WSJ Historically Speaking: From Gladiators to Mickey Mouse: Disneyland Turns 60

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

Sixty years ago, on July 18, 1955, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” better known as Disneyland, opened to the public. But on that day, the former orange grove in Anaheim, Calif., was one of the most miserable places in America. A heat wave caused the park’s new asphalt to stick to people’s shoes. A gas leak forced parts of the site to close, a plumbers strike led to a water shortage, and lax security resulted in dangerous overcrowding.

Reviewing the $17.5 million theme park, a journalist wrote in a local newspaper, “Walt’s dream is a nightmare…a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in 30 years of show life.”

Undeterred, Walt Disney added ever more attractions and innovations, transforming mass leisure from its violent origins in the ancient world to today’s amusement-park industry, with $12 billion of annual revenue in the U.S.

Though the ancient Greeks were among the first to build leisure spaces in the form of parks, gardens and gymnasiums, the Romans expanded the concept into a way of life. By the first century, most of Rome’s citizens were living in semi-idleness, while thousands of slaves and coloni—the equivalent of sharecroppers—toiled ceaselessly on their behalf.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: From Ancient Greece to the Oscars, Acting Prizes Have Always Meant Drama

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Some kind of controversy always seems to surround the Oscars. If it isn’t outrage beforehand over who was snubbed, it is derision afterward about the embarrassing speeches or the taste-­‐challenged outfits that were paraded down the red carpet.

Yet the “Oscar effect” on nominated movies can be transformative. In 2004, a low-key film about a female boxer had earned just $8.5 million. But after being nominated for best picture, “Million Dollar Baby” enjoyed a spectacular resurgence and raked in additional $56.4 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

The enormous financial rewards that the Oscars can bring are a far cry from the more modest prizes given out by their spiritual ancestor, the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus. Most historians agree that the festival was responsible for awarding the first drama prizes in history. The original winner, in the sixth century B.C., is said to have been Thespis, from whom the word “thespian” came. Instead of a golden statuette, Thespis received a live goat.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Anthems Sung in a Patriotic Key

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The burning of the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, by British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross isn’t an obvious candidate for national celebration. But the event, distressing as it was at the time, did have one silver lining. The amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so relieved that Baltimore’s Fort McHenry escaped a similar fate a few days later that he wrote a poem about it, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” In 1931, 117 years after the streaming red glare had revealed that the U.S. flag was still there, Key’s poem—renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was officially designated the U.S. national anthem.

Admittedly, the anthem is a challenge to sing. Moreover, practically everyone outside the U.S. mistakenly assumes that the song refers to a battle during the War of Independence, not during the War of 1812. The long version also has an embarrassing tirade against the British (“Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution”), but apart from these hiccups, “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands head and shoulders above most of the other 200 or so national anthems in existence today. For one thing, it is jolly and optimistic—sentiments often in short supply among the rest.

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Smithsonian Magazine: The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Beware of Astrologers on the March

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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