Monday, October 01, 2007

How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm?

I spent this past weekend in New York City with my wife, the long-suffering Joyce, and my grandson, Jake. Jake is a pretty smart kid, but his frame of reference continues to astound me.

We went to see the musical Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam Theater on Friday night. Joyce and I had seen it in London a couple of years ago, and thought Jake would be thrilled by the outstanding singing and dancing, and especially by the technical wizardry of the production. We were dead wrong. He was only occasionally interested in the show, and he seemed to be humoring Joyce and me most of the evening. (He was really looking forward to the visit to the American Museum of Natural History on Saturday.)

When I was the same age Jake is now, my birthday present from my parents was tickets to Melody Fair, an entertainment park and summer stock theater near Buffalo, to see The Music Man, starring Kolchak the Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin, as Harold Hill. I'll never forget how exciting it was to see live actors doing amazing things, and when the North Tonawanda High School Band came down the aisle next to me, playing "Seventy Six Trombones," I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Surely Gabriel's horn could not have sounded as sweet as those trembling saxophones!

Of course, when I saw The Music Man, my family had only owned a TV for about three years. It had a 12 inch screen (the only screen in my life at that time), a set of rabbit ears (children, ask your parents...), and three channels which broadcast for about sixteen hours a day in black and white. I rarely went to the movies, except for the occasional drive-in that went on way past my bedtime.

This is NOT a harangue about how much better it was in the old days. Instead, I'm always stunned at how much more of the world Jake has seen, compared to me at that age. His horizons are so much broader.

There was a song that came out either during or immediately after World War I, titled "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" The song worried about whether the boys coming back from the front would still be interested in working a plow after they'd seen the lights of Paris. The song sounds like a novelty today, but the farm population of the United States dropped from roughly 35% of the population in 1910 to 1.84% of the population in 2002.

How can a child find wonder in a chimney sweep dancing clear around a proscenium arch, or Mary Poppins flying out over the audience to close the show, when he has seen the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies? So I wonder how we're going to keep people like Jake interested in my two biggest loves (other than the long-suffering Joyce, of course): libraries and theater.

Basically, if it doesn't have a screen, it doesn't hold Jake's interest. I have seen him concentrate for long stretches of time, playing Pokemon or building a room in Webkinz (parents, ask your children...), so I don't think it's ADD, and he loves soccer and baseball with a passion, so I don't think he's simply a couch potato with a proclivity for obesity (like his grandfather).

I don't really have any answers. In fact, after three days of chasing a 7-year old around Manhattan, I'm lucky I've made it this far through Monday. But I think we'd better come up with some answers if either of these traditions is going to survive another generation in any form we would recognize.

9 comments:

Lorena said...

Hi George; I'm a libraries and theater fan too (we spent a week in NYC in September and saw 5 shows - and the American Museum of Natural History too!). I'm a little concerned too, noting what seems to be the graying of the theater-going population at all levels of theater (I live in a very small town, but also see shows in larger cities). Thinking of the two in context makes me wonder about doing a theater display in our library display case...

George said...

Last weekend, I read "The Season," William Goldman's 1969 polemic about the 1967-1968 Broadway season, and he worries about the graying of the audience even then!

There was also an article in today's New York Times about Broadway appealing to tweens, noting that this demographic alone can't "save" theater. However, musicals like "Legally Blonde," "Wicked," and "High School Musical" have at least given people under 50 a reason to go to the theater again.

And interesting displays in libraries could help people make the connection, so I wish you godspeed, Lorena!

Cyn said...

Perhaps the key is your closing sentence: "But I think we'd better come up with some answers if either of these traditions is going to survive another generation in any form we would recognize." Why must they survive in recognizable form? Theatre and libraries (along with everything else) has changed over the course of history... what changes are to come may take us beyond our wildest dreams. (What excites us most is rarely what excites our children/grandchildren, too.) Enjoyed the post; get some rest!

George said...

Cyn, this is a good point (although I think our theater would not be all that unrecognizable to Aristophanes) and I need to chew that one over a bit.

Off the top of my head, what I was thinking of was that I'd like to see us preserve the library as central hub of voluntary learning in our communities. But that doesn't quite satisfy me...

Andy Havens said...

I guess it depends on the kid and the show. My 8-year-old son loves Cirque du Soleil (to the point of it being a bit scary). He also liked Blue Man Group, and has asked to see Stomp. And he also loves our Xbox, Wii, DVDs, cartoons, etc. My 5-year-old niece loves ANY kind of live theater, especially if it involves dancing. She's begging to go see Spamalot when it comes to town... though my bro-in-law isn't sure how he'll FF over the naughtier bits, like he does on their CD of the production (from which she learned her love).

I love live theater and have since I was a music/theater geek in school. I would, however, shoot myself thru the neck before seeing certain shows (Cats) and performers (Celine Dionne).

Maybe he just doesn't like the cockney accent? Try "Wicked" next time.

Lorena said...

There was an article in the NYT on October 7th "If you discount it, will they come?" that suggests price is a real consideration (imagine that!), and mentions some cool stuff being done with subsidized tickets. I think the bigger issue is the graying of theater in regular cities and towns - the places where people develop a love of theater that goes beyond seeing a Broadway play because you are in NYC, and includes financial support if possible.

George said...

That's the truth! My wife is the Executive Director of the Ohio Community Theater Association, and the graying of their audience is a constant concern.

Paul said...

Channels 2, 4, and 7 (WGR, WBEN, and WKBW) right? I soend a summer working tech at Melody Fair many years ago.

Alice said...

Now that I am catching up on my reading--this is an awesome post, George!