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Cramming People Into a Thing: A Photo History

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Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate. As you can imagine, this pastime was most popular among college students, and led to international rivalries. Yes, kids, this is the kind of thing we thought was fun back before we had video games...and when we still had phone booths. But this practice of people-packing goes to places weirder than phone booths, as you'll see in the historic (and bizarre) images below.

Phone Booth Cramming

Let's start with phone booths, the first and best-known stuffed space. It all started in 1959 when a group of students in Durban, South Africa crammed 25 students into a booth and submitted the result to the Guinness Book of World Records.* Although the South Africans were first, Americans soon took the world stage as masters of people-packing (and photography): the best-known Stuffed Phone Booth was photographed at St. Mary's College in 1959, when 22 students packed themselves into one phone booth while LIFE magazine photographer Joe Munroe snapped pictures. It took all day to get the right shot, and still the students failed to beat the South African record -- though they beat a group of Canadians who had gotten 19 into a booth (with legs sticking out) earlier in the year. (Reportedly, that South African record still stands, though Guinness World Records doesn't list it on their website.) Interestingly, the "rules" for Phone Booth Stuffing had regional differences. LIFE magazine reported (March 30, 1959, emphasis added):

The competitive squeeze started to sweep the U.S., with each college playing by its own rules. Some used roomy phone cubicles in fraternity houses. Others upended booths and piled into them like boats. Conscientious student stuffers used the sardine, or limbs-in, method [as shown above]. Others took the easier approach that permits legs to dangle on the outside. Competitors agree that the best phone-boothing technique is to round up undersize undergraduates, preferably freshmen, and put them under the supervision of a tough master crammer. One M.I.T. student boasted, “Here we think and calculate about the job. The mathematics of it are challenging.”

Here's a video of those St. Mary's students remembering their stunt. A representative quote: "People at the bottom were really laboring to breathe." Party on, dudes:

If you want to feel like you're part of the (hot, sweaty, crampy) action, here's a 2009 video of St. Mary's College students attempting to repeat the feat, with some of the original stuffees on-hand for color commentary.

Phone Booth Cramming - Ladies-Only Edition

At Memphis State U in 1959, 26 Sigma Kappa ladies gave it the old college try by cramming into their own telephone booth...though as you can see, their cramming rules appear rather lax. (Note: standing at the left of the photo is cheerleader Janis Hollingsworth, who cheered her sisters on throughout the event.)

Phone Booth Cramming - Ladies-Only Edition
© Corbis

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition

LIFE magazine documented the phone booth cramming fad from its inception. Here are a series of images by Robert W. Kelley, a LIFE magazine photographer who documented one "legs-out" attempt by a bunch of college boys in 1959:

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 1
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 2
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 3
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Car Cramming

Clowns are well-known for crowding into cars; Wikipedia dryly explains: "A common example of [a clown car] routine involves an implausibly large number of clowns emerging from a very small car, to humorous effect." But in the 1950s this practice spread beyond the hallowed halls of Clown College to square schools: regular college kids went the extra mile by cramming themselves into small cars like the famously economical (and tiny) Renault. Witness:

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Outhouse Cramming

In 1959, 37 (!) students in Brookings, South Dakota, crammed themselves into a single outhouse, leaving the bum-wiping magazine on top to save space inside. According to South Dakotan rules of the day, half a person's body could remain outside the crammed edifice and still count -- hence the pile of dudes sticking out the front.

Outhouse Cramming
© Corbis

Tree Stuffing

In 1961, students at the University of Maine decided to cram inside hollow trees. Yes, really. According to the Bettmann Archive:

A "Tree Stuffing" contest to incite interest in their respective organizations, was held by the Pi Phi Sorority and Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at the University of Maine, when they challenged one another to the contest of hollow trees on the campus. The girls, after removing their shoes, stuffed 13 into the tree, the boys 15.

Tree Stuffing© Corbis

Train Stuffing

In 1962, space on Tokyo trains was at a premium, so "pushmen" were employed to cram commuters into trains, to maximize efficiency. The best part? Reportedly, the pushmen were college students. The original caption for this image noted: "Winter coats complicate the cramming process." (According to some online accounts I've read, this still happens. Any pushmen or Japanese commuters care to comment?)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Photo Booth Stuffing

According to Guinness World Records, in 2009, 27 people crammed into a purikura sticker photo booth designed for 10. Sadly, no photo is available, though you can read a bit about the booths from Wikipedia. Based on this attempt and the St. Mary's attempt (also in 2009), I'd say this fad is coming back!

Go Stuff Yourself

If you can find a phone booth, let us know how many coeds you can get in there -- and if you find one containing an actual working telephone, try following British rules, which require that one stuffee make or receive a phone call during the attempt. Be safe, kids.

Have you been part of a cramming or stuffing feat? Let us know in the comments.

* = It appears the the Durban feat was not granted official World Record status (at least judging from a reading of the 1989 book and some web digging). Regardless, the Durban "record" of 25 people in one booth is broadly considered to be valid, as evidenced by various groups subsequently trying to break it.

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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

Getty Images

Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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