Monday, August 13, 2007

A Little Glimpse into the Welcoming Past

By Lars Trodson

When I was a kid I never watched The Wonderful World of Disney. I always watched the Jackie Gleason Show. I loved the announcer, and the look of the camera flying low over Miami Beach, and then there were the girls surrounded by chiffon announcing the names of Art Carney and the June Taylor Dancers. The entire feel and look of the show seemed to me something out of a different era -- a more glamorous, timeless era than my own -- and that is what I loved the most about it, I think.

I was a kid afraid of my own time. When I was very young, the brother of one of our friends in the neighborhood was killed in Vietnam, and I remember the women in the neighborhood bringing over food and other stuff, and it was a very scary thing to me. After that, I was sort of hyper-aware of the war. It was always on TV, or on the cover of Life or Look or Newsweek or Time and some of the pictures were very frightening to me. I had images of these soldiers -- the Vietnamese -- marching down my street. I hated that war and almost everything about it.

In an effort to escape, I sort of attached myself to the 1940s. It was an odd time to think of as tranquil, of course, but I saw nothing but elegance and courtesy through the photos I looked at and the movies I watched. This was a fiction, of course, but a useful one to me, because my own time seemed anything but elegant. So retreat I did into the glamour of an earlier time.

One of the ways available to me to do that was through the Merv Griffin Show. In the 1970s, a great many of the major stars from the 1930s and 1940s were not only still alive, they were still very much in the public eye, and I could see them every afternoon. It is where I first heard Orson Welles’ voice, and I saw him do a magic trick that didn’t work. I listened to Bette Davis tell stories. Merv said: “There will never be another Bette Davis.” And she said something like: “Oh my dear, thank God for that.” The audience laughed. It was all scripted. I listened to the anecdotes of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and any number of other people. They all seemed enormously entertaining and authentic.

I knew that many of these stars had not only lived through war, their war, but had also fought in it. So their very presence was a comfort to me, because I felt if they could have gotten through the awfulness of World War II, then we all could get through the awfulness of Vietnam, too.

So I never looked at the guests on Merv as simply a parade of has-beens from a black and white era with some funny stories to tell, I looked at those old actors as symbols of resilience and fortitude and resourcefulness. Watching Merv’s show was one of the little ways in which I coped. It seemed like such a well-ordered and polite world. He would joke with the trumpet player – I forget the guy’s name -- as he introduced the band.

Is all this putting too much weight on a simple talk show? I suppose. But it seemed important to me at the time. And then of course you grow up, and that war ended, and so many of the people that I had acquainted myself with through books and movies left the scene, and Merv retreated to his businesses -- his hotels and the like -- and you saw him every once in a while.

He was the “Wheel of Fortune” guy, the inventor of “Jeopardy”, and because he stayed the same for so long, the way in which Johnny Carson stayed the same for so long, we didn’t think of Merv as being vulnerable to age or time.

Now, the era I longed for as a child, those silky 1940s, are retreating even further into the past, and I don’t have much use for them now -- as a comfort zone or as anything else. And even the era in which Merv reigned supreme, the 1970s, has gone through a couple of periods of acute nostalgia already and so it, too, is becoming less relevant and is becoming more silent with each passing year. So we are left with the ever-changing present.

Merv, in the end, seemed like an affable, decent man. You did not hear bad things about him, which is something. And his chatfest was a brief respite from the craziness of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to have those little memories, those happy memories of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Myrna Loy and Joan Blondell, memories that are better to have than of gunfights in the streets of Saigon, well, for that I will of course always be grateful.