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Three people on an elevated balcony or catwalk hold wooden crosspieces supporting puppets below
Operating the Marionettes in Writer’s Cramp: A Review in Little Marionette Show at the A.B. Dick Company Exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, 1939 / THF623950


The A.B. Dick Company, a major copy machine and office supply manufacturer, wanted to draw a crowd to its 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibition. The company decided that a musical marionette show, Writer’s Cramp: A Review in Little, was just the ticket. A.B. Dick selected Tatterman Marionettes, a high-quality touring company managed by Edward H. Mabley (1906–1986) and William Duncan (1902–1978). Mabley wrote the musical comedy and Duncan produced the show, staged at the entrance to the A.B. Dick display in the Business Systems and Insurance Building.

Room with display of office equipment and two women standing by it to the left, and puppet show in back
A.B. Dick Company Mimeograph Exhibit and Writer’s Cramp Marionette Show at the New York World’s Fair, 1939 / THF623944

Writer’s Cramp featured changes in communication technology from “the days of the cave man” to the efficient modern office mimeograph machine. Marionettes represented Miss Jones, the secretary, and Mr. Whalen, the executive, trying to rush distribution of important correspondence. Father Time helped inform Mr. Whalen of his good fortune at present (1939) by escorting him through millennia of changes, starting with Stone Age stenographers, and including tombstone cutting, monks with their quill pens, and typists with their typewriters. The play culminated with the unveiling of A.B. Dick Company’s Model 100 Mimeograph, “the World’s Fairest writing machine!”

Sign with decorative edges, text, and smiling and frowning theater faces above office-themed puppet show
Writer’s Cramp: A Review in Little Marionette Show at the A.B. Dick Company Exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, 1939 / THF623948

Mabley and Duncan organized Tatterman Marionettes in Detroit, Michigan, in 1922, and had relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, by 1930. They established a reputation through high-quality performances to a range of audiences.

Sheet with text, photograph of people working marionettes on a stage, and a photo of a single marionette
Panel 4 of promotional material, “A Modern Adult Program and a New Children’s Program for the Tatterman Marionettes,” 1931-1932 / THF623902

Edsel B. Ford contracted with the company to perform for children in his home during March 1931. At that time, the always entrepreneurial Mabley recommended his and Duncan’s product, Master Marionettes, as “unusual gift favors” for the children attending that show.

Page with text and images of marionettes
Master Marionettes: Professional Puppets for Amateur Puppeteers, 1930-1940 / THF623904

Tatterman Marionettes’ reputation grew through work with the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago in 1934, where the company presented 1,300 plays. More World’s Fair performances followed. A.B. Dick Company and General Electric both contracted with Tatterman to produce marionette performances during the 1939 World’s Fair. General Electric’s Mrs. Cinderella promoted electrification as part of the modernization of Cinderella’s drafty old castle. (Libby, McNeill & Libby also featured marionette performances, and other corporations staged puppet shows.)

The A.B. Dick Company spared no expense to ensure a first-class production. Tatterman provided the marionettes and experienced operators, while industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960) prepared blueprints for a detailed stage set. Teague’s exhibit work for A.B. Dick and several corporations during the 1939 World’s Fair helped solidify his reputation as “Dean of Industrial Design.” The company invested in a conductor’s score by Tom Bennett (1906–1970), who would go on to join NBC Radio as staff arranger and musical director after the World’s Fair.

With the script finalized (February 27, 1939), experienced operators put the marionettes to work. After the World’s Fair opened on April 30, 1939, they delivered programs on a set schedule published in official daily programs. On Sunday, October 22, 1939, for example, Tatterman Marionettes performed 15 shows—at 10:20, 11:00, and 11:40 in the morning; at 12:20, 1:00, 1:40, 2:20, 3:00, 3:40 in the afternoon; and at 5:40, 6:20, 7:00, 7:20, 8:00, and 8:20 in the evening.

Sheet music with lyrics; text and images at top and text at bottom
“Brighten Up Your Days,” Song for the Writer’s Cramp Marionette Show, New York World’s Fair, 1939 / THF623906

At the end of each Writer’s Cramp performance, A.B. Dick mass-produced the feature tune using a mimeograph machine and photochemical stencil. Attendants distributed this sheet music, calling attention to the modern conveniences: “Just a moment, PLEASE! The young lady right behind you is running off some of the words and music from our show—they’re for you to take home with our compliments. Don’t go away without your copy!”

The Tatterman marionettes from Writer’s Cramp featured prominently in World’s Fair promotional material intended to draw the attention of office outfitters to the Business Systems and Insurance Building. Their little stage set conveyed big lessons to the hundreds of thousands of professionals who flowed through the A.B. Dick exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Thanks to Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, for editorial guidance.

communication, world's fairs, popular culture, music, design, by Debra A. Reid, advertising

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

Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.

Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.

Group of people in colorful robes with black stripes, standing on bleachers in front of a stained glass window
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.

Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.

D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.

Two white robes with blue bands around the wrists, one with a yellow center panel with black stripes; the other with an orange center panel with black stripes
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580

With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.

Two white robes with blue bands around the wrists, one with a red center panel with black stripes; the other with an purple center panel with black stripes
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574THF75569

The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.

By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.

After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.

Black-and-white photo with TV camera in foreground, pointing at group of people in robes being conducted by another person in a robe
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.

Michigan, women's history, music, Herman Miller, fashion, Eames, design, by Katherine White

Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.

The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).

While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”

White corset with hook-and-eyes and belts with clips hanging down, next to box with image of red rose and text "American Beauty"
Kalamazoo Corset Company "American Beauty Style 626" Corsets, 1891-1922 / THF185765

Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).

Page with image of woman surrounded by decorative frame with roses; also contains text
My American Beauty Rose: Ballad, 1910 / THF621565

Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.

The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.

Cover with large crowd of women, each carrying a book, with a table filled with books in the foreground; smaller inset image with more women and text "Knowledge Is Power"; also contains more text
The Story of the I.L.G.W.U., 1935 / THF121022

The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.

The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.

The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.


Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

labor relations, women's history, music, Michigan, manufacturing, fashion, by Katherine White

The Henry Ford’s archives contain a great deal of material about radio and television shows produced or sponsored by Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. Here is just a small sampling of the types of items and shows covered.

Henry Ford began broadcasting over his WWI radio station in 1922. Early broadcasts featured musical acts from company bands, such as the Ford Motor Company Band and the Ford Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. Later broadcasts expanded the talent pool to acts across the United States, including singers, bands, soloists, and even the California Bird Man.

Men sit at desks with typewriters and equipment
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, February 1924. / THF134739

The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a popular radio show produced by Ford. This show was broadcast from 1934–1942 (and then again from 1945–1946). The show was performed live in Detroit, first at Orchestra Hall and then at the Masonic Temple, and broadcast over the CBS radio network. Musical pieces were played by 75 members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the name the Ford Symphony Orchestra, with each show featuring guest star soloists and singers.

Page with text
Ford Sunday Evening Hour program, October 7, 1934. / THF137776

Display with image of orchestra on stage above a car dashboard, including radio; also contains text
Ford Sunday Evening Hour Dealer Display, 1938. The program was broadcast across the U.S. and was advertised by Ford dealers all over the country. / THF269154

In the summer, the Ford Summer Hour offered lighter, more popular tunes. This program used a smaller 32-piece orchestra and sometimes featured Ford employee bands such as the River Rouge Ramblers and the Champion Pipe Band.

Poster with images of three people's heads and text of varying sizes/colors, against a backdrop of a silhouetted orchestra with conductor; also contains musical notes
The Ford Summer Hour poster, 1939. / THF111542

Yellow sheet with text
Ford Summer Hour program, August 24, 1941. / THF134690

Ford Motor Company sponsored their share of television programs in the 1940s and 1950s as well. The Lincoln-Mercury division sponsored Toast of the Town, later The Ed Sullivan Show. The archives holds this scrapbook of reviews of the first season of the show (or shew) in 1948.

Teal-colored cover with curved text "Toast of the Town"
Teal colored page with TV Guide cover and page pasted onto it
Toast of the Town scrapbook, 1948-1949. / THF622224, THF622504

The 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company in 1953 was a big celebration. Paintings were commissioned by Norman Rockwell to depict the company history, calendars were assembled, banquets and celebrations were planned worldwide, and the company put together a TV special to celebrate its 50-year history.

Page containing text, some of it arranged in a spiral, with small image of three faces
Advertisement, "Ford 50th Anniversary Show," June 15, 1953 / THF622247

The TV program featured many well-known performers, many of whom signed Benson Ford’s personal copy of the script.

Page with a small amount of typewritten text and many signatures
Page with typewritten text
Script for the Ford Motor Company 50th Anniversary TV Show, Broadcast June 15, 1953
/ THF622239, THF622240

These are only a few of the radio and TV shows produced or sponsored by Ford over the years. The archive at the Benson Ford Research Center has additional material, including scripts, ratings, and public relations analysis reports, for several of these shows. Some of these items may be viewed in our Digital Collections, while others have yet to be digitized. While the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center remains closed at present for research, if you have any questions, please feel free to email us at research.center@thehenryford.org.


Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford. This post is based on a February 2021 presentation of History Outside the Box as a story on The Henry Ford’s Instagram channel.

Dearborn, Michigan, Detroit, archives, TV, music, radio, Ford Motor Company, by Kathy Makas, History Outside the Box

thf88363
The Jazz Bowl, originally called The New Yorker, about 1930.
THF88363

Cowan Pottery of Rocky River, Ohio, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in early 1930 when a commission arrived from a New York gallery for a New York City-themed punch bowl. The client -- who preferred to remain unknown -- wanted the design to capture the essence of the vibrant city.

The assignment went to 24-year-old ceramic artist Viktor Schreckengost. His design would become an icon of America’s “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Artist and His Design
The cosmopolitan Viktor Schreckengost was a perfect choice for this special commission. Schreckengost (1906-2008), born in Sebring, Ohio, had studied ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1920s. He then spent a year in Vienna, where he was introduced to cutting-edge ideas in European art and design. When Schreckengost returned to Ohio, he took a part-time teaching position at his alma mater and spent the balance of his time as a designer at Cowan Pottery.

A jazz musician as well as an artist, Schreckengost had firsthand knowledge of New York, where he frequented jazz clubs during visits. To Schreckengost, jazz music represented the spirit of New York. He wanted to capture its excitement and energy in visual form on his bowl. Schreckengost later recalled: “I thought back to a magical night when a friend and I went to see [Cab] Calloway at the Cotton Club [in Harlem] ... the city, the jazz, the Cotton Club, everything ... I knew I had to get it all on the bowl.”

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During its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, the Cotton Club was the place to listen to jazz in New York. THF125266

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A “Jazz”-inscribed drumhead surrounded by musical instruments symbolize the Cotton Club. Organ pipes represent the grand theater organs that graced New York City’s movie palaces during the 1920s and 1930s. Schreckengost recalled that he was especially fond of Radio City Music Hall’s Wurlitzer organ. THF88363

thf125259
A show in progress at Radio City Music Hall auditorium, 1936. THF125259

The images on the Jazz Bowl, then, may be read as a night on the town in New York City, starting out in bustling Times Square; then on to Radio City Music Hall to enjoy a show; next, a stroll uptown past a group of soaring skyscrapers to take in a sweeping view of the Hudson River; afterward, a stop at a cocktail party; and finally--topping off the evening with a visit to the famous Cotton Club.

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Times Square, circa 1930. THF125262i

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The blinking traffic signals, and "Follies" and "Dance" signs on the Jazz Bowl portray the vitality of Times Square at night. THF88358

Schreckengost decorated the punch bowl with a deep turquoise blue background he described as “Egyptian,” since it recalled the shade found on ancient Egyptian pottery. According to Schreckengost, the penetrating blue immerses the viewer in the glow of the night air--and the sensation of mystery and magic of a night on the town.

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This is the view of the New York skyline and the Hudson River that Schreckengost saw on his trips to the city and later interpreted in the Jazz Bowl. THF125264g

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Skyscrapers, a luxury ocean liner, cocktails on a tray, and liquor bottles represent a night on the town. THF88364

The Famous Client
In early 1931, the finished bowl was delivered to New York. The pleased patron who had commissioned it immediately ordered two additional punch bowls. To Schreckengost’s delight, the patron turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York State. Mrs. Roosevelt had commissioned the bowl to celebrate her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930 reelection as governor. She presumably placed one bowl in the Governor’s Residence in Albany, one in the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, and one in their Manhattan apartment. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as President, one of the bowls made its way there as well.

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Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned the Jazz Bowl to celebrate her husband’s 1930 reelection as governor of New York.
THF208655

Mass Producing the Jazz Bowl?
Immediately after the Jazz Bowl was delivered to Eleanor Roosevelt, the New York City gallery placed an order for fifty identical bowls. Unfortunately, Schreckengost’s process was laborious--it took Cowan Pottery’s artisans an entire day to produce the incised decoration on Mrs. Roosevelt’s version. Cowan Pottery sought to mass produce the punch bowl, simplifying the original design to create a second and third version the company originally marketed as “The New Yorker.”

The Henry Ford’s bowl is the third version, known informally as “The Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl.” It is slightly smaller than the original and the decoration is raised, rather than scratched into the surface. No one knows exactly, but perhaps fifty of the original version, only a few of the unsuccessful second version, and possibly twenty of the third version of the Jazz Bowl were made in total. The whereabouts of many of the Jazz Bowls are not known, though they appear periodically on the art market and are acquired by eager collectors. Even the present location of the bowls made for Eleanor Roosevelt seems to be a mystery.

Jazz Bowl as Icon
The “Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl” didn’t save the Cowan Pottery from the ravages of the Great Depression -- by the end of 1931, the company folded. Viktor Schreckengost moved on, continuing to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art and pursuing freelance design for several firms. His Jazz Bowl would come to be recognized as a visual icon of the Jazz Age in America.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.

manufacturing, presidents, music, Henry Ford Museum, by Charles Sable, decorative arts, making, art, furnishings

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An image from the set of
The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.

For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.

Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.

The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean, hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.

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The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.

In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.

Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.

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An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708

Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.

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The JVC RC-550 ”El Diablo” boombox. THF179795

JVC RC-550 “El Diablo”

This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.

The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.

An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.

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JVC 838 Biophonic Boombox. THF177384

JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox
The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.

As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.

A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.

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Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382

Sharp “Searcher” GF-777
The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.

The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews. 

Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.

Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

portability, technology, communication, music, radio, by Kristen Gallerneaux, popular culture

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“Batman Cartoon Kit” Colorforms, 1966-68. THF 6651

It was the 1960s—the golden age of television. Some 95% of American homes boasted at least one TV. These were primarily black and white sets, as color TV was still out of the reach of many families. It’s hard to imagine now but there were only three channels at the time. Every year, the three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) vied for viewer ratings, shifting and changing shows and showtimes at two pivotal times during the television season—Fall and Winter.

As the Fall 1966 season unfolded, it became evident to TV viewers that something extraordinary was happening. Sure, there were the usual long-running sitcoms, like Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies. But change was in the wind. A new crop of programs emerged—colorful, fast-paced, poking fun at things that were supposed to be serious and exploring contemporary social issues.

Why the difference all of a sudden? Many of these shows were aimed at the youth audience, considered by this time an influential group of TV watchers. Others purposefully took advantage of the new color televisions. Sometimes show producers and creators were simply tired of the old formulas and wanted to break out of the box.

Let’s take a look at a few highlights from the 1966-67 TV season—starting with the staid and true and working up to the wild and wacky—and see what all the hubbub was about!

Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Sunday, 7:30-8:30 p.m., NBC)

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Snow Globe, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” 1969-79. THF174650

On Sunday nights since 1954, millions of Americans had tuned in to watch Walt Disney host his TV show, with a changing array of animated and live-action features, nature specials, movie reruns, travelogues, programs about science and outer space, and—best of all—updates on Walt Disney’s theme park, Disneyland. Since 1961, this show had been broadcast in color.

The 1966-67 season was particularly memorable because Walt Disney tragically passed away on December 15, 1966. But since the episodes had been pre-recorded, there was Walt still hosting them until April 1967. Viewers found this both comforting and disconcerting. Finally, after April, Walt was dropped as the host and, eventually, the show was retitled The Wonderful World of Disney. It ran with solid ratings until the mid-1970s.

Bonanza (Sunday, 9:00-10:00 p.m., NBC)

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“Ponderosa Ranch” Mug, ca. 1970. THF174648

Viewership was high on NBC on Sunday nights at 9:00, as Bonanza was one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Running for 14 seasons and 430 episodes, this series about the trials and tribulations of widower Ben Cartwright and his three sons on the Ponderosa Ranch was an immediate breakout hit when it premiered in 1959, amidst a plethora of more run-of-the-mill prime-time westerns. Its popularity was primarily due to its quirky characters and unconventional stories—including early attempts to confront social issues. It was the first major western to be filmed in color and was the top-rated show on TV from 1964 to 1968. Bonanza ran until 1973.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Friday, 8:30-9:30, NBC)

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“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lunchbox and thermos, 1966.  THF92303

Premiering in September 1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. took full advantage of the popularity of the spy genre launched by the James Bond film series. In fact, early concepts for it were conceptualized by Bond creator Ian Fleming. In this series, Napoleon Solo (originally conceived as the lone star) and Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin (added in response to popular demand) teamed up as part of a secret international counterespionage and law enforcement agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Solo and Kuryakin banded together with a global organization of other agents to fight THRUSH, an international organization that aimed to conquer the world.

During this, the Cold War era, it was groundbreaking for a show to portray a United States-Soviet Union pair of secret agents, as these two countries were ideologically at odds most of the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was also known for its high-profile guest stars and—taking a cue from the Bond films—its clever gadgets. In 1966, this series won the Golden Globe for Best Television Program and, building upon its popularity, spun off into two related double-feature movies that year. Unfortunately, attempting to compete with lighter, campier programs of the era, the producers made a conscious effort to increase the level of humor—leading to a severe ratings drop. Although the serious plot lines were soon reinstated, the ratings never recovered. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was canceled in January 1968.

I Spy (Wednesday 10:00-11:00, NBC)

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TV Guide featuring “I Spy” characters Robert Culp and Bill Cosby on cover, March 25-31, 1967. THF275655

One series that never opted for campy was I Spy, which starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp playing two U.S. intelligence agents traveling undercover as international “tennis bums.” This series, which premiered in 1965, was also inspired by the James Bond film series and remained a fixture in the secret agent/espionage genre until cancelled in April 1968. I Spy, additionally a leader in the buddy genre, broke new ground as the first American TV drama series to feature a black actor in a lead role. It was also unusual in its use of exotic locations—much like the James Bond films—when shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were completely filmed on a studio backlot.

I Spy offered hip banter between the two stars and some humor, but it focused primarily on the grittier side of the espionage business, sometimes even ending on a somber note. The success of this series was attributed to the strong chemistry between Culp and Cosby. Cosby’s presence was never called out in the way that black stars and co-stars were made a big deal of on later TV programs like Julia (1968) and Room 222 (1969).

Get Smart (Saturday, 8:30-9:00 NBC)

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“Get Smart” Lunchbox, 1966. THF92304

Premiering in September 1965, Get Smart was a comedy that satirized virtually everything considered serious and sacred in the James Bond films and such TV shows as I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Created by comic writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as a response to the grim seriousness of the Cold War spy genre, it starred bumbling Secret Agent 86—otherwise known as Maxwell “Max” Smart, along with supporting characters, female Agent 99 and the Chief. These characters worked for CONTROL, a secret U.S. government counterintelligence agency, against KAOS, “an international organization of evil.” Brooks and Henry also poked fun at this genre’s use of high-tech spy gadgets (Max’s shoe phone perhaps being the most memorable), world takeover plots, and enemy agents. Somehow, despite serious mess-ups in every episode, Maxwell Smart always emerged victorious in the end.

Get Smart was considered groundbreaking for broadening the parameters of TV sitcoms but was especially known for catchphrases like “Would you believe…” and “Sorry about that, Chief.” Despite a declining interest in the secret-agent genre, Get Smart’s talented writers attempted to keep it fresh until it was finally cancelled in May 1970.

Batman (Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30-8:00, ABC)

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Toy Batmobile, 1966-69. THF174647

Bursting onto the scene in January 1966, Batman became an instant hit and took the country by storm. Batmania was in full swing by the Fall 1966-67 TV season. The series, based upon the DC comic book of the same name, featured the Caped Crusader (millionaire Bruce Wayne in his alter-ego of Batman) and the Boy Wonder (his young ward Dick Grayson in his alter-ego of Robin). These two crime-fighting heroes defended Gotham City from a variety of evil villains. It aired twice weekly, with most stories leaving viewers hanging in suspense the first night until they tuned in the second night.

This show successfully captured the youth audience, with its campy style, upbeat theme music, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Despite the fact that it verged on being a sitcom, the producers wisely left out the laugh track, reinforcing the seriousness with which the characters seemed to take the often absurd and wildly improbable situations in which they found themselves. The filming simulated a surreal comic-book quality, with characters and situations shot at high and low angles, with bright splashy colors and with sound effects, like Pow, Bam, and Zonk, appearing as words splashed across the action sequences on screen. The series was also replete with numerous gadgets and over-the-top props, with the Batmobile undoubtedly most memorable. Batman ran until March 1968, experiencing a significant ratings drop after its initial novelty faded.

Lost in Space (Wednesday 7:30-8:30, CBS)

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“Lost in Space” Lunchbox and Thermos, 1967. THF92298

Loosely based upon the story of the Swiss Family Robinson, this TV series depicted the adventures of the Robinson family, a pioneering family of space colonists who struggled to survive in the depths of space in the futuristic year of 1997—as the United States was gearing up to colonize space due to overpopulation. But the family’s mission was sabotaged, forcing the crew members to crash-land on a strange planet and leaving them lost in space.

The show had premiered in September 1965 as a serious science fiction series about space exploration and a family searching to find a new place for humans to dwell. But, in January 1966, pitted against Batman’s time slot, Lost in Space producers attempted to imitate Batman’s campiness with ever-more-outrageous villains, brightly colored outfits, and over-the-top action. The plots increasingly featured Robby the Robot and the evil Dr. Zachary Smith. Viewers and actors alike strongly disapproved of this shift. The show lingered on until March 1968.

The Monkees (Monday, 7:30-8:00, NBC)

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“Monkees” Lunchbox and Thermos, 1967. THF92313

Where other shows might have been lighthearted, campy, or tongue-in-cheek, The Monkees at times verged on pure anarchy. This series, which premiered on September 12, 1966, led off NBC’s prime-time programming every Monday night. It lasted only two seasons but during that time, its star shone brightly. The Monkees followed the experiences of four young men trying to make a name for themselves as a rock ‘n’ roll band, often finding themselves in strange, even bizarre, circumstances while searching for their big break. Aimed directly at the youth audience, the band members were characterized as heroes down on their luck while the adults were consistently depicted as the “heavies.”

The Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! inspired producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to create not only a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band but also to adapt a loose narrative structure (each member of the Monkees was trained in improvisational acting techniques at the outset of the show) and the musical sequences or “romps” that appeared each week. The series built a reputation for its innovative use of avant-garde filming techniques like quick jump cuts and breaking the fourth wall (that is, having the characters directly address the TV viewers). A well-oiled marketing machine behind the show also ensured that strong tie-ins were maintained with teen magazines, merchandise, and live concerts.

The Monkees won the Emmy for best comedy series during its first, the 1966-67, season. However, backlash was inevitable among critics and older teenagers when the Monkees admitted that they did not play their own instruments—although they clearly played them in their live concerts and, in fact, eventually had a falling-out with network executives about this very issue. Though the show was cancelled in 1968, it experienced a huge revival among younger audiences through Saturday morning reruns and especially with the 1986 MTV Monkees Marathon. Remaining band members Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith still attract large audiences of intergenerational fans at their live concerts, while reruns of their TV shows continue to draw new audiences.

Star Trek (Thursday, 8:30-9:30 NBC)

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“Star Trek” lunchbox, 1968. THF92299

When Star Trek premiered on September 8, 1966, science fiction shows were not very advanced—or even thought of very highly. Star Trek’s closest competitor, Lost in Space, offered only shallow plots, one-dimensional characters, and fake sets. No one could imagine at the time that this rather low-key show would become one of the biggest, longest-running, and highest-grossing media franchises of all time. This series traced the interstellar adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and his crew aboard the United Federation of Planets’ starship Enterprise, on a five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Creator Gene Roddenberry, aiming the show at the youth audience, wanted to combine suspenseful adventure stories with morality tales reflecting contemporary life and social issues. So, to get by network scrutiny, he set the premise of the show in an imaginary future. With the freedom to experiment, he put in place one of TV’s first multiracial and multicultural casts and was able to explore through different episodes some of the most relevant political and social allegories on TV at the time. The stories were also considered exceptionally high quality for that era, involving believable characters with which viewers could both identify and sympathize. Unlike the gloomy predictions of most science fiction writings of the time, Roddenberry hoped that the futuristic utopia he created on Star Trek would give young people hope, that it would empower them to create a better future for themselves someday. Star Trek, with only modest ratings, lasted only three seasons. But it would go on to become a cult classic.  

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (Sunday, 9:00-10:00 p.m. beginning February 1967, CBS)

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TV Guide featuring The Smothers Brothers on cover, June 10-16, 1967. THF275657

In Fall 1966, The Garry Moore Show, a variety show on CBS hosted by the aging radio and TV star, was no match when pitted against Bonanza—even with this, its first season in color. Network executives, at their wit’s end to try to attract viewership, decided the only way they could come up with a quick replacement was to substitute another variety show. In desperation, they landed on a simple variety series featuring the soft-spoken, clean-cut, non-threatening folk-music-playing Smothers Brothers. Considered a “young act,” an added bonus was that their show might capture the coveted youth audience. Little did they know what they were in for.

As the show evolved, the brothers not only became more politicized themselves but felt that they owed it to their young viewers to increase the show’s relevance, boldly addressing overtly divisive political and social issues. Their staff of young writers was only too happy to comply. Unfortunately, as a result, the brothers were continually at odds with the network censors until the show was finally cancelled after three seasons. In its continual conflicts with network executives, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour turned the variety show genre on its ear and paved the way for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968) and, in pushing TV’s all-out rebellion against the status quo, led an explosive charge that resulted in 1970s shows like All in the Family (1971).

These are but a few highlights from the 1966-67 TV season. Some say that this was the greatest television season ever, a clear indication that TV had finally come of age. Because of shows like these, television would certainly never be the same again. And, come to think of it, neither would we!

Donna Braden, Curator of Public Life, was 13 years old during that memorable TV season and proudly wears her fan club button to every Monkees concert she still attends.

Disney, music, Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds, space, popular culture, TV, by Donna R. Braden

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Motown Record Album, “The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks, June 23, 1963.” THF31935 

Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, held on June 23, 1963, helped move the southern Civil Rights struggle to a new focus on the urban North. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called this march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.” 

Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights, this was the largest Civil Rights demonstration to date. Its main purpose was to speak out against Southern segregation and the brutality that faced Civil Rights activists there. It was also meant to raise consciousness about the unique concerns of African Americans in the urban North, which included discriminatory hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date was chosen to correlate with both the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riots that had left 34 people (mostly African American) dead. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who agreed to lead the march, had by this time become committed to uniting both North and South through his grand vision of achieving racial justice by using non-violent protest.

On the day of the march, about 125,000 people filed down Woodward Avenue, singing freedom songs and carrying signs demanding racial equality. Some 15,000 spectators watched them pass by a 21-block area before turning west down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall. Cobo was filled to capacity to hear the speeches of the march’s leaders while thousands more listened to them on loudspeakers outside. Of the speeches given that day, Dr. King’s was the most memorable. People were riveted while he expressed his vision for the future, sharing a dream that foreshadowed the “I Have a Dream” speech that he would give a few months later at the March on Washington.

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Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Record Corporation, considered Detroit’s Walk to Freedom to be such a historic event that he offered the resources of his Hitsville studio to produce a record album documenting Dr. King’s impassioned words. Gordy heightened the drama of the event by titling the album, “The Great March to Freedom: Reverend Martin Luther King Speaks.” He believed that this record belonged in every home, that it should be required listening for “every child, white or black.” No one realized at the time, including Gordy, that the August March on Washington would become the more remembered event.    

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of social justice, voiced at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, would prove elusive.  Despite the fact that Detroit had gained a national reputation for being a “model city” of race relations at the time, in reality the city’s African-American population faced unemployment, housing discrimination, de facto segregation in public schools, and police brutality. Ultimately this disconnect between perception and reality would lead to the violence and civil unrest of July 1967. 

For more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, take a look at this post.

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

entrepreneurship, music, Michigan, by Donna R. Braden, Detroit, Civil Rights, African American history