Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Luce Thinking in America

Alan Brinkley’s perceptive biography of Henry B. Luce and all his works and pomps starting me thinking about my four years (1968-72) as education adviser for TIME-LIFE FILMS. It all began one Friday in New York (October 1955) on the E train to Manhattan as I reveled in my new daily reading of the New York Times en route to my job as the Radio-TV editor of “Scholastic Teacher”.

I noticed a small story about an Education conference in Washington the next day in Washington. I decided on the spot to go uninvited to explore possibilities about my Ford grant to advise high school teachers on how to deal with the new mesmerizing medium. My first national publication (in Scholastic Teacher), ”Everyman in Saddle Shoes” proposed, as I had done as a tenth and twelfth grade teacher at East Lansing, Michigan High, that teachers assign teleplays by writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, and Horton Foote to encourage them to be thoughtful about the Newer Media.

The first thing I noticed as I enter the ballroom of the Washington Hilton were two men deep in conversation. I recognized one as Ralph Bunche, our first black ambassador to the United Nations, whom I had seen on a “Time” cover. With unbecoming chutzpah, I identified myself: “I’m Pat Hazard from East Lansing High, and I’m in New York on a Ford Foundation grant to find ways of giving English Teachers more control over their students TV watching, which was becoming excessive, and potentially subversive to educational success." The two men were temporarily speechless!

Finally, the unidentified man exclaimed, ”I’m Roy Larsen, the publisher of “Time” magazine, and I’m on the board of the Foundation that gave you grant! How’s it goin’, Mr. Hazard?” Now I was struck dumb! “Well.” I finally got back in focus enough to reply, ”I’ve been trying ever since I got here to set up an interview with Pat Weaver, the head of NBC television. His “Enlightenment through Exposure” theory about TV watching is 100% my modus operandi. But every time I call his secretary, she becomes more distant and uncooperative.”

“Well, how would you like an office at Time, Inc. to give you better media access?” Uh, oh, ah, that would be swell!” “Well, here’s my card," Larsen replied “Call me Monday, and we’ll find you a place. And Good Luck. You’ve given yourself an important mission. Keep me in touch with your progress. We’ll do all we can to help.” Dazed, I pottered about the rest of the convention, and quickly returned to Flushing to bring my wife Mary, also an English teacher, up to date. Michael (3) and Catherine (1) were too young to care!

Bright and early Monday I was showing my Roy Larsen card to the Reception Desk at the Time-Life Building. Security soon whisked up to the 36th floor to “my Office.” I gawked at the views of Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, thumbed through the current copies of “Time” and “Life” deployed invitingly for my use. (Copies of “Fortune” and “Sports Illustrated”) could wait till later. Now what the fuck do I do? I mused, nervously. I’ll call Pat weaver’s office! Nervously I fingered his number. When I identified myself, the phone’s temperature dropped 10 degrees! “Mr. Hazard,” the whinier and whinier voice of his secretary boomed, ”It’s the beginning of the fall season and Mr. Weaver is very, very busy.”

I replied, fake humbly, ”It’s the beginning of my Ford grant, and Mr. Weaver’s 'Enlightenment through Exposure' concept is spot on. So as soon as he can spare fifteen minutes, please let me now.” And gave her Time’s number and my extension—and hung up, noisily!It was 09:30. Shortly after ten, an office secretary PAed, ”Is there a Patrick Hazard here?” I picked the phone and heard a very different secretarial voice: “There’s a cancellation: Mr. Weaver can see you for fifteen minutes at 10:30. Please be on time!” I asked the secretary, how do I find the RCA Building. “No problem. Cross Sixth Avenue and ask Reception for Pat’s office.”

I was there by 10:10, nervously nibbling at my nails. The “hostile” secretary greeted me warmly. (That “Time” phone made all the difference!) She knocked on his door and Weaver replied “Enter”!

To my astonishment he was rocking on a Bongo Board. To flatlanders that’s tiny seesaw that rocks up and down. “Holy Moses!” I exclaimed silently. Is my hero a nutcase? “It clears my mind,” Pat explained tersely. As he came down to earth and settled in a sociable sofa. “Tell me what you’ve been doing out in East Lansing. And we can do to help you in New York?” I described the excited way my tenth graders responded to an overnight assignment to do a TV crit of Paddy Chayefsky’s “A Catered Affair” about the fiscal dilemmas of a cabbie torn between giving his only daughter a fancy wedding and paying for his hack license.

“I’ve never had a more stimulating day in the classroom. And how I never taught “Macbeth” better than the time NBC broadcast Maurice Evans performance for my twelfth graders. And I told him how my wife and I wrote a weekly TV/radio suggestion column for” Scholastic Teacher”, one-page Teleguides for special programs. We also wrote a monthly column called “The Public Arts” for “The English Journal” of the National Council of Teachers of English. He was clearly fascinated. He called on the spot Nancy Goldberg of their PR Department with the charge to help us out whenever possible.

She was an enthusiastic wonder. Before you could spell Neilsen, she was letting us watch Arthur rehearse a new teleplay. Have dinner with director John Frankenheimer and TV play anthologist William Kaufmann. Palaver at will with Ed Tanley who ran the Public Affairs Department. Down the road it would lead to a marvelous encounter in 1964 with David Frost and the That Was The Week That Was cast while the Modern Language Association was having its annual convention: dinner in General Sarnoff’s apartment during the telecast for 9 (the muses!) MLA satire specialists (and media sociologists like Herb Gans and Webster lexicographer Philip Gove). After the telecast, the cast partied with us to the wee hours.

Nancy introduced us to the Television Public Affairs Office where we plotted an TV for English Teachers in 1965 in Cleveland from which came the book“TY AS Art” . And “24 Hours of UnSeen American TV” a semester long screening at the Royal College of Art in London when I taught there.

These various activities led to my appointment as Education Advisor for Time-Life Films (1968-72). Our program was simple: Every Tuesday I’d train into New York, scan the next week’s BBC “Listener” for promising program for our American clients—public TV, schools, museums. The most promising were recorded in color during transmission and airlifted four our critical screening the following Wednesday. Some perks were Linda Kefauver (yep, Estes’ daughter) assigning me to shoot pictures for filmstrips derived from BBC Telecasts like Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation”. Two I remember best were Robert Venturi’s Guild House and a sequence from the Phillies’ dugout in Vet Stadium.

Sometimes our “Managing Director” (that’s how fauxBrit we could be) Peter Roebeck could be thick, as when he fired off a nasty note forbidding us to spend time screening “Monty Python” (my favorite!) ”I’m not paying you $1000 a month to watch that crap!” Luckily we had already clued WTTW/Chicago, so Monty accessed America! I actually was canned at a London seminar for not wearing a tie! I think my Ph.D. intimidated him because it seemed to give me more easy access to the Brits that care about such matters! I’ll never forget my connection with Jacob Bronowski at one of those summer seminars. We were looking at the rushes of his series “The Ascent of Man”.

He had grumbled in his palaver to us how he wanted to spend his time writing math books, his specialty, and essays on William Blake, his favorite poet. He hated the time “wasted” learning how to talk television. After the screening I said that his remarks reminded me of my favorite William Blake aphorism-“He who would do me good must do it with minute particulars!” His eyes blazed: “Precisely, precisely.”
That night I threw a party for the BBC and American salesmen at my girl friend Phyllis O’Leary's flat overlooking Regents Park.

She was a wonder, a working class girl who had taught herself so brilliantly that her “lecture” at the Whitechapel Gallery wiped me out. I especially wanted two Jews who fled from Vienna, Stephen Hearst, head of BBC 3, and Martin Esslin, “absurd theatre theoretician”, to see my autodidact in action. I was hypothezing as well that the Beatles would civilize working class barbarians single-handedly! Oh well! (They were sufficiently astonished.)

But the biggest effect of mixing with “commerce” is that it moved me to abandon academic tenure for cultural freelancing. Most American academics were snootier than imaginable about the Luce publication even though a long list of the best—from Archibald Macleish to James Age--cut their editorial teeth there. I loved working on the same floor and chatting with them. And I’ll never forget the day I and the son of the founder of Der Spiegel watched the editor, the photo director, and the managing direct put an issue of “Life” together.

There was more intellectual energy there than in any English Department meeting I attended! Writing for the Welcomat was more civilizing than any academic exercise I survived. Alan Brinkley’s book makes that clear. The most serious trahison des clercs of twentieth century America has been their being too snooty to help the “ignorant masses” up a step or three. Their failure to lead is the single most culpable fault in the success of the cashocracy.

Another version of this essay appears at Broad Street Review.

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