Putting the cape in context | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Jun 14, 2017

I don’t know why I clicked. Sometimes you don’t know.

I just saw the link and was in a mood, I guess. It was a video of the Harvard commencement ceremony in late May, where composer John Williams was being awarded an honorary degree. I didn’t have a compelling reason to watch, but I was willing to give it a few seconds of my time.

Maybe you saw it, too. As I said, I have no inside information on why people choose to watch or read or engage with anything in this world, given our options. I was just glad I did.

The video showed an a cappella men’s group serenading Mr. Williams with a medley of some of his famous movie scores, from “Star Wars” to “Jaws” and quite a few others. There are more polished performers doing this sort of thing on YouTube, but it was fun, and Williams seemed to be enjoying himself.

And then they began the main theme from the “Harry Potter” movies, and my eyes got a little leaky.

I’m not that sentimental, or sentimental in that way. And, while I read all the books and saw all the films, I don’t have a strong attachment to Harry Potter. If I were going to react emotionally, I would have imagined another soundtrack. “Close Encounters,” maybe, or “E.T.”

But context is everything. It just occurred to me, in the moment, that these young men came of age with Harry Potter. I watched them sing, and wondered what they were feeling, and I got a little teary-eyed for a second.

It also reminded me of another commencement ceremony, back in 2008. My nephew was graduating from high school, and the valedictorian placed the moment in perfect context: “In spite of all of our achievements,” she said, “our secret desire is still to be a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger.”

And now that I’ve set the stage, it’s time to talk about what happened last weekend.

I saw the headline right away, Saturday morning, June 10. Adam West had died, at age 88, after a long if odd career in film and (mostly) television. I also saw a collective ache begin, something familiar to all of us in the 21st century. A famous person dies, and everyone has a story. Often these public expressions of once-removed grief seem overblown and just strange, piggybacking on the sadness of strangers.

What I saw on Saturday, though, felt different, because I was feeling it. Adam West was a marginal celebrity, an actor whose big break came half a century ago and who never got another. Cast as the Caped Crusader (never the Dark Knight; anything but dark) in ABC’s “Batman” in 1966, West became a momentary superstar, his face on the cover of magazines and his broad, farcical but earnest take on the iconic comic-book hero becoming the Batman baseline.

It would stay that way for 20 years, until Tim Burton and Michael Keaton came along to redefine the role.

And it was a silly role. Dropped in the middle of a decade of turmoil, amidst political assassinations and an increasingly unpopular war, riots and marches and upheaval, West’s Batman was a big goofball. Free from angst and filled with civic enthusiasm, this crime fighter was first and foremost a good citizen. The series would quickly come to be described as campy, whatever that means to you, and it was certainly stylized and satirical, but you had to be there. And, I suspect, you had to be 7 years old.

If you were a fan of “30 Rock,” you might remember the episode when Alex Baldwin’s character, television executive Jack Donaghy, celebrated his 50th birthday. The special guest at his party? Adam West, of course.

Of course. Alex Baldwin was 7 years old when “Batman” premiered. So was I.

This is what I’m talking about. If you’re older than 55, you almost certainly remember the show. But for some of us, “Batman” arrived when we were all too willing to tie a blue towel (red for Superman) around our necks and pretend the garage was our Batcave. We were all in with Batman.

And so I spent a few hours last weekend sharing memories with people I’d grown up with, people about my age. We reminisced, reminding each other of forgotten details and the richness of our cultural touchstones, as dumb as most of them seem now. “Batman” arrived the same year as “The Time Tunnel,” “The Green Hornet,” and “Star Trek,” all short-lived series but with obvious sticking power.

Much as William Shatner did with his Captain Kirk, Adam West struggled to break free from his career-defining character before acquiescing gracefully to the inevitable. And like Shatner, he learned to laugh at himself and his most famous role, and along the way managed to make more than a few dollars from autograph shows and conventions.

There’s always a twinge of sadness when someone famous passes, even with long lives and nice careers. There was some of that last week, but mostly it was a just a welcome break from current events. And for some of us, of a certain age, we bonded a little over our awareness that, for all of its over-the-top silliness, we were the ones who took it seriously.

And I’ll note that I have a blue towel somewhere, and a clothespin. I’m just saying I have them. In case I’m needed. I can wait.

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