THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide




entire contents copyright 1995 by Larry Stark

Monday, 23 September, '96

I have decided to talk about something I detest:


There is, or indeed can be a great degree of artistry in even this miniature art-form. One wall of my basement bed-sit is papered with a periodically revised collection of pages from the New York Sunday TIMES Magazine, and only two of them have ever been editorial pages. And I learned years ago that you can tell exactly what kind of audience a new magazine found in a doctor's waiting-room is designed to reach by reading not the articles, but the ads.

It's radio or television ads I really detest, because you can't turn the page on a bad one and continue reading --- they interrupt the show and demand attention until they've had their say. Commercial interruptions have driven me from all radio except WBUR, and small doses of WHRB, WCRB, and WERS when I'm fed up with rollovers. And on t-v, I change channels automatically whenever a commercial break appears; frequently I've spent whole nights never seeing the endings of anything for just that reason.

The end of August I spent nine days comforting a lonely ferret, with a vcr, cable, and a remote, and I more or less pigged out on Samuel Fuller, Bravo, Cspan's Democratic bash, and the first week of the U.S.Open (tennis, NOT golf!), CNN and MSG. (Okay, MS-NBC if you insist --- but I swear an hour later I was hungry again!) I saw more egregiously awful acting, more shots of people from the elbows up, talking; more cheap sets, more "indicating" and mugging, and the initial seconds of more commercials than I have in several years, and it's made me just a little sensitive to ads these days.

Actually, one really depressing thing happened during Clinton's acceptance speech. I had put on CSpan's live coverage, with the sound turned way down, and turned WBUR's live coverage way up; that way if a boring boilerplate-speech came on I could flip channels and catch Agassiz or Muster or Martina visually and still not miss Nina Totenberg's "You're not taking all this Seriously, are you?" interviews with pols from the floor. But right in the middle of Bill's speech I heard WBUR --- MY Station! --- cut him off to announce stations and mouth plugs for Three "Contributors" to fulfill contractual obligations!

(I still blame Dick Nixon for that. His FCC decided that if NPR's newshounds were going to persist in telling the truth about him, they could damn well find something other than public funding to do it with, and pennypinching congressmen ever since have been forcing broadcasters to shove more and more "Contributor" messages down my throat until it's hard to tell a public from a private station anywhere anymore. Some days I really wish I could vote against Newt Gingrich just to know how Good it feels.

But what I've noticed lately is innovations in radio advertising of theatrical events.

I mentioned WCRB, Boston's last 24-hour Mozart station, the one I tune to after WHRB's "Record Hospital" has shocked my concert-listening ears out of their wits. WCRB serves a weird mix of huxters, from car-ads so soothingly subtle it's hard to hear what they're selling to semi-literate rug-peddlers reading their own copy proudly plugging their newest going-out-of-business sales. And in amongst them and the dead white Germans you can hear gushily emotional paeans to the latest resuscitation of PHANTOM at The Wang Center that would make Puccini blush. (You should have heard them flogging Donny and the Pharaoh all summer long!)

Well, I don't know who had the idea, but there is now a little ad-war going on between my major audio-providers!

Hardly was I back from ferret-land than I heard, among the single-sentence plugs on My Station, the fact that "ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is brought to you in part by the award-winning play 'Master Class', opening October 29th at The Wilbur Theatre." And shortly thereafter I also heard 50-seconds of Hard-Sell on WCRB that began with a hushed, ecstatic acolyte telling me that I, too, knew the unbearably supreme artistry of Saint Callas and would THRILL to see the Incomparable Faye Dunaway recreate her Unbearable Perfection a mere Two Months hence down on Tremont Street. The gautlets were tossed --- mano a mano till opening: succinct single sentences versus Production-Value City!

I'll bet you can guess who I'm rooting far. I wish I had a friend I could sneek into Ye Wilbur Theatre to listen to phone- calls and ask how the callers found out about the show. And I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the P-R head tells the producer which ad-dollars were most cost-effective.

The war may already have been won, though. After the Wilbur blitz began --- I think --- both Huntington's "Arcadia" and "Measure for Measure" at the Orpheum in Foxborough added their "Contributions" to WBUR, until it was possible for the entire troika of single-sentences after the station-break to turn into wall-to-wall theater ads.

The bad ad-news is that "Master Class" won't open for another thirty-five days, and that single-sentence shows up, on the hour, Every hour, All Day Long. Saturation-advertising is America's equivalent of Chinese water-torture, and the whole thing can become counter-productive.

I hope not. WBUR is, after all, My Station --- I'll be giving my mornings to their fund-drive phones the 20th & 26th of October. (And I'm talking Real Mornings here: 6-9:30 A-damnit-M! And I only get ONE 6 o'clock in a normal day.) I think that people who tune in to enjoy the arts of national news & information will make a much more sympatico audience for Terrence McNally's play than those who tune in to hear music they've already heard before, and an occasional rug- or car-peddler, don't you?

But I never said I was unbiased about advertising, now did I?



THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide