Having grown up in a small Midwestern town in the Sixties, most of my formative cultural experiences came to me via network television. This was one of them:
[Louis] Armstrong’s moral wholeness was caught in the words his mother spoke to him on her deathbed in 1927: ”Son, carry on. You’re a good boy. You treat everybody right, and everybody white and colored loves you. You have a good heart. You can’t miss.” Thirty-seven years later, I saw him for the first time, singing ”Hello, Dolly” on ”The Ed Sullivan Show.” I didn’t know who the old man with the ear-to-ear smile was, but I can remember my mother calling me into the living room and saying: ”This man won’t be around forever. Someday you’ll be glad you saw him.” That was in 1964, back when the public schools in my hometown were still segregated, two decades after a black man was dragged from our city jail, hauled through the streets at the end of a rope and set afire. Yet even in a place where such a monstrous evil had once been wrought, white people came to love Louis Armstrong–and, just as important, to respect him–not merely for the beauty of the music he made but also for the self-evident goodness of the man who made it.
Now that ABC, CBS, and NBC have lost their once-central position in American culture, I find myself recalling with intense nostalgia the TV shows that did so much to introduce me to the world beyond the city limits of Smalltown, U.S.A. These are the ones I remember best:
– NBC’s 1960 color telecast of Jerome Robbins’ musical version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, was shot on videotape and rerun annually for a few seasons thereafter (I probably didn’t get around to seeing it until 1962 or so). It was a rarity that has since become rarer still: a TV version of a Broadway show that reproduced the original production with complete accuracy. Years later Robbins restaged “I’m Flying” for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and I was astonished by how clearly I remembered the number, in which Martin and the Darling children fly around the stage. Not long after that, the videotape was digitally restored and released, first on videocassette and then on DVD. I can see why it made so powerful an impression on me: it’s one of Robbins’ most perfectly realized pieces of theatrical work.
– I can’t remember when I first started watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS, but it must have been some time in the early Sixties. I found them enthralling, and still do. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when they were first released on home video:
Leonard Bernstein spent an enormous amount of time and energy using TV, the ultimate middlebrow medium, to introduce ordinary Americans to the wonders of classical music. He taught a generation of children, myself among them, to love Bach, Beethoven, Brahms–and Copland.
No small part of his influence derived from the fact that the Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on CBS. Back in 1958, there were only three networks, and the FCC obliged them to devote a certain amount of time to high culture. Yet even without government oversight, I suspect they would have found time for Bernstein, because they were run by men who believed they had an obligation to offer their customers a not-so-occasional taste of something more elevating than “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I doubt that Ed Sullivan cared much for Maria Callas or Edward Villella, but that didn’t stop him from putting them on his show, along with Louis Armstrong and the original cast of “West Side Story.” All was grist for the middlebrow mill.
– My first exposure to great art was in 1964, when NBC broadcast a documentary called The Louvre: A Golden Prison. I don’t remember it clearly–I was only six when The Louvre aired–but the fact that I remember it at all suggests that I must have been paying pretty close attention.
– In 1966, near the end of the long-gone days when the three networks still aired high-culture programs on Sunday afternoons, I saw a telecast of a recital at which David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter played the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata, Op. 108. (This must have been the show I saw.) It was because of Oistrakh’s playing that I took up the violin. Eight years later, I played the first movement of the D Minor Sonata in a music contest and got a “1” from the judges.
– CBS telecast Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! in 1967. Last summer Holbrook brought the show back to Broadway, and I reviewed it for the Journal:
Though Mr. Holbrook has based his self-directed interepretation on published reports of Clemens’ platform mannerisms–the ice-cream suit, the cigar that wouldn’t stay lit, the deadpan facetiousness and long, long pauses that gave the impression that he was making the whole thing up on the spot–his Mark Twain is no museum piece. Indeed, it scarcely seems like a performance at all. From the moment he steps on stage, you simply take for granted that Twain himself is up there talking to you, cracking sly jokes about the vanity of human wishes and the perpetual follies of “the political acrobats running for office.”
Like most theatergoers of my generation, I first saw “Mark Twain Tonight!” on TV. CBS aired it in prime time in 1967 (the telecast is now available on DVD from Kultur), and my youthful memories of the show remain indelibly vivid, far more so than the only existing film footage of Samuel Clemens, a tantalizingly brief clip shot by Thomas Edison in 1909 and viewable on the Web at www.hannibal.net/twain. No doubt in large part because Mr. Holbrook had to create his own characterization without the aid of film or sound recordings, it has the kind of thickly layered imaginative detail that no mere impersonator could summon up….
Talk about life coming full circle!
– The following year CBS aired a Carnegie Hall recital by Vladimir Horowitz in prime time. I was staggered by it–as well I should have been, since it was the first piano recital I ever saw. So far as I know, this concert has never been released on video (or repeated on TV, for that matter). The soundtrack of the telecast, however, is available on CD, and a quick listen shows that I had pretty damn good taste when I was twelve.
The three networks basically gave up on high culture after the founding in 1967 of PBS (which we didn’t get in Smalltown, U.S.A.). Forty years later, PBS has done the same thing, more or less. You can still find a certain amount of high-culture programming on cable TV, but you have to go looking for it, and it doesn’t have anything like the same impact that Horowitz had when he played Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann, and Scriabin in prime time–and did so with the imprimatur of CBS, back when that still meant something.
Is life better in today’s radically decentralized world of entertainment-when-you-want-it? Maybe. Probably. But I still miss Peter Pan.