Monday, June 29, 2009

Pieces of Childhood

It's been a sad week for the entertainment world, losing so many known and beloved members. Earlier today, TV pitchman Billy Hays passed away, and after reading one of the online reports, I continued to browse through the reader comments, and there were many. I have to admit, I was sort of surpised at the number of people who labeled themselves fans and were mourning his loss. I mean, I'm sorry when anyone loses their life-- especially when it happens so unexpectedly, and at such an early age. But other than a moment of thought and prayer for his family, this particular passing didn't impact me much.

But that got me to thinking about last Thursday evening. I was chatting with a couple of co-workers about the passing of Michael Jackson (was there an office anywhere in the world where that conversation was not taking place?), and one of them tossed out the idea that maybe entertainers are idolized too much; that maybe we should spend more time recognizing and celebrating the good work and deeds of the anonymous masses. I don't disagree with the idea that there are plenty of "real life" people worthy of admiration, though I don't believe that means that entertainers are any less worthy of our affection and admiration.

But reading the outpouring of affection today for someone for whom I had no particular personal affection made me remember her dismay that so many people could be moved by the passing of Jackson, and I decided to give it a bit more thought.
During our conversation, we were mostly focused on Michael Jackson, but that same day had also seen the passing of Farrah Fawcett, and only a few days earlier, Ed McMahon. This had been a triple-whammy to me, and honestly, it was hard for me to comprehend how anyone could not understand the sense of loss.

Upon refelction, though, it became clear that it wasn't just these people that I was mourning--after all, I didn't know any of them personally-- but it was what they represented in my life. They were fixtures, snapshots of my lifetime, pieces of my childhood.

For almost all of my life, until I was grown and had a child of my own, The Tonight Show starred Johnny Carson and his perpetually jolly sidekick, Ed McMahon. When I was too young to stay up late enough to see it, they were the people I longed to watch. And when I got a little older and didn't understand a lot of the humor, they still made me laugh. And as I actually grew up, I began to recognize not only the talent of Carson, but the integral part that McMahon had in the success of that program. They were late-night television to me; some of my earliest exposure to stand-up comics and political humor, and still the standard by which I judge other similar programs. Today, I talk about watching "Jay Leno"--or, I suppose, "Conan O'Brien", though I have yet to do that-- but it is rare to hear me refer to "The Tonight Show", because I think that show ended the night Johnny and Ed stepped down.

As for Farrah Fawcett . . . I grew up in the days of women's lib, though that was another thing I was too young to fully grasp at the time. But I was thirteen when Charlie's Angels premiered, and had always been a fan of cop/detective type shows. It was cool that there were ladies going out after the bad guys and getting the job done. I didn't analyze it at the time, didn't understand that some people might still think it sexist and demeaning that the Angels--particularly Farrah-- ended up on so many provocative posters, but I liked the idea that women could be both pretty and productive at the same time. No doubt it was an idea that hit me subliminally, but that's all right. I think it's an okay idea for a girl to grow up with.

And Michael Jackson. I don't remember when he wasn't there. When I was young, first discovering a love of music, he and his brothers were there. Michael was only a few years older than I, and I always thought that was extremely cool-- here was this kid, rich, famous, having a great time just singing and dancing all the time. I always figured if he could do it, I could do it. Not sing and dance, of course, but whatever it was that I might want to do to have a great time and get rich and famous. He wasn't a grown-up; he was a little kid, just like me. It seemed empowering, the idea that you didn't have to be an adult to have a fun job. It was only as I got older that I began to appreciate the toll such a life might take on one so young, but man, I loved to hear that kid sing!

Then we both grew up a little more and suddenly it seemed people were discovering him all over again. I considered myself more mature then, and not quite as easily persuaded that anyone could become rich and famous if only they'd pursue their dreams, but there was no denying that Michael was still an inspiration. He not only made his own dreams come true, but seemed to also tap into the hopes and dreams of people the world over. His songs touched people like few--if any-- had ever done. He brought people together that might never have had anything in common other than a love for his music. He had a message of hope and inspiration that found its way into a perfect pop beat and impeccable rhythm, and people listened and rejoiced. Later in his life, other headlines eclipsed talk of his music and dancing, but the Michael Jackson of my childhood and early adulthood is the one that I will remember, and the one that I mourn.

So all three of these iconic figures had a place in my formative years, even if I did not fully recognize it at the time. Some people would consider them "only" entertainers, who have no true impact on our daily lives, but those people could not be more wrong. Ed, Farrah, Michael-- they are part of what made me who I am today, pieces of my childhood that are now lost, but will be cherished forever.