BOOTLEG FILES 589: “At Home, 2001” (1967 television news special hosted by Walter Cronkite.).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None, although at one time it was made available on 16mm for the educational market.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: CBS News will not make it commercially available.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not in the immediate future.
Fifty years ago, CBS News debuted “The Twenty-First Century” as a documentary series designed to look ahead to the future. The series replaced “The Twentieth Century,” which set its sight on events and personalities that shaped the first six decades of the then-current century.
One of the more amusing episodes in “The Twenty-First Century” involved speculation on the future of American housing called “At Home, 2001.” The presentation was part-social commentary, part-science and part-silly, with on-camera host Walter Cronkite somehow managing to keep a straight face while displaying the outlandish technologies that were supposed to revolutionize the average residence.
“At Home, 2001” begins with a caustically angry denunciation of the state of American housing, with Cronkite giving the same level of derision to the “tasteless sterility of the suburban tract development” and the “enormous brick beehives” of urban apartment developments that he would later direct at LBJ’s Vietnam policies. He is joined on camera by architect Philip Johnson, who shares his frustration at the ugliness of contemporary housing.
While Johnson does not offer any solution to the dilemma, “At Home, 2001” finds a potential answer in Montreal at the Habitat 67 development created by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie for the Expo 67 festival. Safdie’s advocacy for the use of prefabricated module housing with terraces and gardens arranged into a vast asymmetrical apartment complex was considered revolutionary in its day – it was meant to mix the best of urban and suburban environments. And while it failed to catch on as the housing model of the future, Safdie’s theories were the most intellectually invigorating aspect of “At Home, 2001.”
Much of the episode is devoted to Cronkite walking around what was supposed to be a typical future home. In some ways, the predictions were utterly ridiculous: an electrostatic vacuuming pod that would remove outside dirt and dust on people entering the residence, an inflatable chair that people could bring with them while visiting – obviously, to a furniture-challenged friend’s house – and a kitchen set-up where people could eat prepackaged food and the paper packaging they were wrapped on. The kitchen of tomorrow jettisoned the lowly dishwasher in favor of technology that melted down dirty dishes and then recast them into clean new dishes.
However, in some concepts “At Home, 2001” was quite prescient: abnormally large 3-D televisions, a console for viewing closed-circuit video cameras pointed in various locations, and home computing. The latter idea was still chained to the Luddite notion of paper-driven communications, as the 1967 idea of futuristic computers either resembled a teletype machine or a machine that could print out its on-screen text-only content onto broadsheet paper. This home would be powered by fuel cells while recirculating its water supply.
“This equipment here will allow to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home,” Cronkite proclaimed, albeit with a tinge of playful skepticism in his avuncular voice. He also forecast a future where people worked 30 hours a week and took month-long vacations – obviously, that idea was meant for the French home of the future, not the American one.
Cronkite also envisioned robotic home servants. “Robots are coming,” Cronkite insisted. “Not to rule the world, but to help around the house. In the home of 2001 machines like these may help cook your breakfast and serve it too. We may wake up each morning to the patter of little feet — robot feet.” However, the clunky robot displayed in this episode looks like a creation designed and built by a not-very-clear engineering student – with its clumsy and jerky movements, it is hard to imagine how it could deliver anything without breaking or spilling it.
Clearly running out of things to say, “At Home, 2001” wraps up with an abrupt montage of futuristic-looking homes before the closing credits rolled. One intriguing name pops up in the credits: co-director Joyce Chopra, who would later switch to feature films and enjoy a distinguished career as a Hollywood director.
“At Home, 2001” was broadcast in color on CBS on March 12, 1967, in the 6:00 p.m. ET time slot. The episode was later released in a black-and-white 16mm print for the educational market. The episode vanished from circulation until the folks at A/V Geeks posted the color version on YouTube. CBS quickly found out about that and issued a cease-and-desist order for its removal. A few brief segments from that version were later posted again by another party, while the complete black-and-white version also went up on YouTube, albeit under a different name (obviously, to hide from CBS).
Predicting the future is a tricky business, and the real surprise is that much of “At Home, 2001” got it either correct or half-correct. And even if we’re not melting our dinner dishes or schlepping inflatable furniture to a friend’s home, it is strangely comforting to know that the creative minds of a half-century ago had a good clue of what our lives today would be like.
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