Defining the 1970s
curated by Dennis Nyback
Thurs-Fri Dec 14-15 and Thurs-Sat Dec 21-23 at the Little Theatre.

AT LAST, I THOUGHT, TV without all those icky shows, pure TV--90 minutes of TV commercials. My heart made a tiny little leap.

Dennis Nyback has assembled some 130 TV commercials from the Golden Era of TV commercials, the 1970s, with a few earlier ones for spice, and arranged them in loose classifications like "The Joy of Cooking: Food in a Box" and "The Tao of Tide: The New Religion of Detergents." Some of the stock is badly faded, some of the intertitles are weak, and the collection is spotty, but I enjoyed myself.

What I didn't know, one of my correspondents informed me, is that such shows are a dime a dozen, and in their native medium on TV. Why am I always the last to hear about these things? No matter, here's what caught my attention.

Celebrity Spotting (1), or Everybody has to Start Somewhere: Diane Keaton doing underarm deodorant; Diane Keaton doing droop-proof curls. A pudgy-faced Lauren Hutton with what we now think of as the trademark gap between her two front teeth plugged. Peter Boyle munching cold fried chicken. Geraldine Page--it looks like Geraldine Page--in a confusing riff about imprisoning and liberating raisins, only so that you can pop them into your mouth and eat them, which seems perilously close to cannibalism.

Celebrity Spotting (2), or Hold Those Poses: Jack Klugman and Tony Randall playing Yahtzee in their Odd Couple personas. Alfred Hitchcock forced to shill for the Universal Studios tour--or perhaps he loved it, what do I know? Pat Paulsen stumbling through an automobile graveyard in a public-service announcement condemning wastefulness before the word "ecology" could be used in a mass medium. Carl Reiner and Nanette Fabray doing a butcher and the butcher's laundering wife. Muppets.

Celebrity Spotting (3), or Can We Get Him to Take It Back? Joe DiMaggio homers for Blue Brylcreem. And for Milk Duds--a moment of silence, please--Pete Rose.

Demotic surrealism: Derma-Fresh hand lotion softens leather gloves. Tarzan with a toothache. Frozen vegetables touted as authentic New England because they include croutons.

Classics: I was especially grateful for these because I didn't own a TV for most of the '70s, and my friends only invited me over for Masterpiece Theater, never for ads. Seeing "Rather fight than switch," the Purina Cat Chow cha-cha, and the Flintstones plugging Cocoa Pebbles was a treat. "Daddy, Daddy, I only had one cavity."

Ruining the evening: Folks who were teenagers during the '70s complained bitterly about commercials that ran late at night in those newly emancipated times, sending shock waves of embarrassment through young couples trying to watch TV and nuzzle. Mr. Nyback has some pips: FDS and Midol vaginal sprays (didn't those turn out to fry your insides to a crisp?) and a deeply weird public-service announcement that intones, repeatedly, "VD is for everybody" (I kept shaking my head, trying to clear my ears). But either TV ads for sanitary napkins had to wait till the '80s or Mr. Nyback doesn't happen to own any.

Truly sickening: A baked casserole made with, shudder, mayonnaise.

Tons of other themes suggest themselves: the odd, affected way of talking that seemed appropriate for so many commercial voices; the ruthless suppression of background detail deemed necessary for transmitting ideas on the small screen; the rise of the knowingly corny wink-wink, nudge-nudge ploy (it would be a mistake to think that these advertisers were in any way naive); the deliciously sleazy fabrics; the (sigh) role of women; the ending of commercial pitches by having one actor roll his eyes at another, or push another away, or guffaw at another. You'll undoubtedly come up with your own themes and categories as you watch--it's great fun.

Most striking to me, though, in seeing so many commercials at once, was how rock-ribbed conservative most of them were visually. In commercial after commercial, we see what we see dead center, and the only montage is the tacking on of the concluding image, also dead center. Only one category of ad had any visual sparkle, any sense of participation in the feast of possibilities available to anyone with a camera and a roll of splicing tape, and those were the ads for breakfast cereals. I'm sure this fact must say something fascinating about the American psyche, but what?

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who's going to go make herself a big bowl of Rice-A-Roni.