Cone of Silence: When a 60s spy show drops into current events

The Cone of Silence in its inaugural use in 1965. It's still hanging around in 2018 - just check your Twitter feed.

The Cone of Silence in its inaugural use in 1965. It’s still hanging around in 2018 – just check your Twitter feed.

What have I found in the last few weeks when doing a simple internet search of Get Smart? Lots and lots of references to the Cone of Silence —  but not in the way I would expect.

It seems in the last year Get Smart has moved from the entertainment corner of cyberspace to the op ed/political realm. That’s a wild and woolly place to be. I should know since in real life I spend my days putting together opinion pages.

On April 16 the Government Accountability Office issued findings that the EPA violated

The old spy device in a sci fi magazine trick. This cartoon was in the December 2001 edition of Starlog.

The old spy device in a sci fi magazine trick. This cartoon was in the December 2001 edition of Starlog.

federal spending laws when it purchased a sound proof booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt to use for making private phone calls. The price tag on the booth came to the tune of $43,000. Federal law prohibits agencies from spending more than $5,000 on redecorating or remodeling offices. Oops.
With this story, the online commentary soon followed. Pruitt’s booth was quickly compared to the always malfunctioning Cone of Silence on Get Smart. References to the COS were quickly birthed on Facebook, Twitter, the op ed pages of major newspapers and even by a political cartoonist or two.
The comparisons are not going away. I started pulling together research for this blog installment more than a week ago. In that amount of time, the number of memes referencing Pruitt and the COS have proliferated.

There’s the standard meme of a GS screen grab with Max and the Chief under the device with some text referencing Pruitt. Then there are the more creative graphics with Pruitt under the COS himself, taking the place of the Chief. One meme even had Pruitt’s head Photoshopped onto Don Adams’ body and Donald Trump taking the place of Ed Platt. Blasphemy.

The Cone of Silence in action. The Chief sacrifices his desk in the name of security.

The Cone of Silence in action. The Chief sacrifices his desk in the name of security.

This isn’t the first time that Maxwell Smart has been shoved into recent current events and political commentary.

The March 31, 2017 front page of The New York Daily News prominently (like two thirds of the page) featured U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, edited onto a shoephone bearing Maxwell Smart. Nunes serves as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. And yes, this all had to do with his role in the Trump-Russia investigation.

As 99 would say, “Poor Max.”

London's Control HQ uses the Umbrella of Silence. Please refrain from smoking.

London’s Control HQ uses the Umbrella of Silence. Please refrain from smoking.

Previous administrations were not immune to COS references. In 2013 the New York Times reported on Barack Obama’s portable “Zone of Secrecy.” Basically a tent used while meeting with officials in other nations, it could keep conversations private. This drew all kinds of online comparisons to the Cone of Silence.

The COS dropped into the opinion pages back during George W. Bush’s administration. A couple editorial cartoonists featured “Dubya” under the cone with a reference to security leaks. Also, a 1995 Washington Post editorial referenced the COS in a column about President Bill Clinton’s problems with the CIA.

Would you believe someone even lifted a COS image from this website and used it in a March 22 Reddit forum?

One would wonder if and how often this sort of thing occurred during Get Smart’s run.

The term “cone of silence” isn’t just relegated to Get Smart lore. Prior to Get Smart, the term “Cone of Silence” appeared in a 1955 episode of Science Fiction Theatre titled “Barrier of Silence.” A cone of silence was also used in Dune, which was initially serialized in Analog from 1963 to 1965.

Cone of Silence is also a legal term that can be found in the ordinances of a governing body. It is defined as a directive that prohibits oral communication about a specified subject.

Now for something actually fun to talk about: The Cone of Silence’s role on Get Smart.

The cramped Closet of Silence gets some exercise when the COS is broken or on loan to the CIA.

The cramped Closet of Silence gets some exercise when the COS is broken or on loan to the CIA.

Out of 138 episodes the device itself (not counting “alternative cones”) appeared in nine episodes, which include:
Mr. Big (pilot)
Kaos in Control
My Nephew the Spy
Too Many Chiefs
Smart, the Assassin
I’m Only Human
The Whole Tooth And…
A Man Called Smart (Part 1)
A Tale of Two Tails

The routine is usually the same. The Chief or Max have an instance where they need to discuss sensitive information. Rule-oriented Max demands (it’s always a “demand”) the Cone of Silence. The device is begrudgingly lowered by the Chief or one of his administrative assistants. What follows is either the device malfunctioning and/or the Chief and 86 not hearing each other. The Chief has even gotten stuck in the thing and in one episode it destroyed his desk.

In the series, the COS is revealed to have been invented by a Professor Cone. It also costs an exorbitant sum to operate. In one episode, Control tries to combat budget cuts by loaning the device to the CIA.

The COS was actually a product of show creator Buck Henry’s wonderful imagination.

“I have always loved the Cone of Silence because I just loved the idea of this thing that was its own worst enemy,” Henry said in a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary, C.I.A.: Hollywood Spytek. “It was such a clearly dopey, funny, piece of equipment.”

The picture of absurdity - the Portable Cone of Silence.

The picture of absurdity – the Portable Cone of Silence.

There were a few opportunities for alternative cones.

The first was the ridiculous Portable Cone of Silence which was used in Hubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Max takes this with him while he and the Chief are on a mission in a concert hall. The Chief spends much of that time stuck in the thing. The Portable Cone of Silence was one of the accessories that came with the 2002 Sideshow Toys action figures. The toy version is just as annoying as the real version. Good luck assembling it.

The London branch of Control uses the Umbrella of Silence in That Old Gang of Mine. Unlike the American COS, this device can hold four people and everyone can hear each other. It its advisable, however, to refrain from smoking in it.

The Closet of Silence is used in two episodes, Maxwell Smart, Private Eye and Supersonic Boom. Also, the Control Secret Word File is used in lieu of the COS in A Tale of Two Tails.

The COS would eventually end up hanging above Max and 99’s bed in Get Smart Again. In that movie, Max’s demands for secrecy were met with two other impractical procedures: Hover Cover and The Hall of Hush. Also in the movies, The Nude Bomb and Get Smart (2008) had their own incarnations of the cone.

As for the whereabouts of the original COS… it seems to have faded into legend.

I saw what you did there: A Get Smart reference worked its way into the recent editorial page offerings.

I saw what you did there: A Get Smart reference worked its way into the recent editorial page offerings.

KAOS in Control: When knowledge of TV shows pays off

Max isn't buying Alma Sutton's (Barbara Bain) claim that she watched Captain Kangaroo as a child.

Episode Seven
KAOS In Control (original air date: 10-30-65)
Cast: Professor Windish – Robert Cornthwaite, Hodgkins -Bryan O’Byrne, Alma Sutton – Barbara Bain, Henry Ratcheck – Ed Peck, Delegate 1 – Donald Lawson, Control agent – Robert Karvelas
Director: Don Richardson
Writers: Hal Goldman and Al Gordon
Producer: Jay Sandrich
Filming Location: Paramount Studios, Hollywood

Synopsis: Six top scientists are scheduled to meet in Control’s secure conference room, only someone in the building has been tampering with the door’s lock in an attempt to mold a key. Things get even more complicated when someone pilfers Professor Windish’s newly invented Electro-Retrogressor Gun — a device that once fired, leaves its target with the mental capacity of an 8 year old.

Max and 99 keep their eye on Agent 17. OK, I threw this one in because I like 99's coat.

My thoughts: This episode is probably known as “The one with Barbara Bain in it.” Of course, this aired before Mission Impossible graced TV screens. Really her part in this episode isn’t all too huge, yet it is amusing at the end when she goes skipping down the hallway Don Adams.

For what it’s worth, Bain’s husband at the time, and Mission Impossible co-star, Martin Landau also appears in the fifth season Get Smart episode, Pheasant Under Glass.

Now, on with the rest of the episode.

The running gag is Max’s battle with the security key chain attached to his pants. It sticks in every lock from his desk drawer to Control’s secure conference room. At one point he resorts to taking his pants off so the scientists can be let in the room. At least in the end the device serves as a weapon that prevents Alma Sutton from shooting him with the Electro-Retrogressor Gun.

The Electro-Retrogressor Gun is its own gag. It leaves Control’s authority figures pleading to go outside and play or crying for their mother. Professor Windish is quite proud of the invention – until he’s stunned by it and relives an apparently rotten childhood.

My favorite part of the episode, though, is the scene with the Magic Ear. Don Adams, in some media articles at the time, was described as a facial actor. This scene is an example of that. The bass drum scene in Our Man in Leotards is another example.

If you catch this episode, look for this scene. Once you’re done laughing at Adams’ rubber-faced depiction of pain, look at Feldon. Is she holding her hand at her mouth to act aghast or is she also trying to stifle a smirk?

The Cone of Silence gets some use in this episode – once at Max’s request and later when every device in the Chief’s office goes out of whack.

Chief: You know this thing doesn’t work. Why do you insist on using it?

Max: Well, for one thing, it’s 20 degrees cooler inside.

For his exemplary work, and knowing that Alma Sutton could not possibly have watched Captain Kangaroo as a tike because it wasn’t on TV then, Max is awarded a Certificate of Meritorious Service.

Max: Gosh Chief, I don’t know what to say.

Chief: Don’t say anything, Max. Just read it over, then destroy it.

Watch for: Don’t blink at the beginning of the episode or you’ll miss Robert Karvelas’ incognito appearance. Also, the flashing “Magenta Alert” light is used.

Footnotes:

Shhh! 86 and 99 sort out some kinks with the Magic Ear device.

• Character actor Robert Cornthwaite appeared in a number of TV series, typically playing scientists or lawyers. He appeared as Windish in two other GS episodes, “Our Man in Leotards” and “Satan Place.”
• Barbara Bain is probably best known for her role as Cinnamon Carter in Mission Impossible. She appeared in that series, with her then husband Martin Landau, from 1966 to 1969. From 1975 to 1977 Bain and Landau starred in the cult sci-fi series Space: 1999.
• Ed Peck typically played cops or military officers – such as Officer Kirk on Happy Days and Capt. Dennis McDermott on Benson. He appeared in the Star Trek episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and appeared in such movies as Bullitt and Heaven Can Wait.

Glick meter: Max really has problems with that stupid security key chain. Perhaps it should have come with some WD-40.

Oh Max meter: 99 just can’t get a kiss in edgewise. She and Max, as in previous episodes, try to have another moment – until duty interrupts it.

Control Agents: Hodgkins, Professor Windish, Henry Ratcheck, Agent 17 (disguised as monkey), plus two random armed Control agents – one of which is a mustachioed Robert Karvelas

Kaos Agents: Alma Sutton

Gadgets: Security key chain (a device more trouble than what it’s worth), the Cone of Silence, Electro-Retrogressor Gun, Magic Ear Listening Device, Pocket Disintegrator Pen, TV screen under the Chief’s desk blotter, golden frisking hands in the wall

Episode Locations: Control Headquarters

Professor Windish shows off his ill-fated Electro-Retrogressor Gun.