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How Irina Margareta Nistor Introduced Sylvester Stallone to Communist Romania

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During the 1980s, Irina Margareta Nistor was possibly the most famous woman in Romania. People crowded around their TVs night after night to listen to her, and speculated about her mysterious inner life like she was a Hollywood star, splashed across the pages of Us Weekly. But no one had ever seen her face.

That’s because Nistor was known only by her voice. From 1985 through the collapse of the Romanian communist regime, she translated thousands of bootlegged films from the West, talking over the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Tom Cruise. Her dubs could have landed her in a lot of trouble with Nicolae Ceaușescu’s government—which Nistor knew all too well, as she spent her mornings working for the highly censored national television service. But she managed to keep doing the clandestine work and, in the process, became the most famous voice in the country (well, apart from Ceaușescu’s).

Nistor began working for Romanian national television in 1983, three years after earning a degree in foreign languages. It wasn’t a great job. Ceaușescu had cut programming down to just one channel, which aired only a few hours of propaganda or severely edited films a day. People were hungry for something—anything—besides another speech extolling the virtues of communism, and VHS tapes became their salvation.

As filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu detailed in Chuck Norris vs. Communism (a fantastically-named documentary released last year), the lucky few citizens with VCRs started acquiring smuggled Western movies through a network run by secretive businessman named Teodor Zamfir.

A colleague at the television station introduced Nistor to Zamfir in November of 1985, after hooking her on the promise of seeing new, unaltered movies. Zamfir offered her translation work if she could complete a dubbing test with a VHS copy of Doctor Zhivago. Nistor had already seen that one, so she aced the exam and got hired as Zamfir’s literal partner in crime.

Nistor kept crazy hours. From 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., she slogged through her work at the national television station. Once she was off the clock, she walked a few blocks to Zamfir’s apartment, where she would speed through six to eight movies in a row, often wrapping around midnight. It was just her, two VCRs, a TV set, and a microphone in a basement—unless she was dubbing cartoons. Zamfir’s two kids would join her for those, sitting on her lap as she rapidly translated into the microphone.

startevo, cropped by Ionutzmovie [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The movies Nistor dubbed ran the gamut from excessive ‘80s action movies (Bloodsport, Rambo) to erotic dramas (Last Tango in Paris, 9½ Weeks), to horror classics (Alien, The Shining). Some of the films might have been low on substance, but the Romanians watching them cherished these movies because they were so deprived of information. Chuck Norris movies gave them a glimpse of the world outside Romania, even if it was an explosion-filled world with cheesy dialogue and unfortunate haircuts.

Nistor had a number of close calls during her years of illicit work. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, she recalled a scary, repeated encounter she had with a secret police agent at the national television station. They often ended up riding the elevator together and each time he muttered, “I heard you last night,” before exiting. She was also once explicitly reprimanded by a superior for dubbing a religious film, Jesus of Nazereth. She and Zamfir both suspected each other of being secret police double agents during their partnership, but it was a new associate that almost undid them.

Zamfir eventually hired a second translator, Mircea Cojocaru, to pick up hours when Nistor was unavailable. His output was nothing compared to Nistor’s; Romanians who watched these movies in the ‘80s either barely remember his voice or openly loathe it, and that was probably because he was an undercover agent for the secret police. Zamfir discovered this when Cojocaru intervened during a raid of the apartment, which he did at great personal risk. Luckily, Zamfir saved both their necks by bribing top government officials … with free tapes. Yes, even the top brass were secretly into Hollywood flicks, which helps explain why their operation was never busted. (Allegedly, even Ceaușescu’s son asked Zamfir for movies.)

The whole time, Nistor was kept relatively in the dark about where the movies were going and who was watching them, so she couldn’t appreciate the phenomenon she was helping to kickstart. Zamfir’s associates were distributing the films to towns and cities all over Romania, and those who had the tapes and the means to watch them would frequently host video nights, where 10 to 20 neighbors would pack into apartments and watch smuggled films into the early morning hours. Little boys started mimicking Rocky Balboa’s morning routine while little girls dreamed of copying Jennifer Grey’s dress from Dirty Dancing and, most importantly, dissidents began drawing connections between the goons Van Damme punched and members of their own government.

It would be ludicrous to chalk the bloody uprising that came along in December 1989 up to a few particularly passionate Missing in Action fans, but the movies confirmed there was a better way out there, and, eventually, the people of Romania got tired of waiting for it.

Today, Nistor no longer lives in the shadows. She’s a well known film critic based in Bucharest, where she started a film festival in 2012. Romanians have definitely seen her face, but for many who harbor cherished memories of secret movie marathons, she’s not quite a real person. She’s ethereal, a disembodied beacon of hope—whose voice just happened to tumble out of John Rambo’s mouth.

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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