There is a famous closing scene at the end of “The Roaring Twenties,” the 1939 classic that chronicles the rise and fall of a gangster and the last movie that Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart made together. Kneeling over Cagney’s bullet-riddled corpse, his faithful bootlegging associate, one Panama Smith, looks up and tells a passing cop, “He used to be a big shot.”
This got me to thinking about other people and things that used to be “big shots” and are no more. I am not talking about people or products or corporations that qualify for the fleeting-fame award—the Macarena, the DeLorean, the Newton, the Baja Marimba Band, Klinton Spilsbury—but things that were actually institutions at one time in our history and then went down for the count. The list is long, the list is varied.
Personal computers used to be big shots. The classic, desktop model. They used to be the biggest big shots on the planet. Some people think they helped bring down the Iron Curtain. But then along came laptops. Followed by smart phones and iPads and the Nook and lots of other tablet-sized devices, all of which can do much—though not all—of what PCs can do. Now, with sales dwindling, and the zeitgeist turning against it, the personal computer risks going the way of the fax, the eight-track player, the hurdy-gurdy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes, it may survive in a radically diminished form, but its days as a big shot are over.
Lots of things fall into this same general category. Being a member of the United States Senate used to be an unimaginably high honor. Now, both the Democratic and Republican parties—they used to be big shots, too—have to go trolling in all sorts of murky, uncharted waters to find plausible candidates willing to run for the office. Sometimes, not so plausible. Nobody seems to want the job anymore. Senators get elected and then get deposed—and humiliated—in primaries. Senators get elected and then quit because they can’t get anything done. Senators get elected and then find out that everybody in Washington hates one another. So they go home. And they stay home. Senators used to be big shots. Now the big shots are governors.
Other things that fall into this fallen-hero category? Late-night talk shows. Before cable television blossomed 30 years ago, half the country watched “The Tonight Show.” Now the viewership numbers for late-night talk shows are miniscule. Jimmy Kimmel draws a few million people. David Letterman attracts a few million people. Conan O’Brien has trouble cracking the million mark.
Remember when everybody watched MTV? Remember when everyone talked about MTV? MTV used to be a big shot. Those days are long gone. They’re gone in part because rock ‘n’ roll is no longer the big shot it once was, having ceded pride of place to Walmart country (Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, assorted non-cowboys in cowboy hats the size of Texas).
It doesn’t end there. Movie critics used to be big shots. Now, nobody reads them. Bookstores used to be found everywhere. Now, they are on life support. A master’s degree used to mean something. Now, it is little more than an ornament. France used to be a big shot. Italy, too. Europe in general. Now, the only big shot in Europe is Germany. Wow. That’s a shocker.
I raise this subject because it shows how quickly things can change for people, products and corporations. Often for the worse. Classical music used to be a big shot. Now, it is treading water. Jazz is treading water right beside it. Digital Equipment Corporation was once the second-biggest computer company in the world. DEC is long gone. The American Stock Exchange used to be a big shot. No more. So whatever situation you find yourself in, as an executive, as an entrepreneur, as an investor, even as takeover specialist, don’t get too comfortable. You might end up like Lehman Brothers. You might end up like Jimmy Cagney.