Author Archives: Robin Chalkley

Travel: The Waldorf=Astoria Hotel

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You’ve stayed in those hotels where if you’ve seen one room, you’ve seen them all? That’s not how they do it at the Waldorf=Astoria. (And yes, that’s how it spells its name.) On Park Avenue in Manhattan you’ll find 1,413 spacious guest rooms and suites all individually designed and decorated. So if you don’t like the room you’re assigned, don’t despair. Chances are you’ll find the right one if you persevere.

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A little history is in order. (Don’t fall asleep, this is interesting.) Originally these were two hotels, the Waldorf (1893) and the Astoria (1897). Both were built by members of the Astor family. The original Waldorf stood on the site now occupied by the Empire State Building. (Interesting, right?) But when the action of the city moved north, so did the Waldorf=Astoria, and the new hotel – the world’s largest and tallest at the time – opened in 1931.

The hotel has not only entertained the world’s rich and famous, it’s also been home for some of them. Among the famous folks who’ve called the W=A home are former president Herbert Hoover, retired general Douglas MacArthur, inventor Nicolas Tesla, gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano, and composer Cole Porter (Great American Things, June 22, 2009).

Sports: Fantasy Football

Fantasy Football Anxiety hasn't been classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. But the evidence is mounting. Uploaded by

True confession to start: I’ve never won a fantasy football league. And the most embarrassing part is that I’ve really tried. I’ve studied before the season, bought several preseason magazines, subscribed to an online advice service, and paid attention to injuries and matchups throughout the season. And some guy who doesn’t know how Tom Brady does in Sunday night games vs. divisional opponents wins the league. It’s only a matter of time until I have an ulcer.

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In case you’re a fantasy football denier, the principles are easy. Ten to fourteen people form a league, and choose offensive players (well, they’re more offensive if they don’t score), a kicker, and a defense. Then a stat service provided by such organizations as ESPN or Yahoo! tracks how your players perform each week, and you win or lose depending on how your team does compared to that week’s opponent.

Some people can’t handle the stress. They have to get their stats in real time in order to gloat or fret. The worst is when your best fantasy player is up against your favorite pro team, and you find yourself hoping your pro team wins, but the score is 50-49, and your fantasy quarterback throws for 500 yards and seven touchdowns in the losing effort. Has the American Psychiatric Association classified Fantasy Football Anxiety as a legitimate disorder? I don’t think so.

But the evidence is mounting.

Music: Wolfman Jack

His voice was known throughout America due to his work at a Mexican border station that broadcast in 250,000 watts. Uploaded by

Robert Smith. Let’s face it, if you’re Robert Smith and you want a career in radio, you’re going to change your name. You’re going to try “Daddy Jules,” in Newport News. You’ll see how “Big Smith” sounds in Shreveport. But you hear the legendary Alan Freed calling himself “Moon Dog,” and you like the singer Howlin’ Wolf, and one day it comes to you – “Wolfman Jack.”

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The Wolfman became a cult figure as a DJ on border stations in Mexico that broadcast in 250,000 watts – five times the legal limit in the U.S. The Wolfman’s trademark gravelly voice and howls could be heard all across the country. And because he wasn’t doing Saturday appearances at the local car dealership, his very absence helped create a shadowy presence – a disembodied voice of a man whom everyone knew, but seldom saw.

As his fame grew, Wolfman Jack became the voice (and sometime host) of the long-running Midnight Special music show. While his radio show was syndicated nationwide, he had his biggest moment playing himself in George Lucas’s wonderful American Graffiti. And appropriately, he’s in the National Radio and Broadcasting Halls of Fame. Here’s a great memory – the song “Clap for the Wolfman” as recorded by the Guess Who:


The Arts: New York City Ballet

The New York City Ballet is one of the featured organizations in America's pantheon of dance. Photo by Paul Kolnik, uploaded by

If you want to establish the credibility of your dance organization, one method is to point to the company’s founders. In the case of New York City Ballet, that would be a couple of pretty decent choreographers – George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty darn impressed.

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I’m the first to admit that while I know (and care) next to nothing about ballet, I do admire any endeavor that rises to the top of its genre. New York City Ballet has certainly done that. Playwright John Guare said, “I think that every year that the New York City Ballet is alive is worthy of celebration. Because otherwise the terrible thing is just that we take it for granted. ”

This exceptional company doesn’t perform every month, so you’ll want to check their website ( for its performance schedule. Or head to Lincoln Center in December (get your tickets early) for the company’s annual performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Can I give you one more great quote from John Guare? “I think of the New York City Ballet,” he said, “as the Yankees without George Steinbrenner.”

Coming Soon: An All-new Great American Things!

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These are exciting times at Great American Things. Our new website is almost ready, and we think you’re going to enjoy it more than ever! You’ll still find the same thought-provoking selections, only now in a brighter and more contemporary format. And you’ll have easier access to our archive of nearly 800 previous Great American Things selections.

Our target date for revealing these changes is Tuesday, September 20. Thanks for your support since our start in March, 2009, and we look forward to celebrating this great country with you for years to come!

Film: Chinatown

Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston were featured in Chinatown. But the real star of the movie was the screenplay by Robert Towne. Uploaded by

I love film noir. Give me a good black and white mystery from the 1940s, maybe written by Raymond Chandler, with a tough private eye and a beautiful dame, and I’m a happy guy. The popularity of color naturally pushed noir into the shadows (so to speak), but it had something of a revival in the 1970s, led by the wonderful Chinatown.

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Directed by child molester  Roman Polanski (he’ll never be on this list), the movie featured Jack Nicholson (Great American Things, Sept. 12, 2009) in one of his greatest performances, along with Faye Dunaway and John Huston. But the real star of the film was Robert Towne, the screenwriter. He set his mystery in the 1930s, allowing for the true noir mise-en-scene. (Pardon my French.)

Towne’s brilliant script won an Oscar, the only one the film received out of eleven nominations. In the AFI’s original 100 Years…100 Movies, Chinatown was ranked number 19. In the 10th anniversary edition, it was 21. And it was the AFI’s number 2 mystery film. Why it wasn’t number one is… a mystery.

Song: “King of the Road”

Probably the best capture of the hobo lifestyle ever recorded - a lifestyle that's largely gone away. Uploaded by

Roger Miller wrote and recorded a series of lighthearted songs in the 1960s that might be called “novelty songs” except for one thing. They were really good. You might remember songs like “England Swings,” “Dang Me,” and “Chug-a-Lug.” But it’s “King of the Road” that featured Miller’s smart lyrics and breezy country vocal style.

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I’m not sure if there’s another popular song written about hobos. In fact, I’m not sure if what we think of as hobos – train riding, nomadic, freeloading folks – are still around. But Miller’s song romanticized the lifestyle, and gave it to us as a time capsule.



I smoke old stogies I have found

Short, but not too big around

I’m a Man of means by no means

King of the road

The song won five Grammy Awards: Best Country Song, Best Vocal Performance – Male, Best Country and Western Recording – Single, Best Contemporary Vocal Performance – Male, and Best Contemporary (Rock and Roll) Single. The song was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Actor: Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, perhaps his funniest role. Or maybe that would be Ricky Bobby. Hard to say, the man is a great comic talent. Uploaded by

I don’t think anyone will be comparing Will Ferrell’s acting ability with, say, Robert DeNiro anytime soon. I hope they never do, because the whole reason we love Ferrell is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Bill Murray is an example of a funny man who proved that he could move into more substantial roles. I hope Will Ferrell never tries. Just be funny, Will. Just be funny.

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Ferrell had his break on Saturday Night Live (Great American Things, April 9, 2009), where he created some memorable impressions (George W. Bush, Harry Carey, James Lipton), some great characters (Cheerleader Craig Buchanan), and one of the show’s most memorable skits (“More cowbell”). He stayed on SNL for seven years before devoting his career to films.

Ferrell’s movies include:

  • Old School (2003)
  • Elf (2003)
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
  • Bewitched (2005)
  • Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
  • Step Brothers (2008)

Will Ferrell hasn’t won any major acting awards, and it’ll be an upset if he ever wins one. But he currently commands $20 million per picture, and that will  buy a lot of Oscars on eBay.

Travel: LA to Las Vegas Road Trip

You can count on about five hours for the 300-mile road trip. Unless you leave during Friday night rush hour. And depending on how long you stay at the In-N-Out in Hesperia. Uploaded by

It’s about 300 miles, give or take a few casinos. You can make it in about five hours, provided you don’t travel during Friday’s rush hour. Start on I-10, do a little shake and bake until you reach 1-15, and it’s a straight shot from there. Along the way you’ll pass the World’s Largest Thermometer (134 ft. high), stop at the In-N-Out in Hesperia (a must, according to the folks at, and pass such dream towns as Barstow, Primm, and Jean.

I can feel your excitement from here.

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Want the time to go by quickly? Here’s a tip from comedian Rita Rudner (and where has she been lately?):

“I recommend first renting a five year old to sit in the back seat (as it happens, I have one to rent), and have her say ‘Are we there yet?’ and ‘I feel sick’ at least 12 times an hour,” Rudner said. “When you next make the L.A.-L.V. trip, minus the child, the five hours will just fly by.”

And at the risk of letting this post become just a bunch of quotes from comedians (though there can be worse things), here’s a final tip. George Wallace reminds you to buy your gas before you arrive in Las Vegas:

“That’s why Vegas is the fastest growing city in America,” Wallace quipped. “People come here lose all their money and can’t go home.”

(Thanks to for the assistance in today’s post.)

Kids Stuff: Pixy Stix

Pixy Stix have been around since 1952, and are still delivering sugar highs almost 60 years later. Uploaded by

Want to hazard a guess about how Pixy Stix came to be popular? Okay, maybe you think it was created as a drink mix. But then kids found out how good the powder tastes, so the powder came to be sold as straws. Hey, you’re right! Your next challenge is to guess how Jujubes got their name.

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Pixy Stix have been around since 1952, marketed then by the Sunline Company in St. Louis. Today you can get the Stix in two sizes – a smaller paper straw and a larger (almost two feet long) plastic straw. And they’re now available in a variety of flavors, including blueberry, orange, watermelon, lemon, pineapple, strawberry, Maui punch, cherry, green apple, and grape.

Because of their high sugar content, Pixy Stix aren’t recommended for those with a tendency to have blood-sugar fluctuations. Oh, by the way, if you wonder what Pixy Stix powder would taste like if it were made into a solid, the boys in the lab can tell you. They’re called Sweet Tarts. Same stuff. It’s better living through chemistry.

Singers: The Righteous Brothers

No song in music history has been played on the radio more often than the Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin''. Uploaded by

The story goes that one night as Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield sang as part of a group called the Paramours, an African-American in the audience shouted, “That’s righteous, brothers!” You believe that? I don’t know. But if it’s not true, it makes a good story, so it’s “virtually” true.

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The guys owed a lot of their success to the great producer/murderer Phil Spector. His famous “wall of sound” production technique helped propel their first mega-hits to the top of the charts. Medley was a quick learner, and after the Brothers split from Spector’s Phillies label, he copied the “wall of sound” for their recordings on the Verve/MGM label.

The Righteous Brothers’ biggest hits:

  • “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (#1, 1964 – Great American Things, June 16, 2010)
  • “Just Once in My Life” (#9, 1965)
  • “Unchained Melody” (#4, 1965)
  • “Ebb Tide” (#5, 1965)
  • “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” (#1, 1966)
  • “Rock and Roll Heaven” (#3, 1974)

According to BMI, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” is the most-played song in radio history. The Righteous Brothers joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

Sports: Johnny Unitas

Johnny Unitas won MVP honors three times, played in 10 Pro Bowls (three-time MVP), and won the NFL Championship in 1958 and 1959. Uploaded by

Johnny U. can’t be credited with single-handedly making the NFL into America’s favorite sports league. Nor was he the league’s first superstar. But he did lead his Baltimore Colts to a sudden-death overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 Championship Game. And he did revolutionize the position of quarterback, helping to make the forward pass the game’s most exciting play.

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Unitas played collegiately at Louisville. At that time, the Cardinals weren’t exactly in the upper echelon of college teams – they played (and often lost to) such powers as St. Bonaventure and Eastern Kentucky. Unitas played both offense and defense and proved to be quite an athlete. Still, no pro team wanted him after graduation, and he worked in construction to get a paycheck. In one of their all-time smart (lucky?) moves, the Baltimore Colts invited him to try out before the 1957 season. He made the team, and became a starter midway through that campaign. Neither the Colts nor the NFL were ever the same.

Unitas set a boatload of records, most of which have been exceeded by pass-happy offenses of recent years. One remarkable one stands, however. He threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, something Marino, Fouts, Bradshaw, Montana, Brady, and Manning have been unable to match. Unitas was named league MVP three times, and selected him as the sixth-greatest player of all time.

Food: Pizza Delivery

For a good while, the ads said Delivered in 30 minutes or it's free. But they experienced too many accidents trying to make the deadline, so now we wait a bit longer. Uploaded by

America certainly didn’t invent the pizza, but you can definitely make the argument that we – I don’t know if “improved” it is what I mean, more like we made it our own. And we didn’t invent the car, though no country in the world is more auto-centric (probably both ways that can be taken) than America.

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So it’s only natural that we brought together the pizza and the automobile, and home delivery was born. My apologies to readers in rural areas who don’t enjoy this perk of modern life, but if civilization ever reached its true zenith, it happened when someone said, “Hey, we could put this here pizza in an insulated bag and take it to the customer’s home!”

The service used to be free, but expensive gasoline has led most pizza companies to tack on a service charge. And they used to guarantee “30 minutes or it’s free,” but a rash of accidents involving speeding delivery cars trying to beat the deadline brought that feature to a halt. Even so, let’s celebrate the driver who negotiates city streets with hot pizzas beside him, and exercises the self-restraint not to reach in and pull a couple of slices of pepperoni off the top…

Song: “Like a Rolling Stone”

Rolling Stone Magazine selected this as number one on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Works for me. Uploaded by

“Like a Rolling Stone” is Bob Dylan at his cynical best. It’s clear that he dislikes the girl (“Miss Lonely”) and what she stands for (“How does it feel?”). Yet he also recognizes that by abandoning her position in society, she can enjoy a freedom she’s never known (“You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal”).

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The recording of this song is legendary. Dylan had written a long (10 or 20 pages, accounts differ) story/poem, and he extracted the lyrics to create these four verses. But in the studio, he couldn’t get the sound he wanted. Al Kooper, who wasn’t even supposed to be in the session, sat down at the Hammond organ and improvised the now-famous riff. The session’s producer wanted it removed, but Dylan liked it, and insisted it stay. Then when he performed live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965, he was booed – electric guitars! A rock sound! The folk icon Bob Dylan was dead, long live rock star Bob Dylan.

“Like A Rolling Stone” was the closing track on the legendary album Highway 61 Revisited. Bruce Springsteen described the moment he first heard the song:

The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind … He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock’n’roll for ever and ever “

Rolling Stone anointed “Like a Rolling Stone” as number one in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

TV Show: Bonanza

The cast was together for less than half the show's episodes, and yet it remained in the top 20 of the ratings its entire run. Uploaded by

First, let me say that if this show took place today, Ben Cartwright would probably be the subject of an investigation on Dateline. Three wives, all of whom somehow died? In fact, anytime one of the Cartwrights got interested in a gal, she either got sick, died, or took off with some undeserving fella.

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The Cartwrights lived on the Ponderosa, a ranch said to cover 1,000 square miles. Really. They made their money by selling timber and livestock, though it seems that occupied less of their time than solving their own and their neighbors’ problems.

The cast of Lorne Greene (Ben), Pernell Roberts (Adam), Dan Blocker (“Hoss”), and Michael Landon (Little Joe) were all together for fewer than half of the show’s 431 episodes. Roberts decided he was disenchanted with series television, and Blocker died following surgery. Even so, Bonanza remained a huge ratings hit throughout its run, spending three years at number one, nine years in the top four, and never finishing out of the top 20. TV Guide ranked Bonanza #43 on its list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

Book: Catch-22

Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is listed as the seventh greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century by The Modern Library, and one of the 100 greatest of all time by The Observer. Uploaded by

“Catch-22” has come to be a popular phrase that today means “a frustrating situation in which one feels trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.” It comes from Joseph Heller’s breakthrough novel of the same name.

Yossarian, the main character of Catch-22, would be right at home dealing with the American bureaucracy in the second decade of the twenty-first century. His particular frustration came in dealing with the bureaucracy of the U.S. Army during World War II. But people who have to make their way through today’s heavily regulated society often invoke the phrase, or the spirit, of Catch-22.

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Yossarian wanted to stop flying missions in the war. But he saw what happened to his buddy Orr. As Joseph Heller describes it in his groundbreaking novel:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Published in 1961, Catch-22 is ranked as the seventh-greatest English language novel of the twentieth century by The Modern Library, while The Observer lists it as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Actress: Lucille Ball

With Desilu, Lucy became the first female head of a production studio. Desilu produced The Untouchables, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and I Spy. Not bad. Uploaded by

I love Lucy. Everybody loves Lucy. With her husband Desi Arnaz, she virtually invented the situation comedy, a genre that has thrived on television for 60 years. But Lucy enjoyed a successful career both before and after her iconic show.

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Lucy began making movies in 1933, and appeared uncredited in more than two dozen films before finally getting a credit in Chatterbox (1935). Many would have (and probably did) give up Hollywood dreams after such a difficult stretch. But Lucy persevered, though never achieving true star status on the big screen. She had some success on radio, especially the show My Favorite Husband, in which she created the role of a wacky housewife. CBS asked her to develop it for television, and Lucy insisted on performing with her husband, Desi. CBS wasn’t sure, but eventually gave the go-ahead to I Love Lucy (Great American Things, May 12, 2009). I expect they were glad, don’t you?

As if appearing in one of America’s all-time favorite shows wasn’t enough, Lucy had other career distinctions. At Desilu, she became the first woman to head a production studio. She had two more successful sitcoms, The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). And she appeared in several successful films, including Yours, Mine and Ours with Henry Fonda and Mame. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously from President George H.W. Bush.


History: VJ Day in Times Square

A number of people have come forward over the years, claiming to be either the sailor or the nurse in this iconic photo. It happened so quickly, and the scene became so chaotic, that photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was unable to get their names. Uploaded by

It’s a thing of wonderment when a photographer can capture the mood of an entire nation in a moment of spontaneous excitement. When a great photographer like Alfred Eisenstaedt accomplishes it and publishes it in the pages of Life Magazine (Great American Things, May 19, 2011), the country’s leader in photojournalism, it achieves iconic status.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, by Mark Lennihan, AP.

It was early evening on August 14, 1945, and President Truman had just announced Japan’s surrender, and people began to flock to Times Square to celebrate. Right before the streets became crowded with revelers, Eisenstaedt saw his opportunity developing. The sailor was “running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight,” Eisenstaedt said. “Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make any difference.”

The memorable kiss between the sailor and the nurse has been a subject of curiosity ever since, because Eisenstaedt didn’t have the opportunity to get the subjects’ names. Dozens of people have laid claim to that distinction over the years, but the identities are destined to remain unverified. You have to love Life’s caption to the photo: In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.

Americana: YouTube

Legend has it that the motivation for one of the founders of YouTube was his inability to find Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Uploaded by

YouTube was launched in November of 2005, but its immediate ubiquitous presence on the web makes it seem as if the video sharing website has existed for much longer.  Created by three former employees of PayPal, legend has it that the idea for the site was born after one of the founders had trouble finding a video of Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” from the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2004.  The de facto site for just about anything in video format, YouTube now consumes as much total bandwidth as the entire Internet did in the year 2000.

Perusing the all-time most viewed videos on YouTube is a strange way to kill an hour.  Among the mind-numbing music videos by pop stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, there are cute kids doing cute things, a sneezing panda, the “Time of My Life” scene from Dirty Dancing, a ventriloquist act, and an entirely unarousing thigh massage video.  Oh, and that cat video that your aunt Carol thinks is so funny.

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It’s easy to think of YouTube as the first site you’d use to find a song you heard on the radio last week, or to see the trailer for the movie you want to see this weekend. But it’s also a resource for more practical uses, because no matter what you’re into, you’ll find it.  Detailing a ’55 Chevy Belair?  There’s a video on that.  Developing black and white film in a dark room?  Check.  Want 6-pack abs in a 3-minute workout?  Yep.

Every once in a while I’ll happen across a video of something cringeworthy or embarrassing, like a news anchor cursing when she didn’t know she was live, and it’ll make me hope that the worst moment of my life doesn’t wind up on YouTube.  Nobody wants their 15 minutes of fame to come that way, but it happens often.  The flavor-of-the-month pop stars with 600 million views will come and go, but thankfully, YouTube stars like Antoine Dodson and the Techno Viking will always be here to make the internetz a more interesting place.


Kid Stuff: Movie Candy

Movie candy has traditionally been sold in those larger boxes so that theater owners could charge higher prices. Of course, another tradition is to stop at the 7-Eleven on the way to the movie, buy cheaper candy and hide it in a purse. Uploaded by

I’ve placed this post under “kid stuff,” but we have to be honest here. Lots of adults prefer candy to popcorn (or nachos or any other current concession fads) as movie fare. For many of us, it allows us a (mostly) non-judgmental way to eat what we wouldn’t otherwise buy out in public.

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There’s a certain canon of concession confections we all know. Some have been bringing profits to theaters for generations. Some of the most popular candy items sold through the years as movie treats include:

  • Twizzlers
  • Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (Great American Things, March 14, 2010)
  • Milk Duds
  • Raisinets
  • Junior Mints
  • SnoCaps
  • M&M’S (Great American Things, July 19, 2011)
  • Dots
  • Goobers
  • Good & Plenty

Of course, movie candy has always come in those large boxes, allowing theater owners to charge outlandish prices. But that’s part of the movie-going experience. Also part of the movie-going experience is stopping at the 7-Eleven on the way to the theater and hiding candy in a purse. Whoops! Did I let a secret out of the bag?