It’s always fun to look back at the things we took for granted, the things we thought were omnipresent and would never change.
It’s also fun to apply hindsight to hubris … to burst the bubbles of people or organizations that blew their own horns a little too loudly.
So this week we’ll do a little of both.
Specifically, we’ll sit down in the family room of 1107 Hope Street, where the TV was, and watch as a well-known American institution pats itself on the back for a quarter-century of success.
Probably no one involved — from the stars, to the producers, to the viewers in family rooms like my grandpa’s — had any inkling that the institution being celebrated had fewer than a dozen years of Life left.
No, that’s not a typo:
Strictly speaking, Life magazine wasn’t 25 years old in the spring of 1961; it was 78.
The original Life (I steal liberally over the next few paragraphs from Wiki) was founded in 1883 as a humor and general interest magazine. Apparently it influenced The New Yorker, which promptly ate its lunch.
Life had been struggling for years when Henry Luce bought the name in 1936, relaunching it as a weekly newsmagazine with a focus on photography. Sparing no expense on capital letters, Luce described the revamped magazine as “THE SHOW-BOOK OF THE WORLD” in the prospectus he prepared before its launch.
As we all know, Luce’s vision paid off. The magazine was selling a million copies a week just four months after launch. Its coverage of World War II, as well as copy contributions from well-known authors, further established Life as near-required American weekly reading.
As TV caught on in the 1950s, Life’s circulation began to drop. Americans could now see the kinds of images in which Life specialized every day in the comfort of their living rooms.
I cannot imagine, then, that Henry Luce was entirely happy about handing cash to a TV network — NBC, as it happened — to host a celebration of Life’s quarter-century as a photo magazine. (News articles from the time describe the 90-minute show as being “sponsored” by Life; NBC didn’t independently decide that the subject was worth covering.)
But, TV is a visual medium; and Life was a predominantly visual magazine; plus there was a story the company wanted to tell. So in the end, Luce’s desire to celebrate his success won out over his reluctance to pay a competitor for America’s eyeballs.
Did they hire Bob Hope? Of course they hired Bob Hope. Heck, they even got President John F. Kennedy to record remarks for the occasion. Since I can’t find a video of the show online, Kennedy’s remarks appear to be the only scrap of “25 Years of Life” that is available on the Internet 55 years later.
I take that back: Another remnant of the show is available on eBay if you care to pay for it. Life commemorated the event by pressing a vinyl record with musical and comedic highlights of the show. I’d love to know how many they pressed, how many they sold, and how many were ever spun more than once. Something tells me handsome copies can still be found at your local flea market.
A flea market — rather than a newsstand — is also your best bet for copies of Life. The magazine ceased weekly publication at the end of 1972. Life changed, and left Life behind.
I can’t say whether my grandpa watched “25 Years of Life” because he was genuinely interested, or because Time Inc. company men were expected to. Some of both, most likely.
Either way, I wonder whether he questioned at any point in those 90 minutes why people would put up with still photographs when they could watch them move.