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Offbeat 'Visions' Nostalgia
Airdate: Thursday - December 23, 1976

Phantom of the Open Hearth

Last Update: 01-20-2009

Show Description
Jean Shepherd, the humorist, author and personality in the broadcasting corridors of radio and television, insists that he hates nostalgia. All right, for argument's sake, let's buy that. But his "The Phantom of the Open Hearth," which can be seen on public television's, "Visions" series tonight at 9 o'clock is a wonderfully offbeat reminiscence of a young man enduring the maturation trials of a junior prom in the industrial Middle West of the 1940's. For Mr. Shepherd, nostalgia is a distortion of the past, making it look better than it really was. He believes the best time is right now," that "the only difference between now and then is who is being miserable." On the other hand, the Shepherd vision of the American dream is rooted in "the beautiful future, the glorious past and the crummy now," The details may be inconsistent, but the storytelling is irresistible. If the mention of nostalgia is frowned upon, perhaps the Shepherd style can be described as sentimental In the vein known as boozey. He is the masterful spinner of yarns in the local pub or saloon. The language is self-consciously overripe. The Middle West becomes that "great inverted bowl of darkness!" People sit in movie theaters where "outside those doors crouched the pale gray wolf of reality." The content is almost queasily luscious, but the style or delivery is streetcorner tough, Mr. Shepherd narrated his own play out of the corner of his mouth. He is the gentle Midwesterner, performing for the urban toughs. The same technique and public persona is used by another Midwesterner named Studs Terkel. The young man of Mr. Shepherd's story is Ralph (David Elliott), who dreams about taking the stupendous Daphne Bigelow (Tobi Pilavin) to the prom. Ralph's father, the "old man" (James Broderick), goes bowling every Wednesday and has won a table lamp, in the shape of a woman's leg wearing a high-heeled shoe, in a sports-quiz contest. Dad was "a generation ahead of his time-the first genuine Pop Art fanatic." Ralph's mother is devoted to dish night at the local Orpheum, where a crisis is approaching as the customers have been given the same gravy boat four weeks in a row. As produced and directed by Fred Barzyk and David Loxton, who are associated with experimental public television centers in Boston and New York, "The Phantom of the Open Hearth" takes its average American lunacies with the utmost seriousness. No matter the circumstances, the characters keep pushing along, convinced that all will eventually turn out for the best. Even the rented white tuxedo jacket with the gaping hole in the breast pocket looks quite acceptable when it is finally delivered. We know that Ralph will never get the treasured attention of Daphne. She is resented for some special guys. The others? "Well, they do the best they can." The best Ralph can do is Wanda Hickey (Roberta Wallach), who happens to be a whiz in algebra, But the prom has an inevitable life of its own. Mickey Eisley and His Magic Music Makers play "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "Stardust." Wanda, wearing her orchid corsage, begins to sweat right through her taffeta dress. The pianist in the sophisticated cocktail lounge wears an ornate platinum wig. And Ralph gets drunk and terribly sick. It's delightful and somewhat painful. As Mr. Shepherd reminds us: "Everybody in America has got a prom picture stuck away somewhere - and they'd never show it to anyone - and with good reason." Meanwhile, this one, laced with marvelous performances, is well worth watching.
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