80s and on—films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off—these are movies where you really see a large degree of creative control. He's writing the story, then directing, very much able to bring his vision to the screen. And that's not the case, of course, early in his career. He's written the screenplay for Vacation and adapted it from his short story, but he's turned over control, at some point, to Harold Ramis. And I wonder if you had any insight on that experience. If that was difficult for him?

James: I think the process of changing the ending, that might've been an area of difficulty. As a young writer for hire, he didn’t have much power in the industry. But I think time has certainly proven that Harold was a great choice to direct this picture. And casting is such a big part of the process, and I know my father was pleased with the cast that Harold and his team put together. I know they worked closely, but in terms of being on set, I don't believe he was there very much. Obviously with it being a road picture, the majority of which was filmed in Colorado and out west, I don't believe he was actually physically present for much of it. Though, I would imagine, because of that triage situation with the ending, he was brought closer into the fold.

Matt: This leads me to my next question, of talking about the road picture. From what I understand, it was more or less like a vacation for the cast. They were traveling to these places. The whole crew and support trucks, depending on the outfit. But, I was curious about your own family vacations. Did you take trips with your father, your parents? Have you had any wacky adventures or stories to share?

James: I was raised in Illinois, but my father's career demanded we move out west, to Los Angeles, from the mid- to late 80s. So much of my childhood was about alternating between Illinois and California. We kept our house in Illinois and went back often, so that meant a lot of air travel. I don't have any major road-trip stories to offer, unfortunately. As I grew older, we did travel by car with my grandparents to the Northwoods. My father, to some extent, rolled some of those experiences into his screenplay for The Great Outdoors, along with his own memories of traveling and exploring the Upper Midwest when he was younger. Or perhaps it was just him longing to revisit that corner of the world after being stationed in Los Angeles for years.

In 1990, when Home Alone was released, it was really the first time his work went truly international. He generally wrote stories that catered to a domestic audience. These were regional stories, particularly about the Midwest. And Home Alone changed the whole paradigm. That franchise played so widely overseas, which meant an obligation to do foreign press and promote the franchise around the world. And then he had a couple productions based in London, which meant going to England quite often. In a way, in the '90s, he made up for lost time. He was simply too busy for us to do any extensive road trips like the one in Vacation. But later in life, he made up for it, particularly by trying to open the world to the family a bit more, with overseas travel.

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Model with 1979 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon. THF294571


Matt: Being an automotive curator, we've got to talk about that car. It’s more or less based on a 1979 Ford Country Squire station wagon, and just made up to look as gaudy as possible. You know, why do four headlights when you can do eight, right? I wondered if your father had any input on the design?

James: You know, I can't say for sure if he did. I would imagine, when you go from the page to the screen, there are so many different people making decisions—the art director, production designer, prop master, the director himself—that I don't know if, as a screenwriter, he was able to have input on the model that they chose and customized. I do know that from the short story, it's a Plymouth.

Matt: Right, a '58 Plymouth.

James: A  running joke early on in the short story is how long it takes for the Griswold family to actually leave the house, or even just leave the state of Michigan. And one of the reasons is that the Plymouth dies. And Clark laments and kind of kicks himself for the fact that he didn't buy a Ford.

Matt: Right. There you go!

James: In the early '90s my father was working at 20th Century Fox. At that time, one of the hit shows on the Fox network was Married With Children. I remember my dad mentioning, offhandedly, that the opening shots of that show’s title sequence were from Harold's second unit photography on Vacation. That always stuck in my mind, and I never quite knew if it was true. I've seen that noted online here and there, but I wanted to confirm it before mentioning it here. I asked my friend Schawn Belston, head of archival and digital restoration at Fox, if he would ask around the lot on my behalf. Fortunately, there were some people who confirmed that, in fact, yes, Married With Children opens with the footage from Vacation. There was a very kind film stock librarian at Fox, Wendy Carter, who went so far as to track down Carl Barth, the aerial photographer who shot the Family Truckster driving through Chicago, to verify. It was noted that, if you look carefully at the title sequence for the show’s first three seasons, you can see the Family Truckster drive by. I believe it's on the Dan Ryan Expressway. A strange pop-culture afterlife for the Truckster.

Matt: I think they built maybe a total of five cars for the movie. I'm sure there was a hero car that was fully tricked-out, and then of course they had some stunt cars for the jump and so forth. But it's beloved. It's always interested me. I think if this film had been made even just a year or two later, they probably would've been driving a minivan, because this is the tail-end of the station wagon era.

James: That's true.

Matt: Vacation is essentially your father's big break, right? This is one of his first screenplays, and it's a hit film. There's no two ways about it. I would imagine, from that perspective, if nothing else, it would have a certain meaningfulness to him. But also, as you watch the movie, you notice that two of your father's future collaborators, Anthony Michael Hall and John Candy, both appear in this movie as well. I wondered if that's perhaps how he first crossed paths with them?

James: I believe that's the case. I'm glad you mentioned that. I appreciate that, because those are two actors, certainly John Candy, who my father cherished collaborating with. I don't think there are any two actors he gave more latitude to improvise or to develop characters alongside him when he was directing than Candy and Michael Hall. Another actor he admired was Eddie Bracken.

Matt: Yes, Roy Walley.

James: Eddie Bracken was cast to play Roy Walley, and I imagine it must've blown my father's mind at the time. He was a big fan of Preston Sturges, one of the great writer/directors of the 1940s, perhaps best remembered for Sullivan's Travels, which was one of my father's favorite movies. Bracken was the star of two of Sturges' greats, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. It had to be a trip for him to have Bracken reading his dialogue. And he actually circled back later in his career and hired Eddie a couple of times more. Perhaps most prominently in Home Alone 2, when he was the toy-store owner in New York.

Matt: They talk about actors and roles they were born to play. I've always thought that about Eddie Bracken in this movie, you know, just the perfect sort of spitting image of Walt Disney. A great stand-in. There's some other, of course, perfect performances in this movie. Think about Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie. Sort of steals every scene he's in. Imogene Coca, of course, a legend in TV comedy from Your Show of Shows. Brian Doyle-Murray, who plays the campground owner. Slight continuity error here because he returns in Christmas Vacation as Clark's boss, but we'll let that go for now. But I wondered, as we watch this movie, it's full of so many wonderful moments. I wondered if you had any favorite scenes or moments in this movie that you've continually referred to.

James: I'm partial to Clark's meltdown when the family throws in the towel and declares they're ready to head home. I think my father had a particular knack for writing passive-aggressive rants.

Matt: There's so many great moments in this movie. I kind of think of it as America's favorite R-rated family film. It's just so timeless. You think of the short story being written about a trip in 1958, this movie made in 1983, yet the situations are still recognizable to all of us today, taking a road trip in 2017.

Part of the reason we’re chatting is because there is a surprising connection between this movie and The Henry Ford. The collections in The Henry Ford, specifically. We see it right away in the opening title sequence of Vacation. Tell us a little bit about that.

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Trout Haven Billboard, Spearfish, South Dakota, 1980. THF239534

James:
I was thrilled about this. I was here at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation last year and our friend and colleague Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication and Information Technology, gave me a private tour of the archive. At that time, a recent acquisition was a portion of the photo archives of John Margolies, a great chronicler of Americana, particularly roadside Americana. He documented the kinds of landmarks that are spoofed in Vacation. You know how Clark wants to see the world's second-largest ball of twine? Well, Margolies was the photographer who would've had an entire portfolio of that. That name stuck in my mind when Kristen first told me about him. Then, a few months later, I came across an interview with Harold Ramis where he mentioned he was friends with Margolies and that he used his images for the postcards in the main and closing title sequences in Vacation. I told Kristen about this and she searched the Margolies archives and found several images that appear in Vacation.


This inspired me to reach out to the title designer, Wayne Fitzgerald, who’s a giant in his field. He’s retired now and lives in the Pacific Northwest. He created the titles for My Fair Lady, Judgment at Nuremberg, Bonnie and Clyde. The titles for the Netflix series Stranger Things are patterned after Wayne's titles for The Dead Zone, which was released a few months after Vacation. He and his son and collaborator, Eric, also worked on the titles for The Breakfast Club and filmed the shot where the title card with the David Bowie quote shatters at the start.

I had a great conversation with Eric, about what it was like putting the Vacation titles together, back when they were cutting to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” demo tape, which Eric remembered having no lyrics yet, only melodies. At one point, Buckingham riffed on Wayne’s name, to fill space during the verses.

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Hat N' Boots Gas, Seattle, Washington, 1980. THF238979


I mentioned the Margolies archive to Eric, who of course remembered his images. What The Henry Ford has in the collection is even more special than what’s in the movie, because you have the slides themselves, John’s original photography. The titles for Vacation were made in the pre-digital era, so they were reproductions that were taken from books, as Eric explained, and then shot as animation cels. Many of them were Margolies’ images, which were doctored by Fitzgerald and his crew to appear as if they were postcards—given captions or a certain trim or border. Wayne and Eric were pleased to hear about this connection to the Margolies archives.

It’s great that Margolies, all these years ago, captured an America that was vanishing. Here we have a movie that's already over 30 years old. So fortunately, some of Margolies’ images live on, not only in the movie on a mass scale, but in the permanent archives of the museum. I think it's this really wonderful connection, and I'm thrilled that it's brought us to this discussion.

Matt: Those are two things we love here: highway travel and roadside Americana. You get both of them in the Margolies collection. James, thanks for chatting with me.

James: I'm happy to be here, thank you.

John Margolies, travel, roads and road trips, cars, popular culture, movies

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Hot Hatch Heaven! Hyundai’s 275-horsepower Veloster N, one of several new models unveiled at this year’s North American International Auto Show.

Detroit is the capital of the global automotive industry once more as the 2018 North American International Auto Show arrives at Cobo Center. Carmakers from around the world have come to share peeks at their 2019 model lines, and hint at new technologies that may be coming in the years ahead. As usual, the exhibits range from exciting, to informative to downright unreal.

car2This is exactly what it looks like: a 1979 Mercedes-Benz G-Class frozen in amber.

Mercedes-Benz takes the cake for most unusual display. The German automaker unveiled a new version of its venerable G-Class SUV, in continuous production since 1979. To emphasize its endurance, Mercedes encased a vintage G-Class in a giant block of amber. (Think dino-DNA mosquitoes in Jurassic Park.) The block is located outside, along Washington Boulevard, rather than in the Mercedes-Benz booth. But don’t miss that either – you can see a 2019 G-Class splattered with faux mud, and the G-Class driven to victory by Jacky Ickx and Claude Brasseur in the 1983 Paris-Dakar Rally.

car3The Chevrolet Silverado – now lighter thanks to a blend of steel and aluminum body panels.

With gas prices down and the economy up, Americans have reignited their romance with pickup trucks. Chevrolet and Dodge both revealed new full-sized models, while Ford trumpeted the return of its mid-size Ranger. The 2019 Chevy Silverado rolled out under the headline “mixed materials.” In response to the Ford F-150’s aluminum bed (premiered at 2014’s NAIAS) and fuel efficiency targets, the bowtie brand is now building Silverado bodies with a mix of steel and aluminum components, shedding some 450 pounds from the truck’s overall weight. Chevy, celebrating a century in the truck business this year, is quick to point out that Silverado’s bed remains an all-steel affair. (Silverado TV commercials have been cutting on the F-150’s aluminum bed for some time now.)

car4Eyeing the American market, China’s GAC Motor makes a splash with its Enverge concept car.

China is a bigger factor in the American auto industry each year. Buick’s Envision crossover is already made in China, and Ford will shift production of its compact Focus there next year. It’s only a matter of time before a Chinese automaker starts marketing cars in the United States. GAC Motor hopes to be the first, announcing plans to sell vehicles stateside in 2019. (Yes, Chinese-owned Volvo is already selling cars here, but it first came to the U.S. in 1955 in its original Swedish guise.) It could be a tough sell – U.S. automakers and politicians aren’t too pleased with the steep tariffs imposed on American cars sent to China. In the meantime, GAC tempts NAIAS visitors with its Enverge concept SUV. The all-electric Enverge is said to have a range of 370 miles on a single charge – and can be recharged for a range of 240 miles in a mere 10 minutes.

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Detective Frank Bullitt’s 1968 Ford Mustang, among Hollywood’s most iconic cars.

Ironically, one of the most talked-about cars at NAIAS is 50 years old. Ford Motor Company tracked down one of two Highland Green Mustangs driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 thriller Bullitt. As any gearhead knows, the movie’s epic 11-minute chase scene, in which McQueen and his Mustang go toe-to-toe with a couple of baddies in a black 1968 Dodge Charger, is considered one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest car chases – even half a century later. Its lasting appeal is a credit to McQueen’s skill (both as an actor and a driver – he did some of the chase driving himself), the “you are there” feel of the in-car camerawork, and – obviously – the total absence of CGI. Those are real cars trading real paint.

The current owner’s parents bought the Mustang through a 1974 classified ad in Road & Track magazine. For years they used one of pop culture’s most important automobiles as their daily driver! With the movie’s 50th anniversary this year, the owner decided it was time to bring the car back into the spotlight. Ford agreed and, in addition to the movie car, its booth also features the limited edition 2019 Bullitt Mustang, a tribute car that hits dealer lots this summer.

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Digital license plates may one day eliminate sticker tabs – or be remotely updated to alert police of a stolen vehicle.

The youngest, hungriest companies at NAIAS are on Cobo Center’s lower level. More than 50 start-ups, along with colleges and government agencies, are in Detroit for the second annual AutoMobili-D, the showcase for fresh ideas and innovative technologies. Reviver Auto hopes to revolutionize an accessory that hasn’t changed in more than a century: the license plate. The California company proposes swapping the tried and true stamped metal plate for a digital screen. The new device is more visible in low light and poor weather, and resistant to the corrosion that plagues metal plates. In lieu of adhesive registration tabs, your digital plate could be renewed remotely each year by the DMV. Plates could also broadcast Amber Alerts to other drivers, or be updated by authorities if you report your car as stolen. Some will argue that current license plates are fine – as functional and intuitive as need be. But based on the number of randomly-placed renewal tabs I see out there, I’m not so sure there isn’t room for improvement.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Detroit, technology, NAIAS, movies, cars, car shows, by Matt Anderson