Instagram: Sometimes the best food comes from the sketchiest places.

Sometimes the best food comes from the sketchiest places.
Sometimes the best food comes from the sketchiest places.

“Mad Men”… insanity?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about Mad Men on this site… and that’s a shame. So let’s fix that!


One thing I’ve always loved about the show is the bizarre lengths the producers go to to make it authentic. We all know some of the more famous examples, like how “costumes” include things like socks or stockings and underwear, even in scenes where the characters aren’t going to show them off. So every one of Joan or Peggy’s panty lines are from underwear based on actual 1960s designs.

But here are a few borderline insane attentions to detail you might not know:

– One of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s clients is a fictitious company called Sugarberry Ham.  In the season four opener,  Peggy and Pete come up with a viral marketing stunt – actresses fighting over hams in a grocery store – to get the recently-departed company to come back to the agency. You’d think finding a “historically accurate” canned ham would be easy… but no. Showrunner Matthew Weiner rejected every single canned ham prop master Ellen Freund found… and she pretty much searched the whole world for the “right” canned ham. Freund was at her wit’s end, and was THIS CLOSE to calling a ham manufacturer to have a canned ham made to Weiner’s exact specifications. Luckily for her, though, another researcher found evidence that some of the canned hams they had already found were appropriate for the time period. (Source)

– There’s another story that Matthew Weiner came to the set one day and obsessed over a bowl of fruit. Fruit of today is apparently much larger than fruit of the past, and often shinier, since apples and other types of fruit often get a coat of wax before shipping. So Weiner demanded that the prop people go out and find smaller, duller fruit. (Source)


– Ever looked at the ice cubes on Mad Men? For one thing, the show uses actual ice cubes instead of more common plastic cubes that last much longer while filming. But that’s not all: the show has – yes, you guessed it – historically accurate ice cubes. For scenes set in people’s homes, the show makes cubes from vintage metal ice cube trays people would have had in their homes in the 1960s. But for shots outside the home – like restaurants and bars – the show has an agreement with a “specialist ice producer” in Los Angeles to make authentic one inch square cubes. (Source)

– Here’s perhaps the craziest story of all: the set designers needed a bunch of fluorescent bulbs for the Sterling Cooper set. So they bought several types, and found a few that appeared to match the required time period. So they placed an order for 800 such bulbs… but only after they arrived did anyone notice that the interiors of the bulbs had modern components not available in the early 1960s. The team made frantic phone calls to any supplier they could find, but could not get their hands on enough bulbs. So Movie-Tone, a lighting supply specialist for the movies – stopped production, retooled their manufacturing plant, and made all the bulbs the show needed. The last shipment arrived on the first day of filming. (Source)

Stranger Than Fiction

One of my favorite films is the 1984 “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, which follows a failing English rock band on their final American tour.

But while the band is fictitious, many of the scenes in the film are rumored to be based on real-life events. The scene in which the band gets lost between their dressing rooms and the stage was allegedly based on a something that happened to Yes (or, some say, Bob Dylan). Like Spinal Tap, Uriah Heep once played a gig on an air force base. The in-studio fight between Nigel and David was said to be inspired by an argument between members of The Troggs (hear the real-life, NSFW, argument on YouTube here).

One of the funniest moments in the film is the famous “Stonehenge scene”, in which Nigel (Christopher Guest) makes a sketch of a Stonehenge-inspired prop he wants to use on stage. Only thing is, he accidentally gives measurements in inches instead of feet. So when the prop appears on stage, it’s far less impressive than the band intended:

Spinal Tap Stonehenge

This was based on something that allegedly happened to Black Sabbath. So the story goes, the band’s manager, Don Arden, wanted similar Stonehenge-inspired props for the band’s stage show. There are two versions of what happened next: one is that he accidentally marked the measurements in meters instead of feet. The other is that he didn’t specify the units, and the contract was given to a French company that assumed the units were in meters. Either way, instead of a 15 foot tall replica of Stonehenge, the band ended up with a 15 meter tall replica –  around 45 feet – which was waaaayyyy too tall for most venues!

Similar confusion has happened elsewhere. Just ask the people of Wichita Falls, Texas.

*     *     *

A huge oil reservoir was discovered in Wichita County back in 1912. Up to 20,000 people rushed to the boomtown, and many locals became rich, some almost overnight. The previously unremarkable town was hit with a severe shortage of office space, and many deals took place on city streets. What the town needed was a place for all this business to happen.

Enter a man named J.D. McMahon. Here’s a photo of him:

Lyle Lanley

McMahon came to town and promised the people of Wichita Falls a beautiful new skyscraper that would rival anything in New York or Chicago. Naive investors lined up, and within a couple of weeks McMahon had collected $200,000 ($2.7m in 2014 dollars).

Construction soon began on this majestic building:

Newby McMahon Building
(click to embiggen)

As you can see, it’s not quite something that would rival the Empire State or Chrysler Buildings. It is, in fact, much shorter than Wichita Falls residents had expected. Before construction had even finished investors filed suit against McMahon.

The judge sided with McMahon, and here’s why: McMahon had never told anyone out loud how tall the building would be, and the blueprints every investor reviewed and approved clearly stated that the building was to be 480″ (inches) tall. Either no one noticed that, or folks simply assumed it was a typo and the actual building would be 480′ (feet) tall. Regardless, according to the judge a deal was a deal, and this one was legally binding.

Investors were able to get some of their money back from the elevator company. They explained the scam to the vendor, and the company backed out of the deal and refunded their money. This left a bit of a problem, though: because the building was supposed to have elevators, architects didn’t bother putting in stairs. For a while, ladders were used to go from floor to floor… although this actually wasn’t much of an issue: the building was such an embarrassment to locals that no one wanted to rent there. Throughout most of the 1920s only two firms rented space there. The Great Texas Oil Boom ended only a few years later, and the Great Depression came soon after. In 1931, the inside of the building was gutted by a fire. Retail shops came and went with alarming regularity, and the building itself changed hands several times.

A funny thing happened, though. Although some residents held the building in scorn and contempt for the rest of their lives, some took a shine to it. Back in the 20s, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! had called it “the World’s Littlest Skyscraper”, and the name stuck. Although slated for demolition several times, Wichita Falls residents protested, and eventually the property was given to the city. In 1986, the city gave it to the Wichita County Heritage Society, hoping they could restore the then-crumbling building. But the building was just too far gone for the WCHS’s budget. Again there was talk of demolition, but this time two local businesses got together and convinced the city to sell it to them for a mere $3,748. A storm damaged the building in 2003; the damage was repaired quickly, but a full restoration wasn’t done until 2005. The building is now an official  Texas Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, McMahon was never seen in north Texas again, and no one knows what happened to him. Presumably he lived the high life, at least for a time, with the town’s money.

"Treason!" cried the Speaker