A&E presents a fascinating time capsule

TELEVISION

January 04, 1992|By Steve McKerrow

Milton Berle's mother, catching her son making faces in a mirror, warned, "He's going to turn out to be an idiot."

Julia Child's father made wine in the bathtub.

Dr. C. Everett Koop played "kill the Kaiser" war games, and once had to duck bullets in a mob shootout.

Dick Clark bitterly blames politicians for the wartime death of his brother.

And Baltimore's Cab Calloway used to deliver booze to illicit clubs during Prohibition.

Where's the thread in these recollections? It is provided by the thoroughly fascinating "Class of the 20th Century," a 12-part series premiering on cable this weekend. Hosted by actor Richard Dreyfuss, the show debuts at 8 p.m. tomorrow on the Arts & Entertainment basic service.

Intended as a time capsule to the people of the year 3000, the show presents snippets of interview observations from 100 prominent Americans about their lives and times. But this is no soft celebrity stuff. Collectively, their recall produces a mosaic of our times.

"Our most important memories . . . the ones we want to pass on to our children. . . . Maybe they'll be able to make some sense of our failures, and our successes," says Mr. Dreyfuss in the first installment tomorrow.

The show includes a kind of overture early on, with a variety of clips from future shows. Many of the figures do not talk about their fields of prominence at all, offering instead a variety of family and other memories.

Thus we see Phil Donahue reciting President Roosevelt's "day of infamy" speech in a pretty good voice impression. Rock singer Grace Slick recalls atom bomb drills in school. Playwright Neil Simon offers hazy memories of watching the first moon landing -- hazy because he was high on pot at the time. Billy Wilder recalls his father announcing the onset of World War I.

The remainder of the debut episode turns to the period 1901 to 1929. Obviously, most of the commentators were young people during those years, and their memories have a curiously touching aspect.

Gourmet cooking star Child, for example, remembers the arrival of the automobile into American life, and says she was driving by the age of 8. Author Joseph Heller and actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. offer war recollections, cabaret singer Hildegarde recalls that "sex was invented in Berlin in the '20s," and newspaperman Ben Bradlee talks of the stock market crash of 1929.

One may suggest there are some holes here and there in the historical tapestry, but the intimacy of the memories makes "Class of the 20th Century" an interesting time capsule indeed. The show is scheduled to become a permanent part of the collection of the Museum of Television & Radio in New York.

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