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1990s

The Evolution of Office Work In the Past 40 Years - A First-Hand Account

Selectric with correcting tape

 

2019 was the 40-year anniversary of me beginning my first job out of college (Penn State), which was working in the media planning department at New York ad agency Scali McCabe Sloves.  This milestone had me thinking about the "primitive" work conditions I encountered in the spring of 1979 and the changes I've witnessed since then (most which didn't take place until the 1990s).  At this first job the big advance was the IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter, which had a cartridge that enabled allowed the user to go back one space and erase a typo.  Here are some other big advances:

 

Caller ID

This advance, which was first introduced to our office in the early 1990s, is the one that I still marvel at the most.  Before caller ID we answered our desk phone without knowing who was calling (shudder!).  Since there was no voice mail, if I didn't answer the call it bounced over to my secretary who scribbled down a message on a pink "While You Were Out" tablet.

 

Caller id phone
 

Desktop Computers

They arrived shortly after Caller ID.  Before then we accessed research databases using a few computers that were kept in the research library.  And users had to use a sign-in sheet to reserve time.  About 15 years later (2010) laptops, for the most part, replaced desktop computers.  This portability allowed for working from home and taking them to meetings (but making it a challenge for a presenter to make eye contact).  

E-Mail

Replacing paper memos, e-mail emerged in the mid-90s but its availability for the first year or so was limited to staff who were in upper management positions.  Similarly, web access was initially restricted.  Then about ten years later e-mails could be accessed on employees' company-supplied Blackberries, then to personal smartphones.

Dress Codes

Not a technical breakthrough, but the loosening of dress codes coincided with the proliferation in technology.  Before then suits, or at least shirts and ties, were expected to be worn every day until Casual Fridays started in the mid-1980s.  As you can imagine dressing up every day could make working in the summer very uncomfortable (especially since the subways weren't air conditioned until the 1990s). 

Secretaries

These hard-working employees (whose title was changed to administrative assistant 25 years ago) carried out countless tasks that were largely menial, but crucial.  Today, alas, we perform tasks that they once did, making us a bit less productive as we spend time doing timesheets, making travel plans, filling out expense reports, scheduling meetings and reserving conference rooms.  However, one task that we now do that has actually made our lives simpler is doing our own typing and preparing reports and presentations.  This enables us to make revisions immediately and do things in exactly the way we picture them in our head.  Also, we can complete projects without negotiating time with others when we had to share secretaries.

 

Tess in working girl

 

Research Library

All of the audience and media/marketing research data we used came in the form of hardbound books and "pocket pieces", and there was a substantial library full of these books; they were constantly being updated (monthly and weekly).  Sources that were used extensively would end up having torn or missing pages, or the binders were put back on the wrong shelves or taken from the library and not returned.  40 years later there are no books published, or libraries, as everything is digitized and accessed from websites. And although missing pages is no longer an issue a new hassle is keeping track of personal passwords for each database.

 

Classic - library 1991
Here I am in Foote Cone & Belding's meda research library, circa 1998.

 

Arts & Crafts

We created flowcharts of advertising schedules by manually drawing arrows and writing in numbers.  And when the flowcharts were shown to clients they were often enlarged on huge white boards.

Evolution of Audio-Visual Equipment & Copiers

We progressed from overhead projectors with acetates to Powerpoint presentations, then to webexes that enable us to view presentations remotely.  Scanning documents replaced faxes, copiers replaced carbon paper - and copiers evolved to be able to collate, staple, produce color copies and copy on both sides.  And Excel replaced paper spreadsheets and pencils.

The Clean Air Act

Through the mid-90s smoking was permitted in offices and conference rooms.  Then it was allowed if those in a presentation or a private office agreed.  However, drinking liquor/beer at the office still occurs (at least at ad agencies).

 

Smoking in the office_shutterstock

Leisure Time at the Office

40 years ago no one would think of openly playing solitaire at their desk or doing shopping, but now lots of time seems to be spent playing around because if it's being done on a computer it looks like work (or listening to music through headphones or earbuds).

Farewell to Face-to-Face Encounters

Finally, an increasing number of of meetings/presentations are now done via Skype or webexes.  Recently, the agency where I work announced that it was doing away with landlines; calls will now come thru our laptops or cell phones using a phone app found on Microsoft Teams.  Some frustrating drawbacks to these new forms of voice communications are technical glitches, audio issues, and persons asking questions/making comments from different locations talking over one another. 

 

When I began my career, "old-timers" would tell me about how work used to be done - adding machines, doing calculations by hand, working in the summer when air conditioning wasn't a given (offices had ceiling fans).  Today I find myself in that role, but I often remark to younger colleagues that relative to the ways business was conducted in the past, today's technological advances seem magical, making the responsibilities I have now seem almost fun rather than being tedious.

 

Changing times

 

 

 

 


Remembering My Favorite Episode of "Seinfeld" (October 28, 1992)

Seinfeld panties episode

 

Although Seinfeld aired 180 episodes in its nine seasons on NBC I can easily say which is my favorite of them all.  No, it's not the "Master of Your Domain" episode, not the one about "The Soup Nazi", or even "The Bubble Boy".  Rather, it was the episode known as "The Cheever Letters", which I think of as the 'Panties' episode.  It aired on October 28, 1992 during the sitcom's fourth season.  The episode is filled with hilarious moments discussed below: 

 

The episode opens with George and his fiance Susan informing her parents that their cabin, which Susan's dad was very attached to, had burnt to the ground.  Her tipsy mother gets a kick out of this news and upon her laughing uproariously, Susan's dad looks at her with disdain and tells her to "put on more lipstick".

 

Susan's mom laughing at news about cabin on seinfeld

 

Upon finding muddy wheelchair tracks on the living room carpet Susan's mother scolds her wheelchair-bound sister-in-law with the exasperated comment, "It's just a matter of common courtesy, when you come into the house you wipe your wheels!" 

 

Wheel chair bound

 

Letters in a strong box found in the debris of the destroyed cabin reveal that Susan's father had carried on an affair with author John Cheever.  Susan begins reading one of the letters out loud in front of the family, as well as George and Jerry.  One sentence reads, "I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple."  Susan's wheel bound aunt exclaims triumphantly, "I knew it!" 

 

Cheevers love letters

 

Meanwhile Kramer visits the Cuban embassy to get cigars and does a comical double take of a mysterious, elderly woman wearing sunglasses sitting silently in the reception area.

 

Seinfeld woman at cuban embassy
 

However, what made this my favorite episode is the storyline in which Jerry makes, what he thought was, an innocent comment during foreplay while on a date with Elaine's secretary: "You mean, the panties your mother laid out for you?"  However, it offended her and she storms out of his apartment.  The next day Jerry tells George about his date and how it progressed to "dirty talk", which enthralls George, but upon hearing Jerry's comment he looks puzzled, responding, "It's not offensive, abnormal perhaps, but not offensive."

 

Seinfeld panties episode2

 

And then come the closing minutes of the episode.  Jerry had been worried that Elaine's secretary might confide in her about their date and asks Elaine if she mentioned anything to her and Elaine says no.  But then, as Elaine leaves Jerry's apartment, she casually tells him that she has to stop by her mother's apartment because her mom bought her some new panties, which she has "all laid out" for her!  This was such a wicked surprise because up until then Jerry was under the impression that Elaine had no idea what had occurred during his date.

 

Seinfeld - panties laid out


Law & Order: The Misdemeanors

Nypd carSome of my high school classmates back in Pittsburgh can't quite fathom the thought of living in Manhattan, but I thrive on the fast pace, and the perceived danger is a bit overblown.  Sure, I've had some experiences with it but, thankfully, nothing serious.  Since moving to New York City in 1981 I've been a victim of a crime six times.  Five of the six occurred in the 1980s, and the last time was in 1998.  Two of my apartments have been burglarized, my wallet has been lifted at work twice and I've been mugged and the victim of a scam one time each.  (Truth be told, I've committed a number of "fashion crimes", but that's the subject for another post.)

 

 

April 1981 - At TriBeCa Apartment

This was my first apartment in NYC.  It was in a loft space on Lispenard St. in TriBeCa that I shared with a husband, wife, baby and a vicious cat (whose name was 'Mouse').  The break-in occurred one month after I moved in.  Although the door was locked, the prefabricated wall was knocked down to gain entrance.  The loft was in a building that I was later told the landlord was trying to get renters out of the apartment and turn into a commercial building.  My stereo was stolen along with four rolls of quarters that I hadn't had a chance to take to the bank.  I moved out two months later (as did my loft mates).

 

Lispenard street tribeca

 

July 1983 - At West 15th St. Apartment

Like the apartment in TriBeCa, this burglary also occurred one month after I moved into it.  The apartment was on the ground flood and had a garden with a door, but the burglars entered through the front door, using tin snips to cut into the door, then putting their hand through the incision and unlocking the door from the inside.  They stole a vacuum cleaner, our answering machine, some subway tokens and, inexplicably, ate a half grapefruit that was in the fridge, but what hurt most was their stealing of my boyfriend Rick's 35 MM camera,which had a roll of undeveloped film in it with pictures from Memorial Day weekend in Provincetown.

Later in the evening we got a call from the manager of the Lindy's restaurant across the street from Radio City Music Hall.  Someone had tried to charge their meal using my Mastercard, which had been taken out of the pocket of my bathrobe (they were thorough). 

 

Grapefruit  

May 1986 - At Jones St. Apartment

This was a scam rather than a burglary.  And it occurred at the front door of my apartment building in Greenwich Village.  A young man with a dog rang the doorbell and I answered.  He told me that he lived on my street and was walking his dog and discovered that he had locked himself out of his apartment.  Although his grandmother had a spare set of keys, she lived in Brooklyn and the young man didn't have money for cab fare.  I gave him $15 and asked if he wanted to leave his dog with me but he said he couldn't because it was abused as a puppy and didn't take well to strangers.  A few hours later it dawned on me that I'd likely been scammed and would never be repaid.

But to my surprise he returned, supposedly to repay the money I had loaned him.  However, he only had a $100 bill and needed change to pay the taxi, which for some reason, was parked a few blocks away.  This time I was onto him so I told him I'd break the $100 if the taxi came in front of my apartment building.  Of course, this didn't happen.  So, although I was still out $15 ($33 adjusted for inflation) I felt somewhat better knowing that my loss wasn't greater.

 

Conartist 

 

October 1988 - NW Ayer

On Halloween my wallet was taken from my suit jacket that was hanging behind the door in my office at ad agency NW Ayer.  I had $200 in cash in it and ten credit cards (back then I had cards for department stores in addition to Visa).  A few days later a colleague found the wallet jammed behind the toilet paper dispenser in a stall in the men's room.  It was this incident that got me to start using an ATM card rather than take out money I'd need for the next few weeks.

 

Stolen wallet cash

 

December 1989 - Number 1 Subway

This is the only time I was physically robbed.  After a doctor's appointment down in the West Village at lunchtime I went back to my office on W. 50th St. and took the Uptown Number 1 train.  When I got into the car there were three teenagers sitting opposite me.  One addressed me as Inspector Gadget because I was wearing a black trench coat.  Shortly after the doors closed they came over and surrounded me, the ringleader sitting next to me on my right.  He said I looked like I could easily spare my cash and if I didn't give it up I'd have to contend with the fellow standing to my left who had his hand in his coat pocket, suggesting there might be a weapon.  Fortunately, I only had eight dollars on me.  And I was very happy they didn't take my wallet.  After they ran out at the W.23rd St. stop an elderly man sitting across from me chided me for giving them my money as they also tried to get some from him but he refused.  When I got off at my stop I told the token clark (in the pre-MTA card era) and he called the police. 

A month later later I was asked to come to to the Transit Police station in the Port Authority building on 42nd St. to look at photos ("mug shots").  When I told the officer that the perpetrator was white he came back with a rather thin book.  When I expressed surprise he told me with a bit of a weary chuckle that all of the other binders on the shelves contained mug shots of blacks and Hispanics.  I pointed to one guy but after he was contacted he claimed that at the time of the mugging he was attending a parole hearing with his father.  Frankly, I was partly relieved because I wasn't certain the fellow I pointed out was actually the perpetrator.

 

Subway entrance

 

March 1998 - Foote, Cone & Belding

Once again my wallet was lifted from the inner pocket of my suit jacket was hanging behind the door of my office (back in the era before "open architecture" work spaces).  This time I only had $27 in the wallet and one credit card.  Then a week later I got a call at home from a customer service person at Omnipoint Communications in eastern Pennsylvania who wanted to verify that I was ordering cellular phone service.  When I told her I wasn't she then confided that she had someone on hold who was attempting this purchase using my credit card.  She became suspicious because the person sounded like a "negro" (her word) and she thought it was strange that he'd have my last name.

 

Customer service  

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Remembering All of the Office Views in My Career

Worldwide plaza nyc
Worldwide Plaza
3ParkAvenue.NYC
3 Park Avenue

Over the course of my career I've worked at nine different addresses, all in Midtown Manhattan, from 34th St., north to 58th Street, and from Third Ave., west to Eighth Ave. - an area covering all of 1.25 square miles.  In the past ten years office floor plans with private offices have largely been eliminated in favor of "open architecture" layouts, with workers sitting side-by-side and facing each other (not unlike garment workers in Bangladesh, but instead of sewing machines we have laptops!).  Of course, it's been an adjustment for those of us who worked in the private office era, but not as difficult a transition as I feared.  And I have great memories of those offices, some of which afforded spectacular views.  What follows is a list of those varied views - think of it as my office resume.

 

 

800 3rd Ave. (between E. 49th and 50th Streets)

My first office situation, which I shared with a co-worker, was on the 39th floor and looked south down Third Avenue.  (1980-1981)

 

800ThirdAve.ScaliMcCabeSloves
Here I am at 23, a junior media planner at ad agency Scali McCabe Sloves, and I had an office with a great view.

 

285 Madison Ave. (between 40th and 41st Streets)

Although taking a job at Young & Rubicam was a good career move, it was quite a step down from my previous job in terms of office and view.  My office, a converted supply room, looked north onto E. 41st St. so there was little in the way of light.  285 Madison was an old building with windows that could be opened.  (A few years before I moved to Y&R an account executive had jumped to his death.)  Later I moved to an office on the other side of the building and my view looked south onto 40th St.  I had light but not much of a view.  (1981-1987)

 

1345 Ave. of the Americas (between E. 54th/55th Streets)

My office at ad agency NWAyer was on the 39th floor and looked south onto the roof of the Hilton across the street on 54th St.  (1987-1989)

 

Burlington.building.movingday

 

BurlingtonBuilding.view
The view from the side of the floor looking north was far superior than mine, but I could stroll over to see it.

 

Worldwide Plaza (W. 50th St./Eighth Ave.) 

NWAyer relocated from urbane Avenue of the Americas to this brand new 50-story skyscraper on the "frontier".  This would be the furthest west of any of my work addresses.  At the time the new neighborhood was a bit sketchy but my office on the 34th floor, which looked west over the Hudson River, afforded views of spectacular sunsets (and on hazy days the view of New Jersey was obscured).  In the brutal winter of 1994 I had a great view of the ice-covered Hudson.  In the last six months I worked there I moved into a spacious corner office on the building's southwest corner, but I often had to draw the shades because of the blinding afternoon sun.  (1989-1995)

 

Ice.covered.hudsonriver
The Hudson froze over during the frigid January of 1994.

 

RobFrydlewicz.CornerOffice.NWAyer
Those were the days ...

 

GM Building (Fifth Ave. between 58th & 59th Streets)/

150 E. 42nd St. (between Lexington & Third Avenues) 

My first office at Foote, Cone & Belding was on the 18th floor and looked north onto 59th St.  If I looked at an angle from my window I could see Central Park.  Then a few months after I started we relocated to the old Mobil Building at 150 E. 42nd St. (across the street from the Chrysler Building).  There I had three different offices, none with views that were noteworthy.  (1995-2002)

 

GM Building.RobFrydlewicz
Left the corner office behind for a sizable increase in salary - a fair trade-off.

 

3 Park Ave (34th St./Park Ave.)

This vied with Worldwide Plaza for the best views.  There were no towering buildings obstructing the view in any direction (the Empire State Building loomed three blocks west, enhancing the view).  My corner office on the 36th floor (for those keeping score, this was my second corner office) looked southeast so I got plenty of light all day.  Fifteen months before I started at Carat the 9-11 attacks occurred and co-workers told me of the chilling view they had of the towers.  I was working here on the day of the 2003 power blackout and had to walk down 36 flights of steps - without the aid of emergency lighting, which didn't work. (2003-2006)

 

Carat.3ParkAvenue
The glare from the sun obscures the view through the window shades.  (If only there were smartphones back then I'd have a whole album of the views!)

 

622 Third Ave. (between E. 40th and 41st St.)

26 years later I was back on Third Avenue, but eight blocks further south. This is the only office I had that looked east.  I usually had the blinds drawn because of the morning sun, but in the late afternoon the sky could have a nice light pink and blue glow created as the sun was setting (especially in the winter months).  The work environment at Universal McCann was the most toxic of any I'd experienced and my only respite was gazing out the windows.  (2007-2008)

 

1540 Broadway (corner of W. 46th St.)

Working part-time for Viacom, this was the first time I worked in an office with open architecture, but I still had a spectacular view.  Our building overlooked Times Square and my work space was situated in the southwest corner of the 23rd floor, offering me a view of the large electronic billboard on the building where the ball dropped on New Year's Eve.  And the building's cafeteria had a great view overlooking the area around the TKTS booth.  This was also the first office where I owned a smartphone so I was always snapping photos of the view.  (2012-2014)

 

TimesSquare.NewYearsEve.Afternoon

 TimesSquareOfficeView

 

TimeSquareVista.Spring2014.RobFrydlewicz

 TimesSquare.Christmas2013

 

150 E. 42nd St. (between Lexington/Third Ave.)

This is my second time working in this building, but 13 years apart, and working for a different company (actually, it's Carat, the company I worked for at 3 Park Ave.) and with a different layout.  I'm situated on the 12th floor, once again with open architecture.  My department is situated on the southwest corner and the view looks down Lexington Ave.  There are also windows that look east so there is light throughout the day.  (2014 - present)

 

150E42ndSt.view
View from the 12th floor, looking up at the buildings on the corner of Lexington Ave. and E. 41st St.

 

Winter.view.midtown.2015
The sun doesn't need to be shining for there to be interesting views. This photo was shot during the never-ending winter of 2015.

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OJ Simpson Freeway Chase Mesmerizes The Nation (June 17, 1994)

White-bronco The evening of June 17, 1994, a Friday, was warm and muggy and I had just returned to my apartment in Greenwich Village after a five-mile run in Hudson River Park.  Before showering I turned on the TV to check the score of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.  Instead, what appeared on the screen was a white SUV speeding along a highway.  I thought that perhaps it was a scene from a repeat of NBC's Law & Order, but when I changed channels it was also on ABC, CBS and CNN. 

 

I soon learned that the white Bronco was carrying OJ Simpson on LA’s 405 Freeway, and it was being pursued by a phalanx of LAPD police cruisers.  It seems OJ, who was the prime suspect in the murder of his 35-year-old wife, Nicole, and her male friend earlier in the week, didn't turn himself in, as he had agreed, and was now sitting in the back of the vehicle holding a gun to his head and threatening to shoot himself.

 

OJ_Simpson_Chase 

 

The chase was so mesmerizing I couldn’t pull myself away to go to the grocery store to get dinner.  I watched for at least two hours waiting for the moment when, befitting this perfect Greek tragedy, OJ was going to end it all.  What sticks with me was the circus-like atmosphere as cars pulled over on the freeway and crowds lined the road and overpasses cheering (or jeering) as he drove by.  And when the Bronco finally pulled into the driveway of OJ’s home another surreal thing happened.  An eyewitness claiming to be across the street from OJ’s house was interviewed on the phone by ABC News’ Peter Jennings but he turned out to be a crank caller who made an inane comment about his allegiance to Howard Stern.

 

Oj_nicole_simpson
In happier days ...

 

 

Fast forward sixteen months to Oct. 3, 1995, the day of the verdict in OJ’s murder trial.  I was eating lunch in my office (at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding) and turned on the radio to listen to the live coverage of the jury’s verdict.  I had decided not to watch the coverage on TV in the conference room with others because I didn’t want to see which co-workers might be happy if he was found innocent.  When I heard the not-guilty verdict I got up and closed the door to my office and sat for a while with my eyes closed trying to process the jury's decision before continuing with the rest of my day.

 


Oj_acquitted

 

 


Johnny Carson Steps Down As "Tonight Show" Host (May 22, 1992)

Bette_midler_johnny_carsonJohnny Carson's final week as host of the Tonight Show in May 1992 coincided with me packing and moving into the Greenwich Village apartment (where I still live in 2014).  My official move-in date wasn't until June 1, but the apartment had been vacant for a number of months so I was permitted to move in early.  While packing during the first half of the week, I tuned in to Tonight and watched a stream of honored celebs pay tribute to Johnny.  On the penultimate telecast, and the first night living at my new address, I watched Bette Midler sing her charming version of You Made Me Watch You to Johnny while she sat on his desk. 

 

 

These episodes were more uplifting than the last somewhat somber telecast that simply had Johnny reminiscing about his 30 years as host - with no guests.  Not surprisingly, it delivered a stupendous (for the Late Night time period) Nielsen household rating of 28 and a 63 share of viewing; 41 million persons tuned in (compared to a typical 6.7 million). 
 

Johnny_carson_last_show

 

After Johnny left Tonight, it was almost as if he had died as he largely disappeared from public view until his death in 2005.  the Tonight Show's Jay Leno era began three days later on May 25.  Leno remained host until February 2014 when Jimmy Fallon took over the helm (Leno's reign was interrupted briefly in 2009 when Conan O'Brien was appointed host and Leno moved to primetime).  An enjoyable book about Carson's Tonight Show reign is Here's Johnny: 30 Years as America's Favorite Late Night Entertainer.

 

Tonightshow_curtains

 

Three other notable TV events occurred that week in May 1992.  First, Vice President Dan Quayle castigated actress Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown character for having a baby without the benefit of marriage in the show's last episode of the season (Monday, 5/18).


 

Murphybrown_danquayle

 

The following day, the names Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher became part of the nation's zeitgeist after 17-year-old Amy (aka "The Long Island Lolita") shot Buttafuoco's wife Mary Jo in the face at the front door of her home.  This tawdry affair was made into three TV movies that aired within weeks of each other at the end of the year (one starred 18-year old Drew Barrymore).  Finally, on Thursday MTV premiered The Real World, which started TV's "reality" craze.

 

Amyfisher_joeybuttafuoco

 

One more thing I remember about this week is that New York experienced an early heat wave - including a sizzling 93° on the day of Carson's last show.  It turned out to be one of the few hot spells during an unseasonably mild summer - apparently, the result of the cooling effect of clouds of ash from the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines the year before.

 

Clipart_sunimage

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Final Episode of "Newhart" Airs - One of the Best Ever (May 21, 1990)

Newhart_opening Final episodes of long-running shows often get high ratings, but rarely do they have memorable storylines.  For instance, the final episode of Seinfeld was derided for being a huge disappointment (especially considering the hype).  And although they delivered huge ratings, does anyone recall much that was memorable about the last episodes of M*A*S*H, Cheers or Friends?  However, the final episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was an exception - as was the sendoff for Newhart which aired the night of May 21, 1990.

 

Earlier that afternoon I had attended ABC-TV's "upfront" presentation.  (I worked in TV research for ad agency NWAyer, so attending it was part of my job.)  The big news was about Twin Peaks, which had become a sensation the previous month.  It was renewed for next season and was scheduled on Saturday at 10:00 (what a different world it was back then).  At the party held afterwards I had my photo taken with one of the show's stars, Madchen Anick. 

 

Newhart_final_episode After taking my leave from the raw bar, I rushed home to watch Newhart.  Like everyone else, I was taken completely by surprise by the delightfully zany ending in which Bob (after being hit in the head with a golf ball) wakes up in bed with his wife, Emily (played by Suzanne Pleshette) from his classic Bob Newhart Show from the 1970s - it turned out the Newhart Show was a dream!  This topped the episode's other surprise when the silent brothers "Darrell and the other Darrell" finally spoke.  The telecast posted an 18.9 household rating/29 share (7 share points above the series' season average). 

 

   

 

Tom_poston Suzanne_pleshette Mary_frann Twenty-five years later Bob Newhart is still with us at the age of 85.  Sadly, cast members Mary Frann, Pleshette and Tom Poston have all passed away.  As have the careers of Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari (although he has had a recurring role on HBO's Girls as Hannah's father and Duffy as the mother of the lead character in Looking, another HBO series).

 


Final Episode of "Seinfeld" Airs, Frank Sinatra Dies (May 14, 1998)

Seinfeld_characterture FranksinatraUntil today the biggest event to occur on my birthday was in 1967 when Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run.  And in 1981 I feared the pope might die on my birthday after he was shot the day before (happily, he survived.)  But then on May 14, 1998 two big pop culture events occurred: the final episode of Seinfeld and the death of Frank Sinatra.  I watched the disappointing one-hour finale (from a mostly dissatisfying last season) with my friends Matthew and Gary at Matthew's apartment on West 57th St.  Although it was my birthday they weren't aware of it, so when our Chinese take-out arrived I felt odd saying "hey, it's my birthday, are you expecting me to contribute?", so I kept quiet.  (A week earlier I figured I'd be spending this day with my boyfriend, but that relationship suddenly unraveled during a rainy weekend out at Fire Island.)  When I woke up the next morning is when I heard the news that Sinatra had died the previous evening. 

 

This episode of Seinfeld telecast delivered a 41.3 household rating/58 share, making it the second highest rated show of the season (behind the Super Bowl).  A powerhouse performance for sure, but it was 9% below the last episode of Cheers five years earlier. 

 

 

 

Bing_family_ties Moonlighting Other shows that aired their final episodes on my birthday include Family Ties (1989); West Wing (2004); and Moonlighting (1990).  However, only Family Ties had much of a ratings sendoff (20.8 rating/35 share).  

 

Rita_hayworth 220px-B_ward01 1939-glinda In addition to Sinatra, some other notable deaths on May 14 were those of Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz) in 1970; Hugh Beaumont (the father in Leave it to Beaver) in 1982; and 1940s va-va-voom actress Rita Hayworth in 1987.

 

(If you're a Seinfeld fan but have overdosed from watching it in syndication, a refreshing change might be reading about the show in Seinfeld, Master of its Domain: Revisiting TV's Greatest Sitcom.)  

 


Rodney King Verdict Sparks Deadly L.A. Riots (April 29, 1992)

Time_la_riots1992 With our lease up for renewal at the end of May 1992, my roommate had decided to move in with his boyfriend and take a new apartment.  Although I didn't want another roommate situation, I couldn't afford to keep the apartment on my own, so I decided to look for a new apartment.  On April 29, a Wednesday, I left work at 4:00 to see two apartments, one a garden apartment on Christopher St., the other a small one-bedroom in the Sheridan Square area of Greenwich Village, both a few short blocks from where I lived.  Largely because of the amount of light it got (it was on the top floor), I decided to take the second apartment (where I still live).

 

 

After seeing the apartments I got a haircut and then arrived home shortly before 6:00.  I switched on the evening news and heard the breaking story that the LAPD officers involved in last year's Rodney King beating had been acquitted.  The verdict was met with frightening fury by Los Angeles' black community and rioting began shortly thereafter. 

 

Rodney_king_cant_we_allgetalong Later that evening a news-copter showed a truck driver being pulled from the cab of his semi at an intersection in South Central LA.  He was kicked repeatedly in the head and bashed with a cinder block.  Like the beating of King, this video clip was aired endlessly.  Two days later an overwrought Rodney King addressed the media and delivered one of the decade's most quotable lines, "Can't we all just get along?"

 

 

 

Two days later, a Friday, I signed my new lease before going to work.  Then later in the day as I was walking back to work after lunch it seemed that everyone from my office (ad agency NW Ayer, located on West 50th St. at Worldwide Plaza) was walking in the opposite direction.  It turned out the office (like many others) had closed early because of wild stories of looting and transit disruptions. 

 

These rumors turned out to be untrue (e.g., Macy's was being looted, the Brooklyn Bridge had been blocked by rioters), but since no one knew it at the time, my commute home on the subway was made with trepidation as riders wondered what might be occurring above ground.  Indeed, some of the stores in my neighborhood were closed and a few had boarded up their windows. 

 

Later that afternoon I was curious to see if there had been any further problems in my neighborhood so I went for a run but found nothing out of the ordinary except for a larger police presence.  That night President Bush addressed the nation to assess the situation and assure viewers that calm would prevail and justice served.  

 

La_riot_fire The inconvenience suffered by New Yorkers on that day paled by comparison to Angelenos who struggled through nearly a week of unrest.  More than 50 persons were killed, thousands were injured or jailed and property damage was close to $1 billion.  Since the turmoil threatened to spread to affluent neighborhoods, some residents there stood on rooftops with guns.  Sporting events were cancelled, freeway and air traffic was disrupted and restricted.  It was the worst rioting in the U.S. since the assassination of Martin Luther King 24 years earlier.

 

 

Bill_cosby_showThis unrest coincided with the final episode of the Cosby Show on Thursday.  NBC considered postponing the telecast until the following week, but Cosby was against the idea because he felt airing it as scheduled would maintain a semblance of normalcy.  (He asked NBC if he could address viewers in Los Angeles to plead for calm.)  The episode posted a 28 household rating/45 share (nearly double its season average), making it the 6th highest rated telecast of the 1991/92 season.

 

 

 

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Terror Unleashed by Poison Gas Attack in Tokyo (March 20, 1995)

Tokyo_terrotistsTokyo_sarin_attackI was starting a new job on March 20, 1995 at ad agency Foote Cone & Belding where I was hired as media research director of its New York office.  When my clock radio went off that Monday morning is when I first heard the news about the gas attacks on Tokyo's metro system during the morning rush hour.  Members of a Japanese religious cult known as "Supreme Truth" carried out the attacks by puncturing small packages containing a liquid form of the lethal gas, sarin.  They did this on three train lines; once leaked, the liquid turned into a vapor which felled thousands of passengers and killed twelve.   

 

Of course, this was especially chilling for the millions of us who used New York's subway system to commute to work every day. 

 

 

 

OklahomacityOne month later homegrown terrorism visited our own shores when a truck bomb laden with explosives tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing168.  Unlike the Japanese terrorists, one of those charged in the U.S. attack, Timothy McVeigh, was executed.

 

Now_and_again_tv_showThen five years later an episode of a new show on CBS, Now and Again, brought to mind the Tokyo attacks.  A villain known as the Eggman (played by Chinese actor Kim Chan) cracked open eggs filled with noxious gas on a New York subway.  All of the passengers died, but in a somewhat more gruesome fashion than those who died in Tokyo.