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Saturday, March 30, 2024

March 30-31, 2024: March 2024 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

March 4: National Park Studying: Yosemite: For the Department of the Interior’s 175th birthday, a National Park series kicks off with six figures who helped shape Yosemite.

March 5: National Park Studying: Blackstone River Valley: The series continues with two interesting comps for one of our newest Parks.

March 6: National Park Studying: Everglades: The very American story of the woman who helped save the ‘Glades, as the story tours on.

March 7: National Park Studying: Mesa Verde: Two distinct but complementary sides to a foundational AmericanStudier moment.

March 8: National Park Studying: Acadia: The series concludes with a few telling moments in the Maine Park’s Franco-American history.

March 9-10: National Park Studying: National Historic Parks: A special weekend post on a few of the many great National Historic Parks—with many more in a Saturday Evening Post column linked at the end!

March 11: NeMLA Reflections: Opening Address: A series on the latest great NeMLA conference kicks off with the opening speaker’s multilayered public scholarly work.

March 12: NeMLA Reflections: NeMLA Reads Together: The series continues with two takeaways from the latest example of NeMLA’s wonderful community endeavor.

March 13: NeMLA Reflections: My Panel on Nostalgia & the 50s: Three of the many excellent conversations I got to be part of on Vaughn Joy’s panel on “nostalgic extremism.”

March 14: NeMLA Reflections: Guilty Pleasures Panels: Two interesting throughlines from a pair of provocative interconnected sessions.

March 15: NeMLA Reflections: Community Connections: The reflections conclude with three ways NeMLA 2024 connected to its host city.

March 16-17: NeMLA Reflections: A Special Organization: A weekend tribute to a few of the reasons why NeMLA is such a special organization.

March 18: American Magic: Fakir of Ava: In honor of Houdini’s 150th birthday, a MagicStudying series kicks off with three ways the first famous American magician paved the way for the profession.

March 19: American Magic: Thurston and Kellar: The series continues with a pair of magicians who help us think about competition and collaboration.

March 20: American Magic: Orson Welles: Two ways to AmericanStudy a fascinating last act in a legendary career, as the series tricks on.

March 21: American Magic: Penn & Teller: Three telling influences on one of the most famous magic acts of the last half-century.

March 22: American Magic: 21st Century Evolutions: The series concludes with a handful of contemporary talents who reflect how magic has evolved.

March 23-24: American Magic: Harry Houdini: On Houdini’s 150th, three lesser-known layers to our most famous magician.

March 25: What is Game Show Studying?: 30s and 40s Origins: For Jeopardy!’s 60th anniversary, a Game Show Studying series kicks off with three stages in the genre’s experimental early decades.

March 26: What is Game Show Studying?: Quiz Show Scandals: The series continues with three ways to contextualize the fixing scandals that dominated the game show world in the late 50s.

March 27: What is Game Show Studying?: Dating Games: A more straightforward and a more subtle context for a pair of groundbreaking dating games, as the series plays on.

March 28: What is Game Show Studying?: Deal-Making: AmericanStudies contexts for three generations of deal-making shows.

March 29: What is Game Show Studying?: Jeopardy!: The series concludes with two ways the legendary game show echoes the genre’s histories, and one way it stands out.

April Fool’s series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, March 29, 2024

March 29, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Jeopardy!

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On two ways the legendary game show echoes topics from earlier in the week, and one way it stands out.

Maybe it’s an apocryphal story (TV game shows are a mixture of reality and fiction, people and performance, as this whole week’s series has hopefully reflected), but in any case as the story goes Jeopardy! was created in direct response and contrast to the 1950s quiz show scandals about which I wrote on Tuesday. As creator Merv Griffin described it in a 1963 profile published while the show was still in development, “My wife Julann just came up with the idea one day when we were in a plane bringing us back to New York City from Duluth. I was mulling over game show ideas, when she noted that there had not been a successful ‘question and answer’ game on the air since the quiz show scandals. Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question?” Sounds likely enough, and I love the thought that the longest-running and most successful quiz show in TV history was inspired to flip the traditional question-and-answer format (the innovation that made it stand out) by a cultural need to flip narratives of fixed quiz shows.

Across that long-running history, Jeopardy! has likewise connected to both the daytime and primetime varieties of game show about which I wrote in yesterday’s post. The original 1964 iteration, hosted by Art Fleming and running until January 1975, was a daytime show that aired weekly; the 1984 reboot, initially hosted by Alex Trebek and still on the air today despite Trebek’s 2021 passing, was and remains a primetime show that airs daily. As those hyperlinked clips indicate, the two versions were in gameplay and many ways identical to each other, but I would argue that (just as I argued about Deal or No Deal in yesterday’s post) the primetime version of Jeopardy! did nonetheless feel distinct, both in heightened production values and in higher stakes (relatively speaking—Jeopardy! has never had the million-dollar payouts of some other quiz and game shows). Most of the other long-running game shows have stayed on one side or the other of this duality, so it’s particularly interesting to see how a single show has evolved from daytime to primetime.

While Jeopardy! is thus very much in conversation with TV game show trends and topics from throughout the genre’s nearly 100 years of history, I would say that it has achieved a level of cultural presence and influence beyond any other such show (it’s not a coincidence that both Rosie Perez’s character in the film White Men Can’t Jump and Ann Dowd’s [SPOILERS in that clip] in the TV show The Leftovers have dreams of appearing on Jeopardy!, for example; nor that Weird Al wrote a song about it!). The question of why is of course an open-ended one, but if I were to boil it down I would emphasize two factors related to my two prior paragraphs in this post: the flipped “answer and question” format that we apparently owe to Merv Griffin’s wife; and the host who took over for the show’s primetime reboot and became very much a celebrity in his own right (with the Saturday Night Live parody to prove it). As someone who tried out for Jeopardy! multiple times (and who was in fact invited to be on the show but was frustratingly unable to do so, which is a story you’d have to draw out of me with an AmericanStudies beer or two), I can say that I fully understand the show’s unique appeal, and am happy to celebrate it here on its 60th birthday!

March Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 28, 2024

March 28, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Deal-Making

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On AmericanStudies contexts for three generations of defining, deal-making game shows.

1)      The Price is Right (1956): There’s no way to talk about The Price is Right (the original version—starting in 1972 it was rebooted as The New Price is Right which remains on the air to this day) without connecting it to the late 1950s quiz show scandals about which I wrote on Tuesday. Partly because the stakes were significantly lower on Price than on those contemporary game shows, and partly (and relatedly) because the contestants seemed much more like ordinary people than the ostensibly super-smart quiz show contestants, Price not only survived the surge in cancellations that plagued the game show genre during and after those scandals, but really thrived as a contrast to those shows. To this day daytime game shows tend to feature more “everyday” contestants and tones compared to the heightened drama of prime-time shows, and that trend is closely tied to this prominent early example.

2)      Let’s Make a Deal (1963): The blossoming popularity of The Price is Right in the early 1960s was bound to produce competitors, and one of the first and most successful was Let’s Make a Deal. Deal was pretty similar to Price, and the two (in their respective rebooted forms) have really endured as the two most successful daytime game shows. But in my experience with them, I would say that (at least in its first 1960s iteration) Deal leaned even a bit more fully into a contestant pool that paralleled one of its principal intended audiences: traditional, stay-at-home housewives. Just look at the June Cleaver pearls on the first contestant in the 1963 debut episode hyperlinked above! Daytime TV has always been closely tied to images (and certainly also realities, but I would say even more images) of that community, and we can see them reflected in a daytime game show like this one.

3)      Deal or No Deal (2005): Deal or No Deal wasn’t the first primetime deal-making game show, but I would argue it was and remains one of the most popular, especially in its early years. Interestingly, a great deal of Deal (or No Deal) closely mimicked daytime shows like (Let’s Make a) Deal, as illustrated most succinctly by the bevy of attractive and seductively-dressed women supporting the male host. But while (Let’s Make a) Deal often featured one such female co-host at a time, Deal (or No Deal) featured twenty, and that was kind of the whole deal with this primetime show: very similar to the daytime ones, but with everything turned up to 11. Partly that’s just the difference between daytime and primetime TV, but I would say it also reflects the early 21st century’s increasing sense of the need for individual entertainment options to stand out amidst an ever-more-crowded cultural landscape. But one thing I know—as long as there are TVs, somewhere one will be showing a deal-making game show.

Last game show histories tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

March 27, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Dating Games

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On a more straightforward and a more subtle context for a pair of groundbreaking game shows.

After the late 1950s quiz show scandals about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, TV game shows didn’t go away, nor did the genre leave quiz shows entirely behind, as the 1964 inspiration for this week’s series reflects (and on which I’ll have more to say in Friday’s post). But TV game shows did evolve significantly in the 1960s, and one of those evolutions was toward shows focused on dating and romance. 1965 saw the creation of one hugely popular such show, Chuck Barris’ The Dating Game (hosted by Jim Lange); a year later another was created, Nick Nicholson and E. Roger Muir’s The Newlywed Game (hosted by Bob Eubanks); and from then on these two shows were consistently connected, both in original episodes and in syndication (and even more fully in their 1990s joint revival, when the pair was known as “The Dating-Newlywed Hour”).

Pairing these two game shows offers a fascinating window into a period when social mores around romance were likewise evolving, as illustrated by The Dating Game’s relatively casual approach to the idea of an individual (and usually a single woman, although sometimes the genders of contestant and candidates were reversed) choosing potential romantic partners from a trio of anonymous single suitors. The Newlywed Game could thus be read as a more traditional counterpart, one focused on heterosexual couples who were already partnered up in that more conventional way (although the preponderance of Newlywed Game questions centered on what Eubanks called “making whoopee” was at least a bit controversial on 1960s TV). Since both shows remained on the air for many years, and then again were revived together in the 1990s, it would likewise be fascinating to consider how their individual and complementary depictions of romance themselves evolved as the shows went on (giving that one away as a Media Studies dissertation topic).

One of the complaints that’s been consistently directed at 21st century dating game shows (and with cause) is that the contestants are there not to find romance or love, but to become famous. The rise of the internet and social media and other such avenues to fame has no doubt changed the landscape of dating games, like all game shows (and all cultural forms period). But it’s also worth noting that these 1960s dating games likewise featured a number of both soon-to-be-famous and already-famous figures: The Dating Game in particular saw, to name just a handful, Farrah Fawcett, Tom Selleck, Andy Kaufman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a very young Michael Freaking Jackson; The Newlywed Game did mostly feature non-famous couples in its earliest iterations, but would go on to include celebrity couples such as George Takei and his husband Brad Altman. Which is to say, it’s always been a fair question how much of these dating game shows has to do with dating and how much with games of very different, and very culturally telling varieties.

Next game show histories tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

March 26, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Quiz Show Scandals

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On three ways to contextualize the fixing scandals that dominated the quiz and game show world in the late 1950s.

1)      Entertainment: As with many cultural forms, there are tensions and even contradictions present in the genre of the game show, and illustrated by that name itself: these are indeed games, with rules and results and winners and losers and so on; but they are also shows, designed to appeal to audiences (and needing to do so in order to stay on the air of course). It seems that one of the first and most prominent fixing scandals began as a direct result of that contradiction: the September 1956 debut episode of the NBC quiz show Twenty-One (hosted by Jack Barry) went quite poorly, as the two contestants got most of the questions wrong; the show’s main sponsor Geritol complained to the network and producer Dan Enright and demanded a change. Just a few months later Twenty-One featured an extended run of victories by Herb Stempel, the contestant who would later raise the first accusations of fixing (on his behalf, and then in favor of his successor as champion, Charles Van Doren).

2)      Law: If these scandals were thus very much about entertainment, the responses to them quickly and thoroughly became about something very different: the law. When a fixing scandal for a second game show, Dotto, emerged in August 1958 (as the Twenty-One scandal was also really breaking), the result was nothing short of a nine-month-long New York County grand jury investigation, in the course of which a number of producers and contestants apparently committed perjury rather than admit to their roles in the scandals. The grand jury did not ultimately hand down indictments, but the whole thing then escalated even further, to an August 1959 U.S. Congress subcommittee investigation. That did produce a significant and enduring legal change, a 1960 amending of the influential Communications Act of 1934 which make fixing game shows illegal.

3)      Identity: Quiz Show (1994), the Robert Redford-directed film which focuses on the Twenty-One scandal in particular, certainly engages with all these histories and themes. But I would argue that the film focuses even more on another context, a more ambiguous but also perhaps even more definingly American one: the role that identity and community played for individual figures like the Jewish underdog Stempel (played by John Turturro) and WASP son of privilege Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes). It isn’t always easy to remember that each and every game show contestant is a complicated human being, with all the baggage of heritage, family, community, psychology, and more that influence each of us. But Redford’s film asks us to keep that in mind, not just for these quiz show scandal figures but for everyone who takes part in the long and ongoing tradition of game shows.

Next game show histories tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

Monday, March 25, 2024

March 25, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: 30s and 40s Origins

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On three stages in the genre’s experimental early decades.

1)      1938 Starting Points: Of course quizzes and trivia questions and the like had been part of society in various forms for centuries, but the first official “game shows” on both radio and television appeared in the same month and year, May 1938: the American radio show Information Please (which debuted on May 17th and would run for the next 13 years); and the very early British TV show Spelling Bee (which debuted on May 31st and featured four live episodes). Both radio and TV have continued to feature quiz shows and game shows in prominent roles ever since, so this dual origin point isn’t surprising (although I’ll admit to not realizing prior to research this series that TV existed in any meaningful form in 1938). Of course one factor was the evolution of these media and technologies, but I would also argue that the Depression-era timing wasn’t a coincidence; audiences needed escapes from their difficult realities, and as the name suggests, game shows offered a fun such respite.

2)      1941 Evolutions: Spelling Bee was a bit of a one-off, and it was a few years later that TV game shows began to emerge and evolve more fully. That started with an adaptation of a popular radio show, Truth or Consequences, which had debuted on the radio in March 1940 but aired an experimental TV version on July 1, 1941 (making it the first game show on broadcast TV, although it would only become a regular TV program in 1950). Just one day later, on July 2, saw the debut of the first regularly scheduled TV game show, CBS Television Quiz, which aired weekly for about a year. Again this timing was at least a bit coincidental and likely reflective of TV’s evolutions and new possibilities in the period, but I would likewise connect these to their 1941 moment, and the need for an audience to be temporarily and enjoyably distracted from a world at war.

3)      You Bet Your Life: One of the most successful game shows of the 1940s appeared in both media, not just as an adaptation from one to the other but as a program that moved back and forth between the two. That was You Bet Your Life, the Groucho Marx-hosted comedy quiz show which debuted on the radio in 1947, on TV in 1950, and continued in both media (again in a back-and-forth kind of way) for another decade. You Bet Your Life was genuinely a quiz show, but a great deal of its marketing and appeal centered on its funny and famous host, making this in many ways the first game show that was more about personality and performance than the games or quizzes themselves. That would become a recurring element of the genre, exemplified of course by the legendary Jeopardy host about whom I’ll have more to say on Friday.

Next game show histories tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 23, 2024

March 23-24, 2024: American Magic: Harry Houdini

[This weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ve performed some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to this special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three lesser-known layers to perhaps our most famous magician.

1)      An Immigrant Family: Born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, Houdini was literally part of such a family, as he, his parents, and his six siblings immigrated to the United States in 1878 (part of that era’s sizeable wave of immigration from Eastern Europe among other places). But that family was also an influential part of Houdini’s development as a performer, including his debut as a 9 year old trapeze artist “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air” in entertainer Jack Hoeffler’s traveling circus; and his first true performances in the early 1890s, working alongside his brother Theodore (known as “Dash”) in an act called “The Brothers Houdini.” As I wrote about in one of my early posts, the late 19th century was the heyday of the concept of the “self-made man,” but it takes a village to produce any successful figure, and Harry Houdini was no more self-made than anyone else in that category.

2)      An Inspiring Partnership: There are likely various reasons why Houdini and Dash stopped performing together, including Houdini’s own developing turn of the 20th century fame as an individual artist (especially when he began transitioning from card magic to escapes), but one factor was a bit less of a fraternal bond: Dash had a romantic interest in a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner; but Houdini was likewise interested, won her hand in marriage in 1894, and made her his stage assistant in a new act known as “The Houdinis.” Although that’s obviously a complicated story and one on which Dash would undoubtedly have a different perspective, it did lead to a lifelong partnership for Houdini on multiple levels, as Bess would remain both his wife and his performing partner for the rest of his life.

3)      An Irritable Author: Those performances would of course define the remaining three decades of Houdini’s career, from that 1894 marriage through his tragically early death in 1926 (officially from appendicitis, but apocryphally from a punch to the stomach). But another through-line in his career was Houdini’s use of writing not only to market himself but also and especially to express his grievances with fellow performers and the profession. When he founded a periodical, the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, in 1906, it only featured two editions before the preponderance of what magic historian Jim Steinmeyer calls Houdini’s “own crusades” led to its failure. Undeterred by that failure, in 1908 Houdini published a book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, which attacked the French magician from whom Houdini had drawn his stage name as a fraud (due at least in part to Houdini feeling slighted by Robert-Houdin’s family during a European tour). Houdini could escape most anything, but clearly not the fraught chambers of his own psyche, no more than any of us can.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Friday, March 22, 2024

March 22, 2024: American Magic: 21st Century Evolutions

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On a handful of contemporary talents who reflect how magic has continued to evolve.

1)      Ricky Jay: I honestly don’t want to say too much here, as I’d rather you take the next hour and watch that amazing special (directed by David Mamet!). The heart of magic shows are card tricks, and no one—not in our own era, and not ever as far as I’m concerned—has mastered them more than Ricky Jay did (he tragically passed away in 2018 at the age of 72). Watch that video if you doubt my claim!

2)      Lance Burton: Burton has been performing magic since 1981 and continues to do a Las Vegas show to this day, and as the images and details on that website indicate is very much in the vein of the classic stage magicians. The evolution of an art form doesn’t have to mean brand-new iterations, of course—it can also mean how the traditional versions have extended into our own moment, what it means to perform today in those longstanding ways. Burton seems to embody that form of magic, and has for many decades now.

3)      David Blaine: The next couple magicians I’ll highlight in this post do represent more dramatic evolutions and shifts in the art of magic, however. David Blaine does perform card tricks, but in a close-up, intimate, audience-involving style that differs quite strikingly from Ricky Jay’s more traditional stage show. And he does perform illusions, but in a more extreme and death-defying form than the likewise more traditional stage show of a performer like Lance Burton. For all those reasons, when I think magic for the internet age I think of David Blaine.

4)      Criss Angel: Criss Angel likewise made his reputation performing death-defying illusions and achieving viral internet fame, but I would say in comparison to Blaine that Angel has been consistently best-known for his series of television shows and specials. In that way, Angel extends but also evolves the way that TV has played a significant role in the career of yesterday’s subjects, Penn & Teller. One critique of Angel at times has been that his shows focus more on images and narrative storytelling than on the magic itself, but that’s the fine line of any televised entertainment, and a telling reflection of where and how Angel’s career developed.

5)      Fay Presto: For most of its history magic has been a male-dominated industry (other than those scantily-clad female assistants about whom I wrote early in the week), but of course that’s never been absolute, and it has likewise evolved here in the 21st century. English magician Fay Presto isn’t just an example of a successful and famous female performer, she’s one who has been voted The Magic Circle’s “Magician of the Year” on multiple occasions. She’s not alone as a prominent female magician, past and present, but it’s equally important not to limit her through that category, and instead to name her as another talented reflection of magic’s enduring presence here in the 21st century.

Houdini post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 21, 2024

March 21, 2024: American Magic: Penn & Teller

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three telling influences on one of the most famous magic acts of the last half-century.

1)      Wier Chrisemer: That enjoyable 1989 Calvin Trillin New Yorker profile of the duo makes clear the debt that Penn Fraser Jillette & Raymond Joseph Teller owed to Wier Chrisemer, a friend of Teller’s from his undergraduate days at Amherst College whose scholarly and professional interest in music was their first entrĂ©e into the world of performance and whose talents as an amateur magician led the three men to form a trio known as “The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.” A couple months back I wrote in this post about how The Three Stooges were originally part of a comedy troupe led by Ted Healy, but ended up achieving their lasting fame without him; similarly, it was after Chrisemer retired from show business in the early 1980s that Penn & Teller truly took off as a magical act. I don’t know exactly what to make of this pattern, but at the very least it’s a reminder that there’s usually more to any artistic success story—including more individuals to remember—than meets the eye.

2)      James Randi: Most successful artists have both personal mentors and influences and other professionals on whom they model aspects of their career, and for Penn & Teller the Amazing Randi was an example of the latter. Randi made his fame as both a magician and a skeptic, performing his own tricks but debunking those of paranormal con artists and the like (all of which he discussed in his 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions). Not long after their magic career began to take off Penn & Teller crossed over into the realm of professional skeptics as well, as illustrated for example by their long-running television show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (I like to think the exclamation point was at least in part a nod to Randi’s book title). It’s a complicated lane to occupy, making a main living performing tricks that require folks to suspend their disbelief (or at least refuse to be explained) yet turning a disbelieving eye toward many other cultural forms and narratives. But Penn & Teller have successfully occupied it for decades, inspired to be sure by prior figures like the Amazing Randi.

3)      Television: Bullshit! is one of a few shows of their own that Penn & Teller have had over the years, but it was their countless appearances on other television shows in the 1980s and 1990s that really established the pair’s reputation and prominence. That included not only performances on late-night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, but also and even more tellingly both acting roles and cameos as themselves on a huge range of other shows, from Miami Vice to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, The Drew Carey Show to Babylon 5, and many many more. The trend has even continued in recent years, with a 2022 appearance for example on the reality performance show The Masked Singer. Penn & Teller were far from the first magicians for whom TV was instrumental to their success, but none have better utilized that defining late 20th and early 21st century medium than did this pair.

Last MagicStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

March 20, 2024: American Magic: Orson Welles

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On two ways to AmericanStudy Orson Welles’ Magic Show.

I’m not particularly proud of the fact that the only post to date in which I’ve thought at length about the iconic artist and American Orson Welles (1915-1985) was my non-favorites examination of Citizen Kane (1941). I stand by the critiques in that post, but I don’t want to suggest for a second that I don’t recognize Welles’ towering talent, nor the countless aspects of American culture and society which he impacted in the course of his influential career and life: from his early work with the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project in New York through his groundbreaking radio shows (especially the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds adaptation) and up to a hugely important career as a film actor and director for which Kane was just the tip of the iceberg. I could dedicate an entire week’s series to Welles, and maybe will have the chance at some point; but for today, I’m writing about a project of his that was never completed in his lifetime, his unfinished television special Orson Welles’ Magic Show (filmed between 1976 and 1985 but as those hyperlinked clips indicate never finalized in his lifetime and only edited together and partially shared, both by his romantic partner Oja Kodar, after his death in 1985).

It’s pretty striking that Welles spent so much of his last decade working on this seemingly quixotic project, and I think there are a couple ways we can make broader analytical meaning of that quest. Clearly magic was something personally important to Welles, as he details in the posthumously published autobiographical book This is Orson Welles (1992; it’s really a series of conversations between Welles and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich) where he describes being taught magic tricks at a young age by none other than this week’s inspiration Harry Houdini. I’m not saying that magic tricks are Welles’ “Rosebud,” exactly, but at least that there’s something telling and moving in seeking in the final stage of life to connect back to and recapture a part of our childhood that we’ve moved away from. And, in this case, that element is also a skillset that Welles had not been able to master or make central to his success, compared to the many aforementioned artistic and cultural arenas in which he had already left lasting legacies by that time.

Speaking of those many other cultural arenas, I also think it’s worth considering ways in which magic might be more parallel to and interconnected with them than we generally acknowledge. This Saturday Evening Post Considering History column on blackface entertainment led me to think more than I ever had before about just how much Vaudeville is a part of (and was an influence on) other defining 20th century media like radio, film, and television. Magic tricks were a part of countless Vaudeville routines and performers’ acts, so there’s a direct intersection here; but more broadly, I’d say that both are examples of early and foundational forms of mass entertainment, late 19th and early 20th century cultural forms that foreshadowed and helped shape the way that other multimedia genres developed and evolved. So it stands to reason that one of the American artists who most fully mastered those multimedia worlds of radio, film, and the like was also greatly influenced by, and apparently spent his life and career trying to recapture, the world of magic.

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

March 19, 2024: American Magic: Thurston and Kellar

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On a pair of magicians who help us think about both competition and collaboration.

I’m one of those film buffs who think that Christopher Nolan has gotten a little overexposed in recent years, but I’ll stand by many of his early films as truly groundbreaking and great in equal measure. That’s especially true of Memento (2000), which as I wrote in that post occupies a spot very high on my list. But not too far below it is The Prestige (2006), a very intricate and clever historical drama that also happens to be for my money the best film about magic ever made (as well as very much a magic trick in its own right, and if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil the trick!). And while The Prestige is about many things within and around the world of 19th century magic (including electricity as its own magic trick, courtesy of David Bowie’s performance as Nikola Tesla [some SPOILERS in those clips]), at its heart it is a story of a lifelong conflict and competition between two equally talented magicians and showman and equally bitter rivals, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

Late 19th century America was home to its own famous pair of rival magicians, Howard Thurston (1869-1936) and Harry Kellar (1849-1922). As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, both Thurston and Kellar claimed to be the true heir to the origin point for 19th century American magic, the Fakir of Ava; Kellar literally worked for years as the Fakir’s apprentice starting at the age of 12, so he might well have the better claim, but as with all things magic the question is at least a bit shrouded in mystery, natch. And in any case, the competition between the two men went beyond their relationship to this professional progenitor, with both for example claiming to be the true master of a very famous specific illusion known as the “Levitation of Princess Karnac” (neither man seems to have originated the trick, as that honor apparently goes to English magician and inventor John Nevil Maskelyne). As Nolan’s film nicely explores, the world of magic is often defined by these questions over what performer truly “owns” a particular illusion, both in the literal sense of proprietary concerns but even more in terms of mastery, and Thurston and Kellar embodied that competitive conflict in spades.

Or was it all just an act? (Not in Nolan’s film, to be clear—again, no spoilers, but those two characters really, really don’t like each other.) After all, Kellar was a generation older than Thurston, served in at least some ways as another mentor to the younger performer, and the two men toured together for many years with their Thurston-Kellar Show (which as that advertisement reflects billed the act as “Thurston, Kellar’s Successor). While any performer faces genuine questions about their legacies after they’re gone, questions which would certainly be connected to who “owns” a famous illusion, every performer also and perhaps especially wants an audience while they’re alive. Both of these magicians unquestionably learned from the Fakir about how to generate publicity, not only in one moment but across a long career, and presenting themselves as rivals (even, if not particularly, when they shared a stage) was quite possibly an elaborate way to do just that. As with any great magic trick, we’ll never know the answer for sure!

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, March 18, 2024

March 18, 2024: American Magic: Fakir of Ava

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three ways that the first famous American magician paved the way for the profession.

1)      Persona: Isaiah Harris Hughes (1813-1891) was born in England and immigrated to the U.S., but the Fakir of Ava, Chief of Staff of Conjurers to His Sublime Greatness the Nanka of Aristaphae, was born sometime later. I don’t think too many future magicians have gone to quite the lengths that Hughes did to imagine and inhabit their constructed persona, as besides creating an entire fictional backstory (although not the character’s geographic origin, as Ava was the Anglicized name of a real city in Burma [now Myanmar]), he also put on blackface, wore elaborate costumes, and claimed that his tricks were “Oriental feats.” But at the same time, it seems clear to me that Hughes expected his audience to be in on the act, or at least to recognize it as a performance—“Fakir” is a pretty telling name for an invented role, after all. And once Hughes got successful enough, he apparently ditched most of the costume, but not the name—a persona is a persona.

2)      Publicity: The Fakir achieved that level of success not only because of his impressive bag of tricks, but also because he was equally adept at making people aware of them and him. He did so through a variety of techniques beyond his own elaborate advertising (although that was impressive as well, as that hyperlinked broadside illustrates), including befriending reporters to gain favorable newspaper coverage, joining popular existing shows like P.T. Barnum’s to tap into their audiences, and coming up with new promotional ideas like the “gift show” (offering lucky audience members prizes in the course of the act). Magic isn’t much without the show that accompanies it, and those shows aren’t much without an audience to trick and misdirect and amaze. Hughes’ mastery over connecting to and amplifying his audience certainly modeled that skill for future magicians.

3)      Passing it on: Some of those future magicians learned from Hughes quite literally, as his apprentices. I’ll write more about the two most famous, Howard Thurston and Harry Kellar, in tomorrow’s post, but will note here that both overtly claimed to be Hughes’ heirs: Thurston by arguing “The historian of magic can trace an unbroken line of succession from the Fakir of Ava in 1830 to my own entertainment”; and Kellar by performing under the Fakir of Ava name when Hughes became too old to travel and retired to his Buffalo home. It’s easy to think of magicians’ helpers as the stereotypical pretty girls in spandex—and maybe they too should be seen as apprentices instead—but the truth is that both persona and publicity are often intended to live on beyond the performer’s career, and heirs are a vital part of that goal. One more way that the Fakir set the standard!  

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 16, 2024

March 16-17, 2024: NeMLA Reflections: A Special Organization

[This past weekend I attended the one scholarly conference I never miss: the Northeast MLA. It was a great time as it always is, so this week I’ve featured a series of reflections on some of the great work I heard, saw, and shared there! Leading up to these additional reflections on NeMLA as an organization!]

Much of what I’d want to say about NeMLA is summed up in two posts that I’ll ask you to check out if you would and then come on back here:

This one from 2017 when I left the NeMLA Board for the first time (only because my service time was up, as I’d happily and stayed on forever);

And this one from 2018 when, proving my above point, I rejoined the Board.

Welcome back! As of a couple years ago I am once again done with my service on the Board, and while I’ll never say never when it comes to anything and all things NeMLA, I think it’s likely that I will only be a conference attendee and participant from now on. (Or, putting this out into the Universe, maybe one day a keynote speaker?!) But on that note alone, my annual attendance at most if not all of the conference (which has been the case since 2013 and I hope will be in the future as well) is a very telling thing—I’m not so much of a conference person (I enjoy them whenever I get to go, but I just mean I’m not someone who seeks out and attends a ton of them), and as any reader of this blog likely knows it takes a lot to take me away from my sons for any length of time. So this history of annual and thorough NeMLA attendance, and a pledge to do the same moving forward, is high praise indeed.

If I had to sum up why that’s the case, I would use two words that appear in those prior NeMLA posts and other places I’ve written about the organization: community and solidarity. Community is the more obvious one, and the focus of much of what I’ve said previously about this particular community and all that it means to me. So to say a little more about what I mean by solidarity: at worst, academia can feel quite competitive, like others are our rivals for jobs or publishing slots or attention or etc.; and even at best, it can feel quite isolated, like we’re in those things on our own. Of course individual colleagues and friends and loved ones can be company for the journey, as with everything in life. But to find a whole scholarly community that feels very consistently like it’s got your back rather than is either turning its back or stabbing you in yours? That’s a very very rare thing in my experience, and that’s what I feel with and at NeMLA. Makes me want to keep coming back for sure!

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. If you were at NeMLA, what would you share? If not or in any case, other organizations you’d highlight?

Friday, March 15, 2024

March 15, 2024: NeMLA Reflections: Community Connections

[This past weekend I attended the one scholarly conference I never miss: the Northeast MLA. It was a great time as it always is, so as usual here’s a series of reflections on some of the great work I heard, saw, and shared there! Leading up to a few more reflections on NeMLA as an organization!]

On three ways the NeMLA conference connected to local communities and its host city.

1)      Boston Poetry Slam: In my experiences NeMLA conferences tend to find good ways to get attendees out into the local community, but this year the conference brought local communities to the conference space itself in two compelling ways. One was these three performances by local poets connected to Boston Poetry Slam, a weekly performance that features some of the most talented voices in the city’s poetry and cultural scenes. I don’t know who in particular was behind getting this very cool group connected to and present at the conference, but I definitely give them a standing ovation!

2)      Choreopoems/Choreotexts: The conference’s other unique poetic performance was a bit more scholarly, and thus perhaps more familiar for a conference and organization like NeMLA. But nonetheless, this trio of performances inspired by Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls bridged the seeming (but far from genuine) gaps between scholarship, poetry and art, and performance, featuring five local scholars whose own work, voices, and careers likewise challenge our sense of these areas as distinct or separate silos. As someone who worked hard in my time as NeMLA President to diversify the conference’s program in every sense, I love this excellent example of that ongoing goal!

3)      Archival Spaces: While NeMLA 2024 thus did a particularly good job bringing local voices and communities to the conference, it still also featured its share of communal connections in the other direction. As someone who’s had the opportunity to give multiple book talks at both the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was especially excited that NeMLA made sure to connect any interested attendees to those phenomenal local archives and spaces. Both of these kinds of communities, local archives and scholarly organizations, depend on support and solidarity from one another, and I’ve always loved the ways in which NeMLA models those interconnections.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. If you were at NeMLA, what would you share? If not or in any case, other organizations you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 14, 2024

March 14, 2024: NeMLA Reflections: Guilty Pleasures Panels

[This past weekend I attended the one scholarly conference I never miss: the Northeast MLA. It was a great time as it always is, so as usual here’s a series of reflections on some of the great work I heard, saw, and shared there! Leading up to a few more reflections on NeMLA as an organization!]

On two interesting throughlines I took away from a pair of provocative panels.

Before the Saturday morning panel of my own about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, I had the chance to attend a pair of interconnected sessions organized by literary scholar Melodie Roschman around the same topic: Guilty Pleasures: Sexy Stories, Female Desire, and Resistance. A number of the talks understandably focused on aspects of the Romance genre (and related subgenres like Paranormal Romance, Romantasy, etc.), which is not a topic about which I know a great deal (although I did write a Grad school paper analyzing audience expectations and experiences through the lens of Janice Radway’s influential 1984 book Reading the Romance) and so I was happy to learn more from these scholars of it and the particular authors and works they discussed. But as with all of the NeMLA panels I’ve attended in my multi-decade association with the conference and organization, I also found ways to connect these conversations to my own work and ideas, and wanted to mention two of those thought-provoking throughlines from these sessions here.

One debate which came up in a number of the talks across both sessions, as you might expect with this overarching topic, was whether it’s a good/productive or bad/destructive thing to use literary/cultural works as escapism (or related frames like enchantment). To be clear, none of the presenters bought into the longstanding narratives that novels and other cultural works are themselves “bad,” not for women and not overall; but there was a great deal of thoughtful analysis of the potentially limiting but also potentially liberating effects of getting lost in such works. In particular, the chair of the second session, Babson College Professor Samantha Wallace, provocatively used a J.R.R. Tolkien essay to frame these questions in her talk on Romantasy novelist Sarah Maas and the dangers and benefits of becoming enchanted by such books and their worlds. Which was especially thought-provoking for this audience member as I’ve been having very similar conversations throughout my current section of Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy, beginning with our first reading, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I always love when a NeMLA panel can inform my current semester and teaching, and this was an excellent example of that effect.

I frequently glean such lessons for my teaching at NeMLA, but I always learn a great deal about American literature, culture, and history—there’s a reason why I decided to serve a three-year term as the organization’s American Area Director, after all. And in this case, it was an excellent paper from the chair of my own panel (about which and whom I wrote yesterday), Vaughn Joy, that offered the most fascinating lessons about American history and culture. Vaughn’s paper discussed the Hays Code, the multi-code policy (first created as a set of recommendations, but shortly thereafter and for many years an enforced set of restrictions) through which Hollywood authorities sought to control and censor film productions. I had long seen reference to the Code as a part midcentury Hollywood histories, but Vaughn went into significantly more detail about its origins, evolutions, specific provisions, effects, and, most inspiringly, the manifold acts of resistance through which artists and filmmakers (including none other than Frank Capra himself) challenged and eventually helped end the Code. I’ve never attended a NeMLA conference without coming away thoroughly impressed by at least one scholarly presentation, and this was the paper that did it for me in 2024.

Last reflection tomorrow,

Ben

PS. If you were at NeMLA, what would you share? If not or in any case, other organizations you’d highlight?