Boomers Dial Up Some History

Everyone knows the first practical application of the telephone predated the boomer generation by a hundred years. Nonetheless, we boomers have seen our share of telephone history, not the least of which was the gradual transition from phone exchanges starting with numbers, then names, then letters and on to the ten-digit numerals of today.

In the late 1800s, phone calls were placed through an operator (they were mostly women). The operator would literally sit in front of a switchboard that had a slot for each of the phone numbers in any particular exchange. She would plug a call from one number to another on the exchange by way of a cord with a plug at each end, thus connecting the caller to the home of the person he or she wished to reach. At first, phone exchanges were named by two to five numbers.

By 1910, however, there were more than 10,000 phone numbers for operators to sort through in New York City. As the amount of phone numbers grew — especially in the larger cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York — the urgency to change the naming system became a practical necessity. The prevailing thought of the day was that people would have a hard time remembering a series of more than five numbers, so recognizable names were chosen to represent telephone exchanges. The person placing the call would then tell the operator the name of the exchange — such as Murray Hill, Butterfield, Dunkirk, Fairmont or Glenview — and the one to three numbers that followed it that made up the person’s phone number. You could tell a lot about a person by their phone exchange name, because it placed them into a geographical area and neighborhood.

This system served the telephone industry well for nearly four decades, even as long distance calls became more feasible through the 1920s and into the ’40s. Boomers will recall famous movies that had references to these telephone exchanges, such as Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

As direct dialing appeared during the boomer years of the late 1950s, letters had been placed in positions around the phone dial to correspond to the ten numbers of zero through nine so the exchange names could be shortened to the first two letters for dialing purposes. Ultimately, it was decided to add five numerals after the two letter digits (i.e., Murray Hill 45678 was dialed directly as MU4-5678).

Naturally, as boomers began to make and listen to their own music, phone exchange names found their way into the mix. Most notably, the Marvelettes recorded Beechwood 4-5789 in 1962. Bell Telephone had started a transition to all-number phone numbers as early as 1958, but the Marvelettes would show that it was to be a slow transition that had not reached every area four years later. For most boomers, it would be the mid-60s before all-number phone numbers would affect their family’s home phone. In fact, all-number phone names weren’t universally accepted nationwide until 1980, as immortalized by yet another song, 867-5309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone, in 1982 — twenty years after the Marvelettes made that Beechwood number famous! How’s that for spanning the boomer years with telephone history?

Mister Boomer recalls as a wee boomer having to learn his two-letter and five-digit home phone number and write it on the first page of his school books — in pencil, as required, of course. Somewhere around 1962, however, the letters were replaced with their numerical counterparts. The area code, which added three numbers at the beginning of the phone number, would only come into play when dialing long distance. For some families the transition necessitated a change of phone number. For Mister Boomer, his family moved to a “private number” from a “party line” (which we’ll discuss at a later date in more depth) at that time and their long-held phone number changed. If your family is anything like Mr B’s, that “new” phone number still rings on the phone situated on the kitchen wall four decades later.

What memories do phone exchange names bring back for you, boomers?

A Boomer’s Look at Those Who Passed in 2010

As we begin a new year, it’s traditional for many journalistic sources to look back at the year ending, and especially at the deaths of people whose lives touched so many. While Mister Boomer would only humbly aspire to achieve professional journalistic standards, he does want to celebrate the lives of many who made a difference to those of us in the baby boomer generation.

Though this listing is far from complete, it represents a sampling of those who passed in 2010, but whose memory lives on in the hearts and minds of boomers everywhere.

William Alexander Chilton

45 RPM records by The Box Tops
45 RPM records by The Box Tops with Alex Chilton, from Mister Boomer's private collection.

A boomer himself, Alex Chilton is best known to boomers as the singer for the band The Box Tops. As a 16-year old Memphis high school student, he co-wrote and sang lead on their 1967 hit, The Letter. Mr. Chilton wrote and sang many other memorable songs for boomers, including Cry Like A Baby. In the 1970s and 80s, Alex Chilton’s music spanned the breadth and depth of rock ‘n roll — from blues to power pop, rockabilly to punk — forming the band Alex Chilton and the Cossacks and joining Big Star. He appeared on numerous independent record labels and remains one of the most influential rock figures of his age of our generation.

Bobby Hebb
On the wings of a number one single, Bobby Hebb is forever etched into the memories of boomers. In 1963, Sunny hit number one and became one of the most played and recorded songs of the sixties. Later, he achieved lesser hit status and in 1971 wrote the Lou Rawls hit, A Natural Man, but he never reached the notoriety that the one, early-60s song had given him. Sunny has appeared on numerous lists as one of the best songs of the twentieth century.

Doug Fieger
Far from just another boomer musician, Doug Fieger gave us the incredibly popular band, The Knack, where he sang lead vocals and co-wrote My Sharona.

Theodore DeResse Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass began his musical career as a drummer for several Philadelphia groups, then for The Cadillacs. In 1970, Harold Melvin asked him to drum for his band, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. When Teddy sang during one performance, Harold Melvin made him lead singer of the group, and his career blossomed. In the mid-70s, he continued to remain immensely popular as a solo artist. Then, in 1982, he suffered a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite his challenges, Teddy returned to the stage in 1985 and continued singing until he announced his retirement in 2006.

Bernard Wilson
Bernie Wilson was best known to boomers as the baritone vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. He backed Teddy Pendergrass on their huge hit, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

Don Van Vliet
Boomers know Don Van Vliet as Captain Beefheart. Several of us, including Mister Boomer, will recall his 60s singles as Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. The good Captain operated best in an avant-garde branch of rock where few have dared tread, save the likes of other experimental innovators such as Frank Zappa and George Clinton.

Ali “Ollie” Woodson
Though not an original member of The Temptations, Ali Woodson sang with the group from 1984 to 1986. He co-wrote and sang lead on their 1984 hit, Treat Her Like A Lady (not to be confused with the 1971 Cornelius Brothers hit song of the same name).

Jimmy Dean
Many boomers will recall Jimmy Dean’s entrance into the musical lexicon through his hit single Big Bad John, in 1961. Appealing to both country and rock audiences with his down-home style, Jimmy Dean hosted his own TV show from 1963 to 1966. Perhaps he is best remembered as the creator and founder of Jimmy Dean sausage.

Robert Culp
The first actor to be teamed with a black man on a TV series, Robert Culp is best remembered by boomers for his wise-cracking, suave portrayal of a spy alongside Bill Cosby in the series, I Spy. It ran from 1965-68, riding the wave of both dramas and comedies that referenced the Cold War.

Barbara Billingsley
As noted in this blog the week of her passing (So Long, June Cleaver), Barbara Billingsley will forever be Mrs. Cleaver to the boomer generation. Ms. Billingsley’s portrayal of Wally and Beaver’s mother in Leave It To Beaver remains the quintessential portrayal of the ideal early sixties parent.

Fess Parker
Sing the first two notes of “Day-Vee …” and every early boomer will sing along with, “Davy Crockett; King of the Wild Frontier.” Fess Parker’s popular Davy Crockett TV character in the 1950s was responsible for the coonskin cap craze of that decade. Many boomers wish they had been able to hold on to their original Davy Crockett cap, as now they are being sold back to boomers on the Internet.

Dino de Laurentiis

An Italian film producer of many popular films of the boomer era, he may be best remembered by boomers for Serpico (1973) and Barbarella (1968). The latter was of particular note to boomers who were drafted during the Vietnam war. According to Mister Boomer’s boyhood friend and neighbor — a Vietnam veteran, Barbarella, in its uncensored European release, was a favorite among U.S. soldiers. In the final analysis, Jane Fonda’s screen nudity in this sexually-liberated romp based on a comic book far eclipsed her politics of the day.

Dennis Hopper
Though Dennis Hopper had more than 200 film and TV credits, boomers best recall Dennis Hopper as Peter Fonda’s motorcycle buddy in Easy Rider (1969). As Billy, he became a poster child of sixties counterculture. Mr. Hopper also appeared in other movies that are on the top of many boomer-favorite lists, including Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now, Cool Hand Luke, Blue Velvet and Hang ‘Em High.

Leslie Nielsen
A dramatic actor who found his comic genius later in his career, boomers will recall Leslie Nielsen for his numerous portrayals covering the vast landscape of our formative years. Included in his acting credits are appearances in Airplane and the Naked Gun series, along with popular boomer TV shows The Mod Squad, The Virginian, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, Daniel Boone, Route 66, Wagon Train, The Fugitive and a host of others. While Mister Boomer still enjoys Airplane, his favorite Leslie Nielsen movie will always be Forbidden Planet (1956).

J. D. Salinger
Little-photographed writer, J. D. Salinger, avoided the spotlight despite the immense popularity of his books, most notably The Catcher in the Rye. It remains an iconic work about teenage angst, though the book has the distinction of being the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the U.S. from 1961 to 1982. Naturally, that made boomers want to read it even more. In 1981 it was also the second-most taught book in public schools, introducing yet another generation to his literary prowess.

Edwin Newman
Boomers could not escape the authoritative voice and face of newsman Edwin Newman. He reported during some of the most memorable events of our boomer years, from making the first radio announcement of John Kennedy’s assassination to acting as television anchor during the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as being an on-the-floor reporter during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He appeared on numerous NBC News programs as a guest, moderator, interviewer and anchor. He was also well-known as an authority and author about the English language.

Art Clokey (Arthur C. Farrington)

Boomers may not remember Art Clokey as a household name, but mention that he was the creator (along with his wife Ruth) and animator of Gumby and the picture becomes crystal clear. Gumby, and later his horse, Pokey, grew out of Clokey’s 1955 student film, Gumbasia. The film consisted of animated clay shapes moving to a jazz score. Gumby made his first TV appearance on The Howdy Doody Show in August 1956. After it was seen by Samuel Engel, who was the president of the Motion Pictures Producers Association, Engel financed the pilot of what was to become The Gumby Show (1957). Mr. Clokey also created the animated series, Davey and Goliath.

Donald E. Goerke
Another man many boomers may not recall by name, Donald Goerke is best known for a culinary creation that was among many boomers’ favorites: SpaghettiOs. Mr. Goerke began working for Campbell Soup Company in 1955 as a market researcher. In the early 60s, Campbell’s asked him to spearhead a group for their Franco-American division. They were asked to create a canned pasta that children — and mothers — would like. After rejecting various shapes for the pasta, he finally chose the “O” shape since it reduced the mess factor and could be picked up with a spoon. Boomers will recall the famous jingle of, “The neat, round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon: Uh-oh, SpaghettiOs.” For many years, Mister Boomer’s sister had an extremely limited list of acceptable foods for her diet; among them were peanut butter, bologna, Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and more often than not, SpaghettiOs.

Kodachrome
We finish not with a person, but with a true icon of the boomer era: Kodachrome film. Technically a slide film (the film intended for paper printing was Kodacolor), it became the witness and archiver of our early years as slide projectors joined the family movie camera, projector and screen. Famous for its “nice, bright colors,” as immortalized in song by Paul Simon, some said it was too bright, and therefore unnatural. Nonetheless, its reign ran from its inception in 1935 until Kodak announced the end of production in 2009. The final roll was created for a National Geographic assignment by Dwayne’s Photo of Parsons, Kansas for photographer Steve McCurry. The final 36 slides will be enshrined at the Eastman Kodak House in Rochester, New York. Dwayne’s Photo officially ended Kodachrome processing on December 30, 2010.

Of course there were many more passings in 2010 that had an impact on boomers’ lives. Let’s continue to celebrate them all for the contributions they have made to our entertainment, social, political, literary and cultural lives.