education, memories, nostalgia

“Aggressively influenced” by the public TV of my childhood…

Growing up in the 70s and 80s was an interesting experience. It seemed like back in those days, things were evolving somewhat. Computers were becoming more popular, as were synthesizers, and we had all these cool movies about outer space, like Star Wars and Flash Gordon. I don’t think I’ve ever watched Star Wars in its entirety, but I have seen Flash Gordon many times. I used to watch it on HBO all the time, even though I wouldn’t call myself a science fiction buff. I actually love Flash Gordon for its campiness and funny British humor moments.

One thing I remember a lot from being a kid in the late 70s was how much public television I watched. In those days, we’d watch educational TV in school, especially when I lived in Fairfax County. I remember being in first grade and exposed to The Electric Company for the first time. Of all of the public education shows I used to watch at school, that one was definitely my favorite. A couple of days ago, I had “Silent E” running through my head…

This song, and many like it, helped me learn how to read as I watched every episode of The Electric Company and other shows created by the Children’s Television Workshop.
This song still gets stuck in my head.

Tom Lehrer is a genius. He just turned 93 years old on the 9th, and his witty, entertaining songs have helped so many children, particularly of my generation, become better people through education. Lehrer is probably best known for his witty songs for children’s shows on PBS, but he was also a brilliant mathematician and satirist. After the 1970s, he got out of public performances to focus on his love of teaching math and musical theater history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. When I listen to Tom Lehrer’s entertaining songs and realize that he had so many other, diverse interests, it kind of makes me feel humble. How can just one person be that gifted?

What brings on this topic today? Well… for one thing, it’s Monday, and I don’t feel like writing about the depressing state of current events right now. I figure we don’t need another article about social justice, my (many) pet peeves, my personal problems, or the pandemic. For another thing, I woke up with a song stuck in my head. It’s been stuck for years and I’ll probably never figure it out. Technically speaking, it’s not even a song, since I don’t think it has any words. In the late 70s, it was played all the time on PBS… basically funky “groove” music that serve to prevent dead air caused by a pause in programming.

During that time, my family lived in Northern Virginia, where over the air television was easier to watch, because we were near Washington, DC. There was a lot of money in Fairfax County, too, so the public television stations as well as the local independent stations, WDCA (channel 20) and WTTG (channel 5) got a lot of support. There was some good TV on in those days… probably better than what I saw on British TV when we lived in England. Although we did live in base housing at Mildenhall Air Force Base, I distinctly remember getting British TV instead of AFRTS (or AFN, if you prefer), which is a conglomeration of American TV shows condensed into a channel and made available for government and military Americans living abroad.

I always liked watching TV, but I really got into it in Fairfax, and I specifically remember loving PBS… along with this psychedelic identification flourish…

Hearing this brings back so many memories of being a young kid in elementary school.

According to the comments on this particular video, this particular identification flourish was composed by Paul Alan Levi. He wrote a comprehensive and technical explanation of the musical components of this creation:

Paul Alan Levi

4 years ago I am the composer of the PBS logo. I created it using a Putney VCS3 Synthesizer, not a Moog, as is claimed on various websites. The final chord is a G major 9th (major triad, major 7th, major 9th). I was working in a music/sound effects editing studio; all the equipment was in mono. No multi-track recorders. The descending scale was probably a sine wave (can’t remember exactly 46 years later) frequency modulated by a square wave to create the trill effect, then that sound frequency modulated by the descending part of a sawtooth wave from a low frequency oscillator. In order to synchronize the 6 final notes with the video, I had to record each note separately, then use a Moviola to synchronize each one with one of the popons. The result was 7 analog tracks all running at once, which multiplied the hiss that Glen Tindal remarked on earlier. It was odd for many years to be a composer whose music was heard by millions of people, none of whom knew I had composed it. There has always been a small subset of people who were terrified by the logo, which mystifies me. My two-year old daughter would hear it before or after Sesame Street and say happily, “Daddy’s tune.” My theory about this is that the sounds of the pure sound waves produced by the Putney were quite aggressive, and some people reacted to the intensity of those sounds.

Based on his explanation, I can only assume that Paul Alan Levi is some kind of a genius, too, who not only knows music, but is also a technology wiz. Or, at least he was a wiz in the late 70s and early 80s! I got a kick out of the comments from people who wrote that this thing “scared” them. I can kind of understand why. It has kind of an aggressive tone to it… harsh, loud, and unmistakable. When that thing came on before a program, you knew it was time to shut up and sit still… and maybe eat a Hostess Ho Ho or something. We were allowed snacks at Oak View Elementary School, and in those days, no one cared if they were full of chemicals. To this day, when I hear the PBS psychedelic chimes, I think of the processed snack cakes kids ate back then. No wonder so many of us are fat!

I ‘ve always loved the theme song for 3-2-1 Contact. It reminds me of “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp.

I remember watching 3-2-1- Contact at school, but I never enjoyed it as much as I did The Electric Company. I liked science, so I don’t know why I didn’t love this show more beyond the awesome theme song. I still remember the video montage shown during the credits, as well as the musical intro for the Children’s Television Workshop– again with the synths! We loved synths in the early 80s!

I especially remember this one.
See?

And I think I liked Sesame Street’s funky horn infused end credits even more than the official “Sesame Street” theme song. They hold up well even in 2021!

I love the opening credits and theme…
From 1:53, you can hear some funky music as the end credits roll!

Today’s youngsters have so many things to occupy their attention. I wonder what they’re going to be like when they’re in their 40s? One of the things I like about my generation is that so many of us had very similar experiences, simply because the Internet didn’t exist. We were all allowed to run wild in our neighborhoods and people weren’t calling CPS at the drop of a hat, every time some kid dared to venture beyond the front or back yard. I can remember doing things as a young child that I would never dream of allowing a child of today to do, like walk to a mall by themselves. When I lived on Portsmouth Road in Fairfax, I used to walk to University Mall by myself all the time. I was six or seven years old! I’d collect old glass bottles and turn them in for money, then hit the High’s Convenience Store and buy a candy bar for 26 cents. Nowadays, a child wandering the mall that young would be picked up by the police.

A memorable tune from The Electric Company… this one sounds a little inspired by Jim Croce.
Glad I don’t wait tables anymore.
I once shared this video on my original blog and got a blatant spam comment from a plumber. At least he took the time to try to make his comment someone on topic, remembering this from his childhood, too. I notice the person who uploaded this got spam links from plumbers, too.

When I wrote a post about The Electric Company on my original blog, I was inspired to do so because the sink in the kitchen of our rental house was not putting out hot water. The property management company sent someone over to check into it. He was in the middle of a spiel about how cheap the plumbing fixtures were when finally, after about five minutes, we got somewhat warm water. The property managers billed us $80 because they said it was our “responsibility” to check the water before complaining. I remember calling them up and chewing them out, since we were in Texas and there was a pretty severe drought going on. I asked them how long I was expected to let the water run, waiting for it to get hot, when the city was telling us to conserve. Then I bitched at them for not fixing the garage door, which was dented when we moved in.

The original property managers who set up the rental had said it was going to be fixed, but two weeks into our lease, another company– one that I had tried really hard to avoid– took over. They lived up to every one of their bad reviews, and tried (and failed) to screw us out of money at the end of the lease. I was so glad to get out of that house a year later. Of course, I didn’t know that when we moved to Germany, we’d be running into the first landlady we’d have to sue. She is now officially the worst landlord we’ve ever had, but prior to our experiences with her, the rental company in San Antonio was. If we ever do move back to the States, I hope to God we buy our own home. It may suck just as much to own a house, but at least it will be ours!

Cool theme song!

I never did get into Mister Rogers Neighborhood. For one thing, I was probably too old for it. For another, I found Mister Rogers annoying. He was probably too nice, and the way he spoke got on my nerves. Of course, in these troubled times, a lot of people probably would love to still have him around. He was gentle and calming, and he promoted being good to others. Same as Bob Keeshan as Captain Kangaroo, although I never watched much of that show. It always came on during early school hours. And The Great Space Coaster did, too, although that show wasn’t on PBS. It just had a groovy theme song and a cool animated intro.

Supposedly, this aired on PBS… it’s a little ridiculous. We sure were scared of the Soviets back in the day.

I see one of the kids in the show above was Leslie Weiner, who played a young Nadia Comaneci in the 1984 movie, Nadia. And the little girl in the still is Toni Ann Gisondi, who played Molly in the 1982 film version of Annie. April Lerman is also in this (ETA: I don’t see April listed anywhere, but on IMDB)! She was also in Annie, as well as a guest on Growing Pains, and a terrible Schoolbreak Special about bulimia called Little Miss Perfect. I remember that in the early 80s, everybody was afraid the Soviets were going to invade and turn us all into communists. Fourteen years later, I lived in Armenia, which was once a Soviet country. It’s now an independent country, and putting out some very fresh ideas. Having had that experience, I can say that our fears were probably a bit overblown.

Well… I have probably journeyed along the nostalgia path long enough. Guess I’ll get dressed and take the dogs for a stroll. I could watch these videos all day, though. I miss being young.

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bad TV, mental health

The tasteless dramatization of self-starvation…

This post may be triggering for anyone suffering from an eating disorder. Reader discretion advised.

A couple of days ago, I decided I couldn’t stand to watch any more old episodes of Snapped. I actually find Snapped very interesting, but I can barely stand to listen to the former narrator, Sharon Martin, who (to me) has an annoying, over-the-top, salaciousness about her that bugs. I read that Sharon Martin was replaced as the narrator on Snapped. Having looked her up online, I know I’m not the only one who finds her irritating. She must also have her fans, though, because she was the narrator for many years, and there was even a Change.org petition to bring her back.

Because I needed to break away from Snapped, I went on a downloading binge. I ended up buying the box set of Growing Pains, which was a popular show, starting when I was a pre-teen. That show famously starred the late Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, and Jeremy Miller. I’ve just now started the second season and am unexpectedly delighted by how well written and funny the early seasons are. Kirk Cameron was legitimately cute and funny before he became a Christian evangelist nightmare. Jeremy Miller was seriously adorable when he was a little kid. And then there’s Tracey Gold.

I’ve always had kind of a love/hate fascination with Tracey Gold. I think she is a talented actress, although the roles she’s played have often annoyed me. I remember seeing her on shows like Trapper John, MD and any number of movies of the week. She truly has a gift for acting, especially the kind of acting required by shows of the 70s and 80s, which was the height of my childhood. I probably know her best from her time as Carol Seaver, though… and I remember all too well how she was often made fun of on the show for being fat, ugly, and nerdy. Then, when she was in her late teens/early 20s, she developed anorexia nervosa and had to leave Growing Pains for treatment.

In 1994, Tracey Gold even made a TV movie about her real life eating disorder. For the Love of Nancy is one of maybe a dozen or so television movies about the horrors of eating disorders. For all I know, Tracey has recovered from her illness. I haven’t seen her on TV lately, but then I also haven’t been in the United States since 2014.

Yesterday, as I was watching old episodes of Growing Pains, I started thinking about all of the eating disorder themed movies of the week and after school specials. Next thing I knew, I started searching Google and promptly fell down a rabbit hole. My search was prompted by a guest star on Growing Pains by an actress named April Lerman (now known as April Haney). She played an annoying, pretentious girl named Juliet on Growing Pains. In 1987, she also played a girl named Cindy Greco on an after school special called Little Miss Perfect. On that show, she was second banana to Mary Tanner, who played the lead role– a bulimic girl named Debbie Welker.

I remember watching that special and being a bit shocked by it. On that special, Debbie (Mary Tanner) was upset because her mother remarried and forced her to leave her old neighborhood. She finds herself in a new school, where she has to prove herself as a budding musical theater star and high school cheerleader. I distinctly remember the cheerleading coach making comments about how the high school cheerleaders needed to make the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders “jealous” of them.

The hourlong show culminated with a scene showing Debbie stuffing her face with tons of junk food and then throwing up. She ruptures her esophagus and ends up in the hospital, where her mother lectures her about her habits. Cindy Greco (April Lerman) is there doing a horrible Humphrey Bogart impression as Debbie’s mom promises her that they will “lick” (see what they did there?) this problem together.

I went looking to see if I could find that particular cringeworthy special on YouTube. I have seen it there before. Alas, it’s one of the lost episodes that isn’t currently on the popular video platform. I’m sure it will show up again at some point. What I did find, however, was a hilarious article about movies and shows about eating disorders. This snarky piece, written by Claudia Eve Beauchesne, makes the very astute observation about the the media’s portrayal of eating disorders. She writes:

Between 1981 and 2003, at least a dozen cookie-cutter movies and after- school specials about eating disorders were broadcast on North American television. Nearly all of those films had titles combining the words “Dying,” “Perfect” and “Body” (Little Miss Perfect, Perfect Body, Dying to be Perfect, etc.) or including the word “Secret” (Kate’s Secret, The Secret Life of Mary Margaret, A Secret Between Friends, etc.) Save for a few exceptions, they all followed the same recipe:

A white, upper-middle-class teenage girl with mommy issues and a name that ends in a “y” sound (Casey, Debbie, Nancy, Lexi, etc.) secretly begins to “scarf and barf,” or stops eating altogether, in an effort to excel at a performing art or competitive sport, to emulate a popular new friend, or to regain a sense of control after a move or her parents’ divorce. A few dramatic incidents later—often messy binges involving chocolate icing, desperate midnight workouts and/or laxative theft—her friends and family start to tell her that she looks too thin, yet fail to notice that she now also sports ghoulish purple eye shadow and beige lipstick.

Eventually, our heroine faints in public and wakes up in the hospital, her mother asks herself out loud, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss?!” and a doctor gives the worried parents a complete rundown of the possible causes and effects of eating disorders. After a failed attempt to run away from the hospital, our heroine learns that her enabler friend or sassy hospital roommate has died of heart failure or committed suicide. The news sends her on a downward spiral until she hits rock bottom and resolves to get better. Cue the tearful reconciliation with mom.

I sat there chuckling, because Claudia is so right. I’ve seen most of those movies. Some of them are better than others, but they all do follow that basic formula. And they all kind of make it out that the only real eating disorders are anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and they’re only “real” if someone winds up in the hospital on the brink of death. Also, one thing Claudia doesn’t mention, but I’ve noticed, is that they always show the heroines jogging through beautiful neighborhoods, as if they are so healthy and wholesome… but underneath, there’s a bucket of crazy!

The first movie about eating disorders. It’s loosely based on the novel by the same name.

The actors portraying the victims sometimes actually look the parts they play. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Casey Powell in The Best Little Girl in the World, an ABC movie of the week loosely based on the book of the same name, written by famed eating disorder therapist Steven Levenkron. I read that Jennifer Jason Leigh lost about 22 pounds to play Casey. She’s also a legitimately good actress. But they still used an emaciated body double in a doctor’s office scene. You can tell, because Jennifer Jason Leigh had really beautiful, thick, natural hair, and in that scene, it’s obvious the body double is wearing a godawful wig. But the shot only lasts a few seconds.

In For the Love of Nancy, there’s a similarly revealing scene. Tracey Gold, who actually did have anorexia nervosa, comes into a Christmas party looking like death warmed over. In that scene, it really looks like they mostly used her real body, although she was reportedly in recovery when that film was made.

Like The Best Little Girl in the World, For the Love of Nancy starts with a jogging scene…

I’ve seen For the Love of Nancy a bunch of times. This is the first time I’ve actually stopped to look at this scene closely. It’s probably because this movie kind of grates. Even though it has a somewhat decent cast, there’s not a lot of chemistry among the actors. Jill Clayburgh and William Devane are not convincing as a couple and the siblings all look like they came from different gene pools. But now that I look at it this infamous scene in slow motion, I think they used body doubles for this film, too. Tracey Gold probably no longer had the super skinny body that would deliver the requisite shock value to viewers, since she had been in recovery. I’m sure this film was not easy for her to make. It was probably pretty triggering for her.

Nowadays, movies of the week aren’t as common as they used to be. We have so many outlets for entertainment now. All of the streaming services make their own content now– Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all have their own shows, and there are so many dramatic subjects that can be tackled that shock even more than anorexia nervosa does. Personally, I think these kinds of movies, which entertain in a way akin to that of horror movies, do a disservice to people.

There are a lot of different kinds of eating disorders. They are all soul crushing and devastating in their own ways. But no one wants to see an obese woman with compulsive overeating disorder stuffing her face and not vomiting, even though compulsive overeating is, in fact, a dangerous eating disorder. Ditto to orthorexia, which is an obsession with “clean” or “healthy” eating. Even though it’s unhealthy and destructive, it’s not as dramatic or sexy a subject as is anorexia or even bulimia. Maybe a really gifted screenwriter and director could make a compelling film about the lesser acknowledged eating disorders, but they probably wouldn’t stir as much interest, even though informing the world about those problems would probably be a public service. At most, people with compulsive overeating or binge eating disorders will get spots on a “freak” show aired on The Learning Channel (TLC).

This movie is pretty obscure these days. I’m not sure I could “stomach” it today.

The one film that probably came closest to such an ideal was the 1990 comedy-drama film, Eating, which starred Mary Crosby. And that movie, which I have seen, is not that great. I remember there was another show– it was an actual series that quickly got axed– that was called Starved. It attempted to put a comic spin on eating disorders and, quite predictably, was deemed in poor taste.

Yes, the episodes of Starved are on YouTube. No, I haven’t watched all of them. Maybe I will, though.

I seem to remember Tracey Gold tried to do a series about eating disorders, too. Her show was more of a documentary/talk show format. I think I saw it once or twice before it was canceled. It didn’t have the best time slot. If you check YouTube, you can find a number of episodes of Tracey’s show, Starving Secrets, posted there.

One of my favorite movies about eating disorders remains the totally horrifying Karen Carpenter Story. Premiering on CBS on New Year’s Day 1989, this film starred Cynthia Gibb as Karen Carpenter and Mitchell Anderson as Richard Carpenter. Neither actor looked much like the person he or she was portraying, which meant there were really awful wigs used. There was also lip synching aplenty. I read that Cynthia Gibb actually had to wear Karen’s clothes, per Richard Carpenter’s insistence. Later, I read that Richard hated the movie and was sorry he’d had anything to do with making it. It’s a pretty campy movie and I’m not sure it holds up well against the test of time, however I will always love it for the music. I am an unabashed Karen Carpenter fan.

The Karen Carpenter Story…

Cynthia Gibb also portrayed an anorexic on the old TV show, Fame. Her character on that show, Holly Laird, becomes anorexic when her parents divorce. Of course, since it was 80s TV, Holly gets sick and is completely recovered by the end of the show, even after a hospital stay. It’s never mentioned again. Naturally, this is a pretty unrealistic characterization of eating disorders. They don’t magically go away.

Cynthia Gibb plays Holly Laird on Fame, who was anorexic for just one episode.

Below are a few screenshots from the dramatic fainting scene… these are supposed to be high school students!

Perhaps the best portrayal of anorexia nervosa I’ve seen yet– and perhaps as much because of accuracy as sheer entertainment value– was that of Emma Rigby’s portrayal of anorexic teen, Hannah Ashworth on the British soap, Hollyoaks. I enjoy British TV anyway, but these scenes are so over the top compelling. And as an American, I find the concept of “sectioning” someone kind of fascinating. Yes, one can be committed in the United States, but Brits make it sound so much more caring when they do it. That kind of warms the cockles of any drama queen’s heart.

You could spend hours watching this shit… Fans of this particular genre have uploaded every scene.

Emma Rigby is also a good actress and the writers seem to have really done their homework about the most dramatic aspects of anorexia nervosa. They even mention the putrid breath one gets when one is in ketoacidosis from eating nothing but protein with no carbs. I was impressed by that. It’s not a very sexy aspect of anorexia and I have never seen it mentioned on any other dramatized program about eating disorders. It looks like Hollyoaks has gone there again more recently with a character named Cleo. I haven’t actually watched Cleo’s story, so I can’t comment too much about it yet…

Oh dear!

I could continue writing about this, but it would take all day. I haven’t even scratched the surface. However, just to bring this back to the original topic that caused me to fall down this rabbit hole, I will mention the dreaded Cameron family again. Remember, I got on this subject because of Tracey Gold, who famously starred with Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains? Well, his real life sister, Candace Cameron Bure, is also an actress. And she also portrayed someone with an eating disorder on the family friendly show, Full House. Her character, D.J., diets compulsively for one episode in which she decides to lose weight for a pool party at Kimmy Gibbler’s house.

You can find clips on YouTube, but I prefer this Funny or Die video… They do a good job summing things up. I like it when Jesse (John Stamos) tries to lay down the law.

Anyway… I figure I’ve prattled on long enough about this subject today. Maybe I should write about politics again, but to be honest, I never enjoyed writing about politics that much. I only felt like doing it when Trump was in charge. My original blog was less about politics, anyway, and I’d kind of like to get back to that content… which is less depressing.

Is watching old episodes of Growing Pains better than watching “murder porn” shows like Snapped? Especially when it leads me to looking up movies and TV shows about eating disorders? I don’t know. I used to be pretty obsessive about dieting when I was young, which is why I know about this genre in the first place. I am less obsessive about this subject now, although it’s not something that ever totally goes away. I know I’m not alone, though, which is why I’m writing about this now.

Time to practice guitar before I completely lose my motivation and watch more bad TV from the 80s.

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