Ask The A.V. Club: July 13, 2007
Pop! Goes My Heart
Any idea how popcorn became the snack of choice for movie theaters? Just curious.
Donna Bowman responds:
Your question intersects with the A.V. Club universe on an elegantly oblique tangent, Kyle. And in fact, like many marriages, the union of popcorn and movies has a fascinating history. According to Andrew F. Smith's Popped Culture: A Social History Of Popcorn In America (University Of South Carolina Press, 1999), popped corn became a consumer commodity around the beginning of the 20th century, along with almost all other snack foods. (Prior to then, the concept of "snack" barely existed, let alone commercially manufactured products to fill the niche; eating between meals was widely considered unhealthy.)
By the late 1890s, vendors selling fresh popcorn along with salted peanuts were fixtures on city streets. Coincidentally, movies and movie theaters were invented at the same time. But theater owners discouraged the consumption of snack food during movies. Although popcorn and peanut vendors roamed the aisles hawking their products in vaudeville and burlesque houses, movie proprietors wanted to provide a more hygienic and upscale experience. They also thought that it would cost more to clean up dropped kernels and shells than food sales would bring in. Finally, popping corn inside produced smoke that had to be vented to the outside—an expensive proposition.
What brought popcorn and movies together was the Great Depression. Nearly all confections suffered sales declines during the 1930s, but popcorn—a cheap indulgence at a nickel or dime a bag—boomed. Theater owners gradually linked their affordable escape to the little luxury of a bag of popcorn. At first, management granted to a street vendor, for about a dollar a day, the right to bring his offsite-popped product inside to a lobby sales counter. The smoke and fury stayed outside, and the vendor got to sell to passersby as well; everybody came out a winner.
Until, that is, theater owners wanted to get a bigger cut of the action. The movie-popcorn business turned out to be so lucrative that a busted Oklahoma banker-turned-vendor cleared enough in a couple of years to buy back three of the farms he lost in the Crash. Popcorn-machine salesmen, who'd made a practice of targeting businesses near movie theaters, pitched bigger machines to the theater owners, who saw first-hand the huge profits being made on the snack food. Independent owners bought first, followed by the fragments of the large theatrical chains that were breaking up during the decade. By the end of the decade, stories were circulating about movie houses that lost money on film exhibition, but made such a profit on popcorn that they slashed ticket prices just to get people in the door to sell more bags.
That's the historical narrative, Kyle. But the metaphysical question—why popcorn? why movies?—has a less satisfying answer: coincidence establishing custom. Popcorn happened to be the street food of the moment, right when movie exhibitors were looking for a food item to sell their customers. If the Great Snack Migration had happened recently instead of in the '30s, we'd probably associate falafel with our flicks.
At the time, of course, there were still objections to munching at the movies—an Oregon lawmaker tried to ban eating popcorn in theaters—but money and consumer demand won the day. And they still do: The National Association Of Theater Owners reports that about 40 percent of a theater's revenue comes from the concession stand. So if you care about seeing movies in theaters, be sure to buy a bag while you're there, but forgo the motor oil on top if you value your health.
Strings To Their Bows
I have a book question that I've been wondering about for a good 10 years. I read a series of books in the early '80s, when I was in middle school, about a very eccentric British family. I don't remember a lot of identifying details; the books stick with me primarily because reading them was my first exposure to Britishness. I remember they ate kippers for breakfast, lived in a big country house, and had lots of wacky uncles and aunts and such. The family had a wacky, British-y sounding name too, I think.
Anglophile Noel Murray replies:
You're thinking of the Bagthorpe clan, whom I first encountered myself in 5th grade, when an especially cool teacher—born in the UK—hipped me to the first book in the series, Ordinary Jack. Helen Cresswell wrote 10 Bagthorpe books between 1977 and her death in 2005. I only have first-hand knowledge of the first five, and as I recall, they diminish in quality as they go along, though those early books are tremendously funny, with fast-paced, pithy dialogue zinging back and forth between a sprawling cast of gifted loonies. The series' lead character is tweener Jack Bagthorpe, the only unexceptional family member—the one without any "strings to his bow," as the Bagthorpes refer to special talents—and most of the stories follow Jack's attempts to stand out in a colorful crowd. Another significant characteristic of the series is that while the family members can be self-absorbed and even chilly, it's clear that they all complement each other, and that even Jack has his place. (A reassuring thought to gawky young-adult readers everywhere.)
Like you, Anne, I was captivated by the regional details, like the "Christmas crackers" and English trifles, and I asked my teacher to explain what wasn't immediately apparent. But it really wasn't too hard to follow what was going on, which is something that springs to mind every time I read about an American media conglomerate nervously altering the content of some British cartoon or children's book to make it less foreign. I think they're doing American children a disservice.
Hot Link Sausage
To wrap up this week's column, here are three questions we decided were best answered with links to other sites:
I have become increasingly annoyed with the use of the phrase "could care less" in movies and television to imply someone doesn't care. Am I just crazy, or should the phrase be "couldn't care less," meaning they do not care at all, thus could not care less? If they could care less, that should mean they care to a certain degree. I can only remember hearing what I take to be the correct version once. Is everyone using the phrase incorrectly?
You aren't crazy, Nic. For the most part, yes, people are using the phrase incorrectly. World Wide Words' Michael Quinion has written an interesting essay on the expression's origin and how it's mutated into meaninglessness over time.
A friend of mine and I did some mushrooms a few weeks ago, and ended up staying up all night. In the wee hours of the morning there's not much to watch on TV except for Sesame Street, and we got to arguing about whether Kermit The Frog ever appeared on the show. Both Sesame Street and the Muppets were products of Jim Henson's genius, and the Sesame Street crew certainly crashed Muppet parties on occasion (i.e. The Muppet Christmas Carol), but we couldn't agree on whether or not Kermit ever actually appeared on Sesame Street. Please inform.
Yes, Matt, Kermit was a Sesame Street fixture long before there was a Muppet Show. (Come to that, he was a Jim Henson fixture long before there was a Sesame Street; he first appeared in 1955 under the name Kermit on a kids' show named Sam And Friends, though he wasn't identified as a frog—and he looked more like a lizard—until years later.) But don't take our word for it—the collection The Best Of Kermit On Sesame Street really says it all. And it includes Kermit's quintessential Sesame Street moment, singing "It's Not Easy Bein' Green."
I have this memory of seeing something on TV in the late 1970s or possibly 1980 that in retrospect seems totally nuts. It was some kind of live-action comedy special (complete with laugh track) featuring a bunch of DC Comic superheroes, including Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, the Flash, etc., and supervillains as well. I believe the conceit was that one of the heroes or villains was being celebrity-roasted. Am I crazy? And if this did in fact happen, how or why, in God's name?
We could give you a lengthy explanation of Legends Of The Superheroes, DW, but we'd just be reproducing work that Scott Tipton of the excellent review site comics101.com has already done. Besides, his write-up of the show includes an indispensable treasury of hilarious, awful screencaps and quotes. We urge you to go check it out.
Next week: More accreditation questions, plus a whole new round of Stumped! Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.