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The Fortune Cookie
Written June 19, 2011


It was October of 1965, and the defending champions of the National Football League were the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns played their games at Municipal Stadium.  This aging multipurpose facility was also the home of baseball’s Cleveland Indians.  The gridiron ran from home plate to center field, resulting in a sideline that was far removed from the first row of seats. 

Also, after the Indians season was over the grounds crew could have laid sod over the infield, but they didn’t.  They didn’t even level the pitcher’s mound.  Thus, a significant portion of the Browns’ home field was bare dirt.

At that time, I was living in a freshman dorm nearly 40 miles to the west.  One day I read in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Hollywood was coming to Municipal Stadium to film scenes for an upcoming motion picture.  The moviemakers  would be there for the game against Minnesota on Halloween.  During the week they would shoot additional footage, for which they would need several thousand extras to fill a few sections of stands.  Fans were invited to come on down at a certain date and time.

I didn’t go, of course.  I didn’t even have a car.  But I made a mental note of the film, which was to be called The Fortune Cookie.

This movie was recently shown in its glorious original wide-screen black and white on the MGM HD cable channel, and I finally got around to watching it.  Let me tell you a little about it, and about television sportscasting in 1965.

The first scene takes us inside the stadium on game day.  Jim Brown dives inside the right goalpost to score a touchdown for the Browns (left), and Lou Groza kicks the extra point from second base (below).

CBS covers the action with black-and-white cameras like the one above, with long telephoto lenses mounted on a turret.  Most of the cameras are located high in the stands.

Their connecting  cables run out through windows and down to the production truck parked outside.  (Today all pro stadiums have permanent cables neatly installed, thereby avoiding scenes like the one on the left.)

There’s also a handheld camera on the sideline, operated by a character named Harry Hinkle (played by Jack Lemmon).  Some of the camera’s electronics are in a backpack worn by Harry’s utility man, standing behind him.

On the ensuing kickoff, the return man runs out of bounds and collides with Harry, knocking him unconscious and sending him flying.

An ambulance is brought in as the extras look on with concern.  So do the members of the St. Edward High School Band from Lakewood, Ohio.  (Thanks to Ken Staab, who played alto saxophone in the back row, for identifying this group for me.)

In the booth, play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson says, “And now, while there’s time out on the field, let’s take a look at the accident again on the CBS-exclusive Stop Action Camera.”  (Not long afterwards, I too became a sportscaster — for my college radio station — and this was how I too dressed.)

At this point, maybe we could take advantage of the “time out on the field” for a brief digression on the subject of Stop Action instant replay.

“Starting in 1959,” according to CBS director Tony Verna,  “we began recording plays on videotape, instead of film, to play back at halftime.  That was one step beyond the original use of tape — to record entire programs to be aired at a later time.  Over at ABC, engineer Bob Trachinger had even come up with slow-motion highlights at halftime.  They recorded a play, then re-recorded it at twice the speed to get the slow motion.  But this all took time and was done in engineering.  Nobody had suggested using tape for an Instant Replay in the control room.”

Nobody, that is, until 1963, when the 30-year-old Verna arranged to ship a 1,200-pound video tape recorder from the CBS Videotape Center in New York to the Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia.  He installed it in a rental truck parked next to the production truck, which had no recording facilities of its own.  Video tape was very expensive in those days, but he had scrounged a small reel — only five minutes long, previously used, with many splices.

Cameraman George Drago isolated on the quarterback.  John Wells recorded the signal on the VTR, then quickly rewound and replayed the tape.  The VTR, which hadn’t traveled well, repeatedly failed to deliver a usable picture.  Finally, in the fourth quarter, Verna was able to get an Instant Replay on the air.  Sports television had changed forever! 

For the 1965 season, CBS introduced a new wrinkle, Stop Action.  A replay would be going along at normal speed, then freeze for a couple of seconds, then resume at normal speed.

Watching on TV, I wasn’t impressed.  The freeze wasn’t nearly as informative as slow motion.  Players simply stopped, then started up again.

Before the next season, a magazine explained the technique.

A simple, lightweight disc recorder has made your TV set into a virtual time machine.  Miss an important piece of action?  Don’t worry; in a few seconds, instant replay brings it all back with stop action freezing a highlight for a lingering look.  It’s done with the Videodisc recorder, made by the MVR Corporation of Palo Alto, Calif.  The recording disc looks like a shiny record, without grooves.  Although it has the same recording properties as tape, it can’t break or wear out — and unlike tape, it doesn’t have to be rewound.

Here’s how it works.  The disc, when the operator presses the record button, starts to rotate, just like a phonograph record, at 1,800 r.p.m.  Each revolution takes 1/30 of a second and the machine “writes” up to 600 frames on a spiral track.  The recording head is mounted just behind the erase head on a lead screw.  The heads travel back and forth on the screw up to 2½ inches in from the edge of the disc.  Because the erase head precedes the recording head, it is always writing on a clean disc.

To obtain a stop-action still, the operator presses the freeze button.  This automatically re-records one frame on the bottom side of the 3/16-inch-thick disc.  It’s done with record and playback heads, just like those that record on the top of the disc.

The disc keeps whirling around recording the action while automatically erasing previous scenes every 20 seconds.  But the operator can hold action longer than 20 seconds by transferring incoming pictures to a regular video tape recorder.

Popular Science, August 1966

In March of 1967, Ampex and ABC introduced a better mousetrap, the HS-100 video disc recorder.  The HS-200 with its large control console came along about four years later.  Ampex’s disc rotated twice as fast (60 times a second) and could record for a full 30 seconds.  More importantly, it could play back in slow motion.

How did they do that?  I haven’t found any documentation, but I think it worked like this.

Each 1/30-second frame of video consists of two 1/60-second fields.  Odd-numbered fields were recorded on the top surface of the spinning disk, even-numbered fields on the bottom.  The tracks were circular, not spiral.

In forward playback, during the 1/60 of a second while the bottom head was playing back the 2nd field, the top head would quickly be repositioned from the 1st field’s track to the 3rd.  After the 2nd had been played, the switch would be made to the top head to play back the 3rd field; meanwhile the bottom head would move from the 2nd track to the 4th.

In slow motion, however, these switchovers would be deferred for a revolution or two.  The 2nd field would be played twice or more before proceeding to the 3rd, which would also be played multiple times before switching back down to the 4th. 

Enough of this digression.  The intermission’s over.  Back to the movie.

Injured CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle has a sister who’s married to a shyster attorney, William H. Gingrich (played by Walter Matthau).  Gingrich is an ambulance chaser known as “Whiplash Willie.”  He arrives at the hospital before Harry wakes up, asserts that his brother-in-law has been seriously disabled, and announces that they’re suing for a million dollars in damages.

Very reluctantly, Harry goes along with the fraud and pretends to be partially paralyzed.  Then he opens a fortune cookie that advises “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”  Willie growls, “Those Chinese!  What do they know?”

Complications ensue, of course, involving lawyers and private eyes and Harry’s ex-wife.  One of my mother’s favorite boxers, longtime light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore, has a small role as the proprietor of a bowling alley.

There are many local Cleveland references, although the city is not pictured very glamorously.

In several scenes, “Whiplash Willie” looks a lot like the man who would be elected President three years later, “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

Matthau’s performance in The Fortune Cookie, released in 1966, earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  It was the first of many collaborations with director Billy Wilder and the first of 10 movies he would make with Jack Lemmon, who became his lifelong friend.



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