Saturday, December 7, 2019

Theatrum Mundi

Perhaps I should start by explaining what a phonebook is.  They are still around—I think—but I am willing to bet that a sizable portion of the population has no idea what they are used for.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure there is still one in my house.

In any case, back in the dark ages, if you wanted to call your blacksmith, the local alchemist, or call Wells Fargo to see if the stage was running on time, you had to look up the telephone number in one of two books the phone company annually threw into a puddle in your driveway.  The “yellow pages” were a listing of the local businesses, while the “white pages” were an alphabetical listing of people.  If you lived in a large city, the phone books were divided into two large volumes, one white and one yellow.  If you lived in a small town (as I did growing up in Texas), the phonebook for the entire county was a small, little pamphlet that could almost never be located when you needed it, so you called “Information” and a nice lady would look up the phone number for you for free.

Note.  I just checked, and you can still call information.  Instead of a nice lady, you get a computer that charges you $1.99 while not understanding anything you say.  This is progress.

While I was a student at the University of Houston, I was fascinated by the heavy tome that made up the yellow pages.  (It was fairly difficult to find a copy of the white pages on campus, since the flimsy paper the phonebook was printed on was frequently used as roller paper.  For some reason, it was believed that inhaling the fumes from burning the yellow pages was bad for you.  Not, of course, that I would know.)

While it was interesting to scan the various strange and exotic businesses located in Houston, the real attraction of the yellow pages was the cover.  Starting in the 1950’s and lasting for roughly three decades, the cover was a detailed drawing of a bird’s eye view of a popular location in the city, frequently the downtown area.  While the drawing was skillfully done and no doubt a minor work of art, it was only after you closely examined the drawing that you were aware of the incredible minutiae the drawing contained.

There was a U.F.O. parked at the fast food restaurant.  Someone was skiing behind a Volkswagen on the freeway while King Kong climbed the bank building.  Wild animals walked down the street followed by a policeman on stilts.  And there was always a momma cat with kittens somewhere, usually doing something inexplicable.  It would take hours and a good magnifying glass to locate all the absurdities carefully concealed within the drawing. 

Unknown to me at the time, the tradition of artistic phone books had started in Dallas back in the early 1950’s.  A local artist, Karly Hoefle, was hired to produce cover art by Southwestern Bell for the annual phone book.  In 1957, probably just for the fun of it, in the bottom right hand corner of the drawing, he sketched a cat chasing a dog.  At the time, he probably thought that few would notice.

Hoefle was wrong.  The cat was a hit and so many people wrote the phone company in appreciation, that for the next year’s cover, Hoefle added a few more small caricatures, including a Momma cat shepherding her kittens across a street.  That phone book cover was so popular that, from then on, Hoefle added an average of a hundred little drawings on the annual covers, which now included a unique cover for the Houston phone book. 

Hoefle’s masterpiece was the 1967 Dallas cover depicting the Texas State Fair.  It is pretty hard to satirize an event where you can buy a deep fried Twinkie on a stick, but Hoefle succeeded.  I remember a bird’s nest in the outstretched hand of Big Tex, the state fair’s symbol.  (For the Yankees among you, Big Tex is a 10 ton, 55 foot tall statue of a cowboy wearing blue jeans (size 324W/264L) and a 95 gallon hat.)

When Hoefle died, Norman Baxter was hired to continue the tradition of the phonebook covers in the 1980’s.  Unfortunately, with the breakup of Ma Bell, and the various Baby Bell companies starting to play musical chairs with territories, some board of directors decided that profits were better than whimsy and stopped the tradition of artistic covers.  Maybe the phone books got so popular that people started stealing them, I know we had that problem at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston.

Today, those artistic phone book covers are all but forgotten, not even appreciated for their artistic merit.  I checked with the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, and while they do have the covers, they are simply listed as” These prints portray bird’s eye views of Dallas and Houston” that contain “intricate anomalies”. 

These should be, and evidently isn’t, a website where you could view all of these drawings.  It is a shame that the phone companies today are no more interested in history than they are in art.

What should we call this type of artwork?  In my retirement, I have returned to the university as a student—I’m now working on a degree in Art History.  This week in class, we were discussing Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, a painting where the inhabitants of a Flemish town are acting out at least a hundred proverbs and folk sayings of the day.  Not only is the work remarkable for the number of proverbs we still use, but it immediately reminded me of those marvelous phone book covers.

Though I have searched, there does not seem to be a name for this kind of artwork, and simply saying they contain “intricate anomalies” is an inadequate description.  We need something better, something that will inspire future artists to….create a phone book cover I can contemplate while on interminable hold with customer service.

Allow me to suggest, ‘Theatrum Mundi’.  The term is already in use in literature where it signifies that the world is a stage wherein people are characters and their actions form a drama.  Yes, think Shakespeare, or as Omar Khayam said, “The world is a chess game.”  Same difference.

Theatrum Mundi:  A drawing showing the drama of life at its most absurd through intricate anomalies.  How else could you describe a cat chasing a dog?

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps "Illistratum Mundi" to identify it as art rather than theater.