Anyone who’s tried to talk about a classic scene from Psycho with a non-film-lover, or describe a classic TV episode to someone who thinks The Twilight Zone is that corner of the playground where the Edward-loving emos sit, will inevitably find themselves turning to The Simpsons as a shared reference point (‘Y’know, Midnight Express, like that bit where Homer tried to smuggle cheap souvenirs through customs…’). Stern purists may grow weary of having to resort to this ubiquitous common ground, but The Simpsons scattered cultural moments (not just from film and TV) through its early episodes with such aplomb that it’s difficult not to succumb to the near-universal reference point (if not outright embrace the scattergun breadth of it all: Maggie attending ‘Ayn Rand’s School for Tots’ in ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’ is one personal favourite).
The referential glee dissipated somewhat as the years passed and the show’s quality and intellectual heft plummeted. The cultural references became strained and unconvincing as the once vibrant Simpsons suddenly faced the mundane chore of existence that comes with the promise of immortality (it’s currently at 21 seasons and not likely to vanish any time soon). What was once a passing glimpse in the midst of the fun, a giddy moment of recognition and free-association, simultaneously irrelevant and insightful, became an uninspired and superficial image stretched out to fill half an hour (Simpsons writer #1: ‘Mr Burns dresses as Dracula. Here’s my bill.’)
But the early years alone give more than most shows ever manage: Mr Burns’ Citizen Kane musical number in ‘Marge Gets a Job’ (1992), Barney’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ‘escape’ in ‘So it’s Come to This’ (1993), Lisa finding her pony’s head (albeit still on its body) as in The Godfather in ‘Lisa’s Pony’ (1991), to pick some great examples, are all treated with care and stylistic integrity, somehow overt yet unobtrusive, hilarious yet reverent. Beginning film students invariably find that they’re more familiar with various stylistic flourishes than they think.
Perhaps the greatest of them all, though, is ‘Radio Bart’ (1992), in which Bart falls down a well and thus becomes one in a long line of the media’s ‘heroes in holes’. The sequence where Bart is (or seems to be) trapped is so packed full of high-points that it’s hard to believe that there’s also another ten-minutes of fast-paced and equally-good intro to indirectly set the whole thing up (in sharp contrast to later episodes that seem to struggle to fill their 22-odd minutes at all). It also flaunts with absolute confidence and ability that uneasy state of morbid curiosity, personal interest and sincere altruism that tragedy unavoidably brings with it in the media age.
Directly or indirectly, ‘Radio Bart’ takes us back to 1925 Kentucky, when cave explorer Floyd Collins became stuck in narrow passage in Sand Cave with his leg wedged under a rock and, to cut a long story short, died. While that was going on, something that took the better part of a week or two, the media arrived. Whether that was lucky or unlucky for Floyd is a matter of perspective. Making contact with a reporter, he was given food and water. Unable to be rescued, he died.
He also became famous. As did the cave. The St. Petersberg Times of 17 February 1925 reports that ‘Floyd was determined to find a cavern’ that would ‘attract tourists’. This, I suppose, he did. Today, the Cave City website quotes an unreferenced account: ‘Every L&N train, then the principal mode of transportation, brought swarms of newspaper reporters from the east to the west coast… Destination-Cave City and Sand Cave, with Press Headquarters in the Hotel Dixie, where feverish newsmen ground out dramatic stories of the fruitless efforts to free poor Floyd in his lonely trap in the depths of Sand Cave’.
Others prayed, others sent money. Some wrote songs (‘It may not be a Sand Cave in which we find our tomb / But on that day of judgment, we too must meet our doom’ goes Vernon Dalhart’s ‘The Death of Floyd Collins’). According to the 12 February 1925 Reading Eagle, a man claiming to be Floyd Collins appeared in Kansas, alive and well. Another newspaper reportedly decided that Collins had been freed and declared the same, but the mere pronouncement had little effect on reality (an inconvenient problem that Fox News would finally solve during the 2000 US presidential elections). Good or bad for Floyd, it was definitely good for business.
It was also good for a new medium: radio. The newfound personal immediacy brought by the new medium (sound familiar?) was cemented by the ongoing reports of the fortnight-long ordeal to free Collins and, presumably, the intrinsically human need to hear of either a miraculous escape or a grisly death in the ‘torture chamber’ (as the cave was colourfully dubbed by the 3 February Lewiston Evening Journal).
Not least of all, it was good for William ‘Skeets’ Miller of Kentucky’s Courier Journal, who made contact with Floyd in the cave, brought him food, water and company, wrote it up, and won a Pulitzer Prize. If Floyd’s death boosted careers and gave radio a chance at establishing itself as a dominant medium and household voice, another tragedy, 25 years later, gave the new medium of television the same treatment.
In San Marino April 1949, nine-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into a pipe near her home, and the two day rescue effort captured attention throughout Los Angeles thanks to live television broadcasts by station KTLA. As with Floyd Collins, the rescue was plagued with difficulties — the pipe covering the hole which Kathy had fallen into had an opening of only 14 inches, other holes dug to rescue Kathy sagged, other holes hit rock, or mud and water barred the way. Time magazine’s vivid report of the rescue notes that ‘by midnight, 12,000 were standing in the chilly spring night—grave, subdued neighbors, sightseers and dating teenagers, men and women in evening dress’ (“California: The Lost Child”, Time, 18 April 1949).
Thousands more watched on sets around the city — many rushing out to buy one — the station broadcasting for thirty hours straight. The Los Angeles Times reports that ‘the nearly incessant glare of news camera flashbulbs whitened the night sky’ (11 April 1949). Announcer Bill Welsh remembers that it was uncharted territory; they had no idea if the transmitter would melt down, but they went on anyway. KTLA reporter Stan Chambers notes that ‘the Kathy Fiscus story was the turning point for television in Los Angeles. Until then, television was just a plaything … but here people lived through the moment’. Finally, a doctor entered then emerged from the hole and declared Kathy dead.
Enormous rescue attempts for Kathy Fiscus
Like radio before it, the new medium brought unity, and prestige, through tragedy and morbid spectacle. Bill Welsh sums up the inherent conflict: ‘If you can be pleased with a tragedy, I think Klaus [Landsberg, who ran KTLA at the time] was satisfied that television had done its job in the way he believed it could’. When Kathy was pronounced dead, it was Bill Welsh, who the family had been watching on TV until they could take no more, who was asked by the sherrif to break the bad news. (KTLA content is sourced from the indispensable and oft-quoted-by-Retro-Remote The Box by Jeff Kisseloff.)
KTLA was established as a serious news broadcaster (they’re still around, although I’m in no position to evaluate if the ‘serious news broadcaster’ label is still appropriate), people prayed, sent money and wrote songs (‘The little darlin’ was dead, her life it was gone / Now in San Marino, there’s a heart-broken home’ went the hit song ‘The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus’ by Jimmie Osborne), and, for many, television became a serious medium that brought a new sense of unity to the world (again). A memorial for Kathy carries the inscription: ‘A Little Girl Who Brought The World Together’. (The exact wording varies in reports — anyone have a first-hand report?)
While Floyd Collins tends to be discussed with the detached tone of a history lesson, Kathy’s death still elicits an emotional response in many of those who recount the story; it’s almost impossible not to be moved by the awful story of a young child dying, just out of reach, but somehow also in full view of the city.
For all the spectacle, there’s no reason to question the motives of those involved. I doubt William Miller had anything on his mind but rescuing Floyd and reporting the story fairly. Nor did KTLA intend anything but to report the news as best as they were able (Stan Chambers, one of the reporters on the scene, still works for KTLA). The volunteers who desperately tried to free Kathy weren’t in it for personal gain. The morbid events may have made reputations and organisations, but benefiting from a tragedy does not automatically make one opportunistic, and it’s difficult to imagine the news media working any other way; curiosity, however morbid, may still remain sincere.
For those describing the stories, the ultimately benign nature of the press seems more or less a given. A couple of ‘guy trapped in hole’ TV and film stories of the era (the collapsed mine a staple of cheap drama — something Floyd Collins no doubt also helped solidify) seem to sum up the fairly uncontroversial image of reporting. In the 1948 Superman movie serial chapter ‘Depths of the Earth’, Daily Planet reporters race down to a collapsed mine to get the story on miners trapped inside. The mine owners tell them to sod off, so the reporters sulk a little (‘hasn’t the company got sense enough to realise that the whole world is interested in what happens?’ asks Noel Neill’s somewhat dopey Lois Lane) then sneak in anyway. Naturally, Lois gets trapped and Superman uses his wonderfully hokey 1948 x-ray vision to find her and the miners.
Four years later in 1951, Lois (now played by the alluring Lois-Lane-supreme Phyllis Coates) gets a similar brush off at a collapsed mine in ‘Rescue’, so she dons flash-light cap and overalls and sneaks in for a story (rescued by Superman again, natch). Nobody really has a problem with dear Lois sneaking around, bypassing safety rules, getting trapped, causing chaos — it’s all part of the job and gets things done.
But by now we know that the protection, altruism and unity offered by the ‘Fourth Estate’ can’t necessarily be taken for granted. If gain through tragedy doesn’t necessarily equal opportunism, it nevertheless opens up the possibility. It also opens up questions of what we value, when and why. While ‘Radio Bart’ draws much of its key details and circumstantial resonances from the deaths of Floyd Collins and Kathy Fiscus, its presentation of the actual media process draws from another source entirely; the vision of an unguarded and unaffected unity around a desperate event wasn’t to go unchallenged for long, and a blistering piece of ’50s cinematic cynicism would soon cast suspicion on the profit to be gleaned from misfortune, and the public rush to be a part of personal tragedy.