By Edwin Jahiel
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SATURDAY NIGHT?
Tonight at 8:30 pm, and Saturday 11 February 1995, at 9:30 pm, WILL-TV,
Channel 12, presents the half-hour documentary "Whatever Happened to
It was produced by the U of I Department of Journalism's student
documentary unit and is one of the several films that have come out of
Professor Jery M. Landay's course on the documentary.
This is no "Saturday Night Fever." In fact, the film investigates the lack
of Saturday Night Fever in the last decades, the absence of the excitement
and activities that one were so common at the end of the week, when people
crowded downtown in cities across America. They shopped (it was the only
free time for many), went to restaurants and cafes, lined up outside movie
theaters, went dancing to Big Band music or, in still earlier days, watched
live entertainment in variety or vaudeville theaters.
Using interviews, film clips, old photographs and other sources,
"Whatever Happened" concentrates on downtown Champaign in the olden days,
but clearly shows that this East Central Illinois town was like a host of
other places. This is history, nostalgia, reverse time-travel and
information rolled into one, along with revealing or amusing anecdotes.
There is a nice feeling when you see what Champaign looked like at
different periods, and for some older people, a kind of warm glow at
watching those "simpler" and more leisurely days.
The film answers its title question sensibly and correctly. Since the
bottom line is the decline of downtowns, it addresses the reasons for this.
Saturday night went from a set of mostly public, group events that gave the
community a sense of togetherness, to more individual activities. The main
causes are clear. After World War II the automobile increased mobility; the
migration to suburbia also destroyed the old concept of neighborhood;
television kept people (especially older ones) at home; peripheral shopping
centers and malls, and extended store hours, un-concentrated the public.
The film, co-produced by Jamie Flaherty and Bill Poorman, involved several
collaborators who worked hard on research, interviews, photography and
editing. The concept came years ago to Ms. Flaherty (who has a predestined
name, since Robert Flaherty of "Nanook of the North" fame, is the father of
the American documentary), as she watched, in Racine, Wis. the hubbub of
locals getting ready for Saturday night entertainment.
This fine documentary also makes two indirect but most important points. As
it will get on the circuit of PBS stations, it shows how indispensable a
"home" and a sponsor Public Television is for works that otherwise would
have no outlets. And it is a lesson to those of us who handle any kind of
cameras. There is an enormous need to keep recording life and places in our
communities, simple things like buildings, streets, shops, cars or people
in routine activities. What today looks commonplace -- even uninteresting
-- will be a precious record for future times.