Better: How many people read that sentence and either ignore it or answer, “No idea,” and don’t think twice about it; versus my predilection to flashback to a MCMXC’s Arsenio Hall-bit that infiltrated pop culture enough to inspire a C+C Music Factory hit single.
Like most of my curiosities, this question did not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. Less commonly, I managed to stop my rabbit-hole deep-dive before my feet left the ground, though only after falling down the neighboring pit searching for why “L” equals “50.”
I won’t follow that tangent; suffice it to say, none of the numerals that seem to have developed intuitively due to Latin words like “centum” or “mille.”
Naturally, this curiosity resulted from the new ME year celebrated today by my personal Gregorian calendar: As of II:LVI am Pacific Daylight Time, I passed from XLIX to L.
But back to the initial question, because the endurance of Roman numerals for over MM years, long beyond performing any practical, non-decorative function fascinates me. As I approached L, and as people have offered both well-wishes and congratulations, I began considering my own presence, perseverance, and fortitude (whatever they may be), and the representative nature of this blog’s staying power as opposed to simply fading away along with its activity level and relevancy.
I’ve always enjoyed Roman numerals. They’re little more than pretty to look at, but I suppose they provide a weightiness; a kind of numerical bolding, even? I remember II decades ago thinking one of the more monumental changeovers at the turn of the millennium and century was watching MCMXCIX in favor for the larger but more compact MM.
Super Bowls; copyright dates for films, TV, and books; clock faces; building cornerstones and historical plaques: What else regularly utilizes Roman numerals? And still, I’m pretty sure I learned the III most basic—I, V, X—along with, if not before, our standard (Arabic) number system.
For nearly a decade, these birthday posts were the only consistent element of this space, and I used them primarily to note the many interesting people who share(d) my birthday. That annual tradition became irregular and infrequent during the MMX's, even more so since I have II or III birthday posts that I drafted but never published.
My adherence to the birthday post has been its own thing-to-make-me-say-hmmmm. As I noted previously, I have not always enjoyed celebrating my birthday; sometimes, I don’t even want to acknowledge it. I get too self-conscious. I question the motivations of people who disappear from my life before reaching out on that single day with a brief kind (and generic?) word. I contemplate my relationships with those who forget (or don’t care enough to remember?) that it’s my birthday.
So why have I always called greater attention to it in this space? Once again, the contradictory nature of my every feeling reigns supreme. In other words:
I don’t want to be the center of attention; how dare you ignore me!
I would be remiss if I didn’t wish a happy Lth to my birthDATE buddies—Luke Wilson and Alfonso Ribeiro—but otherwise, this year I choose to focus on the some of the various media that entered and/or achieved some cultural significance on-or-around Sept. XXI, MCMLXXI.
For instance, we recently got a new car which came with a IV-month trial subscription to SiriusXM, and on our first long weekend drive, I discovered that the “LXXs on VII” channel reruns American Top XL with Casey Kasem, generally picking that Saturday’s or Sunday’s date from a corresponding year between MCMLXX-MCMLXXIX.
So when I started looking at what command the cultural conversations at the moment I began my true domination of my parents’ lives, I wondered what held the top spot on the Billboard Hot C was when I was born.
MCMLXXI was such an important year for music, that Apple TV+ turned David Hepworth’s book “Never a Dull Moment: (MCMLXXI)—The Year Rock Exploded” into this year’s VIII-part docuseries (MCMLXXI): The Year That Music Changed Everything.
And yet, for III weeks spanning Sept. XI through Oct. II, pop music fans were more interested in XIII-year old Donny Osmond’s cover of “Go Away Little Girl.”
MCMLXXI was a great year for music, filled with releases that proved influential and possessed enormous staying power in our popular culture. Take the chart for the week ending Sept. XVIII featuring the following songs at numbers II-IV:
I’m not sure what I listened to in utero—though I know my mother attended a Broadway performance of [HAIR] during that time—or shortly thereafter. I would hope it featured more Aretha, Bill, and Rod than Donny; however, I remember watching [Donny & Marie] nearly every weak during its late-LXX's run, and V/VI/VII-year-old Aaron really enjoyed “I’m a Little Bit Country, I’m a Little Bit Rock and Roll,” delighting as I rooted for Donny’s Rock’N’Roll to win the sibling battle royale with Marie’s Country.
Speaking of TV, I doubt anyone would be surprised to realize that I was born at the start of a Fall television season. And taking a peek at the schedule and ratings offers similarly fascinating (well, to me) dichotomies between lasting cultural impact and popularity or a brief, but now long-extinguished, flash of supremacy.
The number I show of MCMLXXI-MCMLXXII season was All in the Family. The series had just premiered that January, but just days before I was born, its first full season launched, capturing—and holding most weeks—the top slot in the Nielsen ratings, averaging over XXI-million households each week and a XXXIV rating.
All in the Family remains ensconced among the ranks of all-time greatest tv shows, but at number II the week I was born, attracting nearly XX-million households each week was The Flip Wilson Show. The series was starting its second season after also finishing the previous one at number II, becoming the first successful network variety series led by a Black actor. It even won II Emmys, including for Outstanding Variety Series-Musical.
But just III years later, at the end of the MCMLXXIII-MCMLXXIV season, its audience had plummeted and NBC canceled the show. Though Wilson’s career continued, his success and popularity never quite returned to such heights as during those first II of his show’s IV years.
Primetime in MCMLXXI started at VII:XXX pm. At the moment I was born, San Francisco TV stations likely aired static, color bars, a late-night movie, or some sort of rerun. If my parents had let me stay-up to watch TV when I was not yet XV hours old, my choices would have included The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Mod Squad, and Ironside. I’m sure my dad would have made us watch Hawaii (V)-O at VIII:XXX pm since it was among his favorites. Marcus Welby, M.D., was the number III show for the week, and I was just over XIX hours old when its broadcast started at X pm.
Believe it or not, I don’t remember my very first movie theater experience. I know I saw Star Wars sometime during the summer of its release in MCMLXXVII: I wasn’t yet VI years old, but my II grandmothers (each only LV at the time) waited in line with me outside San Francisco’s late (R.I.P.) great Coronet Theater. I have memories of seeing The Sound of Music there at a very young age, or maybe I went to some kids/animated movie like Benji in MCMLXXIV when I was just III, but it certainly could have been Star Wars—the movie I will never call “A New Hope,” but retains importance to this discussion on many levels as George Lucas began numbering its episodes with the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back using Roman numerals for “Episode V.”
I have never seen the movie that was the largest new release the weekend before my birthday, so I had hoped to watch it tonight. Sadly, Kotch—starring Walter Matthau and marking the sole directing effort of Jack Lemmon—is unavailable to stream anywhere, though I look forward to watching the DVD whenever it’s ready for me to pick-up at the Brooklyn Public Library!
In MCMLXXI, most films weren’t released wide in the manner they are now—certainly not right away—and neither the mainstream media nor the general public treated box office numbers as breaking news. (Box Office Mojo doesn’t even include full box office numbers per-MCMLXXVII.) The focus on opening-weekend numbers was virtually non-existent outside the accounting departments of the major studios, and weekly box office reports covered periods running Thursday-Wednesday. The numbers were also incomplete, with data collected from a sampling of XX-XXIV key cities. But, at least among those II-dozen cities, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller sold more tickets than anything else, a feat the movie accomplished in its 11th week of release.
This year does mark the Lth Anniversary of another film, one that has proven quite influential to cinema and will even be celebrated at the New York Film Festival this coming Sunday and Monday: Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Both McCabe and Sweetback have certainly maintained a presence in the minds of Cinephiles, and both remain easy to see, unlike Kotch.
(9/23/21 update: I came back to note that news broke yesterday that Van Peebles passed away on Sept. 21 at 89 years old. I remember briefly meeting him when his son Mario premiered Baadasssss! about the making of Sweetback at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival; or maybe it was 2008 when the festival premiered Melvin’s final feature directorial effort: Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha. Mario is doing Q&A at both NYFF screenings, and I’m sure those will be extra-powerful now.)
MCMLXXI was a big year for Van Peebles. He also made a notable splash on Broadway with Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (Tunes from Blackness), a musical that opened almost exactly one month after my birth. Van Peebles wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the show which received VII Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical. In one of theater history’s weirder convergences, Grease tied Natural Death with VII Tony nods.
Those two shows existing during the same theatrical season seems like a jaw-dropping cosmic joke these V decades later, and that doesn’t even take into account that Stephen Sondheim’s tremendous Follies also premiered that season, and topped all productions with XI Tony nominations. How could one year (and zeitgeist) produce such divergent works? I suppose my own craziness becomes less surprising looking at the multiple personalities of MCMLXXI.
And yet, none of those III shows actually won Best Musical; the XXVIth Tony for Best Musical went to John Guare and Galt MacDermot’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s (II) Gentlemen of Verona. Follies and (especially) Grease regularly continue to live on via resurrections by high schools, colleges, and community and local theaters, not to mention a few Broadway/West End/touring revivals. Verona—Best Musical statue not-withstanding—has not received the same treatment, though in MMV, the Public Theater staged a production for “Shakespeare in the Park” starring Oscar Isaac and Rosario Dawson and directed by Kathleen Marshall.
Especially in the wake of the past year, the Lth anniversary of II of the most seminal works from one of most iconic of Black filmmakers/writers of the second-half of the XXth Century seems the most appropriate time to celebrate both: And what do you know? Not only is Film at Lincoln Center honoring Sweetback at the New York Film Festival, but in March, the New York Times reported that producer Lia Vollack announced a planned production of Natural Death coming to Broadway early next year, “with the collaboration of the creator’s son, Mario Van Peebles, and under the direction of Kenny Leon.”
Some works instantly influence the culture and forever maintain their importance and popularity. Arguably, William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist fits that bill. The novel dominated the New York Times Bestseller List for XII weeks starting in late July MCMLXXI and continuing past my birthday—led just II years after to William Friedkin’s film adaptation became a precursor to the wide-release strategy and box office gross mania that Jaws would truly kick-off another II years later.
Others endure with less fanfare; many with fewer zealots, but more dedicated ones. Usually, those are the most influential works to what comes later; the things we tend to call “ahead of their time.” And the rediscovery and renewed celebrations offer new chapters in their cultural lifespans.
During my wife’s and my first date, at some point I referred to my alter-ego: “Superhero Tangent Man.” My not-so-superpower involved jumping from thought-to-tangential-thought, narrative-to-tangential-narrative without noticing, but then after climbing III or IV branches away from wherever I started, reconnecting the loop to my initial idea. She added me to her phone under that name, and nearly XXII years later, that’s still how you’ll find me in her contacts.
I definitely consider that ability more not-so-super than powerful these days, but sometimes it still comes in handy. For instance ...
I can’t say with certainty how well I have endured or persevered during this lifetime, other than I continue breathing, I have stayed upright and conscious, and periodically throughout the previous V decades, I have contributed something to my circle/family/society ... maybe. A younger Aaron certainly wanted to leave “my mark,” especially within the worlds of film and theater, following in the artistic footsteps of Elia Kazan and Mike Nichols most notably, jumping between the Great White Way and the Silver Screen. My path has meandered elsewhere, and though I have not left that mark, I know I have left other (hopefully) positive ones. I certainly hope my two kids will add to the “positive ones” column, but they’re still works-in-progress, and I have a lot of active and passive parenting left.
But also, sitting on the other side of my self-described mid-point, I would prefer to look forward to the next L rather than keep
reflecting obsessing on the foundational L. The tricky part—and my latest fixation—remains finding the balance: the Goldilocks needle in the infinite haystack that enables somebody to utilize the elements of the past just enough to proactively create the best future available for that person and those connected to (insert appropriate pronoun here).
Getting here has been a longer a more challenging journey than the less-aware me could have imagined, and if I can manifest anything today, I suppose it would be forcing “here” to actually be my “midpoint” (at worst). I’ve had a terrible time wrapping-up this post, which seems appropriate.
Utilizing my not-so-superpower, however, I suppose the best way to end is to remember and move through where I started, considering what the world was like when Sweetback arrived; experiencing, absorbing, and celebrating Natural Death upon its return; choosing to move forward in a way that lets me feel comfortable celebrating myself; and sticking around enjoy my family, finally settle into a career, and endure in this world for even a teeny fraction of the durability and longevity of those fascinating Roman numerals ... and this post's commitment to them!