We visited my dad in Florida recently. Since Dad's kitchen is barely big enough to boil a can of soup, the family preoccupation during these get-togethers usually revolves around where we'll go to eat dinner. After that's taken care of, we usually settle in and watch some TV.
Now I am fully aware of the ways that watching TV can be a drag. I get how it can be a substitute for more meaningful forms of human interaction. That, too often, it's a pacifier, lulling viewers into thinking that because they are watching something, they are being active when, in fact, very little is actually going on.
So it came as a happy jolt one evening to find ourselves being thoroughly entertained and, at times, even edified, by a programming service carried in Dad's town called Classic Arts Showcase.
It's a ridiculously simple concept. Way back in 1994, a rather stately looking gent by the name of Lloyd E. Rigler apparently decided to start a fine-arts-oriented television channel based on the model pioneered by MTV. Except where MTV was devoted to videos presenting rock and pop music performers, Rigler wanted to show clips featuring classical music performance, as well as dance, musical theater, opera, drama, museum art and even bits of classic film and documentaries.
In essence, what Rigler did was to create a curated channel devoted to collecting and programming fine arts film and video clips spanning, roughly, the past 90 years or so. These clips are run continuously, without commercial interruption or, for that matter, the tedious explaining by so-called hosts. At the beginning and end of each clip there's a stamp of text naming the artists, what's being performed, where and when. That's it.
Every week, the curators at Classic Arts Showcase assemble an eight-hour stream of 150 of these morsels, which is then broadcast three times each day. Where my dad lives in Florida, a local public broadcasting channel carries CAS on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Given the funding struggles faced by public television, this is probably a life-saver, since CAS is offered free. Any public, educational, or government access channel on a cable TV system that requests a feed can receive CAS at no cost.
Over 500 channels in the U.S. and Canada now show Classic Arts Showcase. The service is funded entirely by the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. Although Rigler died in 2003, he left at least 20 years worth of funding to the channel, which says its mission is "to inspire viewers to go out and see live performances in their own communities."
I'm not a huge opera fan. I don't particularly dig choral music. And as far as musical theater goes: Forget it. Characters with a penchant for suddenly bursting into song make me want to head for the nearest bartender.
But I find Classical Arts Showcase addictive. Part of this is because no one clip is ever long enough to drive you away. Unlike, say, a tape of an entire concert, there's no need to make a commitment of time or energy. And then there's the element of surprise. CAS never provides a schedule because, they say, "if people knew what was coming up they would only watch clips they like, and perhaps never try anything new. Surprise is an important part of our strategy of creating a new audience for the arts."
In the course of an hour or so, you might see a 1964 film of master pianist Claudio Arrau playing Mozart; Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel being taught how to sing "One Enchanted Evening" without sounding ponderous; an excerpt from David Lean's classic take on Charles Dickens' Great Expectations; archival video of a Cold War performance by the Bolshoi Ballet; a 1954 kinescope of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, done with puppets; a bit of silent-era Buster Keaton; and an absolutely mind-blowing version of Maurice Ravel's "La Valse" arranged for two pianos.
These bite-size performances actually convey a great deal. On the micro level, they can help one get a better feel for certain artists. A couple of clips based on performances of pieces by Leonard Bernstein, for example, reminded me that while the maestro was a great interpreter of other composers, he had a cringe-inducing tendency to try too hard when it came to writing his own music.
Most of all, though, an evening spent with Classic Arts Showcase is a welcome reminder of the breadth, depth and downright beauty of what we call "the fine arts." It's like a high-potency vitamin shot of culture. CAS also seems a great way to introduce coming generations to the spectrum of experiences, styles and traditions that continue to find expression on stages all over the world. As my wife said, if you played CAS continuously in pre-schools, little kids wouldn't have to be told this stuff was good for them — they'd feel it.
When Butler University had a public station, it ran CAS for a while. They did little to promote it and the impact, like the station itself, was negligible. Too bad: In the right hands, this service could be a gem.