Thursday, December 25, 2014

Notes For December 25th, 2014

Happy Holidays!

We at the Internet Writing Workshop would like to wish all of our members and blog readers a safe and happy holiday season. For your holiday reading, I recommend A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, and Old Christmas by Washington Irving.

This Day In Writing History

On December 25th, 1924, the legendary American playwright and screenwriter Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, New York. He grew up in Binghamton, where his elementary school teachers dismissed him as an incorrigible class clown.

As a young boy, Rod would act out scenes from stories he'd read in pulp magazines and from movies he'd seen. When he entered junior high school, his English teacher discovered his talent and encouraged him to get involved in the school's extracurricular activities involving public speaking.

In high school, Rod wrote for the school newspaper. He was known for his scathing articles wherein he voiced his strong liberal convictions. He would become editor of the newspaper, a star tennis player, and class valedictorian.

After graduating high school in 1943, Rod joined the Army, where he served as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division and saw action in the Philippines. During his training, like other men in his unit, he took up boxing. He became a solid flyweight fighter.

Rod would be transferred to his division's demolition unit, which was nicknamed "The Death Squad" because of its high casualty rate. He saw death every day, from the horrors of combat to freak accidents, such as a soldier being decapitated by a food crate that dropped on his head.

During his Army service, Rod Serling would win the Purple Heart, the Bronze Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. His war experiences would affect him deeply, both as a human being and as a writer.

He would later say of his military experience, "I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest."

After the war ended and he had recovered from his injuries, Rod went to college on the G.I. Bill, where he earned a degree in literature. While in college, he wrote, directed, and acted in radio programs for the college radio station, setting the stage for his career.

In the summer of 1946, after graduating from college, Rod began his career in radio as both an actor and writer. His true passion was writing. He wrote scripts for radio programs and served as a continuity writer.

By 1950, Rod realized that radio was dying as a dramatic medium, so he switched to a fledgling new medium that had lots of potential - television. He got his start in television writing ad copy for the sponsors.

In the early 1950s, most television shows were performed live. Some of the most popular programs were "live theater" shows which featured performances of plays. These shows mixed classic plays with new productions written exclusively for television.

Rod Serling would become one of the finest playwrights of the time, writing original Broadway-quality plays for television. His best known plays were Patterns and Requiem For a Heavyweight.

Patterns is a searing look at the brutal world of big business in the 1950s. Ruthless corporate boss Walter Ramsey wants to put aging executive Andy Sloane out to pasture. He has been grooming up and coming young vice president Fred Staples to take Sloane's place in the company.

Ramsey humiliates Sloane at every turn, hoping to pressure him into resigning rather than risk tarnishing the company's reputation by firing him outright. Sloane's future replacement, the young Staples, feels guilty and believes that Sloane is still valuable to the company.

Patterns won Rod Serling an Emmy Award - his first of six Emmys for dramatic writing - and was so popular that it became the first live TV show to receive a repeat performance. The second performance was recorded on kinescope and is available on DVD.

Requiem For a Heavyweight written for the famous Playhouse 90 TV series, told the story of Harlan "Mountain" McClintock, a washed up, punch drunk boxer who is in no shape to fight, but is persuaded to fight again by his sleazy manager, Maish.

Deep in debt, Maish has arranged for McClintock to take a fall in a rigged match. During the bout, the boxer's pride kicks in, and he refuses to go down. Maish loses his money and is now indebted to the mob.

McClintock, still loyal to Maish, agrees to take up professional wrestling to earn the money. Maish dresses him up in a humiliating hillbilly costume. McClintock finds out that Maish is betting against him again and refuses to wrestle. He walks out on Maish, who finds a young boxer he can exploit.

During his tenure as a playwright for TV, Serling often found himself at odds with the shows' sponsors, who at that time produced TV shows and controlled the content. Sometimes he was asked to make inconsequential cuts to scripts, other times he had to do major rewrites because the sponsor didn't like the theme of the story.

The last straw came when he wrote an episode of the United States Steel Hour in 1954 that was based on the famous murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Missouri who was murdered by white racists for flirting with a white woman.

The United States Steel company forced Rod to change the story completely. The murder victim became a Jewish pawnbroker in an unnamed town. By 1959, Rod Serling had earned enough clout to produce his own television series. He retained as much creative control as possible.

The Twilight Zone, which aired from 1959-1964, was more than just an anthology series featuring tales of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. By using fantastic settings and scenarios, Rod was able to write morality plays without his morals being questioned by sponsors.

In the classic episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960), Serling offers a blistering satire of the Red Scare - the anti-communist paranoia and witch hunts plaguing America at the time.

When strange happenings suddenly occur in a typical American small town, an imaginative young boy convinces his neighbors that space aliens are behind the events, which are part of their plan to take over the Earth. And there are aliens in disguise living in the neighborhood.

Soon, all the neighbors began to suspect each other of being aliens. Close friends turn on each other as fear and paranoia build to a fever pitch, resulting in an unforgettable climax.

Space aliens were behind the strange happenings after all, conducting an experiment on humans before invading the Earth. The aliens conclude that the best way to conquer humanity is to let the people destroy themselves.

Serling himself appeared in every episode of The Twilight Zone to introduce the story at the beginning and sum up the moral of the story at the end. He also provided the classic opening narration scored to eerie music:

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling personally wrote 92 of the series' 156 episodes. Among the other writers who penned episodes of The Twilight Zone were Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner Jr., and Reginald Rose. The cast of guest stars appearing on the show was a who's who list of great actors and actresses.

During its original TV run, The Twilight Zone had a strong following of fans, but only performed moderately in the ratings. During its syndication runs in the 1970s and 80s, it became a staple of late night television, attracting new generations of fans and becoming a cultural phenomenon.

The series would be revived several times with new episodes, including remakes of the Rod Serling originals, but nothing can equal or eclipse the brilliance of the original Twilight Zone, which is now available in its entirety on DVD and Blu-Ray.

After The Twilight Zone ended, Serling created and wrote a Western series called The Loner, which only lasted for one season, from 1965-1966, due to poor reviews and low ratings.

In 1970, Rod Serling returned to TV with a new series called Night Gallery. A horror anthology series, each episode would open with Serling in a sinister art gallery, unveiling a painting related to the story. The pilot movie was co-directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Serling wrote over a third of the series' scripts. Despite the solid writing and performances, Night Gallery only ran for three years. The ratings were never good and Serling had tired of the constant battles over his scripts, this time with network executives instead of commercial sponsors.

In between his work on his TV series, Rod Serling taught writing, drama, and film classes at various universities. After Night Gallery ended, he taught at Ithaca College until he died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 50.

Quote Of The Day

"Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull." - Rod Serling

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a full length documentary on the life and career of Rod Serling. Enjoy!

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