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.
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.
Ford Sunday Evening Hour program, October 7, 1934. / THF137776
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
When production of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation began in 2013, we knew the show would provide a tremendous opportunity to share our stories with new audiences. We also knew it would require tremendous resources. But we couldn’t have predicted the show’s longevity or success, with six seasons and three Emmy awards to date – or the important role our digital collections would play in the project. From planning to post-production and beyond, the images and information we’ve made available through digitization have become TV stars in their own right.
Digital Collections pages are a handy resource for the Innovation Nation producers. They provide information about artifacts – like this tomato harvester, which will be featured in season 8 – and help the stories take shape.
Our Digital Collections factor into the earliest stages of story development for Innovation Nation. Even before the show’s producers begin to discuss potential angles for a particular topic with the experts at The Henry Ford, they’ve often explored related Digital Collections pages. This provides background information, helping to guide the story and ground it in solid historical research. It also shapes the producers’ vision for the story, helping to determine where it will be filmed and what we might need to bring out for the cameras.
After a story is filmed, our work is just beginning. We add any featured artifacts that aren’t already online to our queue for digitization. Including them as part of our Digital Collections makes them accessible to wider audiences and gives us the option to include them in future digital content. In addition to the “on camera” collections, supporting graphic and video assets from our holdings often appear in the final cut. We research our collections, digitizing new material as needed, and provide high-resolution image and video files to the story’s producer and editor. Sometimes, the producer will even write a script that highlights these supporting assets. An artifact doesn’t have to be two-dimensional or in video format to be considered – photographs of our three-dimensional collections may be featured, as well.
Though informative, the short-form stories that air on Innovation Nation can only say so much. Our Digital Collections and content offer viewers a chance to dig even deeper. Each episode has a dedicated webpage on thf.org that provides links to resources – such as blog posts, expert sets, or groups of related digital collections – that provide context for a particular topic and further highlight our holdings and expertise. Often, the “Dig Deeper” section of an episode webpage contains brand-new content, created specially to support that Innovation Nation story. So, whether you’re a long-time viewer or just learning about the show, it’s worth visiting thf.org to explore more. To get started, consider checking out content related to some of our most recent episodes here, or browse featured artifacts from all the seasons of Innovation Nation in our Digital Collections.
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.
Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.THF106436
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.
During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe. THF38105
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.
Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity. THF97451
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.
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.
Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.THF308672
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!
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.
DC’s superhero stories, like this 1961 issue of The Flash, invariably ended happily—with problems resolved and loose ends neatly tied up. THF305327
Marvel superheroes often questioned both their superpowers and their general existence, as suggested on this dramatic cover of issue#50 of The Amazing Spider-Man.*
The Flash, the Hulk, the Thing; Batman, Ironman, Spider-Man; the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy. On and on it goes. The list of comic book superheroes can seem almost endless. How do you tell them apart? To get you started, it helps to know their origin—their company of origin, that is. With a few exceptions, all comic book superheroes trace their origins back to the talented writers and artists who created them at only two companies—DC and Marvel. From their beginnings, these companies differed radically in their approach to superheroes, and these differences can still be discerned today.
Comic book superheroes originated back in the 1930s with Superman. This superpowered alien was the brainchild of two shy but talented teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Pooling their drawing and writing talents, they devised the story of a he-man they simply called “The Superman,” who crash-landed on earth from another planet. To keep his true identity safe, Superman needed to adopt a secret identity. Enter Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered reporter with a personality remarkably similar to the two boys who had created him.
Siegel and Shuster originally thought their character would lend itself to a great newspaper comic strip. But they had no luck selling the idea to newspaper publishers, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their story in 1937 to the just-formed Detective Comics, Inc. (later shortened to DC). Comic books—especially those featuring single characters rather than simply being collections of comic strips—were as yet an untested medium and both the young creators and the publisher took a risk. Superman first appeared in Action comics (published by National Allied Publications, another corporate predecessor to DC) in June 1938. Surprising everyone involved, he was immediately so popular that the publishers decided to feature him in his own comic book the very next year. This marked the first time a comic book was devoted to a single superhero character.
During the hard times of the Great Depression, Superman’s unprecedented popularity can be attributed to both his secret and his super identities. Clark Kent represented the regular, unassuming common man that people could relate to, while they could happily dream and fantasize about being as infallible and invincible as the larger-than-life Superman.
The formula was potent and durable. Superman established the essential vocabulary for all DC comic book superheroes to come. He, like superheroes who came after him, represented courage, humility, steadfastness, and a natural sense of responsibility to serving others in need. He placed lofty principles above personal advantage, seeking nothing for himself. As the Great Depression shifted to the patriotic World War II era, new DC superheroes like The Flash and Wonder Woman similarly placed the greater good above their own personal needs. They never questioned their role in defending American democracy. And, following the DC formula, they always triumphed in the end.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, young readers were more likely to purchase a comic book about the humorous adventures of teenager Archie Andrews than one about a superhero. THF141542
During the 1950s, sales of comic books declined, especially those about superheroes. Not only were adults concerned about the harmful effects of comic books on children, but superheroes seemed to lose their sense of purpose. During the war years, it had been easy to know which side they were on. What were they fighting for now? Who exactly was the enemy? Only Superman’s popularity continued apace, due to the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which aired from 1951 to 1957. It was through this series that the American public came to know Superman as championing “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
The Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers who join together to fight villains in the 30th century, have been popular DC superheroes since 1958. THF305330
By the late 1950s, DC superheroes were making a comeback, with both new and revived characters and a host of new supervillains for them to face. New stories were created to fit the times, usually focusing either on scientific advancements (always seen as a positive force) or science fiction. DC superheroes were competent, in control, and single-minded in their devotion to simply being heroic. They solved any problem they encountered in a well-ordered world—a world that, for each character, had to be internally consistent. Stories were comforting, positive, optimistic, reassuring, rational, and moral. Superheroes used their powers responsibly, inevitably siding with established authority.
This DC series, which started way back in 1941, featured Superman and Batman teaming up to battle villains.THF305328
The popularity of DC superheroes continued through the 1960s, spiking again with the trend-setting Batman TV show (which aired 1966-68), as well as their being featured on Saturday morning cartoons, in Broadway productions, and through related merchandise. By this time, DC had settled on a standard and successful formula for its superhero stories: colorful and dramatic covers that grabbed kids’ attention, then a focus on plot development that would inevitably lead to a happy ending. Little room was left for developing individual characters. The editors at DC felt that this formula appealed to kids and young teenagers—their core market. Why mess with success?
Tales to Astonish #60, from 1964, featured two stories of classic Marvel superheroes: Giant-Man (introduced in 1962 as Ant-Man) with his female partner the Wasp, and The Incredible Hulk, re-introduced after his own series had been cancelled the previous year. *
In the late 1930s, following quickly upon the success of Superman over at DC, Timely Comics (later to become Marvel) introduced The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. The ultra-patriotic Captain America followed them during the World War II era. But Marvel superheroes truly came into their own in the early 1960s.
The Comics Code Authority stamp of approvalTHF141590 (detail)
The public attack on comic books in the 1950s had put a damper on the comic book industry, forcing several companies to go out of business. It was risky even being in the business at the time. But partly because he figured he had nothing to lose at that point, talented Marvel writer (and later visionary editor) Stan Lee tried a new approach to superheroes that would change the course of comic books forever. He decided he could work within the constraints of the industry’s new self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, while at the same time dealing with more serious topics and stories.
This Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics from 1965 marked the first time that early classic Marvel stories were reprinted—in this issue, Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962); The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963); the Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #36 (October 1962); and Journey to Mystery featuring The Mighty Thor #97 (October 1963). *
The new superheroes that Lee created had relatable personalities, human flaws, and real-life problems. Their stories were purposely aimed at a new audience of older teenagers, who were wrestling with their own insecurities and feelings of alienation. These stories also questioned the scientific advancements of the Atomic Age that DC had embraced as positive forces in people’s lives. What if science ran amok? What if things went horribly wrong? What if there were dire consequences? Many Marvel superheroes, in fact, gained their superpowers because of horrific scientific accidents.
Even though the Human Torch and the Thing were both members of the Fantastic Four, in this issue of Strange Tales from 1964, a villain named the Puppet Master manipulated them into fighting each other. *
It started with the Fantastic Four in 1961—Lee’s answer to an assignment to come up with a team like DC’s recently created and very popular Justice League of America. Lee had long thought that typical superheroes were too perfect, that “the best stories of all…are the stories in which the characters seem to be real. You feel you know them, you understand them, you can relate to them.” This “Fantastic” superhero family had four distinctive personalities. Furthermore, they did not act like the polished, restrained, polite superheroes with which comic book readers had long been familiar. They argued, mistrusted each other, had tempers, expressed opinions, led complicated lives. Rather than the public cheering them on in the stories, people feared and were suspicious of them.
The Fantastic Four were a revelation—like no other superheroes that had come before. Older teenagers—for whom DC superheroes had come to seem shallow and one-dimensional—found them original, realistic, exciting. One fan remarked that turning from the Justice League and Superman to the Fantastic Four was like “stepping through a gateway into another dimension.”
The Green Goblin, one of The Amazing Spider-Man’s most hated enemies, planned to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world in issue #39 from August 1966, but in the process, he dramatically revealed his own true identity. *
Marvel quickly followed the popularity of the Fantastic Four with The Incredible Hulk (1962), who not only turned into a brutish monster as the result of a nuclear accident but didn’t even look, act, or sound like a superhero. In 1963, Marvel introduced its most quintessential superhero—The Amazing Spider-Man, an ordinary teenager beset by ordinary teenage problems who, having acquired super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, only reluctantly sets out to fight crime and villains.
Dr. Strange, introduced in Strange Tales in 1963, gained his own title in 1968 and made regular appearances across the Marvel universe. *
A quick succession of superheroes followed, each character with his or her own manner of speech, personality, values, and quirks. By the late 1960s, Marvel had woven together an integrated mythology of all its superheroes, in which stories continued, superheroes made guest appearances in others’ stories, and characters could be heroes one day and become villains the next (and vice versa).
Marvel’s The Silver Surfer was introduced as a tortured soul, permanently exiled to Earth on a surfboard-like craft as punishment for betraying the evil Galactus on his home planet. *
The Marvel formula, as laid out with Fantastic Four in 1961, became the standard. Stories and characters often focused on alienated and even neurotic individuals with character flaws, inner struggles, and personal grudges. Endings weren’t always happy or satisfying. Superheroes didn’t always get along or leverage their powers to help others. In Marvel superheroes, readers recognized their own failings, struggles, and anxieties. As opposed to DC’s black-and-white world, the Marvel world was gray—more like the real world.
This DC comic book series, about a group of misfit and alienated superheroes, was conceived in the Marvel mode but was never as popular as Marvel’s stories of similar outcast groups of superheroes like The X-Men.THF141602
Since the 1960s, most superhero stories in comic books have become darker, more complex, and more serious—often tackling social issues with a gritty realism. This trend has brought DC and Marvel stories, characters, and mythologies closer together in content and tone, though the differences between them are still definable because these are so deeply embedded in their DNA.
The King Kon Comic & Fantasy Convention, which ran from 1984 to 1986, was the first regular comic book convention in the Detroit area after the demise of the multi-genre Detroit Triple Fan Fair (that had run from 1965 to 1977). King Kon was a predecessor to the current annual extravaganza, Motor City Comic Con, which began in 1989. *
Superheroes can now be found pretty much everywhere, from Comic Cons to an expanding array of movies, TV shows, mobile games, action figures, and other merchandise. Their worlds are constantly growing, expanding, and changing. It’s easy to get confused. But don’t worry. If you’re trying to make sense of it all, start with the superheroes’ origins. Are they DC or Marvel? Knowing that will set you off on the right track.
Big and Little Bird reinforce the concept of contrasting sizes in this 1973 Playskool puzzle. THF97463
No television show has influenced how we think about children’s learning and thought processes as much as Sesame Street. For 50 years, this innovative TV show has continually broken barriers in its portrayal of diverse human interactions and relationships, its clever integration of Jim Henson’s wildly creative Muppets, and its rapid-fire approach to teaching basic educational concepts.
The idea for Sesame Street began back in 1966 at a dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV publicist turned documentary producer, and her husband Tim. In attendance was Lloyd Morrisett, who was both Vice President of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation and an experimental psychologist interested in children’s education. At the dinner, Morrisett described his three-year-old daughter’s fascination with television—which included not only tuning in to Saturday morning cartoons, but also watching the pre-programming test patterns on the screen and reciting every commercial jingle by heart. Talk turned to the potential of television as a medium for educating young children. Could the seemingly addictive quality of TV be harnessed to both entertain and instruct?
This monster with the insatiable appetite—especially for cookies—has, under adult pressure, increasingly shown an awareness for healthy eating habits. THF97460
Cooney quickly developed a proposal entitled, “The Potential Use of Television in Preschool Education.” Her goal was groundbreaking at the time—to test the premise that TV could help level the playing field in education, preparing less advantaged three- to five-year-olds for school by teaching basic academic skills, self-esteem, and positive socialization. In March 1968, Cooney and Morrisett announced the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and set out to create an educational TV show that would both appeal to young children and help them get a jump on learning. With an eight-million-dollar startup grant from private foundations and government agencies (including the rather skeptical Department of Education), Cooney was able to test ideas for the type of show she had in mind.
The colorful, fast-paced Batman TV show, which premiered in January 1966, provided one of many inspirations for Joan Ganz Cooney in creating Sesame Street.THF6651
Cooney’s reference points included the rapid-fire pacing of the hip new adult-oriented TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The campy breakout TV show Batman also provided a model, with its fast-paced action as well as its bright, bold colors and even its use of cartoon balloons. Cooney drew additional inspiration from short TV commercials, with their simple melodies in bright major keys. She did not get inspiration from most children’s TV shows, which she thought were dull, slow-paced, and seemed more oriented to adults than kids—with the possible exception of the kid-friendly Captain Kangaroo.
This 1970s Fisher-Price music box plays the song, “The People in Your Neighborhood,” while the Sesame Street scene moves horizontally across the “TV screen.” THF135804
Cooney soon realized that, while she had plenty of vision, she needed help in writing, directing, and producing the show. For this, she called on several veterans from Captain Kangaroo—most significantly Jon Stone, who played such a significant leadership role in shaping Sesame Street that he took over as executive producer for the next 20-odd years. Other talented and dedicated scriptwriters, composers, and directors also joined the team, while psychologists and educators lent their support from the beginning.
Cooney and her collaborators initially created a show that included brief skits, musical numbers, cartoons, and live-action video footage—all basically teaching school-readiness concepts. The idea of portraying a diverse group of people living and working together in a community was intentional, providing a hopeful real-life model for an integrated society, which encouraged respect, mutual tolerance, and cross-cultural friendship. The live action scenes were interspersed with pre-taped “commercials”—that is, short “bits” about letters and numbers presented either as animated segments or featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets. The live-action segments were purposely kept separate from the pre-taped “commercials,” as researchers felt that combining these “reality” and “fantasy” elements would confuse children.
Having the sweetly quizzical Big Bird live in a nest near, and interact with, the live actors on Sesame Street became a key to the show’s success. THF97451
Initial testing, however, revealed that children thought the live-action scenes were boring, the dialog tedious and lengthy. On the other hand, they found the short “commercials” to be catchy and memorable. Pushing back on the researchers’ advice, Cooney and Stone brought in Jim Henson as a full-time producer, while his Muppet creations Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch joined the live-action human cast. The resulting interaction between humans and Muppets—seamless and convincing—provided the missing alchemy. The foundation was laid for Sesame Street as we know it today.
Ongoing episodes about ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie reinforce to children that vastly different personalities can still be good friends. THF92308
The first episode of Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969 and the show aired weekdays on the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network. It was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking blend of learning and fun, despite some criticism about its high entertainment quotient, its threat to teachers for undermining early school lessons, and—in Mississippi—its initial banning because of its integrated cast. Time magazine featured popular Sesame Street character Big Bird on its November 23, 1970 cover, next to the headline, “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children.” This issue devoted nine pages to the show’s impact and importance, calling it “the best children’s show in TV history.”
Puppeteer Kevin Clash breathed new energy and vitality into Elmo in the 1980s, but this furry red Muppet became a breakout star in 1996, when comedienne Rosie O’Donnell featured both Clash and this doll on her TV show. THF176791
As Sesame Street has continually changed and grown with the times, its popularity and impact have endured. Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, whose remarks on her own TV show helped transform Elmo from a minor character to a superstar, described the show’s unique contributions this way:
"From the beginning Sesame Street encouraged imagination and playfulness. It always felt like a show to me about freedom, and it has always spoken to children in a pure and truthful way. Children are children, rich or poor, and there is a language of truth that is innate to these tiny, undeveloped beings that they can hear. Sesame Street had respect for its audience and respect for itself. They never cut any corners and they stuck to their democratic ideals."
Innovative, groundbreaking, and radical when it was introduced, Sesame Street has become nothing short of an American institution.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation!
This year, many transformative things have been set into motion at The Henry Ford. One of the most rewarding projects has been all of the hard work that has culminated with the first season of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, an educational television show produced by Litton Entertainment. Perhaps you’ve been watching the episodes on CBS, Saturday mornings? If not, you can view them here.
When we entered into a partnership with Litton, we also took the opportunity to turn our gaze inwards, to research the history of our own involvement with broadcast media. A dive into the archives of the Edison Institute revealed some gems—photographic collections that captured the visual history of media events on our campus spanning 60 years. Previous blogs detail how in 1955, Marion Corwell began hosting Window to the Past, our first live television show. That same year, NBC filmed an all-day live event using the then-new medium of color broadcasting; episodes of The Howdy Doody Show were captured that day. Other discoveries revealed Gladys Knight and the Pips on the Phil Donahue Show in 1973.
Just a few years after cinema made its public debut in 1893, the marketing of home projectors began. Though by 1912 the market was flooded with them, the appeal had been limited. That was about to change. Soon two of the biggest companies in the movie business—one French, one American—went head-to-head, marketing their own home projectors as well as offering films for rent by mail, making them available through pioneering delivery systems. Yet only one of these companies would succeed.
Thomas Edison is considered the father of motion pictures. He invented the original movie camera, the kinetograph, which was used to film movies shot at his movie studio, the Black Maria, the foremost of its kind. His lab developed the earliest films in motion picture history, and those movies were exhibited on a peep hole-like device, the kinetoscope—yet another Edison creation. On November 30th, 1897, Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope was used to show movies on a screen in a commercial setting for the first time. In December 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company released The Great Train Robbery, which would go on to be the initial motion picture blockbuster. The film industry would prove to be successful, yet rocky, for Edison over the next few years, but in 1912, the year his company launched the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, optimism was in the air.
Charles Pathé, previously a phonograph importer, established the French company Pathé Frères in 1896. In 1902, the company introduced an improved movie camera, and soon it would become the leading model used in filming movies across Europe and America. The same year, they began shooting their own productions—completing them at a very fast clip—and distributing them, as well. They would soon dominate the European industry, so much so that Pathé Frères had few serious rivals. The Pathé K-O-K home projector was launched in 1912 in Europe, and the following year they introduced the device in the United States under a different name: the Pathescope. It was in this environment that home projectors finally became a product that the public could get behind.
The Pathescope and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope (also known as the “Home P.K.”) were similar products in many ways, yet had distinct differences. Both Edison and Pathé produced their own unique film size, which meant the films they rented out could be played only on their respective projectors. The companies also introduced a non-flammable film stock—a positive development in the minds of the general public—thus playing a major role in the appeal of the projectors to homeowners. The cost of the machines differed significantly, with Edison’s Home P.K. selling in the $75-$100 range (roughly $1,770-$2,360 in 2013 dollars), while the budget-priced Pathescope would set one back set one back $150 (about $3,540 today). Pathe's premium offering was priced at $250 (a whopping $5,900 in today’s dollars), making it far and away the priciest home projector available.
Kinetoscope Film "Professor and the New Hat," Thomas A. Edison Co., 1913, object ID 63.85.3.
The fact that the companies offered movies for rent was also of considerable appeal to consumers, as was the system of home delivery by mail. In order to accomplish this, both Edison and Pathé established “exchange” hubs to ship and receive their films. Owners of the Home P.K. initially had to purchase a film, which ran in the $2.50 to $20 range ($59-$472 if priced today), and then pay an exchange fee of $0.30-$1 ($7-24 in 2013) when swapping one movie for another. Pathé’s method differed, as Pathescope owners instead paid a yearly subscription of $50-$100 ($1,180-$2,360 today), fees based on how many movies were rented at a time. Edison offered 50 films at launch, a number that grew to 160 by 1914; Pathé had 700 films by that time—a momentous disparity.
Due to a number of factors, including that it was notoriously difficult to operate, the Home P.K. never caught on. Edison’s company manufactured 4,600 projectors, but in the end sold just 500 (more than 8,000 Pathescopes had been sold at that point). Pathé Frères had a huge advantage not only in the number of titles available, but because their projectors were superior. It seems quality and quantity was just too much for Edison, and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope was retired in 1914.
Fast forward to the home video era: 1972 marked the year films became available on videocassette to rent, but it would take the arrival of the DVD format in 1997 before an entity had great success with home delivery of movie rentals. That same year, a new company called Netflix was founded. Their concept of offering films for rent by mail seemed revolutionary, and for modern America it most certainly was an innovative (and appealing) model. It was also an idea whose time had come—again.
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Many people know that The Henry Ford has in its collection the presidential limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This limousine is currently on display in Henry Ford Museum.
But our Kennedy-related collections encompass much more than this limousine. They include materials that relate to such topics as his presidential campaign, inauguration, vision for a New Frontier, media coverage of his assassination, and the public commemoration after his death.
While we already had many Kennedy-related collections, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination gave us the unique opportunity to expand upon these collections. In keeping with our interest in highlighting innovation stories at The Henry Ford, this new collecting focused on President Kennedy as a social innovator—that is, the ways in which his impact radically altered the status quo in our society. Using this approach, we focused our recent collecting upon the following topics:
Kennedy’s unprecedented use of the medium of television to influence public opinion
The reinforcement of the Kennedy image in popular magazines
President Kennedy’s establishment of a Peace Corps
Kennedy’s stepping-up of America’s space program to eventually land a man on the moon
Here is a sampling of our collections relating to Kennedy’s presidency, his role as a social innovator, and his enduring legacy.
Using giveaways like this campaign bumper sticker, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy launched an exhaustive campaign in 1960 against Republican opponent Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Despite charges that he lacked experience and that his Catholic background would hurt him, Kennedy eventually won the very close 1960 election.
On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing-in as 35th President of the United States was followed by an official parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. As shown in this photograph, President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline rode in a 1949 Lincoln that had served Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The presidential limousine we generally associate with President Kennedy was not completed until June of that year.
From the outset of his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy seemed to understand instinctively how to harness the power of the new medium of television to influence public opinion. The first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon was considered a key turning point in the 1960 Presidential election. As President, Kennedy also held live televised press conferences, like the one shown on this souvenir card.
Americans were enchanted by the Kennedy family and they wanted to know more, always more. Photographs and feature articles of young President John F. Kennedy and his attractive family fostered a sense of intimacy between the Kennedys and the American public—and, of course, sold magazines. Life and Look magazines, the popular documenters of American life at the time, often featured behind-the-scenes photo-essays of President Kennedy and his family.
Kennedy viewed his vision for a Peace Corps as an opportunity for young Americans to spread hope and goodwill across the world while also serving as a new weapon against the Cold War. By 1964 this program—which had been established March 1, 1961—had received an all-time high of over 45,000 applications. In 1966, less than three years after President Kennedy’s tragic death, Look magazine commissioned Norman Rockwell to portray Kennedy’s Peace Corps legacy for the cover of its June 14, 1966 issue.
President John F. Kennedy’s vision to explore the "new frontier" of outer space was an overt Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space on April 12, 1961. Kennedy’s bold vision for a stepped-up space program—that would land a man on the moon before the decade was out—ignited the public’s imagination. Americans cheered every new achievement. This souvenir card shows President Kennedy awarding NASA's Distinguished Service Medal to the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, three days after his successful space flight on May 5, 1961.
From the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, reporters struggled to make sense of exactly what happened and how events unfolded in ensuing moments, hours, and days. Our collection of teletype dispatches, newspapers, and magazines reflect how breaking news of this tragic event was reported and how it changed over time.
Stunned and disillusioned Americans embraced commemorative items relating to President Kennedy after his death. These items, including books, magazines, phonograph records, and this postage stamp, helped people mourn and enabled them to re-connect with their charismatic—and now deceased—leader. Commemorative items recalling the optimistic era when John F. Kennedy was President and Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady are still popular today.
Check out these and many more of our Kennedy-related collections via the links below:
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, was in third grade when President Kennedy was assassinated. She would like to thank Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Prints and Photographs, and Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, for their assistance in writing this blog post.
It is amazing how the roots of innovation can be essentially lost over time. Technological advancements now arrive at such a staggering rate that the gadgets of the past—that very ones that led us to the present—are forgotten and virtually unknown. Phonevision is one such invention.
Developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation and its founder/president, Eugene McDonald Jr., Phonevision was the first pay television service the world had ever seen. As early as 1931 the company had looked into the idea of subscription television, believing that many stations couldn’t survive on advertising dollars alone. In July 1947, Zenith announced the Phonevision system, which would allow films, Broadway plays, sporting events and other special programming to be broadcast in the home—commercial free. Homeowners with a special receiver/unscrambling device connected to their television set would select from a list of available content and then call Zenith to request the program they wanted to see, which would then be transmitted at designated times via telephone lines into the receiver. A $1 charge, per program, would be added to the homeowner’s monthly phone bill.
In these early years of television, McDonald theorized that TV and the advertising industry were caught up in a “vicious triangle,” where advertisers wouldn’t spend money without a large audience, but large audiences wouldn’t watch without quality entertainment, and the private companies that owned stations didn’t have the money to pay for such programming. McDonald—an interesting figure, who could be described as part Steve Jobs, part P.T. Barnum—believed his pay-as-you-see model wouldn’t just benefit the television industry and consumers, but would also “save the film industry financially unless someone fumbles the ball.” Not one for false modesty, he was fond of quoting a friend’s prediction: “The American family, put on the road by Henry Ford, will be brought back home by Gene McDonald.”
The biggest obstacle facing Zenith was the reluctance of the film companies to license their product. The movie studios didn’t want to upset theater owners and they were bound by contract to keep music from films off of TV. To negotiate with the movie studios, Zenith hired an IRS collector by the name of James P. Finnegan. He was so convincing that the studios not only relented, they didn’t charge Zenith a dime. Mr. Finnegan was later indicted by a federal grand jury for various misdeeds.
In 1949, Zenith received authorization from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test its service, and would begin the experiment the following year in Chicago, with three hundred households signing up to try Phonevision.
Subscription television made its global debut on May 1, 1950, with the tryout lasting ninety days. “It was successful far beyond our expectations,” McDonald declared, while the Theater Owners of America—somewhat unsurprisingly—had a conflicting opinion, and proclaimed Phonevision “a monumental flop.” According to Zenith’s numbers, Chicago families had viewed films 1.73 times a week, which was almost four times the average movie-going rate over the same period (McDonald, exaggerating somewhat, claimed it was thirty-three times the average). Even though all the films aired during the test were over two years old, 92% of those who used the subscription service said they would rather watch from home than go to the movies. It appeared theater owners were in trouble and Phonevision was on its way to sweeping the nation.
More testing was conducted during the spring of 1954 on WOR in New York City. This time airborne signals were used instead of phone lines (the public wasn’t involved). The results were overwhelmingly positive, proving the system worked even in densely populated areas with tall buildings, resulting in a change to an “over-the-air” transmitter set-up (though the name Phonevision could have been considered obsolete at this point, Zenith stuck with it). The company had also developed different means to watch programming. One way was via a coin box decoder, while another device would unscramble the picture after the viewer entered the correct combination.
In the fall of 1954, ABC passed on airing a television ad for the service, and in April the following year CBS followed suit, stating, “Phonevision is not a product, it’s a controversial issue.” Zenith was not amused, charging CBS with “arbitrary and unwarranted censorship.” In May, the go-ahead was given for a month of testing on WMAL in Washington, DC, so Zenith could audition Phonevision at a broadcasters’ convention, as well as for the FCC and Congress, with fifty systems installed in the capitol building (the company was still attempting to secure the all-important FCC approval of Phonevision as a broadcast service). In June, Zenith licensed Phonevision to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Channel Islands, having inked a similar deal for the Australian and New Zealand markets the previous year.
Eugene McDonald Jr. passed away in 1958, but Zenith’s belief in Phonevision was unwavering, and by 1961 the company had invested millions refining their subscription television system. Yet the jury was still out at the FCC.
The company’s next test, in collaboration with RKO General, would take place in Hartford, Connecticut. Beginning June 29, 1962, UHF station WHCT would continue to broadcast commercial television during the day, but switch to Phonevision programming in the evening. By 1964, Zenith began to have doubts about the service, and though the Hartford test lasted until January 31, 1969, they never obtained the subscriber numbers needed.
Come April 1969, word was that FCC approval was imminent, and while Zenith was still optimistic about its product, it was cautiously so. By the time the FCC made its decision in 1970, finally giving pay television the green light, Phonevision was no more. Part of its downfall could be attributed to the fact that programming was still only viewable in black and white.
Over-the-air systems reappeared for a period beginning in 1977 (ON-TV, an example of what was available in the Detroit market, broadcast films via WXON in the evening hours), but ultimately lost out to cable television. Pay-per-view TV, which took hold in the early 1980s, can be traced to Zenith’s service, as can the very idea of purchasing commercial-free content for home viewing. Today, movies and television shows can be downloaded via Amazon and iTunes and watched on devices like Roku and Apple TV, while untold hours of media can be streamed on Netflix and other services that offer “on demand” content—without commercial interruption. While it is also possible to view said content on mobile devices—far from our television sets—in a sense, Eugene McDonald Jr. has finally brought us all back home.
Nearly a decade after his death, Mr. McDonald was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame, for, among other accomplishments, his role in the development of subscription television. The service he so passionately promoted ultimately failed, but the concept has proved incredibly successful. Though Phonevision is now largely forgotten, it was the true beginning of pay TV.
Bart Bealmear is a reading room assistant in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Hallowell, Mary Louise. The Cable/Broadband Communications Book, 1977-1978, Communications Press, 1977.
Mullen, Megan. The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States, University of Texas Press, 2003. More here.
Segrave, Kerry. Movies at Home: How Hollywood Came to Television, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.
Sterling, Christopher H. Biographical Dictionary of Radio, Routledge, 2011.
The Zenith Story: A History from 1919, Zenith Radio Corporation, 1955.