This is the second in a planned sporadic series of blogs in which I discuss people I call Rim Walkers. Rim Walkers are those who live and work “out of the box.” They are authentic souls who can only function when they are “walking their talk.” Rim Walkers do not accept that anything is impossible. They believe they just have not found the correct path to their desired goals, be they individual or social. Rim Walkers are comfortable “living against the grain.” They will stand up against the norm, make no apologies, and in hindsight, they will have moved society in a positive direction. Rim Walkers move the world in a direction, and to a place, it didn’t know it needed to go. Rim Walkers change the world.
My plan for the evening was to sit with my feet up and read. I thought, “let me turn on the TV for a few minutes to unwind, then I’ll read.” I poured myself a glass of ginger ale, plopped in the recliner, pushed back, and petted Willie (cat who had just jumped into my lap) with one hand while I scanned through a few channels with the remote in the other. I stopped when I hit the New Hampshire PBS station (they were fund raising) to catch a few minutes of a show about Oscar Hammerstein II ~ Out of My Dreams.
I was stopped by comments about Hammerstein’s humanity being written into all of his lyrics. They discussed the fact that when he saw injustice, he confronted it in word and action. They said he used his work as a lyricist as an outlet for his social activism. WHAT??? Oscar Hammerstein wrote fluffy little musicals containing songs with simple lyrics and dancing cowboys and girls in gingham dresses singing to the sunrise on a ranch in Oklahoma, World War II nurses trying to “wash that man out of their hair,” and an English widowed teacher who teaches the King of Siam to dance… 1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3… He wrote great songs that years later we can remember the words to… he thoroughly entertained us… he provided great musicals for every theater from Broadway to the local high school or summer camp to entertain us with. But a social activist??? Get a grip!!!
This show proceeded to delve into the person behind the lyrics. Hammerstein was a “sort of” former neighbor from Bucks County, Pennsylvania where I spent half of the years I have been alive on this earth. I was captivated and invited to look beneath the surface of what I had determined since childhood, was fluffy song and dance theater. What I discovered was, Oscar Hammerstein was so good at what he did, we never caught him doing it!
I saw South Pacific as a musical love story. It is. It also is a story about racism and interracial and intercultural relationships. Without being overt, Hammerstein began to lay the groundwork for acceptance of all races and cultures. Through the song “You’ve Got To Be Taught” Cable tells us:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Oscar Hammerstein used his lyrics to create memorable musicals that make us sing for weeks afterward, tap our feet, and feel good. He also shares his philosophy of acceptance, child rearing and bringing families together. These themes run through all of Hammerstein’s work.
In the King & I Yul Brenner plays a king with power and absolute authority (not to mention a male chauvinist). The “King” was not unlike many of the world leaders in places much larger than the mythical Siam. Here comes Deborah Kerr, a British widow who comes to Siam to teach his children and she has the audacity to challenge his thoughts, behaviors and authoritarian demeanor. By the end of the musical she succeeds in softening the King, making him more liberal and more of a humanitarian. He even learns to dance in the process.
Oscar had notable neighbors. He was friends and neighbors with both James Michener and Pearl S. Buck. James Michener’s novel “Tales of the South Pacific” was the basis for Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific.” They were both, along with neighbor Pearl Buck, committed to racial and cultural equity. In 1954, James Michener married Mari Sabusawa, a Japanese American who, with her family, was confined to an internment camp in Colorado. The same year South Pacific debuted, Pearl Buck founded Welcome House which was committed to finding adoptive families for Asian and Asian American children, many of whom were abandoned by American servicemen. These children were considered “half-breeds” or “hybrids” and were not accepted in either Asian or American culture. Buck devoted her life to finding loving homes for biracial and cross cultural children. Michener himself adopted two biracial children through Welcome House. Two of Hammerstein’s grandchildren were adopted through Welcome House.
An interesting side note, Oscar Hammerstein II was writing until his death from stomach cancer in 1960, just prior to The Sound of Music opening on Broadway. The last song he wrote before he died was Edelweiss. Many people, myself included, thought that was the Austrian national anthem or an authentic folk song of Austria. Now that is a convincing story teller.
I am grateful for not getting my reading done this evening! I have learned new things about former neighbors and their roles in presenting a new cultural identity for American in a period of history where these ideas were not, when blatantly thrown in your face, accepted. Hammerstein, Michener and Buck all laid the groundwork for ideological changes that are still evolving. They are all Rim Walkers.
As the program finished I jumped on the computer realizing that the national touring cast of South Pacific will be in Portland next week. I’ll be putting aside my green beer and Irish music for the evening and enjoying a performance of South Pacific to see the production with new eyes.
Photo of Oscar Hammerstein II from Wikipedia.com