From the Top with Grown-Ups

Today in counterfactual history, NPR sells off cultural programming, new network dubbed ‘NPR Music & Entertainment’, by Wes Horner.

In all the excitement about celebrating NPR’s 50th, we’ve managed to lose sight of some of the network’s original aspirations in the arts arena, and some crazy, risk-taking frontier women and men who, like me, had a somewhat different vision for NPR than its present, near-total news identity.

The internet is amazing: 2

From time to time I would remember a TV series from my childhood with a fairly simple premise: whatever the problem at hand might be, it could be solved by hopping into an airboat and zipping through the bayous to the other end of the county. Sky King of the wetlands, as it were. But the name of this series eluded me.

At long last, after a bit of stumbling about with the Googles, I turned up the name of the series: Everglades!. It ran for 38 episodes in 1961-62. Some sources connect it to Ivan Tors, producer of Sea Hunt and Flipper, which makes sense, because when I would describe this show to my friends, they would say, “Oh, you’re talking about Flipper.” But Flipper didn’t know how to pilot an airboat, as far as I can remember. (The IMDb entry says that ZIV Television Films produced Everglades!, but a Tors connection is not out of the question.)

Rare precision

Mark Memmott, interviewed by Scott Simon, takes the time to parse out the meanings of the word “suicide,” and explores when the word is (and is not) appropriately applied to someone who takes other lives along with his or her own. Memmott wants to inform, not inflame.

But I should note that the phrase suicide bomber can be problematic, and I want to be very careful with what I say next. I am not suggesting anything about what happened aboard the Germanwings jet, but, especially when information is scant, it’s important to remember that what seems obvious may not be. For instance, there is evidence that some of those who have been called suicide bombers have been forced to or tricked into carrying explosives into buildings and crowds. Should they be called suicide bombers? I don’t think so. I don’t think most people would. And I know I’m a nag on this topic. It’s usually best to avoid labels, and the phrase suicide bomber is a label. Unless you’re sure those labels apply, stick to the facts, be precise with your words, choose them carefully.

Golden ages

Michael Bourne makes the provocative claim that the best of Broadway these days is on cable TV.

You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962…. [F]or a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas.

I would contend that the best of Broadway has moved to Off-Broadway, and the best of Off has moved to Off Off.

The Morning News

Bessie’s revenge

My maternal grandmother was an insane fan of Ruth Lyons, Ohio television personality of the 50s and 60s. Grandma would no sooner miss a 12 noon episode of The 50/50 Club than she would skip serving her overcooked gray chicken for Sunday dinner. So, come the winter holiday season, we would hear Ruby Wright with Cliff Lash’s band singing “Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Xmas.” A lot.

It’s been, oh, 45, going on 50 years since I heard that song. (Unless I actually saw Female Trouble—I don’t remember.) And I was OK with that.

Some links: 51

Along with some perhaps justifiable criticism, Daniel Mendelsohn unpicks one of the secrets to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.

This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.

Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then.

(Link via Arts & Letters Daily.)

In the down under

Two trip reports of illicit underground (sewers, subways, and steam tunnels) explorations of New York by Steve Duncan and Erling Kagge offer different perspectives. Jacki Lyden’s long piece for Weekend ATC is relatively straightforward, albeit with a dose of Radiolab sound effects. Alan Feuer’s diary for the New York Times, on the other hand, takes a hard left turn midway. The story turns into the story of the documentors of the project.

Wednesday, 12:15 a.m.
114 Delancey Street, Manhattan

…there are problems: the entourage has gotten too large. Everyone wants to go into the subways: me and a photographer from The Times; Jacki and an NPR producer; Andrew the videographer; even Will Hunt, the spotter. There were four of us in the sewers; now there are eight. What, I think, has happened to the intimate expedition?

Steve senses the concern and hastily announces that he, Andrew and Erling will go ahead; the rest of us can follow at a distance. I fail to see the point in exploring without the “explorers.” I confront Steve, tell him this is useless. Is this an expedition, or a media event? Disillusioned, I leave.

4:03 a.m.
West 181st Street, Manhattan

From home, I e-mail Steve and Erling: “I understand why you guys wanted to publicize this poetic adventure. … Unfortunately, the thing that wanted to be publicized was slowed down and rendered moot by the distracting number of people you brought in.” I add that it’s become impossible to describe two men on a journey when, in fact, a media army — with sound booms, cameras, video equipment — is in tow. I wish them well, offer no hard feelings.

3:32 p.m.
620 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan

An e-mail and an epiphany. The epiphany: When Ernest Shackleton went to the South Pole in the early 1900s, he himself documented the journey in a diary. Not so, in 2010, in media-soaked New York, where, it dawns on me, the crowd of chroniclers is fitting in its own way.

Another twist in Feuer’s version of the story that is more This American Life than The Gray Lady is the abrupt end to their visit with the woman known as Brooklyn, dweller in the Amtrak tunnel: B.K., her boyfriend, shows up and throws the whole lot of them out.

I’m uncomfortable with Lyden’s lack of reciprocal acknowledgment that another reporter and photographer were accompanying the urban spelunkers.

At any rate, the naturalist in me finds it interesting that one of Duncan and Kagge’s routes follows Tibbetts Brook through the Bronx, a waterway long ago confined underground by pavement.