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May 3, 2011 6:23 AM Age: 10 yrs

We Love Pageantry – and Take For Granted The Way We See It

Category: Hank Boerner Articles
Source:  Hank Boerner, featured commentator, Accountability Central

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Last week an estimated 2 billion people worldwide tuned in to the wedding of the century – that of Prince William and Catherine (Kate) Middleton (now Duchess of Cambridge).  The number of bystanders looking on in London was estimated at over one million.  We all love a spectacle and English royalty certainly doesn’t disappoint. (The cost estimates ranged from $10 million up to $100 million in all, not counting lost production time for businesses.  But tourism boomed and so the young royals “paid back” the investment in short order.)

We take for granted the fact that we can tune in to the wedding ceremonies (beginning with the lead up a week earlier) and “watch” in real time every aspect of the nuptials.  Kate exiting the car with “the dress” (a subject of much talking head commentary in this country).  The network video camera coverage was…amazing.  We had views of Princes William and Harry awaiting the bride from at least four angles.  Aerial overheads of the crowds of onlookers and sweeping views of Buckingham Palace and surrounds.  Many live views of the procession – to Westminster Abbey, from the abbey, down Pall Mall, and so on.  Impressive.

There are probably millions – literally – of frozen color views captured by digital camera (stills), video cams, cell phones, and maybe some old relics, 35mm color film on printed paper.  Astonishing, when you step back and think about it:  An American couple, holding up their phone camera, snapping the procession as the couple pass by, and phoning the photo off to their children back home in Chicago   This would truly be astonishing – perhaps beyond believability – for folks who lived in generations past, who were themselves amazed at the filmed footage shown in popular “newsreels” in darkened movie houses in 1936 when another royal – King Edward VIII – stepped down from the throne to marry an American divorcee. 

But watching the ceremonies I had two thoughts: (1) I thought we threw off the British monarchy and all that stuff of royalty in 1776.  And (2) how far we have come in such a short time since the pageantry of a different sort in 1965.  Technology is the difference, of course, but how many of us stop to think about the swift and amazing pace of technology change?  You might find the following recap (from a feature story that I wrote soon after the event) interesting.  Especially if you were not around in the 1960s or too young to remember the details.

Sir Winston Churchill, who led England through the hazardous days of World War II, and twice served as Prime Minister, was very close to America.  His mother was an American born in Brooklyn who married into the legendary Churchill clan.  After a long and distinguished career  including prominence as a writer in US media all through the 1930s, at age 91 Sir Winston passed.  The date was January 24, 1965.  Naturally there was great interest in the ceremonies to follow by American print and electronic media.  Sir Winston would lie in state at St. Paul’s in London and then his remains would be barged down the Thames River to his family’s ancient lands for burial.

The Amazing Coverage – Well, For/At the Time

In those far-away days there were 3 national TV networks – CBS, NBC, ABC – and a few radio networks (CBS, NBC, Mutual).  A handful of wire services – AP, UPI, Reuters, Dow Jones – fed news to the print and electronic media.  No web, no internet.  There was an undersea cable from Europe and the UK to the USA for transmission of digital impulses (you could send photos, text) and there were wire services such as Western Union for long transmissions.  Private companies had Telex (a terminal-to-terminal text service).  No satellites high above the earth yet available for news media and consumers.

And Americans relied on print to an extent probably unimaginable for today’s generations. If “it” happened, then Life magazine would bring the news to your doorstep or local newsstand. At the time, the magazine reached 7 million homes (in a nation of less than 80 million households).  The deadline was Wednesdays for delivery the following Monday.

So here the tale begins – an heroic effort, for the time, to get the latest news and images to the American public.   Trouble was, while Sir Winston died on a Sunday, and the ceremonies were scheduled for the following Saturday (to allow for all of the pomp and circumstances to be arranged. He was “almost” royalty, you see).

With the usual Wednesday deadline passing by, the management of Time Life in New York City took bold steps.  On January 29th, at Hangar 3 at New York’s JFK International a Seaboard World Airlines’ DC-8 freight aircraft was laid out as a flying magazine production office.  (This was a 4-engine jet capable of lifting 100,000 pounds of cargo and flying between continents.)  There would be installed in the cavernous inside a flying darkroom, light tables and supplies for graphics staff, typewriter tables fastened to the floor (to accommodate non-electric typewriters for editorial staff), and conversion of electricity supply from 400-cycle to the standard US 60 -cycle.  And food and drink for the passengers – 34 of them as Life magazine took to the air to cover the final farewell to the Grand Old Man of both Britain and America.

Destination: London’s Heathrow Airport.  There was an editorial team already at work in England – 40 of them, preparing photos and text and checking facts, and another 40 back in New York City working on the issue.

On arrival the team went to work.  This was the last day of ceremonies and photographers were stationed along the funeral route and at St. Paul’s ceremonies.  There were 16 photographers on board the plane who shot 70 rolls of film – which were hustled from London to the waiting DC-8 by motorcyclists – these were the heady days of British culture; they were the “Mods” and the “Rockers” running photo relays.  As soon as the ceremonies ended downtown, the Life staff rushed to the airport for takeoff.

The Mission:  Timely Coverage of the Funeral

Their task:  to produce the cover and 21 pages of color coverage – writing captions and text; developing and printing photos; designing and laying out the pages…all at 33,000 feet above the Atlantic at almost 600 mph. A British major and a London bobby were on board to help identify notables for photo captions.  (That issue’s cover was of British soldiers bearing the coffin of Sir Winston.) The plane flew on many miles, to Chicago – home of the Donnelly printing plant, largest in the USA where Life was produced. The magazine’s special coverage was completed by touchdown in the American heartland.

For those of you not familiar with Life, it began as something quite different in 1936:  a magazine with extensive photo coverage, large pages, two page spreads, a newsreel on paper.  This was part of the Time-Life empire – with Time, and later Sports Illustrated and People and Money and other magazines to follow.

The funeral was Saturday.  On that following Monday February 1st in Manhattan the magazine was on sale in the Time-Life Building lobby newsstand (“with pictures that had never even been photographed on Saturday morning”) and en route to millions of homes. A miracle of news coverage!

Some of Life’s coverage was “rip and read” wire service feeds from Reuters (gathered in London).  Paul Julius von Reuter (of Germany) established his news agency soon after the Associated Press wire service was established in America (1848) – to provide timely information to investors and media.  At first carrier pigeons carried the news inside Europe (close of stock markets – prices of bonds, stocks, etc., with summaries sent to subscribers for first mover advantage).

Along came the electrical telegraph – France and England were connected by wire – and Reuter moved to London (1851) to be in the financial capital of the world as well as “ telegraph central.”  Then the undersea cable came – to link the Old and New World – and Reuter was global. And all of the above underscores the amazing pace of technological change that revolutionizes the way we communicate and share information.  Right down to the evening last week as young revelers in the New World watched re-runs after re-runs of video feeds of the wedding of their age peers, William and Kate in London.  What’s next?  Stay Tuned!

I’m indebted to author Dora Jane Hamblin, a “lifer” at Life magazine, who wrote the book, “That Was The Life” in 1977 (published by WW Norton) with descriptions of the NY-London-Chicago editorial journey.  As she observed of those far-away days of Life’s existence: “The Churchill funeral flight was typical of the magazine at its best – journalistic enterprise imaginatively conceived, carefully planned, flamboyantly executed, highly successful, thoroughly enjoyed by all its exhausted, unshaven, bleary-eyed participants…”  Sounds like the April 2011 coverage by old and new media of the wedding last week.

You might find the 1999 book – “The Victorian Internet”  by Tom Standage – fascinating as he explores the founding of Reuter and the growth of wire and print media whose descendants stand tall in today’s media market.  Published by Walker Publishing Co – New York.

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