Readers proposed several theories regarding the Sir/Mr. dichotomy, but here’s one I didn’t think about until late last night– it’s all Walt Disney’s fault.
Back in film school, our stage manager (and my old boss), Herb, was a retired electric. (This was the same guy who told me that film school professors are either too old to hack it in the industry any more, or, if they’re young, never will.)
Herb liked to tell the story of how he met Walt Disney. He was working on The Wonderful World of Disney as a lamp operator. (The office you saw in the show was actually a replica of Disney’s real office, upstairs. It was so exact that the set decorators purchased books of the very same edition as the ones in the real office.)
Anyway, Herb was told to roll a big lamp from one side of the stage to the other. And back then, “big” was big, like five feet in diameter. So, he’s pushing this huge light, still hot from lighting the previous scene, but his path is blocked by Walt Disney himself, talking with one of the producers.
Now, there’s no other way around with this giant light, so Herb says, ever so politely, “Excuse me, Mr. Disney.”
Walt Disney whirls around, rises up to his full height (he was a tall guy), and screams at the top of his lungs, “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?“
The crew froze. The head of the studio just screamed at someone. Herb shrunk back as far as he could, thinking, Great. First day on the job, and I’m fired.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Disney, it’s just that, this light needs to go over there, and there’s no other way to get there, and I didn’t want to burn you, so-“
“What’s your name, son?”
“Herbert Hughes, sir.”
“What do your friends call you?”
So Herb kept his job. In fact, he went on to be the head of the lighting department at Disney Studios.
And that’s why I think this whole nobody-calls-me-“mister” thing is Walt Disney’s fault.