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The History Channel looks at American icons

Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Main Street. Route 66. TV dinners. Playboy. Elvis.

These things may not have much in common, but they do share one defining characteristic: They're all uniquely American.

That makes them ideal subjects for History Channel's four-part series "American Classics," an examination of cultural icons that have become part of this country's DNA.

TV Preview
"American Classics"
When:9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday on The History Channel.
Starring:Dick Clark.

Hosted by Dick Clark, an American classic in his own right, "American Classics" is divided into four parts: Tuesday's "Defining a Nation," Wednesday's "America in Motion," Thursday's "America Transformed" and Friday's "Let Us Entertain You."

Various authors and academics offer running commentary, including University of Minnesota art history and American studies professor Karal Ann Marling.

The program mostly focuses on the 20th century, which Marling said makes sense.

"America was really small potatoes to the rest of the world in the 19th century," Marling said in a recent phone interview. "People may have known about cowboys and covered wagons, but it didn't register on the world stage until after the second world war, which coincided with the rise of television."

Marling said "American Classics" is particularly timely given the ongoing war against terrorism.

"In this atmosphere in which the Taliban and other fundamentalists are screaming that there is something decadent, corrupt and deeply horrible about American media and pop culture, it might behoove Americans to reexamine some of them," she said. "We're looking at these objects that are products of our commercial culture, whether it's the movies or Coca-Cola bottles that are the images America carries abroad."

While some might quarrel with the notion that a Betty Grable pin-up qualifies as a "classic," Marling said it's time to change the definition.

"We're quarreling with the notion that only some high, exalted work of art can be a classic," she said. "Perhaps the classics arise more out of the culture most of us live in most of the time. Perhaps that's what American classics are and why it's important to look at them now."

Tuesday's premiere is Marling's favorite segment. It lays the foundation for the popular culture trends that follow, from iconic George Washington as America's first superstar to Quaker Oats, the first popular brand name.

"Branding really grew up after the Civil War," Marling said. "Products began to be manufactured in factories and retailing changed nationally. Before that you had a choice between oats and nothing. Suddenly, you had brand products. I suppose it was reassurance by label, that by buying an honest Quaker Oats product it wouldn't have the weevils in it like the ones you bought from the barrel at the grocers."

The creation of brand products had another side effect. It knit the culture, Marling said. "Your breakfast food was like my breakfast food. Wheaties was for the all-American boy."

While many cultural critics sneer at the monolithic corporation the Walt Disney Company has become, Marling said we have ol' Walt to thank for revitalizing interest in Main Street USA by constructing a nostalgic Main Street utopia at Disneyland. In the '50s and '60s as suburbs sprang up, Americans went through "this huge sort of ... under-the-radar screen evaluation of what we were leaving behind.

"Walt Disney was absolutely crucial in this. Disneyland let people experience Main Street USA again in isolation as a work of art, a theater piece. You could walk down this street and finally for the first time see it for what it represented, the joys of being a pedestrian."

Marling said if not for Disney, many more towns would have lost their Main Streets. She pointed out front porches are popular again on some new homes being built.

"Even though we wouldn't walk a foot from the street, preferring to drive into the garage and slam the door, the symbol is important," Marling said.

But the most important symbol for all of "American Classics" is the TV dinner.

"America ceases to sit down in a formal setting and discuss things simply amongst the family and broadens its horizons which TV allowed them to do in so many ways." Marling said. "We saw the Vietnam War while watching TV over dinner. Suddenly we were exposed to one another on a massive scale. ... It helped create a national ethos, whereas before perhaps it was exclusively sectional differences."

The idea of TV as the great unifier is not new, but, Marling said, it's a key component in the identity of America.

"There were poignant reports of young men drafted to fight in Vietnam. They ended up singing the 'Mickey Mouse Club' theme song while waiting for an attack," she said. "It really does link one person's childhood to another's in a very real way."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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