One summer night I was sitting in front of the goggle box, waiting for a ball game to come on. Since I am a White Sox fan, I have to admit that there is something masochistic about that. But, nevertheless, there I was, an unopened box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers at my side, along with a six-pack of Iron City beer, a tasty combination for suffering Sox games.
I found myself watching a classical contemporary sitcom, the sort that features a bevy of screaming women darting
about an apartment, mugging ferociously while belting out lines at breakneck pace to the accompaniment of thunderous taped guffaws. The only male on the show appeared to be an undersized tradesman of some sort who wore pliers and wirecutters attached to his belt while he, also, bellowed his lines and rolled his eyes maniacally. It was precisely the sort of show that I avoid like a galloping case of cold sores.
I was just about to flip the knob when suddenly one of the characters, her face contorted in what the taped audience obviously took to be a wildly comic expression, stopped me in my tracks. Popping the top on an Iron City to steady my nerves, I realized I had seen that expression before. After getting a grip on myself, which isn't easy these days, it all came back to me. Of course! I had been an eyewitness to a truly historic moment in American pop culture.
Suddenly I was back again in second grade at the Warren G. Harding School, seated among the rabble that forms the last letters of the alphabet, when Miss Shields announced that the class would be traveling by bus to Chicago on a "scientific field trip." My friend Schwartz and I applauded loudly, since any excuse to escape the classroom was good enough for us.
The next day the bus ride to The Loop was the usual mass of yelling and hollering kids, sullen girls and frequent "rest stops" at Texaco stations.
"Boys and girls, there will be a specially interesting thing for us to see on this trip, so I want all of you to behave today and you may learn something as well as enjoy yourselves." Well, she was right. It wasn't until that moment of realization hit me while I was watching that dumb comedy show that I knew how much I had learned and seen that day.
The trip was to The Merchandise Mart, the Windy City's vast monument to greed and money. Enormous, forbidding, it towered above us like some vast, impenetrable, concrete monolith. Miss Shields lined us up alphabetically and marched us into the cavernous lobby. We all wore large yellow buttons with our names and addresses printed on them, so that if we got separated from the pack and lost among the scurrying merchants, at least there'd be some hope of rescue.
The Mart was celebrating something called "A Century of Progress Science Show." For hours we paraded past booths displaying electric-eye-controlled milking machines, advanced stainless-steel coconut shredders, the latest thing in potato-digging tractors, and on and on and on. Miss Shields chirped away, explaining each wonder to us, until the heavy gray-flannel claw of boredom had clutched each one of our peewee minds in its numbing grasp. Fistfights broke out; girls cried. Miss Shields time and again lashed us onward.
Suddenly, without warning, we stumbled upon History in the making. I'm sure all of my classmates still remember what happened at that significant booth.
RADIO-VISION, the big red, white and blue banner read. A crowd surged around this exhibit, little realizing for the most part that they were seeing the future. Red, yellow, green, blue and orange lights played over the stage. A sharp, razor-thin pitchman in a checkered sports coat appeared and addressed the crowd.
"Radio-vision, ladies and gentlemen, is the most astounding wonder of the age!" (Blast of trumpets over the PA system.) "For the first time, man can send actual pictures through the ether, true-to-life, realistic and moving." (Rumble of drums over PA.) "In just a few years, homes all over this blessed country will have Radio-vision bringing Theater, the Arts and Beauty to every home!" ("America the Beautiful" for a few seconds.) "And I see we have with us today a delegation of schoolchildren who will live to see all these wonders come to pass."
The crowd jostled in excitement, contemplating the golden future. Then he went on: "I will select one of the children to demonstrate Radio-vision for all of us here today."
Great Scott! His steely eyes scanned our motley crew. His index finger shot out.
"You there, little boy. You."
The class was in an uproar. Seconds later, Schwartz was hauled up on the platform. Miss Shields protested feebly. Why not Esther Jane Allberry, who could play the piano? Why not Jack Morton, who could recite "Old Ironsides?" Why Schwartz, of all people? We soon found out. The hand of fate had dipped into the ragbag of humanity and plucked Schwartz out of the rabble to create a new form.
"Booo, Schwartz, booo!" Flick hollered beside me.
Schwartz grinned back happily from high above us. The pitchman took over.
"Ah, the young man is named Schwartz." He patted Schwartz's furry knob. "I will now place him in that fully enclosed room at the rear of the exhibit. It is our 'studio.' The lights will be turned on, and you will then receive the surprise of your life!"
The crowd murmured.
"What do I do?" Schwartz squeaked.
"Just wave. Or smile. Just be yourself."
The pitchman spoke with the smooth delivery of one who had given this spiel countless times in the past. A well-endowed blonde, dressed in a crimson bathing suit with a silver sash draped over her shoulder reading "MISS RADIO-VISION U.S.A.," hurried Schwartz off stage.
"Hey Schwartz, watch your step!" Flick yelled. The crowd applauded.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness . . . RADIO-VISION!" (Blast of trumpets.)
The lights dimmed until we were in total darkness. From somewhere a deep, throbbing hum filled the air. The crowd fell silent. High above the stage, a bluish-green square of light appeared, growing brighter and brighter.
"Ladies and gentlemen, watch the screen. What you are about to see is transmitted without wires or optical equipment. It is the magic of Radio-vision!"
"Holy smokes, would you look at that!" Flick muttered, his voice cracking with emotion. From out of the strange glare of that bluish light we could all see Schwartz staring at us, his eyeballs bugging, his mouth hanging agape in a classic Schwartz expression that we all knew so well from whenever he was called upon in class. Someone near the front laughed. Within seconds, Schwartz had scored the first TV belly-boff.
The crowd roared with laughter. Suddenly hit by creative inspiration, Schwartz stuck his thumbs in both ears, extending his tongue fully until it touched the tip of his nose, then crossed his eyes. This elicited a giant roar from the crowd, which had grown enormously. People were coming from all directions to join in. Schwartz's reputation was growing.
"Please tell him to stop that!" Miss Shields croaked in the darkness, fruitlessly attempting to salvage the dignity of the Warren G. Harding School. Schwartz began wiggling his ears, a legendary talent of his that until now had been seen only by a few of his closest friends. The mob cheered and yelled for more. Schwartz obliged, tilting his head back and displaying his famous Adam's-apple trick. His Adam's-apple bobbed up and down his neck like a yo-yo, to thunderous applause. Then they turned on the sound. Schwartz did his Donald Duck imitation, followed by Porky Pig: "Th-th-th-that's all, folks."
The lights came on and Schwartz, no longer pale green, emerged a Star.
My mind snapped back to the present. The star of the sitcom, a lady who curiously resembled Jimmy Carter in drag, filled the screen, her Adam's-apple bobbing in a pale imitation of Schwartz's inspired schtick. My God, she was using Schwartz's patented Adam's-apple bit! I took a huge slug of Iron City to steady my nerves.
"You're not doing it right!" I yelled at the screen, knocking my beer over on the rug in excitement. The taped crowd howled with laughter.
"You dumb boobs, you shoulda seen Schwartz do it!"
She grinned vacuously, feebly attempting the legendary Schwartz take. The credits rolled, and the show was over.
I settled back, limp from the excitement of Discovery. I remembered my old man's comment after he had seen Radio-vision:
"It'll never go. Sure, a few chowderbrains will sit around and watch clowns roll their eyes and yell, but unless they put something else on, it's a bomb."
My old man, history's first TV critic.
Schwartz was never the same after that. His historic turn before the cameras had changed us all. It was that last vacuous, dumb look of his that I have remembered through these long years; the same look that hit me that night watching that primitive sitcom. Schwartz was a pioneer, a man ahead of his time. Today, had he followed his destiny, he would no doubt have his own series and be hailed a comic genius for his brilliant schtick. Especially that bit with the Adam's apple.