Did you hear the one about the advertising executive who was sitting in a bar when a drunk walked up and asked if he had any pets and the adman said, "Yeah, I keep a rock. You don't need a license. You don't have to feed it. It doesn't mess up. It's quiet and there are no offspring to worry about."
If you don't think that is funny, perhaps you will like the follow-up—500,000 people have gone into such stores as Macy's, Neiman-Marcus, Penney's and Sears to pay $4 for a Pet Rock. And the mayor of Cupertino, Calif. has suggested the town invoke a leash law for pet rocks.
Useless items are nothing new to the U.S. consumer and no one embraces a fad like an American, but $4 for a rock? Well, think about it. They are quiet and no landlord ever evicted a tenant for keeping one. As the 32-page training manual which accompanies a Pet Rock states, "Your rock will mature into a faithful, obedient, loving pet with but one purpose in life—to be at your side when you want it and to go lie down when you don't." Whatever else one might accuse Rock Bottom Productions of, one cannot claim false advertising. Nowhere does it say that a Pet Rock will speak or jump through a hoop. But it can (and will) play dead, roll over and attack—if it is properly trained.
"These rocks are gathering green dollars instead of moss," says Marguerite Dahl, vice president of Rock Bottom in San Jose, Calif. President of the four-month-old corporation is the aforementioned adman, Marguerite's husband Gary. The Dahls are as amazed as anyone that Gary's efforts to ward off a drunk have erupted into a lucrative business, but they are delighted. "People enjoy fantasy, a lighthearted escape in a problem-ridden world," Gary says. "Besides, this is better than canned fog or chattering teeth." More fun, too, especially if the Pet Rock owner maintains the deadpan demeanor the training manual assumes.
Imported from Rosarita Beach, Mexico, Pet Rocks come in their own ventilated carrying cases. Directions sternly warn that Pet Rocks are sensitive and should be left in their boxes for three days until they "acclimate themselves to their new surroundings." Then the training program can begin. One trick to teach is Roll Over. "The best place to teach your Pet Rock to Roll Over is on the side of a hill. Place your rock on the ground at the top of a hill and give the command, Roll Over. Now, let go of your rock. It's that simple!" The manual explains that a Pet Rock will roll over until it tires of the game, which is usually when it reaches the bottom of the hill. Heel, Quartz!
Very little is what it seems anymore, and that is surely the case with these two gifts.
The wife says, "Close your eyes, dear," when handing over your Christmas present. You hear the solid thunk of an expensive car door closing. Ah, a new Bentley, you think. Your surprise will turn to ashes as you discover it's only a jackknife. But maybe the best jackknife in the world. Made in White-fish, Mont. of high-carbon steel by the Track Knife Co., this folding hunter comes with a fine leather belt case. With brass and stainless-steel hardware and a resin-impregnated wood handle, the Track weighs in at $69.95. The hinge pin and connection produce the Bentley-door sound, which is made much of in the advertisements. You can order by phone—and have delivered COD—from Ithaca Gun Company, Box ST, Terrace Hill, Ithaca, N.Y. 14850, (607) 273-0200. If the price bothers you, consider the bargain that goes with the buy—once a year the White-fish experts will be glad to recondition your knife for a mere $1.
The second fooler is shotgun shells that melt in your hands. Packed in a typical ammunition box by the prestigious Godiva chocolate company, 25 rounds in the standard calorie-pattern cost a mere $8.95. Each piece of chocolate is foil-wrapped to resemble a shell. If there's a mixup and you load your Purdey with the bonbons, the kids' Christmas hamster can clean the barrels, but your dentist won't like extracting shot from your fillings if you bite a real bullet. If you have a sweet tooth, write or call: Pepperidge Farm Mail Order Co., Inc., P.O. Box 119, Clinton, Conn. 06413, (203) 669-4131. Credit cards welcome, no COD. Merry Christmas, and remember that new backpack may be a licorice bicycle.
The Secret Life of Animals (Dutton, $24.95 until January, $29.95 thereafter) is aimed at the enlightened amateur, and any family would be wise to give the book to itself for Christmas. It is essentially an overview of many of the pioneering discoveries in animal behavior and has some of the obvious disadvantages of an overview—you end up knowing a little about a whole lot, for one. But sources are amply cited in the text, and the curious reader could spend years following the cues. Franklin Russell joined in the writing (the other authors are Lorus and Margery Milne), and many will remember his exquisite Watchers at the Pond.
The text, though, is overwhelmed by hundreds of fine color photos. A sequence showing mating lions taken by Fran Allan is stunning. And there are photos of wolves at play, an anaconda crushing a cayman, a dolphin being born, migrating reindeer, an aqua-green python protecting its eggs. They are accompanied by explanations so that the reader doesn't have to wander around looking for the sense behind the beauty of the photograph, the bane of most snazzy books of this sort.
There is a natural, though decidedly comic, tendency on the part of a reader of this book to make elaborate comparisons between his own behavior and that of the animals. Ardrey's The Territorial Imperative is reason enough for having a closet full of guns. After all, it's natural. But so is the 60-foot tapeworm in the belly of a wild pig. The female mantis happily devours her husband while he mates with her. Within a few minutes he has vanished into her belly. We'll leave that one for Tennessee Williams. Wolves are monogamous, lions aren't. That's a draw. Hyenas turn out to be fabulous hunters, a fact that consoled me because I developed an affection for them when I was in Africa. Some animal mothers protect their children, others apparently couldn't care less. Elephants and wolves have developed a strategic sort of birth control, depending on available food supplies. Other animals propagate witlessly. No animals drink booze or smoke.
We are reminded again in a chapter on migration that scientists don't yet know everything, though they are bearing down hard on this subject. That monarch butterfly fluttering so gracefully in your yard is probably in transit from Canada to Mexico or back, depending on the season. The hummingbird only uses 1.3 grams of fat to fly across 500 miles of the Gulf of Mexico, surely a preposterously efficient use of energy.
What I like best about The Secret Life of Animals is the inclusive imagination of the approach. In my youth the teaching of life sciences was so segmented I remained largely ignorant of the particularities of the natural world until my late 20s. This is the kind of book that helps the tardy starter.
Nothing delights a tennis player more than a new gadget. And the best one this Christmas comes from Howard Head, who popularized the metal ski a quarter of a century ago. Subsequently the company he headed was sold to AMF for more than $16 million. Head's new racket appears under the Prince label; he is now chairman of the board of that firm. Soon there will be locker-room talk about an increase in the polar moment of inertia, and the center of percussion will mean something other than the position of Ringo's pedal. Prepare yourself for other phrases like the high coefficient of restitution. Not since the yellow ball has anything so novel hit the tennis world.
If people played tennis with their eyes shut, everything about the Prince would seem normal. It feels the same as other rackets, but only the length and balance are standard. The Prince makes a conventional racket look like a runt. Its head is so much larger that a buyer might be tempted to invest in nylon stock. The string area dwarfs the handle and is two inches wider than the typical racket; the space between the strings becomes smaller toward the center. These elements create an odd-looking but surprisingly effective racket that goes on sale for the first time this week at specialty stores—Court Set, New York City; Gart Brothers Sporting Goods, Denver; San Francisco Sporting House; Osborn and Ulland, Seattle. The price is $65.
Until Head joined Prince in 1971, the firm's only interest in tennis was in manufacturing ball machines. Head brought the company the skills and designing curiosity that led him to make the first successful metal skis. "Why must metal be restricted by the limitations of wood?" he had asked.
Head could find no regulations determining a tennis racket's size, but he also sensed that the average player would never swing something that did not feel like a racket. So he kept the balance the same. If the racket happened to look funny that would be to its advantage. It would begin life as a novelty.
No tennis racket has ever stretched so wide, but then again, none has ever been so stable (there is talk of reducing tennis elbow, but proof is still coming). The ball has more time to roll or be "wiped" across the strings, which increases that all-important "polar moment of inertia."
The string area of the Prince is as oddly elongated as it is wide. The reason for this is a surprising discovery made by Head's engineers during tests using the "coefficient of restitution" to plot the optimum places to hit the ball. They learned that the "sweet spot" is two-thirds of the way down toward the handle, a place that is not even on the string area of the normal racket. To get the strings down where they do the most good Head simply lowered the racket throat.
In the course of plotting the test results, Head came upon what might be called the ultimate sweet spot, where the coefficient is 20% greater than on any traditionally shaped racket. Head had predicted that the Prince would return the ball with maximum power and minimum effort, but the new zone so surprised him, he has yet to name it.
Overall, the head is 60% larger. The effective hitting area, however, is twice as large. If the racket came with a contract attached, a clause would surely read that "twice as many balls will be hit cleanly without touching the frame." Tennis players have for generations learned to hit the ball in the center of the racket. The Prince rewards the best students by aligning the center of the racket with the "center of percussion" to assure consistent returns. But one thing will have to change. New canvas tote bags with larger racket pockets must be manufactured. When the Prince buyer visits his broker to invest in nylon, it wouldn't hurt to check on canvas stocks, too.
There was a time when two bits bought a hot dog, and four bits bought a program, and six bits bought a pennant, and a dollar bought a seat in the end zone. But that was when the cliché of the year was "May the Best Team Win," and many seasons before college football became "Big Business," which is this year's cliché, spoken by everybody who did not win seven games. Football is big business in more ways than you can shake a life-size poster at.
Hardly anybody is shaking pennants. The pennant was fine in its day, that of conservative formations and G-rated bumper stickers. The trend in merchandising college football has shifted from mums and even those daring-in-their-time binocular-flasks to souvenirs that do not have to be stored in the offseason, such as the Wisconsin toilet seat ($24.95) that says "Go Badgers" when somebody raises the cover. Your alma mater's gift guide will show today's most popular items.
Many gifts are educational because of their expensiveness, such as the University of Southern California Tiffany lamp ($165), USC's clock commemorating its 55-24 victory over Notre Dame in 1974 (battery-operated, it includes a photo of the scoreboard with 5:52 left in the game—large model $44.95, small $39.95), and the rocking chair being sold with Northwestern and Harvard seals ($70-$85). Nobody can afford to make toothpicks out of a rocker every time the home team is beaten, so these items are valuable aids in teaching fans to be nonviolent losers.
The best-selling souvenirs on campuses during bad years continue to be glasses capable of holding large amounts of spirit, such as the Auburn snifter (25 ounces, $2.35). Winners are easy to merchandise. After good years, stadiums are expanded, and football helmets are creatively converted into purses (genuine plastic Oklahoma helmet-purse, $20) and radios (Tennessee radio-helmet, $15.95).
Best-selling gifts are not always reflective of the teams they represent. You would imagine the big item in Columbus, Ohio would be a pound of chocolate yard markers, or an indestructible Buckeye doll that goes three yards without recharging. But the Lazarus Department Store in Columbus sells women's bikini panties accented with an Ohio State helmet for $1.19.
Supporters of Oklahoma, unable to see their team on live television for two years because of probation, have been pacified by such originals as the perfect gift for the fan who has everything, even children, the Sooners of Oklahoma souvenir coloring book, $1.25.
Many suppliers of souvenirs insist they are providing a necessary service rather than contributing to college football's "Big Business" image. You can get a baby diaper with the Harvard crest ($1.25), a picture of Bear Bryant ($10), a felt football, a Go Somebody car tag and a UCLA Nitee ($5.50) for approximately what you would pay for a couple of hours of group therapy.
You've read sports science fiction. Electronics has taken over. The stadiums are gone. The Louisiana Superdome is filled with water and used for porpoise housing. Shea, Three Rivers, lightless Wrigley Field, cozy Fenway are paved over and forgotten.
The notion is not so preposterous once you've seen VideoBeam, a device being manufactured by the Advent Corporation, a small firm in Cambridge, Mass. VideoBeam consists of a six-foot-by-four-foot screen coupled with a receiver-projector. The screen stands against a wall: the projector sits eight feet away. You plug an aerial or cable-television connection into the receiver-projector, pick your channel and a huge, bright picture flashes on the screen. Televised sports are transformed. The action can be seen far more clearly than from the best stadium boxes. Players are large as life, action dramatically enhanced.
There are a few drawbacks to VideoBeam, and some competition, too. Earl (Madman) Muntz of used-car fame and the Sony Corporation have also introduced big-screen TV. These models cost less (Muntz' sells for $1,595; Sony's for $2,500) than VideoBeam's ($4,000) but both have smaller screens. So VideoBeam is the big-ticket product in its field. Its developer, Henry Kloss, is the "K" in KLH, one of the best-known high-fidelity names. Kloss left KLH to form Advent in 1967, and his new company soon established an excellent reputation for stereo gear.
VideoBeam has had its tryouts in Boston bars. "It's building business," says one area bartender. "When the Stanleys are on you won't be able to get into the place." Now the company is expanding its distribution and VideoBeam is available nationwide. You can buy one for your home, but first carefully measure the living room (the projector must be exactly eight feet from the screen). Advent says VideoBeam is as reliable and durable as any color TV, but admits that the screen is delicate. Kloss has visions of millions of renovated rec rooms with theatrical settings. "Tell me how many Ping-Pong tables there are in the country," he says. "We'll replace them all with VideoBeams."
If he does, spectator sports could be affected dramatically. There won't be much reason to go to a stadium, unless you are out of hot dogs. You simply cannot follow the action of most sports as well in person as you can on Advent's screen. To be sure, VideoBeam is big, bulky and expensive. But so were the early TV sets; and no science-fiction writer would have dared to predict in 1940 the role of television in sports today.
What can I say? For a short period in my life (1954-59), I dreamed that some day I would appear on a baseball card wearing a Yankees cap.
SO who is Joe Deal? He is a 5'11" right-hander from Topeka who appears on a baseball card wearing a Yankees cap. But he is not a Yankee or any kind of a baseball player. He is one of 134 photographers who appear in the latest offering of American esoterica, photographer baseball cards, bubble gum and all.
The brainchild of 25-year-old Mike Mandel of Santa Cruz, Calif., the cards are selling for $1 per package of 10 in museums and galleries around the country and are being distributed by Light Impressions of Rochester, N.Y. (P.O. Box 3012, Zip 14614, Phone 716-271-8960) for the same price plus 85 cents shipping per order. Mandel began his collection two years ago and, with the help of a friend, Alison Woolpert, traveled to 36 states snapping the portraits of some of America's finest photographers.
He printed 402,000 cards (there are 3,000 complete sets), following the guidelines of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book. "I wanted them to be authentic so people could trade them just like when they were kids," he says. "I love baseball and I get really sad when I think I wasn't around to see some of the great moments."
A Giant fan who grew up in L.A. ("I've always enjoyed being the odd man"), Mandel wrote to Topps Chewing Gum Inc. in Brooklyn, and that traditional supplier of baseball bubble gum responded with 450 pounds of the real thing, charging little more than the cost of shipping. "I guess they enjoyed the spirit of my letter," Mandel says. A good thing, too, because his project has been sponsored by no one but Mandel and he has accumulated sizable debts while compiling the collection. "I don't mind, though," he says. "I think sports are like art; they are in their highest form when they aren't being commercialized."
Best known among the photographers in Mandel's gallery is No. 21, Ansel Adams, whose years of work with the Sierra Club have earned him international fame. Finding the time to pose was the only problem Adams gave Mandel, and after two months of waiting, Mandel got 10 minutes with Adams in Carmel, Calif.
"All my pictures of him were totally underexposed," Mandel says. "I'd fouled up Ansel Adams and I couldn't believe it! I had to tell him. He just said, "We all make mistakes," and two months later I got another 10 minutes." Adams now smiles from behind a catcher's mask, a chest protector over his paisley shirt, mitt in left hand, ball in right.
Adams might be the most famous of the collection, but No. 88 will no doubt become the most sought-after. She is photo matriarch Imogen Cunningham, who at age 92 not only takes pictures but bats and throws right. Ms. Cunningham made it clear from the beginning that she did not want to wear an ordinary baseball costume. "I want to be a Communist. I want to wear a Mao cap," she insisted, and turned down Mandel's suggestion that she wear a Cincinnati Reds cap, instead. "I taught her to throw like a big-leaguer," Mandel says, "and she picked it up quickly." Cunningham's own comment on the back of her card reads, "Apparently do not know enough to quit. 1901—."
Some of Mandel's cards are more interesting on their reverse sides. Besides asking for height, weight, hometown and residences, Mandel instructed his subjects to list their favorite camera, developer, paper, film and photographer. Nearly all took him literally and wrote Rollei SL or Argoflex, Tri-X, Polycontrast and the usual array of letters and numbers only a photographer can decode. But some responded like Bart Parker of Pascagoula, Miss., who listed his favorite paper as the Sunday Chicago Tribune, his favorite film as Young Frankenstein and his favorite photographer as Gina Lollobrigida.
Self-analyses range from Adams' discussion of natural and artificial light to Elliott Erwitt's complete recipe for salsa Bolognese. In between are such comments as Larry Sultan's: "Fear of bat, fear of getting spiked, fear of the crowd. I don't care who they are, all ballplayers are afraid," a quote he attributes to former big-league player and manager Birdie Tebbetts. Since Sultan has misspelled the name ("Birdy Tebbitts") the attribution might be erroneous, too. But who cares? Sultan is a picture-taker, not a baseball librarian.
And finally there is No. 77, "Al" Woolpert, her face nearly obscured by a massive bubble of gum, who writes, "When coming to bat I could always hear my father yelling to me from the bleachers, 'Ducks on the pond, shoot 'em.' I have yet to fully understand the significance of that slogan to my life."
One way to size up the Prince racket.
A bubble for a lady Topps in her trade.