Poetry in Gray, Part 2

As we continue our accelerated exploration of poetry for National Poetry Month, let’s look at another way that poetry, and in particular T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  manifested itself in popular culture in the black & white TV era.

Yesterday’s post about a Twilight Zone  episode shouldn’t be all that shocking. Rod Serling made his bones as a screenwriter first, and many of his TZ episodes were adaptations of short-stories, albeit genre short-stories that might not pass muster in Western Lit classes. Burgess Meredith, who embodied the Prufrockian Harold Bemis had a long career in stage plays that were literary adaptions as well, including directing Ulysses in Nighttown  and a touring production titled James Joyce’s Women.

Still, in the unnamed straddle-decade of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, science fiction and fantasy were rarer than televised literary adaptations. What was extraordinarily common was “Westerns.” A plethora of cowboys, gunfighters, sheriffs, horse-soldiers and ranchers rode the gray sage range. Watching them now I’m struck buy some things. They are often surprisingly violent. The small fuzzy low-contrast home screens wouldn’t have portrayed the later exploding blood-squib aesthetic of Peckinpaugh and Tarantino well then, but the Westerns of this era intensified the meanness, meaninglessness, and sadism to Jacobean revenge play levels.*

Paladin-Dylan 1

The moving pencil moustache writes, and fashion notices. Richard Boone as Paladin and Bob “Marshall” Dylan who’s taken to wearing dark western gear in his later years. Not pictured: Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.

 

Taken in general they are also shockingly racially ignorant and ahistorical. The lead roles, the protagonists and antagonists, are nearly always white men, and then if the Western is a way to examine the historic violence of white men that could have its value, but it’s often white man against white man that is the central focus on the small screen. The issue of the conquest, displacement and decimation of First Nations people is rarely dealt with in any searching or complex way, and so that fault has become a commonplace in comments on the 20th century Western. What’s even more obtuse is the lack of any significant ethnicity beyond WASP-white. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and first generation immigrants in general are all highly under-represented and when present, most always stereotyped.** Latin-American characters exist to a greater degree, given that much of the settings for these dramas would make it impossible to white-out them from history.

So, black & white television Westerns of this era are largely white & white.

I can’t hold it up as an exemplar in these matters, but my favorite of the era was Have Gun Will Travel.  It wasn’t consistent in mitigating these massive blind spots, but it had its moments.*** And as a half-hour drama, many episodes present almost poetic compression: striking unusual characters that exist for a scene only, tales told in only a few stanzas, epigrams dropped in as dialog. Watching a good episode is so unlike modern season-arcing prestige TV. You’re left to fill in the life before and after of most any character, and conflict doesn’t brew and simmer over hours, but often is “An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

Will Travel LP collage

‘50s TV may have bleached the Old West, but that didn’t mean Afro-Americans and others had to go along with that.

 

So how am I going to stretch things to bring“The Waste Land”  into this six-gun waving post before I wind it up? Well, the Have Gun Will Travel  “Waste Land”  referencing episode “Everyman”  is so bold-faced that the writer certainly intended it, though I can’t say if anyone thought many viewers would catch the in-jokes in between the cigarette and laxative commercials.

You can see the entire episode here. It’ll take you about 25 minutes to view.

This attempt to incorporate elements of “The Waste Land”  fails to succeed overall, but some things about it are still striking. The mysterious Danceman character (a Summoning of Everyman/Seventh Seal  dance of death reference?) could appear in a Bob Dylan song and not be out of place. The strange and sketchy dynamics in the shopkeeper and his daughter might subtly be riffing off “The Waste Land’s”  sexual anxiety.

Once more, let me leave you with a Parlando audio piece featuring the LYL Band using the words of Carl Sandburg, this time his “Long Guns”   which I mix with a little Howlin’ Wolf. The player is below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here. And as to Howlin’ Wolf, well you just need to seek him out, but the man learned at the feat of rural mixed-race early-20th century Modernist Charley Patton.

 

 

*Alternate reader and keyboardist here, Dave Moore wrote a chapbook about he and his brother watching these shows as kids and making a game of totaling up the dead. It’s certainly math of higher numbers. Even in the half-hour dramas, one can be fairly certain there will be death along with threats of death—often multiple deaths, often murders, along with executions, duels, and battle deaths.

**Historically, the “Old West” was demographically diverse, just as most frontiers are.

***Two examples: “The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs”  featuring singer/guitarist Odetta, and a flawed episode with some strong elements written by Gene Roddenberry “The Yuma Treasure.”

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Poetry in Gray, Part 1

Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…

Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone.  Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.

If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.

Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?

There are several Twilight Zone  episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last”  starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.

Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s  creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*

TS Eliot and Harold Bemis

T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.

 

First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.”  Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land”  then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?

Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.

And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last”  again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex  in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved”  columns?

No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry.  Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!

Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal.  Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs.  And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?

Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,”  available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.

 

*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.

**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”

***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.

Hollywood TV

Once more we visit a song from the Dave Moore-written song-cycle looking at the innovative goth/horror persona created by Maila Nurmi in 1953-54. Today’s piece “Hollywood TV”  continues Nurmi’s story as commerce finds a place for her Vampira character as it seeks to fill out the expanding television time slots.

In the 50s, the moving picture industry faced an existential crisis of its own: television was going to deliver its kind of entertainment right to people’s homes, no need to go to the theater, no need to pay admission, make your own popcorn, Philco Playhouse and chill.

One way the old entertainment empire sought to use the new TV medium was to sell rights to rebroadcast movies that had completed—sometimes, long-ago completed–their theatrical runs. One studio, Universal Pictures, wanted to monetize their classic horror pictures it had released back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and so put together a package of these films for TV stations to buy and rebroadcast in 1956.

It’s hard to believe now, in an era when SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy are the dominant commercial film genres, that in the mid-50s these films were considered shoddy goods. They reflected back to 19th Century characters and tropes, even when they were made before WWII, and so they were not thought to be the stuff that a forward-looking post-war world was looking for.

But wait, we’re in 1953-54. Even this is still in the future.

Nurmi had created the Vampira costume for a Hollywood Halloween costume party in 1953, and the story goes this novel combination of sex and death was noticed there by an entertainment figure, through which she was eventually connected with a TV station looking to broadcast old movies. The TV execs thought such old-fashioned low-value fare needed something else to make it viable, a host to contextualize the old movies to be shown at night when such niche material could fill otherwise uncommercial air time.

So, in 1954, two years before the Universal “Shock Theater” package was offered, Vampira began hosting a show made up of old movies whose rights could be obtained on the cheap, with her character leavening the proceedings with quips and intentional perversity. This is an old show-business tactic, as even in vaudeville theater, a master of ceremonies might be called on to hype or explain the acts, or to fill time when a performer had dragged down the audience’s interest. And intentional perversity was decades old too, what with the Dada cabaret of the WWI years.

Even if this is recent history, in the lifetime of people still living, it’s hard to know how big the Vampira character’s impact was in her time. Her late-night show lasted about a year ending in 1955. A follow-up show with the character on another local station didn’t stick. During the years 1954-56, there was a substantial publicity push, a local Emmy nomination, a Life magazine profile, guest appearances in the Vampira persona on other TV shows; but there was the short run of the show, and a general tailing off of Nurmi’s celebrity and performance career afterward. How big were the waves in that ripple?

If we can’t see how big the first ripples are, we can see the waves that built off it, as they are substantial, and still rolling.

In 1956 came that Universal Pictures “Shock Theater”  package, eventually followed by “Creature Features” and others. Over the next decade, most major local TV markets gained a horror/SciFi host. The pattern was unmistakable. Costume. Macabre humor. Campy name. Maybe a little dry-ice fog, screeches and screams, and a haunted house décor. All parts of the Vampira scheme. What wasn’t copied? The Thanatos remained, however distanced by humor, but the Eros was toned way, way down, and the follow-on horror hosts were invariably male.

Shock Theater around the USA

It’s a boys club. Some of the horror hosts for “Shock Theater”  around the USA

 

In pop music, the erotic and self-possessed element of Vampira saw a revival by the late ‘70s with Poison Ivy and the Cramps, and in the UK, bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. Eventually a goth subculture and “look” developed often borrowing from first or second level influences of the Vampira character with various continental European influences.

The Cramps

Poison Ivy of the Cramps substituted midriff & pychobilly riffs for Vampira’s décolletage and goth ennui

 

It took a generation from the ‘50s before the female TV horror host was revived in 1981, back again in Los Angeles, with a character, Elvira, largely based on an updated Vampira. Nurmi had helped with the creation of the show, but had a falling out with the producers.

By the end of the 20th Century, the Vampira character was still being kept alive by a wordless cameo in a widely viewed “Worst Movie of All Time” “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”  Irony wasn’t just a pose for the character, it was the way the character survived.

More irony: the mostly male ‘50s children who watched Vampira, Shock Theater, Creature Feature, and the other black and white movies rerun on TV at night past their bedtimes, had grown up and became the new Hollywood elite, making tens, and then hundreds of millions for a revived Hollywood, revising the tropes of the shoddy goods whose TV rights had been sold on the cheap.

If you take pre-Comics Code EC Comics attitude, the TV horror hosts, their old movies and modern descendants, add some bite-sized marketing from the candy merchants, and there you have modern American Halloween. If you walk by the rack of tacky vinyl and polyester costumes at the store, past the Star Wars characters in kid’s sizes, over to the adult-sized costumes, and there you see a “Sexy Vampire” hanging, black and low-cut, long, dark-haired wig included. A colored sheet suggests it worn by a thin young woman with red lipstick, white makeup and weaponized eyebrows. Think, then, of Maila Nurmi for Dave and me, won’t you.

Oh, there’s a song. Dave Moore wrote the words, I wrote the music and performed it. You can hear “Hollywood TV” using the player below. Click it. If You Dare!

 

 

If Not For Ed

Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.

Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.

“It’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.

Blank looks now.

But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.

Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur, Ed Wood, the Ed sung about in this song, even got his own biopic.

Nurmi’s successful earlier TV work was never archived (save for this small fragment). Since her attempts to find other outlets for her character came to naught, for many people she was only known from her short appearance in this bad movie.

So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career. To hear the song selection from the Vampira project, click on the gadget below.