For an indication of what sort of cultural clout Leonard Bernstein commanded during his mediagenic 1950s heyday, one need only look to the fan mail he received after appearing on the TV series Omnibus. Reprinted on the official Bernstein website (leonardbernstein.com), there are letters from a California housewife and a Yale student, then a breathless telegram from Humphrey Bogart: “IF MY HAT HAD NOT BEEN BLOWN OFF YEARS AGO, I WOULD TAKE IT OFF TO YOU.”
Omnibus, nationally televised by all three major networks at one time or another, was devoted to explicating the arts and humanities to a broad viewing public. The genteel Alistair Cooke hosted the program—his first American assignment—and Bernstein became the de facto spokesman for classical music, also serving as an ambassador to the terrain of jazz and musical theater. Speaking in conversational tones and eschewing highfalutin jargon, Bernstein treated his viewers as intelligent, literate equals who would comprehend references to James Joyce and Piet Mondrian. In fact, part of Bernstein’s success in making Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg approachable for the masses was showing them how much they already knew. An episode devoted to opera is especially ingenious for its step-by-step comparison of conventional stage drama with its sung counterpart.
E1’s respectably packaged set includes no real bonuses beyond a keen essay by former New York Times critic John Rockwell, but that’s okay. Bernstein’s erudition, charm and insight are all any viewer of these dazzling presentations, available for the first time since the original broadcasts, could possibly need.—Steve Smith
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