Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Back to Where It Started

There once was a man between 17 and 80 (I'll explain this strange beginning later) --- There once was a man between 17 and 80, but actually he was 13 and just a boy with a problem called puberty and a lot of ignorance. The "he" was me and the ignorance came because they didn't always tell you a lot about the birds and the bees in the early 1950s, unless it was about actual birds and bees.

But ignorance doesn't impede the body from doing what a body does. I mean a caterpillar might not know why it became a cocoon, but that doesn't stop it becoming a butterfly and suddenly noticing how pretty flowers are. I didn't necessarily understand some of what was happening, but I did notice girls were kinda pretty and for some reason I liked flitting around them.

And their bodies were changing as well, which caused a lot of curiosity. This was to get me into some trouble by the time I was 14, but I am thinking back to a time a little earlier.

In the period of transitioning from grade school to junior high, and from  boy to an adolescent, my friend, Ronald Tipton, and I used to travel by bus west to Coatesville and the Auditorium Theater. We were considered old enough by then to make such an adventurous trip of seven miles from our little borough of Downingtown to the big, little city of Coatesville, just the two of us riding out on a Short Line Bus to the motion picture show.

Oh, we had a movie theater in Downingtown, The Roosevelt, right down a couple houses from the
Methodist Church on Brandywine Avenue. Once upon a time this was the Downingtown Opera House, although I have a hard time associating my old boyhood home town with opera. I don't know if they actually performed Puccini, Wagner or Verdi there, but it didn't matter because that was before my day. I only knew it as a movie house, but it did show a lot of Horse Operas, especially starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Johnny Mack Brown. Most of what it showed were B-movies and classic Universal Horrors, all of which was fine with this young lad, but to be able to go the Auditorium or the Warner in West Chester was so much better. Those two theaters ran A-movies in their initial release, woo-ee!

But we're not here to wax nostalgic about movies and theaters. This is about puberty and certain magazines that had to do with  (shall I whisper it) sex.  

My earliest recall about certain magazines occurred on one of those movie jaunts. Heaven knows what film we saw, but after the show we had some time to kill before the next bus out of town so Ron and I wandered into one of the few stores still open along the street, a drugstore. It was a typical drugstore of that time in small city America. It had a soda fountain (a long counter with stools that spun fasten to the tile floor and some booths down one side. The prescription area was near the back and there were some racks of magazines and paperback books along one wall near the front. While
waiting for our cokes, or whatever we were indulging in that evening, I drifted to the magazines and picked out an Esquire to flip through.

Esquire at the time was the elite men's magazine, the one for the more what...sophisticated? Maybe more urban guys and perhaps also the more mature, if not elderly like their bug-eyed leering icon that appeared somewhere on every cover. It was certainly considered of a more intellectual level than the typical man's magazine like "Man's Life" "Male" or "Men's Adventure" with their lurid covers of men in torn shirts fighting off beasts, snakes and nazis or men rescuing scantily clad women from beasts, snakes and nazis.

Esquire sold sex somewhat on its covers, but of a more subtle, almost gentile quality. Their mascot might be bug-eyed, but that was from googling the models, not because he had an anaconda wrapped about his torso.

Esquire also didn't fill it's pages with bikini babes or boa-wrapped strippers, as featured in "Gala", "Adam" and "Cabaret".  No, Esquire had top-notch fiction and articles, cartoons and features on cars, fashion, music, and other "men's interests". They did have something, though, that caught my hormonal interests and that was the little feature of art they always included.

First was "The Petty Girls". These ran from the beginning of the magazine around 1933 up into part of my childhood. The Petty
Girls were airbrushed pinups and a lot of service men carried these off into battle during WWII. They were the creation of George Petty. He eventually had a conflict with Esquire and the magazine then featured a similar art treasury known as The Vargas Girl" painted by Antonio Vargas. (That is a Petty Girl on the left and a Vargas Girl on the right.) I think you can see why puberty-stricken me was attracted to Esquire in that drugstore that night.)

I know these seem rather tame by today's glut of smut, but back then this was
pretty risqué stuff, enough so the government tried to cut Esquire out of the marketplace by taking away their second-class mailing permit over the Petty and Vargas Girl drawings and some of the cartoons. Obviously Esquire survived this.  George Petty, while Antonio Vargas established his Girls in Petty's place, made a lucrative living doing calendars for various businesses, most notably Ridgid Tools, and I ain't going into all the subliminal messages his paintings dredged up in those rendering, you can let your imagination figure that out.

During the period when Petty and Vargas were vying for position at Esquire there was a young man working as a copywriter in Esquire's Chicago office. His name was Hugh Hefner and he was bored where he was and so borrowed and begged $8,000 from friends and family (especially mama) to start his own publication. He really wanted to call it "Stag Party", but an existing magazine called "Stag" didn't
take kindly to that choice and so he named it "Playboy". And here is where my opening statement came from. Hefner wanted Playboy to feature top-notch fiction and articles, cartoons and features on cars, fashion, music (jazz specifically), and other interests that appealed to men "between 17 and 80." These other interests were mainly women, and women more realistic than the Petty or Vargas Girls (although Antonio Vargas was to bring his Girls to Playboy eventually), because these were real girls in really skimpy outfits if any outfit at all.

Now you might be an inquiring mind that really wants to know why was I bothering with some semi-nude drawings in "Esquire" when there was the real thing inside "Playboy". I was 12 when the first issue of "Playboy" came out in December 1953 and 14 a year later, so why didn't I snatch up a "Playboy" and seek out the centerfold.

Because we are talking small town America in the 1950s here and in all honesty I don't remember seeing a "Playboy" gracing my local newsstands in those first years of its existence. It had a small circulation, 175,000 or something like that by the end of 1954, so maybe it just wasn't in some smaller markets yet. I do remember when it did show up it was almost under lock and key more than the other "girlie magazines". Some skinny kid wasn't gonna causally snatch up an early "Playboy". I don't think I got my sweaty teenage hands on a "Playboy" until I was around 16, and then I had to carefully hide it away.

Anyway, why did we even go into this little history lesson about my sexual awakenings and the history of a couple slick publications? Why is this post called "Back to Where It Started?

It is because of a recent news story:

"Opening a copy of Playboy magazine on an airplane or at a hair salon may no longer have people raising their eyebrows.
"Playboy will no longer publish images of fully nude women in its magazine beginning this spring. The move comes as part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March...The magazine will still feature women in provocative poses, but they will no longer bare all when the March issue is released in February,"  -- USA Today, October 13, 2015.

Now I don't know, Hugh Hefner is 89 years old so maybe those interests of men between 17 and 80 don't appeal to him anymore. Maybe it is just nostalgia for his beginnings, but it sounds like he just turned "Playboy" into "Esquire".

1 comment:

Jon said...

A great post, and it brings back memories of when sex was a secret (to us kids) instead of the rampant online smut virus that it is today. I remember finding a copy of "Playboy" in the trash when I was thirteen and I actually thought I'd found the Holy Grail.

I never thought I'd see the day when Playboy would do away with complete nudity. Hugh Hefner must have mellowed with age. And, of course, Playboy has a lot of competition nowadays.

Long ago people sometimes asked if I was related to Antonio Vargas because of the similarity in our names. But he was Vargas, a Latin - and I'm Varga, a Hungarian. The Vargas girls pinups were immensely popular when I was a kid.