Woodworking again: 'Is he a little off?'

By Dave Wood
Posted 1/24/24

A half century ago when first I married the B.W., I made a big mistake by almost irritating my new mother-in-law Elsie Pirsig, a fine lady, but one I certainly didn’t want to alienate. So what …

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Woodworking again: 'Is he a little off?'


A half century ago when first I married the B.W., I made a big mistake by almost irritating my new mother-in-law Elsie Pirsig, a fine lady, but one I certainly didn’t want to alienate. So what did I do to irritate her? Just this: I loved coming to Chicago to visit her. Not because I loved Chicago; I didn’t and don’t, but the Windy City offered something we didn’t have back in Minneapolis. These were the days before cable and Turner Classic Movies and all the good stuff. But Chicago had WGN, which already aired classic movies endlessly. 

Elsie, however, had just purchased a new color TV. When she entered the rec room and saw me watching Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight” she informed me, “We have, you know, color TV. Why watch some dumb old thing in black and white?” Then she left me for the kitchen to prepare supper. When she returned I was watching another B & W, starring Gregory Peck in “The Keys to the Kingdom.” Before I came in for supper, I heard her say to her darling daughter, “Is he a little OFF? He’s still watching black and white, something about a priest. We have, you know, COLOR television!”

To ameliorate the situation, I immediately turned to a national network and found the brightly colored but essentially gloomy “Rebel without a Cause.” And a host of happy hearts were happy once again.

It turns out that a lot of people think I’m nuts because I prefer black and white to color. A few years back, I discovered that my alma mater, Whitehall H.S. has a fabulous new auditorium with movie and sound capability. The superintendent encouraged me to develop a movie program so today’s kids could see what it was like before our beloved Pix Theatre shut down many years before. To sweeten the Cheesehead pot, I decided to only show movies with a Wisconsin connection. So I got to work and purchased several tapes for the first winter season.

We opened with “Come and Get It,” a saga of Wisconsin logging, interspersed with photographs from the era and starring Joel McRea and Francis Farmer. The Wisconsin connection was its author, Edna Ferber, who grew up in Appleton, before becoming a famous part of the Algonquin Circle.

Next came a classic, “Double Indemnity,” starring Barbara Stanwyck and her caddish lover Fred MacMurray, who hails from Beaver Dam, Wis.

Next came the magnificent “The Magnificent Ambersons,” directed by Orson Welles who was born in Kenosha and starring Agnes Moorhead, who began her career as a teacher in the Kickapoo Valley.  Wisconsin, right?

Next came another classic, “Inherit the Wind,” (1960) a movie about the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, starring Federic March, playing William Jennings Bryan and Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow in an extraordinary courtroom drama about the teaching of evolution. March hailed from Racine,  and Tracy, a Ripon College alum, from Milwaukee.

Finally, the frosting on the cake which would close out our first season, “Our  Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945), a charming portrayal of life on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, starring Edward G. Robinson, the only Hungarian Jew I know of who mastered a Norwegian dialect, his charming little daughter Margaret O’Brien who puts Shirley Temple to utter shame and her mother played by Agnes Moorhead (again) who acts like she still lives in the Kickapoo Valley.

So I spent my summer creating programs for each movie to be passed out at the performances and even told viewers what weaknesses some of the films had. (Dancer Gene Kelly should never have been cast as H.L. Mencken in “Inherit the Wind.” And so I passed the materials and schedule on to Whitehall, H.S. and waited expectantly. We advertised in the local paper and talked it up over the phone.

Only my sister-in-law showed up and was told no one else came and the movie was not to be shown. Nor were any of the others. We concluded that lots of people preferred color. Ironically, I had bit my tongue and planned to include a color film “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean, my least favorite hunk but directed by Nicholas Ray, who was born in my home county in Galesville, Wis.

So, all those Technicolorphiles didn’t miss much.

Hate mailers? Roll ‘em, as they say in Hollywood.

Woodworking again, Dave Wood, black and white TV, movies, column