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Wrapper's Delight: The Legendary Collaboration of Christo and Jeanne-Claude

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On November 18, 2009, one of the most important artistic partnerships of the century ended when Jeanne-Claude, of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, passed away. During the couple’s 45 years of collaboration, they completed 20 gargantuan works of art—masterpieces so enormous they encompassed entire cities. In the United States, they were best known for The Gates, a 2005 project that consisted of nearly 8,000 gates spilling orange fabric through New York City’s Central Park. But their work wasn’t limited to America, and it wasn’t constrained to museums. The quiet, bespectacled Christo and his talkative, red-haired wife fundamentally changed the art world by abandoning the gallery system and undertaking projects that were ridiculously large in scope. The two were so devoted to their work that they never flew on the same plane; they didn’t want to leave a project orphaned in the case of a crash. Together, the pair created some of the most memorable, visually stunning art in history. This is the story of a stateless man, a general’s daughter, and the painstaking effort they poured into constructing their work—and then taking it down.

An Affair to Remember

On the evening of June 13, 1935, Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon and Christo Javacheff were born 1,870 miles apart—she in Casablanca, Morocco, and he in Gabrovo, Bulgaria.

Jeanne-Claude’s mother was a socialite, and her stepfather was a general in the French military. Her early years read like a World War II film noir script; she was a spoiled, neglected debutante shuffling between mansions in North Africa and France. Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude’s future partner, Christo Javacheff, grew up behind the Iron Curtain. His father was a scientist and his mother was a secretary at an art school. Christo never wanted to be anything but an artist, and his parents’ station in life combined with his natural aptitude helped facilitate his dreams. Christo studied art in Bulgaria, and although he enjoyed the technical training, he loathed the forced propaganda work. In Bulgaria, as in many Soviet-aligned countries, the government regularly dispatched art students to the countryside to beautify the land. Christo was sent to farms along the railway lines to create displays of the latest farm equipment. The goal was to keep up the fac?ade of bucolic happiness for any Westerners who might be touring by rail. And while Christo detested the work, the experience gave him an idea of just how massive the scope and scale of art projects could be.

In 1957, Christo bribed a railway worker to smuggle him into Vienna, Austria. At the age of 22, the young artist had left behind everything he knew in the world. He was alone, a “stateless person.”

In Vienna, Christo spent one semester in art school, then drifted to Geneva and eventually Paris, where he supported himself by washing dishes and painting portraits of socialites. He didn’t mind the dishes, but, to him, the portraits felt like prostitution. At least one good thing came out of those commissions, though; they led him to his future partner. At the time, Jeanne-Claude was living with her family in Paris and leading an empty life of parties and decadence. Her mother hired Christo to paint her portrait. Years later, Jeanne-Claude would say that her life began the day Christo walked into their house. They were both romantically involved with other people at the time, but after a year of friendship, they started an affair.

On August 12, 1959, Jeanne-Claude married her wealthy boyfriend, Philippe Planchon. It’s unclear whether she knew that she was carrying Christo’s child at the time, but soon after the ceremony, she realized she’d made a mistake. Jeanne-Claude left Planchon right after the honeymoon and told Christo about the pregnancy. They decided to pass off the child as Planchon’s in order to obtain child support, and when their son, Cyril, was born in May, he was given Planchon’s name. Christo became the child’s godfather, and he and Jeanne-Claude continued their affair.

Drawing the Curtain

During this period, Christo was moving away from portraiture and developing his artistic style. At first, he experimented with sculpture, cloaking objects in fabric and tying material with elaborate knots. He played with all sorts of objects—spoons, cans, shoes, wheelbarrows, cars, even women. In 1961, Christo produced his first environmental work, Dockside Packages, outside a gallery in Cologne. The 16-foot-tall, 32-foot-wide piece consisted of oil barrels and industrial paper rolls stacked up on the docks and draped in a giant tarp. Curiously, it looked virtually identical to the industrial packages that were normally on the dock, and few people realized the scene was an art installation. The response, or lack of one, pleased Christo greatly.

The following year, Christo returned to the subject of oil barrels for an installation called Iron Curtain, which he created to protest the construction of the Berlin Wall. It consisted of 240 barrels stacked across Rue Visconti, a narrow Parisian street. Once completed, the work made the road impassable. This was the first time the artist had actively manipulated a public landscape—something that would become the hallmark of his work. Iron Curtain was also one of Christo’s first major collaborations with Jeanne-Claude. Her task was simple yet essential, and it presaged the role she would play for decades to come. Jeanne-Claude’s job was to stave off the authorities while Christo constructed his installation. Armed with brazenness, family connections, and a ferocious belief in Christo, Jeanne-Claude helped turn his concept into a reality.

In 1964, Jeanne-Claude, Christo, and their child relocated to New York City. They moved into the legendary Chelsea Hotel, and though virtually penniless, they quickly became staples of Manhattan’s art scene. Because Christo spoke little English, he often stayed in the background, smiling genially as Jeanne-Claude charmed and haggled with gallery owners and collectors. Jeanne-Claude’s interventions on behalf of her husband were pivotal in furthering his work, and from 1964 onwards, they considered themselves equal partners in the creative process. As one friend put it, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had become “an eagle with two heads.”

Monumental Tasks

In the fall of 1969, the pair created their first massive environmental work, Wrapped Coast, which covered a mile of Australian coastline in 1 million square feet of fabric and 35 miles of rope. The project came about by chance after the Australian textile designer John Kaldor invited Christo to give a series of lectures in Sydney. The artist made a counterproposal; instead of giving lectures, he wanted to wrap Australia’s coastline in fabric. Kaldor loved the idea and took it upon himself to find the available shore. Eventually, he found a private beach owned by a hospital that was willing to lend the property to the project. The media fell in love with Wrapped Coast’s beautiful absurdity. From that point on, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental works would only get bigger.

Suddenly, the artistic duo needed engineers, forklift operators, textile workers, and lawyers to help them bring their creations to life. At this, Jeanne-Claude became a masterful manager. When it came time to actually install the projects, she would hire crews of thousands — first to build the artwork, then to maintain it for a few weeks, and finally to remove it and clear the area of any traces of the installation.

Each undertaking was tremendously expensive. Several of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s environmental works cost more than $20 million to build. And yet, they funded all the projects themselves, largely through selling Christo’s smaller pieces. His wrapped objects from the 1960s quickly became collector’s items, and as he planned for future colossal projects, he turned each sketch into its own valuable work of art. For each installation, Christo would obsessively detail his plans. Then, he’d combine photos, maps, and drawings into collages that he’d frame and sell. Collectors and museums gobbled up the works, with some of the pieces selling for upwards of $600,000.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s process for putting together environmental pieces subverted the normal mechanics of capitalism. The couple would create something for free, which made them money, which they used to create some- thing else for free, which made them even more money. But the artists insist that their projects were never a commentary on capitalism and that there was no meaning behind the pieces at all. Christo maintains that his work derives its power from the fact that it’s “absolutely irrational.”

Two Become One

In 1994, the couple announced that they wanted to be known as a single entity, and that all projects they’d created since 1964 should be retroactively labeled as the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The announcement perturbed many in the art world, who objected to Jeanne-Claude being called an artist. After all, her role was more administrative and managerial. In response to the criticism, Christo said, “The drawings are the scheme for the project, after that, we do everything together: Choose the rope, the fabric, the thickness of the fabric, the amount of fabric, the color. We argue, and we think about it. Everybody knows that we’ve worked together for over 30 years. There’s no point in arguing about who does what. The work is all that matters.”

Until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, the couple continued to live in the same loft they’d moved into in 1965. They worked all day, every day, on their projects. They nurtured their artwork the way most parents tend to their young, and they promised each other that should one of them die, the other would continue to raise their creations. Christo appears to be staying true to his word. He is currently working on a project he conceived with Jeanne-Claude in 1994 called Over the River. It will consist of a length of silver fabric extending across a 6-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The target date for installation is tentatively scheduled for 2014. And while Christo’s going it alone, there’s no doubt the project will be wrapped in Jeanne-Claude’s spirit.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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