Ah, the convenience of a smartphone. Almost all of us have one (or more) of these tiny mobile computers and telephones, in one.
Believe it or not, the first mobile telephone call from a hand-held device wasn’t made until April 3, 1973. Cellular phones and smartphones were still decades in the future.
Now, let’s take a look back to the mid-1950s and see what calling home entailed.
If you were not at home, the first order of business was to find a telephone, and you had better have had a pocketful of change because you paid to talk.
In the U.S., one could find “pay phone” inside a telephone booth or just “phone booth” for short, as they were called, on many street corners and in most commercial establishments. On the street, the ubiquitous phone booth featured a folding glass door that afforded some privacy and protection from the elements. They were not air-conditioned, but when you stepped inside and closed the door, an overhead light would come on. That feature was especially helpful at night. By the mid-1950s, most were upgraded from a wood and glass structure to a weatherproof glass and aluminum booth that was large enough for one (maybe two, if you were friends).
If you’re too young to have seen one in person, you’ve no doubt, seen them in old movies and TV shows.
They were found inside almost any hotel, train station, bank, restaurant or office building. You would have seen rows of wooden phone booths lining a wall somewhere near the entrance. Many of them had a seat inside for long conversations. During breaks between the action at conventions or meetings, people would line up to use the half dozen or so telephones in larger hotels, and in smaller hotels, there may have been two or three.
Today many hotels and convention spaces have mysterious empty areas that will cause the visitor to wonder the reason behind the wasted space. The answer is telephone booths once stood in those places before they were removed because they were no longer needed.
To make a call you would first deposit a nickel or dime in one of the round holes at the top. “Dial” it on the rotary dial . . . one digit at a time. A live telephone operator would come on the line and tell you how much money to put in, based on the number. If you didn’t know the person’s number, you’d look up the person by name from the telephone directory book, suspended under the phone. If you needed to make a long distance call, the live operator would handle that for you as well.
Since the 1950s were part of a decade of fads, one popular fad was “Phone Booth stuffing.” The point of this was to see how many people would fit into a phone booth designed for one person. From what I could learn, the record for cramming the most people into a standard sized telephone booth was 25. This was accomplished by a group of South African college students.
Too many people? You want a little privacy when you make a phone call? In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find privacy in a public place when you need to have a conversation (except maybe, in your car) I’m sure you’ve been in a restaurant or standing in a checkout line, and had to endure someone’s inane conversation right behind you or next to your ear. Well—good news! Some establishments are resurrecting telephone booths by providing an enclosed compartment with a comfortable seat and a door (see phone booth) for people to make or take private cell calls without having to go out to the parking lot. What goes around,comes around.
My husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mystery series, a hardboiled mystery series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our new book, Slick Deal, begins News Year’s Eve 1956 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The first murder and clues lead to Avalon, Catalina.
During our research of the 1950s we come across mysteries and scandals in the newspapers. These give us ideas to include as background in our novels. One scandal stood out and we used in Slick Deal was the Joan Bennett Scandal. We modified the events to fit in our story.
Joan Bennett was a successful screen actress, represented by her long time agent Jennings Lang. On December 13, 1951 she and Lang met to talk over an upcoming TV show.
Bennett parked her Cadillac convertible in the lot across the street from the Beverly Hills Police Department. She and Lang drove off in his car. Her
husband, Walter Wanger, drove by and noticed his wife’s car parked. Half an hour later, he again saw her car there and stopped to wait. Bennett and Lang drove into the parking lot a few hours later. Lang walked her to her car. As she started the engine, turned on the headlights and prepared to drive away. Wanger walked up and shot and the agent in a fit of jealousy
Bennett said she saw two vivid flashes, then Lang slumped to the ground. Wanger tossed the pistol into his wife’s car.
The police, who had heard the shots, came to the scene and found the gun in Bennett’s car when they took Wanger into custody. Lang was taken to a hospital, where he recovered.
Wanger said, “I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home.” He was booked on suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder.
Bennett denied a romance. She blamed the trouble on financial setbacks involving film productions Wanger was involved with. She said he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Wanger served a four-month sentence, then quickly returning to his career to make a series of successful films.
Meanwhile, Bennett went to Chicago to appear on the stage.
Bennett made only five movies in the decade that followed, as the shooting incident put a “stain” on her career and she became virtual
In a 1981 interview, Bennett compared the judgmental 1950s with the sensation-crazed 1970s and 1980s. “It would never happen that way today,” she said, laughing. “If it happened today, I’d be a sensation. I’d be wanted by all studios for all pictures.”
Joan Bennett died of a heart attack on December 7, 1990 (at 80 years old).
The results of our research? SLIVERS OF GLASS, STRANGE MARKINGS, DESERT ICE and SLICK DEAL . . . and yes, we’re still married.
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