Friday, January 4, 2008

Backstairs At The White House

It seems that in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, there were gobs of television mini-series available for viewing. Given that the ground-breaking Roots debuted in 1977 and shattered, up until that point, most viewing records, such a surge in popularity seems appropriate.

The genre of most mini-series leaned towards history since the vehicle had room enough for many characters, locations and story lines. Usually there would be at least two epiodes running on two different evenings. And, no surprise, mini-series would only appear in November, February or May - the "sweeps" months.

Many of us in the genealogy and family-history field most likely watched Roots and if we didn't already have "the bug" to go and investigate our family history, we surely would catch it that week of January 23 - 30, 1977. After all, the correct title of Alex Haley's book is Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

So when my DVDs for Backstairs at the White House arrived from Netflix, I figured I was in for a treat, actually a "repeat treat" since I watched it during the original airing between January 29 and February 1, 1979. The mini-series is based on the book My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks (with Frances Spatz Leighton).

But what I had forgotten were the "little touches" that helped make the time, setting, and characters seem real and accurate. Last night I watched the first episode which begins in 1909 with the Taft administration and ends in 1921 when the Hardings arrive for their short stay. When I originally watched, I probably did not pay attention to items such as the curling iron used on First Lady Helen Taft by the main character Maggie Rogers. It was heated over an open flame and then used on hair. Or how most of the White House staff members were hesitant to plug in an electric fan in since they had never seen one before.

While you can get this same effect of historical accuracy (or historical inaccuracy which irritates me when a director hasn't done his or her research) from any movie or television show, the historical mini-series seems to be able to get down to some personal details of everyday life. With Backstairs, we see the First Families as imposing historical figures and we often forget that they had the same challenges as our ancestors such as illness (Wilson's stroke), death (Wilson's first wife, Warren Harding's "mysterious death"), and wacky relations (Florence Harding). And these people probably used the same items on a daily basis as our ancestors. They marveled at the first bathtub they had installed (like Taft) and they probably had a good laugh at trying to dance the latest dances such as Ballin' The Jack (like the Wilsons).

Since Roots, I've been a big fan of the historical mini-series from Roots to Backstairs at the White House to The Winds of War. Tell me, which television mini-series title or content would best describe your family?

Rich Man, Poor Man
The Thorn Birds
North and South
The Winds of War
War and Rememberance
Lonesome Dove
Band of Brothers


Terry Thornton said...

Thomas, What a challenge! Only the second half of the title RICH MAN, POOR MAN applies; certainly NORTH and SOUTH fits; BAND OF BROTHERS has something to offer; but you left off the best one that would describe me: DEADWOOD. Now that was a mini-series (OK, maybe a regular show) probably more like us sinners than the others. LOL!

Apple said...

I actually only remember seeing two of these, Roots and The Torn Birds, in reruns. I hated the mini-series format because they usually ran several nights in a row and I never had several nights free. Renting them had never occurred to me - until now.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Renting is the best way to go Apple. Not sure if you are a Netflix subscriber - I think for rural folk it is a G_dsend. I made sure that I had all 4 discs of Backstairs in order so that they arrive that way and I don't watch them weeks apart from each other.

Lee said...

Dang, Thomas, I watched almost all those movies, but I don't have the memory other people do, so I can't really say which one would be most like my family. I do know my mother LOVED Lonesome Dove, and my favorite on the list is North and South, but that's only because Patrick Swayze was so handsome in that movie. ;-)

But this does remind me that I need to renew my membership with Netflix. You're right, it is a G-send to us rural folk, but every now and ag'in I stop it 'cause we get burned out on watching movies.

Lee said...

Oh, and I think I know why some of my comments never got through - dummy me, always hits preview so I can check for errors, and I think I forgot to hit publish on a few of them. LOL...At least, that sounds like something I'd do.