Friday, 19 October 2012

REMEMBERING THE LAST WITNESS TO LINCOLN'S ASSASSINATION

The Atlantic recently posted a remarkable video on their website, from the Fifties panel show I've Got A Secret. The clip, from 1956, features a 96 year old man who had been present at Ford's Theatre in Washington when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. You can link to the clip here, and in the piece is another link to the newspaper article that prompted his appearance on the show. Rebecca J Rosen of The Atlantic points out the relative 'brevity' of a century and a half, noting that there are far fewer differences between that TV show and our shows 57 years later, than there were for Mr. Samuel Seymour living from 1860 to 1956. It's too bad he didn't make it to the Civil War Centennial, which dominated my consciousness for a couple of years in 1962-63, but sadly he died only a couple of months after appearing on the programme.

As it happens, my great-grandmother's father was born in 1843 and died in 1945. He came to the US to avoid pogroms or wars (and narrowly missed the Civil War himself) fought on horseback and with muskets, and died after the first atomic bomb was dropped. I can remember my great-grandmother saying how he would have lived longer had he not smoked cigars. The link is not so remote as we might think.

I can tell my son about my grandfather's reaction to silent films. I was watching them in the mid-1970s, and would discuss them with my Grandpa Gene, who was born in 1900. He would immediately be drawn into his memories, precise in their fresh detail, of favourite films and, as interestingly, favourite actresses. As we talked he would drift into the present tense--we were talking about movies that were real, in the moment, for both of us.

As it happens, I remember I've Got A Secret, and by 1956 we had a TV so my mother might well have been watching that very episode. The funniest bit is when the host, Gary Moore, assumes the Lincoln assassination had nothing to do with the Civil War. But what was most interesting for me was watching how entertaining Bill Cullen and Jayne Meadows were on the panel. American TV in the Fifties still bore many of the trademarks of radio, and was New York centric, and there were 'personalities ' on it whose position was very much like some of the ubiquitous BBC people who fill panels and guest on radio and TV. Cullen and Meadows are funny, but they're also smart, and not afraid to be so. The other panelists were Henry Morgan and Faye Emerson, neither of whom I ever warmed to. The Meadows sisters (Audrey was Jackie Gleason's wife on The Honeymooners) reminded me of my Aunt Jean, too. The show ran for 21 years, with Steve Allen, another of those smart and funny people, taking over for Moore. Cullen would host its brief revival in the mid-Seventies.

Doing a little research, I was surprised to see I've Got A Secret was co-'created' by Allan Sherman, who would go onto fame as 'My Son The Folksinger', with the hit 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah'. I put 'created' in quotation marks because the show was such an obvious copy of What's My Line; both came from the Godson-Todman stable of shows. As the Atlantic piece notes, it's funny to see the cigarette sponsor front and center at Moore's desk; it's almost as funny to note $80 was the grand prize, or to see the crewcuts and bowties which indicated a certain level of acceptable (not as suspect as 'longhaired' --ie, not crewcut)--intellectual. Their spiritual descendants are the George Wills or Tucker Carlsons (no relation) who wear bow ties to signal they are playing intellectuals on TV.

The passage of 56 years hasn't dimmed my memory of flickering black and white TV. In fact, the images in my mind may be sharper and more stable than they were on our old Philco, just as my grandfather's memories of silent film actress could still bring a warm smile to his face. And remembering that brings a warmer smile to mine. Just as those memories live on in us, we live on in the memory of others.

3 comments :

sethdavis said...

My uncle was on "I've Got a Secret." He stumped the panel with "I sold girdles to WACs during World War II."

Anonymous said...

nice read :-)

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