99% Invisible: a Podcast & Kickstarter Recommendation

As I blogged about last fall, Pop Up Magazine Issue #5 was one of my most favorite things, and especially Jon Mooallem’s tale about poor Billy Possum. Fortunately, that tale was then re-told and expanded a bit for Episode 40 of 99% Invisible, a great podcast by Roman Mars about design, architecture and the 99% Invisible activity that shapes our world.

This is the tale of two toys with two very different fates. The Teddy Bear, named after the charismatic president Theodore Roosevelt, was a sensation in the early twentieth century. …. So the powers that be went on the search for the next cuddly companion that America’s children would adore. It was completely logical that they looked at the next president for inspiration, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. In 1909, the toy makers of America placed their bets on the Taft presidency’s answer to the Teddy Bear: the Billy Possum.

I was so happy to have this story show up in another medium. I loved it and wanted to learn more. And, as an added bonus, I learned of the wonderful 99% Invisible, now a staple in my podcast rotation.  The show is incredibly smart, often joyful, and a wonderful way to learn about parts of our daily lives that are often ignored.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, CA

I recommend, especially to my San Francisco readers, to listen to this episode: 39X- The Biography of 100,000 Square Feet

In the center of San Francisco, there is a plaza with no benches. Its central feature at the entrance of the plaza is a unique fountain that was designed by Lawrence Halprin in 1975.The water shoots out at various angles, from inside a sunken pit, filled with large granite slabs. It’s a design that kind of pulls you in and invites you to take the steps down to the water and climb in between the hulking stones. And that’s part of the problem.

After you listen and fall in love, head over to the kickstarter for the third season of 99% Invisible, and pledge a little bit of money to help a great show. As of the writing, there are 49 hours left to go, and your money in whatever amount will allow the show to continue on, and be even better.

This first in a series about supporting media & art that you love. A little goes a long way, and allows individuals to connect with a larger community. (Crossing one off of my “meant-to” blog posts mentioned here).

Billy and Teddy and other antics at Pop-Up Magazine

Being an American History devotee, I had heard the story of Teddy’s Bear more than a few times. Basically, then-President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter but also a burgeoning environmentalist, saved the life of a bear whilst on an exhibition.  This led to Morris Mitchtom’s creation of a stuffed, plush bear named in his honor.  The toy flew of the shelves and became a national phenomenon.

As we know, that craze lasts till today.  What I did not know, until Wednesday night, was that the toy industry assumed it would end with Roosevelt’s presidency. To combat the possibility of a loss in sales, when William Howard Taft became president Billy’s ‘Possum came to be.  Yup, everyone’s favorite cuddly… opossum?? (this did not work out so well, as you can imagine.)

That tale, told (much better than the above) and in essay form by Jon Mooallem, was one of the many excellent stories presented at Pop-Up Magazine No.5. 

When I was living in New York, I had read a little about this live magazine event, saw the great list of past contributors and was curious but couldn’t really grasp what it actually was.  So, when I had been back in the Bay for about two weeks, and issue number 5 was announced I bought tickets.

Jump forward 5 weeks, and this past Wednesday, Catherine and I saddled on up to the lovely Davies Symphony Hall (where, sadly, I hadn’t been since a field trip in grade school).  The first thing I noticed was how young the crowd was.

Being a theater-geek, I often play the “Under 35 Game” when sitting in an audience.  Sometimes, like at this past Sunday’s matinee of the great “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” at Berkeley Rep, I am one of but two who meet that requirement – the other being who I am seeing the show with.  Instead, at Davies, the whole audience seemed to be in their 20s and 30s, which was just… great!  There was a wonderful energy and excitement, and everyone seemed to be looking forward to hearing and seeing what would happen.

(There was also a serious hipster contingent present, as would be expected with a literary and young audience. But my God… this one beard caused a serious pause in our conversation, as we contemplated the commitment not only to growing it out but maintaining it).

What did happen at Pop-Up Magazine?

Douglas McGray, Editor-in-Chief, came out on to a relatively bare stage – microphone, projection screen, and some sort of unique contraption SL – to explain his and the magazine’s vision.  The reason why I had been able to find so little about the show was that they do NOT record it in any capacity.  The essays and stories and photos and videos are unique to this one event.  In this age of constant sharing, and constant nostalgia-lizing, McGray and his compatriots are creating something ephemeral – his word.

So, why am I blogging about it? Doesn’t that ruin the idea?

I hope not, and I really don’t think so.  Instead of my post just being a series of links, the event persists only via re-telling.  And that is special in and of it self.  (Plus, I needed to write in order to remember everything for myself.)

Now, a live event is not unique.  How often in grad school did we speak about creating good performance work – that  changed each night, based on each audience/space/moment?  And often, we spoke of the inability for any live event to be captured well.

Yet, we spent as much time trying to figure out the best way to document, to share, that work.  After all, a piece with no documentation risks being lost, being stagnant, and isolated to a small audience. And, fundamentally, it is not profitable.  No commercial or non-profit organization would do just one show without the possibility of a repeat, because it couldn’t sustain the production or company.

Thus, there was magic in Pop-Up Magazine’s unique experiment. And I think the audience knew that.

As far as I could see, every seat in the Davies Hall (approximately 2700 seats) was full.  I don’t know how full the initial 4 issues were, but by number 5, Pop-Up Magazine had the word-of-mouth to fill their house.  Plus, the show was sponsored by two liquor companies, advertising of which was handled in a unique and cute way, with little asides on the stage itself.

So I imagine it is making money? Or at least enough to sustain? Boy, do I hope so. I will be back for issue number 6, and I will evangelize to as many of my friends as possible to get them to go as well.

The contributors were smart. The topics were interesting. (Like a magazine, each piece fit under a category like “Books” or “Music” or “Food.” And the whole evening was broken into SHORTS and FEATURES)  The tech aspects (images or video or sound) were integrated well.  At points it was funny, or sad, or shocking. And the time flew by. (My only critique was that: at the after party, with bars on multiple levels, there needed to be more staff.  We waited in line for quite a while before we gave up, even though I had pre-purchased drink tickets).

Basically, my take-away is, this event was great.  I learned about new topics, have discovered writers and contributors who’s work I would like to explore more, and I can’t wait for number 6.

Some of my favorites:

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