Monday, January 1, 2018

Peter Cherches' STAR COURSE--The growth of celebrity culture in an America eager to see stars in the flesh




"In the century before television brought stars into our living rooms, celebrities crisscrossed the nation, bringing entertainment and perspectives to towns large and small. Peter Cherches, through his careful research and engaging prose, brings the stars and impresarios of the nineteenth-century lecture circuit back from the dead and gives us a front-row seat. This is an important book." - David T.Z. Mindich, author of Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism and chair of Temple University's journalism department
Peter Cherches, best known for his witty, probing fictions in the  minimalist vein, such as Lift Your Right Arm and Autobiography Without Words, also has a Ph.D. in American Studies. In STAR COURSE, he has written a unique book for anyone interested in the origins of celebrity culture. It begins in a 19th-century America with no TV and radio, let alone Internet. Here are audiences, which  distingush between moral entertainment--uplifting enlightening lectures appropriate for respectable people--and Puritanical ideas of theater as ungodly, lowlife entertainment to excite the senses. The Lyceums, a kind of continuing education, offered useful entertainment, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, dramatic readings by Charlotte Cushman, though Shakespeare was occasionally snuck in with hypocritical ad copy, as a dissertation on jealousy or revenge.  
The Lyceum Movement, which lasted 15 years, evolved into the "star courses" (star was a theater word), which brought a wider range of people, such as humorists, like Mark Twain, Thomas Nast, cartoonist, Henry Ward Beecher, star cleric, Henry Morton Stanley, African explorer. Popular women lecturer's included Anna Dickinson, impressionist Helen Potter, Brigham Young's 19th wife, among others. Cherches gives an idea of the attractions and performances of these Stars, more often than not solicited and signed by journalist James Redpath, whose successful Lyceum Bureau supplied talent for the Star Courses. He and other bureaus began the use of public relations to promote their tours. 
As Star lecturers criss-crossed the country, people came not surprisingly to see the famous in the flesh, rather than buy the lecture in book or pamphlet form. And, in the case of Thomas Nast, his lecture tour was hugely poplar because of his ability to draw engaging caricatures. Some of these performances prefigure the content of TV and radio, such as the talk show host or news reader, famous for being themselves.
Cherches' history of celebrity culture uniquely looks at human behavior, impresarios, the content of Star performances, the rise of public relations and the enlarged transportation network, to show how the lecture platform worked as a kind of pre-internet mass media. Popular mass entertainment was a fact of life as America entered the 20th century. Cherches, also a performer, accessed archives and newspaper accounts to recreate a little known but pivotal chapter in the story of American popular culture. And, without the index, it's about 100 pages. Star Course is definitely worth the read. Even the index.
S.W.