Pop Goes the Culture

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Popular culture is an important part of our lives. Something in an old movie or TV show might connect you with someone of your generation or maybe another. It might take you back to when you were younger. It might relate to something ordinary, like a funny event in your family that reminds you of The Brady Bunch.

The Michigan Theater and the Redford Theatre recently hosted personal appearances that demonstrated the emotional power of pop culture.

On October 18, 2011, the Michigan hosted author Susan Orlean, who wrote a recently published biography of the canine movie star Rin Tin Tin. Later that week, on October 21, 2011, Redford audiences enjoyed an appearance by Butch Patrick, a star of the old television comedy The Munsters.

In both cases, the guests seemed at times overwhelmed by the ongoing appeal of their subjects. Rin Tin Tin and The Munsters have taken on lives of their own that have endured long beyond their initial appearances.

Susan, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, remarked that she hadn’t thought about Rin Tin Tin for years before she started work on the book, but soon became engrossed in the fateful incidents of his life, which started on a war-torn battlefield near the end of World War I.

Butch, who played young Eddie Munster on the television show, introduced a screening of the 1966 movie spinoff of the show, Munster, Go Home!. He talked about how exciting it was to see the movie on the big screen. He appeared at all three Redford showings of the movie on October 21 and 22.

Interestingly, the pop culture of 1966 has been immortalized in the book Hal Lifson’s 1966!: A Personal View of the Coolest Year in Pop Culture History. I gave a copy of it to my brother Steve, who was born that year. His teenage daughter Sarah had as much fun looking at it as he did.

And Rin Tin Tin makes a humorous appearance in the song “Drop That Name” in the movie musical Bells are Ringing, which I enjoyed at the Redford in 1998. The wonderful Judy Holliday tries to keep up with a crowd of snobbish name-dropping partygoers by adding Rin Tin Tin’s name to the end of every list of people that the others claim to know.

Applause for the Theaters

Both Susan and Butch praised the hosting theaters. Susan, who attended the University of Michigan, said she had worked with Michigan CEO/Executive Director Russ Collins to plan her book tour, which also includes the showing of the 1925 Rin Tin Tin silent movie Clash of the Wolves.

Butch praised the efforts of the staff of the Redford to preserve the theater, which brought back memories of when he first started attending movies. Similar comments were made by disc jockey Jim Johnson of oldies station WOMC, which helped sponsor the event.

Both events were feel-good evenings with continuous waves of applause. For the two guests; for the theaters and theater staffs; for the sponsors; for the films; and for the organists. Steven Ball accompanied Clash of the Wolves at the Michigan, and Tony O’Brien entertained the Redford crowd with bouncy melodies, spooky classical pieces, and the theme music from The Munsters.

Susan Orlean and Butch Patrick also connected personally with audience members in the lobbies of the two theaters.

Susan signed copies of her book for a line of people which stretched up the elegant staircase of the Grand Foyer of the Michigan. For me, and maybe others, a signed copy of her book helped take some of the hurt out of seeing the empty Borders bookstore across the street from the Michigan.

Butch, dressed casually in jeans and baseball cap, hammed it up with different Redford visitors who posed for pictures with him in the front lobby. Also appearing, on Lahser in front of the Redford, was the DRAG-U-LA race car that appeared in Munster, Go Home!.

Amidst all of this excitement were two entertaining movies.

Clash of the Wolves saw Rin Tin Tin take on all kinds of responsibilities—protecting his actual real-life mate Nanette and litter; leading a pack of wolves; bonding with the lead male and female human characters; and battling the Bad Guy.

There were several loud bursts of applause for Rin Tin Tin’s heroics, helping to re-affirm the group warmth that made this night much more than an evening in front of the television set. Susan noted that Rin Tin Tin was not a fictional name, like Lassie, which added to the authenticity of Rin Tin Tin’s performances.

Munster, Go Home! was a campy, goofy parody of horror films that was pulled off with enough polish and style to make the evening worthwhile. It was fun to see the familiar faces of the different characters on a big wide screen in color, especially Grandpa, who had many of the best lines of the movie.

Fred Gwynne’s reference to his old TV show Car 54, Where Are You? drew a good round of chuckles. Applause greeted Butch Patrick’s name in the opening credits and his first appearance on the screen.

Both events helped us see something familiar in a brand new way. Susan Orlean and Butch Patrick showed us how Rin Tin Tin and The Munsters had affected their lives, which in turn helped us understand how they had become part of ours.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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