Courting the Park Service: A Bicentennial memoir (part 3)

Behind the Bicentennial, Part 3: Keep it simple

9 minute read
Mark Twain in the Bicentennial? Bear with me.
Mark Twain in the Bicentennial? Bear with me.
Part 3 of a memoir about the 1976 Bicentennial.

Late 1974, Bicentennial Planning in the U.S. was in a state of flux (you can pronounce that any way you wish). Philadelphia was still talking International Exposition. Boston was silently confident, having spent heavy dollars on men and materials for the ultimate presentation before the President's Commission on the Nation's 200th Birthday. Chicago (perhaps waiting for an Obama Presidency) had dropped out of the competition. D.C., thanks to an NBC-TV documentary on the beauties of our cherry-blossomed capital city, was considering late entry as the host city when I received an invitation to present a program proposal to the National Park Service on Philadelphia's behalf. All federal agencies had been instructed to participate in the free-for-all.

Having created and produced a successful "interpretive program" (the Park Service term for what we might call a one-act play) for Independence National Park dealing with John Dunlap, printer of the Declaration of Independence (how Ben Franklin lost that job we shall never know), I was busy preparing a new program for summer 1975 for Superintendent Hobie Cawood (thanks to funding from Bell of Pennsylvania) as well as the first of three episodes of Benj. Rush, Physician To The Revolution (sponsored by Merck Sharp & Dohme), to be presented in the ghostly dusk of Society Hill's Head House shambles.

Yours truly, the one-man band

At the same time, I was negotiating with the Federal Republic of Germany for a New York summer run of The Case And Tryal Of John Peter Zenger (See my previous post, "The Germans."). And, thanks to the support and participation of Steve Berg and the American Poetry Review, I was selling the City Of Camden as well as the National Endowment for the Arts on the establishment of the Walt Whitman International Poetry Center as one of New Jersey's major Bicentennial projects.

This one-man band was throwing a lot of pitches, many of them strikes. Then came the meeting with the director of the National Park Service and his key planners in the Capitol.

Not just an East Coast story

"All departments of the government have been directed to develop Bicentennial programs," the director stated. "That could represent a considerable part of our interpretive spending over the next few years. Parks in the original 13 states and some others are all for it, but we have more than 300 sites from coast to Hawaii, and many of our people see the story of the American Revolution as only an East Coast story."

This was a main course, and I mulled it over with the TV and film-writers I had begun to employ in my cottage industry. How to involve all 50 states and all 200 years in a half-hour play that would entrance visitors to the parks?

I wanted humor and interaction with audiences. And the National Park Service obviously wanted accurate history. The thought of competing with Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon for 25 to 30 minutes of attention didn't faze me, for I had never seen them in life and living color. That would come later.

My only source

Sorting through suggested plotlines, I turned to a modest volume of 27 personal letters of Franklin published in New Haven by Yale University Press and in London by Oxford University Press. This material constituted the sole source of my "relentless" research for the National Park Service's quest. For letter 14 on page 27 of my now yellowing volume was titled, "A New Use For Madeira Wine."

Regarding the inspiration it inspired, I can only restate the paragraph introducing the letter written in London in 1773.

"I wish it were possible, from this instance," Franklin concluded, "to invent a method of embalming drowned persons in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant. For having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America in a hundred years hence I should prefer to an ordinary death, the being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira until that time then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But since in all probability we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of Science to see such an art brought, in our time, to its perfection I must, for the present content myself with the treat which you are so kind as to promise me, of the resurrection of a fowl or a turkey cock."
B. Franklin

"Eureka! (or the Yiddish equivalent)," I exclaimed. "By George, we've got it."

Mark Twain and Lincoln, too

I shared my findings with Danny Klein, novelist and contributor to TV's "All in the Family" series. We decided, as a Bicentennial gift, to grant Ben his wish, taking the creative license to double "an hundred years" and to include such "friends" as John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and in a later version for political correctness, which Ben mostly surely would have found agreeable, a female historical figure, Annie Oakley as well as two black park rangers. The play would have humor and standards for judging (Justice for Adams, Unity for Lincoln, wit and, for Twain and for Annie Oakley, a female's ability to exceed her husband's talents.)

Dan and I titled the piece, We've Come Back For A Little Look Around, and the historical entertainment would enjoy three national tours of the Park Service system in 1975 and "'76. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The surprise competition

The Park Service, in late 1974 had selected two national projects to meet the government's Bicentennial mandates. I was invited to the Park Service's Interpretive Center in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, to inform staff members of our traveling companies' needs for support before and during performances.

On arrival I was told I would be the second presenter, and I settled down toward the back of the filled conference room. The 300-plus attendees welcomed the two gentlemen who stepped forward to make the first presentation. Me? I almost lost my removable bridge. Properly suited, shirted and tied and smiling comfortable establishment smiles, the former top leaders of our Philadelphia Bicentennial Corporation, Ewen Dingwall, who honchoed Seattle's 1964 Exposition, and Gordon Hilker, a Montreal Expo cultural and performance guru whom Dingwall had urged Philadelphia to sign before Boston aced us out.

They were a team of planners, Expo-credited competitors for poor one-man bands of contract-seekers such as your humble blogger.

Uneasiness in the room

Dingwall and Hilker presented their program, called People of '76, to an astonished assemblage of administrators with executing orders. As they considered their responsibilities for the project, uneasiness enveloped the conference room.

A company of some 50 to 60 college-age presenters and a handful of craftsmen and women skilled in colonial crafts would descend on a National Park in buses, trucks and semis loaded with modular shops, houses, a schoolroom and tavern visitors could view during the daytime, like a Williamsburg experience.

The earnest company of collegians and craftsmen would then become stevedores and roustabouts who would reconfigure the heavy modular units into a background set for an evening program featuring those still capable of ambulation.

From my vantage point in the rear of the conference-room, I observed the looks of dismay on the Park Service minions who would be charged with the transportation, electrical, storage and housing of the invading forces.

"You can't get semis into our Park," said one audience member. "We can't supply the electricity you'll need," said another.

My turn to pitch

I couldn't wait to make my presentation for A Little Look Around.

"We've tried to make this pilot project as easy on our selves as on you and your operations," I stated in my best country-boy drawl. "We will have six professional actors and a company manager who will contact you before arrival. We will arrive in a van and are prepared to do three performances daily at your choice of times. Allow an hour for meals and a half-hour for costuming and make-up. We prefer to work outdoors with an historical or natural attraction as the background. Indoors or outdoors, we can perform in any 20-by-20-foot area, or you can arrange folding chairs or any kind of campfire seating in a thrust pattern. Give us a room to change from informal travel attire. And please have a ranger on site to distribute our one-page program handouts.

"That's it. Any questions? I'm available at the nearest martini…gin preferred."

I scanned the room. The troops had relaxed. Hilker and Dingwall had left the room— demonstrating, I believed, that you could dream a project that management would buy, but unless you had been in the trenches executing like programs, you were sailing into uncharted waters.

A request from Lady Bird

Both National Park projects would be granted pilot tours that summer of 1975. As for ours, the reports to the NPS from the field were universally enthusiastic, and the press and TV credited the two co-sponsors, CIGNA Corporation and NPS, for communicating history in a very entertaining program.

As Little Look Around completed its tour in El Paso, I received another phone call from D.C. Would we please head for the LBJ ranch near Johnson City, where Lady Bird Johnson had requested a series of special performances at the Johnson ranch and in the LBJ Library in Austin?

Yes, the actors would receive another week of paid employment. And would I develop plans and a budget for two National tours of the National Park System for the Bicentennial year of 1976?

Where the remains of People of '76 remain, I do not know. From my vantage point in Fort Smith Arkansas, where I was sent to scout the event for the Park Service, it seems there had been more than a few complications in the field. It appeared that transporting, setting up, presenting and packing up the presentation may have been more difficult than the American Revolution of '76.♦

To read this series from the beginning, click here.

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