While it may be possible to consciously create a cultural icon, most grow into their role over time, and can trace their origins to conventional motivations making money, sharing an idea, or simply having some fun. NPR's website "Present at the Creation" looks at the origins of 52 such phenomena, and illustrates the variety of ways one can become an icon.
A year-long series, broadcast every Monday during NPR's "Morning Edition," "Present at the Creation" follows on the success of the NPR100, which examined the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century. This new series looks at just about everything else, including food, monuments, advertising, literature, theater, and recreation. (There are also a few more musical subjects, such as "California Dreamin'" and "New York, New York.") A recent episode examined "The Twilight Zone," born from a story Rod Serling wrote while in college, and how its sci-fi nature allowed Serling to sneak in controversial issues. ("You know, you can put these words into the mouth of a Martian and get away with it.")
The show's backstory is given thorough treatment, and, as with some other web-based companions to NPR specials, is supplemented with a wide selection of online-only materials. There's even a clip of Serling's original pitch to sponsors. Other extras include stills from "The Twilight Zone" productions, RealPlayer title sequences and narrations, and even the reason behind Serling's trademark clenched-teeth delivery.
Each episode is introduced by a full page of text and links to a RealAudio file of the 'parent' broadcast segment (generally between five and 10 minutes in length). Related NPR content, and a collection of recommended sites can be found at the bottom of each page. Every subject is covered in the same manner with other television icons including stars of "Star Trek," Perry Mason, and Gumby. Additional subjects cover such diverse material as Scrabble, the reclining chair, and New Orleans' French Quarter.
There are a few months left in the radio series, so we can look forward to the stories behind such subjects as the Hollywood sign, Monopoly, and a personal favorite, Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks." Of course, the site will remain after the broadcasts end, so there will be ample time to get up-close and personal with some of America's cultural icons.
Present at the Creation can be found at