Posts tagged ‘Theater’

Jack Robins

Jack Robins

Although he was less avid a writer than most of the rest of the Futurians, Jack Robins (or Rubinson) once wrote a play: “The Ivory Power,” now unfortunately long lost. It wasn’t a normal “story” play. It was more like one of those WPA docudramas that had become popular in the early ’30s, only it didn’t concern sharecroppers. It was actually about us Futurians and it was a sort of idealization of what we might have been doing in a political sense if we had done anything more than talk.

Looked at in one way, it was actually a kind of a reproach to all of us. Looked at in another it showed what real feelings we had, and might yet give voice to. It was actually quite moving.

Jack earned a doctorate and went on to a long and successful career as a research chemist. Only one other of those clever, fast-talking Futurians attained the Ph.D., Isaac Asimov. Jack’s was a much more explosive career, though: He spent 25 years working in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, for the Atlas Powder Co. — makers of TNT.

Jack is one of the three surviving Futurians, the others being David A. Kyle and your host, Frederik Pohl. Regard nothing as settled, though. We’re all ridiculously old, and one or all of us could go any drafty Thursday.

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Tom Stoppard

    Tom Stoppard


“I think of laughter as the sound of comprehension.”

Tom Stoppard


Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

The fall term of the year 1934: For all of us Techies, it was a watershed event in at least two ways.

First there was the sybaritic opulence of our new home. Everything was so clean! Not only that, the rooms smelled better. In every washroom, the toilets worked whenever you flushed them, and each workspace in chem lab was covered with a glass hood to contain their toxic gases, with the result that the whole building had lost that familiar acid reek. And, oh, yes, there were electric motors in every metal-working machine, eliminating the old main building’s tangle of overhead belts and pulleys. You just pushed a single button and the machine was on!

Most impressive of all, the New Building came with giant elevators, so you didn’t have to develop the muscles of a Himalayan mountaineer to get from one class to another. (Well, maybe we’re going a tad too strong here. The New Building had those elevators, all right, but few of us were allowed to use them. And compliance with the rules was enforced by a horde of student monitors, called the Longfellows because you had to be at least six feet tall to join. Dirk Wylie and I signed up at once in the hope that, as enforcement officers, we might be allowed elevator privileges, or even the right to leave the building when we had open time so we could explore the park across the street. But we weren’t.)

The second great improvement was location. The New Building wasn’t out in the unexplored boonies like the old one. The new neighborhood was a lot nicer. Just across the street was that pretty little Fort Greene Park that I just mentioned, commemorating the first full-scale engagement between the two armies in the war of the American Revolution. (We Americans lost that one, but later we came back strong.)

More immediately interesting to us newly arriving Techies, the school was only a few blocks from the very heart of Brooklyn’s commercial and entertainment life, where Flatbush Avenue crossed Fulton Street. The area was home to half a dozen huge and ornate first-run movie theaters, not to mention several live legitimate theaters where Broadway producers sometimes sent their biggest productions for their “out-of-town tryouts.” And almost any Broadway show might wind up in one of them when its New York run was finished and it went on the road. And there were perhaps one or two less legitimate live theaters — Billy Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque comes to mind — that were nevertheless so greatly appreciated by male Techies (and in those benighted days there were no female Techies) that it was sometimes called “the ninth period.”

That same neighborhood held three huge department stores plus three equally immense five-and-tens and numerous lesser enterprises of all kinds. At last we Brooklyn Tech students had arrived in the Promised Land!

But I guess I couldn’t take prosperity. I had been doing worse and worse academically, failing several subjects — even one semester failing in math, and honest, I am pretty good at math. I expect that if I had put my mind to it, I might have been able to get back on the ball, studies-wise, but, of more practical importance, the Depression turned into the Recession and there was no longer any hope that I could continue these sort of studies at some such school as Rensselaer or MIT.

I decided that what I was really failing was School. I transferred to an easier school for starters and then, as soon as I was legally old enough to do so, I dropped out and never attended an actual school again. Although I hadn’t yet met John Brunner, who did what I had done at about the same age, I adopted as my own what he announced as his rationale: “I had to leave school because it was interfering with my education.”

And so I did. But I still treasure those three years and the things I learned about math and chemistry and physics and the way things work that have stayed with me ever since.

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Sheet music, George White’s Scandals of 1936

I saw it in Brooklyn.

I count it one of the great good fortunes of my life that I grew up with all the resources of one of the world’s greatest cities within my reach. Young kids of the present, I do devoutly pity you, stuck in your pasteurized suburban developments except when Mom chauffeurs you into town. I had the city streets, always exciting in themselves, and I had the subways.

Of all the modes of mechanized urban transport man has devised, the subway is the most nearly perfect. I love them all, from the creaky tiny cars of Budapest to the shiny streamliners of Toronto, under ground and above. Moscow’s is beautiful. London’s is marvelously efficient. Paris’s runs engagingly from the super-technological to the quaint. But first loves are best, and New York’s subways are what I grew up on.

In the days of my youth the five-cent fare was sacred, and so for a nickel you could be carried from the Bronx to Coney Island, from sylvan Flushing to Wall Street. If you were a young boy and willing to take minor risks (jail, electrocution, things like that), you didn’t even need the nickel. I was six years old when I learned that you could ride free from the Avenue H station of the BMT just by climbing over the exit doors. If I chose to visit friends in Sheepshead Bay, I could ride there free, and ride back at the same economical rate just by climbing an embankment, stepping carefully over the third rail, and entering the platform of the station there.

When we moved to Kings Highway, there was another embankment, equally easily breached. The Seventh Avenue subway station, near Grand Army Plaza, could be penetrated by winding oneself through the exit stiles. They kept adults out, but there was enough give in them to let a hundred-pound kid slip through. Of the major lines, the BMT’s defenses were the leakiest; the IRT was built on a less carefree plan, but you could take the BMT to Queens, where the two lines ran together, and thus enter the forbidden pathways of the IRT at only the small cost of an extra hour or so of travel time.

If you chose to go somewhere past the ends of the subway lines, there was a further natural resource of free transportation in the form of trucks and trolley cars. They weren’t as much fun. You were exposed to the weather, and there was always the chance of falling off. Or of being caught; while once you were into the subway system, you were as serene as any paying fare. But the whole city was open to exploration, and I explored it systematically from the age of six on.

I didn’t always steal rides. There were times when I walked because it was my whim to walk that time, as any lordly millionaire might wave his limousine away for a nice day’s stroll. Walking is the best way to know a city, which is why I feel quite at home in, say, London, and even now am a stranger in Los Angeles. And for most of my high-school career, my companion in exploration was usually Dirk Wylie.

Sometimes we explored geography, sometimes other things. Not a part of his Collection, but hidden behind the Amazings and the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, he had publications of another sort. They had titles like Spicy Western Stories and Paris Nights, soft-core porn that I had never seen and that inflamed my pubescent glands a lot. In return, I conducted him to his first burlesque show, doing the same for his.

It wasn’t my first burlesque show. Not by, even then, a number of years. ‘When I was a little kid, five or so, my parents had taken me with them to the Oxford Burlesque, near where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues met in Brooklyn. I liked the baggy-pants comedians, didn’t understand what the stripping was all about, but was thrilled to be included in something Grown-up.

I kept in touch with the Oxford, one way or another, all through my childhood. When my parents stopped taking me, as soon as I was old enough to pass the ticket taker’s scrutiny, I went by myself; and in the famine period between I would still skate down to the nearby Loft’s soda fountain, and often enough I’d see the chorus girls, makeup an inch and a quarter deep around their eyes, sipping sodas through a straw and gazing at themselves in the mirrored walls.

In our sophomore year at Brooklyn Tech, the New Building at last was completed and we moved in. How modern and grand it seemed! Five or six stories tall, with an athletic field on the roof, shiny, clean laboratories instead of the jagged zinc of the old factory, an auditorium with air conditioning and the fullest projection facilities; the thing even had a radio station of its own. Pretty Fort Greene Park was just across the street, and the concentrated heart of Brooklyn’s downtown only a five-minute walk away. The magnetism was too powerful to resist; Dirk and I walked there every afternoon, to go to a burlesque theater, or a movie, or just to explore.

Let me tell you about Brooklyn. For the first part of Brooklyn’s life it was not a conquered province of New York City, it was a competitor. Even after the consolidation, it still competed. Brooklyn had its own baseball team (the Dodgers), its own library system (better than New York’s in every respect, except for, maybe, the Fifth Avenue reference facility), its own parks (after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, he took what he had learned to Brooklyn and laid out the even more spectacular Prospect Park), its own museums, its own zoo.

Downtown Brooklyn had its own department stores — Namm’s, Loeser’s, A & S — and I still think they were nicer than, and almost as big as, Macy’s or Gimbels. Downtown Brooklyn had four or five first-run movie houses, including the Brooklyn Paramount, as lavish a marble-staired temple as any in the world, at least until the Radio City Music Hall came along.

On Fulton Street, it even had legitimate theaters, with the same sort of bills as theaters in Boston or Chicago. Road companies of Broadway shows played there after the New York runs had closed, and sometimes Broadway shows opened there for tryouts before risking the metropolis across the river. (I saw a preview of “George White’s Scandals of 1936” there weeks before it hit Broadway. I was no big White fan, but that one had been advertised as having a sort of science-fiction theme, something about how the Earth looked to Martians. The science-fiction part was contemptibly unimaginative, of course, but I rather liked the songs, and may be the only living person in America who still knows the words to “I’m the Fellow Who Loves You.” It was lucky I saw it in Brooklyn, because when the show hit Broadway it folded at once.)

And all these marvels, stores and shows, bookshops and burlesques, parks and playgrounds, were within our grasp. If Brooklyn palled, New York was just across the bridge; often enough we walked across the East River and up Broadway as far as Union Square to check out the second-hand book and magazine stores on Fourth Avenue. School could not compete. Outside it, we were learning the world.

Which was changing.

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The One That Went Right, Almost

'The Space Merchants' by Frederik Pohl and C.M. KornbluthThe Space Merchants was actually the first science fiction novel that Cyril Kornbluth and I wrote, and it pleased us both greatly by becoming a quick success. We scored good sales and got a ton of reviews, mostly good.

And in the fullness of time, I got a phone call from a man named Arnold Perl. He said he had just read the book. He thought it might have some possibilities that might not have occurred to me, and would like to discuss them. And why didn’t I drop by his house in Alphabet City — a pleasant residential section of the lower East Side at the time, not yet carved into drug kingdoms — and have a chat?

If you are a more sophisticated person than I was in the 1950s, you know who Arnold Perl was. I didn’t. He had to tell me. He was the fellow who had taken a book of short stories by Sholem Aleichem, Tevye’s Daughters, made it into a Jewish theater play … and then encouraged the process, together with Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, who fiddled with the milkman’s story and added some great songs — and everything else it needed to become Fiddler on the Roof, pretty much the biggest and best musical event to hit old Broadway.

And what he was wondering, Arnold said, as he poured me another cup of tea, was whether something like that could be done with The Space Merchants.


Now, I can’t honestly say that I knew just what was being offered to me, but what I did know was just a tiny bit worrisome. I didn’t want to disappoint this nice man, and I was well aware that I knew nothing about playwriting. Ah, not to worry, Arnold said. He wasn’t looking for a finished script. What he was hoping for was glimpses — a short story, even a single page from a story, a confrontation, a discovery. An idea.

Or a song.

Or a dance number — I was after all, I was a big ballet fan, wasn’t I?

Nothing that had to attain the professional standards of theater, though.

So I did it. I said I’d give it a try, and as I wandered down from his place in the East Village, the ideas were beginning to condense themselves out of what had been that amorphous cloud that these things come from. So I waited for the ideas to hit.

No “If I were a Rich Man” came to me out of my gymnastics, not even a long and empty length of railroad track. But I was, I thought, beginning to catch the rhythm of the process. One notion — a song and dance about a major surgical procedure — stuck in my mind for a while. What did that have to do with the future of the advertising business? Nothing.

What did Arnold say when I showed it to him? He said, “I’m glad to see you’re loosening up.”

Was any of this stuff real story material? I don’t know, but sometimes I would get a feeling that there were useful images coming along, any minute now. My big sorrow was that I had to do it all by myself, because Cyril had died some months earlier. If he had been around, the whole process would have been at least twice as easy and at least twice as good. But he wasn’t.

And then one morning the phone rang at a shockingly early hour, and it was the office of my film agent, H.N. Swanson, on the line. I don’t mean it was Swanie himself. It was one of his large number of assistants and associates and assorted other human beings who inhabited the two-story walkup that was his office.

“Fred?” said the voice on the phone. “Swanie says some English people called Redifusion Television are offering $750 for the film rights to The Space Merchants and what do you want him to do about it?”

To be continued. . . .

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Me and the Biz
Me and the Biz, Part II (continued)