Monday Mystery: "Cracks"

It's been a while since I did one of these. Let's have a look at something less depressing than American politics, shall we? A simple piece of animation, with one closed mystery, and one open one.

On December 31st, 1975, the children's television show Sesame Street ran a short animation called "The Crack Master". Here it is:


Doesn't seem all that mysterious, does it? But it was lost for a long time.

In 2008, a lady named Jennifer Bourne posted recollections of the clip on her blog. The entry is short, and looks like one of those things that surfaces from the muck in the back of your brain when you're trying to sleep at night and won't go away until you figure out what it's from. She's an illustrator herself, and drew a couple of sketches from memory. She asked around on the snopes message board, and while she did find a lot of other people who were creeped out by various things on Sesame Street, and other people looking for the same thing, she never did find the clip. The project that would eventually become the Lost Media Wiki added it to the list of things that seemed to have vanished into the mists of time.

That would have been the end of it, except that her blog post happened to catch the attention of Jon Armond, a voice artist and radio personality who remembered the animation vividly. He went nosing around on the media end of things and eventually found scattered bits of the paper trail at Children's Television Workshop, the production company responsible for Sesame Street, indicating that the short had been re-run at least once. (Every source I've seen says it was run "eleven times in four and a half years", and then vanished, but I don't know where any of them got that info, so. Presumably it was CTW, but I have seen no documents.) Somehow Armond got hold of the rights owners or the rights owners got hold of him, and he acquired a copy of the segment. One thing led to another, and he showed it to Bourne, who agreed that it was the clip she remembered from her youth.

That is not, however, how it got on YouTube.

I'm still not entirely clear how or where Armond got hold of the clip. I am under the impression that it was through CTW's archives, but no one ever says definitively. (Several places mention that his copy is preceded by a few seconds of Bert and Ernie, so it was a recording out of the middle of a finished episode.) It evidently involved quite a lot of negotiation; one thing that the rights holder was absolutely clear on was that Armond could never release the clip, in whole or in part, anywhere. Ever. He could have it, he could watch it, and he could show it to other people personally, but he could not let it loose into the world. He couldn't even tell anyone what the title was.

Knowing the whole two dozen people on the internet who cared were probably going crazy, Armond did the best he could do, within legal constraints, and posted this audio reconstruction and mini-FAQ about the clip.

You will note, if you listen to all nine-some-odd minutes of that, that Armond does not at any point name the producer of the clip. I suspect he can't. He evidently knows, or at least knows who has the rights. The rest of the world does not, nor do we have any idea who the narrator is. CTW does not have any credits for that segment. The IMDb, the TVDb, and MovieFilm have no credits at all for that episode. Before anyone gets too paranoid, they're missing credits for a large chunk of season seven, and of surrounding seasons -- documentation back then was scarce. At least US outfits tended to keep their tapes and kinescopes; the Beeb blithely junked a lot of things when they ran out of space, on the basis that no one could possibly care that much about ephemera like television programs.

Meanwhile, the people running the Lost Media Wiki -- mainly an Aussie fellow who goes by Dycaite -- were not under any obligation to keep anything under wraps, and started their own investigation into the production history. (Mainly with an eye to finding a copy that could be released. The LMW is heavily biased towards the internet, and tends to consider things still lost if they've technically been located, but cannot be viewed or purchased anywhere online.) Dycaite even wrote to the animator Cosmo Anzilotti, to ask if the rumor that he'd produced the short was true. It wasn't, but the ongoing search got a fair amount of attention, which ultimately culminated in a Christmas present.

On December 24th, 2013, Dycaite got an email. An anonymous message from an anonymous remailer, with no text at all, carrying a 23MB .mov file, entitled "Cracks". Which is now the YouTube upload you see above.

The file up on YouTube is not itself broadcast quality; YouTube rarely is. The quality goes up to 480p, which from some of the motion blocking looks to be the max quality of the original .mov file. There are some fairly obvious interlacing artifacts if you slow the video down, but the picture is clear and there's no apparent banding or tearing, so the source just prior to the digital file is clearly broadcast-quality VT. (A resolution of 480 horizontal lines suggests NTSC. It wasn't likely to be anything else, as Sesame Street is originally an American production, and the narrator speaks American English, but a PAL origin would not be completely beyond the realm of possibility for mystery stuff like this. Sesame Street is -- or at least was -- a flagship title for our Public Broadcasting System, which sources a lot of stuff from the BBC.) The title card, on the other hand, is obviously optical; electronically keyed lettering, in 1975, would have had a very distinct sharp-edged 'sparkle', whereas the edges of that font are much less harsh. The original would be a literal film strip, probably 16mm.

I want to say the audio has that '16mm óptical track' sound, too, but YouTube mangles audio, and I'm not 100% sure what I am picking up on there, so don't rely too much on that impression until I figure it out.

Whoever made that clip is clearly much more interested in not being associated with it than with not having it shown, and is furthermore smarter than the average bear, at least in internet terms. When it comes to copyright claims, YouTube is very much of the mind that you shoot first and then jam your fingers in your ears so you can truthfully tell your attorney that you didn't hear the questions later, and the copy I linked to at the top has been there, unmolested, for almost three years. It is reproduced in full and in decent quality, and the only known circulating copy is under strict contractual obligation to not end up online, so whoever holds the rights could get it taken down in about two nanoseconds if they cared to. That they haven't suggests that they are more willing to lose control of their work than to file a complaint that could be traced back to a name.

Comments

  1. Great post!

    Also, just so you know, I uploaded the source .mov to MEGA, which you can download here:

    http://tinyurl.com/zsfuywp

    Still so many mysteries surrounding this thing, hopefully we'll get some solid answers someday.

    -dycaite

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dude. I just lost like a week of my life reading everything on the LMW. It's clearly a labor of love, and fascinating media history. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help -- I speak/read most of Europe and some of Asia well enough to do research and translations.

      Delete
    2. Haha nice :) Thanks for the offer! We are currently trying to bolster a search effort for the Pinwheel Clock Man short, my friend and I made respective videos about it a couple weeks ago, you can check 'em out here if you're interested:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYCrGiUNc38
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_5Ab-GulqA

      It's generally accepted that it's based on a piece of European folklore, which we have not yet been able to identify; perhaps you may know a good place to look?

      Delete
    3. I'll give it a whirl. The deal with the girl getting help from the wizard IFF she tells her mother exactly what happened is nagging me in a sort of Eastern European fashion. I just ran into something that mentioned that plot almost word for word, that was nowhere near LMW, but I'm having trouble placing the context.

      If nothing else, I can probably find someone who would know. I live in Boston, Massachusetts, a city where you can't swing a cat without hitting a world-class university. I'm a subway ride away from WGBH Boston, too; they're part of the public broadcasting system in the US and have a vested interest in both art and children's programming.

      I also used to work as a skip tracer, kinda-sorta. If you run across any other names and you find the trail disappears into a bunch of directory pages in, I don't know, Riksmål Norwegian, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

      Delete

Post a Comment