Sunday, January 29, 2006

American Handstand

All across the tri-state area, people were flipping the channels on their televisions and finding that the world had turned upside-down:

A man in a gray Stetson hat was pounding a piano like a thing possessed. Other instruments were being subjected to abuse from individuals who seemed dramatically untutored in their use. And people in general were wandering around the television studio as if they’d gotten separated from the walking tour.

Some would be moved to phone the television studio and, in fact, did. Others would pour out their barely controlled vitriol in letters. Still others opted to call the pianist at home by dialing up his personal home phone number.

How could they do this?

Because he had put his personal home phone number and address on large cards that were then held up on camera.

In those days there was no Internet, no such thing as instant feedback. So I somehow thought it would be a good idea to offer a way for the audience to get in touch with us.

It hadn’t occurred to me just what the audience might want to get in touch with us for.

The fallout from the show was immediate.

Even before it had officially concluded, the phone had begun to ring non-stop. Some calls were from friends and relatives. Others were from complete strangers who mostly seemed curious about whether the number was real or not. Some were prank calls and hang-ups. One particularly insistent person thought it was the height of hilarity to call, say “Quack, quack!” and then hang up.

He would continue to do this for years to come at all hours of the day and night, long after we’d forgotten why. We just accepted it.

The letters ran the gamut, from one memorably nasty one that I can still recall that told us in no uncertain terms that he’d disliked the program and that the fault for this lay squarely on the shoulders of “the faggot with the hat,” which I assumed was me, to one strangely polite one written in an awkward syntax that said that “It marveled me funny, the peanut gallery and the music…” It made mention of illness and I still wonder to this day what circumstances that letter came out of. I liked to think that we had brightened someone’s day.

Eventually all the excitement died down and life returned to normal.

Vox Populi! returned to their usual sort of guests who would go on about how their organization had been founded by the great-grandson of James Madison and how their meetings were open to the public on the third Wednesday of every month, rain or shine. The program limped along for a few more months and was finally cancelled.

About a year later, I decided to celebrate the anniversary of the broadcast by inviting everyone who had written to us to a party. The only one of these invitees to actually show up was a burly biker who had misinterpreted what I’d meant by “party.” He was a good sport, though, and he laughed continuously. I can remember my mother walking through the kitchen and not batting an eyelash at this Hell’s Angel sitting at the kitchen table along with the usual kids she knew.

“Oh, hello,” she said, nodding, as she went upstairs to fold the laundry. By this time there was very little I could do to surprise her.

Eventually the public television station closed up shop and moved into a much more roomy and elegant building, silencing the ghosts of the Bandstand forever. Now they’re just down the street from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall behind an expensive looking and glamorous façade.

It doesn’t look like the sort of place you could turn anything upside-down in without an appointment.

The holes in the fence where you could sneak in have long since been locked down or closed up.

Sometimes I wonder, though.

When I’m watching one of their local fundraisers, you know, one of those things where they show the same Grateful Dead concert for the hundredth time, I wonder if they ever get a phone call from someone who at first seems hesitant to talk. Then when they ask how much he’d like to pledge, he finds his tongue at last and, in a voice now matured with age, says:

“Quack, quack!”

That would please me very much indeed.


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