They Don’t Know She’s Dead in Dayton, 2006
Through the years my work has taken me to several places where people have cheerfully told me they’re behind “the coasts,” meaning that they’re way behind the tide of popular culture. In places like Roanoke, Virginia, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, they’ve told me they wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s dangerous, I know, to classify an entire city so summarily. But there really does seem to be something in the culture of places like Roanoke and Grand Rapids that makes people cling to the familiar more than most. People in these cities prefer to let other people work all the bugs out of things, smooth out all the rough edges and make sure all the new, scary ideas are, as those paper rings they used to put on motel toilet seats said, sanitized for their protection. They don’t want to make waves. They don’t want to impose their values on others.
Don’t take this as criticism. Some of the people I’ve met in such cities are among the most decent, caring and thoughtful people you could ever know. They don’t wield the mantle of “family values” like a sword, as some people do. They just live them.
My friend Tom used to say that in Detroit they didn’t know that Janis Joplin had died. It wasn’t just that they still played Joplin’s wailing on the radio, but that they talked about her in the present tense, as if she might show up for a show some week soon.
I was reminded of this during a brief trip to Milwaukee. When I turned on the TV one morning looking for the news, the first thing I saw was a commercial for “Eddy Zee’s” replacement window and home siding emporium. The celebrity endorser was actress Mariette Hartley.
Mariette Hartley is one of those people you’d recognize, but maybe not know by name. She’s been a regular on television shows since the 1970s. She’s probably best known for appearing in a series of Polaroid commercials with James Garner.
But here she was in Milwaukee pitching for a tin man! I mean, really. Hartley has regular gigs on Law & Order and other contemporary programs, and yet she’s shilling for some home siding contractor in Milwaukee?
I’m adding Milwaukee to my list of places that are cheerfully behind the coasts. Almost all of the fifty or so people I interviewed and everyone else I encountered during my visit was born there and never left.
One of the other commercials I saw on television in Milwaukee proclaimed, “If you have time for but one Broadway show this year, make it Dream Girls!” as if Dream Girls is a hot new show.
As you may know, Dream Girls is a thinly veiled theatrical rendition of the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes. The original Broadway show premiered in 1981. A recent movie version was extremely popular and introduced the show to a new generation for whom The Supremes are probably about as relevant as Al Jolsen. The movie’s probably also responsible for reviving the traveling show that will make its way to Milwaukee twenty-nine years after the Broadway premier.
So let’s do the math. Dream Girls premiers in New York in 1981. The traveling show makes it to Milwaukee in 2010. Yep, that’s about enough time to make it safe for Milwaukee.