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Mad Scientist of the Month: Who’s Afraid of Taylor Wilson?

Update (2/7/2012): Taylor Wilson at the White House

by Judy Dutton

At 10, he built his first bomb. At 14, he made a nuclear reactor. Now he’s 17…

Taylor Wilson makes people nervous. While his beanpole frame and Justin Bieber–esque haircut suggest he’s just a harmless kid, his after-school activities paint a far more ominous picture. At age 10, he built his first bomb out of a pill bottle and household chemicals. At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of plutonium on the Internet. At 14, he became the youngest person in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. “I’m obsessed with radioactivity. I don’t know why,” says Wilson in his laid-back drawl. “Possibly because there’s power in atoms that you can’t see, an unlocked power.”

Shouldn’t teams in hazmat suits descend on Wilson and shut down his operations before someone gets hurt? On the contrary, there are people in the government who think that Wilson is key to keeping this country safe.

“The Cold War is really when nuclear physicists got their shot, and those people are all retiring,” points out one of Wilson’s mentors, Ron Phaneuf, a professor of physics at the University of Nevada in Reno. “I think the U.S. Department of Energy is a little concerned that the motivation of young people to get interested in that kind of science has waned. I think that’s one of the reasons doors have been opened to Taylor. He’s a phenomenon, probably the most brilliant person I’ve met in my life, and I’ve met Nobel laureates.”

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security heard about Wilson two years ago, officials invited him to their offices to hear more about his research and determine whether or not it could be applied toward their counter-terrorism efforts. Because Wilson was only 15, they weren’t expecting much, but Wilson came prepared. After shaking everyone’s hands, he announced, “You know your building’s radio-active, right?” The pager-sized Geiger counter attached to Wilson’s belt was beeping, an indication that the granite surrounding them contained unusually high amounts of uranium—not enough to be harmful, but enough for Wilson to raise a few eyebrows.

“Their own building was radioactive and most didn’t know it,” Wilson says. “That’s when they started to take me really seriously.”

The Young Fusioneer

Wilson got his start on Fusor.net, a website where nuclear hobbyists who call themselves “fusioneers” fill message boards on topics that would enthrall only the geekiest subset of society, like “So where can I get a deal on deuterium gas?” The goal of every fusioneer is to build a reactor that can fuse atoms together, a feat first achieved by scientists in 1934. Ever since, nuclear fusion has been hailed as a potential “clean” energy source, although scientists have yet to figure out how to harness its power. By the time Wilson stumbled across Fusor.net, 30 hobbyists worldwide had managed to produce the reaction; Wilson was determined to become the thirty-first. He started amassing the necessary components, such as a high-voltage power supply (used to run neon signs), a reaction chamber where fusion takes place (typically a hollow stainless steel sphere, like a flagpole ornament), and a vacuum pump to remove air particles from the chamber (often necessary for testing space equipment).

Wilson also funneled money collected from Christmases and birthdays toward buying radioactive items, many of which, to his surprise, were available around town. Smoke detectors, he learned, contain small amounts of a radio-active element called americium, while camping lanterns contain thorium. In antique stores, he found pottery called Fiestaware that was painted with an orange uranium glaze. Wilson trolled websites such as eBay for an array of nuclear paraphernalia, from radon sniffers to nuclear fuel pellets, and came to own more than 30 Geiger counters of varying strengths and abilities. Most of Wilson’s radioactive acquisitions weren’t dangerous, given their small quantities. But a few—vials of powdered radium, for example—could be fatal if mishandled, which is why he’s never opened them. (Although he’s been tempted.)

To expand his collection, Wilson dragged his dad, Kenneth, on long road trips into the New Mexico desert to go prospecting for uranium ore; they returned with boxfuls. Meanwhile, Wilson’s growing obsession with all things radioactive “worried me a whole lot,” admits Kenneth, who turned to pharmacists and professors he knew around town to ask if what his son was doing was safe. “After they talked to Taylor, they’d tell me not to worry so much, because they said Taylor understands what he’s doing,” Kenneth says. He and his wife, Tiffany, tried to tell themselves that Wilson’s “nuclear phase” would pass, just like his previous obsessions. At age 3, he asked for a hard hat and orange cones and then directed traffic on his street. At age 7, he’d memorized every rocket made by the U.S. and Soviet governments from the 1930s onward. But of all of Wilson’s obsessions, radioactivity stuck.

Hoping that the right guidance could keep their son from doing damage to himself or others, the Wilsons moved from Texarkana, Ark., to Reno and enrolled Wilson in the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a public school that caters to gifted kids. (Wilson’s IQ tested in the 99.99 percentile.) His physics teacher, George Ochs, encouraged Wilson to enter the local science fair, but did a double take when he heard that Wilson had his heart set on building a nuclear reactor in his garage.

“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. You’re going to irradiate your parents, and maybe the whole neighborhood,’” recalls Ochs. “I suggested he build it somewhere safe, like a university."

Ochs introduced Wilson to Phaneuf, and the professor quickly saw Wilson’s potential and helped him set up shop in the subbasement of the university’s physics department. Around Wilson’s work area, a shield of paraffin and lead absorbs any radiation he might produce. A radiation safety officer stops by periodically to assess the safety conditions, and Wilson must wear a dosimeter, a badge nuclear power plant workers use to measure an individual’s radiation exposure levels. So far, Wilson says, “I’ve never gotten a dose that’s above legal levels.”

After months of researching, building, and welding, Wilson put the parts of his nuclear reactor together, using the basic blueprints posted on Fusor.net. He added his own personal touches. It looked like a cappuccino maker on human growth hormones. To find out if it worked, Wilson filled its reaction chamber with deuterium gas, retreated behind the lead wall, and then flipped the switch to the reactor’s high-voltage supply. Tens of thousands of volts of current coursed through a golf ball–sized wire grid within the reaction chamber. If all went well, this would fuse the atoms of deuterium together and release radiation—not nearly as much as fission (or the splitting of atoms) produces, but enough to cause radiation poisoning or other health complications if things went to hell.

Wilson picked up a tiny glass tube called a bubble dosimeter that he’d placed near his reactor. If he saw bubbles, the subatomic particles that make up radiation had penetrated the tube, heating the hypersensitive liquid inside. Squinting at the tube, Wilson spotted five bubbles.

On Fusor.net, Wilson was proclaimed the youngest fusioneer ever, at just 14 years old. A year later, he met with officials at both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy, who offered him their expertise and equipment and encouraged him to apply for a research grant. “I started thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” Wilson says. I wanted a real challenge. So I decided to try fighting terrorists.”

Taylor Wilson and one of his “nuclear mentors,” Bill Brinsmead, in Wilson’s basement lab at the University of Nevada in Reno. In the foreground is the nuclear fusion reactor Wilson built at 14—making him the youngest person in the world to ever do so. He spent two years scrounging the parts and radioactive materials.

Becoming a Terrorist Fighter

Every year, more than 35 million cargo containers reach U.S. ports of entry. “They’re big, and there are so many of them. It’s the perfect way to smuggle in nuclear weapons,” Wilson says. “If I were a terrorist, that’s how I’d do it.” Making matters worse, the most sensitive radiation detectors contain helium-3, a man-made chemical that is expensive and in short supply. “The only place you can get helium-3 is in the decayed remains of nuclear weapons components, and our supply is running out,” Wilson says. He started wondering whether there were a cheaper, more plentiful alternatives.

In May 2010, Wilson entered his nuclear fusion reactor in a series of science fairs that won him a trip to Switzerland to tour the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, where many of the most cutting-edge nuclear experiments on the planet take place. Within the collider’s labyrinthine corridors, located 300 feet below ground, Wilson gawked at swimming pool–sized Cherenkov detectors, which identify radiation by measuring the light that is emitted when these subatomic particles move through water. That got Wilson thinking: Water is plentiful. Maybe he could build a liquid-based radiation detector that would work on a smaller scale.

Wilson returned home, went to the hardware store, bought a five-gallon drum, and filled it with water. He mixed in gadolinium, a chemical element that emits light when hit with radioactive particles. Because those flashes would be too weak to be seen with the naked eye, Wilson bored a hole into the drum and inserted a highly sensitive light detector, which he hooked up to his computer. He then placed the drum next to his nuclear reactor, behind the lead wall, and flipped the reactor’s switch to produce a silent explosion of radiation. Checking his computer, Wilson was delighted to see that his detector had picked up brief emissions of light. The detector worked—and unlike helium-3 testers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wilson’s cost a few hundred bucks.

He filed for a patent. In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against 1,500 competitors and won the $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. In September, once school begins, he plans to do full-scale testing of his invention by hauling a 30-foot cargo container into the Nevada desert. If all goes well there, he will start road-testing his detector at ports. “I want to get this stuff deployed—the sooner the better,” Wilson says. “Radioactive materials could be coming through ports as we speak.”

Wilson’s expertise is in high demand: Raytheon, the fifth largest defense contractor in the United States, tried to hire Wilson to develop security technologies. Numerous universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have recruited Wilson to lend a hand in various research projects. Since Wilson’s meeting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy two years ago, both government agencies are checking in with him regularly to monitor his progress. For now, in order to protect his intellectual copyright, Wilson has refused their offers for funding, but once his patent is securely in place, he hopes to share his findings and roll out his radiation detectors in Iran, North Korea, and other high-risk countries.

“It would scare my mom to know I’m in some hostile country, tracking down terrorists,” Wilson admits. But if his parents have learned anything over the years, it’s to trust their son and let go.

“Sometimes I’ll blow up something in the backyard that’ll rattle all the windows in the house,” Wilson says. “My mom will come out, shake her head, and then head back in.”

Chicks Dig Nukes

Wilson isn’t an across-the-board thrill-seeker. Roller coasters scare him. He was reluctant to obtain his driver’s license and avoids getting behind the wheel. The only time he was grounded was when he let the family’s golden retriever out in the backyard while he was detonating bombs (not nuclear ones, Wilson clarifies, just garden-variety explosives made from household chemicals like stump remover). Now, when the dog smells explosives, he gives Wilson a wide berth.

In spite of his efforts to make the world safe from terrorists, Wilson is still sometimes seen as a menace. In March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused one of the country’s nuclear power plants to leak radiation into the atmosphere, Wilson tested the groceries in his refrigerator. He found trace levels of radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137 in milk and spinach. After posting his findings on his website and talking to the Associated Press, “I got a lot of angry calls from the dairy association,” Wilson recalls. “I had explained that the radiation levels were low and not a health threat, but still some people freaked out.” Even at the physics lab where Wilson works, “next door there’s a laser guy who was scared that my nuclear reactor was irradiating him,” he says. “I had to calm his fears. A few people at the university have said, ‘You shouldn’t do this. You’re scaring people.’ I have to keep telling people I’m not a terrorist—I’m fighting the terrorists.”

Part of the problem, says Wilson, is that “pop culture has instilled in Americans an irrational fear of radiation, when in fact the household chemicals under your sink are more dangerous. I also think it unsettles people because I’m so young. They associate age with experience. But that isn’t always true.” Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer in New Mexico and a Fusor.net member who’s tracked Wilson’s progress, agrees. “Age discrimination against the young is widespread and was a constant obstacle in my early chemistry hobby life,” says Willis, who built his first bomb at age 12. “We automatically associate young age with poor judgment and inexperience, and while that’s typically the case, that’s just not Taylor. He shouldn’t be prejudged.”

In fact, Wilson thinks his youth is an asset.

“Because kids haven’t been exposed to the bureaucracy of professional science, they’re a lot more open to trying things,” Wilson says. “In that way, I think kids are able to sometimes do better science than adults.”

Among his peers, Wilson’s interest in science also has its perks. “At first when I was doing nuclear stuff I wondered, Is this going to make me a nerd? But I don’t think that was ever the case,” he says. “I’ve even used it to pick up chicks. I take women to my lab sometimes.” After all, what girl would be able to resist the line “Would you like to see my nuclear reactor?”


As for how he balances the demands of being a terrorist fighter/radioactivity obsessive/mad inventor with the challenges of being a 17-year-old kid, Wilson says it’s tough. “Nuclear stuff takes up most of my time,” he says. “Sometimes I have to decide: Do I want to be at my lab or hang out with Sofia?” (Sofia, a fellow Davidson student who’s an avid softball player, is his latest crush.) “She’s one of the few people who’ve been to my lab, which makes my friends mad, because not many have been able to visit,” Wilson says. But no one gets too mad, he jokes: “My friends always say, ‘Don’t mess with Taylor. He has radioactive stuff.’”

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History
Audubon's 'Birds of America': The Book So Big It Needed Its Own Furniture
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images

John James Audubon dreamed of creating life-sized portraits of every species of bird in North America. The portraits, when bound, became some of the biggest books ever made—and to read them, his customers would need to hire a carpenter.

 

After years of painting portraits, giving drawing lessons, and relying on his wife’s teaching salary to get by, John James Audubon boarded a ship bound for England on his 41st birthday, carrying letters of introduction and 250 “watter coloured drawings” of birds, with a singular goal. “The purpose of this voyage,” he wrote in his journal midway through the journey, “is to Visit not only England but all Europe with the intention of Publishing my work of the Birds of America.”

Audubon had departed for the journey six years after he had first decided that he would illustrate all of the birds in North America and publish the images. In 1824, he had visited Philadelphia and New York with his illustrations, looking for a publisher, but found no interest. Undeterred, he kept working, and by 1826, he believed he had enough material to search for a publisher abroad, where he hoped interest would be keener.

Though other naturalists had created books of North America’s birds before him—Alexander Wilson, for example, had already published volumes in his American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States, in 1808—Audubon had set out to outdo them all. His work would be published on the biggest paper available: a 39.5-inch by 26.5-inch sheet called the “double-elephant” folio.

Audubon needed every inch of space he could get—he planned to print full-color, life-size representations of every bird in North America. If bound together, the pages would create a book that rivaled the wingspan of a soaring mountain hawk.

 
 

Audubon had been obsessed with birds and nature since his childhood in France. Born to his father’s mistress in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, he moved to Nantes as a young boy, where he spent long hours in the wilderness. “To examine either the eggs, nest, young, or parents of any species,” he wrote, “constituted my delight.”

He was often joined by his father, who encouraged his son’s interest in birds—not just in observing them, but in drawing them. “I was very far from possessing any knowledge of their nature,” Audubon wrote. “The first Collection of Drawings I made of this Sort were from European specimens, procured by my Father or myself … they were all represented strictly ornithologically, which means neither more or less than in Stiff unmeaning profiles, such as are found in all works published since the beginning of the present century.” His father gifted his son with a book of ornithological drawings and critiqued his early work, and Audubon remembered him noting that “nothing in the world possessing Life and animation was easy to imitate, and that as I grew older he hoped that I would become more & more assured of this.”

Plate 1 of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, featuring a blue jay, a goldfinch, and a Baltimore bird.
Plate 1 of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, which features a blue jay, a goldfinch, and a Baltimore bird, all in profile. "The easiest form for the human perception to seize on is the profile," says Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society. "That’s what most bird ornithological treatises used ... It begins to change and get richer with Selby and people like that, but really, Audubon is the one who began putting in settings or things that he thought would be appropriate for the bird."
Alamy

In 1803, when he was 18, Audubon ducked conscription in Napoleon’s army by moving to the United States; he settled outside of Philadelphia at an estate called Mill Grove. He was there to manage the estate for his father, but he made time to observe, hunt, stuff, and paint birds. He also met and fell in love with Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a neighbor; Audubon returned to France in 1805 to ask his father for permission to marry Lucy, but the elder Audubon insisted that he be able to support himself before marriage.

And so Audubon returned to the U.S. in 1806 and attempted to make it in the mercantile business. He settled in New York, where he served as a clerk for Lucy’s uncle; in 1807, he moved to Kentucky, where he opened a general store with his business partner, Ferdinand Rozier. The next year, he and Lucy were finally married. The store, he wrote, “went on prosperously when I attended to it.” The problem was, he couldn’t stop thinking about birds: “My thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight … I seldom passed a day without drawing a bird, or noting something about its habits.” He often left Rozier to tend the shop so he could go out birding.

But Audubon happened to be in the shop on the day in March 1810 when Alexander Wilson wandered in seeking subscriptions for his book, American Ornithology. Audubon had never heard of Wilson, but when he heard the ornithologist explain what he was up to, he pulled out his pen to sign up. It was then that Rozier said to him, in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better, and again you must know as much of the habits of American birds as this gentleman.”

Audubon put down his pen and showed Wilson his own work. “He asked me if it was my intention to publish,” Audubon recalled, “and when I answered in the negative, his surprise seemed to increase. And, truly, such was not my intention.” Audubon lent Wilson a few of his drawings, and the pair even hunted together, but Audubon never subscribed to American Ornithology, “for, even at that time, my collection was greater than his.”

The encounter may have been what gave Audubon the idea to publish his illustrations, but it wasn’t something he was prepared to do just yet. Audubon and Lucy started a family; he tried his hand at various commercial careers, “but they all proved unprofitable,” he wrote, “doubtless because my whole mind was ever filled with my passion for rambling and admiring those objects of nature from which alone I received my purest gratification.”

In 1819, Audubon spent time in jail after going bankrupt. The next year, fed up with trying to make it in business, he fully committed to illustrating all of the birds of North America.

The artist roamed the forests of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana with an assistant, while Lucy raised their sons and worked as a tutor for wealthy families to support him. Unlike previous artists, who propped stuffed birds into rigid unnatural poses and sketched them in profile, Audubon wanted to portray the animals as he saw them in the wild. So he shot specimens and manipulated them into position using wires against a grid background that would allow him to correctly determine proportions—a technique he had pioneered in his time at Mill Grove. It sometimes took 60 hours to string up a specimen and draw it. (As one person who observed Audubon drawing one bird recalled, “Audubon ... spent several days sketching it ... till it rotted and stunk.”)

The technique was a success, but you would never have known it from the reception Audubon got in Philadelphia, at the time the publishing capital of the United States. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” says Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, which houses the world’s largest collection of Auduboniana, including the watercolors for Birds of America (currently, a different watercolor and its corresponding plate are on display each month in the museum's Audubon Focus Gallery). Ord, who was finishing Wilson’s American Ornithology after the ornithologist’s death in 1813, “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there. In a sense, it was a blessing in disguise because it forced him to go to Edinburgh and then London,” where printing technology was much more advanced—and the audience much more receptive.

When Audubon landed in Liverpool on July 21, his watercolor illustrations drew widespread praise. His detailed portraits of wild turkeys, purple martins, and Kentucky warblers from the “New World” charmed Europeans, who still viewed the United States as an exotic far-away land.

A painting of John James Audubon in 1826.
John James Audubon in 1826.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Audubon, with his fur cap, buckskin clothes, and backwoods demeanor, likewise enthralled them—but his dream of making life-size illustrations on the world’s largest paper was not met with the same enthusiasm. Though other authors were creating big books around this time, most had used the relatively manageable elephant folio, which measured up to 23 inches. The paper Audubon wanted to use, which had been invented by papermaker J. Whatman in the 18th century, was much bigger, much more expensive, and much more difficult to print on.

Henry Bohn, a London bookseller, told the ornithologist that anything too big would distract from the other books on the table, warning, “it will not be purchased by the set of people who now are the very life of the trade.” Create a book that size, Bohn said, and Audubon could expect to sell only 100 copies to institutions and noblemen.

It was only when Bohn saw the illustrations firsthand that he came around to Audubon’s big idea. Audubon wrote, “[H]e is of opinion now that the work ought (if at all) to come forward, The Size of Life? — He said more, for he offered to publish it himself if no one else would undertake it.”

William Lizars, an engraver based in Edinburgh, Scotland, felt just as inspired when he set eyes on Audubon’s watercolors. “My God,” he said. “I never saw anything like this before.”

Lizars was convinced that the book had to be made, and he started right away. First on his list was a male turkey, which, according to Audubon’s notes, was more than 4 feet long, “extent of wings 5 feet 8 inches; beak 1 ½ inches along the ridge … a fine specimen.”

A composite photo of John James Audubon's watercolor of a turkey, Lizar's copper engraving of the turkey, and Lizar's hand-colored print.
Left: John James Audubon (1785–1851), Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Study for Havell pl. 1, ca. 1825. Watercolor, black ink, graphite, pastel, collage, and gouache with touches of metallic pigment and selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.1. Middle: William H. Lizars (1788–1859), retouched by Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878), after John James Audubon (1785–1851). Engraved copper plate for plate 1 of The Birds of America. American Museum of Natural History Library, New York, Gift of Cleveland E. Dodge. Right: William H. Lizars (1788–1859) after John James Audubon (1785–1851). Hand-colored etching with aquatint and engraving. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. [Patricia] Harvey Breit and Mrs. Gratia R. Laiser in memory of their mother, Gratia Houghton Rinehart, 1954.
Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

The printer created the first 10 copper engravings of Audubon’s illustrations, printed them on the huge paper, and, with help from his employees, hand-colored them. When Audubon saw the first five of his illustrations realized in life-size, he began to have second thoughts on the scale of the project. “Some of my good friends, particularly Dr. [Traill], is much against it being the size of life,” he wrote. “I must acknowledge it renders [the work] rather bulky, but my heart was always bent on it, and I cannot refrain from attempting it.”

But as big as the double-elephant folio pages were, they still weren’t big enough for some birds: Audubon had to draw the great blue heron, for example, with its head down—a strange pose for a bird that normally stands erect.

A great blue heron as drawn by John James Audubon.
Alamy

In June 1827, Lizars’s colorists went on strike, and Audubon contracted the engraver Robert Havell and Son of London to publish the rest of Birds of America. Havell Jr. was a particularly lucky find. “Havell was not just a printmaker, not just an engraver. He was a watercolorist and a painter,” Olson says. “They were like two oxen or two horses pulling a carriage. They were both in the same step.”

Coloring the plates required up to 50 people—mostly poorly paid women—at a time, and Audubon, a perfectionist, remained very conscious of the needs of his clientele. After he received a letter from a subscriber complaining that the color on her plates was not as wonderful as the color on the plates of another subscriber, he created a system: He would mark up the colored prints and send them back to be reworked until he was satisfied; Havell’s colorists would use the resulting pattern print—which often had instructions written all over it—as a guide for their work.

Meanwhile, Audubon had to drum up financial support for the book. Like many men creating plate books in that era, he decided on a subscription model: Investors would pay for the book and receive installments over a period of time. (Samuel Johnson used the same method to pay for his dictionary.) To woo subscribers, Audubon took his watercolors out on the road. “Their plumages sparkle with nature’s own tints; you see them in motion or at rest,” one critic who attended a show wrote, “in their play and in their combats, in their anger fits and their caresses, singing, running, asleep, just awakened, beating the air, skimming the waves or rending one another in their battles … a vision of the New World.”

From 1827 to 1838, Audubon sent out 87 sets of plates in tin cases. Subscribers received five plates every month or so, consisting of one large bird, a medium-sized bird, and three small birds. “It was actually brilliant marketing,” Olsen says. “Rather than having 40 sparrows and 60 seagulls in taxonomic order like everybody else did, he decided he wanted it to be like nature, where everything was a surprise. That’s why [the plates] weren’t just shunted away and put in drawers and maybe never opened in boxes—everyone wanted to see what was he releasing.”

Audubon continued drawing as new species were being discovered and ended up creating a total of 435 plates for The Birds of America, depicting a total of 489 species (and 1065 individuals). No one is sure how much the project cost, but it was no small amount. The book wasn’t cheap for buyers, either: A complete set likely cost around $1000 ($22,400 in 2015 dollars). Many subscribers bound the plates into four massive volumes of around 100 illustrations apiece, each standing over 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide and weighing around 50 pounds. Opening one of the volumes required at least two people.

The finished book was so large that owners couldn’t just put it on their laps or on a shelf. In fact, some readers had to change their living conditions to accommodate it. A 1921 issue of the British magazine Country Life tells the story of a collector who, after being given a copy of The Birds of America, was forced to search for a new, much larger, apartment. “If you have such big books in your collection you must be prepared to stand the inconvenience of keeping them in these days of congested quarters and restricted living,” the magazine scolded.

But most owners of Audubon’s book didn’t need to move to a new home; rather, they had to construct special furniture to protect and facilitate the display of their investment—one of the most famous examples of which can be found at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

 
 

It might look like a typical Victorian-era ottoman, but the brocaded piece that sits in a glass case in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room at the Field Museum is not the kind of furniture you’d want to prop your feet on.

Measuring nearly 2 feet high, 2.5 feet wide, and 4 feet long, the ottoman houses a copy of the Birds of America once owned by British zoologist and physician Benjamin Phillips. The piece has four drawers, each of which slides out and opens into a table supported by four legs to better view the volume within.

Audubon ottoman, an object in Field Museum Library collections, with one of its drawers extended and a copy of The Birds of America opened on it.
Courtesy of the Field Museum

Though not the chicest piece of furniture by today’s standards, the ottoman was terrific at protecting Audubon’s great book: It shielded Phillips’s copy of The Birds of America from dust and light, allowing it to be viewed with minimal handling and keeping the set in incredible condition even as it changed hands over the years. (In 1985, the Chicago Tribune called the condition of the prints “delicious.”)

But just because it houses Phillips’s Birds of America doesn’t mean it’s as old as his set. According to Diana Duncan, Technical Services Librarian in the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum, the exact age and provenance of the ottoman is unclear. In 2007, conservator Tatsumi Brown cleaned and restored the ottoman, creating a new, historically accurate brocade cover for the piece; the restoration process took 346 hours. Prior to its conservation, the ottoman was assessed by an expert at the Art Institute of Chicago. “She concluded that it was a 20th century construction,” Duncan told Mental Floss in an email. “Certain elements definitely are 20th century but could have been added during prior conservation work on the cabinet such as screws/hardware in drawers, zippers on original cover, etc. One of the pieces of newspaper on the inside can be dated to the period 1919-1924.”

The Audubon Ottoman wasn’t the only ottoman built to hold the book; Audubon’s ledger notes that Euphemia Gifford, Lucy’s cousin, received an ottoman along with her plates. (Its whereabouts are unknown.) Nor is the ottoman the only piece of furniture built to hold Birds of America. “The furniture expert at the Art Institute mentioned that she had seen a couple other cabinets like this,” Duncan says. “Because of the size of the work, it would be less likely to fit into an off-the-shelf cabinet, which may be why there would be custom pieces of furniture made for it.”

Take the cabinet owned by subscriber No. 11, paleobotanist Henry Witham—the first Englishman to analyze the internal structure of fossilized plants—and one of Audubon’s friends from England. Witham had each of his volumes of Birds of America gilded and hinged with two locks, according to Sotheby’s, “the whole housed in a Victorian mahogany folio cabinet, second quarter of the nineteenth century, 5 sliding trays, the moroccan tooled leather inset top with cross banding, mounted on a plinth and recessed casters.” In 2010, Witham’s copy of Birds of America—complete with cabinet—sold for $11.54 million, the most paid for a printed book at auction at the time. (It unseated another copy of The Birds of America.)

The most elaborate cabinet used to house The Birds of America resembles an Egyptian temple in miniature, measuring more than 3 feet high, 9 feet wide, and nearly 5.5 feet deep. Originally conceived to hold the multi-volume elephant folio Description de l’Egypte, the massive cabinet—preserved at the Providence Athenæum—was also home to a copy of The Birds of America from around 1840 to 1895. The Athenæum ultimately sold its copy of Birds of America for $5 million in 2005.

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, there’s a copy of The Birds of America that once belonged to the Reverend Patrick Brontë—the father of authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. When the book was donated in 1947, a cabinet was constructed to showcase the volumes. The pages were turned every two months; it took two people to lift off the glass, and another two to delicately turn the page. (Recently, the books were moved to a glass-and-metal display case.)

The New-York Historical Society Regency-style cabinet that holds its copy of Audubon's Birds of America.
The provenance of the New-York Historical Society's cabinet only goes back to 1937. "The question is, was it built after something else?" Olson says. "It’s very tantalizing. We don’t know. We don’t know whether it was English, or whether [the dealer] had it made for his client in 1937. To me, it looks older, and it certainly was custom made for a copy of The Birds of America."
Gift of Mrs. [Patricia] Harvey Breit and Mrs. Gratia R. Laiser in memory of their mother, Gratia Houghton Rinehart, 1954. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Another copy of Birds of America, this one leather-bound and from the library of the Duke of Newcastle, was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1954. It came with a custom-built Regency-style cabinet—the provenance for which only goes back to 1937—that flaunted a most appropriate design: When the four drawers open and convert into tables, with one table open on each side, the furniture resembles a bird with its wings extended. “It’s beautiful, and I think it captures the ceremony [of showing Birds of America],” Olsen says.

 
 

The big book trend, which began in England and Continental Europe in the 18th century, was mostly about showing off. “It was essentially conspicuous consumption,” says Rebecca Romney, a rare book dealer at Honey and Wax Booksellers (and writer for Mental Floss). “Paper was very expensive, and [the attitude] was, ‘Look how much paper we can waste and look at these amazing works of art that we can print.’”

Making big books was risky business: The creators bore the entire expense of creating the book, from having the copper plates engraved to coloration to shipment. Along the way, subscribers might die, or the author might go bankrupt trying to get the book made. Though Audubon had a practical reason for wanting to make a huge book, the others, Romney says, “are usually a case of ego in some way.”

The key was to hook the rich, who understood that owning a book of this size showed that they were both cultured and extremely wealthy. And once they had their big books in hand, they needed a way to display the evidence of their culture and money. “Someone who could afford such a book wouldn’t blink over making some kind of shelving/furniture for it,” Romney says. “It was a status symbol. You can’t have this thing that you’re essentially using to say ‘look how rich and cultured I am,’ but it’s in this crappy piece of furniture. It had to be nice.”

For both monetary and technological reasons—the U.S. didn’t have the printers able to create books the size of Birds of America—this trend of elaborate book collecting was mostly confined to Europe. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Americans had enough money to indulge in serious bibliophilia. After the Civil War, Romney says, “you start getting people [in the U.S.] who could compete with centuries-old [European] royalty.” Men like J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Huntington were snapping up rare books and manuscripts; book collecting clubs such as the Grolier Club were formed; and the libraries of late collectors like George Brinley (who died in 1875) were being sold. This appetite for books turned elaborate and rare tomes like the Gutenberg Bible and Birds of America into highly-sought collectibles that remain valuable.

An employee at Christie's lifts a page of Audubon's Birds of America depicting snowy owls.
An employee at Christie's lifts a page of Audubon's Birds of America depicting snowy owls.
BEN STANSALL, AFP/Getty Images

Today, the sky-high prices commanded by folios of Birds have less to do with their size than Audubon’s legendary reputation—and the fact that there just aren’t that many Birds of America folios out there. “You have a very small amount printed [to begin with], and then half or more of [the bound versions] end up being broken up because of print dealers,” Romney says. “The number that stay intact over the years becomes smaller and smaller, and that’s one of the reasons you get big prices, because there are so few that survive complete.”

And it’s not just the bound plates that fetch big bucks: According to Romney, single plates from Birds can sell for up to six figures. In January 2016, an 1836 plate from Birds of America featuring an American White Pelican sold for nearly $119,000.

 
 

Were he still alive, Audubon would probably feel faint to hear about the sums of money The Birds of America and its furniture fetches today. During his lifetime, he sold fewer than 200 copies of the elephant-folio, 120 of which still exist today. (Though it seems like a paltry amount, it was, for Audubon and that time, a complete success.) In the 1840s, he revisited the tome, publishing a manageable octavo edition that measured approximately 6 inches by 9 inches, featuring 65 additional plates. It had 1100 subscribers and earned Audubon a tidy $36,000.

Though his octavo was more profitable, it was Audubon’s big book that cemented his reputation as America’s foremost ornithologist. His work attracted the attention and support of King George IV of Britain and King Charles X of France; it even helped him get elected to London’s Royal Society—the second American to earn the honor (the first was Benjamin Franklin). And Audubon’s second book, Ornithological Biography, which was intended to be a companion to The Birds of America, would inspire the founding of the National Audubon Society, one of the world’s first conservation societies. (One of the society’s founders, George Bird Grinnell, had been tutored by Lucy Audubon as a boy.)

“Most people set goals, and they fall short,” Olson says. “Certainly he made compromises along the way, but he succeeded through great adversity and lots of people telling him he was crazy … and of course, he couldn’t have done it if not for Lucy. He made a lot of personal sacrifices and probably worked himself into an early grave, but he was passionate about this. He had a vision.”

And there are few experiences more incredible than having the opportunity to admire Audubon’s double elephant folio version of The Birds of America—today widely regarded as “the most famous and most magnificent of all the great hand-colored bird books”—for yourself.

“It’s like the Pantheon,” Romney says. “You see pictures of it and you’re like, ‘That’s beautiful.’ But the impact in person hits you physically. It’s the same thing with the Audubon Birds of America. When you see pictures, it’s, ‘Yeah, I see how that’s great.’ But when you’re seeing it in person, it’s ‘Holy cow, this is way more than I expected.’ It really is very emotive.”

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Oral History
The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special
Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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