New York — Savor the joys of free public television while ye may. . . . As Public Broadcasting Service fights for survival in the pay cable world of anticipated cutoffs in government spending, its enemies accuse it of elitism -- even as they attempt to sign up what some might consider the most elitist cultural events in the nation for cable exclusivity.
Meanwhile, PBS goes its merry way, struggling to find underwriters who will pick up the tab for a wide variety of cultural programs (elitist or otherwise, depending upon your point of view) which are presented to viewers over the air -- and, most important -- free.
How much longer this will be possible depends upon the Reagan cultural budget (which could be halved) for the coming years and the degree to which PBS viewers are willing to fight for free advertisingless cultural programming.
Selective viewing of intelligently selected programming -- something very scarce on network programming -- can provide information and entertainment. For instance, there is "Living Treasures of Japan" (PBS, Wednesday 8-9 p.m., check local listings) and then "Sylvia Fine's Musical Comedy Tonight-II" (PBS, Wednesday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings.)
"Living Treasures of Japan" is another of the superb thought-provoking ecological programs that National Geographic/ WQED-Pittsburgh has been bringing viewers for the past few years after the series was discarded by network TV. The first National Geographic program devoted solely to the arts, this one is a leisurely stroll (with camera) through the creative arts and artisans of Japan.
Honored by the Japanese government as "Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties," these nine people and their work are the best proof that, while Japan advances in the industrial world, it also struggles to retain its artistic heritage.
The film delves into life styles, inextricably tied to creative style, as well as the intricacies of the art forms portrayed. There is a potter, a doll sculptor, a puppeteer, a papermaker, a koto musician, a swordmaker, a textile weaver and dyer, a Kabuki actor, and a bellmaker.
Shot entirely in Japan, the film brings not only the craftsmen to life, but the countryside as well. One hopes that the National Geographic will continue this crafts series in other countries -- perhaps even in the United States -- to encourage America to respect its creative craftsman as do the Japanese. (A filmmaker named Jack Ofield, of Bowling Green Films, by the way, has been making just such fascinating films -- mainly about New York craftsmen -- several of which have already been shown without fanfare on PBS.)
"Living Treasures of Japan" is an informative hour which manages to combine the exciting process of learning with the joy of entertainment. Watch it and you will probably get the urge to dig out those old knitting needles or paint brushes and work at being your own household's "Living Treasure."
Last year, Sylvia Fine presented the first in her "Musical Comedy Tonight" series. Done by KCET/Los Angeles, it is a delightful lesson in the early history of the New York musical theater, calling upon many of the old-time stars to re-create their original roles.
Miss Fine's professorial role was handled with a unique hard-edged charm. What was weakest about the original program was its too-heavy reliance on television personalities with somewhat limited stage presence.
Now along comes "Musical Comedy Tonight -- II," and I must admit that, although I enjoyed every moment of it, my reservation about the overuse of TV people in what is essentially a New York theater show, has been further augmented.
Miss Fine's basic New York accent is not quite enough to sustain the feel of Broadway, even with husband Danny Kaye repeating his phenomenal rendition of "Tschaikowsky" from "Lady In The Dark." And Lynne Redgrave in the Gertrude Lawrence role is asking too much of a theater buff's imagination.
In excerpts from "Finian's Rainbow," "Sweet Charity," and "South Pacific," Hollywood TV people like Bonnie Franklin and Juliet Prowse try their best to make New York theater come alive, but only Jack Lemmon and Nancy Dussault (both uprooted from New York) manage to come close.
While all of the activity is taking place upon the Hollywood stage with a black tie audience, Miss Fine plays her own Alistair Cooke with incisive comments about the sociological aspects of these musical plays. They all had messages, she insists, despite Sam Goldwyn's alleged remark that "messages are for Western Union."
Perhaps I sound like a New York provincial, but whenever I have seen New York musical theater transported to foreign soil, be it Los Angeles, London, Berlin or even Chicago, I missed the utter professionalism, the indefinable precision of the New York theater.
In this totally entertaining, if slightly imperfect evening of transplanted Broadway theater, the dancing is really the star -- all of it choreographed and directed by TV's own Tony Charmoli. Besides Miss Fine's newsreels, stills, and amusing comments, there are interviews with original "South Pacific" director Josh Logan, husband Danny Kaye and the composer of "Finian," Burton Lane.
Remember, unless support is continued for the often-maligned "elitist" network, there may come a day soon when we will all look back on "the golden days of free PBS."