You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, May 27, 2010


My parents were not fans of rock and roll, but for most of my early school years I remember the car radio tuned to KFJZ, a station that played all the hits. KFJZ found its way into our lives because a close family friend, Dave Naugle, worked there, doing announcements and maybe even the news. And so one morning in 1956, as I was being unloaded in front of Meadowbrook Elementary School for another day in Mrs. Garcia's first grade class, Hound Dog was playing on the radio.

I'm not sure how I would have expressed this at the age of six, but I stopped to tell my mother how lucky Dave Naugle was, what with getting to meet Elvis Presley and all. She asked me what I was talking about, and I explained that if Elvis Presley was at KFJZ to sing Hound Dog that morning, surely Mr. Naugle would meet him. My mother laughed and set me straight about the workings of radio. I walked across that schoolyard and into class with a lot on my mind.

I have only a couple of things to say in my defense. My only images of radio came from old movies, shown incidentally on the TV division of KFJZ, that often featured live radio broadcasts, and I had heard both my parents and two sets of grandparents reminisce about listening to live radio. And Dave Naugle, after all, was a live person and he was on the radio. But for some reason I had not figured it out about the music.

Acting, on the other hand, never confused me. At least not that I remember. Perhaps during that same day's walk to first grade class the illusion of character vs actor was destroyed with the domino effect that wipes out the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy once a kid learns about Santa Claus. But I think I always knew that after each show Buffalo Bob and Clarabell the Clown hung Howdy Doody up on his hook, took off their own costumes, and got on with their lives. The same went for Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans. I never broke an arm jumping off the roof to see if I could fly, and I was pretty young when I noticed that each episode of the Lone Ranger had the same shot of galloping horses and that ambushes always took place on the same indoor set with the same big rock. (Actually, I probably didn't know it was an indoor set until sometime later.)

Other friends I have learned had a much harder wake-up call to the whole character/actor situation. We were, after all, the first generation to get plunked down in front of the TV and left to our own devices for hours at a time. And we watched whatever was offered, which were kids shows mixed in with Warner Brothers Cartoons and for the most part Westerns.

The westerns presented a particular problem for my friend Doug, a problem to which he worked out an ingenious solution. Perhaps the body count on these programs was low by today's standards, but in each episode one or more characters took a bullet to the gut and died what we didn't realize at the time was a weirdly bloodless death. But they were dead, and this struck Doug as a serious commitment to the role. Then he figured it out. These men who died were criminals condemned to death and given the choice of either waiting out their time on death row and going to the chair, or appearing on TV and dying in a gunfight. Who wouldn't go for door number two?

Doug remembers no big "Ah-Ha" moment that disabused him of this notion. He never mentioned it aloud only to be set straight by a parent or, in his case, laughed out of the room by older siblings. He assumes he started noticing the same bad guys appearing in other shows and meeting the same fate, and so he adjusted his theory. Which is what kids do all the time.

Television in the 1950's made pre-teen post-modernists of us all. The constant commercial interruptions accustomed us to dealing with meta-narratives and such juxtapositions as the adventures of Robin Hood and the wonders of the Playtex Living Bra. The more advanced concepts were demonstrated on the sit coms. Hollywood stars played themselves when they visited Lucille Ball, who was playing the character Lucy Riccardo who was married to a character name Ricky Riccardo played by her real husband Desi Arnaz. Then there was the whole question of Little Ricky. Characters from one program would sometimes visit characters on another program, and I remember seeing a plot from Make Room for Daddy used the next season on I Married Joan. All this could be genuinely weird, but George Burns set the bar even higher. In each episode of the Burns and Allen Show, George retired to his upstairs study, turned on his private TV, and watched what was going on downstairs, all the while commenting on the action directly to the audience. (Make that, "directly to me.")

This is why so much late-twentieth-century French theory seemed like either common sense or old hat by the time I tried to absorb it in my thirties. George Burns beat Jean Baudrillard to the punch.

1 comment:

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