Niagara Gazette

September 15, 2013

SINGER: The best-kept secret

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The best-kept secret? Catholicism — when it was the real, demanding thing, not least in Western New York, where great brick academies and private colleges — helped turn out many fine humans. This column should be a book subject, but I’ll try to be pithy and focus mostly on entertainment icons you’d know.

On today’s TV we’re getting old “product” galore and one series that slays me is “Dragnet,” featuring Jack Webb not only as no-nonsense Sergeant Friday, but really as the show’s standards-provider in its production and direction.

You get a real sense of the man — blunt for sure, but also revealing depths of humanity; and I for one am sorry that he died at 62 after a life replete with 18-hour days on this baby of his, “Dragnet.”

He himself was abandoned from the get-go by a Jewish father; however, his Irish-Native American mom gave him a rigorous Catholic upbringing in Los Angeles, and the results seem palpable.

As they do in Chuck Connors on “The Rifleman,” raised Catholic in Brooklyn, then playing pro basketball (Rochester Royals, Boston Celtics) and baseball (Dodgers, etc.); but coming to fame with something of Webb’s blunt, yet human demeanor on the small screen — shown best in the “Rifleman” series, running from 1958-1963.

You also denote a strict Catholic upbringing in New York-bred Jack Lord of the original “Hawaii Five-0.” Lord’s real name was John Joseph Patrick Ryan, and he’d been in the Merchant Marine, and again, seems solid and real on a show he helped make iconic.

And then there’s Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” who later put her Catholicism into beneficial practice for the St. Jude Children’s hospital; and from an earlier generation, Thomas’ godmother, Loretta Young. When I was a kid, Young’s television show would probably have been too “adult,” and for whatever reason, I rarely saw it back in the day, nor the movies she’d made before deciding to gamble on the new medium of TV in the early ‘50s.

But what an actress and woman — a lady in every way: warm, generous (worked with LA homeless and hugged Third World lepers), believable. And it turns out, heavy-duty Catholic from her own idiosyncratic childhood in Los Angeles. If you want a biography, I’d go for the authorized one, “Forever Young.” It’s as beautiful and unaffected as its subject.

The point I’m trying to make: assaults on the Catholic Church, not only by ideologues, but also by societal trends tending to a religious secularism have, it seems to me, thrown out the good with the not so good. No one doubts the problems that exist in the church, and going back in history one can point to the rigid, intolerant extremism most seen in the Spanish Inquisition, but in other times and ways as well.

And yet, there has been something major to it all, real method in what now perhaps seems madness to certain cynical critics. I could easily locate human results well beyond icons like Webb, Connors, Lord, or Young. Probably the deepest, most protective friends I’ve had have been Catholics of the old school.

I remember learning in classes about the Reformation and the Protestant emphasis on faith versus that of good works leading to heaven in the Catholic Church. Both obviously have merits, but again, I’ve truly benefitted from the caring generosity of a number of people raised Catholic back when it was still “hard shell.” You can also point to many important Catholic hospitals and other charities, and really much that’s significantly alleviated suffering. The Jesuits were certainly great, if demanding educators when they had charges like Descartes and Voltaire (who later questioned religion with famed verve), and they remained fine educators in America’s 20th century — more tolerant of conflicting views than many realize. And again regionally, much of the down-to-earth sweetness you find in Buffalo-Niagara seems to emanate from an old Catholic flavor here.

Finally, one can look to Catholic standards currently raised — in the face of much belittlement — against unlimited abortion, a subject that saddens me. At the risk of turning off certain readers, it does seem to me that life — hopefully nurtured by decent people — is generally superior to death. Yes, we really have thrown out proverbial baby with bath water, the good with the not so good, and it may turn out a shame.

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.