Mini Stories: Volume 5

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

It’s the end of the year, and time for our annual mini-stories episodes. Mini-stories are these fun, quick hit stories that maybe came up in our research for another episode, or they were just some cool thing that someone told us about, it could be from someone on Twitter or a relative. Avery’s dad pitched us some story that we found really interesting, but it didn’t quite warrant a full episode and two months of hard reporting but they’re great 99pi stories nonetheless. And my favorite part is we do them as unscripted interviews where I’m in the studio with the people who work on this show, who I like a lot. This is the greatest team in all of podcast land, I guarantee you that. This week we have stories about 60’s cult TV shows, semi-useless gadgets, woo woo miracle cures, and modern Christmas tradition. It’s gonna be fun.

Up first, is Avery Trufleman.

Roman Mars:
Okay

Avery Trufelman:
Okay

Roman Mars:
What do you got?

Avery Trufelman:
I have for you, my um, oldest article of clothing.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) I’m interested!

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, I uh, I’ve worn this my whole life…

Roman Mars:
Okay

Avery Trufelman:
You can feel

Roman Mars:
I can feel it’s soft. It is a soft, grey t-shirt.

Avery Trufelman:
I’ve been wearing that weirdo shirt since I was like, three. So clearly, my parents gave it to me.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery’s Father:
I definitely remember that it came down to your knees. (Avery laughs)

Avery’s Father:
Why you took it, I don’t know.

Avery Trufelman:
I don’t know that I had the agency to take it, I bet you put it on me!

Avery’s Father:
The shirt is 25 years old. I don’t know, at least 25 years old.

Avery Trufelman:
This is my dad, the giver of this shirt to me.

Roman Mars:
Should we read what’s on it?

Avery Trufelman:
Yes! Read what’s on it.

Roman Mars:
(Laughs) Okay.

“Where am I?
In the village.
What do you want?
Information.
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling.
We want information.
Information.
You won’t get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.”

(sorry, I have to scroll down)

Avery Trufelman:
(laughs) Scroll down! It’s a shirt! This is real life!

Roman Mars:
Okay, here we go. Gotta get serious, here’s my serious voice.

“Who are you?
The new number 2
Who is number 1?
You are number 6
I am not a number, I am a free man.”

I know what this is.

Avery Trufelman:
What is it, Roman?

Roman Mars:
This is a t-shirt, from “The Prisoner”.

Avery Trufelman:
And uh, my dad’s gonna help us explain what “The Prisoner” is.

Avery’s Father:
“The Prisoner” was an extraordinary television series made I think in 1966? And it was during the ‘60s when you had the whole James Bond, secret agent thing.

Avery Trufelman:
So “The Prisoner” is a 1960s TV show about a British spy, played by Patrick McGoohan who mysteriously resigns, and then that evening is abducted. And he finds himself in this mysterious place called, The Village.

Avery’s Father: The Village is this odd little town. He doesn’t know where it is, he doesn’t know what it is, that it’s just a very strange, little place.

Avery Trufelman:
So The Village, like it’s very disorienting because it seems to be kind of removed from all other countries of the world. Um, there are like, castles, and villas, and townhouses and they’re all smashed together, and it could be absolutely anywhere. And it’s completely beautiful and perfect. But like, too perfect.

Avery’s Father:
Everything is relentlessly cheerful. And everybody has to, you know, “Good afternoon! We’re having a parade!”

Avery Trufelman:
So there are all kinds of mandatory parades and events and festivals and no one has names, and everyone goes by a number…and again and again the spy, now known only as Number 6 has no idea who imprisoned him in this relentlessly cheery place where the people are wearing peppy striped shirts and suits with white piping, and they’re wearing rainbow capes, and Keds sneakers….

Avery’s Father:
But the greeting from everybody is, “Be seeing you.” Which on one hand sounds very “See you later!” but what it meant was, that “See you later means, “we’re watching you.”

Avery Trufelman:
So the whole village is under constant surveillance, all the time. And in every episode, the members of the village are trying to break Number 6 and they put him through elaborate mind games, and challenges and temptations, trying to figure out why he resigned. And the spy can’t leave the village or a giant white balloon will come after him and smother him. The show only lasted, like, 17 episodes or so, and it was really crazy.

Avery’s Father:
James Bond meets Dr. Who.

Avery Trufelman:
On acid.

Avery’s Father:
Yeah.

Avery Trufelman:
The show gets weirder and weirder with each progressing episode, right?

Avery’s Father:
Yes. It eventually sort of went off the rails. Everybody just went crazy.

Avery Trufelman:
So the very last episode doesn’t make any logical sense. It’s completely crazy. BUT at the beginning of this bonkers, absurdist, crazy episode was something that my dad found truly shocking.

Avery’s Father:
At the beginning opening of the very last episode, they reveal the location of the village in real life. And it was like, “Oh my God, this place really exists! What the hell is this place?”

Avery Trufelman:
So the village looks like a set, but it’s a real place. For my whole life, as long as I have been wearing that weird shirt, my dad has wanted to go there. And this year, he finally did.

Avery’s Father:
You know, it’s in a remote corner of Wales. Uh, it wasn’t easy to get there.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Avery Trufelman:
Here’s the backstory! After WWI, there was this welsh architect named Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, and he was kind of dismayed with how the UK was rebuilding after WWI, and all these gorgeous old buildings were getting torn down, or they just weren’t bothering to rebuild in the beautiful, classical style. They were building these big, brutalist, concrete blocks.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery Trufelman:
And so when he acquired this remote plot of land in 1925, in his home country of Wales, he decided to bring the beauty of the whole of Europe back to his homeland. Literally.

Avery’s Father:
And as Ellis would travel around the world he’d find a colonnade, or a building, or a church; or maybe the top two floors of a church. Dismantle it, ship it to Portmeirion, and rebuild it.

Avery Trufelman:
My dad calls it “Port-Myron”, but every British person that I’ve heard calls it “Port-Marion.” And from 1925 to 1975, Clough Williams-Ellis hunted for all these crumbling remains of castles, and houses, and villas across the continent, especially the Mediterranian and rescued them by bringing them to this one spot. And to kind of fund it, it became a resort.

Avery’s Father:
I’ve never seen anything like it, because usually when you think of a hotel, it’s a building. But this is 35 buildings in an isolated area, and each building, I mean, besides, you know, the restaurants, and the support thing. That thing is like a miniature Disneyland.

Avery Trufelman:
Except unlike Disneyland everything is actually real? Like, it’s all actually old architecture? But apparently, I mean here, I have these books, you can look at pictures of it. These are my dad’s literature. But it looks quite Disney-esque because it’s all painted these bright colors.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, it really does. I mean, I would have never thought it was real. Uh, from what I’ve seen of it.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s crazy. It’s almost like why would you go through the effort of doing it for real? When it (laughs) when it looks so fake? But it does remind me that when we look at old architecture, we expect to see the weathering of it, and if you really do restore it, it is bright and shiny, and odd, and brightly colored in pink and bright yellows and things like that.

Avery Trufelman:
I feel like Clough Williams-Ellis took it a step further because he, he like added stuff to it. He would put in fake windows that weren’t really there, he’d like, paint them on. He added stairways that didn’t go anywhere because he thought they looked scenic and added these windy paths. So he also kind of like turned it into this tutti-frutti, playground of actual… and the cool thing was, it was postmodernism before postmodernism?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Avery Trufelman:
It looks like a lot of styles we would recognize now where they’re smashing you know, colonnades on villas, on gothic clock towers and painting it all bright colors and so in a weird way, it must have looked extra crazy in the ‘60s when no one was doing that.

Roman Mars:
Oh totally. Although you know maybe without having gone through postmodernism you would just see it as this weird collage whereas we might now have the language of Disney, and cheesy postmodernism to apply to this thing? Like, maybe it looks cheap to us because of our lived experience of these things, but it might of just felt opulent and amazing to someone before postmodernism existed.

Avery Trufelman:
Funny you say that! Architecture critic Louis Mumford wrote in 1964: “Portmeirion is a gay, deliberately irresponsible action against the dull surrealities that pass as modern architecture today.” (Roman Mars laughs)

Avery Trufelman:
So it was like, shocking, no one had seen anything like it. Frank Lloyd Wright went to visit it, Gregory Peck came to visit it, Ingrid Bergman came to visit.

Avery’s Father:
Brian Epstein from The Beatles would stay there. Uh, George Harrison stayed there. A lot of British celebrities and stuff would go there because it was so isolated, and it was so beautiful, and they treated everybody with a sense of discretion.

Avery Trufelman:
So, it was this place that was kind of separate from the rest of the world, and removed from time and context where your name didn’t matter. Basically all the stuff that made it unbearable for Number 6! (Roman Mars laughs)

Avery’s Father:
I was there for The Prisoner Appreciation Society weekend, and there were people walking around in prisoner costumes and they were reenacting episodes.

Avery Trufelman:
My dad was there for this thing called, uh, Portmeiri-con. Which is basically like a giant cosplay event.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Right!

Avery Trufelman:
For The Prisoner, where everyone…they do parades, and they pretend to abduct people, and there’s a giant balloon floating around. Uh, everyone’s wearing striped capes and Keds. Except my dad.

Avery’s Father:
You know, it was a little too much. I enjoyed the spectacle, I wasn’t up for the lifestyle.

Avery Trufelman:
Still it was kind of cool because this is my dad’s favorite show. He loves this show. So for him it was kind of like visiting an old friend. Because like, they tried to remake The Prisoner, kind of recently. They tried to do an American version of it.

Avery’s Father:
It was terrible. It was terrible. I don’t know what else to say, it was just terrible.

Avery Trufelman:
Because my dad says it just can’t work without the main star and visionary, Patrick McGoohan. He’s the one who made it weird, but it also couldn’t work without Portmeirion.

Avery’s Father:
I think if “The Prisoner” were done in like a Star Trek thing, it wouldn’t have worked. What made it so incongruous was that you were in this natural environment and these beautiful old buildings. That’s what I think made it even more horrifying because it was so pleasant and it was so cute, and it was so charming, and it was so analog.

Avery Trufelman:
And so that’s the cool thing about The Prisoner and Portmeirion itself. It’s not trying to be a tribute to the past, or vision of the future. It’s just kind of this amalgamated alternative reality, but in a weird way, in both cases, with Portmeirion and The Prisoner, they just turn into alternate realities that look like what we have today. Which is you know, postmodernism, and Disneyland and also this like, world of constant surveillance and constant cheeriness.

Avery’s Father:
It shows that the sort of fantastic nightmare that McGoohan was predicting, in some cases, is certainly now technologically possible.

Avery Trufelman:
And that’s totally why I still wear this shirt. (laughs) Also because it’s soft.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) It is very soft. That’s awesome. Thank you, Avery.

Avery Trufelman:
Thanks!

Roman Mars:
Be seeing you.

Avery Trufelman:
Be seeing you.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
Up next, this is producer Vivian Le.

Roman Mars:
So I’m just remembering right now, that the first time you appeared on this show, was last years mini stories, before you were a staff member at 99pi.

Vivian Le:
Yeah it’s my 99pi-versary!

Roman Mars:
That’s so nice!

Vivian Le:
This is so great!

Roman Mars:
I’m so happy you’re here. And um, so what is your mini-story as a staff member?

Vivian Le:
Okay, so I’m gonna start this one with another question. So, you travel a lot, right?

Roman Mars:
I do travel a lot.

Vivian Le:
And you travel with devices, right?

Roman Mars:
I do, yes.

Vivian Le:
Okay so, have you ever been on the road, and one of your batteries runs out of power?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. The one on the phone, it’s like 5 or 6 pm, consistently. That’s the way it is.

Vivian Le:
Right, yeah, it’s the rule. It has to run out of battery.

Roman Mars:
Yes.

Vivian Le:
But how useful would it be if I told you that there was an AC free, battery powered battery charger, that would let you fully charge that one battery, and all it needs are twelve batteries of the same type, to recharge that one dead battery?

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Well, I would… that doesn’t sound VERY useful, that sounds a little uh, wasteful.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. (Roman Mars laughs)

Vivian Le:
It’s not useful, but at the same time it’s not entirely un-useless.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) That’s true, that’s true. I can still use that thing, that monstrosity that you are describing.

Vivian Le:
Right, so the AC free battery powered battery charger is something that actually exists. And it’s one example of something called “Chindogu” which is the art of designing nearly useless gadgets.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Okay so what exactly do you mean by “nearly useless?”

Vivian Le:
So, a Chindogu is a very specific type of invention that sets out to solve one particular problem but it actually ends up causing so much more of an inconvenience that it’s almost entirely useless.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Vivian Le:
So, in the case of the battery powered battery charger, you’d technically solve your problem of having one dead battery, but you’d make a much larger problem by draining 12 other batteries, to power it!

Roman Mars:
That’s right.

Vivian Le:
Yes, exactly! Yeah, so it comes from the Japanese word ‘chin’ meaning “weird or strange” and ‘dogu’ meaning “tools.” So, “strange tool.”

Roman Mars:
Oh that’s awesome. Okay so do you have another example?

Vivian Le:
There are literally thousands of them. (Roman Mars laughs)

Vivian Le:
There’s a uh, a pair of high heels with training wheels attached to the heels. So if you’re just learning how to walk in high heels you have a little bit of a…little…will carry you right there. Um, there’s a zen kitty litter box so you can practice the art of sand raking while you’re cleaning up cat crap. Um, but do you want to know what my favorite Chindogu is?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. I absolutely need to know what your favorite Chindogu is.

Vivian Le:
A solar powered flashlight. (Roman Mars laughs)

Vivian Le:
You technically could use it, but you wouldn’t really actually use it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, you couldn’t possibly use it. So, where do these ideas come from? And does anyone actually make them, or are they just ideas?

Vivian Le:
Okay, so you can probably tell by the name but it started in Japan, with a man named Kenji Kawakami.

Reporter:
“Meet Kenji Kawakami. Japan’s famous inventor of the useful and absurd. HIs creations range from umbrellas for shoes, to hair splash guards to chopsticks with fans.”

Vivian Le:
So Kawakami studied Aeronautical Engineering in college. And uh, he’s always been interested in engineering and design and he came up with the concept and started making his own creations sometime in the 1980s. But somehow he ended up in publishing, which is kind of how Chindogu took off.

Roman Mars:
Huh. What kind of publishing was he doing? Was he, was he publishing like, these items?

Vivian Le:
No, No. So in the early ‘90s he was the editor of a Japanese catalog called “Mail Order Life” which is, you know, one of those home shopping magazines.

Roman Mars:
Right

Vivian Le:
Um, and so there was this one month when he realized there were some spare blank pages in the back. So instead of just leaving them blank he just decided to include some images of these un-useless inventions that he’d been tinkering around in his workshop with. Um, so they weren’t for sale or anything but he thought it’d be just kind of a fun joke to slip in. So he had the solar-powered flashlight that I mentioned earlier, and also a pair of eye drop glasses which are essentially a pair of glasses with funnels over the lenses. So you can just put eyedrops in and they’ll funnel directly into your eyeballs. Like, little holes so they’ll just drip right in.

Roman Mars:
Mmhmm, right.

Vivian Le:
And you know, the readers ended up getting such a kick out of them that you know, he started putting Chindogus in every issue after that.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Vivian Le:
And so after a few years of doing this, this American journalist and translator named Dan Pepia came across it and he was like, “I have to spread this to the rest of the world.”

Vivian Le:
And so the two of them together founded the International Chindogu Society, and established “The 10 Tenets of Chindogu.”

Roman Mars:
And so, these have rules. So what are some of the tenets to make a truly, a true Chindogu?

Vivian Le:
Okay, so the first rule is that a Chindogu has to be almost completely useless. So if you’ve created something that’s actually useful, you’ve failed. You’re done.

Roman Mars:
Right. (laughs)

Vivian Le:
Um, the second rule is that it has to actually exist. So you have to have to actually build a Chindogu.

Roman Mars:
Oh good, so I was actually wondering this. So you can’t just make a hypothetical, even you know like a picture in a mail-order catalog. You actually have to make the thing.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, it has to be birthed into the world.

Roman Mars:
That’s great. I like that rule. Cool.

Vivian Le:
Yes. And so, the third rule is actually my favorite. It says, “Inherent in every Chindogu, is the spirit of anarchy.” and then it goes on to say, “They represent freedom of thought and action. The freedom to challenge the suffocating historical dominance of conservative utility.”

Roman Mars:
So, so, I think I’m getting so like, a little bit of this …is an exercise in rebellion for the uber-designed product that is perfect, that does its job with great efficiency and it like, frees you to have weirdo inventions that don’t…. That function but don’t actually function well.

Vivian Le:
Yes. So yeah, we tend to marry utility and design.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Vivian Le:
And they don’t have to be.

Roman Mars:
That is totally true.

Vivian Le:
Yeah.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, and I mean it seems a little strange to use absurdist design as a form of anarchy. But before Kawakami got into publishing, he was actually a radical activist in the ’60s and ’70s. And so, the spirit of nonconformity and anti-consumerism is something that’s rooted in the concept of Chindogu. There’s actually a couple of other tenets that dictate you can’t sell the invention for money, and you also can’t patent it because it belongs to everybody.

Vivian Le:
So Chindogus are supposed to be like the embodiment of design without the restrictive threat of materialism. And you could tell by the way that he talks about it, as silly as it kind of appears, he intended them to be a fun way to change the world.

Kenji Kawakami:
(speaking in Japanese)

Translator:
“I believe that if everybody shares my idea of changing perceptions,” he says, “the world could change, one invention at a time.”

Roman Mars:
And so, what happened to Chindogu as a movement, you know, these big lofty ideas?

Vivian Le:
Right, right, yeah. You know, it did spread internationally. There are Chindogu societies and competitions all over the world, but Kawakami actually ended up putting a bunch of books out with unuseless inventions that he’s made over the years, or that people have submitted into the Chindogu Society.

Vivian Le:
But since one of the tenets is that you can’t make money from Chindogu, he actually ended up doing eating a lot of the money to charity.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so nice.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, and I-

Roman Mars:
I like this story.

Vivian Le:
I know he’s a, he’s a good guy. But I actually have one of his books here…

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool.

Vivian Le:
That was published originally in 1995, and can you tell me what you see here?

Roman Mars:
Okay, let’s see.

Roman Mars:
It is a camera on a long stick with a plunger to force the shutter of the camera. This is a selfie stick.

Vivian Le:
That is a selfie stick, from 1995!

Roman Mars:
It’s called a self portrait camera stick. Do it yourself, without a… plumber?

Vivian Le:
I have no idea what that is…

Roman Mars:
“So if you’re traveling alone or as a couple, it’s hard to get pictures with you in them. It can be embarrassing to have to ask someone to take a photo for you, confusing if they don’t speak your language, even costly, if the third party regards your camera as a gift.”

Roman Mars:
“With a 57 centimeter telescoping pole, your dilemma is over expanding to three times its length for a full shot of you, your companion, and your environs. Your only problem will be that all your shots will capture you in the act of holding a pole, which will become a tiresome feature of your photo album, unless you really like poles.” And it’s a full on selfie stick.

Vivian Le:
Yeah!

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Vivian Le:
And this was 10 years before the patent for the selfie stick came out.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. So I don’t know if Kawakami failed at making a Chindogu, or if we’ve failed as a society, because people are still using selfie sticks.

Roman Mars:
I think we failed as a society. Thank you, Vivian. That’s great. Thank you.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
So I’m in the studio with Emmett FitzGerald, producer here at 99% Invisible. How are you doing?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Good. How are you doing?

Roman Mars:
I’m good. So what is your mini-story today?

Emmett FitzGerald:
All right, so my mini-story’s about blue glass.

Roman Mars:
Oh.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And specifically, it’s about this strange period in the mid to late 19th century when people thought that blue glass was a light passing through a blue pane of glass (that) could solve just about any problem you could possibly have. And this all goes back to a Civil War general.

Jenny Benjamin:
General Augustus J. Pleasanton was a soldier in the Civil War, and he was a gentleman scientist. He did a lot of reading.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So this is Jenny Benjamin and she’s the curator of the Museum of Vision in San Francisco. Cool place, check it out. And she has looked into this guy, General Pleasanton, and she says that he was kind of this armchair scientist, really shooting from the hip, and he had all kinds of wacky scientific theories.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But one of them had to do with blue light, and he reasoned that the blue color of the sky, there must be some inherent value to that color. And that blue light was part of what facilitated the growth of plants and animals, and in biological processes.

Jenny Benjamin:
So he built Pleasanton, that is, built a garden nursery in his backyard, with alternating blue planes of glass, and he ran a “experiment,” to see how well the vegetables would grow.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So this is like a greenhouse?

Jenny Benjamin:
Yes, like a green… But I didn’t want to use the term “greenhouse,” Because it was a blue house.

Roman Mars:
(laughs) And when she says “experiment,” what does she mean there?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I mean, she’s hitting at, this isn’t exactly the most scientific gentleman scientist. But basically, he was growing grapes inside of this glass house, with a certain amount of the windows tinted blue.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And you know, you can kind of imagine what happens next in the story, right? I mean…

Roman Mars:
I think so.

Jenny Benjamin:
Pleasanton reports, of course, that his plants grew to incredible size. So then, he expanded the experiment and he created an animal pen, I believe it was for pigs, and he claimed the pigs grew to enormous size. And it was all because of the blue light.

Roman Mars:
That’s so great.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, right. Yeah, I mean, you know…

Roman Mars:
It’s the breakthrough of the century.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Exactly. And so, word starts to get out about these experiments, and he actually starts giving talks around the country, extolling the virtues of blue light. He even got a patent, or he applied for a patent, for what he called his cerulean process, which… I, I love that. And it’s a really amazing name.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And of course, this is according to him, but he says the patent officer came to his farm, and this is what he supposedly said: “If my investigation should establish the verity of your statements, you have made the most important discovery of the century, transcending in importance, even that of Morse’s telegraph, which at best furnished only a means of communication with distant places, while your discovery could be brought home to every living object on the planet. Your patent would be one of the most valuable ever issued in the United States.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s some high tentative praise.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, right, exactly. And you get, he gets the patent, and then he goes on to write a book about this, about how blue light, that it’s a panacea.

Jenny Benjamin:
And it was touted as a cure-all, right, everything from skin conditions, to your eyesight.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Also baldness, insomnia, back pain, more serious diseases. He basically was saying, “This can do everything.” And the book was really popular. It sold a lot of copies, and it had all these testimonials in it of people saying, “Oh, this light made my pig giant,” or, “This light cured my paraplegic child,” or whatever. And so…

Jenny Benjamin:
Eh, for about two years, 1876 and 1877 there was suddenly this, huge fad for all things blue.

Emmett FitzGerald:
There are blue eyeglasses. She showed me a pair of blue eyeglasses from this period. At the Museum of Vision, there was blue wallpaper, but the, the big thing was blue windows.

Roman Mars:
I mean, right. It makes sense.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So people would build little sun porches, and put one blue glass window, thinking that if you could spend time bathing in the blue light, that that would cure whatever ailed you. And this has become known as the “blue glass craze.”

Roman Mars:
And so, when did the “blue class craze” come crashing down? When people realized it didn’t work at all?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, yeah, quickly. It lasted a couple of years. And the whole time that it was going on, there were people that were kind of poking fun, the same way it happens now, when people believe in pseudo-scientific things.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
There were editorials written about these idiots installing blue glass all through their houses, but that the real sort of nail in the coffin was this: Scientific American. I mean, it speaks to, it speaks to how widespread it was, that Scientific American took it upon themselves to like thoroughly debunk it in their pages. So there was a really long article just debunking every aspect of this science. And you know, just to be perfectly clear about this…

Jenny Benjamin:
There is no way that color by itself, or colored light, is going to cure your eye disease, or any disease. Go see your doctor.

Roman Mars:
So are there any of these blue windows left out in the world?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I asked Jenny that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Are there like remnants of this era that you can see today? Like, windows and buildings anywhere, or…

Jenny Benjamin:
That is a really good question. I don’t know if there are any buildings with blue windows specifically because of this, but I bet it’s somewhere. I would not be surprised. We could go chase some down, probably. If we were to find this mythical house with its window pane, it would probably be just one blue window.

Roman Mars:
Oh, please tell me you found it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Well, okay. So one of the most comprehensive pieces of writing about this era was by on the writer Paul Collins.

Roman Mars:
Oh, he’s so great. He’s one of my favorites, or something.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, yeah. He’s a really good historical writer.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And he wrote a chapter about Augustus Pleasanton in one of his books. And in the chapter, he talks about about himself finding a window, a blue glass window, when he was living in San Francisco. And so I called him up to sort of talk about that.

Paul Collins:
Yeah. I was, you know, looking at houses as I walk along. And there’s this one with sort of a front or parlor type of area, that had blue glass panes in it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
He’s not 100% sure that this is from that era.

Paul Collins:
For all I know, that might have just been like some hippie in 1970 that decided that would be a cool thing to do. But the age of the house was such that it was like the right era, for that to have been an original, a bit of that fad.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the book he talks about how it’s between these two gas stations on this one street, in sort of the sunset, in San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so, I did some Google Street View sleuthing.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so, here, check it out. So here is the house, and you can see, yeah, these two panes here.

Roman Mars:
I see.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And he thinks that this little entryway on the house is one of these sort of sun porches.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, that’s pretty cool. And you can tell, it’s like a kind of older-looking house on the block.

Roman Mars:
It is, yeah. No, it’s a Victorian, and it looks like it could be from that era-

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right.

Roman Mars:
For sure.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so, I decided to go check it out.

Roman Mars:
Oh, awesome!

Emmett FitzGerald:
“In between the Shell station and the Chevron, Let’s see what we can find. Noooo! Oh, no, it’s gone! It’s gone. The house is gone. No!”

Roman Mars:
Oh no!

Emmett FitzGerald:
So, it was gone. The house had been turned into a condo.

Roman Mars:
So even that picture from Google Street View is out of date.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, and the crazy thing is that that was from 2017.

Roman Mars:
Wow!

Emmett FitzGerald:
So I went there, I was fairly confident. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to find it. I’m going to knock on the door,” and be like, “Hey, what are you thinking about these blue glass? Like, does it make you feel any better? How healthy are you?” And I get there, and…

Emmett FitzGerald:
“That house with the blue windows has been torn down, and now, there’s a giant box, a huge clear window. It’s really ugly. I try not to be nostalgic about architecture and buildings, but this one really looks terrible.”

Roman Mars:
And worst of all, the glass is clear.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. Clear glass.

Roman Mars:
What a bummer.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. So, you know, the story? After my long search, I still have not found a blue glass window. You know, if anyone out there.

Roman Mars:
If anyone has it, I mean there’s got to, there’s certainly houses that are extant from that era of… I mean, let us know.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. It seems plausible that someone out there has got one of these windows we could take a look at.

Roman Mars:
That would be awesome. Cool. Thank you so much.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, thank you.

Roman Mars:
Up next we’ll have one more Christmas themed mini-story. You’re going to want this for your Christmas party banter right after this.

——————————————————————-

Roman Mars:
Our final mini-story of the day comes from senior producer Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
You know what would make it really cozy in here, Roman?

Roman Mars:
It’s not cozy enough, this three-by-five box?

Katie Mingle:
It’s actually so hot in here, but just roll with me.

Roman Mars:
Okay, okay, what would make it cozy in here?

Katie Mingle:
A fire.

Roman Mars:
Well, I wouldn’t recommend starting a fire in here right now, though.

Katie Mingle:
Okay. But what we could do, we could go to YouTube, and find ourselves a Yule log.

Roman Mars:
Do you want me to go to YouTube right now?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, will you?

Roman Mars:
Okay. Yeah, sure.

Katie Mingle:
Just a tiny bit of history. A Yule log is an old term for a certain type of fire that people would burn at Christmas with a special log.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay.

Katie Mingle:
But now, often when people talk about Yule, a Yule log, they’re talking about, like, like this.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
So click on that. That first one.

Roman Mars:
“Ten hours of crackling logs for Christmas”? Okay. It’s, it does its job. As soon as the fire starts crackling, it’s relaxing.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It’s nice.

Katie Mingle:
This idea of putting a fireplace on TV, so that you could watch it, as if you know you had a fire in your home, actually goes back to 1966.

Roman Mars:
Cool.

Katie Mingle:
And it started at this little television, local television station in New York City, called WPIX. And yeah, it was kind of the brainchild of the station manager, a guy named Fred Thrower, and he… you know how people are always looking for holiday content?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Katie Mingle:
We know this from working in radio.

Chip Arcuri:
And it was really an idea in his head that he wanted to give city dwellers the luxury and the warmth of a Yule log fire, who didn’t have fireplaces in their apartment.

Katie Mingle:
So that’s Chip Arcuri. He’s kind of an amateur historian of this original Yule log.

Chip Arcuri:
The location for the first shoot of the Yule log in 1966 was Gracie Mansion, which was the Mayor’s residence, and still is. At the time, the Mayor was John Lindsay, and he gave them permission to come and film the Yule log – WPIX, their filming crew – and they did. But there was a mishap, where a spark flew out, and it damaged the very expensive Oriental rug.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, this was a $4,000 rug apparently, and they really messed it up. But anyway, they got their footage, they put it on the air. It was a three-hour long broadcast with a loop of this fire, and it would air on Christmas Eve, and you’d turn on your TV to Channel 11. And it started, it actually started with this little, kind of Christmas time, special message from someone at the station. The one that I found online, it’s just striking, because it’s, how to put this, it’s very Jesus forward?

Roman Mars:
Let’s hear it.

Broadcaster:
“And more than any other person in history, Jesus taught us to respect the godliness in ourselves, and give it expression, by doing God’s work in the world. The gifts which we give this Christmas season as symbols of God’s great gift to us, will pass and be forgotten. But the gift of hope…”

Katie Mingle:
So?

Roman Mars:
Wow, and this is a secular UHF-style station, right?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. Just a sort of local news station.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So, and then after that message, they’d cut to the fireplace, which was the Governor’s Mansion fireplace. And the camera would kind of do, like, a slow zoom. You’d start out seeing like the whole mantle, there were stockings on the mantle, and then, in the… It would slowly zoom in, to where you were just seeing the fire. And then, for the next three hours, they would play Christmas music.

Chip Arcuri:
It is classic Christmas music from the 1950s and ’60s.

Katie Mingle:
So, yeah, so it’s a lot of orchestral kind of big band stuff, people like the Ray Conniff Singers, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Percy Faith.

Chip Arcuri:
Percy Faith is the King of the Yule log. There’s nobody that has more songs in the program than Percy Faith.

Roman Mars:
The King of the Yule Log.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, it’s on his tombstone.

Chip Arcuri:
I’ve always said that the program, if the program aired with a great video of a fireplace, and an inferior soundtrack, it would have not done very well. But it aired with a great soundtrack.

Katie Mingle:
Chip loves Christmas music. He, at some point, he mentioned his list of top 500 Christmas songs. And I, it was, like-

Roman Mars:
What?

Katie Mingle:
I didn’t even know there were 500 Christmas songs, let alone top…

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s great.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, Chip basically grew up with this Yule Log broadcast. It was a Christmas Eve tradition, and… Yeah, he and his family used to watch it together, even though they actually had a real fireplace.

Chip Arcuri:
We did actually watch it. We sat and we’d watch the actual program, the actual footage.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. Like, you would kind of gather around, and put it on, and you’d all stare at it?

Chip Arcuri:
Yeah. Oh, yeah! We would watch it like it was a real fireplace. Well, actually between the two. It would be on one side of the room – the TV with the fireplace with the Yule log – and the other side in our family room was the real fireplace. And we were probably watching the Yule log more than we were the real fireplace.

Katie Mingle:
So New Yorkers loved this broadcast, and eventually, the station decides they need to to reshoot it, because the film that they shot it on is deteriorating. And it was actually a 17-second loop.

Roman Mars:
Oh, my God!

Katie Mingle:
People could see, like…

Roman Mars:
Totally!

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
You can totally see a 17 second image.

Katie Mingle:
Oh yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s crazy! (laughs)

Katie Mingle:
I know. So, but you remember how, the first time they shot it, they burned the hole in the Governor’s rug…

Roman Mars:
Right, yeah. Right.

Katie Mingle:
Well, he did not forget. Yeah.

Chip Arcuri:
They would he would not let them back at Gracie Mansion, because of the mishap at the rug. And now, they needed a location.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, he wouldn’t let them go back there. And somehow, and this part is kind of lost a history, someone found a very similar-looking fireplace, and you’ll never guess where it was.

Chip Arcuri:
They located a very close to similar fireplace in California, of all places, in Palo Alto. And they refilmed it in August of 1970, during a heat wave in Northern California.

Roman Mars:
Whoa. The Bay Area zone!

Katie Mingle:
Palo Alto, California. Take that New Yorkers.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. And the… So, New Yorkers have been watching our fireplace?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
For 30 years, or something?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So this Palo Alto fire became the Yule log. It aired for 20 years. It’s the Classic Yule Log, not to be confused with the Original Yule Log.

Chip Arcuri:
The 1966 Yule log that was shot at Gracie Mansion, that aired for those first four years, is the original, but it’s not the Classic, because most people don’t remember those original years that it aired.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, this one aired for a really long time, so…

Roman Mars:
Twenty years.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. But then, in 1990, Christmas comes, and Chip turns on his TV, just like he did every year. And he turns to Channel 11, and…

Chip Arcuri:
and that just wasn’t on. We were all looking for it. It wasn’t on. Luckily for me, I just had a feeling that it might not be on forever, and I recorded it.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, Chip had a recording, so he was fine, but the rest of New York was just out of luck, and people were mad. The station got a ton of letters.

Chip Arcuri:
So why did they take it off the air after 20 years?

Katie Mingle:
So the station got, actually got a new program director.

Chip Arcuri:
The new program director came in and said, “What’s this, the Yule log? It’s taking up too much commercial time. Take it off.”

Roman Mars:
Oh!

Katie Mingle:
Scrooge.

Roman Mars:
Heartless.

Katie Mingle:
So, so yeah. So Chip and a few other people actually started a petition to get it back on the air. They set up a website called bringbackthelog.com, but yeah, but nothing seemed to persuade the station that it was worth bringing back, until, actually, 9/11.

Chip Arcuri:
What happened is after the terrorist attacks, Betty Ellen Berlamino, who was the president of the station at the time, felt New Yorkers needed comfort food, television. They needed something to remind them of the past, something of, you know, more simple, happier days.

Katie Mingle:
So yeah, they put it back on and it still runs today. It runs, I believe, it’s an hour on Christmas Eve, and then a few hours on Christmas Day. Chip believes very strongly that the best time to watch it is Christmas Eve, and the way he talks about it, like it’s spirit… It’s like, it’s spiritual for him. It’s like a Christmas Eve Mass.

Chip Arcuri:
It’s like a vigil, so to speak, with… the cards are sent, the cookies are baked, the gifts are wrapped, and now it’s just time to relax, and enjoy the celebrity of the moment. Enjoy the peace and tranquility of Christmas, before the crazy Christmas rush on Christmas Day.

Roman Mars:
That’s nice.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Is it the same Palo Alto fire, or did they film something new?

Katie Mingle:
I believe they’re still using that same Palo Alto fire, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, so that’s Chip Arcuri. He runs the, bringbackthelog turned into just theyulelog.com. He’s basically the keeper of all things Yule Log, and he even helped the TV station add another hour of music to the broadcast, because he has this huge Christmas record collection.

Katie Mingle:
And a shout out to our own Avery Trufelman, who first told me about this history, and to her dad, who I think told her.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so cool. Wow. The Yule log.

Roman Mars:
We’ll hear more mini-stories from the rest of the 99pi crew as the first episode of 2019, but we will have episodes in the feed for the final two Tuesdays of 2018, even though they land on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Roman Mars:
I figured there’s a good portion of you who are traveling and resting, but still need nice things to listen to, while you might have some time off work.

Roman Mars:
And if you don’t have time off work, we’ll still be here for you. So stay tuned, and a Happy New Year.

Comments (17)

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  1. jschuh

    umm, a solar powered flashlight isn’t exactly useless you know…
    just in case Viv doesn’t get it, it charges when you don’t need it…

    1. AT

      I would agree, especially during natural disasters it can be a pretty handy tool when there’s a mad rush to stock up on batteries.

    2. Ankit Thakkar

      I agree, especially for those living in areas that are prone to natural disasters such as Hurricanes they can be of great use.

  2. Hello 99 PI,

    Articles or principles of a manifesto or a constitution are tenets. Unless these principles are only contract residents of the doctrine, then they may be tenants.

  3. Dan

    Re blue glass: I can’t see a window pane from the street view image, but there is a house in Berkeley that is clearly devoted to blue glass. The architecture looks old enough to me, but you’re the experts. You don’t even need to cross the bridge. Northeast corner of Milvia and Francisco.

  4. George from Brooklyn

    The original 1966 yule log footage was found in a can and restored in 2016. Please correct this error.

  5. Annie Eide

    Regarding the Yule Log segment: the Latin word for hearth is “focus”. Back in the old Roman days, I guess that’s about all there was to focus on sitting around your living room. So maybe it’s not such a stretch to think of a family staring into a fireplace.

  6. Jean Bickal

    Two of your stories in this episode made me feel my age. I watched The Prisoner when it was originally broadcast in the US in the 1960’s. I had seen Patrick McGoohan, the star, in another British series called, Secret Agent Man in the US and Danger Man in Britain. The Prisoner was very weird but I loved it.
    Since we lived in New Jersey, we got WPIX, channel 11 and we always watched the Yule Log on Christmas Eve. I probably didn’t see the original log video but we always tried to identify where the loop ended.

  7. Love the log. But WPIX wasn’t/isn’t a UHF station. It was Channel 11, home to local kids’ shows (Officer Joe Bolton, Captain Jack McCarthy, Chuck McCann). Home also to The Honeymooners, in years and years of late-night repeats.

  8. Cate

    Listening to the Yule Log story reminded me of my favorite Christmas music album that our family had when I was young — all the hits by Percy Faith, The Ray Conniff Singers, Mormon Tabernacle Choir…none of the Mariah Carey nonsense.
    Did Roman really not know what a Yule Log was?

  9. Kasia

    I totally sent you an email about Portmeirion :) Will shamelessly take the credit (pff Vaery’s ancient t-shirt :)) Love the show!

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