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A Night At The Opera (On The Silver Screen)

Senso, a 1954 Italian political melodrama, and Two Sisters From Boston, a 1946 Hollywood comedy, couldn't be more different — except they're both set at the opera. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he loves them both.



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Other segments from the episode on June 15, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 15, 2011: Interview with Dr. David Ansell; Interview with Michael Barson; Review of two films on opera "Senso" and "Two sisters from Boston."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Life, Death And Politics' Treating Chicago's Uninsured


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When my guest, Dr. David Ansell, was a young doctor in 1978, he started
practicing what he describes as third-world patient care - but it was in
Chicago, at Cook County Hospital. The hospital's patients were
predominately poor African-Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and
immigrants. Dr. Ansell says the county hospital he arrived at was ground
zero for a crucial question facing U.S. health care: What is the best
way to fund and deliver health care to the poor and uninsured?

Ansell worked at County from 1978 to 1995. Now he's vice president of
clinical affairs and chief medical officer at Rush University Medical
Center, a teaching center affiliated with the new Cook County hospital,
which opened in 2002. His memoir is called "County: Life, Death and
Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital."

Dr. David Ansell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Hospitals are supposed to be
safe, clean places for healing. So let's start with the first time you
went to the bathroom, to the men's room, at County Hospital. Describe
what that was like.

Dr. DAVID ANSELL (Author, "County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago's
Public Hospital"): Well, it was 1977, and a group of us came to Cook
County Hospital to interview with the legendary chairman of internal
medicine Dr. Quentin Young.

It turns out he wasn't there, even though we had scheduled the
interview, and we were whisked off to a mass meeting that was being held
in another area of the hospital. It was full of people, and people were
talking about the hospital going to close if we didn't do something. But
my head was somewhat spinning from that whole morning's events, and I
realized I had to find a bathroom.

And I made my way to the first floor lobby of County, asked the guy at
the security desk, who pointed his way to the bathrooms, which were off
to the side of the lobby, and I went in it. And it was so bad, I
couldn't use it. And so I ran across the street to, which at that time,
there's a place called The Greeks, which was a restaurant across the
street, and had to use the bathroom there. It was quite an introduction
to my first day at County.

GROSS: So did the men's room that was so unsanitary you couldn't use it,
did it represent what the rest of the hospital was like?

Dr. ANSELL: Well, it was like no place I'd ever seen at the time. You
have to remember it was built in 1914 by an architect who was more
interested in creating a monument to Beaux Art architecture than to
create a patient care institution.

In 1927, the American College of Surgeons came on a tour and said it
should be torn down in replaced, and this was now 1977. And it was a
very old, worn down, tired institution filled with people, and you can
imagine - hard to keep it clean, hard to maintain an institution like

GROSS: Since so many public hospitals have closed down in the past few
decades, would you just describe what a public hospital is, because I
think a lot of people don't even know anymore?

Dr. ANSELL: Public hospitals were created originally in the early 1800s,
in this country - started as poor houses. The people who lived on the
street and couldn't make it on their own had to be placed somewhere. And
they went there. And when illness ravaged communities, they transformed
into hospitals.

And public hospitals in this country have been the last resort for the
poor and uninsured, or actually the undesirable of any sort, for many,
many years. But at the same time, they've been hampered, in many cities
and localities, by both politics, and they've been part of the larger
background of race and poverty in this country.

GROSS: So if a patient went to a hospital, but they didn't have health
insurance, were they likely to be sent to Cook County Hospital?

Dr. ANSELL: Yes, in the '70s and the time before that, it was quite
common for a patient to show up at a hospital, to be in an ill
condition, generally enough to require emergency care, and they would
get transferred to Cook County Hospital by ambulance - the reason,
oftentimes, being no insurance.

That ended, actually, when - after we did a study at Cook County and
many others around the country - raised an outcry about the idea that
very sick people could just be put in an ambulance - and we called it
dumping - and dumped to Cook County Hospital.

Nowadays, it occurs in somewhat different manner because many hospitals
in urban areas have closed. Emergency rooms have closed. Communities
have been somewhat abandoned by the health care system. And so now
people show up, and they show up in cars, they walk in, they come to the
emergency room, and these again are the places of last resort in the

So they're very special in many ways. They're great teaching places. But
the dynamic of this sort of vast population in our country that has no
access to health care, coming to institutions like this is quite tragic,
on the one hand, and uplifting on the other. Because, where we could
provide the best care, we actually provided the best care, but
oftentimes we're overwhelmed by what we didn't have the resources to do.
Not that we couldn't do it but we didn't have the resources to do all
that we could.

GROSS: Before we get to what Cook County Hospital is like now, you're on
the board of the hospital now, let's talk a little bit about what the
conditions were like for patients when you started working there in the
'70s. You describe overcrowding, beds in the hallways, wards - wards
that had been state of the art in the early 1900s but at this point were
just very - well very what? How would you describe the condition of the
wards in Cook County Hospital in the '70s and '80s?

Dr. ANSELL: Well, the wards were open wards. And you have to
understand, 1978 Chicago, 10 years before, the city was rocked with
riots. Much of the West Side of Chicago went up in flames when Martin
Luther King died. It was described to be one of the most segregated
cities in the country.

County had become a concentrated institution that took care of poor,
black, Mexican and immigrant people and in such a manner that they were
devalued by the larger society. And the conditions, in some ways, inside
the hospital, reflected the conditions out in the community.

They were open wards. There was, again, an old building. There was no
air conditioning. They were cold in the winter. They were very, very hot
in the summer. There were screens. The operating room had windows. A
friend told me about his third-year rotation on surgery at Cook County
Hospital. This was many years after my time there.

And he's being taught to scrub and how the proper way to scrub, and he
gets gowned, in his gloves and walks into the operating room, and the
senior resident says: Your job is to keep the fly away from the

There was no privacy. The beds were lined up one after another,
separated by curtains, but there was really no privacy. There was one
ward we loved as residents. It was called Ward 35. It was the admitting
ward. And what was so great about that place is we were all concentrated
there on admitting night, all of us young doctors.

And the patients would roll in, and they'd be lined up around the wall -
the walls of this one room. The problem was - is you were forced to take
histories and examine patients under these conditions, which would have
been okay, I suppose, if there weren't the possibility of having shiny,
new hospitals.

So we were across the street from the hospital I work in now, which has
single, double bed rooms and privacy and dignity. The contrast was what
made this so bad. There was a time in hospital history when all
hospitals in the United States were like this.

But by the time I got there in 1978, and until the new hospital opened
in 2002, these were the conditions, and unfortunately the patients did
suffer from the indignity of these conditions.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. David Ansell. He's
written a new memoir called "County: Life, Death and Politics at
Chicago's Public Hospital." And it's about the 17 years he worked at
Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Let's take a short break here, and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Dr. David Ansell, and his new book "County: Life,
Death and Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital" is about his 17 years
working at County Hospital, a public hospital in Chicago.

You describe the work that you did at County Hospital, as doctors within
borders. I think most people know what Doctors Without Borders, and
these are doctors from around the world who go to war zones and disaster
areas and help people who need - who desperately need medical help.

And what you're suggesting is that you were doing the same thing, except
that it was in the middle of Chicago.

Dr. ANSELL: Yes, I went into medicine because I wanted to help people,
and when I went to medical school and found it very disillusioning. And
County was a place that many of us went because we believed that disease
- even as a young 24-, 25-year-old - that disease had social ideologies
and that the idea that disease just emanated from the individual and
wasn't somehow constrained or influenced by societal factors - which was
kind of the teaching in medical school at the time - that disease is -
emanates from the individual.

So going to a place like Cook County Hospital, was a place to go live
those beliefs out. And when people nowadays, young medical students or
nurses, say they need to - want to go to Africa or Dominican Republic -
and God bless them for going and doing that - we have great places in
this country that need young doctors and nurses to go to, like our
public hospitals, where the same problems you're going to see in third
world countries are right there, right in our inner cities. We drive
past them every day. And that was why I went to County.

GROSS: You ran the walk-in clinic at the hospital in the 1980s, and you
say that this was the most challenging and disturbing job of your
career. Why?

Dr. ANSELL: Well, if you can imagine a clinic that - you open the doors
in the morning, and people just came in, and they came in all day long,
from beginning until we closed. And if we kept it open all night, they'd
be all night long. The problem with this clinic was, the kind of
patients we were seeing were people who needed primary care.

And they were walking in to County Hospital to get care that should have
been theirs as a right of their humanity, in their communities. And it
was quite overwhelming, to both, keep up with the demand, but also keep
up with the nature of the diseases that we were seeing there.

GROSS: You write that the clinic was also known as the screaming clinic,
because the noise level was so high, and there were periodic eruptions
from really angry customers. Were the waits really long? And when people
got really angry, did they ever take that out on you as the doctor?

Dr. ANSELL: I have to say patients at County were so respectful and
patient, and that them - when they got upset about waiting, it was the
kind of upset that no one else would tolerate waiting the hours that
they waited.

It wouldn't be unusual for someone to come in for a check-up and wait
eight, nine, 10 hours, 12 hours - for care. So you really can't blame
people for getting upset.

We tried to ameliorate this by putting an appointment system in, but
over the years, the numbers of people who have walked in just continues
to grow.

That clinic is still there. I revisited it many years later. It was as
if time had stood still, and nothing had changed.

GROSS: So you think that - do you think that the new Cook County
hospital, the one that opened in 2002, still represents the kind of
medical apartheid that you describe from when you worked there from '78
to '95?

Dr. ANSELL: There have been many, many improvements. New hospitals
provided, you know, much more dignified conditions to patients. But if
you take a step back, and you look at the larger issue of access to care
- and I look at health care through the lens of being a doctor and the
doctor-patient relationship, but actually through a wide-angle lens of
being an epidemiologist.

If you look at just health care outcomes, there's things like life
expectancy, and you look in Chicago - what bugs me and upsets me every
day of the week, is the fact that on the South Side of Chicago that a
black man dies eight years earlier than a white man in the United
States, that a 16-year-old has a 50 percent chance of living to the age
of 65.

And When you look at the reasons for it, at least half of this is heart
disease and cancer and things that could be diagnosed and treated if we
had adequate health care system and access to health care.

So what we have a new hospital. There are clinics. There are still
struggles to access the most basic of conditions. I'm not talking about
emergency conditions and emergency care. I'm talking about specialty

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a physician and who says, you
know, there's a many months wait to see the eye doctor or there are
4,000 patients waiting to get a colonoscopy. And this is not a screening
colonoscopy. This is they've got blood in their stool.

And it's what we – again, not what we could deliver under those
conditions - so the new hospital and the clinics and the doctors and the
nurses are spectacular. It's just that if you look at the whole system,
and you look at the outcomes we're getting, and then you look at the
sort of the ways that are built in – where in another hospital in the
city, you could probably get in the next week.

GROSS: It's politicians, not doctors, who are working on reforming the
health care system in one direction or another. Are these things that
you feel politicians don't really understand about medical delivery

Dr. ANSELL: I think what they don't understand, so much, is how the
payment system drives inequality. And I think that they really don't
have great understanding of that.

This is a country that, at its best, is built on fairness and equity.
You know, if you've got a good education, you can make it in this world,
you know, if you work hard. But there's a misunderstanding, that if you
just go to the ER that's health care.

It's not. And I think we've got to think this as - in terms of the
larger system of care, and I don't think the politicians really
understand that. I think the last health reform attempt which is being
bandied about, we don't know what's going to happen, is likely to fall
short with regards to equity.

GROSS: We've been talking about your work at a public hospital. What
happens in places where there isn't a public hospital, where the public
hospital was closed recently or decades ago? Where do patients go, and
who pays?

Dr. ANSELL: You know, people think we have a safety net system out
there, and we do. There's some community health centers in many cities.
These are health centers that are somewhat federally funded, people can
go to. But they fall far short of the needs of communities.

In the old days, we said we had patient dumping. I think what we have
now is community dumping, where large communities around the country,
generally in urban areas but rural areas, too, have been abandoned,
because neither hospitals nor doctors can make it there, financially.

And the patients in these areas either have to drive far, or just, when
an emergency occurs, get themselves to a hospital. It's less than ideal.

GROSS: So can I have your brief take on the health reform plan that
passed Congress?

Dr. ANSELL: Yes, I'm going to - Winston Churchill once said something
like: Americans eventually do the right thing after doing the wrong
thing many times over. And this is - while maybe a good start though bad
outcome, because we're going to put people into - a lot of people into
Medicaid, and a lot of people will still be uninsured; and Medicaid
system is unfair because people don't have access to specialists, and
we're going to end up with disparity persisting, for at least a

There is better solutions. Medicare for all. Take the Medicare card our
parents have, I'm soon to be have in a few years, give it to everybody,
figure out how we pay for it and manage the cost. And that would be the
fairest way to do the health care system.

GROSS: The figure out how we pay for it, I think, is the sticking point
for a lot of people.

Dr. ANSELL: Well, we are paying for it now. We're paying for it in many
different ways. And it's never been an issue of money in this country.

GROSS: Are there costs that we don't see in the health care system now?

Dr. ANSELL: Yeah, there's the cost of inefficiency. There's the cost of
emergency care. There's the cost of end-stage disease that doesn't have
to be. There's the cost of not prevention, not doing prevention. There
are huge costs. We're at twice the cost of the next system.

And people talk about rationing. We're rationing care every day in this
country to poor people, and, you know, 45,000 excess deaths. Chicago is
nine a day. Nine black people die a day in Chicago just because they
don't have equal health outcomes to white people.

Now, if this was Iraq and a road-side bomb, it'd be front page of the
newspaper, but... And this is occurring in every city, in rural area in
this country. We're paying for it. It's just we don't add up all the

GROSS: Well, Dr. Ansell, I want to thank you very much for talking with

Dr. ANSELL: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dr. David Ansell is the author of the new memoir "County: Life,
Death and Politics at Chicago's Public Hospital." You can read an
excerpt on our website, Ansell is now vice president
of clinical affairs and chief medical officer at Rush University Medical
Center, a teaching hospital affiliated with the new Cook County
hospital, which opened in 2002. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Romantic Anthology Of Comically 'Agonizing Love'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's the opposite of superhero comics? Maybe it's romance comics,
illustrated dramas of young love, jealousy, betrayal and heartbreak that
also featured advice about things like how to kiss. The titles give a
good sense of what romance comics were like. "My Confession," "My
Desire," "My Secret Love," "My Secret Marriage," "My Intimate Affair,"
"High School Romance," "First Romance," "Love and Marriage," "Love at
First Sight," "Love Confessions."

My guest Michael Barson is the author of the new book "Agonizing Love:
The Golden Era of Romance Comics." It features covers and excerpts from
romance comics of the 1940s and '50s.

I asked him to read an excerpt from one of the romance comics, but I
realized to really bring it to life I had to add my own dramatic skills
and do the female part.

Okay, this one is from "Young Romance." And it's from - what's the date
of this one?

Mr. MICHAEL BARSON (Author, "Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance
Comics"): This is from 1948, "Young Romance" number eight. A couple was
dancing at a party with other couples sitting around. A little old-
fashioned record player is spinning. And they each are thinking their
private thoughts. So these are thought balloons. And the man's thought
is: I wonder what makes Sue so different from the rest of the crowd. Why
does everyone call her wallflower?

GROSS: And she's thinking: I'm not the most popular girl in town, yet
Tommy keeps dating me. Is it because of love or pity?

Is that a theme for them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Love or pity?

Mr. BARSON: Well, they, love and pity get mushed together a lot in
these, Terry.

GROSS: So Michael Barson, why did you start collecting romance comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, I guess I'm a little atypical in that, you know, these
were not really made for 59-year-old men. But, I got interested in them
in the early 1980s. I had been a comic collector for at least 15 years
already and already had worked my way through big collections of
superhero things and war comics and other manly pursuits.

But then I was at a store in New York called Forbidden Planet and they
had just gotten in a big collection of early romance comics from the
late '40s and early '50s. I'd never really seen a big bunch of them
before, never paid attention. I started looking through them, and I
guess you could say I fell in love.

GROSS: With what?

Mr. BARSON: Well, the stories are little portable soap operas each one,
seven pages, eight pages, and they put together an issue or two and they
don't exactly resolve it but they let it play out as if you're watching
a little, I don't know what it would be, a 10 minute TV show or
something of that nature. And they're goofy, but there's something, to
me at least, irresistible about them. And, of course, they're from a
period long ago, but some of the issues and some of themes really still
resound today.

GROSS: Jealousy is timeless.

Mr. BARSON: Jealousy's timeless. Misery is timeless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: I guess pity is timeless.

GROSS: So would you describe what the basic packet was of a like your
typical romance comic?

Mr. BARSON: Sure. The romance issue in general would have four or five
stories, each one a self-contained mini-drama that had a particular
problem. Maybe it was a jealousy problem, maybe it was a faithfulness
problem, maybe it was an insecurity one. But it would be covered in
seven or eight pages and then some sort of ending would be resolved and
those characters would be done. You would not meet them again. These
were not continuing characters and you go on to the next story, the next

And the filler material would be little quizzes and little vignettes
that were semi-advice columns or semi-educational that actually were
among the best things in those books. So that in the end you got quite a
bit for your 10 cents out of these early romance comics.

GROSS: These romance comics were written for women. They were told – or
girls. They were told by from the point of view of young women, but they
were created by two men - two men in fact who are most famous for
creating "Captain America" - this is Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. And
didn't Kirby go on to create "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" and "Hulk"
with Stanley?

Mr. BARSON: Yes. Years later in the early '60s, he launched the whole
superhero revival with "Fantastic Four" and even helped draft the first
"Spider-Man" and then "The X-Men," "Avengers," and "Iron Man," so on and
on - all of whom are to this day extremely popular and have begat movies
every year or two. So...

GROSS: So if you think of superheroes and romance comics as opposite
ends of the comic book field, how did these two guys, Jack Kirby and Joe
Simon, end up creating romance comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were very canny. They were
working out of whatever the popular genres were of the day. One of those
was Westerns and they tried their hand at those, but it didn't really
catch on much as a comic book. "Boys' Ranch" was one of those, and the
superhero craze of the early '40s had started to die down by the time
the war ended.

So in 1947, they took a crack at the popular soap operas that were then
all over the radio, and converted it into a comic book format with
"Young Romance" and it was a bonanza. It immediately found an audience
and quickly grew to a million issues a month.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Barson. His new book, "Agonizing Love: The
Golden Era of Romance Comics," has just been published. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Barson. His new book, "Agonizing Love: The
Golden Era of Romance Comics," includes excerpts from the golden age of
romance comics, the late '40s and the 1950s.

Now one of the regular features of a lot of romance comics was advice
columns. And you reprint an advice column that I think is just really
interesting and so in a way revealing of its time.

And I'd like you to read – this is actually not exactly an advice
column, it's a quiz to see "Are You Ready for Marriage? A Game of Make-
Believe." But the answers basically give you the advice of how you
should behave, because it gives you like three possible answers you
should have to each of these questions that are set up and then it tells
you which the right answer is. So it really is an advice column, even
though it's a Q and A quiz. So would you read a few frames of this and
I'll try to get the right answer.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. This is from "Boy Meets Girl" in 1950 and it's called
"Are You Ready for Marriage? A Game of Make Believe." And it gives you
these illustrated scenarios, as you just described. The first one: when
your husband tells you his favorite oft-repeated joke to your guests do
you, A, remark in a stage whisper, there he goes again and he thinks
it's funny?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: B, leave the laughter after the story has been told? C,
interrupt to correct him whenever he isn't telling the story the best

GROSS: That's my favorite, the interrupt him and correct him part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I know that the answer is B...

Mr. BARSON: Well...

GROSS: Leave the laughter after the story has been told.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: In this scenario the answer is B. I'm not sure my wife would
agree with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: But nonetheless, it is B. You are right again, Terry.

GROSS: Always. Do another one.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. This is a cooking scenario. The husband is looking at
a plate being brought to him and says to the wife, what on Earth is
that? And she says, I started making fricassee but I wasn't quite sure
how to do it so I fried the chicken. I think that's very resourceful of
her, but...

GROSS: But we have to describe. On this plate it's like a piece of

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...steaming, dead-looking chicken. I mean...

Mr. BARSON: Yeah, it's chicken au poivre, I guess. But this is now after
you've slaved for three hours preparing dinner, your husband says, but
this isn't the way my mother fixed chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: How many times have we heard that? Do you say A, why don't
you go back and eat hers then? I think that's the correct one. B, I
spent three hours in that hot kitchen fixing this dinner, sob, and you
don't even appreciate it. Or C, she's a wonderful cook, dear. The next
time I write, I'll ask how she fixes chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: Right before I shove it down your throat is what she's
thinking. And, of course, the correct answer for that is the last one
because back in this period, 1950, we don't allow our emotions to run
away with us.

GROSS: Okay. Let's do one more.

Mr. BARSON: Okay. So one more of these in the same "Are You Ready for
Marriage" quiz: The job your husband has is Greek to you. But when he
starts to talk about what happened during the day, A, you listen
sympathetically and ask a few intelligent questions. B, you go to the
kitchen calling over your shoulder, so you closed that big deal. That
doesn't get dinner on the table.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: C, you play it dumb by asking constantly, what do you mean?
What's a contract?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So the...

Mr. BARSON: And these are...

GROSS: The advice we've gotten here is that in order to be ready for
marriage you have to lead the laughter of your husband's jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you burn dinner you have to be really super nice about it and
say, I'll get your mother's recipe, dear. And C, if you don't understand
anything about your husband's work you have to pretend like you know
what he's talking about and ask quote "intelligent questions" because
obviously you're a wife, so you're stupid to – too stupid to understand
what his work is about.

Mr. BARSON: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: These are all Stepford wife answers that you would only get
away with being, you know, the polite subservient wife. But you can tell
that the person who put this together was having some fun with what
happens in real life even though he didn't give that as the correct

GROSS: Yes, because the other answers are probably what you're really

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: No doubt. No doubt.

GROSS: So these sold really well, right, these love comics?

Mr. BARSON: Well, they were hugely popular from the time that Simon and
Kirby started all the way through the 1950s. But once those 1960s got
started they began to peter out a bit and I don't know why that is
exactly. I mean there was the superhero renaissance that both Marvel and
DC had with all of their hundreds of characters. The "Justice League of
America," the "Fantastic Four," all these things - "The Hulk," "Iron
Man," they all got popular all at once so you could say that squeezed
these out perhaps from the marketplace. But it still doesn't really
explain why teenage girls, who were the predominant consumers of these,
I would think, just basically stopped entirely with them by the time the
'60s ended.

GROSS: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's the whole cultural revolution going on, the women's
movement, clothing completely changed. I mean the whole premise of these
comics, it was just the formula wasn't - not that suffering and jealousy
had gone out of style but the format of the comic had.

Mr. BARSON: Well, but I'll tell you, you're right...

GROSS: Of this kind of comic. Yeah.

Mr. BARSON: You're right. Everything had changed. But this is, you know,
a form of entertainment and it changed or tried to change with the times
that you're describing. So you began to see hippie girl stories in some
of the DC comics of the late '60s and early '70s. And you started to
see, you know, peace signs on the covers and, you know, class struggles
were really between a boyfriend who was a pot-smoking hippie and, you
know, somebody who was wearing a suit to Wall Street or somewhere.

So they tried to roll with the changes of the times but it apparently
didn't connect, because by the time you hit the middle of the '70s these
were gone for good.

GROSS: So when romance comics died out were there new comics that
replaced them designed for teenage girls?

Mr. BARSON: There were not. So that's the mystery to me. They were doing
something, but everything else they could have been doing also existed
when these were at their most popular. So if you say okay, in 1955 there
were a kagillion(ph) of these in the newsstands all over America, but
there were movies, there were TV shows, there were magazines like 17
Magazine, you know, all these things around the world of romance comics
existed then. They still flourished in the 1970s in their own new
styles, but these just became extinct like a dinosaur.

GROSS: Was there ever any implication in a romance comic that somebody
was in the closet - that they were secretly gay they were trying to get
married to cover that up?

Mr. BARSON: No. You see...

GROSS: And were tormented and wrestling with their true nature that they
couldn't express?

Mr. BARSON: No. You never got to that point, but that's because these
ended when they did as a popular pop culture form. If these had lasted
and thrived into the 1980s, let's say, or certainly the '90s, you would
have started to see those stories. But at this point, even the religion
question was usually cloaked in these. So there was an issue called
"Different" in one of the Simon and Kirby books, and they never really
say what the different thing is about the guy, but clearly it's that
he's Jewish. I mean anybody like me, who's Jewish, could read the story
and say, oh, I mean yeah, that's what this is. But they don't come right
out and say it because it was 1952.

So there were these allusions that there's something going on that's
creating tension with the families and all this, but you have to read
between the lines. So forget the gay stuff. That was something that
would've had to come 25 years later. But by then there were no books 25
years later.

GROSS: So how did you figure out that this guy was Jewish and that that
was his secret?

Mr. BARSON: I can't remember. There were a couple little clues. It
wasn't like he was, you know, wearing a yarmulke or anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARSON: Just some subtle little clues that he was, you know, an
outsider at the school and, you know, I mean it could have been
something else too, I guess, but that's the way I took it. Maybe I was
reading too much into it myself.

GROSS: So you collect all kinds of pop culture, including teen
exploitation film posters, Red Scare pop culture, these romance comics,
superhero comics. I should really be asking this question to your wife.
But what's it like to live with you? Like what kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of shelves and storage bins dominate your home?

Mr. BARSON: Well, I've been told it's an extremely rewarding experience,

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BARSON: However, I have not been told that by my wife. No, my poor
long-suffering wife Jean has exiled most of my stuff - and it is stuff -
to the third floor of our house and to the basement. As well she should
because that leaves only two floors to still leave in. But I try to keep
this sort of under control, but my excuse is that it's too good to get
rid of. So it is a source of tension, but I try to be a good boy about
it to the capabilities that I am able, which is pretty limited, I must

GROSS: Well, Michael Barson, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

Mr. BARSON: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Barson's new book is called "Agonizing Love: The Golden
Era of Romance Comics." You can see a slideshow of some of the comics on
our website,
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Night At The Opera (On The Silver Screen)


Opera has played a part in many films, and not only films that are
actually about opera.

Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is going to review two new
DVD releases that involve opera. One is an Italian romantic and
political melodrama, and the other is a Hollywood musical comedy. They
couldn't be more different from each other, and Lloyd loves them both.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Marriage of Figaro")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The Italian film director Luchino Visconti was also an
opera director, most famously working with Maria Callas in some of her
greatest roles. His version of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" was one
of the most memorable and realistic opera productions I ever saw.

His 1954 film "Senso," finally on DVD, actually begins at the opera
house in Venice near the end of the Austrian occupation in the 1860s.
It's the climax of Verdi's "Il Trovatore." The famous tenor battle cry
is here sung directly to the audience, with brandished sword, and is a
cue to protest the occupation.

(Soundbite of opera, "Il Trovatore")

SCHWARTZ: The Italian actress Alida Valli - who is probably best known
for her moving performance as Orson Welles's lover in "The Third Man" -
plays an Italian countess sympathetic to the protest. Early in "Senso"
she says to a smug Austrian officer, played by the late Farley Granger,
who's just had a nasty argument with Valli's revolutionary cousin, that
she doesn't believe that people's lives should be operatic. But she's
about to be overwhelmed by a passion for Granger that will lead her to
betray her cousin and all the fighters for an independent and unified

Visconti's mysteriously ambiguous title, "Senso," means sense, as in the
five senses, or sensation, sensuality, or even common sense. In other
words, the countess's life becomes like an opera, and opera itself
becomes a metaphor for all intense human emotion. Visconti's painful and
riveting film even ends with a mad scene.

Almost the complete opposite of "Senso," but even more directly about
opera, is a featherweight MGM musical farce from 1946 called "Two
Sisters From Boston." It too is a period piece, taking place early in
the 20th century. The late Kathryn Grayson plays a young woman desperate
to become an opera singer. She leaves her snobbish Boston family and to
pay for her singing lessons gets a job in a seedy New York nightclub run
by Jimmy Durante.

Grayson's efforts to break into opera by sneaking on stage during a
performance are hilarious, but the real star of the film is the great
Danish Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior, who, after he retired from the
opera stage, proved to be a delightful comic actor in Hollywood movies.
This is his second one, and he plays an opera star upstaged and enraged
by Grayson's clumsy onstage intrusions. He has a devoted pet terrier,
Tristan, named after one of Melchior's greatest roles. The dog follows
him everywhere, even into a recording studio.

My favorite scene depicts an early recording session. Melchior is
reluctantly recording "The Prize Song" from Wagner's "Die
Meistersinger." He sings into a horn while someone adjusts his volume by
pulling him by the lapels closer to or pushing him further away from the
horn. When Melchior stops, a bunch of violinists rush forward to play. I
think this is Melchior's most magnificent singing on film.

(Soundbite of song, "The Prize Song")

Mr. LAURITZ MELCHIOR (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: The punchline of the scene comes when the recording is played
back. When little Tristan jumps onto the table and stares into the horn,
someone exclaims: His master's voice. Everything in the movie suddenly
seems a setup for this recreation of the famous RCA Victor logo.

I love the way Visconti takes opera seriously - and the way Hollywood
doesn't. Together these two films present something close to the full
range of what opera can be.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix
and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He
reviewed Visconti's "Senso" on Criterion, and "Two Sisters From Boston"
on-demand from Warner Archives.

We have some great news to end the show with. Our former producer,
Monique Nazareth, has just given birth to Grayson Sebastio Cronin
Nazareth. We send our congratulations to Monique and her husband Patrick
Cronin, and wish them all well.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby Mine")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Baby mine don't you cry. Baby mine dry
your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part. Baby of
mine. Little one when you play, don't you mind what they say. Let those
eyes sparkle and shine, never a tear. Baby of mine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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