Thursday, August 1, 2013

"You are entering the Twilight Zone"

Recently, at a reading at the Tompkins County Public Library in downtown Ithaca, I heard Anne Serling, the daughter of Rod Serling, discuss her late father, of whom she has published a memoir As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. I knew next to nothing about Serling himself going into the reading, although the fact that he had an Ithaca - Finger Lakes connection had come to my attention in the past year.

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, and raised in Binghamton, where according to his daughter, Serling had an "idyllic childhood." The idyllic childhood is important in Anne Serling's estimation, as a counterbalance to Serling's harsh experiences in the military in WWII, in establishing a duality that distinguishes the parable-like nature of Twilight Zone episodes.  The Serling family lived in Los Angeles, but they continued to spend their summers in Interlaken on the west shore of Cayuga Lake; and Serling also taught in the Roy Park School of Communication at Ithaca College, where his papers are now held.

This reminds me that along with Rod Serling, another bit of 20th century culture to emanate from Ithaca was the mass production of Duncan Hines cake mixes, which began in a cinderblock shed, still standing, on State Street, just east of Aurora, downtown. Duncan Hines cake mixes were an entrepreneurial project "cooked up" by  Roy Park, who owned radio stations in the Finger Lakes and in North Carolina, and they increased his fortune considerably. Ithaca is small enough that I have heard the women working in the Cornell campus post office talking about Mrs. Roy Park's jewels in reverent tones.

It's hard to imagine an idyllic childhood in Binghamton now, but in cursory research I have found that, as it was suggested in the talk, Binghamton had a relatively stable economy during the Depression with the presence of Endicott-Johnson Shoes and IBM. And childhood is not determined only by economy: happiness can occur anywhere, just like unhappiness. Serling sounds like he was always moving, always active, always working.

 In my adolescence The Twilight Zone was already in rerun, and it was in archaic black-&-white, & it was on late usually after the 11 o'clock news. In our current iteration of media 24/7, there is no early or late the way it existed when television stations would go off the air - young people have no idea of an actual beginning or end to TV. It's always on. & along with television, there is the internet, which is even vaster, an ocean of information, advertising and a marketplace.

Is there any sense of liminality in programming now, of busy versus quiet times? When I watched The Twilight Zone in reruns, seeing the same episodes again & again it seemed, it was in a time slot outside of family programming. It had a strange illicit freedom in terms of time. Any responsibility of the day was over, there were a few hours at most before the station went off the air. That sort of biological clock informed late night programming. The latent disturbances of our rational technological world erupted in programs such as The Twilight Zone, or on weekend nights with horror and thriller movie programs like "Scream Theater" or "Chiller Theater."

Rod Serling was a great narrator in a televisual after hours: those of us who were devoted to The Twilight Zone appreciated its morbidity, it's potential for weird, which touched our own general adolescent alienation. Hearing Serling discussed as a parent was curious. In retrospect it makes sense, in that Serling occupied a parental or teacher-like role as the host. Compared to the pablum of most television programming and its hideous eternal present-ness, its erasure of both past and future, these brief episodes, full of schadenfreude and irony, suggested a distinctly different cycle of fate.

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