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13 Cultured Facts About Masterpiece Theatre

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PBS

It’s been parodied by Sesame Street and the Disney Channel, and beloved by millions of culture-seeking television viewers for more than four decades now. Today marks the 45th anniversary of Masterpiece’s debut on PBS. Though today’s Masterpiece looks slightly different than the Masterpiece Theatre that made its premiere on January 10, 1971, the program has succeeded in remaining “steadfast in our commitment to bringing the best in drama to American public television audiences.” Here are 13 things you might not know about the Sunday night tradition.

1. MASTERPIECE OWES ITS EXISTENCE TO THE FORSYTE SAGA.

In the wake of the success of the 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, Stanford Calderwood—then-president of WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate—floated the idea of partnering with BBC to license some of their dramatic series for broadcast in the U.S. While on vacation in London, Calderwood paid a visit to the network and determined that they were game to give it a try. It wasn’t an easy sell, but Calderwood managed to make a deal that would see this partnership come to fruition in the form of Masterpiece Theatre.

2. MOBIL OIL WAS THE PROGRAM’S ORIGINAL SPONSOR.

Though Calderwood only served as WGBH’s president for three months, during that time, he managed to convince the Mobil Corporation to underwrite $1 million in order to create Masterpiece Theatre.

3. THE THEME MUSIC WAS DISCOVERED AT A CLUB MED IN SICILY.

When it came time to choose the series’ iconic theme music, producer Christopher Sarson opted for Jean-Joseph Mouret's "Rondeau" from his Symphonies and Fanfares for the King's Supper. Though he claimed to some that it was “Just an old piece I found in the library,” the truth is that it’s the music that woke Sarson and his soon-to-be wife up each morning when they vacationed at a Club Med in Palermo, Sicily in 1962. “We were in these little straw huts and every morning we were summoned to breakfast by that theme. It was just magic,” Sarson recalled. “I wanted to use it for Masterpiece Theatre but there was no way I could bear to put a French piece of music on something that was supposed to be English. I went through all kinds of English composers and nothing worked. So, it became the theme. The nice little twist on that is that about five years ago someone from The New York Times went to a Club Med in Mexico and commented on what a classy joint it was because they used the music of Masterpiece Theatre to summon people to meals.”

4. IT’S THE LONGEST RUNNING PRIMETIME DRAMA IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN TELEVISION.

Now in its 45th year, Masterpiece is America’s longest-running primetime drama and the third longest-running series overall; only 60 Minutes, which debuted in 1968, and Monday Night Football, which began in 1970, are older.

5. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Masterpiece made its debut with the 12-part miniseries, The First Churchills. Though it won an Emmy for its lead actress, Susan Hampshire, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, original host Alistair Cooke couldn’t believe that the initial program didn’t sink the series altogether. “I sometimes marvel that it did not strangle the program in its cradle,” he said of The First Churchills in 1991.

6. ALISTAIR COOKE TURNED DOWN THE HOSTING GIG.

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It took a bit of convincing to get Alistair Cooke to sign on for hosting duties, and even then it was only at his daughter’s urging—and very shortly before the program made its debut. Even then, Cooke wasn’t totally convinced that the show would be a success. “Alistair Cooke was so uncertain about the show’s appeal that he had signed only a one-year contract,” wrote Rebecca Eaton, Masterpiece’s producer since 1985, in her book, Making Masterpiece. “He was also a creature of habit with a very careful lawyer. He signed only one-year contracts for the next 21 years.”

7. COOKE LIKENED HIS ROLE AS HOST TO THAT OF A HEADWAITER.

Cooke, who ended up hosting Masterpiece Theatre for a total of 22 seasons, liked to think of himself as the show’s headwaiter, “in the sense that I'm there to explain for interested customers what's on the menu, and how the dishes were composed,” he explained. “But I'm not the chef.”

8. RUSSELL BAKER DIDN’T WANT TO HAVE TO FOLLOW COOKE.

One year before he was officially announced as Cooke’s successor in 1993, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker said no to following in the venerable host’s footsteps. "My reply was, 'I'd like to be the man who succeeds the man who succeeds Alistair Cooke,'" Baker admitted about his initial trepidation in taking the gig. Appropriately, it was Baker’s daughter who eventually pushed him to say yes.

9. THERE WAS NO HOST AT ALL FOLLOWING BAKER’S DEPARTURE.

Baker served as Masterpiece Theatre’s host until 2004, at which point the series opted to continue without a host. And it remained that way for four years, partly because of the challenge of filling that iconic chair. “It's worse than choosing a husband,” Eaton told The Boston Globe in 2007 of the search for a new Masterpiece host. “Much worse. But it feels of about the same importance.”

10. THE “THEATRE” WAS DROPPED FOR THE 2008 SEASON.

In 2007, Masterpiece Theatre reinvented itself. In addition to dropping the “Theatre” from its name, the series announced that it was splintering into three different seasons—Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary—and would begin streaming the series, blogging about it, and offering a podcast. “It’s just a good idea to look at brands every now and then and polish them up,” Eaton said at the time. “The very worst thing you can do is just let it sit there. Even 60 Minutes redid their clock at one point.”

Each of the new series had its own host, with Gillian Anderson, Laura Linney, Alan Cumming, Matthew Goode, and David Tennant among the actors who took over hosting duties.

11. MASTERPIECE FANS NAMED UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS THEIR FAVORITE SERIES.

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In conjunction with Masterpiece’s 35-year anniversary in 2006, PBS surveyed more than 30,000 fans to come up with a definitive ranking of “The Best of Masterpiece,” which aired as a special in the spring of 2007. The people declared the original Upstairs, Downstairs their favorite Masterpiece series, followed by the 2002 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. See the full list here. (If you’re wondering why Downton Abbey isn’t on the list, it didn’t make its Masterpiece debut until 2010.)

12. POLDARK WAS A FAN FAVORITE, BUT ALISTAIR COOKE HATED IT.

Though fans voted 1975’s Poldark as their seventh favorite Masterpiece series, Alistair Cooke cited it as his least favorite piece of programming. “I couldn’t abide Poldark,” Cooke stated in 1982. “I was bored stiff. It seemed to be a bunch of cardboard figures going through the motions of love and hate.”

13. DOWNTON ABBEY IS ITS BIGGEST HIT.

Ratings-wise, Downton Abbey is not just Masterpiece’s biggest hit, but PBS’s greatest success story. “Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” creator Julian Fellowes told The New York Times. It’s estimated that more than 120 million people around the world have watched the series at some point. It’s also the most nominated non-U.S. series in Emmy history, with a total of 59 nominations and 12 wins (so far).

“How perfect that the final season of Downton Abbey kicks off our 45th anniversary,” says Eaton. “Downton Abbey epitomizes the kind of programming we’ve been offering viewers since 1971: impeccably-told stories with characters who touch peoples’ hearts.”

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A Brief History of Black Friday
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The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
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Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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