Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Steve Allen Meeting of Minds

The old TV series, “Meeting of Minds, is enjoyable history and entertaining.

From time to time I wonder what it would be like to sit down with men or women who have accomplished something of value with their lives. The people who influenced history, even if as a clown or a comic like Charlie Chaplin.

Loving to read history, I would like to ask the real people a lot of things. Such as getting the “real story” of how Leo Tolstoy wrote such long books; why old Joe Stalin feared Trotsky; where George Washington slept; and see if actress Sophia Loren would explain her 17 days in jail in 1972. (It was for Italian tax evasion – any excuse to see her would be more than worth the effort.)

The originator of the NBC-TV Tonight Show, Steve Allen, did what I would enjoy doing. He created what critics called "the ultimate talk show” --- “Meeting of Minds.” From the start it was a popular, award-winning series on the Public Broadcasting System network.

The “getting on” generation, the “not getting any younger” set, will remember this chit-chat show. It was not exactly your typical night time talk and repartee show. Instead of having the latest movie starlet or personality, the show featured guests who played important roles in the drama of history.

Each week, Steve and his wife Jayne Meadows, would entertain historic guest around a table in the manner of their historic times. Allen, creator and writer, served as the host and moderator and welcomed both heroes and “villains” around his table of discussions.

The series had Steve Allen’s sharp and thought-provoking humor while reminding us of yesterday’s leader’s insight and controversies.

Jayne Meadows, co-writer and actress, was born in “God’s Country” (China) of missionary parents. She is the older sister of Audrey Meadows best known as the dead-pan housewife, Alice Kramden on the 1950s classic television comedy, “The Honeymooners.” (One afternoon in the 1980s I ran into Audrey and her husband in Kowloon, Hong Kong. She did not appear to mind my stopping them to tell her of our appreciation of her life and work. She died in 1996.)

Since the “Meeting of Minds” program could not produce the real Aristotle or Niccolo Machiavelli they had to use actors. Like Keye Luke, who played the "father of modern China," Dr. Sun Yat-sen. For the 19th Century English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Allen’s wife Jayne Meadows played the part. She also was a perfect Cleopatra.

Among those who appeared on different programs were Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, and the infamous Voltaire and Charles Darwin.

In Allen’s books he has written about the series. In his own words, Allen has shared some of his vision:

"The idea is that every syllable will be part of an actual quotation. The degree of the exact quotation varies from character to character. In the case of some people who played important roles in the drama of history, of course, there is no record of anything they ever said or wrote. Two examples that come to mind are Cleopatra and Attila the Hun. Nevertheless, they were both fascinating characters for our show. And there's nothing difficult in creating dialog for them. You bring factual information into conversational form -- and commit no offense in doing so.”

The multi-award winning series “Meeting of Minds” still exists in the form of video cassettes and book form. These have been used in some high school history classes for years. Check and see if the local library has copies.

Of all the comics or humorists, not counting Will Rogers or Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin would be my choice for a conversation over a cup of tea. I like his take on politicians. Chaplin once said: “I remain just one thing, and one thing only –-- that I am a clown, and it places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”

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