Q. I often watch TCM and, in between movies, they'll play a filler called Pete Smith Specialties. Who was Pete Smith? Are they available on DVD?
-- Mag Wells, of Belleville
A. Thank goodness for us, Pete Smith had a genius that couldn't be stifled by the first 9-to-5 jobs he landed in the film industry.
Born Peter Schmidt in 1892, the Big Apple native started out as a simple publicist, critic and vaudeville star agent. He also helped found the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers.
But his big break came in the late 1920s when MGM asked him to overdub the movements of trained dogs in its "Dogville" movies. Soon, Smith was narrating MGM's sports newsreels, adding his own commentary or sometimes even reportedly running scenes backwards.
Film audiences grew to love both Smith's comic creativity and his nasal, matter-of-fact delivery. Seeing it had a hit on its hands, MGM gave Smith his own series -- the Pete Smith Specialities shorts that you now enjoy on TCM.
From 1931 to 1955, he produced 150 mostly comic documentaries, which generally were about 10-minute one-reelers shown along with cartoons and newsreels before a featured attraction.
Subjects ranged from household hints to military training to "The Tree in a Test Tube," a government patriotic short that featured Laurel and Hardy. In the 1940s, many of the shorts featured stuntman-actor Dave O'Brien, who would silently act out everyday nuisances to Smith's droll narration.
Smith's talents certainly gained the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awarded him two Oscars and 14 other nominations. He also received an honorary Oscar in 1954 for his "witty and pungent observations" and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Sadly, he lived much of his later life in ill health before eventually jumping off the roof of a hospital to his death in 1979 at age 86. You'll have to enjoy his legacy on TCM because his short films have never been released for sale, so have your DVR ready.
Q. After enjoying a pizza tonight for supper, I got to thinking: Who invented that little, white, three-legged piece of plastic they stick in the middle to keep the lid from sticking to the pizza?
-- J.D., of Millstadt
A. Isn't that the worst? You're drooling all day for a deluxe pizza with extra anchovies, so you call Pi R Round for a dinnertime treat.
The delivery guy arrives and whips the box out of his insulated bag, the aroma sending visions of pepperoni and Italian sausage dancing in your head. You rush to the kitchen, grab a plate and open the box -- only to find half of the cheese, tomato sauce and toppings stuck to the lid. You carefully scrape the goop back onto the pie minus any greasy cardboard, but your salivary glands already have shut down.
It must have happened to Carmela Vitale one too many times. The Dix Hills, N.Y., woman probably realized the steam from the hot pizza caused the wide expanse of cardboard above it to become damp and sag. Or maybe on the way home, she had run over railroad tracks a bit too fast, causing the top of the pie to collide with the lid.
Either way, she figured there had to be a way to preserve the purity of her pizza. So, in the early 1980s, she devised a "lightweight and inexpensive device" to keep large pies and cakes from smashing into the box in which they sit, as she wrote in her patent application on Feb. 10, 1983.
She came up with what she called a "package saver," which would be molded "from one of the plastics which ... will resist temperatures of as high as about 500 degrees." Her "preferred embodiment" was the three-legged stool you found the other night. It fit all the requirements: It was cheap and it protected the food item while not damaging it itself.
So, on Feb. 12, 1985, she was granted patent 4,498,586 for what is now popularly called the pizza saver (or, more scientifically, that "little thingie") and the pizza world beat a path to her door. For a scientist's look at packaging, search for popular writer Henry Petroski's "Round Pie in a Square Box" at www.americanscientist.com.
What was the San Francisco Giants' original nickname?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: Except for Tim Lincecum's back-to-back honors in 2008 and 2009, only one other San Francisco Giant has ever won the Cy Young Award. You may have thought it would have been Juan Marichal, but you'd be wrong. In 1967 -- the first year that awards were given in both leagues -- Mike McCormick earned the accolade for his 22-10 record, 2.85 ERA and 150 K's. Detroit Tiger winners have been Denny McLain (1968-69), Willie Hernandez (1984) and Justin Verlander (2011). Cardinal honorees were Bob Gibson (1968 and 1970) and Chris Carpenter (2005). Roger Clemens tops the list with seven awards.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.