Submitted for your edification and amusement; a darkened theater on the near south side where some four score and an odd baker's dozen of idle curiosity seekers, liberal intellectuals, telecom students, and the kind of lonely characters you find talking urgently into dead pay phones at cheap arcades are all huddled in a communion of nostalgia and the bizarre.
It is a Saturday afternoon in March. Wind and sleet buffet the windows of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, a modern temple to past glories of the airwaves. The general public moves through the television and radio exhibits with glazed smiles of recognition and bland pleasure at Garfield Goose and Frazier Thomas, Uncle Johnny Coons and Fibber McGee; but inside the Kraft Television Theater an oddball assortment of refugees from reality cock their heads in the darkness at the sound of a famous three-note theme. They have gathered to watch a series of 30-year-old television shows both venerable and absurd, brilliant and improbable, black-and-white prime-time dreams from the pre-Kennedy-assassination years that would, like the show itself, quickly become nightmare; a surreal reflection of the zeitgeist of that wonder era when the world itself was poised between light and shadow: The Twilight Zone.
Onstage, Arlen Schumer, early 30s, nattily dressed in suit and tie, is standing at a podium. His face lit from below, he reads notes on Magritte, Duchamp, Dali, and Serling. A slide show in black and white and color is projected behind him and to his left. Images of mannequins and melting watches, Diane Arbus photographs and ventriloquist dummies, click in and out of existence in the blackness.
Long before Schumer finishes his prepared talk, a fat man wearing a Walkman headset raises his hand. Schumer does not acknowledge him, but spiels rapturously on about the interplay of reason and dreamtime, the bona fide artistic roots of Serling's show. The Walkmaned man lowers his hand and drowns out Schumer in a too-loud voice--forgetting that no one else is listening over the deafening strains of Pink Floyd.
"When exactly..." he interrupts loudly, taking his time, "was the episode-aired-called-'Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'?"
Schumer harrumphs, the rhythm of his talk derailed. He cites the date and says that the film was first viewed by the show's producer at the Cannes film festival in 1962. "It was," he says, "little more than a way to beat the budget-airing a previously filmed short that was in keeping with the show's theme. It was based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, who wrote it several decades before..."
"Ah..." the Walkman man speaks in the monotone of the hearing impaired or a science fiction fan with glandular and social difficulties. "So who wrote that one?"
"Bierce." Schumer repeats. "Ambrose Bierce, a famous American writer."
In the second row of the Kraft Television Theater is a man wearing a yarmulke and a white cotton gauze cast on his nose. He says, in a loud aside, "Gregory Peck played him."
Schumer presses on, comparing Serling with the French surrealists, his slides of stills from episodes from 1959 to 1964 punctuated with photos of Kennedy, to whom Schumer compares Serling's television presence, as well as Sean Connery as James Bond, who Schumer suggests learned a thing or two about suavity from Serling.
The speaker quotes liberally from Serling's teleplay texts. Tortured, parenthetical prose redolent with metaphor, simile, consonance, and alliteration. He weaves in quotations from his own introduction to the slim coffee-table book Visions From the Twilight Zone (available from Chronicle Books for $35).
One frame after another of Serling's cigaretted visage prompts a woman in the second row to mumble, "Can we smoke in here?"
Schumer, oblivious, continues: "A cohesive body of work crafted by many sensibilities, but united under one vision."
A man in the third row wearing a 'Die for Oil!' button leans toward the woman in the second row; he says, "I used to force my little sister to watch it, heh heh, she hated it!"
"Excuse me?" The woman, fur-coated and unaccompanied, responds.
Schumer makes a joke about how two slides from Twin Peaks found their way into his presentation. Oops. Speaking of David Lynch, The Twilight Zone's influence on the noir director is, he suggests, undeniable when you think about it.
Another point Schumer makes is how the show might well have been a seminal influence on the liberal sensibilities of baby-boomers, exposing impressionable adolescent minds to the idea of a social conscience.
"Rod Serling's attitude towards the space race of the 60s was evident in The Twilight Zone's science fiction episodes: spaceships never reach their destinations, or crash if they do. By failing to solve our moral and ethical problems here on earth, Serling implied...we'll never get to where we want to go--anticipating the platform of all antispace advocates since. The chain of compromises in integrity that led to the Challenger disaster proves the relevancy of Serling's warnings.
"He perceived that the benign quest into space nevertheless carried with it the destructive imperialist desire to invade and conquer. The need to subjugate others brings on the downfall and comeuppance of the delusional, demagogic astronaut in 'The Little People,' as well as the leader of a band of space colonists in 'On Thursday We Leave for Home.'"
After the talk two girls in their late teens leave the theater to view uninterrupted episodes being shown in the museum proper on a monitor in an exhibit booth. When asked what they thought of the show, one girl says, "It's so typical 60s. The corny camera angles and the campy black and white."
The second girl says, "I always watched it, though, that and Lost in Space and stuff like that."
The woman in the fur coat who wanted to smoke overhears this and asks the girls if they ever heard Billie Holiday sing. They shook their heads. "Well, if you did you'd probably think she was imitating Sinead O'Connor." The woman smiles and walks to the door with an unlit cigarette. The two girls look at each other and one of them rolls her eyes; the other purses her lips and softly trills the famous three notes: "Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo..."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Margaret Warren.