History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Time passes and "Gilligan's Island" seems more a classic

Sometimes time has to pass before something can be viewed as a classic. A creative product might not stand out from the crowd at all when it's current. The passage of time brings out its merits.
"Gilligan's Island" has never been lacking for sheer attention. From its inception it was well-known. However, in its day it was sniffed at by cultural observers. The TV show might have been exhibit 'A' in what Newton Minow was talking about. Minow you might remember gave us his signature quote about the television medium: "vast wasteland." Do we remember anything else about him?
I have taken the bait myself and referred to "Gilligan's Island" as an example of what might be called vapid entertainment.
"Gilligan's Island" has actually grown in popularity since its original run. In my young adult years it would seem to show up in the after-school time slot. It is hard to equate that time slot with fine art or culture. It seems the antithesis. But let's not pigeon-hole "Gilligan's Island" so readily. If you put aside the knee-jerk putdowns from highbrow types, you can see the very fine craftsmanship behind that show! 
It is truly popular art in the sense that it reached out to the masses. This should hardly be considered a black mark. Comedy is a medium that seeks to reach everyone, to show us the pathos in our day-to-day lives. Comedy plays on the frustrations of our mundane existence. Who hasn't been frustrated trying to perform a routine task, ending up feeling like one of the Three Stooges? Laurel and Hardy gave us a more understated version of that humor. It is interesting that Laurel and Hardy's best, that short about pulling that piano up the steps, was not understated and could easily have been a Stooges' script.
"Castaways" as a template
We have all felt frustrated or confined as if we were stuck on a desert island. The premise for Gilligan's Island was absolutely perfect for a television comedy series. The castaways! They were destined never to be rescued. Of course it was all in fun.
The premise was absurd if you tried to look at it seriously. Even Tom Hanks would have to spend a good half-year studying his Boy Scout manual if he wanted to survive for even a short time on a remote island. In real life we're talking "Lord of the Flies" or Amelia Earhart, the latter having probably ended up in such a place and died in short order for lack of resources (with her "navigator").
So, let's just view Gilligan's Island for what it is: a vehicle for comedy. The show seemed little more than background in the years when it was re-run. We yawned about it. It was good for passing some idle time, to have on when we were washing the dishes or shuffling around the household. Subconsciously we might come to associate the show with some of the ennui that accompanies our home life.
Gilligan's Island seemed as old as the day it was born. The snooty academic fools would consider it like Elvis on black velvet. Those pretentious cultural analysts are right about one thing: you do not watch Gilligan's Island to learn anything. This could be said of much of TV entertainment in its early history. The 1960s sitcoms were crafted to appeal to a wide audience - everyone really. The days of "niche" TV (like Discovery Channel) were many years off in the future.
Because TV tried to satisfy everyone, well then not surprisingly, it didn't seem fully satisfactory to anyone. One type of show could break through that obstacle and achieve artistic significance: the basic comedy.
"TV Land" showcases "Gilligan"
Lately I have been able to watch some Gilligan's Island episodes on "TV Land." It's a niche channel for people who like watching "non-niche" TV shows! There is something for everyone today.
In the '60s we had the "big 3" TV networks ruling. ABC was slightly minor league in comparison to the other two. Public TV was out there but was quite obscure and unsatisfying most of the time. Everyone was familiar with the prime time shows of the major networks. "Westerns" were quite the vehicle, then they seemed to vanish over a short time.
Westerns were always the vehicle for moral lessons. Truly we distinguished right from wrong, to be suspicious of the "black hats." The big irony is that at the same time the likes of "Bonanza" were sermonizing, our nation was steadily getting more involved in one of the great moral debacles of all time: the Viet Nam War.
"Gilligan's Island" had its prime time heyday at the same time the U.S. was taking the most egregious steps toward full-scale involvement in the Indochina conflict. Those charming Don Knotts movies came out at that time. Knotts of course had his springboard to the big screen on the small screen, on that "Mayberry" TV show. There were several rural comedies then, sending us the message that "simplest is best." Andy Griffith would say that the Mayberry show emphasized one simple thing: "love." Knotts was an incredible comedic performer.
Today, as I watch and re-examine "Gilligan's Island," I am coming to the conclusion that we grossly undervalued that show for its comedic genius. Many would pooh-pooh me on this. Again, the passage of time can help us re-evaluate and give credit where it's due. The seven performers in Gilligan's Island may in fact present one of the greatest all-time comedy teams.
The creators of this show carefully assembled a cast of interesting and contrasting personalities. Each character represented something we understood from the world around us - vanity, authority, intelligence etc.
BTW the show's pilot was so off the mark from what was eventually created, it was never shown. It would be interesting to view as a historical curiosity.
The logical headliner
The show was named for "Gilligan" because he represented the "everyman," often bumbling but never truly disheartened. He reflects the optimism of America. He was also young, and we in America put faith and invest hope in the young.
Was "Gilligan" the first name or the last name? Interesting question. Bob Denver played the first mate "Gilligan" from the ill-fated boat "Minnow." Denver had previously played the beatnik "Maynard Krebs" on the show "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."
We assume that Denver was the prefect "Gilligan" right from the outset in the creators' minds. Oh, but another actor was considered first! There is a whole category of "what might have beens" in Hollywood, such as: What if Shirley Temple had starred in "The Wizard of Oz?" Or, what if Rod Steiger had been "Patton," not George C. Scott? Steiger turned down the role because he felt the movie would glorify war. Many people thought in such terms back then (around 1970). Today's young people would think nothing of a good war movie. It's just a movie. In the late '60s and early '70s, anger about Viet Nam brimmed in such a way that people like William Ayers did their thing.
Can you imagine Gilligan's Island with anyone but Bob Denver in the lead role? Close your eyes and try to imagine. The creators originally considered Jerry Van Dyke!
We can speculate that the show would not have been as successful with Van Dyke. He was the first choice but he turned it down! He doubted the show would be a success, legend has it. He instead chose to play the lead in "My Mother the Car," which premiered in the year after Gilligan's Island. The hook came for "My Mother" after one season. 
Van Dyke seemed too obvious a funnyman to truly appeal to us as "Gilligan." Bob Denver played the role as if he were truly an accident-prone young man, still loveable.
Comedy is a delicate science. An essential ingredient is those aspects that are played "straight." We're familiar with the term "straight man." People who seem earnest and serious are typically around the comedic performers. They make the pathos seem more absurd and funny.
It is very sad to see a comedy program break down with its discipline. We saw this with "The Monkees." "The Monkees" was a show that had potential to go longer and be bigger. It was ahead of its time. It drew nothing but puzzlement from the older end of the generation gap, those people who watched Lawrence Welk.
"Gilligan's Island" was in the prime of well-crafted, highly disciplined comedy shows that never veered off from their model. They never got careless. Within a few years we got "Laugh In" which was the epitome of carelessness and impulsiveness. "All in the Family" came along to explore social and cultural issues that would have been taboo several years earlier.
In the '70s we got "The Gong Show" which was culturally significant because it was the epitome of cynicism. The sicker the better. Maybe it was the hangover from Viet Nam or a reflection of the economic "stagflation" in the U.S. The Gong Show had nothing in common with "American Idol." "Idol" is meant to be taken seriously. The Gong Show was a vehicle for the young boomer generation to just laugh at the pretense in the world around them. We laughed at the Gong Show in the same way we'd laugh at a fake turd.
Gilligan's Island was on that classy and disciplined plane of when Americans believed in themselves more. It only seemed one-dimensional in the sense it was meant to entertain everyone. And that wouldn't have mattered if other options were available for fulfillment on the tube.
So, the harsh criticism of Gilligan's Island from the ivory tower world wasn't so much criticism of the show, it was criticism of the TV medium and its limitations!
Gilligan's Island is a show that belongs up in the ranks with Laurel and Hardy as fascinating classic comedy. Each of the actors had to "nail" his-her role for every episode. Like all talented people, they made it look easy. We took Gilligan's Island for granted.
It took tremendous work and commitment to craft those 98 episodes. It spanned from September 26, 1964, to April 17, 1967. We remember the year 1967 as the absolute worst of the Viet Nam War. The show itself wouldn't have dared make a statement about that war. Apparently "Star Trek" did, on a subliminal level. I don't think there was anything subliminal about "Gilligan's Island."
B&W to "living color"
The first season of Gilligan's Island had 36 episodes and was in black and white. Several of the unforgettable TV comedies of that time went from black and white to color.
The second and third seasons gave us 62 episodes. The show got solid ratings when it was current. But the popularity would grow in the years of re-runs following. Syndication in the '70s and '80s would make the show seem timeless, as firm a part of our culture as the Pledge of Allegiance.
We saw "Little Buddy" Gilligan as symbolic of the waves of young people entering adulthood with typical missteps and frustration. Alan Hale as "The Skipper" was the father figure who might have been anyone's father. However, he was only 14 years older than Denver. (Keep in mind too that the actress playing Dustin Hoffman's temptress in "The Graduate" wasn't nearly as old as she should be.)
In exasperation, "The Skipper" might swat Gilligan on the head with his cap. Alan Hale was actually Alan Hale Jr. who looked almost identical to his father. Alan Hale Sr. was a well-known movie character actor, and his son was a reliable actor in 'B' westerns. Then along came the "Skipper" role.
Anyone who starred in a popular '60s show would be typecast, never able to step away from that role. The actress who played "Ginger" didn't like this. In the updates we read of Gilligan's Island today, Tina Louise comes across as sullen. She was blessed really. Hollywood is full of waitresses and busboys, I'm sure, who'd love getting a foothold the way Tina Louise did. She was attractive but not drop-dead attractive.
Television in those days had to be careful how it presented its "sex symbols." They couldn't be too sexy. The most famous exhibit here is how Barbara Eden had to have her navel covered in "I Dream of Jeannie." Larry Hagman was in that show, remember? He escaped being typecast and was able to open a new chapter on "Dallas."
Even actors who overcame being typecast seemed to have the ghost of their previous role follow them, like Carroll O'Connor.
Russell Johnson a.k.a. "The Professor," RIP
"Gilligan's Island" was created and produced by Sherwood Schwartz. We remembered the show recently when we got news of the death of "The Professor," Russell Johnson.
How interesting that the show had someone simply called "The Professor." A point was being made here. America prioritized the advancement of knowledge. Those were Cold War times. (Is that why I had to learn algebra?)
Johnson would later say he had trouble with some of the lines with technical or scientific language. He really was a true "straight man." He projected a sort of earnestness in his role that made him endearing.
No one's clothes ever got dirty! (Don't think about that.)
Dawn Wells as "Mary Ann" had a mostly straight role to fill as the pretty but non-descript "farm girl." Following the show's run, Dawn made a bid for movie success in "Winterhawk," a frontier story. I paid to see it at the twin theater in St. Cloud (next to the shopping mall). I found the movie depressing. Dawn Wells will always be "Mary Ann."
The castaways included the rich couple. A "millionaire" meant big bucks in those days, not so much today.
Much of the charm of this show comes from how dissimilar the seven characters were. They were like a cross-section. Through their forced togetherness, they realized their commonality, their humanity. Thus is revealed a major point of the show: our common values and aims as a society. How appropriate for the truly mass media of 1960s television. Maybe we aren't so different from each other after all.
We were never supposed to think that the men might be sexually aroused or interested by the obviously attractive females. That's actually a troubling aspect of the show. Boys might watch and wonder why they got a "hard-on." This was a failure of society, a failure to help its young people who were achieving puberty at a younger age. Adolescents needed guidance lest they feel afraid or guilty by primal feelings.
It has been said of the generation that came of age around 1970 that "there are things they weren't getting from their parents." I heard this in a commentary about the Manson family, specifically "Tex" Watson who grew up so wholesome.
The entertainment industry gave us tons of stuff that would induce "boners" in junior high age boys. But I'd suggest the boys weren't comfortable dealing with those feelings. The Annette Funicello "beach" movies were notorious.
Ah, an imperfect show reflecting an imperfect society. Nevertheless there was genius.
"Gilligan's Island" will always be endearing. It's part time capsule and totally a committed comedy, one that will appreciate in value like a fine wine.
Addendum: The dissimilar nature of the seven characters should not be confused with "melting pot." There were no non-whites. We sometimes saw island natives in a primitive mode. Those natives looked like white guys. They were made to seem scary but we knew they wouldn't hurt anyone. They were bumbling. Their faux scariness was remindful of similar characters in Three Stooges shorts, sometimes accompanied by a guy in a gorilla suit. Ah, comedy!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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