Taking a chance (a big chance) on romance

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THE first dating service, as all students of American history will recall, was operated by John Alden. His first and, so far as we know, his only client was Myles Standish. It is legend that when John set out on his matchmaking business for Standish, the first young woman he spoke to -- name of Priscilla -- said, ``Why don't you speak for yourself, John?'' John promptly did. Priscilla gained a husband, the Massachusetts Bay Colony lost a dating service, and Myles Standish marched off in a funk to knock down the Maypole at Merry Mount and otherwise discourage romance in Greater Boston.

Not to worry. Some 31/2 centuries later the local industry has recovered. There are now some 25 dating services listed in the Yellow Pages of the Boston telephone directory. Charging from $300 to $950 for a year's worth of matchmaking, the companies call themselves by fanciful names like ``Together,'' ``Compatibles,'' ``Gentlepeople of Cambirdge'' -- John Alden might have liked that -- and ``Lunch Couples.''

An article in a suburban newspaper, the Tab, describes Boston as ``the dating service capital of the world.''

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As with all thriving businesses, specialization has set in, so that one service devotes itself to Jews, another to Roman Catholics, while a third separates the sheep from the goats by asking the test question, ``Would you rather attend a doubleheader at Fenway Park or a ballet at the Wang Center?'' -- then caters to both.

Any Greater Bostonian who can't afford to search for a Priscilla or a John this way can call radio station WRKO on a Saturday morning and get listed on Dick Syatt's ``Hotline.'' After describing one's charms, one's interests, and the sort of person one is looking for, an entry is assigned a code number -- to be flooded, presumably, by calls from other code numbers.

The dating services and a program like Mr. Syatt's see themselves as an alternative to the singles bar, responding to a loneliness that seeks ``commitment'' rather than Mr. Goodbar. Their ultimate boast is to count how many marriages they have played broker to.

All of which prompts a kibitzer to pop the big question: Are we in Boston -- and pretty much everywhere else -- making the '80s into the Age of Romance?

The Boston Globe a week ago ran the headline at the top of the front page: ``Local teenagers talk about romance'' -- a topic that only a few years ago would have caused as many blushes among the young as the topic of sex would have caused among their parents when they were in their teens.

The signs of romance's revival are posted all around us -- almost too conspicuously.

The pop-music scholars report that not since Elvis warbled, ``Love me tender, love me true,'' has romance flowered more exotically in rock's garden of lyrics.

Romance novels may have peaked, but what a peak, with Barbara Cartland collecting royalties on 350 million copies of her romances now in print.

Even Hollywood shows signs of outgrowing its ``Porky'' phase. A comedy about an Ivy League freshman, ``The Sure Thing,'' inspired a trendy film executive to remark, ``We like to think this movie is a real throwback to romanticism.''

The Valentine card is a best seller once more, and ``swinging'' has become a dirty word, to be replaced by the pink hum of ``sensitive,'' ``warm,'' and ``caring.''

The callers to Dick Syatt dare to describe themselves as refined and emphasize that their true passion is for Culture. The word ``celibacy'' has been recalled to duty, signifying a choice preferable to slogging on with the sexual revolution.

Many of us -- especially parents -- might like to feel that a change of heart is taking place. Why, then, can't we take quite seriously all this palpitating hoopla?

Is it because -- whatever the violins are playing in the background -- the teen-age pregnancy rate keeps going up, and we adults have to declare a victory when the divorce rate merely levels off?

Is it because there is something a little slick, a little too media-orchestrated about the romantic revolution, as if it were being produced by the same folks who brought us the sexual revolution in the '60s?

Until the soft-core porn at the neighborhood video rental store stops moving so profitably off the shelves, it will be hard to assume that ``Romeo and Juliet'' has put ``Deep Throat'' out of business.

It wouldn't be fair to grumble that romance in the '80s is all hype. Even hype is a response -- if a falsified one -- to a genuine need. But the Oxford Etymological Dictionary gives its first definition of romance as ``fictitious narrative,'' and we have to remind ourselves that romance can be just as much of a packaged commodity as sex.

Until the subject is neither sex nor romance but love, pronounced with the holy joy of a lyric poet, we may be advised to approach the current fad for romance with a cautious mind -- and a wary heart.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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