Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Trek 50: When It All Began 3

Many viewers come to Star Trek when they are young.  But what was going on when the first Star Trek creators were young--the 1930s?  How did that time contribute to the soul of Star Trek?  This is Part 3 of 4.  Part 1: Fear Itself is here.  Part 2: Must It Be Again? is here. A series marking Star Trek's 50th anniversary.

3. Palaces of Imagination

Paramount in Oakland CA 1931
For those growing up in the 1930s, the Great Depression or the looming war sometimes became a focus, but (as memoirs of the era suggest) often they were an anxious background to family and neighborhood life, and the pursuits of childhood and adolescence. Even in these circumstances, worlds of imagination had compelling reality for the 1930s young.

Some of those worlds had a long tradition, some were near the beginning of a perhaps lost tradition, and some in that era were new, at least in their presentation. All informed the worlds imagined decades later when these children grew up, including influence on creating the Star Trek universe.

Los Angeles CA
One place the 1930s young could find such worlds of imagination was in the movies. And in the 1930s, the movies lived in buildings that were themselves marvelous other worlds.

This was the era of the movie palaces. They had the opulence of opera houses and stage theatres of previous generations (and some were converted from these uses.) Some were huge, seating thousands, elaborately decorated in Art Deco style (Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall which opened in 1933) or in the exotic decor of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

This recently restored mural from the 1930s was darkened by time
when I saw countless double features in this western PA theatre in
the 1950s. It's now called the Palace, but does mostly live shows.
But even in small towns and city neighborhoods they followed the formula pioneered by Sam “Roxy” Rothafel in New York’s Strand Theatre: curtained balconies, marble staircases, chandeliers, classical statuary and elaborate murals.

For a Saturday matinee, children might leave bright sunshine and pass through a cool outer lobby festooned with colorful movie posters (though the movies were still mostly in black and white; a few big features began appearing in technicolor in 1936.) This often led into a dimly lit inner lobby with furled heavy drapes and polished columns, and a brightly shining candy and popcorn counter at the end. Uniformed ushers stood at the entrances to the curtained, darkened auditorium.  Inside, barely visible, were row upon row of plush seats.

Orinda CA
 As their eyes adjusted to the dark, they might glimpse a decorated ceiling high overhead and the cavernous walls of filigreed plaster. At the far end, looming high, behind tall plush curtains, was the huge gleaming white screen, and the thrilling sound was already booming.

 In many if not most towns and neighborhoods and city downtowns, these were the largest, strangest, most mysterious and wondrous buildings children could enter, especially on their own. And once inside, they owned it. For a nickel or a dime they saw a newsreel, cartoons, a comedy short, an ongoing serial and a double feature. These were the palaces of imagination.

Gene and other children his age entered the worlds of Tarzan, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Daniel Boone, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, endless westerns and gangster movies, the first Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, the classic Frankenstein and Dracula films, older perennials like The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and H.G. Wells' visions of the future in Things to Come.

Movies poured out of Hollywood--even in 1933, one of the worst Depression years, Warner Brothers studio alone released 55 movies.  As the double feature became the everyday standard, the major studios plus independent companies added "B" pictures to their releases: shorter, more quickly made, with lesser stars.

Many movies weren't appropriate for Saturday kids shows but there still were plenty.  Those young audiences could share adventures in the air with daredevil aviators, in jungles of India and Africa, Arabian deserts, through icy blizzards in the Yukon and Tibet, aboard pirate ships and submarines, in castles and ancient Egyptian tombs, or in the mysterious "lost worlds" of King Solomon's Mines and She.

There were comedies with Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.  There were fantasies of The Wizard of Oz and the first Disney animated feature, Snow White.    

 Perhaps as they got older they might see some socially conscious comedies of the 30s, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Sullivan’s Travels, Or film series like The Thin Man and Torchy Blane (female reporter and crime-fighter.)  Aspects of the Depression and the warfare and turmoil in Europe were in the newsreels, and made it into the movies, too, including socially conscious features (both "A" and "B"), culminating in the drama about the Oklahoma migrants to California, The Grapes of Wrath.

The excitement and lasting impact of the movie palace matinees were felt by slightly younger kids as well. Born in 1931, eight year old Leonard Nimoy went with his older brother on Saturday afternoons to a similar cinema in Boston, “in the cool darkness to look up at the indigo ceiling with the twinkling little white lights that looked like stars.”

 He vividly recalled the impact of seeingThe Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)  and entering the journey of the misunderstood outsider, Quasimodo, who finally is blessed by beauty, liberating his soul. “I carried Quasimodo’s haunting image with me from the theatre that day; the seed that would become Spock was planted.”

 Also born in 1931, William Shatner would remember racing from theatre to theatre in Montreal, seeing as many movies as he could afford on his allowance (“two, four, even six films.”) “It was my introduction to the dream of being an actor,” he recalled.

Those movie afternoons included the serials seen before main features. Sliced into short episodes with cliff-hanger endings each week, the serials followed the exploits of Dick Tracy, the Three Musketeers, the Lone Ranger, Captain America, Jungle Jim, and the Shadow, among others.

The most famous serials of all were set in the future, featuring Flash Gordon and young Gene’s favorite from the newspaper comic strips, “Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.”

Buck Rogers was also popular on radio (as were the Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy.  Radio was another palace of the imagination.) There were Buck Rogers badges, disintegrator pistols and a Buck Rogers spaceship, made of tin and selling for twenty cents. The Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials bristled with futuristic technology (Buck Rogers had a ray gun with the equivalent of a stun setting, and this 25th century had matter-transferring transporters and remote viewscreens.)

 Some of these serials would continue to be shown for decades, and would continue to inspire. Steven Speilberg would remember seeing 1930s serials at the movies in his 1950s Arizona childhood, including Tailspin Tommy (1934) and Zorro Rides Again (1937).  But it was the Flash Gordon serials that fascinated young George Lucas in Modesto, California.

These movies, comics and radio shows provided other worlds to enter into, and some suggested models to consider and heroes to admire and maybe emulate. Amidst the action and excitement, their heroes demonstrated courage, energy, perseverance, compassion, self-sacrifice.

 All were in this sense pertinent to growing up, and specifically to growing up in the 1930s. In some ways this was especially true for the hero who would eclipse the rest, first appearing in the pages of the relatively new form, the comic book. For the hero who emerged most directly from the times was Superman.

Jerry Siegel was 20 when he and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1934, influenced, he recalled, by “President Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats...being unemployed and worried during the Depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany...seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden...”

 Siegel was also reading about crusading heroes and seeing them in the movies. He wondered how he could help these victims of the 30s. “How could I help them, when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.”

Superman would become even more of an icon in future decades, and quickly led to an entire genre of superheroes. But strikingly unlike recent years, when superheroes exclusively battle super-villains and each other, Superman’s first exploits were saving an unjustly condemned woman from the electric chair, and stopping a wife-beater.

 In his 1930s adventures, he rescued miners in a cave-in, battled stock market manipulators and munitions manufacturers fomenting wars to sell their wares. He fought crime, but also poverty and unsafe labor conditions. He came to the aid of individuals in trouble, and was devoted to the common good. He was a compassionate, high-spirited and humorous hero of the people.

Movie theaters were dramatic, physical palaces where imagination was king. But Gene Roddenberry had also discovered the personal palace of imagination represented by books. His hunger for reading would lead him to another discovery, another relatively new form—the science fiction pulp magazines.

One such magazine had in fact named the genre. Before Gene Roddenberry was born there was nothing called science fiction. He was five years old when a magazine first appeared called Amazing Stories, eventually devoted to “scientifiction.” It was started, published and edited by Otto Gernsbach, an early enthusiast, inventor and impresario for communications technologies.

 Gernsbach made his fortune before World War I designing and selling the first home radio sets, and then by designing and marketing home kits for hobbyists—mostly adolescent boys—to build their own radio sets and radio telephones. His first magazines were little more than marketing for his kits but they became even more successful.

 So from his Modern Electrics, Radio News and Science and Invention magazines (whose fervent readers included Marconi, Edison, Tesla and rocket pioneer Robert Goddard), he moved on to Amazing Stories, and later to Science Wonder Stories and other titles. Among his talents, Gernsbach had a way with naming things, like “television” and, after a false start or two, “science fiction.”

Despite the Depression, these magazines grew in number and circulation throughout the 1930s. At first, Gernsbach reprinted classic tales by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe (which had sometimes been described as “scientific romances.”)

 But soon the pulps were publishing new writers. Those stories often emphasized the wonders of new technologies (called “gadget fiction”) though sometimes their perils as well: a 1933 series in Wonder Stories depicted a future Earth depleted and ruined by pollution.

By 1938 there were more than 20 pulps publishing science fiction stories—from Astounding and Amazing and Astonishing Stories to Thrilling Wonder Stories, Future Fiction and Planet Stories. The ideas were exploding—and some may seem familiar. For example, the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories included “A Martian Odyssey” presenting a silicon based creature that ate sand and excreted bricks, which it used to build giant pyramids.

But magazine science fiction took a more deliberate direction when John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding in 1938. According to writer and editor Lester del Rey, “he wanted them [his writers] to live in their futures. And he wanted those futures to be livable.” 

The writers responded by becoming “future-oriented, with the sense that the present was not the permanent center of everything: to them, the future was a real place. It was three-dimensional.”

 To make these futures “real,” Campbell urged his writers (who would eventually include names like Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Van Vogt and Lester Del Rey) to imagine the social implications of new technologies.

He urged them to question their assumptions based on the present or even prior science fiction. “’Yes, but’ was one of his favorite openings to a discussion,” Del Rey recalls. Campbell “had no desire to ‘bring science fiction into the mainstream,’ Del Rey observed. “But he was totally serious about the fact that science fiction was the only fiction that dealt fully with modern reality.”

 As he recalled years later, Gene Roddenberry became aware of the science fiction pulps when he befriended a classmate who was unpopular because of his physical ailments. Gene also had experienced health problems. His new friend shared with him his treasure trove of magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing. (While Gene’s health improved in adolescence, he recalled that this boy died at 16.)

Through another unusual friendship (with a young man living over a garage in his neighborhood, who lent him books collected while in prison) Gene supplemented these pulps with the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and novels by E.E. “Doc” Smith, who became a particular favorite. Smith was also appearing in Astounding magazine—in 1937 he began his “Lensmen” series, about the Galactic Patrol and the planets led by a democratic Earth battling an evil galactic empire.

 One aspect of science fiction that appealed to the young in the 1930s (said classic sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl) was the evident failures in society in the midst of technological success—these stories spoke to that discrepancy.

Gene added such science fiction to his omnivorous reading. Out on his porch, he might sprawl on an old couch with a stack of crackers held together with peanut butter, and read for hours in the soft air and sharp light of a southern California afternoon.

At the beginning of the decade he might have discovered the series about the young scientific adventurer and inventor Tom Swift that began earlier in the century but added new titles in the 1930s, such as Tom Swift and his Sky Train, Tom Swift and his Planet Stone, Tom Swift and his Giant Telescope. Together with stories about young detectives (The Hardy Boys, Bob Dexter, etc.) these were popular books that public libraries typically collected for their young readers.

 There were also books that provided shorter illustrated versions of classic stories like Gulliver’s Travels. A series in twelve sturdy volumes called My Book House began appearing in the 1930s—it collected verse and stories, from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to longer adventures and stories about many cultures.

 From In the Nursery through Story Time and Through the Gate to In Shining Armor and Halls of Fame, each volume of My Book House increased in sophistication as a child grew older. Many classic tales were included, from El Cid, Don Quixote and Joan of Arc to Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Children got a taste of Greek myth, Shakespeare, Dickens and Jonathan Swift.

 Later in his adolescence Gene might lose himself in the pulps and the science fiction novels, along with  Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and other tales of adventure. Though King Solomon’s Mine was made into a movie in 1937 and She in 1935, the original late 19th century novels by H. Rider Haggard were perennial favorites with young readers—tales of exploration that include elements of the mystical and philosophical (it was in She that the phrase "the heart of darkness" first appeared.)

In 1937, a series of novels and stories by C.S. Forrester about an early 19th century British naval officer named Horatio Hornblower began to appear. These became lifelong favorites for many, including Gene Roddenberry. The introspective, courageous, astute, compassionate leader with a strong sense of duty and ethics, Hornblower became a model for both Captain Kirk and Captain Picard.

 The adventure tale, the hero’s journey, the tests of courage, perception and integrity; the voyage to the unknown, the romance of encounters with strange new worlds: all the themes that run through these classic stories were the backbone of the better science fiction, newly available in the 1930s. This was the first generation that absorbed them all together in their formative years. To their eager eyes and open imaginations, it was all new.

The books that stretched young imaginations often had lasting and formative effects. Young Isaac Asimov, devouring the same pulp magazines as Roddenberry, recalled that he read them in “vivid and agonizing transport because I wanted to be part of the story and couldn’t.” These stories “ravished my soul and opened it to a music of the spheres that few can hear.”

 Or the writer Henry Miller remembering his youth a couple of generations earlier, as a reader of H. Rider Haggard, which he shared with his blood brothers in a secret hillside cave. “These books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training.”  In the 1960s, when the first moonshots were planned, he wrote: “Our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment’s notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond.”

 “Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. But these books spoke not only to boys.

There was twelve year old Ursula LeGuin, for instance, who found a little leather bound copy of Lord Dusany’s A Dreamer’s Tale in the living room bookcase one boring evening. Later she and her brother shared copies of Thrilling Wonder Stories, making favorite phrases from the stories a part of their secret language.

 And the young Margaret Atwood, hiding from homework in the basement by reading H. Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father.

 They were responding to the age-old fascination of stories. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle," Vladimir Nabokov remarked. "That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."

 Then towards the end of the 1930s, imagination met present reality in a disconcerting way. On Halloween night of 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air performed on national radio a version of H.G. Wells,'The War of the Worlds, updated to the present in the United States. Suffused with war anxieties, some late listeners believed they were hearing actual news reports of New Jersey under attack from merciless machines, from Mars.

 For young Gene, these stories from the palaces of imagination could inform the dramas invented and acted out with his brother and sister and neighborhood friends on the grassy, wooded hill behind his house. Or they might be the subject of his reveries while feeding the chickens in the backyard or the rabbits hiding in their hutch.

 Some stories might also inspire other reveries. Los Angeles in the 1930s was still a city of clean air, so from his house on the many sunny days, he could see distant mountains. And on clear nights, the immense black sky was layered with stars, thin carpets of them strewn in glowing white waves, while others seemed nearer, and boldly bright. He could watch them and wonder.

 But beyond the movies, the radio show, comics and science fiction pulps, a vision of the future—in three dimensions and physical form—would fascinate the nation at a moment of impending peril. That vision will complete this tour of the 1930s, next time.

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