“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 the show’s “costumes” include things like socks or stockings and underwear, even in scenes where characters aren’t going to show them. So every one of Joan or Peggy’s panty lines are from underwear based on actual 1960s designs. And then there’s the time Lane Pryce shook a handful of change and the sound was distinctly the sound of pre-1965 silver coins.

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 premiere,  Peggy and Pete come up with a viral marketing stunt – hiring actresses to fight 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. Matt Weiner, the show’s creator and runner, rejected every single canned ham prop master Ellen Freund found… and she literally 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, another researcher found evidence that some of the canned hams they’d 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 shinier, since many types of fruit often get a coat of wax before shipping. So Weiner ordered a poor intern to 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 acrylic 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 said to be based on real-life events. The scene in which the band gets lost between their dressing rooms and the stage was based on something that allegedly 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 Building or Willis Tower. It is, in fact, considerably shorter than Wichita Falls residents had expected. Investors filed suit against McMahon before construction had even finished.

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 meager 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.

Quote of the Day

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

– H.L. Mencken

Baseball Stories

Baseball might be my fourth favorite sport, but with the playoffs in full swing (hah!), I thought I’d post a few baseball stories I’ve been saving up.

Check out this picture:

(photo via National Park Service)

After the War of 1812 – when the British notoriously burned Washington DC – President Madison had a fit of “closing the barn door after the cow escaped” and decided it might be a good idea to build a system of defensive forts on the east coast. Construction on several forts started, including, in 1829, a fort on Cockspur Island, Georgia, between Savannah and Tybee Island.

Major General Babcock was put in charge of the project, but was later replaced by second lieutenant Robert E. Lee. (yes, THAT Robert E. Lee).  By 1833, the fort was far enough along to get a name: Fort Pulaski, in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution.

The fort was finally completed in 1847, after 18 long years of construction. It took such a long time partly because that’s how long it took to build a fort in a swamp in the 19th century. It also took so long because the fort was made out of brick –  like, a lot of bricks,  like, 25,000,000 bricks – and Savannah just didn’t have the infrastructure to quickly make so many damn bricks.

Then, of course, the Civil War broke out. Georgia governor Joseph Brown ordered the state militia to seize the fort, which became a Confederate stronghold. Meanwhile, Confederate military leaders thought nearby Tybee Island was too remote to be useful for anything, so troops were withdrawn from there. And thus, Union troops moved in.

One of the reasons American sharpshooters were so successful in the Revolutionary War was that they used rifles, not muskets. At their most basic, both guns are metal tubes that one packs with explosives and a projectile, like a bullet or musket ball. You aim the tube at an enemy and set off the explosives. This causes the projectile to travel down the tube at a high rate of speed and (hopefully) hit the enemy.

But rifles were far more accurate than muskets, and that’s because of curved ridges carved into the inner barrel of the gun. Those ridges are called rifling, and that’s why they’re called rifles. The grooves cause the projectile to spin, which greatly increases accuracy. It’s the same reason a quarterback wants to throw a football in a tight spiral rather than just heaving it down the field. Muskets, on the other hand, lack such grooves inside the barrels, which is why they’re sometimes called smooth-bore weapons. That’s also why muskets were inaccurate, like a quarterback under pressure just tossing the football away.

Although the benefits of rifled vs. smooth-bore guns were known to American military personnel as far back as the 1780s, no one had ever thought to build a cannon with a rifled barrel. Until the Civil War. Union soldiers now stationed on Tybee Island were equipped with a brand-new weapon called the James Rifled Cannon. And they unleashed it for the first time ever on Fort Pulaski.

Continue reading “Baseball Stories”