The propeller beanie, originally helicopter beanie, is the universal symbol of a fan. "I and other amateur cartoonists began drawing cartoons in which the propeller beanie was the symbol of science fiction the way the yarmulke is the symbol of the Orthodox Jew," its creator, SF author and fanartist Ray Nelson, recalled. The traditional beanie is shaped like a yarmulke, with a propeller at its peak.
Ray invented the whimsical headgear while a high-school sophomore in Cadillac, Michigan. A group of young Michifans at a 1947 fan gathering at his house decided to take photos of each other in the style of pulp covers. They needed to improvise costumes.
Ray recalled: "I said, 'Wait a second,' and I dashed up to my room. In a frenzy, I stapled together a little cap made of strips of plastic and affixed a model airplane propeller to it on a wire, putting a few beads on the wire first so the propeller could spin freely."
George Young donned the helicopter beanie for the photo shoot and later wore it to the Cinvention, where Bob Bloch complained of the Beanie Brigade: "an army of goons wearing beanies, false beards and Buck Rogers blasters."
Nelson visited relatives in California around that time and won a contest with a design of a character wearing a propeller beanie. That was the origin of Bob Clampett's “Time for Beany” (with voices by Stan Freberg and Daws Butler).
"I never bothered to patent it. I never made a dime off it," Ray said.
By 1948, the “beanie ’copter” featured in comic book ads as a premium you could get for 25¢ and a Tootsie Roll wrapper.
Much later, Howard DeVore fashioned a giant propeller beanie from a construction hardhat and a wooden prop from an airplane.
|From Fancyclopedia 2, ca. 1959|
The badge of a juvenile-type fan, popularized several years ago when the propeller-topped hats were an adolescent fad. Actual helicopter beanies are a rare sight nowadays, but the stereotype of a juvenile fan is a wight wearing a helicopter beanie, carrying a zapgun, and exclaiming goshwowboyoboy in his enthusiasm for stf. Ghak.
|From Fancyclopedia 2 Supplement, ca. 1960|
I think it was the summer of 1947 when I held what was fandom's first Michigan regional convention. I held it in the front room of my home in Cadillac. You could hold regional conventions in front rooms in those days, and nobody had to stand in line to pick up a badge or program book. Bem-inventor Martin Alger was there from up north, and all the gang from Saginaw and Detroit were there in force: beaver-worshiping Art Rapp, athiest Ben Singer (who has become a Canadian university professor), George Young, Big-Hearted Howard DeVore, Agnes Harrok and many more, some of whose names have faded from my aging memory. After the discussions and magazine trading we decided to end the festivities with a session of taking joke photographs depecting the cleches of current science-fiction magazine covers. We quickly improvised most of the props we needed by raiding the kitchen, but found at last that we lacked one thing, a suitable headgear for the fearless spaceman who was to play a starring role in the snaps. I leaped upon my bicycle and zoomed down to the nearest hardware store where I bought some strips of plastic, a length of stiff wire, some beads and a propeller for a flying model airplane. Arriving home, I whipped out my trusty staple gun and stapled these items together in a terrible hurry. In the photos my friend Tom Kennedy and I took turns wearing it, depending on which of us was playing the role of space hero. When the photo session was over George took the beanie with him back to Detroit. Whether or not he stole it depends on your definition of theft. Suffice it to say that nobody made any great efforts to get it back, since nobody had the faintest notion the thing had any value.
George began wearing it to meetings of the Detroit Science-Fantasy League and I, as a partisan of a rival club called the Wolverine Insurgents, began drawing fanzine cartoons of him with the beanie on. He wore it to small local cons and then to the Worldcon in Toronto. Other fans began to make similar headgear out of anything that could be stapled, glued or otherwise glued to the human head. It became clear that the beanie was no longer a symbol of George Young as an individual, but of any fan who possessed George's naive enthusiasm and energy, any fan who might reasonably be expected to greet the latest issue of PLANET STORIES with a cry of "Goshwowboyoboy!" Other fan cartoonists picked up the beanie with this connotation, especially William Rotsler in LA and Arthur "Atom" Thomson in England, not to mention the brilliant Trina Robbins, who produced a female version with a pony tale who went "Squee". Around 1950 Bruce Sedley, a fannish puppeteer in Oakland, California made a George Young hand puppet and included it in his local television show, Sedley's Medleys, under the name Beanie Boy, teaming him up with a stocking with eyes named Cecil, the Seasick Sea Serpent. In the early fifties a Disney artist named Bob Clampet began producing an animated version of the show for national distribution entitled Beanie and Cecil. Following the time-honored traditions of the Disney studio, he did his best to conceal the existence of any prior Beanie creators. His version of George Young was, however, clearly recognizable as George, though a younger George than the puppet. The Clampet show was vastly successful, launching a flood of machine-made beaniecopters, dolls and other licensed products which no doubt greatly enriched him, but did nothing for the standard of living of Bruce Sedley, George Young, Bill Rotsler, Atom, Trina Robbins or me. Today several companies continue to manufacture beaniecopters though the fad has long since died away, including one entrepreneur in communist China whose propellers, predictbly, do not spin. The one and only producer of genuine, authorized Ray Nelson beanie copters is: Stacy Samules, Interstellar Propeller, 1600 Woolsey, Berkeley, GA 94703. His selection is awesome, and if you don't like what he has, he'll make one up for you special. Do me a favor and send for his catalog, and tell him I sent you.
- Photo of Bruce Sedley in the “Helmetron,” an elaborate propeller beanie, The (San Francisco) Chronicle, September 11, 2010.
- “History of the Propeller Beanie and The Ultimate Propeller-Head Geek” by Ian Ellis, Today in Science History.
- *Blog post on Nelson and the propeller beanie by Bhob Stewart, April 18, 2010.
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