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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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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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