Monday, December 27, 2010
I'll never forget the day Donald Crisp died.
More precisely, I'll never forget the look on my mother's face when I said, "Who's Donald Crisp?"
He was an English character actor who specialized in kindly grandfather roles. (He won an Oscar in 1942 in "How Green Was My Valley.")
But I didn't know that then. So when he died in 1974, my blank stare hit my mother like a sledgehammer.
She was 63 - two years younger than I am now - and at that age you're beginning to feel your own mortality.
For a while, you try to console yourself with the thought that even if you won't last forever, at least the world you've known and loved will.
But then something comes along to remind you that your entire world, too, will pass and be forgotten.
That's what happened to my mother. Donald Crisp someone she grew up watching. He was part of the cultural air she breathed. So my ignorance felt like a death knell for everything she loved.
And that's how I felt a couple of weeks ago when a young friend said, "Who's Don Meredith?"
There's no reason why she would have heard of him. He broadcast his last game on "Monday Night Football" in 1984, long before she was born.
But to me, it was a sign that my world, too, is rapidly fading.
Part of me wants to grab every young person I meet by the lapels and shout, "No! No! Don't forget Dandy Don and Humble Howard! Don't forget Don Sherwood, Tommy Saunders and Russ the Moose!"
But, of course, they will be forgotten. And that's the way it should be.
The younger generations need to make space for their own cultural icons. They don't have room for all the leftovers from my era, any more than my generation had room for Rudy Vallee, Emil Coue or the Clicquot Club Eskimos.
And there's no way we can predict what posterity will judge important. Bach was forgotten for almost a hundred years after his death until he was rediscovered in the 19th century. Ditto for Vermeer.
Then there's that Christmas classic I watched on TV last week, "It's A Wonderful Life."
Believe it or not, it was a huge flop on its first release. When the director, Frank Capra, wrote his autobiography in 1971, he lamented that he would be remembered for "Lost Horizon," "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and "It Happened One Night," but not for his favorite film, "It's A Wonderful Life."
"Lost Horizon" was a movie that resonated powerfully for my father and every other man of his generation. But today it's almost forgotten, while "It's A Wonderful Life" is regarded as a masterpiece.
What happened? Simple: The copyright on "It's A Wonderful Life" expired, which freed TV stations all over the country to broadcast it every Christmas. And a new generation of viewers saw it with new eyes.
Incidentally, remember the scene where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are dancing on the high school basketball floor, and it opens up and the fall into a swimming pool underneath?
That was my high school. We used to open it up 20 feet and have tug-of-wars, with the losers falling in.
I hope that's one tradition that won't fade.