There’s lots about AMC’s “Mad Men” to enjoy, from beautiful cinematography to a protagonist slowly descending into existential crisis to characters with an amazing ability to run an award-winning ad agency while pounding tumblers of whisky all day.
The series, which starts its seventh and final season Sunday, has an impressive devotion to historical accuracy, especially in the little details, which creator Matthew Weiner has said go as far as ensuring the ice cubes floating in all that booze are the correct, 1960s ice cube shape.
That level of detail makes picking apart the show’s dialogue a lot of fun; even seemingly inconsequential lines are packed with historical tidbits, hidden throughout the show’s 78 episodes like Easter eggs.
To get you ready for the premiere, we’ve watched every episode, checked the facts, and plucked out a few of our favorite, weird, real-life history lessons about the ’60s. Here they are:
♦ HoJo’s was really popular ... as a restaurant? In the episode “Faraway Places” usually stoic adman Don Draper is nearly giddy in proclaiming, “I love Howard Johnson’s,” before a disastrous trip to introduce less-than-thrilled wife Megan to his favorites — HoJo’s orange sherbet and fried clams.
Today it’s hard to believe a cool cat like Don would be caught dead under that garish orange roof, but before they were comedians’ go-to for jokes about lame hotels, Howard Johnson’s was one of America’s most beloved restaurants with nearly 1,000 locations, said Anthony Sammarco, author of “A History of Howard Johnson’s.”
“(Howard Johnson) found a way to ensure that no matter what Howard Johnson’s you were in, the food tasted the same,” Sammarco said. It was a pioneering idea that fast-food chains such as McDonald’s ran with as their popularity overtook sit-down restaurants for eating on the road. Only two original HoJo’s remain in operation, and only the one in Lake Placid, N.Y., still has an orange roof. A fried clam plate, less than $2 in Draper’s time, costs $13.95 there today.
♦ Marriage over? Just hit a “divorce ranch.” In the closing moments of Season 3, we see soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Draper, Betty, taking the advice of her divorce lawyer and hopping a flight to Reno, Nev., but why?
Divorce laws were much stricter in the time of Don and Betty’s breakup, with some states, such as the Drapers’ New York, requiring concrete proof of adultery in the form of photos or eyewitnesses. Not Nevada, though. The state legalized what was known as the “Reno cure,” a quickie divorce that was as simple as establishing residency for six weeks and making one quick trip to a courthouse.
The practice proved so popular that enterprising Nevadans established a booming business of “divorce ranches,” where thousands (mostly women) passed their stays riding horses, gambling and lounging poolside with other hopeful divorcees. Some of those who didn’t bring a “spare,” as Betty’s companion Henry Francis would have been known, were looking for romance. “As a single guy at age 22, when I went to work there, I thought I died and went to heaven,” said William McGee, co-author of “The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler.”
♦ Jai alai wanted to be our national pastime. In “The Arrangements,” a client pitches the Basque sport to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce team in 1964, explaining, “in seven years it’s going to surpass baseball.” But was there ever a time when jai alai, played by bouncing a rock-hard “pelota” off a wall at speeds up to 180 mph, had a shot at being America’s game?
“In the ’70s, opening night at Tampa Jai Alai was like opening night on Broadway. People got dressed up. We had six or seven thousand people every Friday and Saturday night — and we only had 3,500 seats!” said Marty Fleischman, former public relations manager for Tampa Jai Alai, and later World Jai Alai, which ran Tampa, Miami, Ocala, Fort Pierce and Hartford, Conn., frontons. “We had plans to open a huge fronton in Chicago, three in New Jersey, all the big cities all over the U.S.,” said Fleischman, who supplied the actual jai alai cesta Don uses to smash an ant farm in the episode.
Decimated by a player strike and the introduction of casino gambling and the lottery, the sport barely hangs on today. Tampa Jai Alai on the Dale Mabry Highway closed in 1998, and only a handful of frontons still stage live matches, mostly as a legal requirement to keep poker rooms open.
♦ No daddies in the delivery room. It’s hard to imagine in the digital age, when photos from the delivery room get posted to Instagram, but in “The Fog” we see Don turned away by a cranky nurse saying, “Your job’s done.” Don, of course, wasn’t too heartbroken, spending a pleasant evening passing a bottle of whisky in the waiting room with another soon-to-be dad while wife Betty gave birth.
“I’m not sure about the drinking, but otherwise I thought it was very authentic moment,” said Judith Leavitt, author of “Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room.” “It wasn’t really until the ’70s that it became the norm for fathers to be allowed into the labor room. You have to remember that childbirth was still fairly new in the hospital ... they didn’t let them in because they were determined to keep out infection. The other thing they worried about was fathers fainting. Then the nurses would have to take care of them.”
♦ Khrushchev really wanted to meet Mickey. In “Wee Small Hours,” hotelier Conrad Hilton remarks, “After all those things we threw at Khrushchev, you know what made him fall apart? He couldn’t get into Disneyland.”
It’s a reference to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the U.S., but did the leader who pushed our nation to the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis really get mad over the happiest place on Earth? According to a story from the New York Times archives, Khrushchev “exploded” when government officials denied him, saying, “I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? ... Have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?”
In an equally surreal Cold War moment, Frank Sinatra, who was at the Hollywood luncheon where this happened, is said to have leaned over to David Niven, seated next to Khrushchev’s wife, and said “Screw the cops! Tell the old broad you and I’ll take ’em down this afternoon” (from “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era”).
♦ The Rolling Stones sold out (but not a concert). In “Tea Leaves,” when Don and Harry Crane go to a Rolling Stones show hoping to get the band in a commercial for Heinz Baked Beans, it seems the most ridiculous piece of fictional advertising ever cooked up by the show’s writers. Even a young coed backstage finds the idea of Mick Jagger and boys shilling for baked beans preposterous, but Don coolly informs her the band had already made a commercial for Rice Krispies, in England.
Is it possible that the Stones, the edgier bad-boy alternative to the Beatles (and probably the second-biggest band on Earth in 1966), would have been caught dead endorsing a balanced breakfast? Turns out, Don’s statement checks out, and the proof is all over YouTube.
The 1964 black-and-white commercial even has a spirited jingle performed by the band, with Mick, of course, incorporating snap, crackle and pop into the lyrics.
♦ Subways take a really long time. If you’re not familiar with the New York City subway, you probably missed the joke in “The Flood,” in which Peggy Olson’s Realtor brags that the value of an apartment will skyrocket, just as soon as the nearby Second Avenue subway is completed, finally bringing train service to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The punch line, of course, is that the Second Avenue line is still under construction today, 46 years after Peggy’s apartment hunt takes place.
The subway, which New York Magazine in 2007 dubbed “the line that time forgot” has been derailed by various postponements, the first of which, in 1931, was caused by The Great Depression, according to the MTA. Tunnel excavation began 80 feet beneath Manhattan in 2007, and the $4.5 billion project is set to open in 2016.