Friday, September 28, 2018

Cereal Pianist

Remember the good old days?

When were they, exactly?

I was watching something called the Victor Borge show, on DVDs I borrowed from the library. Mr. Borge was a concert pianist turned comedian, whose musical comedy reliably turned up around PBS pledge drives for years. I saw him once on tour. Born in the 1909, he died in 2000. Long before I knew of him, or had even been born, he had a short-lived show on NBC, in the first part of 1951.

Borge's show was interesting for the occasional glimpse into the beginnings of material he would later use on stage as he toured. But it was not on the same level. For one thing, Borge, who had arrived in the US not ten years before without being about to speak a word of English, had to come up with a half hour show every week, and had only one other writer to help him. These days, a show that airs a few times a week will have about 20 writers. Borge had two including himself, and they didn't always come up with great material. It was more of a variety show, anyway, so sometimes you'd get dancers, or singers, or acrobats, or--well, you never knew what you were going to get. And it was only occasionally about the piano, or music at all.

Actually, it was really about cereal. You just knew the show's sponsors were constantly telling the host to plug their cereal more, and after a couple of months, the two 90-second commercials had grown to three. The host had to mention them on the air a couple of times a show, they incorporated it into sketches, and so on. And they were the only sponsor. I'm not going to mention the cereal's name because I am kind of annoyed at how often they plugged the cereal. I get it, I get it, you are paying money to get your name put on the show but could you just lay off just a little? Anybody with an IQ above 4 has got it already by the second commercial and probably won't be able to think about anything else all day as it is!

But what do I know. Maybe people in 1951 had goldfish memories and couldn't remember brand names for more than 30 seconds. On the other hand, they may have been people just like us.

Anyhow, there was a sketch where Mr. Borge asked us what had happened to the good old days. I had been under the misapprehension that 1951 WAS the good old days, but of course the problem with that is that this was said in 1951 and the good old days are never now. They were always then.

But to be honest, I'm not sure they were ever then, either. I mean, Borge suggested they might have been "20 years ago" which would have put them in the 1930s, which seems like strange times to be good, considering there was a major depression and was soon to be a major war. If anything could make a person wonder whether the idea of a "good old" anything was just a trick of the nostalgic imagination, that might be it. I've mentioned before my own good old era, the halcyon childhood when, in return for not having to pay bills, there was the threat of immanent nuclear war; and terrorism, and starvation, and genocide abroad. Other than that, perfectly lovely time to be alive. Not a care in the world.

I know I'll never get anywhere with this, but I do sometimes try to get people to examine their myths. And there are good reasons for that.

As a musician, I am supposed to hold with the idea that there was a time, in the middle of the last century, when people were much more educated about classical music then they are now, that they were friendlier to it, knew more about it, and valued it more highly. But I've seen a glimpse of the 1950s and, if they weren't there, I don't knew where they'd be. Certainly not in the 60s.

Borge wasn't Leonard Bernstein, of course, and didn't try to be. All the same, he didn't ask very much from his audience. He'd occasionally play a very shortened version of a famous piano concerto movement, or a solo piece. But sometimes several shows would go by without much musical content at all. And many of his jokes were more attitude than music. A few times he would imitate Shostakovich (still alive at the time) by smashing piano clusters like a four year old and declaring he'd come back when the composer got sober. He wanted us to know that this Russian didn't know how to write melodies, either. This was the height of the cold war, so it was easier to have fun by completely misrepresenting a living composer (anybody who has actually heard Shostakovich knows he could be very melodic; also that he was pretty much on our side when it came to Stalin, too, and was even being used for anti-Soviet propaganda by us. Would that have been too complicated? Why not at least pick another Soviet composer to make drunk jokes about?).

The self-congratulatory comedy didn't stop there; it had me wondering if this is what people thought was so educational. Instead of really teaching a little bit about music here and there (which you can still do in a comedy show and get away with it) you got a few of the famous pieces everybody knew, a few reinforced stereotypes about music and musicians;  in short, the kind of thing designed to make the audience feel good about what they thought they already knew rather than curious to know more.

All of this could be depressing, finding out that the good old days weren't so musically extraordinary as people have been making out. On the other hand, many of us go through the latter part of our lives disappointed and angry at a world that never seems to measure up to the way we thought things were.

Finding out that they never were that way can change our perspective a little.  I could unburden us.

I will say that Borge was still his affable self, and that was a pleasure to watch. I would argue that, while you could certainly point out that today there wouldn't even be a show that featured a classical pianist, I don't know that having one who has to dance around the opportunity to play real music and really talk about it, except very tangentially for a very limited amount of time is much of an advance on today. Also, Borge's show only lasted six months, so apparently the public patience for even that smattering of musical "culture" was limited.

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