Stir ‘n Frost

In the Seventies, before there was a microwave oven in every home and fast food was an occasional treat, baking a cake was a time-consuming process. If you wanted cake you either had to bake one yourself or run out to the bakery to get one. Even cake mixes in a box such as Duncan Hines took about an hour to make. Enter Betty Crocker and Stir ‘n Frost. Stir ‘n Frost was great for when you wanted something sweet but didn’t have time to bake an entire cake. As the name implies, the directions consisted of two steps: a) stir, and b) frost. Stir ‘n Frost was the cake you baked in a box because the cake pan was literally made out of cardboard. You poured the packet of powdered batter into the cardboard cake pan, added water, and stirred. How easy is that? But the best part of Stir ‘n Frost was the second step – “Frost”! The frosting came in another packet that you had to knead for a minute before cutting it open and squeezing it onto the cake after it was baked. There was something so satisfying about kneading that little packet of frosting. Although the yellow cake with chocolate frosting was good, I really liked the gingerbread cake with the vanilla frosting. To me it was different from the usual selection of cake mix flavors.

Today the need for instant gratification has taken baking cakes to a new level. Betty Crocker has one-upped themselves and created Warm Delights, a cake you can make in the microwave in three minutes, and which you can eat while it’s still warm. But Stir ‘n Frost was its predecessor in the instant cake department. And nothing today beats the fun factor of kneading that little packet of frosting.


R.I.P. Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

Poly Styrene passed away yesterday. She was the lead singer for the late-Seventies British punk band X-Ray Spex. Born Marion Elliot-Said, she adopted her punk persona as a teenager in 1977 after seeing the Sex Pistols perform. Her shrieky vocals, accompanied by equally shrieky saxophones, gave X-Ray Spex their distinctive sound. More melodic than the three-chord wonders that passed for punk bands in those days (but just as loud), X-Ray Spex released one LP, “Germ-Free Adolescents,” in 1978. They broke up a year later, but reformed in 1995 with a new album “Conscious Consumer.” The clip above shows them performing their first single, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” on British television circa 1977.

Poly Styrene passed away of spine and breast cancer after a short illness. She had just released her third solo album,”Indigo Blue,” last month in the UK and was promoting it when she became ill. The album launched today in America.

Rest in peace, Poly.

Music Monday: Rex Smith

“Sooner or Later” was a made-for-television movie that was released in 1979. It catapulted singer Rex Smith into an overnight star and spawned the Top-Ten single “You Take My Breath Away.” Rex Smith played Michael, a seventeen-year old (cough!) guitar teacher and object of the affections of thirteen-year-old (cough!) Jessie, played by sixteen-year-old Denise Miller. The cast also featured such notable actors as Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 in Get Smart), Judd Hirsch of the hit television show “Taxi,” Morey Amsterdam (Buddy Sorrell in The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Lynn Redgrave of “Georgy Girl” fame.

In the video above, Jessie waits for Michael to jog past, then joins him as if she’s out jogging too and just happens to run into him. Who wears suspenders and a neckerchief while jogging, I ask? And is it just me, or does Rex Smith run like a girl? His arms flail around as much as his hair does. But hearing this song for the first time in over thirty years, it strikes me that, as hokey and contrived as a manufactured teen idol Top-Forty song can be, it’s pretty nonetheless.

Marie, my best friend in 7th grade (the same friend who owned the Candies that I coveted) loved Rex Smith. She had the book based on the movie, as well as Rex Smith’s album of the same name. That was when albums came in vinyl format, kids.

If Denise Miller looks familiar, you may remember her from “Fish,” the “Barney Miller” spin-off in which Abe Vigoda’s character Detective Fish and his wife Bernice adopted five rowdy foster children. Denise played tough-talking Jily Papalardo. Marie and I referred to her as “the girl from ‘Fish'” because we didn’t know her name. (You may also remember “Victor,” played by John Cassisi, who played “Fat Sam” in the all-child-actors gangster movie Bugsy Malone).

Here’s another clip from the film featuring Jessie jamming with Michael and his band as Michael sings “Simply Jessie.” Jessie makes it look so easy to play the guitar while simultaneously looking adoringly at Michael. Rex Smith is rocking that Andy Gibb/Peter Frampton/Leif Garrett long hair that every late-Seventies rocker dude sported, but Jessie’s hair looks glossy and lustrous too. They both look like they used hot rollers and Breck shampoo.

Many thanks to Mary on Facebook who posted about this movie and brought back so many memories.

Clairol Skin Machine

Clairol’s Skin Machine was a motorized facial exfoliating brush that gave your skin a deeper cleanse than soap and water alone. It was better than a washcloth too! In the commerical above (you’ll have to get through the Head Start hair vitamins ad first), you can see how versatile and convenient the Skin Machine really was. Use it while talking on the phone! Use it in your funky yet extremely tiny bathtub! Use it to take off makeup from the high school play! Heck, even the kids love it!

I had the Skin Machine when I was in 7th grade. I remember a commercial for the Skin Machine from around that time that featured a girl in a combat helmet, using the Skin Machine to fight the battle against acne. I think the Skin Machine came with a tiny bar of soap that was really drying. I used the Skin Machine with a bar of classic Neutrogena soap.

In the age of advanced skin care technology, Clairol’s Skin Machine may be obsolete, but the idea was innovative for its time. Without the Skin Machine, newfangled skin care gadgets such as the Clarisonic might not exist. It’s like the Sony Walkman paving the way for the iPod.

Music Monday: Marvin Gaye

I wasn’t really into this song when it was a hit for Marvin Gaye in 1977. It’s only now, after rediscovering it, that I can appreciate the message behind the funk. Gaye’s falsetto voice describes a wallflower at a party overcoming his shyness in a social situation to find romance by getting up the courage to dance. Gaye recorded the song somewhat reluctantly at the urging of his record company, Motown, to record a dance hit at the height of the Disco era (label-mate Diana Ross having just had success with her disco number “Love Hangover”). Although it’s more funk than Disco, “Got to Give It Up” was an instant success and went to Number One on the Billboard Charts in June of 1977.

I don’t know what show this performance was recorded from, but it looks like it could be an appearance on “Soul Train.” As a child in 1977, when Soul Train came on it meant that the Saturday morning cartoons were over. But today Gaye’s song lives on to inspire wallflowers everywhere to stop being shy. After all, you got to give it up.

Blythe Doll

Blythe was a fashion doll originally produced by the Kenner toy company. She was unique in that her eyes changed color when you pulled the cord in her back. Blythe was only sold for one year, in 1972, before she was discontinued due to poor sales. Perhaps little kids were creeped out by her oversized head and huge eyes, based on the kitschy 1960s paintings by Margaret Keane. Although Blythe sales were poor in 1972, I was one of the little girls who had a Blythe doll at that time. I had the brunette in the long yellow hippie dress, pictured at left in the ad above. My grandmother bought it for me at the Woolworth’s down the street from her house. I remember playing with Blythe on the front steps of my grandmother’s house. I tortured the little boy who lived next door to her because I made him play with me and my Blythe doll. In particular, I made him say “Oh Blythe, you have such beautiful blue eyes,” then I pulled the cord in her back to change her eye color to green and exclaimed “Not anymore!”

In 2000, a New York City photographer named Gina Garan received a vintage Blythe doll from a friend. It was purchased on eBay for a few dollars. Gina started collecting Blythe dolls and took photographs of them in different outfits in different locations all over New York. She published them in a book called This is Blythe. This led to a Japanese toy manufacturer purchasing the rights to produce the doll. Today Blythe is enjoying a renaissance as the Takara toy company produces Blythe dolls to widespread demand worldwide. And the vintage Kenner Blythe dolls that used to go for about eight dollars now sell for several hundred dollars. As if to try to relive my childhood, I’m one of the thousands of grown women who eagerly buy Blythe dolls as well as the “other outfits sold separately.” Gina Garan sells the Takara Blythe dolls in the US on her website This is Blythe. When I look at the new Blythes being offered, I get that same twinge of excitement as if I were still that little girl in Woolworth’s.

Music Monday: The Slits

The Slits were one of the first all-female groups to emerge during the punk movement of the mid-to-late Seventies. They consisted of vocalist Ari Up, who was the stepdaughter of Sex Pistol’s frontman Johnny Rotten; guitarist Viv Albertine, bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive, who left the band shortly thereafter to form The Raincoats. The Slits formed in 1976 when Ari was only fourteen. Ari’s raspy, vibrato vocals and Viv’s jangly, choppy guitars gave The Slits their distinctive sound. Sadly, Ari Up passed away in October 2010 of cancer. At 48 years old, she was way too young.

“Typical Girls” was the first Slits single I bought, as an import record, in the 1980s when I started buying imported New Wave and punk singles in earnest. The song is a sardonic look at the typical, harmless pursuits expected of teenaged girls.