Sunday, August 28, 2005

Daughter-The Musical

We were at one of the big chain bookstores, doing a little light browsing between one class and another, when Daughter tugged my hand firmly.

“Mommy, look!”

I looked up from the Cosmo quiz to see her pointing at a woman waiting for coffee.

“I think she looks like Eleanor Powell.”

I considered the woman. Short, light-brown bobbed hair and slender, athletic build.
“Yeah, I can see it.”

Thus happily in agreement, we went to back to our reading.

Who is Eleanor Powell, some might be asking? She was a dancer who worked in MGM musicals in the 1930’s. Why does my small daughter know her well enough to find similarities in a person waiting for a Frappucino? Why do I know her well enough to have an opinion?

When Daughter was born, I decreed she wouldn’t see television for a while. For one reason, the American Pediatric Association had just strongly recommended no TV until two. Being as I have an allergy to authority figures, I would have completely ignored this unless it went with what I had seen, which was my friends being tormented incessantly to purchase objects their small children had seen on TV. I knew Daughter was going to torture me – it’s part of her job -- but Elmo wasn’t going to be one of her weapons. Also, there was that time I saw my friend’s son, age fifteen months, sitting frozen in front of “Bob the Builder” with a completely glazed expression and a stalactite of drool issuing from his lips. He might have been happy, but he looked as if he had just risen from the grave to munch human flesh.

We made it two years with no TV.

It wasn’t that hard. I never got to use the TV to keep her occupied while I showered, but I didn’t miss it. Also, with her being an only child, I wasn’t constantly negotiating with an older sibling desperate to see what was on Nickelodeon or worse, MTV. Daughter’s second birthday passed, but the TV still didn’t go on. Somewhere around her third birthday, I had a powerful thought:

Mr. Rogers was a nice man. If Daughter doesn’t see TV, she will never know about him.

TV, though flawed, had a few assets. So, slowly, I incorporated PBS into her life: Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Between the Lions, and the occasional Sesame Street. She once saw the beginning of another show and looked up at me, delighted.

“Mommy, who is that purple dinosaur?”

“No one, sweetheart,” I said firmly, as I switched off the TV and took her on a walk to distract her. A little PBS is one thing, but I am not martyring myself.

Flash forward to Christmas, 2004. While searching for ideas, I happened to notice a packaged DVD set of That’s Entertainment, Parts 1-4. This triggered a Proustian flood of memories. That’s Entertainment came out when I was nine, and my mother took me to the theater to see it. Hey, what nine year-old doesn’t enjoy Ann Miller? Of course, bucking conventional wisdom, I loved it. I made my mother take me back three times, in fact. I got the soundtrack and for two years I played it every morning while I dressed for school.

Yeah, I was hip.

Staring at this DVD package, I thought maybe Daughter will like it, and if she doesn’t, I’ll wait until both of them leave the house and sing along with “Old Man River”.

As it turned out, she liked it a great deal. During the school year, she is only allowed to watch TV on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and she gave up precious Angelina Ballerina episodes in order to watch That’s Entertainment again and again. As with any popular show, my daughter picks favorite characters and switches them as whim demands. Only, instead of first pretending to be Power Puff Blossom one week, and then seeing herself more as more of a Buttercup the next, she identifies with Esther Williams for a while, and then starts channeling Katherine Grayson (She usually comes back to Esther, though: it’s hard to compete with a woman who can dive through a ring of flames and then swim through and tube of bathing beauties, all while keeping her eyes open underwater and smiling). I’m a little grateful to Esther, as Daughter started attending swimming classes without grousing when she realized that each class put her one step closer to wearing a bathing suit covered in silver sequins while emerging from a lavender shell-shaped fountain.

A few weeks ago, she called me in and pointed disdainfully at the screen.

“I don’t like them,” she announced.

It was Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald, standing so close that they were practically singing up each other’s noses. To my way of thinking, the music deserved no better treatment.

“I never liked them either” I admitted.

She beamed. I smiled. It wasn’t bonding in a way other people might recognize, but we both got what we needed.

After a few months of being enthralled with these DVDs, I rented one of the musicals from which the segments were taken. My thinking was she would like to see the musical numbers in context. You know, so they made some sense.

She watched the first one for a while, and then drifted into the office to watch me work. The movie continued unacknowledged in the other room.

“Don’t you want to watch the movie?”

“No, they’re talking.”

Turns out, she didn’t need context. She needs Joan Crawford shimmying with a marabou dress on, she needs Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates, and she needs the increasingly ludicrous Andy Hardy routines (They’re staging this in a barn, people! Where did they get a three-story high rotating stage?).

Her devotion to these DVDs works for me. They keep her occupied without being completely mindless. There is no licensing tie-in, so I won’t be nagged for a “Singing in the Rain” lunchbox with pictures of Donald O’Connor in various attitudes. The women she is striving to emulate aren’t pneumatic, flimsy or wanton. They appear healthy and athletic.

And we’re working up a nice soft-shoe rendition of “For Me and My Gal”. Full harmony. Counterpoint footwork. The works.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you and I are about the same age, and I adored That's Entertainment as a kid. Must go rent the DVD's now.
Also, I always said that when/if I had kids (my children are still virtual) that I would raise them without TV for as long as possible, and keep their TV viewing to a minimum (an amount that would likely increase as they age) thereafter, with guidelines for the content. If I mentioned this to actual (vs. virtual) parents, they would sniff pityingly at me. Couldn't be done, was the consensis. I'd learn. Thank you for demonstrating that it can be done, and that an interesting person will be the result of it.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Never let it be thought that I am slamming parents who do let their young kids watch television. There are plenty of wonderful, funny kids out there who can sing the "Sponge Bob Square Pants" theme song.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of the mothers who exploits the Muppets to my advantage. I'm willing to use Elmo in order to be able to keep Daughter away from the oven when I'm cooking. Mostly, I feel no guilt.

My concern isn't as much for HER, as it is for ME. Prior to Daughter's birth, I KNEW the Purple dinasaur was a sign of the apocalypse... but lately... I've found him kinda sweet. Is there hope for me?

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do let me apologize to any parents out there whose children do watch television, lest you think I was, in praising one way of rearing kids, condemning another. I meant nothing of the sort. None of my friends are as strict as I would be(in my fantasy resolve, which, let's face it, would crumble like fresh bleu cheese twenty minutes after childbirth), and all their children are brilliant and perfect, as I'm sure the children of anyone reading this are as well. Only exceptional people read this blog, and your children doubtless reflect you! --Mary

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic, I knew I loved that kid! And I hasten to add that my 10-year-old daughter may be the only other elementary school child who could also identify Eleanor Powell in a police line-up (she might even be able to point the finger at Powell's husband Glenn Ford!). Of course we also worship as a family at the shrines of Ann Miller, Esther Williams, and Kathryn (check your spelling, girly!) Grayson. By the way, as much as we loved "That's Entertainment, Parts 1 and 3," are you in agreement with us that Part 2 sucks royally? Even with Fred and Gene hosting, there is no rhyme or reason to those clips.

My wife, Kendall, as you know, is also an old movie freak par excellence and she has already warped the mind of the two-year-old she cares for (a little one who appears in some of your Hiphugger photos). This girl has never seen a film that was actually aimed at children. Her favorite film is "Love Me or Leave Me," a hard-hitting biography of tragic torch singer Ruth Etting in which Jimmy Cagney frequently beats the crap out of poor Doris Day.

One of the first movies I watched with my own daughter was "The Graduate." JUST SAY NO TO THE CARE BEARS!

6:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This would be good time to introduce everyone to a dear friend and his lovely wife.

You will never go wrong drifting by and seeing what all he is on about.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked That's Entertainment, but it never enthralled me like it did Quinn and the next generation in her household. Maybe it's a generational difference, or maybe just a slight variation in taste, but my version was raising my daughter on Rogers & Hammerstein and other classical musicals. Of course, passing along your taste does have its dangers - DD has been exposed to Monty Python since she was a wee tyke, but I eventually realized that I had to warn her about not letting it be known at school that the song she couldn't get out of her head one day was "Sit on my face and tell me that you love me." I had visions of the authorities being called, and having to explain British humor to them....

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp thinkers, all of you who got your kids hooked on movie musicals. I made the mistake of taking mine to see "Hairspray" and now they're hooked on Broadway. It's great fun, but an expensive little habit...


4:17 PM  

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