Friday, April 08, 2005

1900 House, 1992 House, and around here too

I always joke about being behind, but the last couple weeks have made me crazy. I've been preparing for a few concerts, all completely different, and that seems to involve (for me) doing a lot of research, then arranging songs and writing them out and making bunches of copies.

Just for instance, I taught a Croatian song (about a cute girl reaping wheat) to my high-school chorus, learned "There's a Jungle Out There" by Randy Newman, the "Limbo Rock" (by Chubby Checker) and about ten Israeli dances for a bat mitzvah this weekend, then there were the taxes, and starting up a new class at my house, and getting ready to go to the 35th reunion concert of the Yale Slavic Chorus next week.

And today I have to go get a double door cause we're ripping out the side of the house to replace one that has rotted.

Why am I whining? Because the upshot is - I haven't had time to lavish on writing and that annoys me. So here's one I wrote a fortnight ago, also on the subject of not keeping up.

I am always behind, so being a few years late to see a dvd about living a hundred years ago is just right here at Pratie Place.

For 1900 House, a four-part series aired in 2000, PBS returned an old London townhouse to its original state, tearing out the toilet, central heating, and electricity, and re-opening the original gas lines.

The house was filled with accoutrements of a lower middle-class Victorian home, including a coal-burning stove which could not cook macaroni and cheese in less than three hours. A family was installed and instructed to live the life: no computer, no jockey shorts, no junk food.

During the first episode we see amusing family audition tapes, the massive tear-out, and the down-to-the-wire scavenger hunt for old gizmos. It was morbidly fascinating to watch the house get pulled apart and romantic to see it put back together.

After the honeymoon period - the first fifteen minutes, when the gorgeously-attired newbies gawk at the gew-gaws - the Bowlers must learn to squeeze themselves into corsets, shave with the lethal straight-edge razor, cook on the horrendous stove (very unsuccessful - the food Joyce produced was ghastly), wash and iron clothes for endless hours every week, "clean" house without a vacuum cleaner, and wash their hair without shampoo. This last, strangely, turns out to be one of the most unendurable hardships.

When the thoroughly modern mother mutinies against a life of constant cleaning, the family hires a beautiful tall young maid, who I found very interesting. She was the daughter, grand-daughter, and great-grand-daughter of housecleaners and wanted to see what their lives had been like. I wanted to hear more from her.

We find that the Victorian home was a very dangerous place, with lead and arsenic and laudanum all about, the ever present danger of fire, and air pollution so appalling that even the garden's toughest annuals died quickly and had to be replaced.

This show was as unreal as other "reality" shows. For one thing, Mr. Bowler and the kids went off to work and school every day, leaving the fantasy life behind. For another, the Bowlers, playing Victorian house all by themselves, were marooned by the strictures of their contract with PBS. They had no social life and few activities outside the house. No wonder the kids were bored! No wonder Joyce cried!

PBS realized for its later shows, Frontier House (2002) and Colonial House (2004), that slackers and whiners and control freaks make for more colorful time-travel. The first time out, though, they chose, from among those families who sent in audition tapes, a really nice family. The Bowlers seemed to love and help each other and get along. Even when life grated on their nerves, they showed a basic decency. The children were great: even though they got bored and lonely, they kept it together. I wonder how many of our kids would do as well.

Then, there was 1992 HOUSE (Billy Frolick, the New Yorker, 2005-01-17):
The assignment for Mrs. Stanfill’s eighth-grade social-studies class was to pick a year in U.S. history and live for a week as if it were that year, without any of the conveniences available in today’s modern society. I chose 1992, and for extra credit I persuaded my family to participate in the experiment along with me. Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. A postage stamp cost twenty-nine cents, and Whitey (sp?) Houston had a No. 1 song with “I Will Always Love You,” from a movie starring someone named Kevin Costner, on whom my mother apparently had a major crush...

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At 7:38 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

That second one made me feel REALLY OLD.

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Kimberly said...

Darn, the deadline for applications to be on Texas Ranch House was March 28.

I watched and enjoyed all three PBS shows. 1992 House? Heh... there certainly are many things that are part of my daily life now that weren't around 13 years ago. I wonder whether 2005 House will seem really old-fashioned in 2020.

At 12:52 AM, Blogger EdWonk said...

I viewed "1900 House" when it was originally broadcast. I thought, "How charming."

And then I saw the straight-razor...

It stopped my nostalgia dead in its tracks...

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Mirty said...

If I remember it correctly, PBS's "Frontier House" group had a huge falling-out over mandatory Sunday church attendance. This was very distasteful to one of the group. I think that if I participated in a program like that, I would go to church. It would be part of the whole weltunschang. But I'm the first to admit I'm rather addicted to modern conveniences (washing machines in particular) and hygiene (clean sheets, shampoo, indoor plumbing), so I'm unlikely to volunteer for the experiment. 1992 though, that was a good year. I wouldn't mind living it again.


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