Sunday, 28 June 2009

Media Moves

When I was the Education Adviser for Time/Life Films (1968-72), I experienced the first shock of my media experience: Life magazine folded! One of my priceless pleasures working there stemmed from our being on the same floor as the Photo Lab. Not only could I get all of my photographs developed and printed for free (that surcease led to the outrageous evil of my overshooting!), but I would find myself chatting that art with the likes of Alfred Eisenstaedt!

But I come now not to bury Life, but to praise the resiliency of Time, Inc. In 1955-56 I had a Fund for the Republic fellowship in New York City—to see how high school English teachers could assume a more creative relationship with the new medium of TV. I had written an essay on assigning original TV plays in school for Scholastic Teacher, “Everyman in Saddle Shoes,” when I explained how productive it had been for me to assign “A Catered Affair” and “Marty” from the Philco Goodyear Theatre. Maury Robinson, that creative publisher of the Scholastic magazines asked me if I’d like to take over as radio TV editor while I was in New York. Would I?! That gave me total access to the networks, and I still remember the thrill of Arthur Penn, then at the very start of his career, direct Dina Merrill in rehearsals for another Philco Goodyear.

But then a bigger serendipity dropped on my fuller and fuller plate. I quickly picked up the New York habit of reading the Times on my subway ride from Flushing to Fifth and 42nd Street. I noticed a feature on an impending White Conference on Education. I invited myself, a fearless Julien Sorel from East Lansing MI. As I entered the Washington Hilton foyer, I noticed Ralph Bunche (I recognized him because he had recently been on a Time cover) in a deep conversation with a man I had never seen before. (Indeed there were a lot of those that year in the Big Apple!) I brusquely interposed myself into their conversation, “I’m Pat Hazard from East Lansing High and I’m in New York to study the uses of Television for English Teaching!” As you can well imagine there was a stunned silence as these two celebs figured how to out me. The unknown quantity finally asked, “Well, how are things going, Mr. Hazard?”

“Terribly,” I conceded. I told them I’d been trying to get an interview with Pat Weaver, whose recently articulated philosophy; ENLIGHTENMENT THROUGH EXPOSURE, fit my educational dreams like a glove, but I couldn’t get to first base with the NBC brass.. His secretary’s temperature dropped several more degrees at each overture.

After a little more blatherous palaver, the stranger identified himself: “I’m Roy Larson, the publisher of Time, and I’m on the board of directors of the Fund for the Republic. How would you like an office at Time to facilitate your research.” GULP. He gave me a card with his office telephone number, and asked me to call him the first thing Monday morning, to arrange for an office. And he returned to his intense conversation with Dr. Bunche. It was not yet noon on Saturday.

Monday and I was soon in my new office, near the top of the Time Life Building scanning the Manhattan Skyline. “What the fuck do I do now?” Suddenly, I was just another Rube, paralyzed by the Biggest City. Then visions of Sylvester Weaver started coming into focus in my head. I’d call his secretary one final time. She was frostier than ever. “Mr.Hazard, this is the beginning of the Fall Season, and Mr.Weaver is really very busy.” I conceded that with my response,”Well, I’m just starting my fellowship and I’m extremely busy as well. If Mr.Weaver has fifteen minutes free this week, please call this number. JU 62525.”

And hung up. It was 9:15 a.m. I settled down to read the latest issue of Time, just to feel like I could feel at home. 9:45 a.m. A Time secretary poked her head through the door and asked, “Is there a Patrick Hazard here? Call from NBC. Pat Weaver’s office.” Goggle-eyed (I didn’t yet know how powerful certain phone numbers were in Manhattan. It was the refrigerated secretary, with a decidedly more hospitable tone on the phone. “Are you free at 1100 to talk with Mr. Weaver. He’s just had a cancellation.” I agreed as amiably as my sudden panic permitted. I asked a local how to get to Rockefeller Center and NBC. “No problem. Just cross Sixth Avenue, go past the Radio City Music Hall, ask for NBC.”

Pat Weaver was a wonder. As I entered his office, he was exercising (intellectually, he told me later) on his Bongo Board, a one-man see-saw he used to clarify his thinking. He was a very engaging man, kinetic energy sizzling off his easy going, rangey hulk. He asked me to tell him what I had been doing with TV in my classes in East Lansing. Michigan State had just opened a UHF TV station, so I talked my twelfth grade students into producing a weekly TV series, “Everyman Is a Critic”, where I was the MC, but they were the guests who chose their own topics; pop music, hot rods, television,.

I told him how I had assigned “Marty” to my tenth grade class, sight unseen. And Maurice Evans in his Hallmark “Macbeth”. His eyes glowed as I ticked off these NBC productions. He told me how they fit with his Enlightenment through Exposure concept, and went on to speculate how his live “Wide, Wide World format” could quicken the mass audience’s curiosity, and how open formats like the“Today”, “Home”, and “Tonight” shows could allow a mix of features of varying degrees of complexity.

It was thrilling to hear him speculate along the lines that I thought only academics were allowed to trod. He wanted to know where I went to school. I explained how I majored in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit, my home town, took a master’s degree at Western Reserve in Cleveland, and was taking final courses for my prelims at Michigan State as I wrote my doctoral dissertation. He wished me luck and asked me to get in touch if I ever got stuck. He made me promise to give him a copy of my final report.

He picked up his phone and asked his secretary to get him the head of PR. Soon I was in Nancy Goldberg’s office, learning how I could watch rehearsals, look at live performances from the director’s booth. Bless Roy Larson and his magic telephone number. She set up appointments with Ed Stanley, the head of Public Affairs, and Stockton Helfrich, the censor. The only thing more exciting was the interview in a Manhattan bar near Grand Central Station that Louis Forsdale of Teachers College, Columbia set up for me with Marshall McLuhan, who was a visiting TC professor that year.

I came upon Marshall early, when he was writing pieces for “The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man” (1950) for Commonweal, the lay magazine that liberal Catholics published. He wrote that book, he told me, because when he began teaching Freshman English at the University of Wisconsin after his final studies at Oxford University, he felt he was an anthropologist in a strange land, where he had to begin by learning the language. Between Larson, Weaver, and McLuhan, I seemed to be executing an educational triple play.

Larson was especially solicitous. He sent me to Chicago to see how Life was printed. He arranged for me and the son of the editor of Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time, to watch an edition of Life being together from scratch, just we two and the editor in chief, the art director and the managing editor. You couldn’t pay for such media tuition. There was always some special angle to make the mystifications of media more accessible to the outsider, learning from scratch. At the end of this annis mirabilis, I gave a talk at the Four C’s convention, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which is to say, Freshman English.

My talk was entitled “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism” in which I argued you had to get into the lion’s den of mass culture or the barbarous animals would win. Three English professors from Trenton State came up after and asked me if I’d like to play those tunes at their college. Where is Trenton, I innocently asked, having flunked fifth grade Geography back in Bay City. It’s the capital of New Jersey,” they chorused in unison, exchanging looks as if to say, how in the hell did this guy look like a winner. I accepted their offer.

It was a blue collar, commuter college (TRENTON MAKES/THE WORLD TAKES) shouts an electric sign garnishing the main bridge over the Delaware River. The chairman insisted that every freshman read the daily New York Times, to upgrade their sites. (Saved me an expensive subscription! And it was a useful tactic.) The librarian, Felix Hirsch, was a former editor at the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, a Jew fleeing Hitler, and raising intellectual standards several cubits in one fell swoop.

A generation later, the local brass got in a onomastic tizzy with nearby Princeton when they decided to revive Princeton’s old moniker, The College of New Jersey, to gentrify its blue collar provenance. Princeton didn’t argue long, because it was infra dig for them to squabble with such a lowly institution. I would have stayed there until tenure, had I not finished my Ph.D. and gotten a Carnegie post-doctoral fellowship at Penn to create an American Civilization course on “The Mass Society”.Create the course in 1957-58—first semester on Mass Production (industrial design, architecture, urban planning), second semester on Mass Communication (print, graphics and broadcasting) and teach it in 1958-59). During the second year, Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million dollars to start a graduate school of communication. Faute de mieux, I became the First Gofer.

Gilbert Seldes had deeply influenced my thinking about mass culture, first with his pioneer book, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) and then “The Public Arts” (1950) so I argued that the first Ivy school (that was stretching it, given Columbia’s School of Journalism, but you know how donors are) should be led by a unique pioneer like Gilbert Seldes.

We used to joke that I was the St. John the Baptist to his Jesus, crisscrossing the country talking to media trade associations and major J schools, to tell them how we planned a curriculum with media arts workshops at the center of the curriculum, somewhat like Walter Gropius’ scheme for the Bauhaus, with Charles Hoban of the School of Education teaching a course on research techniques, me giving a lecture course on media history (that old chestnut from “Cave Painting to Comic Strips”), Vice Dean Charles Lee supervising a weekly postprandial series of visiting media movers and shakers, and Gilbert giving a course on himself under the rubric, “Media Criticism”.

Lee was too wishy washy to pose serious, even threatening , questions to the media brass so the lectures plus questions never reached the qualitative level of the Faculty Club Dinner. Harold Feinstein gave a great photography workshop, but left to fulfill his outstanding career. George Dessart, a producer at local station WCAU-TV, gave a very successful TV workshop He went on to Brooklyn College to a post TV career as an educator of professionals. Gilbert was past his peak, drank a bit too much, and was characterologically unfit to kowtow to academics. So he soon retired, and George Gerbner, a fascinating Hungarian Jew who fled Nazi persecution in Budapest to become a successful journalist in San Francisco before becoming a professor. His social science commitments completely superceded Gilbert’s aesthetic perspective.

I spent only two years there, being appointed first Director of American Studies at the East West Center in Honolulu, where we used radio and TV to explain Asia to the American students and America to the Asians. It was exciting and innovative, but I returned to Philadelphia mainly because my Number Two, Seymour Lutsky, chosen without my knowledge or consent, had spent the last ten years as a CIA operative!

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