The Business of America Is Show Business

CITIZENS OF OUR ETERNALLY NEW nation are suckers for novelty and astonishment, whether the thing is newfangled “old-time religion” featuring in-church miracles, or miraculous technological contraptions—electricity! telephones! X-rays! airplanes!—that turned the present into a science fiction future. Yet while the curious new U.S. religions were very successful—Mormonism, Christian Science, Pentecostalism, fundamentalism—as the twentieth century rolled out, the vast majority of Christians were sticking with the familiar, sensible, plain-vanilla churches.

Which isn’t to say they weren’t still fantasy-hungry Americans who loved being amazed, loved believing that exciting secular fictions were real. The foundations laid in the 1800s by impresarios and hucksters of thrills and bliss were fully built out during the 1900s into a far-flung fantasy-industrial complex. Entertainments that had been for most people a rare and occasional diversion—the odd play, a medicine show, a visit to Barnum’s American Museum, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a world’s fair—were now presented perpetually, in myriad forms. Starting in the 1900s, from coast to coast and seven days a week, Americans more than anyone on Earth could immerse in the virtuosic fantasies created and sold by show business and the media. This was a new condition. As we spent more and more fabulous hours engaged in the knowing and willing suspension of disbelief, experiencing the unreal as real, we became more habituated to suspending disbelief unconsciously and involuntarily as well.*

“The chief business of the American people is business,” President Calvin Coolidge, freshly reelected, told a convention of newspaper editors in 1925, as business boomed on every front. But in a larger sense the business of Americans had become the business of fantasy, in all its iterations.

America went world’s-fair-crazy, mounting a new, giant, year-long extravaganza in a new city every few years. The two big Christian religious holidays had acquired their own official, nondenominational supernatural (and highly commercial) fantasy figures, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Magicians entered their golden age, with a half-dozen American superstars and dozens more who were merely well known. Houdini was one of the most famous people on Earth during the first quarter of the century, his shows a seamless intermingling of true and false—one day he escaped from manacles by sheer tenacity, the next he appeared to make a five-ton elephant vanish from a giant Broadway stage, his audiences believing or half-believing the fake as well as the real. (If you could now communicate wirelessly, then why not mind reading and giant beasts dematerializing?) Between 1910 and 1930, nearly all of today’s Broadway theaters were built, and Coney Island, reachable by the new subway, suddenly had three big amusement parks.

For a century, people had been dumbfounded again and again by amazing new devices. But when an advanced technology came along that was indistinguishable from magic and dedicated to making the pretend seem real and the basis of a big business—that is, movies—a kind of quantum change occurred in the culture. The difference between fantasy and reality narrowed suddenly, viscerally, profoundly. Movies made it easy for almost anyone anywhere, literate or not, imaginative or not, to enter a magical realm where they were teleported everywhere to see anything—not paintings of exotic places or descriptions of imaginary characters but actual people in actual places, alive and moving. No previous medium seemed so powerfully and uncannily real. Watching a movie, the suspension of disbelief was easier than watching a play; it was simply more astoundingthan watching flesh-and-blood people pretend on a stage. Going to the movies wasn’t like reading a novel at home, privately imagining a fictional world, but more like going to church—quietly gathering for an hour or two in a special hall every week with a crowd of neighbors to experience a magical, dreamlike virtual reality simultaneously.

In 1915, when the movies became a culture-shaping art and industry—the year Charlie Chaplin became a huge celebrity, the year of Birth of a NationScientific American published a three-volume encyclopedia called The Book of Progress. About movies, its writer (who later became a science fiction author) was agog.

Wonderful as is the magic of the prestidigitator…it is as nothing to the magic which we see upon the screen when we watch a motion picture….Here, at last, is the magic of childhood—appearances, disappearances, apparitions…objects possessed of the power of movement and of intelligence….

For the motion picture does for us what no other thing can do save a drug….It eliminates the time between happenings and brings two events separated actually by hours of time and makes them seem to us as following each other with no interval between them.

A Harvard psychology professor who worked under William James loved this new means of confusing the fantastic and authentic. “The close-up,” he wrote the following year in The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, “far transcends the power of any theater stage,” and movies produce “hallucinations and illusions” as “vivid as realities.” Indeed, watching movies makes it seem “as if reality has lost its own emphasis,” that the “outer world…has been freed from space, time and causality.”

Moviemaking was not exclusively American, of course, but America quickly became its headquarters, with a sunny new city devoted to it. The people creating the movie industry had utilitarian reasons for moving from the east coast to L.A. in the 1910s—it had just become a big city, land was cheap, and the sun shone six days out of seven. In 1907 there were five thousand U.S. movie theaters; seven years later there were eighteen thousand. In 1911 only two American feature-length films were released; in 1919 there were 646. After the World War, 90 percent of movies were American movies.

When talkies arrived at the end of 1927, the viewers’ suspension of disbelief became still easier, the simulated reality of cinema even more intensely and unprecedentedly persuasive. In a 1929 book called The Film Finds Its Tongue, the author was gobsmacked by the first sound film he’d seen: it was “like watching a man flying without wings. It was uncanny….No wonder the next day a scientist called it: ‘the nearest thing to a resurrection.’ ” Color film made the fantasy still more realistic, which was what people, especially American people, wanted.

My argument here is that movies (and then television, and then videogames and video of all kinds) were a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal—not that that was Hollywood’s explicit intent (although sometimes it was, as in the case of The Birth of a Nation).

Although Hollywood suddenly became a new epicenter of show business, Emerald City West, the fantasy-industrial complex was extending well beyond movies. Americans were now being entertained and fooled and fed fantasy on several fronts.

Such as advertising. Marketing had just acquired its modern meaning, and advertise, until recently a general term for publishing information, came to mean only the paid promotion of products (and ideas and people) by whatever mix of facts and fiction and dazzle did the trick and made the sale. Advertising became ubiquitous, produced by a huge, formal, American-dominated industry essential to almost every other industry. Patent medicines had been fantasy products advertised as cures for serious problems, but in the twentieth century, advertising gave mundane problems like hygiene new fantasy subtexts. When advertisements for Woodbury’s Facial Soap in 1911 began promising “skin you love to touch,” the unique selling proposition was sex, not cleanliness, and in the 1930s Woodbury soap ads featured a nude woman sunbathing. Once advertising successfully used fantasies as a way to glamorize products that satisfied basic needs, it began using them to arouse new desires—products to make you happier and better in all kinds of intangible ways—and then to make those wishes feel like urgent needs.

Newspapers and most magazines had always sold advertising space, but the ads had been pretty strictly informational, small and printed in small type, and not the main revenue source for most publications—until the 1900s. The exceptions had been the papers of the penny press, which were also happy to publish fantasies as news. But most papers and magazines scrupled to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, and advertisements were uncomfortably in between—exaggerations, hyperbole, sometimes altogether fantastical (as when selling patent medicines). Harper’s Weekly, the first American newsmagazine, refused to take ads when it started in 1857. Then it sold a half page per issue, which grew to three pages in the 1870s—and then, the more the merrier, at least ninety pages in each issue during the early 1900s. Between 1900 and the late 1920s, annual spending by American advertisers increased from the contemporary equivalent of $6 billion a year to $48 billion.

Until the 1920s, providers of entertainment and information almost never gave their products away. Even cheap newspapers cost a few cents. So when the magical new medium of radio came along, because there was no way to charge listeners, its founding American impresarios required some time to figure out a business model. The wheel they reinvented was the medicine show: they could broadcast a mixture of entertaining fiction (Amos ’n’ Andy, Mystery House, Let’s Pretend) and occasional information (news) and give it all away, because their actual business would be—d’oh!—charging companies to broadcast mixtures of information and entertaining fiction in the form of advertisements.

Maybe radio plays weren’t as amazing and immersive as the movies, but you didn’t have to leave home or buy a ticket to experience them. And it was so convenient to have everything—dramas, comedies, music, vaudeville, news—come out of a single wireless spigot. A decade after the CBS Radio Network was founded in the late 1920s, its weekly Mercury Theater of the Air, just a few months old, broadcast an episode that took brilliant advantage of the new medium’s commingling of entertainment and news. Its whole perverse point was to erase the lines between fantasy and reality.

After a weather report—“A slight atmospheric disturbance of undetermined origin is reported over Nova Scotia”—the regular announcer calmly returned: “We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York.” A tango played, but then after a while a different announcer broke in: “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News….Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars…and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity.” It was, of course, twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles’s live War of the Worlds broadcast, which proceeded with an hour of fake on-location news reports chronicling a Martian invasion that concluded with the destruction of New York City. In real life during the previous few weeks, the Munich Agreement had been signed and Germany had invaded the Sudetenland; some listeners that night figured the “Martians” bombing and burning America were actually Nazi invaders.

The first decades of the twentieth century were also, not coincidentally, when celebrity assumed its modern, quintessentially American form. Fame had existed forever, of course: in every culture, a few talented and powerful people were well known. But before the United States existed, there was hardly any cultural machinery for making private individuals famous, or for encouraging the populace to talk and think and fantasize about them. Newspapers and magazines, the first foundations of modern celebrity, came into existence simultaneously with America. Photography emerged, and almost immediately celebrity photographers of celebrities, such as Mathew Brady. In 1850 Barnum whipped up so much advance newspaper publicity for Jenny Lind, a young Swedish singer whose first American tour he was promoting, that a tenth of New York’s population gathered on piers simply to watch her arrive. That was the moment when celebrity came to mean a famous individual, and after that Americans coined the slang word fan for people besotted by particular celebrities.

In the early 1900s, the print-media substrate for celebrity and fandom grew wildly: in two decades the number of daily papers doubled, and the combined circulation of magazines tripled. More of them featured more and more photographs of famous people, which starting in the 1920s could be instantly transmitted everywhere over electric wires. In the 1910s a newspaper started the first Hollywood gossip column, and they multiplied, becoming nationally syndicated in the 1920s, when the fan magazine Photoplay took off. The grand new photo-centric weekly Life, amazingly, put no Hollywood star on the cover for its first six months, but resistance was futile: there were four in 1937, then ten in 1938. They’d begun to open the floodgates of modern celebrity culture.

Just a couple of decades earlier, before radio and the movies, there had been no flood to hold back. National fame was rare, and the celebrated were almost never so familiar and protean as radio and film stars. Before movies and radio, most Americans had surely never heard the voice of more than a single major celebrity in their lifetimes. In the 1910s and ’20s and ’30s, the number of celebrities and their visibility increased by orders of magnitude. No more than a million Americans saw the biggest theatrical superstar of the 1800s, Edwin Booth, perform his signature role, Hamlet, over the course of his entire career—whereas twenty million would see Charlie Chaplin in just one movie. And because the multiplying new stars were creatures of these uncanny new media, they were more phantasmagorical, like supernatural beings, making fandom in the age of radio and cinema (and then television) an inherently more fantastical state of mind.

For the first time, most of the most famous Americans were not politicians or military men or writers or painters but actors—people renowned for pretending to be people they weren’t. My grandparents understood that Chaplin was just a man, but after seeing him in films didn’t they inevitably regard him as partly fictional as well, both a real person and the Little Tramp? (And don’t we still today?) Movie stars were a new species of fantasy figure, demigods among us, beings whom the new news media allowed us more than ever to imagine we practically knew.

* During the 1920s, use of the phrase suspension of disbelief suddenly quadrupled in American books, even though it had been coined a century earlier by the English writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge, arguing for a revival of supernatural fantasy in fiction. Coleridge, an opium addict, helped found the Romantic Movement as a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism.

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