Saturday, March 01, 2014

1968 - Petula Clark Touches Harry Belafonte's Arm

Happened to be awake at 6:00 AM on Saturday, and I happened to hear this WNYC program.
On this special hour-long episode of Witness from the BBC World Service, listen to incredible interviews looking at the African-American experience as told by people who were there.
One of the interviews related to this, from 1968:
Steve Binder, the producer of a NBC special starring Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte, chronicles the time when Clark became the first white woman to touch a black man on US television.
I'm probably more impressionable that early in the morning.

You can listen to the story straight from the BBC, here.
In 1968 Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark sang together her song On the Path of Glory for a special for NBC. Not such a remarkable event in itself, but Petula touched Harry's forearm during the duet and made TV history. It was the first time a white woman had touched a black man on US television. The sponsor insisted the touch be cut from the programme, the programme makers refused.

Listen to the producer of the programme, Steve Binder.
The sponsor was Chrysler Corporation.

Or here:
The television special Petula, aired in April 1968. A vehicle for popular singer Petula Clark (“Downtown”), the show featured Harry Belafonte as her guest. During one song, Petula touched Belafonte’s arm and this “interracial contact” was considered taboo enough to cause a national controversy to surround the special.

Several takes of the song existed on tape in which Clark didn’t touch Belafonte, but the special was delivered to NBC with the controversial take intact. The moment is very tame, to say the least, to the modern eye. Even at the time Variety ended its review of the special: “… the touching bit which caused such a stir… could only disturb the spiritually sick.”
Per Steve Binder,  after the Chrysler people created a fuss, his management told him that they would back whatever decision he made; and the production team had all takes other than the controversial one erased so that it would be impossible for them to change their mind.

The New York Times has a story from April 3, 1968, written by Jack Gould.  He wrote, in the usual blame-the-victim style of the establishment press:
Miss Clark's guest was the dynamic Harry Belafonte.  They did a duet of "On the Path of Glory".  Near the end, Miss Clark gently placed her hand on the arm of the Negro star.   The gesture was not inconsisten with the context of the number but it led to a minor rhubarb when an aide of the Plymouth Division of the Chrysler Motor Corporation, the sponsor, sought the sequence's deletion from the tape.  Mr. Belafonte and the co-producer and director, Steve Binder, both protested and the scene was retained.

But it does seem a pity that the issue was so blown up.  If resolved peaceably through normal avenues of corporate appeal there would have been the larger gain of not making the viewer aware that there was anything unusual about the episode.  An unpublicized protest on occasion can be more fruitful in achieving the principle of understanding that concerns Mr. Belafonte.   He won his battle but not without calling attention to the divisiveness he deplores. 
 So, you see, it was the responsibility of African-Americans and Harry Belafonte in particular,  to reform society in a non-divisive way.   More than forty years later, this is the same tone the establishment press has taken with Obama,  it is up to him to make the Republican obstruction be non-divisive.  In the vein of Ta-Nehisi Coates, two-plus centuries after Thomas Jefferson forced himself on Sally Hemings, .....

Oh well, let us leave the spiritually sick behind, and listen to Petula Clark's hit song, Downtown: