Where WAS Everybody? In Binghamton, NY, for “Serling Fest 2019”
“Serling Fest” could really be held anywhere, couldn’t it? After all, you can find fans of Rod Serling’s work all over the globe. But celebrating the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone in his hometown of Binghamton, New York, on October 4-6, 2019, felt particularly appropriate.
All writers put pieces of themselves in their work, but Serling seemed to include more autobiographical touches than most. And his idyllic, pre-World War II childhood in this city near the northern border of Pennsylvania did much to shape his outlook.
When Gart Williams in “A Stop at Willoughby” feels himself inexorably drawn to a town “where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure,” it’s easy to imagine him thinking of the Binghamton of the 1930s and ‘40s.
The Binghamton of 2019 hasn’t fully recovered from the post-war manufacturing cuts that contributed to its economic decline, but many parts of it retain a certain bigger-than-a-small-city-but-not-quite-a-BIG-city charm. And because so much of its DNA can be found in Rod’s scripts, it was an ideal place to gather with other fans and toast his work.
A definite highlight of day one was a dramatic reading of Serling’s script “The Happy Place,” his initial idea for Twilight Zone’s pilot (before changing to “Where is Everybody?”). It had never been presented before, so it’s hardly surprising that BLAST, the Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier, found themselves performing for a packed house with the help of Amy Boyle Johnson, author of “Unknown Serling”, and Kate Murray, vice president of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation.
Prior to that, I had the privilege of moderating a panel called “Talking Twilight Zone in the 21st Century”, with Tom Elliot, host of The Twilight Zone Podcast; Shelley Young, administrator of several popular Twilight Zone fan pages on Facebook; and Wayne Gladstone, host of the Intangible Quarter podcast.
What a wonderfully relaxed experience this was, complete with audience Q&A. We had a great time discussing what it’s like to fan over Serling’s work in the age of social media. You can hear it for yourself by listening to Tom’s “Serling Fest 2019 Part One” podcast. (The presentation starts at about 16 or 17 minutes in.)
The next day brought presentations from Arlen Schumer, author of “Visions from the Twilight Zone”, and Mark Olshaker, co-author of the “Mindhunter” series of books, who was a personal friend of Rod’s growing up. He and Serling’s daughters, Anne and Jodi, shared some wonderful reminiscences about everyone’s favorite ambassador to the fifth dimension. (Anne, as many of you know, is the author of “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling“, a truly beautiful memoir.)
Fans who came to last year’s Fest heard from Mark Dawidziak, author of “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone”, as he drew parallels between Serling and Mark Twain. This year, he spotlighted similarities between Serling and Charles Dickens. (For my money, Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is basically a Twilight Zone episode.)
Perhaps you’re wondering if we ever took the time to watch an episode or two of the series that attracted us all to Binghamton. We certainly did — three, in fact: “Long Distance Call”, “It’s a Good Life”, and “In Praise of Pip” were all shown on the big screen at the Forum Theatre. And as an added bonus, the original ads were included.
Notice a linking thread in that trio? They all star Billy Mumy, and right after the credits rolled on the last one, we got a real treat: a chance to talk to Mumy himself, who did a live video-chat with us. He couldn’t have been a better “guest”, regaling us with stories and answering every question the delighted audience could throw at him.
Sounds like a full Saturday right there, but the fun wasn’t over yet. Yours truly then had the honor of joining Scott Skelton, co-author of “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour”, to present the 1969 Night Gallery TV movie, which debuted 50 years ago next month.
Scott — who was born the day The Twilight Zone premiered, if you can believe it — is a real expert on late-period Serling. If you’re a fan of Night Gallery, I can’t recommend his book highly enough. I’m also glad to say he has another one about to come out: a coffee-table book called “The Art of Darkness” featuring the remarkable paintings from the NG series. Can’t wait for that one!
On Sunday, the Fest wrapped up with some other interesting presentations. Artist Ed Catto covered the history of Twilight Zone comics, which have been published off and on since the show was first on the air. I have only a few TZ comics myself, and although I know they often had a rather thin connection to series itself, Catto’s talk made me want to collect more of them.
We delved into a particularly meaty topic after that, as Professor Jimmy Pack of Pennsylvania State University gave a presentation on “The Nuclear Age in the Twilight Zone”. As TZ fans know, a fear of all-out nuclear war overhung the Cold War period in which Twilight Zone was produced, and it was fascinating to consider the ways in which that fear surfaced on-screen.
Then we heard from Reba Wissner, author of “A Dimension of Sound: Music from the Twilight Zone”. This is a topic of special interest to me. I love TV and movie soundtracks, and have long felt that the music of the Zone doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. Wissner showed what a crucial role music played in ushering viewers into that mysterious land of imagination every week.
What really made “Serling Fest 2019” memorable, though, was the people. I enjoyed getting a chance to see friends I met last year, and make some new ones this year. It was wonderful to put names to faces (Tom Elliot and I, for example, have been talking since 2011, but we only just met!) and have some real discussions about Serling’s work — the kind of deep dives we seldom get to do on social media.
We were so grateful to the members of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation and everyone else whose efforts made it all possible. A special shout-out goes to Nick Parisi, author of “Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination“, for pulling it all together and helping everyone have a terrific weekend. His hard work, to put it in Twilight Zone terms, made “a world of difference”!
I don’t yet see the signpost for “Serling Fest 2020”, but I know it’s just up ahead …
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!