COMMENTARY: MARK GUYDISH
If you want a crash course in 1950s-60s American pop culture, consider a ticket to the 1960 Broadway play “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Go ahead, tell your kids — or grandkids — that Conrad Birdie is based on Elvis Presley, then explain Elvis Presley. Describe the Ed Sullivan show, and how most of America tuned in at the same time on the same day to watch it, with no ability to record it for later viewing, much less view it on demand.
Explain to a generation that can instantly download suggestive music videos how Presley’s gyrations were so controversial Sullivan dubbed it “vulgar” and initially refused to book him.
Speaking of phones, after you discuss what a land line is, talk about the days when there was only one phone line in the house, which is why Mrs. MacAfee can pick up one phone and hear her daughter talking on the other.
And if you can, explain Mr. MacAfee’s quip: “Call the FBI! Call the Shadow! — You’ll find him under Lamont Cranston.”
The Pennsylvania Theatre of the Performing Arts is staging the play in the J.J. Ferrara Center on Broad Street in Hazleton (ferracenter.org), and my wife and I decided to attend Sunday’s matinee. Not because it’s a great play (This isn’t Shakespeare, or even “Oklahoma,” the PTPA’s next production), or because it hearkens back to a time I remember (I was in high school in the age of big belts and bell bottoms, not thin ties and bobby-soxers).
No, we went to see it because nearly four decades ago I played Albert Peterson as a senior in the now-defunct West Hazleton High School. And I guess a part of me always wants to compare my performance with the latecomers starring in local revivals. I mean, can someone who never watched Ed Sullivan on a fuzzy black and white TV really appreciate the MacAfee family’s reverie upon learning “We’re going to be on Ed Sullivan!”
Except that I have nothing to compare it to beyond memory, a preserved printed program, and a few yearbook photos (That’s me on the right).
Which is another thing you might have to explain to the generation recording anything they want and posting it on Youtube instantly for the world to see: There was a time when they didn’t hand out DVDs of the play you just staged, when your parents couldn’t set up a camera and shoot two hours of footage without changing film and finding a wall socket.
When I was Albert, video cassette recorders were rare and expensive, not obsolete. I’m pretty sure West Hazleton’s audio/visual club worked with one, but I have no idea if they recorded the play, or if any parents caught it with an old film camera.
This isn’t meant to sound like a broken record (another analogy you can explain to the MP3 generation), I promise not to regale with stories of how, when I went to school, we had to walk barefoot in three feet of snow uphill, against the wind, both ways.
But I often think there is a profitable business that, as near as I can tell, has yet to be done. I imagine a website clearinghouse where those seeking old movies of public events like high school plays, and those who possess recordings of such events, could post the specifics: Year, location, event, etc., allowing seeker and possessor to connect.
If there’s something like that out there let me know. If you’re savvy enough to launch such an endeavor, please do (and consider giving me a cut of any profits for the idea).
And if you happen to have some dusty old recording of West Hazleton High School’s 1975 production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” or any of the other plays I was in in high school or at Penn State Hazleton, let me know.
Old footage of my Transfiguration grade school performance as the “bad boy” grabbed by the ear by an angry teacher may be good as gold.
I was led to believe my acting while being dumped in a waste bucket was a showstopper.
Mark Guydish can be reached at 829-7161 or email firstname.lastname@example.org