The Oral Tradition We Have All Joyfully Perpetuated

About a week ago, The Atlantic had an article that answered a question that has been nagging me for quite a few years – are kids still passing down the silly, nonsense jokes, hand clapping rhymes, jump rope chants, etc that we inherited as kids or has technology basically diverted their attention from those experiences?

Apparently I am not the only one who has thought this, because in the latter part of the article that exact question is addressed.

Adults, it seems, are in a perpetual state of worry that Kids These Days just don’t play like they used to, probably because of whatever technology was most recently introduced. Roud and Willett both independently brought this up to me and insisted that it’s not true. As Willett’s research shows, technology and media do influence kids’ play—but that doesn’t mean play itself is in jeopardy.

To be honest, I found myself surprised to care so much because my sister and her friends would drive me crazy repeatedly clapping out the story of Miss Suzy and her baby Tiny Tim. But as I got older I realized that these games are a tie that binds generations together. Cootie shots, cootie catchers, applying and peeling glue off the palm of your hands, sketching out that blocky S on your notebook, all comprise a type of oral tradition whose origins are difficult to trace.

Technology does morph some of the games and occasionally adds new bits of cherished lore. I am pretty sure my grandparents weren’t typing 5-8-0-0-8 into calculators and inverting the device to spell BOOBS. That is the first thing the article validates as a piece of cultural heritage. (Though knowing my maternal grandfather, that is probably pretty tame compared to some of the things he did.)

On the other hand, making up a game based on the Weeping Angels episode of Dr. Who shares similarities to games played at least 120 years ago.

Apparently, this is an aspect of our lives which perpetuates itself in a type of decentralized democracy:

Our nostalgia for our own childhood shapes what kids get exposed to. But Steve Roud, a British folklorist and the author of The Lore of the Playground, emphasized to me that folklore is by its nature not handed down by an authority. It is of the people, by the people—even if those people are children.

80 Years Before TKTS – The First Discount Ticket Booth In Times Square

Little trip down memory lane to an entry I did referencing Joe LeBlang, the owner of a tobacco shop whose entrepreneurial mind created NYC’s first Times Square discount ticket service in 1894, long before the 1972 opening of the current TKTS booth. (h/t again to Ken Davenport)

At the time shop owners would be given tickets if they agreed to place show posters in their windows. LeBlang collected the tickets his neighbor shop owners weren’t going to use and resold them at a discount and split the profits with the other shop owners. He became so successful, not only did theatre owners come to him with their unsold tickets, but the US post office had a special division dedicated just to his business.

Despite the fact they were providing him with tickets, show producers had a love-hate relationship with LeBlang, though they shared a mutual dislike for ticket brokers (Yes, apparently secondary market resellers have been a problem for over 120 years):

Leblang and the Producing Managers’ Association

Today it’s known as The Broadway League, but in 1905 it was called the Producing Managers’ Association and Leblang’s relationship with them rotated between adoration and contempt. Most Broadway producers were personal friends of Leblang, but loathed his business model, which they charged lessened the value of their product.

They made a number of attempts to run Leblang out of the business, but as Leblang went on to save a number of Broadway shows from closure he became an integral part of the Broadway show landscape.

Leblang’s War on Ticket Brokers

Leblang and The Producing Managers Association made no secret of their dislike of ticket brokers, which they agreed alienated the ticket buying public. Leblang devised a way to limit ticket speculation; his proposal in 1919 wasn’t readily accepted, but later on elements were used by Actors Equity as a barter to begin Sunday performances.

Where Have All The Pledge Drive Guests Gone?

I have been listening to the pledge drive for the statewide public radio network the last couple weeks and been thinking nostalgically about my time living in Hawaii when I was a regular guest during the semi-annual drives. It was a minor point of pride feeling that I had worked my way up from being a guest an a 4:00 pm Saturday show to a midweek lunch time slot. I can’t say for sure if my clever patter as responsible for being asked to guest at seemingly more “visible” time slots, but there were times when I would finish up one slot and be asked to move to another room to appear on the second program stream.

But it doesn’t seem like public radio stations do this sort of thing any more. Having worked for organizations that depended heavily on volunteer labor, I can completely understand that it can take a lot of staff hours to schedule guests in dozens of slots across a two week period. That is in addition to the numbers you need to cover phones. With the increased move to online donating, I am not even sure if many stations need volunteers to cover phones any more. It used to be that you would hear acknowledgements of restaurants that donated food for the volunteers. I haven’t heard those in many year which means either there aren’t a lot of volunteers to feed or the stations are paying for the food directly now.

In any case, what I think has been lost by eliminating community guests from fundraising is the opportunity to provide social proof.

For the last few years, theaters like mine have worked to increase the number of audience photos on our websites and publications to show who is attending performances and the enjoyable experience they are having. I have frequently mentioned that people feel more comfortable participating in a cultural experience when they see themselves and their stories depicted.

There is a pretty distinct impression of who public radio is for. Even though the names of correspondents represent some pretty diverse backgrounds as do the stories being told, the voices telling the stories continue to cleave rather closely to the stereotypical “public radio voice.” Some of the podcasts associated with public radio diverge a little from the “voice,” but not many and few podcasts are part of the main programming stream.

In addition to adding some vocal variety in the programming, returning to having community guests on the pledge drives can provide the social proof about who values the stations and their programming. Obviously, choosing who the guests will be requires some strategy. My recollection from the past was that there were always a lot of lawyers on. That might not be the image of who the stations are for that they want to project. As much as I enjoyed the experience, maybe I am no longer the right person to be a guest any longer.

As much as I am citing the example of public radio here, I am basically using this particular situation to approach the importance of all cultural organizations providing visible social proof from a different angle.

Somber Silence The New Standing Ovation?

I saw an article on the NBC News site questioning the value of standing ovations with a subtitle suggesting the seeming default occurrence of the act was a symptom of “‘everyone gets a trophy’ culture.” I almost passed it by because it didn’t sound like it was going to say anything new on the subject.

I am glad I didn’t because along with observations about standing ovations being meaningless if you do them all the time and suggesting that audiences can be manipulated into giving standing ovations, the writer Maggie Mulqueen, says they can also represent demands audiences expect to be met:

At a classical music concert I attended recently, the soloist left his violin backstage during his bows as a clear sign that there would be no encore despite the demands of the audience. As we headed out of the theater, I overheard grumblings of disappointment that he had not acquiesced to the call for more. We don’t expect every sporting event to go into overtime in return for giving the teams a standing ovation, so I am not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from for the performing arts.

Later, she provides an anecdote illustrating how lack of applause can be a greater testament of the power of a performance than a standing ovation—while admitting concerns that the performers might read it the wrong way.

The play ended suddenly, the stage went dark, and the audience, stunned by the power of the play, was silent for several seconds. Then, as the weight of the experience sank in, hands began to clap, tears were dried, and actors took their bows. The audience filed out quietly as we tried to regain our bearings.

Ironically, the absence of a standing ovation that night added to how memorable an event it was. Because the content of the play is sober and dark, such a gesture would have felt like a celebration and been in poor taste. As I made my way back to my hotel, I wanted to tell everyone I saw on the Tube to go see it. But mostly, I wanted to reassure the actors. “You were great,” I wanted to tell them. “Please understand it was your forceful performance that kept us in our seats.”