Anniversaries of America : What do Harley-Davidson, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Angelyne and supermarkets have in common? It’s not what you might think. They’re all celebrating birthdays in ‘96.
Before Victoria’s Secret, there was Frederick’s of Hollywood to dress the well-undressed woman. And before “The Jerry Springer Show,” there was the National Enquirer to satisfy America’s taste for the tasteless. Harley-Davidsons have long been the steed of choice for urban cowboys. And in a city with so many billboards they sometimes seem an indistinguishable forest, Angelyne’s are the trees that poke into view.
Those are just a few facts of life that put the pop into pop culture. And they are gathered here together because they’re marking anniversaries in 1996. So we reconsider the humble Scunci as it celebrates its 10th year on the planet, and we say happy birthday to all and to all a good night.
Harley-Davidson 95th anniversary
Harley and Davidson--Davidsons actually--built the first Harley-Davidson in 1901. William Harley and the three Davidson brothers, bicyclists all, were trying to find an effortless way to ride. So they strapped a motor and tomato-can carburetor onto a bicycle, powering a vehicle that went 25 mph on flat ground. Then they tinkered with the design, and their bigger, better 1903 model was dubbed “Silent Grey Fellow,” the best muffled pal a motorist could have.
Four years later, the Milwaukee-based company was selling bikes to the postal service and police. But Harleys shed their clean-cut, right-riding image with a 1947 Life magazine cover featuring a biker guzzling beer atop a stripped-down Harley. And so a romance with Hell’s Angels was born.
For years, Harley-Davidson considered its rebellious image a selling point. But when the ‘80s went yuppie, Harley-Davidson went along for the ride. The company began urging dealers to dress up their showrooms with mannequins sporting motor wear and accessories. It even sponsored Harley night at Bloomingdale’s.
By the ‘90s, Harley gangs were springing up with such well-heeled names as RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers in Malibu) and the Rolex Rangers (ad executives in Chicago). Gone were yesterday’s Harley poster bad boys like Marlon Brando, to be replaced by such high-profile bikers as Malcolm Forbes and Jay Leno.
Outlaw was out. Sporty was in.
“Is what happened to blue jeans happening to Harley-Davidsons?” worry Jane & Michael Stern in the “Encyclopedia of Pop Culture” (HarperCollins, 1992). “Are the super-heavyweight bikes turning from symbols of working-class rebellion and virility into fashion accessories?”
For a reply, one must turn to the Harley-Davidson catalog.
Scunci 10th Anniversary
You read that right. Not scrunchy. Scunci. The kind of name you might give, say, a lame dog--and of course, a ubiquitous fashion accessory for scruffy hair.
Scunci was both the faux, furry child and the brainchild of Rommy Hunt Revson, who was a newly divorced, starving singer-songwriter in Southampton, N.Y., when she thought of wrapping ponytail elastic with fabric and naming it after her pup. Revson’s life was so stressful at the time that she was losing her hair.
Her hair loss is your gain. Revson invented the Scunci to tame her thinning locks. A strip of ribbon alone didn’t hold her hair. Elastic alone ripped it. Together, voila!
A patent and ad campaign later, Revson was in business. She culled $20 million in orders the first month. Other manufacturers tried to horn in on the Scunci market, but Revson hired a lawyer to police her patent. Now the hirsute of the world snap up Scuncis at $1 to $15 a pop to the tune of $100 million a year.
Frederick’s of Hollywood 50th Anniversary
Frederick of Hollywood, aka the late Frederick Mellinger, liked to say that the whole lacy enterprise was inspired by Betty Grable’s legs. But unlike other men who couldn’t get beyond the legs, Mellinger was fascinated with the idea of dressing them.
“I never listen to Paris designers,” he once said. “They don’t dress women for men.”
When Mellinger started his lingerie company in 1946 in a tiny loft grandly dubbed Frederick’s of Fifth Avenue, he was already displaying a taste for the risque by making black underthings in the heyday of white cotton bloomers.
The next year he went West. And borrowing a bit of Hollywood glitz, Frederick’s introduced such lingerie milestones as the push-up bra, christened the “Rising Star.”
By the 1960s, the Frederick’s je ne sais quoi and padded panties were available not only in its purple headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard, but in malls and through catalogs that purveyed bondage devices and encouraged women to “Dress for Sex-cess.”
By the mid-1980s, sex-cess wasn’t playing in Peoria, figuratively the mainstay of Frederick’s, and the company toned down its image and its stores, from brassy burgundy to mute mauve, from bare-breasted catalogs to models that are, if not demure, at least covered up. The make-over helped boost sales last year to $132 million via 200 stores and 45 million catalogs.
And Frederick’s feminine and lucrative muchness is duly enshrined in its Lingerie Hall of Fame, toasting such undersung treasures as the bra Natalie Wood wore in “Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice.” Not for nothing was Frederick crowned the “King of Passion Fashion.”
Remote Control 40th Anniversary
The Space Age gadget that puts the couch potato into couch potato was born of America’s postwar romance with the push button. The remote control’s love nest was Zenith Radio Corp., which took on the odious task of actually getting up to change TV channels in the mid-1950s.
Initially, Zenith struck out with controls of dubious remoteness. First up was 1955’s “Lazy Bones,” which was attached to the set by a cord--handy for tripping over. Zenith also tried radio waves, which “worked fine,” Robert Adler, father of the remote control, told the Chicago Tribune, “except they also worked fine for your neighbor.”
The “Flash-Matic” was supposed to work by zapping corners of the screen with “a highly directional flashlight,” Adler said, except for one thing: People “couldn’t remember which corner did what.”
Adler, who had a doctorate in physics, was summoned by Zenith’s founder and president, Cmdr. Eugene F. McDonald Jr., to solve the problem and carry out McDonald’s mission: to prevent commercials from destroying TV.
Adler’s solution hit the market in June 1956. Dubbed “Space Command TV,” his device used high-frequency sound (later models used infrared light). The company wooed the public with the promise of shutting off “the sound of long, annoying commercials while the pictures remain on the screen.” Zenith’s siren call? “Nothing Between You and the Set but Space!”
Lo these many remote-controlled years later, this silver lining has developed a cloud, namely, it has been branded the Mace of the war between the sexes. That is, men brandishing a remote are snappy zappers. Women linger, prompting this analysis from Jerry Seinfeld: “Because women nest and men hunt.”
“It is, thankfully a rare problem,” editorialized the New York Times. “All too often, he and she glumly agree that the right button to push is the one labeled OFF.”
Supermarkets 80th Anniversary
You think it’s just a place to pick up Lean Cuisine. Nay, it is much more than that, according to 1955’s “Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book,” which proclaimed the humble supermarket “a symbol of America’s attainment of a high standard of living through democracy, and is so looked upon as one of the great institutions in the world.”
This standard-bearer of peace, justice and the American way was a long time in coming. The first supermarket was the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, an innovative store that allowed customers to browse the aisles.
By 1930, the first super supermarket was built in Long Island. The huge King Cullen Market opened on the site of an abandoned garage and was billed “the World’s Greatest Price Wrecker.” The store made shopping news by staying open in the evening and inventing the shopping cart in 1931.
By 1940, the Father of the Supermarket, Piggly Wiggly’s Clarence Saunders, tried to raise the shopping ante with automated stores. At Saunders’ FoodElectric and Keedozzles stores, customers checked themselves out and bagged their own purchases.
Saunders’ supermarket of the future never caught fire, but other innovations did, such as the bar-code scanners of the 1970s and the self-serve salad bars of the 1980s.
Angelyne’s Billboards 15th Anniversary
They are as much a part of the L.A. skyline as mountains and smog. Angelyne’s personal topography has been emblazoned on billboards around town for 15 years, making the cartoonishly buxom blond the quintessential Angeleno--famous for being famous.
The billboards note her name in pink and list her celebrity-for-hire telephone number.
That’s celebrity for hire. Not actress for hire.
“I really don’t want to be famous for being an actress,” she has said. “Anybody can do that. I just want to be famous for the magic I possess.”
And perhaps for being a rocket scientist, which is what she would do if she weren’t a self-styled Love Goddess of the Future! In the meantime, she’ll have to make do with Angelyne T-shirts, Angelyne-written screenplays like “The Bra That Ate L.A.,” shepherding the regulars at the West Hollywood Halloween parade and chats with Marilyn Monroe via a medium for career advice.
National Enquirer 70th Anniversary
First it was the New York Enquirer, a relatively classy contender among the city’s scruffy tabloids when Hearst launched it in 1926. By 1952, circulation had sagged to a paltry 17,000, allowing Generoso Pope to snap it up for a thrifty $75,000.
Pope, a graduate of MIT and the CIA’s psychological warfare division, cooked up the winning publishing prescription of “the bizarre, with tales of mutilation, sadism, murder and gory accidents,” according to his 1988 New York Times obit. In a nod to growing readership lured by such scoops as “Mom Uses Son’s Face for an Ashtray,” Pope changed the name to the National Enquirer in 1955.
By 1968, the tabloid wars were shifting from scruffier newsstands to supermarkets, which were more receptive to family fare. Pope retooled the weekly, peopling it with psychics and evangelists instead of corpses. His inspiration? Reader’s Digests of the 1930s.
“Most of the stories were about triumphs over adversity, breakthroughs in medicine, UFOs and nutrition,” he once said. “The most important element was that most of it was uplifting.”
Uplifting celebrities, that is, if that isn’t an oxymoron. In Pope’s star view, People magazine was “too highbrow.” Indeed, the Enquirer’s taste for salacious gossip landed it in court, where Carol Burnett won $1.6 million in damages for libel in 1981.
But the Enquirer’s flash-and-trash image began to be buffed somewhat when it scooped the mainstream press by publishing the photo of Donna Rice astride Gary Hart’s knee that helped scuttle his 1988 presidential bid. The weekly went on to break news about Gennifer Flowers, Michael Jackson and, most notably, O.J. Simpson. The Enquirer’s reporting around the Trial of the Century was distinguished enough to warrant controversial citations in the New York Times and its own edition of “Nightline.”
Beyond--and probably despite--its incipient respectability, the Enquirer enjoys serious circulation: It sells 3.3 million copies a week and receives so many letters it has its own ZIP code--33464.
* Times research librarian Mary Edwards contributed to this report.