Marian Anderson film is stirring biography

Television

May 08, 1991|By Michael Hill

There is a moment in tonight's PBS documentary about Marian Anderson when a one-time executive with the Sol Hurok organization talks of gathering with Anderson and a few of his colleagues to view a film of the singer at work.

The men from Hurok were there to give advice about editing the film, but when the camera moved in for a close-up of Anderson's stunning face as she sang a spiritual about Christ's silent suffering on the cross, they became fans. When the lights in the screening room came up, tears were streaming down their faces.

The executive remembers that he said something to Anderson about how she always broke him up at that part of her concert, but he doesn't mention her reply. Probably she simply looked at him and smiled a smile that spread out below her magnificent cheekbones, a display that communicated the depth of joy that can come when you have confronted sadness and despair and not let them conquer you.

You cannot talk of the life of Marian Anderson without using the word dignity, and you will hear it often in this hour-long program on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.

Born in Philadelphia in 1905, with black people only four decades removed from slavery, she took the gift of her voice, developed it with intensive, top-level training, and, as she recalls in an interview, made enough money in her teen-age years from her recitals in churches to allow her mother to quit scrubbing floors for a living.

Denied the recognition she deserved in this country with its Jim Crow laws and traditions, Anderson became a sensation in Europe. The cultural promoter Hurok brought her back to the United States in 1935 where she met similar acclaim but still encoun tered segregation.

Her longtime accompanist, a refugee from Nazi Germany, remembers watching German POWs getting a meal at a Birmingham, Ala., train station while Anderson had to eat a sandwich out on the platform. She was not invited to sing with the Metropolitan Opera until 1955, well after her prime.

A celebrated incident came in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from the stage of their Constitution Hall in Washington. Aided by Eleanor Roosevelt, a concert was hastily organized for the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Unlike her contemporary, Paul Robeson, Anderson did not pronounce political polemics. She let her music speak for her, its combination of rich, powerful strength and delicate, comforting warmth delivering a universal message about the importance of shedding prejudices in order to recognize individual talents and abilities

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In the cutthroat world of the 1990s television business -- with budgets, jobs and heads being chopped right and left -- it's a surprise to see that one of the growth areas is in nature programming, of all places.

The furry fauna and fantastic flora, long a mainstay of PBS, now are all over cable, and check out ABC Sunday night and you'll find them in prime time. "Crocodile's Revenge" is the fifth World of Discovery special that ABC has aired over Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday nights at 7 o'clock, and it has committed to five more for next season, a total of 25 over five years.

What gives? Well, a few things. For one, network president John Sias is an environmentalist interested in these issues. Just after his company, Cap Cities, bought ABC, he contacted Dennis Kane, a longtime producer for National Geographic, and they set up ABC/Kane Productions to turn out these shows.

But this isn't a charitable contribution on Sias' part. The fact is these specials have done as well or better in the ratings than the entertainment show they replace ("Life Goes On") in a tough time period opposite "60 Minutes." They are also much cheaper to produce. On top of that, in the new TV business world, they have revenue possibilities in foreign and cassette sales that might not be available with an entertainment show. In other words, they make money.

This Sunday's "Crocodile's Revenge" is an interesting and entertaining look at a conflict between man and the rather amazing Australian salt water crocodile, which can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. Once hunted to near extinction, it is now protected and thriving on Australia's northern coast where it occasionally makes meals of people.

Any resemblance between the croc and network executives is purely coincidental.

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