Monday, January 28, 2013

Birds-Eye View

Two veteran flight attendants and boosters of San Diego's Old Globe
Recall the 'high-flying days that inspired the comedy 'Boeing Boeing'
by Cristofer Gross

Wikipedia has a list of 36 occurrences of “Flight Attendants in Pop-Culture.” The first is Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing.

In the 1960s, when a stewardess appeared in a play or film, it was shorthand for a single, attractive woman with even odds to be spending the night in a hotel. Even Stephen Sondheim, in his breakout 1970 musical, Company, gave Bobby-baby a stewardess girlfriend. As Joanne Gordan observes in Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook, the "conquest of a ‘stewardess’ is, for audiences who would remember the era, a depiction of a particularly ‘60s kind of fantasy – the suave bachelor seducing a hot ‘stew.’"

Two women who spent the era inside a United Airlines stewardess uniform are Globe Guilders Nancy Brock and Randy Tidmore.

Both trained in Chicago and eventually ended their stewardess careers flying out of Los Angeles. Iowan Tidmore flew for United Airlines from 1947 to 1962, but also worked in the office during the last half of those years. She became a supervisor, handling hiring, customer complaints and inquiries from the media. Brock flew for 35 years, many of them between LA and Honolulu, beginning in 1955.

When they started, stewardesses (they still stumble on the term "flight attendant") had to weigh in, keep their hair short, and remain unmarried.

"They had to be 21 by the time they went on the line," said Tidmore. "They had to wear hose, and the seams had to be straight, and wear girdles and high heels all the time. They had to be ladies. If any received three complaints from passengers, they were out."

There was an upside, though.

"We used to be celebrities," Brock said. "We were looked up to. There weren’t very many of us – or many airplanes either. I can remember sitting at the coffee shop in Chicago and having Ed Sullivan, who was sitting at the horseshoe counter, pay for our breakfast. People did that. Women passengers came on with their heels, hats and gloves, and men always wore a suit. The whole atmosphere was first class and we were treated that way, too."

"You couldn’t be married, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t have an affair with a pilot," Tidmore smiled.

"A lot of my friends were married, but I didn’t know it. One couple – a pilot and stewardess – were married and nobody knew it. They lived in the same apartment building. She lived downstairs and he lived upstairs, with a telephone he could hear from downstairs."

"Newspapers used to interview me about what stewardesses did," she continued. "’Tell us some stories,’ they would say. ‘Are the stewardesses marrying passengers? Are they going out with passengers on every trip?’ Absolutely not! I’d tell them. Our girls don’t do that, you know. And they didn’t. They were not marrying any more than non-flight attendants."

All that started changing around the time the play is set, with the advances in jets, and unionization.

"When the unions came in, the airline couldn’t say how we wore our hair, or make us wear a girdle or high heels," said Tidmore.

"That’s true," agreed Brock.

"Although it was still pretty strict. We were still under weight controls. I was still getting weighed in during the 1970s, long after the unions became involved."

The public image of flight attendants changed, they feel, to something closer to service personnel than celebrities. But, they both feel the profession is finally getting more respect.

"I think the public does think they are service people," Brock said. "But I think that, more and more since 9/11 and events like the recent landing in the Hudson River, people realize that in-flight people also have a safety responsibility and we’re there to save lives. The perception has gone back up."

Both remain active in "Clipped Wings," a social organization for flight attendants that they co-chaired four years ago. The name recalls the days when, "if you got married, your wings were clipped," Brock said.

This blog post is one of three program notes written by Cristofer Gross for the 2009 Old Globe production of Marc Camoletti's Boeing-Boeing. Used with permission.