Kicky Discoveries in Madison, WI

I have no excuse for my blogging delinquency except that I spent July teaching (which warrants a post all its own) and August visiting the historical archives at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. My primary purpose in going was to research Irna Phillips, the so-called “Queen of Soap Operas.” She created television shows like Guiding Light and Days of Our Lives, though, like many soap writers, began her career in radio. I had read so much about her as a fierce and steely businesswoman, and while her correspondence did not disappoint, I was surprised to discover the gushy, almost-romantic prose she directed at executives, agents, and (male) industry professionals. Was this a strategy, I wonder, or an indication of her complexity as a person?

Researching Phillips has also led me toward some interesting avenues, including the post-war “Chicago School of Television.” Chicago, of course, is not a major capital for television production, if you discount Oprah/Harpo, but back in the day, it was — and not just for any television, but for politically and aesthetically interesting programming. (See: Fran, Kukla and Ollie — the “children’s” puppet show for adults, AKA a cleaner precursor to Avenue Q?)

What else did I “discover” in Madison that Midwesterners have known for years?


1. Madison has killer cuisine options that put New Haven’s offerings to shame. (I know, this is supposed to be a media/film blog, but I talk about food a lot. So sue me, I like to eat.)

How will I live without my regular fixes of East African and Indonesian food? What about the flavorful yet lean schwarma from Mediterranean Cafe? The food truck devoted entirely to empanadas? YES empanadas that have plantains in them, even! Plantains and roasted garlic!

These are the revelatory food discoveries I made in Wisconsin. The cheese curds, honestly, I could take or leave, and I didn’t find the Babcock ice cream to be any better than New Haven’s Ashley’s Ice Cream. I know, sacrilege! But yes, the ethnic food offerings are killer. Don’t miss them, if you ever make your way to Mad-Town.

2. I don’t suppose you have to travel to Wisconsin to get a new perspective on Ingmar Bergman, but that’s what I did. We went to the UW Madison Cinematheque, an organization I would miss as much as the empanadas if it wasn’t for the Whitney Humanities Center.

We saw Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which I knew nothing about except that it was the basis for A Little Night Music. (Which I saw a long long time ago, barely remember it, in fact!)

It was a beautiful film to watch on the big screen, and while the movie certainly suffered or benefited from some signature Bergman heaviness, depending on your P.O.V., it was definitely a surprise. The film bills itself as a “romantic comedy,” but I was leery at first — I mean, Chekhov calls The Cherry Orchard a comedy, and ain’t nobody laughing. (Not even the cheery folks in Moscow, I’ll bet.)

But it was! It was actually quite funny, or, at least, droll. It is a sophisticated, innuendo-laden film, with lots of suggestion and very little… you know…; it was like a Bergman movie had a baby with a Ernst Lubitsch film!

A fun choice for a Swedish movie night and definitely more enjoyable than a trip to IKEA…


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