Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Fender Telecaster (1951)

2011 Fender 1951 reissue "Nocaster", made in Corona, California 

To say much has been written about the Fender Telecaster, would indeed be an understatement. Officially introduced in 1951 by Leo Fender's then small Los Angeles County-based musical instrument operation, it arguably the most-popular electric guitar ever, transcending genres and generations. There are plenty of excellent online resources from a musician's and guitar geek's perspective, including a message forum dedicated entirely to the guitar. But what interests me most from the perspective of this weblog is the Fender Telecaster as an icon of modern California design.

2011 LACMA Exhibit Book, available here

A few weeks ago, I caught the tail-end of the LACMA's California Design, 1930-1965 "Living in a Modern Way". It was an excellent exhibit that did a great job of not only presenting the classics, but also making a good case for the zeitgeist modern California design. For example, just a few feet from an amazing recreation of the living room of Charles and Ray Eames was a pair of surfboards designed by Hobart "Hobie" Alter and Greg Noll. This sparked an interesting conversation between my brother and I about the validity of presenting two disparate design pieces that socially, if not culturally, may or may not have little to do with one another. It also successfully got my brain thinking more about how cultural trends did influence various industries. And this, in turn, got me to thinking a bit more about Leo Fender's Telecaster.

Eames living room re-creation (left), Hobie and Noll surfboards (right), LACMA, 2012

While conspicuously absent in the LACMA exhibit, the first commercially successful solid-body electric Spanish or standard (as opposed to Hawaiian or lap steel) guitar meets much of the criteria of California modernism. It can trace it's design heritage back to 1948 with the first prototype being produced in 1949. Leo Fender had a small operation at the time based in Santa Ana, California (40 miles West of the Eames home in the Pacific Palisades and the Coast). The big band era was in its last few bars and small combos were becoming the new economic reality in modern jazz, rhythm and blues, and western swing music. As the standard guitar gained became more prevalent as a front-line instrument (not just a part of the rhythm section), so the need arose for a cost-effective amplified instrument. Leo was keenly aware of this. 

 Leo Fender, early-1950s

Fender's axiom was that this new guitar had to be cost-effective to both make and sell. It also had to be simple and easy to service. Furthermore it needed to address the musical concerns of being easy to play as a lead instrument and able to be amplified at loud volumes without causing the loud, offensive sound known as "feedback" - that howling sound everyone panics about that you've heard come from the PA system at street fairs. You know the sound.

1951 advertising insert

What follows next is a textbook example of "form follows function", the modern design principle introduced by Louis Sullivan at the end of the 19th Century. The guitar Fender created addressed all of those needs remarkably well and was soon available commercially for $189 (approximately $1,500 in today's dollars). This was an affordable, versatile tool that reflected the times and has since proven to be timeless. From a strict design perspective the Telecaster sits comfortably alongside the wooden Eames Lounge Chair (1946) and molded plastic Side Chair (1948), as well as the surfboard designs mentioned earlier. One could almost believe that they all came from the same design firm. Well, almost. Fender was being self-consciously modern to some extent. He did desire to break from the traditional guitar shape, again very much following the functional needs of the burgeoning lead guitarist. Early advertising was very much aware of this and, in fact, used the term "modern" freely.

Heywood-Wakefield M308 Side Table(s), c.1950

Lines and shapes aside, the color and finish was meant to emulate contemporary "blonde" furniture, still a relatively new trend in the early-1950s. More than any other single firm, this was popularized by Massachusetts-based Heywood-Wakefield starting with their mid-1930s "Modern Series", itself influenced heavily by European (primarily French) Deco designs and styles. The look was particularly popular in affluent Southern California and did reflect some degree of the aspiration of the time. Long-before collectors started talking about butterscotch finishes, Fender Telecasters were blondes. 

1952 magazine advertisement

After a rocky start which saw 2 name changes, some minor legal squabbles, and a bit of tweaking; the Fender Telecaster as we pretty much know it today was available for purchase in local music stores in 1951. Fender was smart in that he got it the hands of everyone from Jimmy Bryant to Les Paul to Barney Kessel. Not only did it become tremendously popular with the working-class western swing and country bands playing throughout the State, but with the rise of rock & roll, it became standard Hollywood studio issue. By the end of the decade it was everywhere, from TV (NBC's legendary Peter Gunn theme featuring Bob Bain) to radio (James Burton on nearly every Ricky Nelson hit from 1958 onwards to name just one player) and beyond.

Barney Kessel, Fender Telecaster, c.1958

Was Leo Fender a modernist? Of course, although I doubt very highly he thought of himself as such or even would care about being mentioned in the same breath as Charles Eames. As proud of his achievements as he was over the years, I am sure he thought of himself as a pragmatist first and foremost. But for our discussion's sake, he was a modern man, to be sure.

Postscript - Although Fender sold the company a long time ago, you can still buy a brand new made in California Fender Telecaster today which has truly changed very little in the past 61 years.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brooks Brothers (1955)

I have been traveling this week, so I am going to keep it short. Here's a great selection of 1955 Brooks Brothers print ads from a recent eBay auction. Plenty of details for the aficionados to savor. Until next week, enjoy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Father's Day (2012)

One of the things that Jimmy Frost Mellor's guest post here a few weeks back got me thinking about was my first exposure to Ivy League style. And from madras cotton to loafers to Brooks Brothers clothes, much of this exposure was via my father. Much like the prevalent Mid-Century modern architecture of my native Southern California that did much to shape my design aesthetic, my father's own tastes in clothing and fond memories of his earlier years in San Diego provided some basis to my lasting affection for the style.

Interchange by Ansel Adams, Los Angeles, 1967

My first conscious memory relevant to this topic was some time in the mid-1980s when I was developing an interest in vintage clothes. We lived in suburban Los Angeles at the time and my father, a banker who wore a suit and tie to work everyday, spent a good portion of his work week traversing LA's serpentine freeway system in a company car going from branch to branch doing the sort of thing an area manager does. I recall him coming home one evening and telling me he had some seen some "bleeding Madras" shirts in a shop window on Melrose that were "very 60s". Truth be told, I was a little more interested in dressing like Cream-era Eric Clapton at the time, but obviously it made a lasting impression on me. From that point, we casually talked clothes frequently: he laying knowledge and predilections on me; me sifting through it all for what was important in the immediate and filing away the rest for later. Often times over the years we would compare notes, such as the time he extolled the virtues of his tasseled Allen Edmonds loafers (always meticulously polished) over my vintage Italian pointed numbers (which hurt my wide, flat feet). Much of what interested him most was Ivy League style, although he rarely referred to it as much beyond "very traditional". Recently, I took it upon myself to ask him a few questions about his early interests and inspirations when it came to clothing and style.

"Guaranteed to Bleed", real deal bleeding Indian Madras cotton garments available from this Etsy seller and select few other vintage resellers

I asked my father, Laurence "Larry" Rossi (born in San Diego, California, U.S.A. in 1947) about his early memories and experiences with Ivy League style. Among his first dates back to 1959 or 1960 when he was in the 7th grade and starting experiencing migraine headaches (one of many traits we share). When the doctor's suspected an enlarged optic nerve, glasses were duly subscribed and the style my father chose were "horn rims which were inspired by friend Joe Ledesma who was in turn inspired by jazz artists" adding that "those styles were not limited to Ivy Leaguers, but also lower income whites/hispanics who followed jazz greats". Dave Brubeck being name-checked and the probably most popular choice at the time. Ledesma stories are something close to my heart as my father speaks of his best friend Joe's older brother's record collection which included LPs by Brubeck and other popular West Coast jazzmen like Cal Tjader. Every so often my father blows my mind by mentioning another disc he discovered during these years thanks to his pal Joe. (Side note: years later my Dad was the first person I would ever hear use the term "Poor Boys" to describe a particular style of eyeglasses, but that is a topic for another post.)

Dave Brubeck (ready for his close-up), UK EP, 1960

If I were to name the most important musical artist of the Rossi household growing up, it would have to be The Kingston Trio. My father owned all of their LPs and loved them dearly. Well. All of their early LPs that featuring the original trio with Dave Guard (and often the VERY intriguing and important David "Buck" Wheat on upright bass, again a topic himself who deserves his own entry). At any rate, as I have mentioned before, I can recall pouring over the sleeves of these discs myself for years, with their distinctive striped short-sleeve button-down shirts. Correction. Make that HALF-sleeves! As my Dad told me, "They were half-sleeve shirts, NOT short sleeve. You had to make that distinction otherwise you didn't get the right style." But he did confirm the the "other inspiration was indeed the Kingston Trio whose album covers were always showing them in button-down shirts. Having gone to Catholic school we had to wear white shirts and I was alway begging mom to buy me one with a button-down. There was a kid school who wore it and was just so cool. Incidentally, the premier shirt maker of button downs was Gant, especially because it had the back collar button plus the locker loop." Incidentally, the Northern California-based Kingston Trio purchased many of their shirts from Johnson & Gray in Sausalito just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County - although a Kingston Trio insider tells me that their first ones were purchased by a Bay Area department store (probably Roos Brothers) and were tailored to half-sleeves (again note the distinction!).

The Kingston Trio...from the "Hungry i", recorded live in North Beach, San Francisco, released on Capitol Records in 1959...I remember pouring over the line drawing in the background for ages as a kid!

Speaking of which, I asked him where one could find these styles in a some-what sleep military town like San Diego back in the day. He replied:

"4 stores in San Diego, Roberts and The Highlander (which is still alive). The third, The Ascot Shop in La Jolla, is still there as well, but we were too poor to even drive to La Jolla. The last was Lion Clothing. Right on Broadway downtown. Long since gone. They sold the absolute best traditional clothing. This is where I bought my suit when I got married. Funny story here. Dad [his father Ugo Rossi, ed.] bought all of his Ivy League suits at Roberts usually during the January sales and from his high school friend, David Reed. I remember because their connection beyond high school was that David went to Reed College and my uncle went to Portland. David had a son, also a David, who also went to Reed is a famous artist. I have to say that my dad was the style guy with his cuffed pants, vented-jackets, and, of course, wingtips, which I had to shine for him weekly."

Early-1900s newspaper advertisement for Lion Clothing

I pressed him a bit further on details. What were the hallmarks? Were there any particular regional favorites within the style? He was happy to oblige:

"Hickey-Freeman suits: all wool. English Walkers wingtips. My dad wore them all the time. Don't confuse with British Walkers. They are not the same. Other popular shoes were saddles and Bass Weejun penny loafers. Black and white saddles were the rage worn with powder blue slacks and with button-downs. Everyone in high school wore these kinds of clothes because we also had to wear blazers every day which were bought at only one place...Roberts! As a senior you could choose another color and we chose olive drab. All underclassmen had to wear black. Fridays you had to wear a tie, so getting dressed up was the thing. Add a skinny tie and you were good to go. It was also the beginning of the "dry" look. No more Brylcream or Wildroot Hair Tonic. The greasy look was dead to coincide with the clothes. Grease started leave in the late 50's. Again, Kingston Trio influence as well as surfer influence."

Manufacturer stamp from the extremely illusive English Walkers brand shoe

When I asked him why he thought we were even talking about the style, he remarked, "In the end, this style has lasted through the times. It never goes out of style and tends to label you as one who won't compromise and chase after fads." Well, far be it from me to argue with my father.

One final story. When I finally purchased my first new Brooks Brothers oxford cloth button-down shirt from their Century City shop in 1996, I immediately called my father with the news. I was immensely proud of myself and felt like I had attained some degree of maturity and success. And indeed I had.

Happy Father's Day Pops!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rooty Toot Toot (1951)

UPA logo, Alvin Lustig, 1950

Among the cartoon cognoscenti, UPA is a legend. Formed in 1944, United Productions of America developed very quickly into THE postwar progressive animation studio. It reached its zenith within a few short years of its existence and almost as quickly it dissipated due to internal conflicts and external pressures. Regardless, it left a legacy which continues to heavily influence animators as it has since the early-1950s. Its long and storied history has been well documented online, this link as well as this one being two good places to start for some of the details.

John Hubley, c.1950

One can make a rather strong argument that the heart and soul of early UPA was John Hubley. Having paid his dues over at Disney over the course of 10 years, Hubley left after the labor disputes of 1941. While at Disney he worked mainly on backgrounds, perhaps most notably (for the purposes of this particular weblog) on the animation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (1913) for the Fantasia feature length film in 1940. Not only did this segment receive the approval of the composer himself who visited the animators studio during production, but it also represented some of the most avant grade work that Disney's animators produced - certainly up until that time. Setting aside the fact that Disney and Stokowski took GREAT liberties with the piece, it is a remarkable achievement - not to mention my first exposure to Stravinsky.

The Rite of Spring, Directed by Bill Roberts & Paul Satterfield, Fantasia, 1940

Another visitor to the Disney studios was architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. In a move that is not at all surprising, the maestro brought along a 1934 film by Russian/Soviet animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano that he felt the Disney talent should be aware of. The Tale of Czar Durondai would be very influential indeed, especially on Hubley and another progressive animator with pro-union and genuine communist interests, David Hilberman. Sadly, the aforementioned film seems MIA online, but here is Ivanov-Vano's 1933 Black and White which gives you an indication of his animation style at the time.

Black and White, Directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, 1933

After the Disney strike of '41 and the studio's subsequent settlement with the Screen Cartoonists Guild, Hilberman was one of the first to leave Walt's behemoth. Along with several other like-minded Disney refugees he started Industrial Film & Poster Service in 1943. With the Second World War not yet over and the Soviet Union still an ally their progressive politics, hopeful ideals, and attendance at US Communist Party meetings was not yet considered "anti-American". In fact by the time Hudley joined the organization and it was renamed United Productions of America in 1944, much of its work was for US Government-sponsored animated shorts (propaganda by any other name). However this ground to a halt at the conclusion of the war, when the most famous Red Scare in American history started seeping into the political and social landscape. In short, Hilberman was "named" (by Disney, no less) which successfully ended UPA's lucrative government work and forced them into the theatrical animation business.

The forced move resulted in some of the most innovative animation to date as well as some of the most influential animation every created. Their success was not only critical, but popular as well, receiving academy awards for both 1949's "The Ragtime Bear" (featuring Hubley's most well-known creation, a caricature of a McCarthy-ite named Mr. Magoo) as well as 1950's "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (based on a story by Dr. Seuss).

The Ragtime Bear, Directed by John Hubley, 1949

Gerald McBoing-Boing, Directed by Robert Cannon, 1950

1951's "Rooty Toot Toot" was an even further visual and musical innovation. Visually, the animated short's closest kin were the contemporaneous album covers drawn by David Stone Martin for Mercury and Clef Records. The music (by noted bandleader Phil Moore) was a mix of jazz, blues, and modern classical and took the advances of the Stravinsky Fantasia segment a step further and firmly into the post-war mid-century world. The voices include the legendary Thurl Ravenscroft and Annette Warren. While the latter also served as a singing stand-in for both Lucille Ball and Ava Gardner around this time, the former's voice is well known to anyone that has every been to Disneyland, watched and old Kellogg's Corn Flakes commercial (that features Tony The Tiger, that is), or has sung-along with 1966's "Your a Mean One, Mr. Grinch". On top of it all, the subject matter is very adult and quite serious - albeit handled in a playful manner only possible through animation. It's a retelling of the 19th Century Frankie and Johnny folk legend, popularized by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt to Sam Cooke. The short was again nominated for an Oscar, but failed to repeat the success of its predecessors.

UPA logo, Alvin Lustig, 1947

"Rooty Toot Toot" was a visual reflection of much of what UPA was about at the time. Alvin Lustig had designed UPA's initial 1940s logo as well as their 1950 re-branding which is now instantly recognizable and somewhat iconic. Both designs represent the modernist aesthetic at its finest. John Lautner, the father of Googie Architecture and a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the UPA Burbank studio in 1949 around the same time he designed West Hollywood's landmark Googie's coffee shop. And there was a strong contingent of modern jazz fans among the UPA ranks, Hubley in particular. Chico Hamilton reportedly even contributed to a later episode of Gerald McBoing-Boing. Even in subject matter, the cartoon reflected something of the egalitarian atmosphere cultivated by the principals of UPA, with no small degree of ambiguous morality.

Here, without further ado, is the film in question...

Rooty Toot Toot, Directed by John Hubley, 1951

Unfortunately, UPA crumbled soon after the release of the above short. Hilberman had left early on for NYC, his own firm and mostly advertising shorts before briefly leaving the country and then settling in the San Francisco-Bay Area where he taught at San Francisco State University for a number of years. The increasingly threatening activities of the House Committee on Un-American Actitivies forced many either out of the business or at least temporarily out of Hollywood. Hubley was summoned and refused to name names. By 1952 he was out of UPA, working out of LA for another 3 years, before moving to New York. He continued to work in independent animation until his death in 1977. UPA has continued to operate over the years but is a pale reflection of its former self.

For further reading and insight into some of the ideas behind UPA in its original incarnation, I do recommend this 1980 article on Dave Hilberman. 

In 1983, Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, purchased the Lautner-designed UPA building in Burbank, California. He offered significant financial incentives to the occupants at the time to move out immediately. He then completely razed the building. All that survives of the era in the area is The Smoke House restaurant next door built in 1949 and frequented by the UPAers over the years both for their hamburgers and booze. Next time you are in that part of the world, stop in and raise a glass for Hubley, Hilbermann, and Mr. Magoo.