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Insightful Glimpses of the Way We Were


You think you've seen performance art?

How about a woman, dressed in formal gown and tiara, dancing across a stage full of major household appliances. Or, a woman flying through the air above New York City, landing in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where she is met by a mysterious man wearing a mask? Or, a woman so overwhelmed with her new, red telephone, that she joyfully breaks into song?

This is not a new show by Pina Bauch or Robert Wilson.

These sequences, which could easily pass for being avant-garde, are from lavish industrial and promotional films of the 1950s and have been re-released, with many others, in an alternatively hilarious and daunting CD-ROM set called "Our Secret Century."

The six discs (four of which are now available, with the remaining two to follow in July) were the creation of Rick Prelinger, who calls himself a media archeologist. Prelinger has collected thousands of these short films that were made to be shown in movie theaters, at promotional events or in schools from the 1930s into the 1960s.

He has examined them for what they say about our culture in those times. "As hokey and dated and strange as these films are," Prelinger writes in an essay that appears on a Web site promoting the CD-ROMs, ( "they're also highly dense reminders of how people lived and what they thought."

The first disc, called "The Rainbow is Yours," contains seven short films meant to make products they promote glamorous, even if they happen to be refrigerators. The extravagant dance of the appliances mentioned above is from a 1957 film made to showcase Frigidaire products.

The telephone song is from "Once Upon a Honeymoon," a 1956 short spotlighting recently introduced color phones. Although "Honeymoon" is only 14 minutes long, it has an elaborate plot about a songwriter creating a new song for a Broadway show while his wife dances through their suburban home, singing about how color phones will enliven her dream house.

Pina Bauch, eat your heart out.

The New York sequence is from "Design for Dreaming," an especially elaborate short made to promote new General Motors cars. It features the accomplished dancing of Thelma "Tad" Tadlock, who sings such lines as "I'm a girl who happens to think that a brand new car is better than mink."

All of the films are accompanied on the discs by extensive notes about their productions and underlying messages, as interpreted by Prelinger. "Design for Dreaming" is accompanied by a recent video interview with Tadlock, who looks back on the film with a mixture of humor and pride.

The later discs turn darker as Prelinger explores films about workers, education and mores. Of particular note is "Valley Town" on Disc 2. This stark documentary about automation's effect on workers was not only directed by the noted documentarian Willard Van Dyke, it also has a score by the great composer Marc Blitzstein.

The films in "Our Secret Century" would look far better on a movie screen, as most of them were meant to be shown, or even on TV via a VCR or laser disc. But it's wonderful to have them available at all. Distributed by the Voyager Company, these CD-ROMs for Macintosh and Windows come packaged two to a set, with each set costing about $30.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is

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