10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. IT BECAME A MILITARY OUTPOST IN THE 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. INMATES WERE FORCED TO BUILD THEIR OWN PRISON.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. LIFE THERE WASN’T SO BAD.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. ODDS OF ESCAPE WERE SLIM.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. INMATES LIKED PLAYING SOFTBALL.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. GUARDS LIVED ON THE ISLAND WITH THEIR FAMILIES.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. IT WAS CLOSED FOR BEING TOO EXPENSIVE.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. NATIVE AMERICANS OCCUPIED IT IN PROTEST.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. YOU CAN TAKE A TOUR.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. It’s possibly the only such park that can lay claim to Al Capone once strolling its grounds. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry (via the wonderfully-named Alcatraz Cruises). Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. IT’S LITERALLY GONE TO THE BIRDS.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

20 Surprising Facts About Pulp Fiction

Miramax
Miramax

On October 14, 1994, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released in theaters in America and a new Hollywood auteur was born. In addition to teaching Americans what a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called in Europe, the film reignited the career of John Travolta (who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work) and showed audiences a different side of Bruce Willis. In honor of the film's anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about Pulp Fiction.

1. THE FILM WAS RELEASED IN SOUTH KOREA, JAPAN, AND EVEN SLOVAKIA BEFORE IT ARRIVED IN AMERICA.

Tarantino’s film first played the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994. It was shown at other festivals around the world, from Munich to Locarno, before hitting American shores on September 23, 1994, at the New York Film Festival. The film was released in South Korea, Japan, and Slovakia before it officially opened in the U.S. on October 14, 1994. The feature rolled out across Asia and Europe throughout 1994 and 1995.

2. HONEY BUNNY WAS NAMED AFTER AN ACTUAL RABBIT.

Honey Bunny belonged to Linda Chen, who typed up Tarantino's handwritten script for Pulp Fiction. In lieu of payment, she asked Tarantino to watch her rabbit when she went on location; Tarantino wouldn't do it, and when the rabbit later died, he named Amanda Plummer's character after Chen's pet.

3. YOU CAN WATCH THE FILM CHRONOLOGICALLY ... KIND OF.

The narrative structure of the film plays out of sequence, but it’s easy enough to break it down into seven distinct sections (a prologue, an epilogue, two preludes, and three large segments) that can then be re-ordered into a chronological narrative (Hint: The first prelude, to the “Gold Watch” section, plays first. If that doesn’t help, here’s an infographic).

4. THE FILM CONTAINS 265 “F WORDS.”

Even that hefty number isn’t Tarantino’s highest (1992’s Reservoir Dogs used it 269 times). Still, the film was the big “f word” winner of 1994, as no other film released that year even came close to that amount of profanity.

5. VINCENT VEGA’S 1964 CHEVELLE MALIBU WAS STOLEN AFTER THE SHOOT.

John Travolta’s character in the film had a sweet ride—which, in real life, belonged to Tarantino—and it was such a hot rod that it was stolen soon after the film’s release. It wasn’t found for nearly two decades, when two cops happened on a pair of kids stripping an older car. After running the Vehicle Identification Number, they found it shared the number with a car in Oakland, which turned out to be Tarantino’s car.

6. THE MOVIE COST ONLY $8.5 MILLION TO MAKE.

Five million went to the actors’ salaries. It made that all back in its first week at the U.S. box office (the film pulled in $9.3 million the first weekend of release).

7. THE FILM WAS THE THIRD BIGGEST R-RATED EARNER OF 1994.

The film lost out on the title to True Lies ($146.2 million) and Speed ($121.2 million). The film’s earnings were strong enough to place it in the overall top 10 for the year, though 1994 was dominated by Forrest Gump, which made $329.6 million that year.

8. EVEN THOUGH THE FILM MADE OVER $100 MILLION, IT TOOK A LONG TIME TO GET THERE.

Even though Tarantino’s film ended up being a tremendous hit—especially considering that slim budget—it took some time to get there. The film was in release for 178 days before it finally pulled in 100 million domestic dollars. A little comparison? It took Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 only two days.

9. VINCENT VEGA WAS WRITTEN FOR MICHAEL MADSEN ...

Tarantino specifically wrote a number of roles in the film for chosen actors (including Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Amanda Plummer), but nothing compared to his dedication to having Michael Madsen play Vince. Madsen, who knew of Tarantino’s plans and said he wanted to do the part, dropped out two weeks before the script was finished to star in Wyatt Earp.

10. ... WHICH COULD HAVE MADE HIM MR. BLONDE’S TWIN.

Tarantino has a long tradition of connecting characters in his various films—basically, the filmmaker is working with a number of sprawling family trees, and it’s always a treat to see how characters intersect—which would have made Madsen’s casting of Vince come with a surprising twist: it might have made him Mr. Blonde’s (Madsen’s character from Reservoir Dogs) twin, as it’s long been known that Vince and Blonde are brothers.

11. IT INSPIRED TOP GEAR’S STIG.

The mysterious, anonymous Stig was inspired by the mysterious, anonymous Gimp. The Gimp was even the original name for the Stig, until they couldn’t find a racing driver willing to use that name.

12. BUTCH WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A LOT YOUNGER.

Tarantino wrote the part as a young boxer, with Matt Dillon specifically in mind for the role, but when the actor took too much time considering the part, it was tweaked slightly to accommodate Bruce Willis (who was a little ticked that he wasn’t asked to play Vincent).

13. TARANTINO LOVES VINTAGE BOARD GAMES, AND IT SHOWS.

The filmmaker is an avid board game collector, which is why the film features Operation and The Game of Life. Tarantino convinced Travolta to come on board with an all-day Welcome Back, Kotter, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever board game marathon.

14. VINCENT’S PREFERRED READING MATERIAL IS REAL.

Vince loves reading pulp fiction books during his, ahem, private time, including Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, a real pulp fiction novel based on O’Donnell’s '60s comic strip. Tarantino has long expressed interest in bringing that tale to the big screen, including giving his official license to the 2003 film (Quentin Tarantino Presents) My Name is Modesty.

15. DESPITE TARANTINO’S LOVE FOR UMA THURMAN, SHE WASN’T HIS FIRST PICK.

Other possible Mias? Isabella Rossellini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Meg Ryan, Alfre Woodard, Halle Berry, Daryl Hannah, Rosanna Arquette, Joan Cusack, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Tarantino’s original favorite was supposedly Pfeiffer.

16. THE ORIGINAL POSTER CAN FETCH YOU SEVERAL HUNDRED DOLLARS.

The first poster had Thurman smoking from a box of Lucky Strike cigarettes—but Miramax hadn’t licensed usage rights from Lucky Strikes, who threatened to sue. Rather than fight it, Miramax had the posters returned. Those that survived can now command big money.

17. JULES MAY HAVE BEEN WRITTEN FOR SAMUEL L. JACKSON, BUT HE ALMOST LOST THE PART.

Tarantino very much had Jackson in mind for the role of Jules, but when he auditioned Paul Calderon, he was so struck by the performance that he very nearly hired him. Jackson, desperate to get “his” role back, flew to Los Angeles and auditioned for Tarantino again.

18. CAPTAIN KOONS MIGHT HAVE A FAMOUS RELATIVE.

Well, famous in the Tarantino universe, anyway: It’s widely believed that Christopher Walken’s Captain Koons is a descendent of Django Unchained character Crazy Craig Koons, who is only mentioned by name in a Wanted poster.

19. ROBERT RODRIGUEZ DIRECTED PARTS OF THE FILM.

When Tarantino is on screen as Jimmie, someone else had to be behind the camera—and that someone was Robert Rodriguez. The pair later teamed up for a number of other projects, including From Dusk Till Dawn and Grindhouse.

20. TRAVOLTA DIDN’T REALLY INJECT THURMAN IN THAT SCENE.

The infamous scene in which Mia is stabbed with a very necessary adrenaline shot was stressful enough, so Tarantino took off some of the pressure: the needle was inserted, and then Travolta pulled it out. The scene was reversed in post-production so it looks as if Vincent Vega really is plunging that syringe into her. Movie magic!

Additional Sources: Short List; Box Office Mojo (1, 2)

This article originally ran in 2015.

Aaugh! 10 Facts About It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Lee Mendelson hadn’t planned on a career in animation. But when television sponsors saw the filmmaker’s documentary about cartoonist Charles Schulz, they asked if the two could team up to produce a Christmas special based on Schulz’s Peanuts strip. The result, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was seen by roughly half of all households watching television during its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965.

Mendelson went on to produce other Peanuts primetime specials, but 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown remains one of the most endearing. As you prepare annual sympathy for poor ol' Chuck (“I got a rock”), check out some facts about naked composers, vomiting voice actors, and CBS’s bizarre ultimatum.

1. THE FUTURE OF ANIMATED PEANUTS SPECIALS DEPENDED ON IT.  


Warner Home Video

Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez had very high aspirations for A Charlie Brown Christmas. When they screened it prior to its premiere, however, they felt it didn’t live up to its potential—and CBS agreed. The network said it was the last Peanuts special they would buy. But after it delivered huge ratings, CBS changed their mind and asked for more. When the two delivered another hit—the baseball-themed Charlie Brown All-Stars—they thought they had earned the network’s confidence.

Instead, CBS told them they needed a special that could run every year, like A Charlie Brown Christmas. If Mendelson couldn’t provide it, they told him they might not pick up an option for a fourth show. Despite Schulz and his collaborators being annoyed by the network's abrasive attitude, they hammered out a story with a seasonal clothesline that could be rerun in perpetuity.   

2. THE VOICE OF VIOLET PUKED AFTER EVERY RECORDING SESSION.

It’s standard practice these days to use adult actors to mimic juvenile cartoon characters: adults are (presumably) better able to take direction and deliver a performance in line with the director’s wishes. But for many Peanuts specials, children were used to voice Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the rest. Anne Altieri, who portrayed both Violet and Frieda, was so nervous to be part of the show that she threw up every time she was done with a recording session.

3. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME LUCY SNATCHED THE FOOTBALL FROM CHARLIE BROWN.

In animated form, anyway. When Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez were brainstorming scene ideas for the special, talk turned to the fact that Lucy’s habit of pulling the football away from Charlie Brown had never been seen in animation. They also decided it would be a good time to introduce Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace. The joke had appeared in the strip, but Mendelson thought it would work even better in motion. He was right: the sequence with Snoopy in a doghouse dogfight is one of the most memorable in the Peanuts animated canon.

4. IT’S SECRETLY ABOUT SANTA.

The Great Pumpkin saga was adapted from Schulz’s newspaper strip, where he had conceived it as a metaphor for some of the hope (and disappointment) associated with Saint Nick. Schulz disliked the idea kids heard of a jolly fat man who delivered presents all over the world when he knew many families could only afford one or two gifts for the holidays. “The Great Pumpkin is really kind of a satire on Santa Claus,” he told Mendelson. “When [he] doesn’t come, Linus is crushed.”

5. THE MUSIC COMPOSER WAS FOUND NAKED BY COPS.


Warner Home Video

The jazzy scores of the early Peanuts specials were the work of composer Vince Guaraldi. When he was busy putting together “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the show, he decided to break for a shower. When he came out, he thought he heard noises outside and went to investigate, naked, and locked himself out in the process. Keyless, Guaraldi tried climbing a ladder to a second-floor window when cops spotted him. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “I’m the Great Pumpkin.” Police, who were many months away from getting the joke, let him back inside.  

6. A LISP ALMOST RUINED THE SHOW.

Kathy Steinberg was only four years old when she portrayed Sally for the first time in A Charlie Brown Christmas: her big break came when Mendelson, her neighbor, started work on the specials. While Steinberg had some limitations—like being too young to know how to read a script—things were going well until producers realized she was on the verge of losing a tooth. Fearing a lisp would ruin the voiceover work, they rushed to get her lines done. The day after finishing, the tooth fell out.  

7. KIDS SENT CHARLIE BROWN CANDY FOR YEARS.

One of the most poignant moments of any Peanuts cartoon comes when downtrodden Charlie Brown opens his Halloween goodie sack and discovers he’s been given rocks instead of candy. According to Schulz, this so angered viewers that for years his California office was inundated with sacks of treats addressed to the character.

8. THE ORIGINAL AIRINGS WERE SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT.

Production costs for the early Charlie Brown specials were subsidized by television sponsors Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison snack cakes: the brands appear at the beginning and end of the broadcast. The Coke “bug” appeared for several years before getting phased out. 

9. CBS GOT A LITTLE SALTY ABOUT LOSING THE RIGHTS.

After spending decades at CBS, the rights to three holiday Peanuts installments went up for grabs in 2000. Though CBS could make the first offer, it was ABC who made the winning bid. Privately, CBS executives were not at all pleased about the business decision to take the football away. “It's a shame that a few more dollars meant more to them than years of tradition and loyalty," one network employee anonymously told Variety

10. SOME SCHOLARS THOUGHT THE GREAT PUMPKIN WAS REAL.


Warner Home Video

A real myth, at any rate. Talking to the Schenectady Gazette in 1968, Schulz said that since the special began airing two years earlier, he had received a number of letters from academics wondering where the Great Pumpkin story had originated. “A number of professional scholars have written me about the origination of the legend,” he said. “They insist it must be based on something.” Schulz suggested they broach the topic with Linus instead.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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