by Gary A. Braunbeck
The first time I was aware of art "happening" to me was when I was a little boy and was watching a first-run Night Gallery episode with my mom on December 15, 1971. The episode was "The Messiah on Mott Street," starring Edward G. Robinson, Tony Roberts, and Yaphet Kotto. The story centers on an old Jewish man named Abe Goldman (played by Robinson) who is sick and dying on Christmas Eve. Abe prays that a Messiah will save him from the Angel of Death, because if he dies, no one will be around to take care of his young grandson.
I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was this little lump in my throat, and by the time the episode reached its unapologetically sentimental conclusion, I was bawling like a baby. So was my mom. Until the day she died, "The Messiah On Mott Street" remained her favorite Christmas episode of any television show. We had both been moved by Rod Serling's simple tale of redemption and miracles among the tenements, and as Mom was pouring herself and me some hot chocolate afterward, she wiped her eyes and said, "Oh, I swear, that Rod Serling can sure write good stories."
It wasn't until Mom said those words that I came back to reality long enough to realize that Rod Serling (who I knew from The Twilight Zone) had written the words that those people had said, and that his story had made both me and Mom cry (in that good but embarrassing way you never want to tell anyone about later), and that meant that words and stories could affect people.
Not a major unveiling as far as art exhibits go, but it did the trick for me. Watching that episode, knowing my reaction to it, Mom's reaction to it, and then her reaction about her reaction, brought it full-circle and I started crying again (silly, sentimental boy), and when Mom put her arm around my shoulder and told me it was all right, it was okay, it was just a television show, just a story, all I could manage to say was, "No, it wasn't," before I started in with the spluttering again.
I hadn't the experience or the brains to fully realize what was happening to me, so how in hell was I supposed to articulate it? It seemed to me then that, if this were a fair world and just universe, everyone would be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as the people on Night Gallery had, and then maybe people wouldn't find themselves standing around with snot running down their face and tears in their eyes, frustrated because they couldn't find the words to express all they needed to convey.
So I began seeking out Rod Serling everywhere I could. I found collections of his short stories at the local library (Serling was a much-underrated prose writer) and read them all cover to cover, then started in again. Anytime a movie written by Serling came on television, Mom or dad would call me down to watch it. I became a Twilight Zone re-run junkie (still am), and you can bet your ass that mine was there in front of that television set every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. tuned to NBC for the next new episode of Night Gallery.