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Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

Deanna Durbin, where are you now?

TV's treatment of musical entertainment isn't what it used to be


The other night I enjoyed one of those rare experiences of a long lifetime -- an evening of thoroughly enjoyable television. And it educated me at the same time.

The channel was tuned to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which is focusing these weeks on pictures in any way brushed by an Oscar. The next feature was “One Hundred Men and a Girl” (1937), starring Deanna Durbin and Adolphe Menjou, which won the Academy Award in 1938 for Best Score. In case you don’t remember the plot: Mr. Menjou, a trombone player and Deanna’s father, is one of 100 musicians out of work in the Depression. For Deanna’s Patsy Cardwell, who is about 16, the answer is to form their own symphony orchestra, get Leopold Stokowski (playing himself) to direct it and rich people to sponsor it. To get the great Stokowski’s attention, she sneaks into the concert hall where he is rehearsing Mozart and stands up in the balcony and sings Mozart’s “Alleluia” to impress him. He is impressed, but he is going to Europe and can’t help her.

To force him to change his mind, she sneaks into his Manhattan home, where the entranceway is designed to resemble the grand staircases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she slips her 100-man unemployed orchestra in with her. (New York orchestra conductors in 1937 did not share our obsession with security.) The men begin to play Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” while Deanna fetches Stokowski from his study. Stokowski is so overwhelmed by these poor beggars that he begins to wave his arms wildly, directing them into the magnificent crescendo. He cancels Europe. A big fat capitalist (Eugene Pallette) begrudgingly comes up with the money and the last we see them they are playing in Carnegie Hall and Deanna is called up to the stage to sing from “La Traviata.”

The movie is a time capsule from a period in American history when classical music was a natural part of popular entertainment. Popular films were made about the lives of Chopin and Brahms and classical themes were turned into Hit Parade songs. “Tonight We Love” is based on Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky; “Stranger in Paradise” is from “Kismet,” a Broadway show and movie with a score adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin.

Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night TV variety show introduced Elvis above the waist and the Beatles, but also opera singers and Broadway shows. Jimmy Durante’s favorite foil was the towering Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. She’d do “The Ride of the Valkyries,” then he’d lure her into “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” On Jack Benny a frequent guest was violinist Isaac Stern. Jack would play something like Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois” badly enough to get laughs from an audience who knew how it was supposed to sound; then Mr. Stern would get serious.

In Hollywood, through the ’30s and ’50s, MGM gave us a string of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald operettas, followed by ensemble musicals with Jane Powell, José Iturbi, Mario Lanza and others. In the 1940s, high schools performed “The Desert Song” and “The Vagabond King.”

When operettas were no longer “popular” -- “popular” means targeted to age groups with spending money -- they disappeared from the dial. It seems to me, however, that there’s a public responsibility for the entertainment industry to educate its audience. For a while, TV moguls such as NBC’s David Sarnoff and CBS’s Bill Paley agreed. Mr. Sarnoff signed Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC orchestra, and CBS TV, from 1958-73, ran “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic” (available on DVD) to get young people to understand and love music. Music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Nov. 18, 2004, New York Times that Bernstein knew that hearing music on television would never match hearing it live. “But he was convinced that with the right teacher, television could be the greatest tool for musical education. He would educate by entertaining.”

What went wrong? The ’60s generation turned in on itself. The invisible thread that linked the tradition, in which each musical form grew out of its predecessor -- from opera, into operetta, into the Broadway show, into popular songs -- broke. Jesse Green points out in “The Song Is Ended” in the June 2, 1996, New York Times Magazine that Broadway and film hits like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Over the Rainbow” were once considered classic standards and everyone sang them on the street. Today in my Jersey City neighborhood, boys swagger along the sidewalk squealing to the iPods in their ears.

Other changes, Mr. Green notes: The popularity of the guitar made everyone an entertainer, writing songs about him- or herself. Since they couldn’t sing, they needed amplification, which interferes with the relationship between the singer and the audience.

Will PBS ride to the rescue? PBS is hiding in the dugout. Though PBS was founded as a medium of public education, its government funding has been cut so that where it once put on an opera, it now plays recorded nostalgia pop concerts during fundraising time -- “The Cream Reunion Special,” “Doo Wop Cavalcade” and the Four Aces, all of whose musicians still have full heads of hair after all these years.

“One Hundred Men and a Girl” makes some compromises to popular taste by referring to Mozart’s “Alleluia” when its proper title is “Exsultate Jubilate.” However, in 90 minutes the public enjoys selections from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, “Hungarian Rhapsody” and “La Traviata.” We are familiar with the camera angles that focus on a row of violinists or cellists in their formal evening clothes, their serious faces transported by the beauty of the notes they produce. This film deliberately focuses first on the pros and finally on the poor men, their ragged coats, their scruffy beards. Music has made them equal. If only we could say the same today.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is He thanks Mark Graceffo and Alice Clark for research assistance.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

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