When the 2011 fall television season made its noisy debut in September, two shows stood out for their potential to generate the same level of retro-cool buzz as “Mad Men.” One was NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” which explored the lives of Playboy bunnies in 1960s Chicago—it was quickly cancelled. The other was ABC’s “Pan Am,” which followed four stewardesses based in New York City in 1963. After posting impressive numbers for its pilot episode and despite receiving generally good reviews, the show’s ratings quickly dropped, like so many oxygen masks inside the cabin of a rapidly descending 727.
If the on-air turbulence that has greeted “Pan Am” ultimately causes the ambitious new series to crash, it won’t be for a lack of authenticity when it comes to props. That’s because the show has borrowed hundreds of period Pan Am items, including flatware and china, from Kelly Cusack, whose collection of some 10,000 Pan Am pieces makes him one of the foremost collectors of Pan Am memorabilia (you can see some of his cache at everythingPanAm.com). Recently, we spoke to Cusack about his career at Pan Am between 1980 and 1991, the role his collection plays in the TV show, and the incredibly complex rules and regulations 1960s flight attendants had to follow when it came to gloves.
Kelly Cusack: When I heard about plans for the show, I contacted the executive producer, Nancy Hult Ganis, and she was very interested in the loan of some of my plates, cups, and glasses. I visited the set while they were filming the pilot. Nice people. I like what they’re trying to do.
“Was it really that glamorous to be a Pan Am stewardess? It was more glamorous.”
I’d say they probably have about 300 to 400 of my pieces. Everything from a small egg cup to a demitasse spoon. I put little stickers with my initials on the bottoms of larger items to try and keep them from getting mixed up with other Pan Am memorabilia. You can’t do that on glasses and flatware because it can be seen when filming, but everything is very carefully inventoried. I’ve been back to the set one other time, and they had my items in boxes with my name on it. The prop department has accumulated items from several sources, but my collection is the most extensive in terms of numbers and diversity of pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Can you give us an example of a piece from your collection being used on the show?
Cusack: There was an episode in which a customer who’s had a few too many cocktails gets up to use the lavatory. He sees Maggie alone in the galley and tries to corner her. She grabs a carving fork and gives him a little jab to get him off of her. I can’t be 100 percent sure, but that carving fork is a fairly rare piece, so I’m assuming it’s mine.
What I particularly liked about the episode, though, is what happened after the altercation. Of course, the customer threatens to get Maggie fired, and the pilots talk to him, saying, “Come on, sir, she’ll be disciplined. Don’t worry, let us get you another drink.” The pilots are trying to help Maggie, but afterward in a scene at the layover hotel, Maggie talks to one of the pilots and tells him, “I know you were trying to help, but in doing that, you’ve made it okay for him to hit on another stewardess on his next flight.” I appreciated Nancy and the writers for expressing that.
Collectors Weekly: Where does the show’s stewardess-as-feminist perspective come from?
Cusack: Nancy Hult Ganis is a former flight attendant. Like me, she has a very deep and abiding love for Pan Am. Nancy really does want to do the right thing in terms of telling the story of what Pan Am was during that time. Of course, there’s pressure from the network to have a sexy, glamorous show, to hype it up a bit. But Nancy is trying to walk the line between what will be interesting for the public to watch and what’s reasonably authentic to what the early 1960s were like for Pan Am crews and personnel.
I attended a meeting with Nancy and a few other former stewardesses, who were on set to give the crew some context for the show. Nancy indicated that Maggie, Christina Ricci’s character, was a bit autobiographical, that she was a young feminist when she joined Pan Am in the late ’60s. Even though she started a few years after the show’s setting in 1963, she knew people who flew during the early ’60s. Nancy is working hard to avoid the stereotype that flight attendants were “easy,” which just wasn’t true. I’m grateful that you’re not seeing stewardesses jumping into bed on every episode. They’re having their romances, but in a tasteful manner.
Collectors Weekly: Okay, but did the stewardesses really have to wear all those gloves?
Cusack: Absolutely. The gloves were mandatory. There were regulations for the gloves, especially in the ’60s. There were very specific guidelines as to time of year and location. My recollection is that white gloves were for warm weather; black gloves were worn in the wintertime. So, if you were flying from New York to London in January, it would be dark gloves. If you were flying from New York to London to June, it would be white gloves.
It got a little bit complicated if you were flying around the world in January. From New York to London and Frankfurt, Vienna, and Istanbul, you would wear black gloves. But Beirut, Delhi, Bombay, and warmer destinations would require a switch to white gloves, which you could wear to Hong Kong before switching back to dark gloves in Tokyo. Then it was white gloves for Honolulu, and on and on and on. There were very strict protocols about gloves; the flight attendants had a little chart in their manual telling them when, where, and which gloves were to be worn.
They also had a policy called “Jackets On/Jackets Off.” Back in the ’60s, before everything was air-conditioned, when crews flew into places like Rangoon, Jakarta, or anywhere in the tropics when it was warm, the captain could designate a “Jackets Off” day. That meant all the crew would report to the aircraft without their uniform jackets on. Stewardesses would report for work in a white blouse, the men in their white shirts with epaulets. A very specific protocol for a “Jackets Off” day was moving your wings from your jacket to your blouse or shirt. The entire crew had to dress identically so there was a consistent, uniform look.
Collectors Weekly: What aspects of ‘Pan Am’ don’t ring quite as true?
Cusack: Some of the dialogue between the crew is a bit off. There was a little scene in one recent episode where Christina Ricci gets a call on the intercom from the cockpit telling her to prepare the cabin for a turbulent landing in Hong Kong. We don’t hear what the pilots are saying, but we see her saying, “Uh-huh. Okay, got it,” or something to that effect, and then she hangs up. Flight attendants would never speak in such a casual and familiar way to a pilot back in that era. More likely they’d say, “Thanks for letting me know” or “We’ll take care of that, Captain.” But not “Okay, got it.” My jaw dropped. Pan Am was not a pretentious place, but it was very professional. We were very polite to each other.
And, of course, the biggest falsehood is that the crews didn’t always fly together like they do on the TV show. They had different schedules, so they wouldn’t have been so caught up in each other’s business. They might only fly with their friends once a month or once every six weeks. But again, I understand why the show is doing that. It would be too hard for viewers to keep up with the lives of several hundred stewardesses based in New York in 1963.
Collectors Weekly: So how did you get interested in Pan Am?
When I was 5 years old, my family moved to Ankara, Turkey. My father worked for the U.S. government, so we were posted overseas several times. Normally if you were going to Turkey, you would just get on a Pan Am airplane in the States and fly all the way to Ankara. I just developed a great affinity and affection for Pan Am. There were probably a lot of unconscious things going on; I guess Pan Am represented going home. One way or the other, by the seventh grade I’d decided that when I grew up I wanted to work for Pan Am.
You had to be 18 to work for Pan Am, but when I was 17, I got an internship working with a good will/volunteer group called AWARE (Airmen Worried About Retaining Employment) at the Pan Am building in New York. My first paying job at Pan Am was as a temporary ticket agent at JFK airport in the summer of 1980. I was a summer temp again in 1981, and through those connections, I worked for Pan Am throughout college.
When I graduated in 1985, the only area where Pan Am was hiring was on the ramp at JFK, so I took the position. Slowly I found my way back into something a little bit more interesting. By the time the company closed in 1991, I was a reservations manager in New York City in the Pan Am building. I was proud of that because at 28, I was the youngest reservations manager Pan Am had ever had at headquarters.
Collectors Weekly: At that point, how focused were you on the company’s history?
Cusack: Certainly I was aware that prior to World War II, Pan Am was unique. There were really only two airlines offering significant flying-boat service during that era. One was the precursor of British Airways, which was known as Imperial Airways, the other was Pan Am.
Pan Am pioneered many of the routes flown today, as well as much of the early technology, from the flying boats themselves to the radio signals used for navigation. In fact, when World War II broke out, the government sent hundreds of young aviators to a Miami-based training school Pan Am operated in conjunction with the Armed Forces to teach navigation skills. Pan Am was America’s only over-water airline at that time, so the skills Pan Am pilots had were very important to the military.
Collectors Weekly: How did your interest in the company’s history evolve into a pursuit of its things?
Cusack: When I started working for Pan Am, I always kept an eye out for interesting items. For example, whenever a new timetable would come out, I would take two—one to have around the office and one to bring home. I don’t know why. I didn’t really think Pan Am would ever go out of business. I just think some people are born collectors, and I’m one of them.
“I’m grateful that you’re not seeing stewardesses jumping into bed on every episode.”
So whenever some sort of new marketing promotional piece would come out, I would make sure to get one. I wouldn’t grab it out of a customer’s hands or anything, but I always thought, “That’s an interesting piece, let’s get one of those for the collection.” I used my parents’ home to stockpile a lot of these pieces. Probably half of my paper collection was acquired before the company went out of business.
While I was at Pan Am, I did a lot of reading and talked to a lot of people to learn as much as I could about its history. After the company went out of business, I felt I had an interesting context for collecting. I had a better understanding than most people of what was significant versus what was just kind of junk or mass-produced.
Initially, I attended the airline-memorabilia shows held around the country a couple times a year. At first, those were really productive, but two things happened. First, eBay came along, and that allowed me to acquire items from all over the world at any time. Second, as my collection became larger and more robust, it became harder to find items at the memorabilia shows I didn’t already have. Quite quickly, eBay became my principal means for acquiring material for the collection. After 10 years on eBay, let’s say from 1999 to 2009, I had a lot.
Today, the collection is pretty complete. Once in a while, I’ll find some odds and ends that I’d like to add, but there’s not a lot I want or need that I don’t already have. I’m not saying my collection includes everything Pan Am ever put out, but at some point, you realize, “You know what, this is kind of done.” So I’ve cut back a lot in terms of collecting.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite pieces, and what’s on your wish list?
Cusack: I like the Homer Laughlin china from the 1930s and ’40s, but very few of those pieces aren’t nicked, dinged, or scratched. It wasn’t high-quality stuff to begin with, and while the flying boats are associated with a glamorous era, they were notoriously turbulent to actually fly in. In some instances, they were cruising only a few hundred feet above the water, so catering items got knocked around. In the last few years, I’ve acquired more of the Homer Laughlin china, for a total count of 20 pieces, but little of it is in particularly good condition. I’d love to acquire a few more pristine pieces. I’ve got most of the different-sized plates in the Homer Laughlin pattern, but I have not yet been able to find a full-sized coffee cup. I have the saucer, though.
I would also like to acquire more of the 1960s President pattern individual coffee and tea pots made by Noritake, but many of those pieces sell for $500 and up, when you can find them. Collectors know they are rare and valuable. My Noritake egg cups are also rare, and the glasses from the President pattern are hard to come by as well.
Collectors Weekly: Are the big auction houses getting into the act yet?
Cusack: I don’t follow them very closely because if they have this stuff, they’re looking for big bucks. My approach with limited funds has been to fly under the radar and not compete for expensive items. Occasionally I’ll see pilot or crew wings that I’d really like to get, but I know it’ll be $2,000 or $2,500. I can get a lot more paper and other items for that amount of money.
In terms of high-value items, I have a binder of high-selling items on eBay. Whenever an auction concludes at a noteworthy price, I print out the results. The craziest examples are in the front of the binder. In August of 2011, a Pan Am stewardess flight attendant hat from 1960 sold for $3,605. In March of 2011, one of the Syracuse china plates sold for $257. That same month and year, a Pan Am inaugural 747 flight bag sold for $153.
Collectors Weekly: Are the prices going up because of the TV show?
Cusack: I can’t prove that’s the case, but it makes sense. There seems to be this new interest in Pan Am. What’s interesting is that even the 1970s Pan Am flight attendant uniforms, from 10 years after the show takes place, are now selling for a small fortune. It could be the prop people at “Pan Am” planning ahead in case the show runs a long time, or it might be someone who is suddenly interested in Pan Am things and doesn’t understand that a 1970s uniform is not a 1960s uniform. I don’t know. But some of the online prices have gone crazy.
Collectors Weekly: The TV show aside, was it ever truly glamorous to be a flight attendant?
Cusack: One of my friends is a psychotherapist named Helen Davey. She’s also a former flight attendant, who started flying for Pan Am around 1965. She’s posted a number of blogs on Huffington Post, one of which is a link to a Canadian Broadcasting Network radio interview with her about the TV show. One of the questions they asked her was whether Pan Am was really that glamorous? “It was more glamorous,” was her answer. I agree.