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The Secret Beginnings of the U.S. Entertainment Industry

by William McGaughey

Some people think the entertainment age just happened. They do not realize that, behind the fun and games, serious planning was involved. I used to be a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Nevada. While working there, I ran across a file that puts everything in perspective.

It all started in 1905 when a man named Alfred Cornelius Johnson, who lived In Fremont, Ohio, wrote his Congressman suggesting that the U.S. government appropriate funds to hire comedians to do free public performances much as the public library lends out books without charge. Johnson pointed out that Thomas Jefferson had written that governments are instituted to promote "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He asked the Congressman: "What have you done lately to promote happiness, Mr. Root?"

This was an idea ahead of its time. The entertainment industry was then in the doldrums. Buffalo Bill was growing old and the public was getting tired of cowboy shows and that sort of thing. So the idea sat. Nobody in government was interested in it. Theodore Roosevelt had fixed public attention on serious issues like conservation, the Panama Canal, and trust-busting. The idea of the government's going into the joke business was the last thing on his mind. People thought that humor happened spontaneously.

The situation improved when William Howard Taft became President. Taft was a jolly old man who liked to tell jokes. He was not so big on conservation. Another important thing is that the Congressman who had received Johnson's letter some years earlier was now in Taft's cabinet. His name was Elihu Root.

The cabinet members were all sitting around one day - maybe in 1910 - moaning and groaning about the state of the world. Socialism was becoming a threat to people Taft represented. And there was modern art. This drove the cabinet members up the wall. Symphonic music was being written to sound like screeching cats. Madmen posing as studio artists were doing all sorts of weird things on canvas. One man even claimed that a urinal was a highly evolved work of art.

Civilization was obviously going to the dogs. The Taft administration decided they needed to do something to stop the trend. But what? The federal government had never taken on any projects in the area of ideas or culture.

It was during this discussion that Elihu Root, the Secretary of Interior, recalled the letter he had received from Alfred Cornelius Johnson. He suggested to his colleagues that all this European nonsense could be stopped by plain old American humor. Get people laughing instead of falling for these stupid ideas.

President Taft, sitting at the head of the table, stroking the tips of his mustache, listened with interest. Then he came right out and said it: He liked Root's proposal. Yes, he would support the government's going into the joke business. But he wasn't sure that the public was ready for this. They had to move cautiously. Everything had to be done in secret, at least initially.

President Taft authorized a secret department to be set up under Root in the Interior Department. It was a modest program at first. The government would train comedians and hire some writers to write jokes. The concept of intellectual property rights was yet undeveloped. Taft's idea at first was that the government would create a certain fund of jokes and give them out for free to whoever wanted them - maybe residents of Old-age homes who needed a laugh.

Later, the Taft administration thought that the jokes should be kept as a strategic reserve to be used in emergencies. For instance, if the Socialists held a rally in a city like Chicago or Detroit, government spokesmen would respond with a joke. Public attention would be diverted from the rally and all would be well. There would be smiles all around. But you needed to fit the joke to the occasion; so there had to be a fairly large reserve.

The joke department grew in part because of the number of emergencies needing to be met and partly because Elihu Root was adept at assembling bureaucratic empires. More and more joke writers were hired; more comedians were trained. Humor was being mass-produced much like cars on Henry Ford's assembly line.

Soon there was a problem of finding office space for all these people. There was a problem of working them into the federal budget. The Taft administration kept Congress in the dark about this project. He thought people would laugh at him and it would be a huge scandal if the public learned that the government was actually paying for humor. As far as Congress was concerned, the Interior Department budget was growing so fast because conservation was costing a lot more than expected. Blame this on Taft's predecessor.

Eventually a clever arrangement was found. They would house the government's humor department at St. Elizabeth's hospital in Washington, D.C., where the mentally ill people lived. What about the present inmates? The solution was simple: Turn them out on the streets. At one of the cabinet meetings, the Secretary of War or someone like that joked that these people were probably no crazier anyone else in society. They'd fit right in with those Socialists and modern artists.

So the authorities simply evicted the inmates of St. Elizabeth's hospital, declaring them cured. The public was none the wiser. One strange group of people replaced another at the hospital with no impact whatsoever on the budget. Behind the walls of the former mental hospital, joke writers and comedians prepared to save the Republic from ideological illnesses of the modern age.

It might surprise you to know how seriously these people took humor. First they studied the existing forms. Which should the government program support? Mark Twain was the dean of American humor at that time. There were discussions with him about heading the program. But Twain specialized in tall tales and some among the rank and file employees opposed that kind of homespun humor. The academic types wanted a more thoughtful type like sarcasm. The English department at Princeton University proposed to develop such humor under contract with the federal government. Elihu Root nixed that idea because the University President, Woodrow Wilson, was a Democrat. Another group of people favored a punchier type of joke-telling which we today call "slap-stick" comedy.

Trying to straighten out the whole mess, Elihu Root thought he would ask President Taft to pick the kind of humor he preferred; but Taft kicked the decision back to Root. Root then appointed a committee to draft a document which has become known as "Protocols of Humor". In this document, department brass tried to settle upon a type of humor which would receive the bulk of resources and attention; others not picked might be pursued informally.

In the end, the question was settled another way. Mark Twain, the foremost proponent of tall tales, suddenly died. Some think he was poisoned. In any event, the humor department was deprived of a potential leader. A proponent of slap-stick was appointed instead. Recognizing the handwriting on the wall, those favoring sarcasm deserted in droves to institutions like Princeton where they could practice their dark art in the classroom under the cloak of academic freedom.

President Taft thought he had the situation under control when an unexpected problem arose. The former President, Theodore Roosevelt, heard rumors of a massive diversion of funds from conservation programs within the Interior Department to secretive goings on at St. Elizabeth's hospital. What in the dickens was Taft doing? He was letting our nation's forests and rivers go to heck while bureaucrats sat around telling jokes!

Taft's worst fears were realized. Theodore Roosevelt decided to run against him in the election of 1912 under the banner of the Bull Moose party and as a result he split the Republican vote throwing the election to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Taft actually finished third. So the humor program had backfired.

Wilson, the new President, inherited the whole secretive mess. His first impulse was to end the program immediately, reveal its existence, and blame everything on Taft. After all, Taft's henchman, Elihu Root, had turned down the offer from Princeton's English department. Princeton does not like losing.

Woodrow Wilson was a serious man bent on establishing the Federal Reserve Bank, keeping the nation out of war, or, if that failed, formulating his Fourteen Points. But Wilson was also a cautious man. He let himself be persuaded by humor bureaucrats that the secretive program could be useful to the government, especially if passions ran high to push the country into the European war. This war had to be decisively laughed down.

About that time, the program was getting up to speed; it was ready for its first real test. That came with the sinking of the Lusitania. The humor department reached into its bag of tricks and decided to make fun of the fact that such a large ship could simply disappear beneath the seas. This was the first rule of comedy: Exploit evident incongruities in the situation. A big boat towering above the ocean one moment and disappearing the next - it was a sure-fire way to get a laugh.

The President had a spokesman refer to the ship as the "Lose-a-tania" - get it? - "Lose-a-big-boat, lose-a-your-life", expecting the snickering to break out all over the newsroom. Unfortunately, someone took offense. By chance, one of the reporters had a relative on the sunken ship. That sourpuss had a chilling effect on all the other reporters. No one laughed at the joke.

Well, back to the drawing board. Wilson felt burned. Fearing untimely ridicule, he dared not expose the inner workings of the program carried out in the bowels of St. Elizabeth's hospital. But he did downgrade humor to the benefit of certain other parts of the cultural-renewal program. President Wilson decided to focus instead on music and art. With modern art and music becoming increasingly outrageous, cultural conservatives were demanding that music sound like music and art abandon abstract designs for the sake of natural imagery.

By that time, they had begun calling St. Elizabeth's a "campus". A smaller "campus" then was established in Los Angeles devoted to reforming the visual arts. Create life-like images, they were taught. Abhor abstract art. Take your cues from nature.

One of the students there was a young man named "Walter Dischner", son of a German immigrant. He is better known by his Anglicized name, "Walt Disney". This Dischner, or Disney, was glad to be in a safe haven away from the wartime hysteria directed against persons of his nationality. As a quiet diversion, he began drawing mice. I think you know the rest of that story.

I should mention that there was also to be a music campus in the southern city of New Orleans. Catching wind of a subsidized cultural program, southern Congressmen demanded a piece of the action. The fate of this campus is unclear. Some say it contributed to the development of ragtime and jazz. Others are not so sure. Unorganized groups of musicians might have created this kind of music. Who knows? The paper trail has grown cold.

The years of the Wilson administration were, as I said, not especially kind to the humor program. The humorists had learned that there are limits to laughing at grim situations such as death. The Lose-a-tania was not a type of joke to be attempted again. World War I came with all its carnage, and the world was in no mood for comedy. About the only bright spot during this period was that humor officials managed to persuade Will Rogers to abandon a promising career as a lariat-twirler to become a comedian.

Woodrow Wilson went farther and farther into his seriousness until he snapped. The President suffered a stroke while campaigning for the League of Nations. Some say a few good belly-laughs could have averted that health catastrophe. But, it's not good to make light of someone's misfortune.

In any event, another election was held in 1920. The Democrats lost and the Republican candidate, Harding, was elected President on a slogan of returning the country to what he called "normalcy". Those in the know recognized this as a promise to revive the humor program. Normal people like humor; they don't like the League of Nations. Warren Harding was a man who liked a good laugh. Though he was less jolly than Taft, his friends knew that this man was really funny when he wanted to be.

Harding's election as President ushered in what has become known as the "Roaring Twenties". It was a fun time, a naughty time, filled with laughter and booze. It was not, however, a time when the government's humor program thrived. The new President was suspicious of what went on at St. Elizabeth's hospital. He actually cut the budget for the program declaring that, with all the fun spontaneously sweeping the country, the time had perhaps come to wean humor from public subsidies. Many infant industries require government assistance, he said. This one now had the wherewithal to stand on its own two feet. Two weeks later, President Harding was dead. He might have taken an overdose of something.

In the meanwhile, the government had received a secret offer. The automobile manufacturer, Henry Ford, after consulting his close friend, Thomas Edison, had made an offer to purchase the entire humor program from the government for a substantial sum of money after receiving inside information about its existence. Evidently, Ford thought that joke-telling would help to sell cars. Edison had told Ford that jokes might be used in the emerging motion-picture industry. This offer from Ford, which would also benefit his inventor friend, is what prompted government officials to start thinking about privatization.

In the end, they did not accept Ford's offer. The automobile tycoon had made too many political enemies by running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1918 and especially by his Peace Ship initiative to the warring parties during World War I. But the government did divest itself of the program, paving the way for the modern entertainment industry.

After the "Teapot Dome" scandal - which some think is a term first used in a botched joke by the humor bureaucracy - all functions related to government sponsorship of humor were transferred from Interior to the Commerce Department. Herbert Hoover was then Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge administration. An able businessman, he efficiently completed the transfer of assets to the private sector. The separate components of the culture-reformation program were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

With respect to humor, a Jewish consortium which was financed by international bankers with possible ties to the Illuminati purchased most of the assets including the bulk of the written jokes. This group established a company which became headquartered in Vaude, New York, then a sleepy town in the Catskills. It marketed the newly acquired property under the "Vaudeville" brand name. Slap-stick was the predominant type of humor used in this enterprise.

The visual-arts division, headquartered in Los Angeles, gravitated toward the new technology of film-making and animated cartoons. This was the genesis of Hollywood. The music division, less prominent, vanished without a trace. It's rumored that some of the funds were embezzled by musicians formerly with the program. Some say Elvis Presley got his hands on some of the remaining funds. How else would such a performer have gotten a start in the business?

In the late 1920s, the first published reports appeared in newspapers concerning the once-secret program. By then, no one cared. Everyone was busy making serious money on the stock market. Today, the culture program is a mere blip on the screen of history, known only to entertainment aficionados.

What the public does not know - still does not know, until now - is that the innermost secrets of the program started by President Taft and continued through three subsequent administrations are contained in documents that have not yet been released to the public. I came across some of those documents in my accidental discovery of secret files at the Hoover Institution where I once worked as a trusted employee. Sadly, I am no longer trusted, so, having nothing to lose, I'm turning the tables on those folks and telling you what those files contained.

The reason those papers wound up in the Hoover Institution is that Herbert Hoover was in charge of the program when it ended. He instructed his underlings at the Commerce Department to give him custody of some of the most sensitive papers; and that's how the Hoover Institution acquired them.

There is a further secret. Ex-President Taft lived to see the demise of the program which his administration had begun almost two decades earlier. Through unnamed colleagues influential within the Republican Party, William Howard Taft, then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, came into possession of certain other documents which I personally have not seen. I understand that the ex-President, before he died, turned these papers over to a group associated with his Alma Mater, Yale University.

The papers allegedly have come into the possession of a secretive institution on campus called "Skull and Bones", which is housed in a windowless stone building. Weird rituals are supposed to take place there among the elite group of students selected for membership in this organization.

I understand, from sources I am not at liberty to disclose, that, in fact, the main activity conducted within the confines of that building is to tell jokes. I understand that Skull and Bones has obtained the original copy of "Protocols of Humor" and that all other copies have been destroyed. Many an attempt has been made to remove that document from the building and run it through a photocopying machine, but the members have successfully united against any member who would attempt such a removal. Even so, there have been a few oral leaks.

I am told on good authority that Scull and Bones is mainly a library housing what remains of the government's cultural-renovation program dating back to before World War I. Besides the fund of jokes, the "Protocols" include the philosophy of the program - its secret rationale. The main secret is that humor can be used for political purposes. Some types of humor work while others don't. The complete analysis of the "Lose-a-tania" fiasco is contained in those documents.

Members of Scull and Bones are schooled in how to use humor successfully in their role as leaders of government and other important organizations. George W. Bush and John Kerry, the two principal contestants in the 2004 Presidential election, were both members of that elite organization. While they are personally sworn to secrecy, the public knows how they have used humor in their careers. There are other aspects of the U.S. entertainment industry in its early days which are as yet undisclosed but may come out later.

Note to readers: The above history is a joke. Little if any of it actually happened.

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