Friday, May 28, 2021

Garry Berman: Author of Retro Pop Culture

For over 20 years, New Jersey native Garry Berman has been researching and writing books and articles related to pop culture and entertainment history. His love of comedy in particular, in both films and on television, has been a lifelong passion. I have three of his books on my personal bookshelf: For the First Time on Television, Between the Laughs, and Perfect Fool: The Life and Career of Ed Wynn. The latter of which is treasured because (to my knowledge) it is the only book documenting the career of Ed Wynn. I recently had an opportunity to interview Garry for my blog, reprinted below. 

1. What made you decide to write your first book? Motivation? Favor for a friend? Also what led to you writing multiple books after the first one, assuming your first was the only book you intended at the time?

I decided to write my first book, Best of the Britcoms, out of my enthusiasm for the imported British sitcoms I had been watching on PBS and various cable networks for many years. Having videotaped hundreds of hours of both well-known and somewhat obscure Britcoms, I decided sometime in 1995 or thereabouts that I might be able to do something contructive with all of those tapes, i.e. write a book about the "best" Britcoms to air in America. My guess was that there were other aficionados in the U.S. who also loved those programs, but, in the pre-Internet age, had little opportunity to learn much about them. I took it upon myself to make a ton of phone calls and faxes (remember them?) to the BBC and elsewhere in the U.K.. The BBC Press and Publicity Department was wonderfully supportive and cooperative right from the start, sending me promotional materials, photos, and much-needed phone numbers, which allowed me to conduct interviews with the writers, directors, and actors in the Britcoms I was writing about. The book was a total joy to research and write, thanks in part to those who helped me, a total unknown, with just about anything I needed.

After the book was published in 1999, I decided that I didn't want it to be my only book. I have quite a range of interests, especially in entertainment and pop culture history, but it took some time to decide which topic I wanted to pursue next. It would be several years, and a few stillborn attempts at other books, before I hit upon the idea for my second book, We're Going to See the Beatles! (an oral history of the Beatlemania era, as recalled by the original fans). 

2.What made you decide to write a biography about Ed Wynn? It is a great book and surely the subject was needed, but what specifically told you to research and assemble material into a biography?

I never actually set out to write a biography of Ed Wynn. I had begun researching what I had envisioned to be a history of American comedy throughout the entire 20th century. But I eventually realized that I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew (especially without a staff to help me with the grunt work). However, I did notice that Ed Wynn's name kept popping up, whether I was researching vaudeville, radio, the stage, or television. I had known of Wynn, but I wasn't familiar with much of his career at all. So, as I became more interested in his life as a comedian, I decided to narrow down my research to him alone. I dug deep for newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, radio and television appearances, whatever I could find throughout his 60-year career. I've often said that researching the book, without any previous Wynn biographies to refer to, was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle the size of a baseball field. And, since it spanned such a long period and all mass media, to me it's pretty much the history of comedy in the first half of the 20th century anyway.

3. Which is your favorite book and why? 

I don't know if I can choose my favorite book! I've tried to make each one different from the others, in both presentation and subject matter, so it's difficult for me to compare. I'm fortunate that each turned out as I had planned from the outset. I'm proud of Best of the Britcoms, being my first book, which was especially exciting to put together. We're Going to See the Beatles! came out very well, too, thanks mostly to the people I enjoyed interviewing for their personal memories. But I also enjoy occasionally thumbing through For the First Time on Television, my history of over 100 television "firsts" dating back to the 1920s. In my most recent book, The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s, I come full-circle in a way, covering the period of comedy and comedians whom I first became obsessed with (the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, et. al.) when I was only about 14 years old. Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I always knew I'd write it, when the time was right.

4. Every author has a cute story from their books... a fan letter, a phone call out of the blue, something that popped up on YouTube that was brought to your attention... can you share your story? 

I can't think of much in the way of a"cute" story connected with any of my books, but here's more of a "wow" story...

When I was working on We're Going to See the Beatles!, I used whatever means available to find people who were swept up in Beatlemania as teenagers, and who had interesting and entertaining stories to tell from that time. I relied greatly on various online fan forums and message boards to help me track down many of the contributors, but I also realized that a certain item I owned might also be of help. It's a scrapbook, put together by a teenage girl in Massacusetts during Beatlemania, which somehow ended up in an antique shop in New York State, where my parents found it one day in the late 1980s and brought it back as a present for me. The girl carefully and lovingly cut out every possible newspaper and magazine article, photo, and ad about the Beatles that she could find. and pasted them onto the black construction paper pages of the scrapbook. I eventually noticed that many of the articles, in which young (female) fans were asked about their Beatles obsession, actually included not only their names and hometowns, but even their street addresses! I'll never forget sitting at my computer one night, with the scrapbook opened on my lap, and the online White Pages on my screen, as I looked up the family names at those addresses from over 40 years earlier. And, in several cases, I found the same names at those same addresses listed in the online White Pages! I had discovered my Rosetta Stone, and felt as if I was straddling two time periods in a single instant. After sending out letters to the families at those addresses, introducing myself and explaining my project, I was ultimately able to contact the "girls" in those yellowing articles, and their stories are now permanently preserved on the pages of my book. 

Garry is one of the many authors attending the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention every year so if you have a copy of his books, bring them to the show and get them autographed. He will also have copies of his books at the event to purchase and have autographed. If you cannot attend the convention, visit his website at