The Telephone in Pop Culture: Part 1

When Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words into a telephone in 1876, he could not possibly anticipate the ramifications. Not only did he unleash a century and a half of telecommunications innovation that has transformed society, but the telephone – from hand-cranked to smart phone – has earned a revered place in popular culture. It has played a prominent role in movies, television shows, and music.

The type of telephone shown can date a movie or show, as can the presence of cell phones or telephone booths. Some filmmakers avoid using specific technology to give their movies a more timeless quality.

The following is just a brief summary of the telephone’s influence in popular culture:

In music, you may be familiar with Blondie’s ‘Call Me’ (1980), which was the theme song for the movie American Gigolo; Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ (1984); Jim Croce’s ‘Operator’ (1972) or the 1975 Manhattan Transfer hit of the same name.

In television, one of the most famous uses of a telephone was in the comedy series Get Smart. Agent Maxwell Smart communicates through his ‘shoe phone,’ a rotary phone hidden in the sole of his shoe. The shoe phone is so iconic that the original prop sits in the CIA Museum. Agent Smart also uses an elevator disguised as a phone booth to gain entry to headquarters.

The communicator used in the original 1960s Star Trek series inspired Martin Cooper, inventor of the first cell phone.

The long-running BBC series Doctor Who revolves around the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a space and time-traveling machine disguised as a 1950s-era London police call box. Recognizing that today, such a thing would be glaringly obvious in London or anywhere else, the latest iteration of the show makes the TARDIS invisible to anyone not in the know.

In a nod to Doctor Who, in the 1989 movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) save humanity and pass history class by traveling through space and time in – guess what? – a telephone booth.

The Telephone in Pop Culture: Part 1

In the early Superman comic book series, Clark Kent sheds his mortal persona and pulls on his cape in a telephone booth. In the 1978 film, Superman (Christopher Reeve) encounters only an open phone kiosk and instead makes his transformation by spinning through revolving doors.
As we will explore further in the second part of this series, telephone booths play a key role in many classic movies, dramas and comedies alike. Telephone booths represent a space that is simultaneously public and private, protective and vulnerable.

About the series:

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