Dr. Shock

The youngsters out there won’t remember this, but up until around 1975 or so there wasn’t any such thing as cable TV. Instead, we had the three major networks, PBS, and then something called UHF — smaller local stations located up beyond channel 2-13 that carried syndicated talk shows, reruns, and various forms of lower-budget local programming. Philadelphia boasted three of these in the early 1970s: Channel 17 (WPHL), Channel 29 (WTXF), and Channel 48 (WKBS). Many of these stations featured children’s programming, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

One of the more absurd children’s personalities that wound up on Channel 17 was “Dr. Shock,” the nom de cheap television shows of Joseph Zawislak. (Channel 17 also ran a local children’s show featuring the somewhat more conventional Wee Willie Webber.) From 1969 through 1979, Dr. Shock hosted a Saturday afternoon program (variously titled Scream In, Mad Theater, and Horror Theater) featuring a library of Grade-Z horror films that Channel 17 had somehow picked up; the films themselves were interspersed with wildly comic skits, magic tricks, and comments from Zawislak, along with wildly incongruous appearances from his young daughter Doreen and other children.  After a 13-week tryout period in 1969, Channel 17 cancelled the show, only to unleash a storm of 10,000 protest letters. Once Dr. Shock was back, he was back to stay.

Born in Philadelphia himself, Zawislak was a resident of Roxborough, and his resume reveals that prior to his television debut he had been a devoted amateur magician, a deli worker, an insurance salesman, a pinball arcade manager, and a gas cylinder truck driver. Alas, Dr. Shock died all too young of a heart attack at the age of 42, and his show died with him in 1979. There’s more information about Dr. Shock and his career here, and Channel 17 ran this feature during their 50th anniversary special:

I vaguely remembered watching him as a child, but the below tribute documentary put together by his longtime producer and collaborator Rick Fox reveals that my memories of this genuinely absurd show were sadly incomplete. Dr. Shock and other local television personalities like him inspired Joe Flaherty’s wonderful Count Floyd creation for SCTV later that decade; I’m sorry that we don’t have shows like this any more: budget-basement local programming propelled mostly by extraordinarily enthusiastic local amateurs, who in time became beloved professional entertainers. I suppose we have YouTube videos, but as you’ll see below, YouTube videos are no substitute.

This Sunday, Marilyn Nonken plays Joplin and Ives at St. Bart’s

Charles Ives and Scott Joplin.

I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, May 5, at 2:30 p.m., for American Voices of the 20th Century, Marilyn Nonken‘s program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911), which, as the program description has it, “weaves together popular music from the Civil War, along with quotes from Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy.” (I contributed the program notes for the Joplin work.) It’ll take place at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Manhattan.

Ives himself keenly appreciated ragtime, and listening to Joplin’s opera (as well as some lovely performances of the rags from the late William Albright) confirms that Joplin was one of the great early 20th-century composers — and perhaps the greatest — that America produced. Treemonisha itself, far from being a “ragtime opera,” brings together spirituals and call-and-response choral music along with rags and other varieties of indigenous folk music to produce a rather astonishing work. Earlier this year at the WQXR blog, Jenny Houser and George Grella went one step further and said of the opera, “As a work that carves out a new, American, classical genre, it’s equal in quality to anything by Charles Ives.”

Information and tickets here.

A toast to … World Press Freedom Day

This week I compared and contrasted two Missourians, Mark Twain and Scott Joplin; noted Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s misattribution of a quote to Mr. Twain, supplying a more cogent Twainian observation about the press; and chuckled over E.B. White’s change of heart about New York.

Speaking of Joplin, this Sunday Marilyn will perform a  program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911) at St. Bart’s Church in New York. More here.

And speaking of the press, today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, declared in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly. According to UNESCO, it is “a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

The year 2018 was not a particularly good one for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 66 professional journalists were killed in connection with their work around the world (compare this to the 13 Jewish men and women who were killed in anti-Semitic attacks last year according to this recent study issued in connection with Yom Hashoah — people who also were killed just for being who they were), and the organization remarks in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index that “an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.”

Nor are things better here in the US. There was, of course, this:

And whether or not you think such stupidity has contributed to the dangerous hostility against the press both here and abroad (and I think it has), Reporters Without Borders says the hostile climate reaches past even this:

As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.

I won’t be able to get to Cafe Katja this afternoon, so I’ll raise a glass to journalists and press freedom at home, and direct the savings to Reporters Without Borders. I hope you do, too — and subscribe to your local paper while you’re at it.

Prognosis negative

E.B. White in the introduction to his 1977 collection of essays, remembering his 1948 “Here Is New York” (his observation more true now, perhaps, than ever):

Some, like “Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about New York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’m not familiar with. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.

Getting it right

At the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday night, biographer Ron Chernow quoted Mark Twain — or, rather, misattributed a quote to him. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain: Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons,” Chernow said in farewell; the error also picked up by CNN’s story about the dinner here.

As Matt Seybold of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and Editor-in-Chief of MarkTwainStudies.org pointed out, this was just about par for the course; it’s so common for individuals to shoehorn into their writing an apocryphal saying of the great American author that the Center even has a section of its web site devoted to such misattributions. Twain himself was a newspaper reporter early in his career, and Chernow’s case was particularly troublesome, Seybold writes: “If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the ‘relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media’ which he rightly describes?”

These are parlous times for the free press. At first, the man in the White House called “Fake News” the “enemy of the people”; he has since broadened his attacks to demonize the press generally. All right, Chernow was giving a speech, not writing a news story, but Seybold’s concern is well-taken. Also well-taken is Seybold’s injunction that “the stuff [Twain] actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth,” and offers up, as an example, this much more robust and detailed characterization of the press from a speech that Twain gave in 1888:

Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

An especially cogent thought, given the sham, pretentious, false swindler currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.