Archive for Americana

9 Reasons why playgrounds back in the day were more AWESOME than today’s playgrounds

Posted in Americana, nostalgia, pop culture with tags , , , on March 19, 2010 by Paxton

Playland USA

Public playgrounds today are a bastion of nauseating safeness. Everything’s bolted to the ground and made of plastic. Slides are never higher than about 5-6 feet. Swings are engineered in a way that they can’t be swung scarily 10 feet into the air (how do they do that?). It’s all just so safe and boring.

When I was growing up, and even before that in the ’60s and ’70s, the playground was not only unsafe, it might possibly kill you. Everything was made of steel held together by sharp metal rivets and slides towered over 20 feet high oftentimes curly cue-ing around 3 or 4 times. It was awesome and it was insane at the same time.  It was awe-sane!!

I was looking at pictures on Flickr and I came across a group that had pictures of vintage playground equipment.  People had even posted scans of old catalogs featuring enormous metal constructs that were sold to be put on public playgrounds.  So, taking pictures from that vintage playground Flickr site, let’s take a look at how playgrounds from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are much more unbelievably bad ass than playgrounds are today.

Tire Mountain Tire Wall
Tire Swing buried tire
1. Stuff made from tires – Back in the ’70s, half of the playground consisted of stuff made with discarded tires. All you needed was some wood, metal chains, giant friggin’ nails and a few tires.  Chain a tire to a wood frame, you got a tire swing. Nail like 10 tires together and fasten them to another wood frame, you have a climbing wall. Hell, just take a giant tractor tire and bury half of it in the Earth.  What could be easier?  And safer?

Scary swing set 1 Scary swing 2
Scary swing 3 demon swing
2. Horrifying skinny clown swing sets – Check out these giant, skinny clown swings sets. These towering clown totems were TERRIFYING. They actually look less like swing sets and more like something a demonic clown cult would sacrifice small animals around.  Or maybe something Barnum & Bailey would tie you to if you snuck around their tents unsupervised.  And what’s that last swing set on the bottom right?  A lion?  Some circus demon?  Horrible.

merry go round 1 merry go round 2
3. Multi-colored metal carousels – Large metal merry go rounds that spun freely in either direction. More like “puke and go round”. Invariably, multiple kids would jump on it and then start spinning it faster than is totally necessary.  Next thing you know, kids are thrown 10 feet into the air,  getting dragged along the side in the dirt while holding on and others vomiting up their bologna sandwiches. It’s a wonder more kids didn’t die at the playground. Which made it all the more awesome.

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Roadside Giants: Discovering the Muffler Men

Posted in Americana, Muffler Men, nostalgia, pop culture with tags , , on February 7, 2008 by Paxton
Interstate Signs

As many of you know, I was born in Birmingham, AL. I lived there for 31 years until I moved to Jacksonville in 2005. Since I was a kid, I’ve ridden and/or driven interstate 65 North through downtown (then on to 20/59) towards the airport more times than I can remember. After graduating Auburn, when I became a software consultant, that route was passed almost every weekend for years. As a kid, when I would go interstate 65 into downtown, there were two things I always looked forward to seeing from the car window. The first being a tall rectangular building filled with windows called the AmSouth Center (now the Regions Center). Ever since I can remember, during Christmas time, the building will put up colored cells in its windows to create pictures on all four sides. Click here to see the side with the Christmas tree. The other sides include a stocking and a candy cane. The building was always cool and even during the non-holiday season was fun to gaze upon.

Stan the GCR Tire ManThe second thing I fondly remember noticing on my ride downtown was the giant statue of a man on top of a building holding his arms out in front of him as if he was holding something, but he wasn’t (peep the picture to the right). He appeared to be dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls and he stood on the roof of what looked to be an auto repair shop. I just thought he looked cool standing there as it was a very neat looking statue. The guy was obviously very large, and I can’t recall the first time I noticed him, but he’s been there as long as I can remember that drive. I remember thinking “Where did he come from and what’s he supposed to be holding in his empty outstretched hands?” It was all so mysterious. I was fascinated. As I grew older, he was just always there and I really didn’t think anything more about it.

It wasn’t until years later I found out that my auto repair statue/mascot was just one of a large group of statues collectively called, “The Muffler Men”. My particular one was on top of GCR Tire Repair and his name was Stan. I couldn’t believe it, my dude had a name and there were more of these things? When I sat down and thought about it, I do remember seeing statues similar to my auto repair guy in pictures. I remember seeing a lot of differently dressed auto repair guys that looked suspiciously similar. I started researching their history and what I found surprised me. These statues are regarded as vintage Roadside Americana. They have a many varied and interesting history and have been around for many, many years. They sit in auto repair shops, miniature golf courses, carnivals, gas stations, antique stores, etc, etc. Some dressed as mechanics, Indians, lumberjacks or space men. The ones we see now have just been passed down for generations and most likely are not with their original owners. But how did they begin? What was their original purpose? Was it a standard mold made by many different companies or did one company crank these things out? Well, I finally found out the Secret Origin of the Muffler Men, so if you are not already bored to tears by this article then read on for the amazing history of the roadside “Muffler Men”.

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The Real-Life Legend of the Cannonball Run

Posted in Cannonball Run, cars, movies, pop culture, TV shows with tags , , on March 13, 2007 by Paxton

Cannonball RunIf you’ve been watching American Idol the last few weeks you’ve no doubt noticed the numerous promos for a show called Drive. It’s an action series about a secret, illegal road race and the people that participate in it (some of them, possibly, under duress). The show starts on April 15 and is produced and written by Tim Minear (one of the main contributers to the tv shows Angel and Firefly). The promos are vague, but in my mind, it looks like a cross between Cannonball Run and Death Race 2000. These promos got me thinking about the Cannonball Run movies and how much I enjoyed them. It also got me thinking about how I heard those movies were based on a real race. Well, I did a little research, and this article is the result. So if you are at all curious about the origins of the movie Cannonball Run, then read on, dear sir, for the ride starts here.

The legend begins with Erwin George Baker. Baker was born in Indiana in 1882. Throughout the 1930s, he became an extremely popular motorcycle and automobile race driver. Cannonball BakerAmong the many accomplishments in his prestigious career; he won the first ever race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, placed 11th in the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and became the first commissioner of NASCAR. However, he gained his greatest notoriety in 1915 after a New York to Los Angeles drive which took 11 days and 7 hours. It was this intercontinental drive that earned him the nickname “Cannonball” after the famous Illinois Central railway car, “The Cannonball”. In 1933 he would make the cross country trek again, but this time, he’d do it in only 53 hours and 30 minutes, a record that would stand for almost 40 years. “Cannonball” Baker would pass away in 1960 as one of the most revered and popular automobile and motorcycle drivers of all time. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

Brock YatesFast forward to 1968. Brock Yates is an executive editor for Car & Driver magazine. He writes a scathing article called “The Grosse Pointe Myopians”, which critiques the auto industry, its management and its products which makes him infamous within the auto industry. Then, in 1971, Yates, along with fellow Car & Driver editor Steve Smith, decides to create an unofficial, and illegal, intercontinental road race. Inspired by the travel records of Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, the race begins in New York and ends in Redondo Beach, CA. Officially dubbed the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the race would serve as a celebration of the US national highway system and also a protest of the soon-to-be passed 55mph speed limit. Yates wanted to prove that careful drivers can safely navigate this country’s interstate system at high speeds in much the same way the Germans do with the Autobahn. Yates also believed that if Erwin Baker could complete the journey in a record time of 53 hours and 30 minutes over unfinished roads and horrible conditions, then a modern driver should have no problem doing it over the uninterrupted expanse of the national interstate system.

The first run of the Cannonball was made by Yates, his son and Steve Smith in May 1971. Since it was not widely publicized, no one else showed up. After that initial run, the Cannonball was held four more times throughout the ’70s. The race really gained some notoriety during the 1972 run, but after the 1975 run, Time Magazine published a series of articles describing the races thereby thrusting the event into the public consciousness. Although no accidents or serious injuries had been sustained in the five runs, Yates thought it was only a matter of time before the law of averages caught up to them as the number of participants grew with each race. Yates and Car & Driver decided to quietly discontinue the race in 1979. The record time amongst all five runs of the race was 32 hours and 51 minutes set by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in the final Cannonball in 1979.

CannonballAfter the dismantling of the race, Yates wrote about his experiences in a movie screenplay. Before he could get the film made, he was beat to the movie theaters by two movies; Cannonball! and The Gumball Rally. He would rework his screenplay into more of a slapstick comedy picture and have it made as the original Cannonball Run. Did you know that Steve McQueen was originally the favorite for the lead role that eventually went to Burt Reynolds? McQueen died right before filming, and Reynolds said yes because he was in need of a hit after several misfires. The original Cannonball Run movie did so well it had two sequels; Cannonball Run II and Speed Zone! Needless to say, Speed Zone! did not fair as well with critics…or audiences.

In 1984, Car & Driver would decide to re-instate the Cannonball Run, but they renamed it One Lap of America. This time, though, they instituted a speed limit rule which penalized drivers for arriving at the finish line too soon. This was done to avoid any accidents or problems with the law.

Since the original Cannonball was discontinued, many movies and tv shows have celebrated the idea of an underground auto race. In 1975, Death Race 2000 created a darker, comedic version of the race where points were awarded for killing people with your car. In 2001, Rat Race would continue the road race tradition with a star-studded ensemble cast. Also in 2001, Yates would officially allow the Cannonball Run moniker to be used for a reality show called, what else, butWacky Races “Cannonball Run 2001”. It would be the precursor to the currently popular Amazing Race. Suprisingly, there are many movies BEFORE Cannonball Run that included a cross country vehicle race. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963 would gather many tv/movie stars of the day and send them on a cross country search for treasure. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines in 1965 would also include a star-filled cast but pit them in a wacky, international airplane race. In 1968 there was even a cartoon called Wacky Races that pitted many popular cartoon characters of the time in a large multi-vehicle, international race. It seems using the plot device of zany vehicle races has usually provided lots of fun filled plots for movies and tv shows.

This, of course, leads us to the show I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Drive. Check out an extended promo for the show here. It looks to be a more serious take on the Cannonball Run premise, whereas the participants are, for the most part, blackmailed into participating, oh, and they don’t know where the finish line is. It looks very intriguing and it has many actors I really like, so I can’t wait to catch it on Fox on April 15.

Well, there you have it. The story behind the Cannonball Run. Hope you found it as interesting as I did. I have to go back into training for the rest of the week so please pity me. Please.

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