Bill T. Jones: Immense talent, immense contrasts

One of the best notions PBS has come up with lately has been the idea of nine straight arts-related Fridays.

The shows have differed widely -- from a deep portrait of Pearl Jam to a rather silly operetta. This week, it's a look at Bill T. Jones, who's been compelling as a dancer, a choreographer and more. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Rich contrasts ripple through the world
of Bill T. Jones, the dance master. He's:

– An amiable man who's fond of action
movies. He's also imposing – tall and taut, able to control any
room with his physical and verbal presence.

– A star, the winner of two Tonys, a
Gish Prize, a MacArthur “genius” prize and more. Still, his field
(dance) is often overlooked. “I come from a very poverty-stricken
art form,” he said.

– Someone who's done spartan work –
“me on an empty stage, gesticulating and talking.” But on PBS'
“American Masters,” we see see him develop a complex piece,
swirling with film, music and words.

Then there's his relationship with the
history of Abraham Lincoln – which is what he's doing in the PBS
film. He was commissioned to create a piece for the 200th
anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 1809.

Jones had grown up thinking of Lincoln
as “this man who is like Santa Claus or Jesus Christ, a secular
saint.” He leaped into the flip side, reading debunkers who said
Lincoln was merely being political.

Then, he said, came “a moment when I
realized, 'Bill, you've gotta lead with your heart.'”

His heart felt Lincoln was a good man
in an awful era: “Can you imagine that?” Jones asked. “Coming
into office and two weeks later having the bloodiest battle this
country has ever seen happen on your watch (and) some people say you
set it off ….Mrs. Keckly, the freed slave who was (his wife's)
seamstress, describes him doubled over with anxiety in his
nightshirt, literally doubled over.”

So Jones created an elaborate Lincoln
piece, with cameras following its development.

“We were actually there the day …
everybody arrived at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill.,” said
co-director Bob Hercules, “all the way to the premiere of the
piece, almost two years later.”

Cameras showed Jones teaching, molding
and, on occasion, fuming. “It really demonstrates what it takes to
be an artist,” said Susan Lacy, founder of the “American Masters”
series, “the kind of commitment, … the difficulty, the

Yes, doubt. “Like most artists, we
are incredibly self-involved (and) I'm full of insecurity …. I go
in the studio, I gotta start all over again and prove it again to

Now PBS viewers will see him work at it
from the start.

– “Bill T. Jones: A Good Man.”
under the “American Masters” banner

– 9-11 p.m. Friday, PBS (check local


"Rock Center" has a strong start

A couple blogs earlier, I interviewed people about "Rock Center," the NBC newsmagazine. Now the first episode has aired (10 p.m. Monday, NBC); let's look at whether the show's producers kept their promises:

1) They promised to have longer features, maybe two or three to an hour. In the opener, there were four features and an in-studio interview.

2) They promised that this would reflect Brian Williams' wit; it did. A segment that Williams narrated (and, presumably, wrote) on airline boarding was very clever. Also, the closing interview -- Williams and Jon Stewart talking live -- was great fun, two deft and comfortable guys, having fun with each other and the audience.

3) They promised these would be important stories, which they were -- sort of. "If I listed the top 10 problems in the country, this wouldn't even be in the top 100," one person grumbled. She was talking about the debate over "birth tourism" -- rich foreigners who spend months here so their babies can be native-born Americans -- but that comment could have also applied to the airline-boarding one, too.

4) They promised quality reporting and delivered thoroughly. Williams' airline piece and Kate Snow's "birth tourism" piece were beautifully written; so was Harry Smith's terrific account of a jobs boom in North Dakota, which has suddenly become oil-rich. Smith's account was especially well-done. The only poor one was Richard Engel's Syria story; it was mostly about how he snuck into the country, adding little when he actually got there.

5) And they promised this would be new and strong and different. Overall, it was. It was a good start.




Roy Rogers at 100 -- classic Americana

One of my favorite posters is for "Frontier Pony Express," a 1939 Roy Rogers film.

I could quibble about the title. (Why do we have to say "frontier"; what are the odds of an urban pony express?) But I loved the notion that Rogers starred in eight movies -- yes, eight of them -- in the year (1939) when Clark Gable settled for one (albeit a good one, "Gone With the Wind").

Rogers was a classic American hero, a guy who seemed very much like the decent guys he played. Now the 100th anniversary of his birth is coming Saturday. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This really isn't what they prepare you
for in business school.

Steve Campione, a New York investment
banker, had just been hired as a cable company's chief financial
officer, when he got an assignment: Go buy a dead horse.

Now that's part of the lore surrounding
Roy Rogers' 100th birthday, on Saturday (Nov. 5). At a New
York City auction, working for RFD-TV, Campione bought the late horse
of the late cowboy king.

“His phone was going dead,” Patrick
Gottsch, the RFD founder, said. “I'm yelling, 'Bid higher, bid
higher!' I'm yelling so hard (in Omaha), you could almost hear me in
New York without the phone.”

Campione did buy Trigger for $266,500,
the next day adding his dog-pal Bullet for $35,000. Now both are
planned to be on the final float of the Tournament of Roses parade on
Jan. 2.

“Dad loved being in that parade,”
Roy Rogers Jr., better known as Dusty, said.

Dusty will be on the float, singing
“Happy Trails” – written by his step-mom, the late Dale Evans –
with his son Dustin. They'll be alongside Trigger and Bullet,
preceded by 100 golden palominos.

And yes, Dusty Rogers said, people get
attached to the stuffed remains of a horse and dog. “They get
emotional; they start crying …. Dad was kind of a surrogate father
to them.”

He came across as a quiet, country guy
– who happened to endorse more than 400 products. “Dad had good
people to take care of that,” Dusty Rogers said. “He would say,
'I never got off my horse long enough to do any business.'”

Rogers could have been a city guy. He
was born in Cincinnati and briefly lived there. His dad worked in a
Cincinnati shoe factory; for a time, so did Roy.

But the family moved to Portsmouth when
he was young and to a nearby farm when he was 7. The dad soon went
back to the factory, re-joining the farm on weekends. Roy worked it
with his three sisters and his mother, who was partly disabled by
childhood polio.

“He fished and hunted,” Dusty said.
“He took the .22 out and shot some dinner.” Money was still
tight; after two years at McDermott High School, he dropped out to
work at the factory with his dad.

Then the family visited Roy's married
sister in California; Roy soon returned there to stay. Early in the
Depression, he picked peaches, drove a truck, lived in a labor camp,
sang on radio shows.

That led to a Republic Pictures
audition for a singing cowboy. In 1937, he signed a seven-year
contract for $75 a week. He changed his name (originally Leonard
Slye) to Dick Weston and then Roy Rogers.

In 1939 – when he was up to $150 a
week – Rogers made eight movies. In all, he made 80 for Republic in
14 years, then focused mainly on his TV show.

That was when Gottsch, 58, discovered
him, growing up on a Nebraska farm. “You would sit on the floor in
the family living room and watch him on TV,” he said.

Viewers also liked Dale Evans. “She
was the best mom anyone could have,” Dusty Rogers said. “She was
amazing. She was married at 14, had her first child at 15. You've
gotta grow up quickly for that.”

He was her fourth husband; she was his
third wife. (The second died of an embolism six days after Dusty was
born.) They lasted 51 years, until Roy's death in 1997, at 86.

Roy saved everything, Dusty said. He
even saved (via taxidermy) Trigger, Bullet and Dale's horse
Buttermilk. “He said, 'Trigger was my pal for 30-plus years.' He
couldn't just put him in the ground.”

He created a museum at his ranch in
Apple Valley, Cal.; later, Dusty moved it to Branson, Mo. As the
economy slowed, relatives pushed to have the museum closed and the
items sold. There were at least 10 auctions around the country; the
New York one, alone, would total $2.98 million.

“I started getting all these E-mails
and letters saying, 'They're going to sell Trigger. Do something,'”
Gottsch said. “I didn't know anything about it.”

He soon bought Trigger, a logical move
for RFD-TV. “We really are four channels in one – agriculture,
equestrian, rural living and music-and-entertainment,” Gottsch said

Other things fell into place – a
“Happy Trails Tour” taking Trigger and Bullet around the country
… a deal to play the shows the Rogers estate controls (Roy's TV
show and 30-plus public-domain movies) on the network … brief notes
on-air and in the RFD magazine, marking the 100th

In January, there's the parade and
more: Dusty and Dustin move their cowboy-music show to the RFD
theater in Branson show to the RFD theater, Gottsch launches another
channel, Rural TV, giving more room for entertainment shows on RFD.

And the actual birthday? Dusty and
Dustin plan to fly to California for the Nov. 5 party, with a pancake
breakfast, tours of the Rogers ranch house and a town dance; two days
later, they'll be back in Branson for their regular 10 a.m. show at
the Mickey Gilley Theatre.

The “Happy Trails Tour” will
continue, Gottsch said, with Buttermilk being added. Trigger was the
smart one, he said, with more than 130 tricks, but there's a metaphor
here somewhere:

“Buttermilk was actually faster. Dale
had to slow him down, so Trigger would seem faster.”

Roy Rogers on RFD-TV


– 100th Birthday
celebration, 8:30-9:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 5. From Rogers' old
California ranch, there are interviews, plus music by his son and

– Movies, 2 p.m. Tuesdays, repeating
at midnight

– TV episodes at 12:30 p.m. Sundays,
repeating at 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and noon Saturdays.

– RFD will carry the rose parade
from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Jan. 2, plus a preview at 10 a.m.; it will
profile the equestrian groups from 3-5 p.m. Dec. 30

– RFD – which stands for “rural
free delivery” – is on satellite systems and some cable systems

A news magazine with (really) news stories

A lot of things have been passed off lately as TV "news magazines." They've told old crime stories or new celebrity stories; the "magazine" part is right, the "news" part is iffy.

That's why tonight's arrival of "Rock Center" -- 10 p.m. Mondays on NBC -- seems important. By all accounts, this will be an actual, serious news magazine.


I'll try to have a review of it afterward. For now, here's the story I sent to papers:


In the world of TV news, this is a big
move: “Rock Center,” an NBC news magazine, debuts Monday (Oct. 31).

But wait … aren't there lots of those
shows out there? It depends on what you call news:

– One Friday (Oct. 21), ABC's “20/20”
thrived in the ratings. It did it with stories about Mariah Carey's
twins and Bernie Madoff's daughter-in-law.

– For the following Friday (Oct. 28),
NBC's “Dateline” planned a Las Vegas crime story from 20 years ago,
about a poker player and a beautiful trapeze artist. “'Dateline'
does a terrific job of covering those kinds of stories … real-life
crime stories,” said Steve Capus, the NBC News president.

– On Saturdays, CBS doesn't even
pretend to do anything else. Its show is called “48 Hours Mystery.”

Yes, the world has changed from the
days when everyone wanted to match “60 Minutes.” Back then, “48
Hours” meant the entire CBS News converged on a single, important
issue for two days.

That show began in 1988, a year before
ABC launched “Primetime” and four years before “Dateline”
started on NBC. “This is the first time in nearly two decades that
a news division has attempted to launch a new, primetime news
magazine,” Capus said.

He talks about doing “quality
journalism, stories that matter.” Rome Hartman talks of generally
doing two or three stories in an hour (one of them very current), but
being free to vary from that at will. David Corvo, the senior
executive producer, talks pf airing it live, with the ability to
quickly switch. “It has the opportunity to be more timely and more

The idea began when the Comcast cable
company was buying NBC, they said. The new owners asked what the news
people wanted to do; plans began for “Rock Center With Brian
Williams” – named for the NBC location (Rockefeller Center) and
for the anchor of both the newscast and this show.

Yes, there may be moments that reflect
Williams' droll humor, Hartman said. “There will be really
ambitious, hard-news stuff, but there will also be stuff that's more
observational, maybe a little cheekier …. Brian has a very eclectic
story set.”

That includes breaking news stories.
The producers talked about Williams' primetime coverage (on NBC and
MSNBC) of the Arab revolts, the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, the
Japan tsunami and more.

Williams recalled one broadcast: “Ten
o'clock Eastern time, the situation in Cairo went to Hell,” he
said. “Richard Engel and I are on a hotel balcony, trying to stay
back from the railing, as to not get hit by ricochets while this gun
battle went on below us.”

Engel – whom Williams called “the
best war-time correspendent going” – will be a “Rock Center”
contributor. So will Harry Smith, Kate Snow, Natalie Morales and Dr.
Nancy Snyderman. All NBC reporters can contribute stories and
Meredith Vieira and Ted Koppel will be special correspondents.

That may bring memories of the years
when Vieira was a regular on CBS' “West 57th” and “60 Minutes,”
the decades when Koppel (until 2005) made ABC's “Nightline”
unswerving. It will remind us that news magazines really are
sometimes about the news.

– “Rock Center With Brian
Williams,” 10 p.m. Mondays, NBC, starting Oct. 31

– That spot opened up when “The
Playboy Club” was canceled; in January, Steven Spielberg's “Smash”
takes the spot and “Rock Center” moves to an unspecified night.

– Other primetime news magazines on
broadcast networks: “Frontline,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, PBS (check
local listings); “Dateline” (NBC) and “20/20” (ABC), both 10
p.m. Fridays; “48 Hours Mystery,” 10 p.m. Saturdays, CBS; “60
Minutes,” 7 p.m. Sundays (unless delayed by football overruns),


Yes, idealism and non-violence sometimes win

It's easy to be cynical, to figure that brute power will always win. Then TV reminds us what idealists have accomplished; back-to-back we get:

-- Harry Belafonte, at 10 p.m. Monday on HBO, rerunning often. See previous blog.

-- Leymah Gbowee, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, at 10 p.m. Tuesday on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:


At times, the women of Liberia seemed
trapped in a no-win world.

One one side was their country's
brutal dictator, Charles Taylor. On the other were the brutal rebels.
In between were women who held sit-ins at the fish market –
singing, chanting, insisting on peace.

“There were times when I felt like we
were never going to win,” said Leymah Gbowee, now featured in a PBS
documentary. “Non-violent protest is … the strongest act that
anyone can go through. It's easy to pick a gun or pick a knife and
stab someone or shoot someone. But to use your body, your conscience,
your words to confront evil is the most difficult thing.”

They did win. In 2003, Liberia found
peace; this year, Leymah was one of three women to share the Nobel
Peace Prize.

Now her story is being told as part of
PBS' “Women, War & Peace.” The story ends with the election
of Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; still, it
mainly has an absence of politics.

“Women had tried to get involved,”
Gbowee said, “but it was often seen as either being for the rebels
or being for the government of the day. When we started, we decided …
we will do away with politics.”

They simply demanded peace. They
extracted commitments from both sides to bargain.

“Then the ceasefire broke down,”
Gbowee said. “I started losing confidence in the effectiveness of

At one point, women refused to let
anyone leave the building where the talks were being held.
Eventually, peace was reached.

Separately, Taylor was arrested and has
faced complex proceedings before an international tribunal. That's
important, said journalist Refik Hodzic, who saw women play a key
role in court testimony about Bosnia. “The International Criminal
Court is the closest the human species has come to this effort to
address mass atrocity.”

It's a start, Gbowee said, but not
total justice. “Taylor lives in a well-built prison. He eats three
meals a day. Those who were hacked … live in tents. They barely
find food to eat.”

That's typical, said Abigail Disney,
who produced the PBS series. “Liberia and Bosnia are both great
examples of places where there was an enormous amount of
international energy around capturing the perpetrator … and then
not really spending the resources” to aid his victims.

– “Women, War and Peace,” 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, PBS (check local listings)

– Opener dealt with Bosnia. Other
hours involve Liberia (Oct. 18), Afghanistan (Oct. 25), Colombia
(Nov. 1) and an overview (Nov. 8)