It's sad enough that TV is so integral to my life that I took all the channels I could get like an alcoholic gargling down a bottle of nail polish remover. What's sadder is that now, possessed of The Learning Channel, Discovery and A&E, the only televised journey I've taken into history has been through Nick-at-Night and Nick's TV Land.
Is it so wrong skip the History Channel's "The War Years," "The Century of War" and "The Vietnam War"? The TV Land variety show lineup offered an equally valuable and multilayered history lesson, especially viewed with hindsight. Remember the News of the Future segment on "Laugh-In"? The phrase "President Ronald Reagan" got an enormous laugh in 1969. Still does, at parties.
But the ultimate time-space mirror was seeing Dean Martin, the definitive conduit through which we were fed the 1960s. Not The '60s, the 1960s. I've said it before and, since retro is so damn popular, I'll say it again. There were two versions of that era. The '60s was that ragged, sign-carrying, drug-bingeing, beat-poetry (to death in some cases), "kill your parents" time that dragged consciousness and unconsciousness to heights no one had ever seen before.
The 1960s was populated primarily by the parents it was suggested one kill. The 1960s was the martini swilling, cigarette smoking, wise-cracking, sex-mongering height of breezy charm, when being socially conscious meant seeing to it that nobody's glass was empty. You smiled and took yourself lightly and that was all that mattered.
Like any other kid allowed to stay up that late, I watched "The Dean Martin Show" when I was 6 and was as transfixed as anyone at the Ascension might have been. Everyone was witty, well-dressed, graceful and glib. And then there were the girls, the Golddiggers, Dean Martin's entourage of statuesque beauties, all 9-feet-tall, 38-24-36, with gorgeous clothes and Niagara Falls of hair, so luxurious you could hang onto it and repel off them, if that was your idea of a good time.
Given the endless debate about how TV influences kids (mix one shot snoring with two shots yawn), reviewing "The Dean Martin Show" was a real eye-opener. The guy was adorably blasted all the time, and it didn't look like an act. More to the point, it was encouraged, and by the network. Back then Schaeffer was advertised as "the beer to have when you're having more than one." Not to mention the fact that Martin smoked constantly, especially while singing. And "Golddiggers." Imagine anyone getting away with naming a group of ornamental women Golddiggers in 1997. I aspired to be a Golddigger as a kid, too. But the most golddigging I ever got around to occurred only when I got some popcorn stuck between a couple of fillings. There just turned out to be other things to do.
Now the retro swinger thing is making a comeback. Sadly, it's doing so with all the clumsiness of a drunk trying to corner you for a kiss. Don't get me wrong. I do love the whole Dino, martini, cocktail scene ... of the 1960s. But the ham-handedness with which happy-hour revisionists are attempting it is something of an insult to the ease and calm good humor it's supposed to invoke. They look like they're trying too hard. Consider the magazine we saw a few days ago, Milton, with a sepia photo of Mr. Berle on the cover, tag-line, "We drink. We smoke. We gamble." Why not just say, "We are the hellcats nobody likes," or any other sentiment that an odd, greasy teen-ager would scribble into his notebook with a ballpoint?
On the rocks
On the rocks
No, the real lovers of the genre know the cocktail hour, the quiet drink, the silk-light music of the Sinatra box-set, the sweet, stolen flirt are all pleasures of the spirit and can't be dictated or deconstructed any more than the perfect kiss. Those moments, and they are moments, not ways of life, are quantum and Zen. Try to force it and it will shrink like a man intimidated. Try to capture it and it will escape giggling, like a girl who has had enough of you and not enough of the party.
Loving an era is one thing, but trying to resuscitate it is like trying to bring back an old romance, tingly at first but in the end contrived, awkward and thuddingly disappointing. Let's just hope there aren't any more deeply buried eras that someone tries to bring back. Everyone might end up wearing Ascots, having butlers, snorting snuff, speaking in horribly affected English accents and quoting Oscar Wilde. Now there was a man who knew how to drink like a grownup. And he knew then what all the revisionists have forgotten. That absinthe makes the heart grow fonder. Oh, and the importance of being a little less earnest.