Change can be much like an old building

Published 10:22 am Friday, August 2, 2013

Column: Independent’s Eye, by Joe Gandelman

They thought it was dead, but now it’s coming back. The little theater, a dancehall named Oscar’s Palladium on North Second Street in Sargent, Neb., had once been the scene of shows on a Midwest vaudeville circuit, then dances featuring big bands such as Tommy Dorsey’s, then early rockers. And then it closed.

Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman

Now it’s back featuring country western acts and variety acts (including recently yours truly in my non-writing incarnation), greatly but not completely restored with a shiny wood floor, bright lights and cozy snack area. It’s attracting whole families to come see live entertainment.

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Yes, even buildings once written off as oh-so-yesterday can experience change: they can be abandoned, torn down ­ or reborn. And so it is in America’s entertainment, media and political cultures: edifices rise, fall or are revamped.

The 1980s: TV talk was dominated by touchy-feely daytime talkers, and an MTV producer decided he wanted an updated version of the 1960s confrontational, shock-talk Joe Pyne Show. So the Morton Downey Jr. show debuted in 1987. It was an instant hit featuring the chain-smoking host literally getting in the face of guests, throwing them off his show, and calling them “pabulum puking pinkos.”

Downey made politics highly personal as his largely young studio audience roared in approval ­ creating a template for Jerry Springer, and talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. As detailed in the documentary “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” by 1989 Downey was off the air due to personal and professional hubris. But the edifice he created impacted the way Americans talk to political foes and made touchy-feely talk shows seem outdated.

Today, media giant Cumulus is poised to drop conservative talkers Limbaugh and Sean Hannity at the end of the year. Limbaugh has been the target of a boycott aimed at getting big name advertisers to flee his show due to his comments about women and minorities, but Cumulus’ action will be due to distribution fees. The talk show edifice Limbaugh helped strengthen remains strong. And if Limbaugh and Hannity leave the Cumulus building, they’ll find another.

Jan. 10, 1999: “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO, featuring jewel-like scripts from David Chase and flawless acting by James Gandolfini, changing television forever. In his must-read book “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” Brett Martin details how “The Sopranos” sparked a new, third Golden Age of Television: 13 episode-per-season cable series, with movie-like quality scripts, acting, writing and directors. Television’s edifice was reinforced and upgraded.

And our political culture? It now seems heading where Oscar’s Palladium was before it closed.

People don’t discuss, they attack, negatively define and demonize (in public, blog posts, blog and website comments, emails and on Facebook). In Congress, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson notes that the GOP has adopted obstruction as an actual policy — a development The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky says is absolutely new in American history: “This isn’t a partisan crisis,” he writes. “It’s a historical crisis.” Is America’s 200-year-old edifice called democracy about to deteriorate? Can it be fixed?

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama continues to talk a tough political game, but the bottom line is that historians will say that when he put a big push on health care reform after his big 2008 win he used up clout that would have been better allocated to pushing through tougher measures to fix the economy. An Associated Press survey now finds that four out of five U.S. adults struggle with unemployment, near-poverty or reliance on some welfare. This is not a stellar legacy.

Unlike with a building, it isn’t easy to tear down the rank partisanship, game-playing or to remove the partisan bile stuck in the septic tank of our political culture’s edifice. But there is one parallel.

Congress and both parties are now like many of the entertainers who performed on the stage at Oscars since the early 20th century: They give us a song and dance.

Only the ones at Oscar’s Palladium have always been in step and in tune.


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States.