Sunday, October 24, 2010

SHOCK! Ballyhoo (#1): A Fistful of Tranquilizers

In the booklet that Screen Gems sent out to television stations in 1957 in order to drum up interest in the SHOCK! syndication package, there were a number of suggestions for publicity stunts. Some of these promotions were intended to be sensationalistic and attention-grabbing, whereas others just seemed bizarre. As part of my viewing project in the months to come, I will occasionally post about some of the schemes that had been developed by Screen Gems and by local television stations in order to whip up (viewer and sponsor) interest in these films.

Today's ballyhoo entry comes from the folks at Screen Gems and was included in a list of suggestions on a page titled "Shock Showmanship: Sales Promotion to Enthuse Your Sponsors." The article recommends throwing a party in a studio at the station "for the night of your premiere telecast" of the SHOCK! series. Among the ideas that the booklet offers for decoration and for guest refreshment is the following:

"Bottles labeled 'POISON,' bowls of aspirin and milltown [sic], and a bucket of ketchup labeled 'BLOOD' should be placed a convenient spots for the use of your guests."

The casual mention of "milltown" in this piece caught my eye. I remembered that Miltown (capital "M" and one "L"-- it is misspelled in the SHOCK! booklet) is the brand-name for a tranquilizer pill; I assumed that the tranq was a prescription medication, so I was a little amazed by the publicity guys' suggestion that your station should put out bowls of them for your party guests as if they were M&Ms-- notice that the promo copy doesn't say "label a bowl of aspirin as 'Miltown' " the same way that they recommended labeling bottles as "poison" or buckets of ketchup as "blood." Can you imagine a publicity campaign today that suggested that a TV station set out candy dishes of Rohypnol and Xanax for party-goers?

This suggested to me that you could obtain a bowl's-worth of Miltown in 1957 with the same non-prescription ease as which you could aspirin. Curious about this, I did a little bit of research. What I found surprised me; most of what I discuss below I found in the pages of Professor Andrea Tone's quite engaging 2009 study, The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers.

Miltown (the name under which the psychotropic compound meprobamate was marketed by Wallace Laboratories) was first concocted in 1950, tested on psychiatric patients for a few years, and then released to the public by the FDA in 1955 for use in treating stress, anxiety, insomnia, tension, stage-fright, and even shyness. It surprised everyone by becoming a wildly popular drug and, as such, a trailblazer in the bestselling "life-style" drugs that today permeate the landscape in the US (i.e., Prozac; Viagra; Ambien).

In her book, Andrea Tone explains the wide-spread consumption of Miltown by triangulating it between (1) the move of family physicians into the field of treating mental health issues (formerly the purview of expensive psychiatrists and Freudian psychoanalysts), (2) the efforts by pharmaceutical manufacturers and drugstore owners to find a hot-ticket item in the consumer marketplace, and (3) the thick atmosphere of worry and fear felt by the general public in the mid-1950s because of the anxieties over H-Bombs, the existential emptiness of the gray-flannel-suited rat race (Miltown was nicknamed "Executive Excedrin"), and the frantic pressures of consumer culture suburbia. Before it was eclipsed by Librium and Valium in the early 1960s, Miltown was "Mother's little helper" and the drug of choice of "overworked businessmen harried by office deadlines, virgin brides nervous about their honeymoons, petulant toddlers and teenagers, and Americans fearful of nuclear annihilation" (Tone cites a number of articles that arrive at the same conclusion as this 1958 article in the New Yorker magazine: "An age in which nations threaten each other with guided missiles and hydrogen bombs is one that can use any calm it can get, and calm is what the American pharmaceutical industry now abundantly offers.") A 1957 Gallup Poll found 7 million Americans admitting to having used the drug.

A 1956 Charles Addams cartoon for New Yorker from Tone's book. The commuting businessman in the subway station encounters a vending machine of refreshments for either going to work or for going back home at night: phenobarbital (a barbiturate), Miltown, Doriden (a sleeping pill), and benzedrine (speed). A 1957 survey of American businessmen found that 72% of respondents felt that tranqs improved performance at work.

As I suspected, Miltown was only available by doctor's prescription, but as Tone illustrates in her book, "tranquilizers were easy to get because doctors prescribed them liberally and pharmacists often refilled prescriptions without authorization [...] One Hollywood reporter identified only one prescription out of the fifty tranquilizer users he interviewed in 1956."

Tone devotes a chapter on how Hollywood's torrid love affair with this "relaxed energy" tranquilizer pill was such that it had normalized it in a way that made it seem like it was an over-the-counter remedy. Miltown was cheap (nine cents, "about the same price as a can of tomatoes or a roll of toilet paper at the neighborhood Safeway") and easily obtained with or without prescription-- Tone says that Schwab Drugstore sold more than 250,000 tablets in four months during the winter of 1955-56. Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Tennessee Williams, Tallulah Bankhead, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope talked about it. Milton Berle frequently joked about changing his name because of the amount he needed to ingest in order to do his TV show on the air; Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, and Robert Cummings had made so many jokes about Miltown during the Oscar and Emmy Award ceremonies in 1955 that the FDA launched an investigation into the possibility of there being a massive celebrity endorsement scheme. The jewelers Cartier and Tiffany marketed pill boxes and charm bracelets for one's Miltown stash; 1956-57 advertisements for Baskin-Robbins ice cream recommended that a gallon of Hazelnut Toffee Ice Cream was as relaxing as a dose of Miltown.

from Tone's book: photo of Uncle Miltown as it appeared in Time magazine,
27 February 1956

You get the picture... Miltown, though largely forgotten today, was huge in the mid- to late-1950s. The publicity people at Screen Gems tapped into the trend; they encouraged stations to hype the horrors of SHOCK! to advertisers by creating a "haunted house" atmosphere and jokingly offering Miltown at launch parties in order to calm themselves after being subjected to the terror of these movies. Here, then, is a case of US pop culture collision, where the Monster Revolution of the mid-'50s intersected with what one psychiatrist quoted by Tone called the Tranquilizer Revolution.

(And given some of the low-grade B pictures in the SHOCK! package, I can't resist this February 1957 quote that Tone found by Aldous Huxley. Huxley, encouraged by the fact that "more than a thousand million doses of meprobomate were swallowed last year by the American public," said he looked forward to the day when a new class of drugs would emerge that would be a "transfigurer of perceived reality," capable of "imparting to the most dismal or commonplace scene unsuspected and unimaginable qualities of beauty-- even of making the average TV program seem absolutely wonderful.")

detail from an advertisement for a Payless Drug Store in Oakland, CA, 1956


Mirek said...

Wow. Absolutely fascinating. Never heard of Miltown. This is the kind of connecting link research I love. Excellent, Creeping Bride!

rogue evolent said...

I echo Mirek's comment. Not only had I never heard of the stuff (Miltown) but that it was as widespread and accepted as it was...incredible. You are a "research genius" Creeping Bride! Mega Kudos

The Creeping Bride said...

Andrea Tone's book on the history of tranquilizers was jammed full of that kind of pop culture stuff. I could've gone on and on and on with the things that she found, like the cocktail recipes in some housekeeping magazine that suggested adding Miltown to a Bloody Mary and substituting Miltown for the olive in your Martini.