Writing into the Light…

Finding my way with words…

Rim Walkers II ~ Oscar Hammerstein II

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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

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Author: Carol R Craley

I am a former Philadelphia suburbanite who moved to Maine in 2002 ~ a former art educator ~ former school administrator ~former college and graduate school instructor ~ a writer ~an artist ~ and a photographer. I am currently mom to two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Emma and Sara and a rescued kitty from Georgia ~ so that is her name. I am inspired by nature, great music, art and writing that makes me ponder the world...

16 thoughts on “Rim Walkers II ~ Oscar Hammerstein II

  1. I loved this Carol. You have your fingers on the pulse of thoughts I have had and you brought them to full expression here. Yes, thank you to Hammerstein for dispelling so many stereotypical myths, for moving our culture’s beliefs to another level. Bucks County? My sister was born there, the only one of us four who was born in the States. I went to Thomas Jefferson Elementary school in Levittown when we first moved to the States.

    • Levittown? I can’t believe it!! I lived in Bensalem for 27 years and taught in the district until I went into administration in another district. This was the first time I have actually evidenced the connection between Hammerstein, Michener and Buck. What a legacy that little area has!!

  2. Nice job Carol. You have brought new meaning to so much of what I just assumed was theatrical creativity.

    • It was an exciting surprise to me too. Once the puzzle pieces started to fall together it was exciting to see those connections. I knew Hammerstein, Michener and Buck were “neighbors” I wasn’t aware of their philosophical connections.

  3. How interesting! I love Hammerstein’s musicals. I did know that South Pacific addressed racial prejudice as well as having snappy music (There Is Nothing Like A Dame? Hello? Fab song!), but I didn’t realize Hammerstein was so committed to social justice. Thanks for sharing your evening’s research!

    • You’re welcome Peg. I was excited by these puzzle pieces falling together! I can’t wait to see South Pacific again next week with new “lenses.”

      • Hey Carol, that special was on my PBS station last night so I settled in to watch it after your recommendation. They were firmly into the fundraising part of the program. After sitting through 10 solid minutes of earnest entreaties by amateur fundraisers with bad speaking skills, I turned the channel. It was either that or kill myself. So, anyway, thanks for the summary since I didn’t see the show. 🙂

  4. I echo Pegoleg. I knew about that song in South Pacific (one of my favorite musicals, if not THE favorite), but I hadn’t realized what a social activist he was. He was a man ahead of his time. Wonderful post!

    • Sorry if you both had “bothersome” fund raisers. Those on NH PBS were rather respectful and let Hammerstein and the film do the work for them, thank goodness. He definitely was a man ahead of his time. Can’t wait to see South Pacific again on Saturday – it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it! Actually before the Sat matinee performance they are doing a special educational program about the theme of racism in South Pacific and Hammerstein’s other shows. I may just have to drive in to the theater to catch that.

  5. Just watched the PBS Hammerstein special last night. I’ve been a resident of Bucks county for the last 25 years and have visited the Michener Museum in Doylestown many times. It has displays devoted to Hammerstein and Michener and their humanitarian philosophies
    I’ve also visited the Pearl S Buck House in Dublin where there are lots of references to the friendship between the three of them.
    Hammerstein was so incredibly talented in his abiility to delve into such powerful subjects with such simple, but beautiful lyrics.

    • Thanks for stopping my Marilyn. Also, thanks for these additional references in Doylestown. You are so right about Hammerstein’s incredible talent in tackling such powerful subjects in such a subtle manner. I feel like such a dumb bunny to have spent as many years glossing over the important messages Hammerstein was delivering and not noticing… perhaps that is why they work as well as they do. I am increasingly amazed at how interconnected that artistic community in the Doylestown/New Hope area were. Can’t wait to see South Pacific again on Saturday!

  6. Don’t forget–Hammerstein also brought to the stage with Jerome Kern the classic musical “Show Boat” , which addressed the issue of biracial marriage between Steve, the white troupe lead and Julie LaVerne, the black showboat actress who is passing for white. This was pretty progressive for its day, and quite controversial. That song “Old Man River” is very powerful.

    • That was brought out in the PBS show also. I saw the national touring company of South Pacific doing the Lincoln Center production on Saturday night. It was wonderful to see the show again through new eyes. There was a presentation prior to the matinee discussing racism in musical theater. I am so sorry I missed that. Many of the shows they were discussing were Hammerstein’s. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Julie!!!

  7. Hi Carol,

    Having watched the Hammerstein documentary several times, I too was surprised by the deft handling of his social commentary–save for “You’ve Got to be Taught”–which, as you know, he was urged to delete from South Pacific. Fortunately for us he refused and continued as a cockeyed optimist till his death.

    However, at the moment, I’m more interested in your phrase “Rim Walker” and it’s meaning as you described. May I ask the origin? There is a resonance in the phrase that speaks deeply.

    My best to you and your fine word,
    Al

    • Hi Al, thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. Your question about the phrase “Rim Walker” caused me to pause and think. My background is in the arts. I have always been fascinated by creative thinkers, though I am not as empirical nor as logical-sequential as a Howard Gardner. I have studied watercolor with a Vermont artist named Jeanne Carbonetti. I believe I may have taken her description of the creative mind of an artist and applied it to people who exhibit the same behaviors. To me they are people who are never truly totally within the circle of widely accepted thoughts ~ they walk on the edge of commonly held beliefs challenging everything and creating new definitions and perceptions. If it were not for “Rim Walkers” we would still believe the earth was flat!!

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