Friday, April 27, 2012

The man who taught dirty plays

It was a beautiful spring day, so our class, which met at 2:30 p.m., was supposed to be held outside, in a plaza outside the academic building.

There was just one problem.

It was now 2:40, and our professor, who also ran the English department, hadn’t shown up.

Which was unusual, because he was always on time.

Not only that, but there was a rule – though I don’t think I ever saw it written down – that said that if a professor didn’t show up on time, the students were free to leave after the 10-minute-late point unless the professor, like ours, had a doctorate. Then we had to wait an additional five minutes.

I think our professor made it with about two minutes to spare.

“Sorry to be late,” he said, “but George Hampden accidentally set his wastebasket on fire and I was helping him put it out.”

And we all laughed because we knew this was the kind of thing that could happen to Dr. Hampden (whose name I have changed here), back in the days when it was not unusual for professors to smoke in their offices.

And this wasn’t the first time that we or any other students laughed at something that happened to Dr. Hampden – or even laughed at the mention of his name.

The story on campus was that Dr. Hampden didn’t have to teach, that he was a Boston Brahmin, a man of independent means. He was also a bachelor and lived across the street from the college in one of many apartment buildings in a complex that was beginning to go to seed.

I suppose you could say that Dr. Hampden was beloved by his students, but not in the same way that Mr. Chips was. The accounting students loved him and always picked his classes for their required English courses because he was an easy A.

And he often cut his own classes.

Each semester, after the first couple of weeks, the “cut board” outside the registrar’s office would bear a sign reading “Dr. Hampden will not meet with his classes today.” Within the next few weeks this sign would reappear more frequently.

Finally, and perhaps at a point in the semester when he felt he wanted to avoid the wrath of the academic dean (whose office was just down the hall from the registrar’s office), Dr. Hampden would sneak across the street to the college, find his classroom, pick up a piece of chalk and write, well, you guessed it.

When I was a junior I took two classes from him. I don’t remember any of his lectures, but I do remember that he would always start the semester with a prayer and that when he made the sign of the cross he’d say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” which seemed quaint and old-fashioned at a time when Catholics almost universally had begun to refer to that third entity as the Holy Spirit.

The first course was about the age of Samuel Johnson. At one point, all the students had to do a presentation on some aspect of Johnson’s life and era. Dr. Hampden assigned the topics, and though I now couldn’t remember my topic if my life depended on it, I do recall that the student who was assigned the topic of Food and Drink brought in some wine. She doubtless received an A++.

Around this time I was told that I had been chosen for the Departmental Honors program. This meant that I was to do a special project for one of my English classes in each semester of my junior year, along with a yearlong project for my senior year.

The only English class I was taking that semester was Dr. Hampden’s, so I approached him one day in his office and told him I had been tapped for Departmental Honors.

“Congratulations, dear boy!”

I then awkwardly asked him what special project he wanted me to work on.

“Oh, just keep doing what you’re doing, dear boy!”

For a long time I felt mildly guilty about not doing a special project that semester, but Dr. Hampden had taken the matter out of my hands.

And though it’s almost 40 years later, I can still see him in that office that day: a short, chunky man sitting at his desk, hunched over it, a cigarette in one hand, a desk lamp casting a dim light – it might as well have been a shadow – on his weathered face.

He was obviously – I realize now – hung over, and with supreme good manners, he was trying to get me out of his office.

During the next semester, while I was doing my honors project for another professor’s class, I took Dr. Hampden’s other elective course, Restoration Drama, which he himself referred to as “Dirty Plays,” and with good reason. The other students and I spent most of the classes reading scenes from the racy plays at our desks. He seemed to enjoy that.

I never really got to know Dr. Hampden, and after graduation I didn’t see him for years until one day, when I was taking the bus downtown to my job at the newspaper and saw him crossing a busy intersection with a pleasantly oblivious – perhaps dangerously oblivious – look on his face.

On several occasions I saw him in the food court at the downtown mall. I’m not sure I ever saw him eat anything; I do remember seeing him with that same mildly happy, buzzed look on his face.

He had retired by this time, and he apparently had nowhere else to go. I never knew whether he had any family back in Boston or what he did with his time when he wasn’t getting a buzz on.

I never approached him. Chances are that he wouldn’t have remembered me anyway, though he probably would have had the good breeding to at least pretend he knew who I was.

And as I myself got older I would think about that day in his office when he obviously didn’t feel that well, and I would wonder what his life was like, if it was like anything much at all, despite all the money he was supposed to have had.

Was he filled with regrets? Was there someone special in his life whom he’d let “get away”? Or who had broken off with him? Was he always self-conscious about his height?

Did he drink to forget? Or did he just drink?

Whatever his past, or present, in the food court he seemed happy enough.

Maybe he originally started drinking to forget, and maybe now, years later, he was blissfully beyond the point of forgetting.

One day Dr. Hampden’s obliviousness apparently proved fatal – he was struck while walking in the road.

One of his colleagues – my old professor who helped him put out that wastebasket fire – said it was a blessing. He didn’t go into detail.

I suppose I could try to say something facile and clich├ęd about Dr. Hampden – how, even later in life, he taught me something. Except that I’m not sure he taught me anything much aside from an appreciation for Samuel Johnson and his times, and those “dirty plays” – and perhaps, now that I think of it, a further appreciation for the mysteries behind every human heart.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The guy who stayed home

Earlier today I was considering writing something about Dick Clark.

But a lot of other people have been writing about him, and I wasn’t sure I had much to add. I never watched “Bandstand” much, but I did watch a lot of “Pyramid” episodes and I had to admire his smoothness – not only with the celebs and contestants, but also with the crew.

One time I heard him telling the stage manager – on air – to tell the director (who’d wanted him to go to commercial instead of talking further with a contestant), that he, Clark, would “pick up the time” later.

In other words, “You do your job and let me do mine.”

All very smooth, without anger, without missing a beat.

But there didn’t seem to be much more I could say about Dick Clark.

That is, until a few minutes ago, when I heard that Alan Milair died.

I’m sure that, unless you've lived where I live, and have lived here a long time, you’re asking yourself who Alan Milair is.

Fair enough.

I guess you could say that Alan Milair is the Dick Clark who stayed home.

Alan Milair had a 30-year career in local radio and TV. During that time, I think he worked for only one station.

And he had a million-dollar voice. Smooth. Mellow. Rich.

If you were a program director in the 1950s, and if you needed someone to host a show geared for housewives who wanted a touch of romance as they did the vacuuming, fed the baby and did all the other things that they didn’t get nearly enough appreciation for, Alan Milair was your man. He could fill the time between records by almost caressing his audience with his resonant, oh-so-understanding voice.

Nothing in bad taste, mind you. No double entendres. The very essence of a non-shock jock.

He had a voice that belonged on a dessert tray.

And he was a member of that generation of broadcasters who had to know how to do everything -- spin records, do the news and weather, maybe even sweep the floor.

As far as television is concerned, if you’re my age and grew up in my town, you’ll probably always remember him best for “Monster Movie Matinee.”

“Monster Movie Matinee” ran on Saturday afternoons. It offered the usual assortment of monster/horror pictures, from old classics like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” to newer and more cultish ones like “Bucket of Blood” and, of course, “Little Shop of Horrors” – anything in Roger Corman’s oeuvre was fair game.

And in a way, the Corman pictures, with their cheapness and tongue-in-cheek tone, were better suited to “Monster Movie Matinee” than the Universal horror classics.

This is because “Monster Movie Matinee,” in addition to having a budget that today would probably get you an order of fries at McDonald’s, did not take itself very seriously either.

To say the least.

The host of “Monster Movie Matinee” was a guy named Epal, who wore a beard and an eye patch. Epal was played by the late Bill Everett, who was also a lifer in local broadcasting. Everett also hosted the Popeye show, where he appeared as Salty Sam, and if you were really in the know, you knew that Everett’s real last name was Lape – Epal spelled backwards!

Epal was the assistant to a mysterious figure who was played by Milair and went by the name of Dr. E. Nick Witty. I can’t tell you much about what Dr. Witty looked like because we never saw much of him, though we did indeed hear him, as you can see in this clip from the show’s early days.

I suppose it’s possible that no one from a bigger station in a bigger market ever tried to woo Alan Milair away. But I’d have a hard time believing it, and if you just heard him in that clip, I suspect you’ll agree with me.

And it’s certainly not unusual for people from my area to go on to Bigger and Better Things in broadcasting. The director of a local children’s show eventually won an Emmy for directing Sonny and Cher. And I could name a couple of national TV reporters who used to work around here.

But I don’t think Alan Milair ever saw my town as a stopping-off place to the big time. I suspect he liked it here just fine.

I don’t mean to imply that someone like Alan Milair is superior to someone like Dick Clark or anyone else in broadcasting who moves on to greater fame.

But, as Willy Loman’s wife might say, attention must be paid to people like Alan Milair.

Willy Loman himself maintained that it was important to be well-liked.

But being well-liked was something Alan Milair never had to worry about. And I think that those of us who watched and listened to him will always like him all the more for sticking around here and amusing us kids on many a dreary Saturday.