The old-fashioned civic booster, like the hobo, seems to be a vanishing breed.
I’m thinking of the guy with a perpetual smile and an American flag in his lapel who will, at the slightest opportunity, start talking up all the wonders in his community — the factory that’s cleaner and more efficient than any other, and the rip-roaring annual Crabapple Festival that draws folks from miles around, and the high-school football field where only champions play.
(If you’ve read Babbitt, you know the type.)
Maybe these sorts of folks have gotten slicker and subtler, now that everyone fancies themselves a marketing expert.
Or maybe I just don’t run into them as often as I used to. Maybe they’ve all taken their pitches to YouTube, where I can more conveniently ignore them.
I ran into the ghost of one via the Internet the other day, and he struck me as very much a relic of days gone by.
I’d never heard of Peter Cyrano Wambach before yesterday, but I’m sure plenty of lifelong Pennsylvanians have.
Wambach produced and narrated a series of five-minute radio programs called “This Is Pennsylvania,” which aired daily on stations across the state between the mid-’60s and the mid-’80s.
(How very provincial and Pennsylvanian to produce a program about the Keystone State for distribution within Pennsylvania. Seems rather like preaching to the choir, no?)
His catchphrase, repeated at the start and end of each show, was “It’s a BYOO-ti-ful day in Pennsylvania,” and that set the tone for what he delivered in between.
The Pennsylvania State Archives has dozens of shows available online, which introduced me to the prolific Mr. Wambach’s work. The shows tend to fall into one of three categories:
– History pieces on obscure former political leaders and personalities, as well as the occasional current resident. (His 1972 profile of former Brooklyn Dodger Billy Cox, then tending bar in his hardscrabble hometown, ends with the all-too-eager declaration: “Gotta stop in Newport one day and hoist a few with Billy Cox, the best glove in baseball.”)
– Nature pieces — foliage, wild herbs and the like.
– Promo pieces for individual communities or community events.
Each installment features Wambach, in an increasingly gravelly baritone, pulling your coat to some regional attraction with a mix of enthusiasm and hyperbole:
“Enjoy the walking and driving through vast orchards of South Central Pennsylvania! Delight in the stirring of the apple butter in huge copper buckets! … You’ll enjoy a rustic, riotous, ravenous weekend of eating, cider-sippin’, dancing, girl-watching fun.”
“Pittsburgh is people who love God and thank him daily for Pittsburgh.”
“And the bologna! Setzers, Weavers, Bombergers – world famous and made here so that people will know what good is! All the things that are good – are to be found in the gentle Lebanon Valley of Pennsylvania.”
“As Jolson sang – “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” until you reach the Endless Mountains – in Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties – only a few hours from where you are, but as close to heaven as you can get.”
“Mushrooms are a delicious Pennsylvania delicacy – they are good for you, and dipped in sour cream and onion soup mix – that’s a Chester County recipe – wow!”
(Funny, I always thought that mix was called “California dip.”)
Wambach’s love for all things provincial reminded me of a small-town museum I went to as a kid in New York’s Finger Lakes.
The museum was housed in a big stone building — I’d guess circa 1880 — that used to be a school. It displayed all manner of local relics, from women’s lace gloves, to antique speedboats, to canvas-wrapped, wood-ribbed flight simulators produced by central New York’s long-faded flight industry.
It was overstuffed, and a little dark and dingy around the edges, and in retrospect, I’m sure Peter Wambach would have loved it.
I miss that museum sometimes.
It’s since moved to a larger, better-lit, more organized and thoroughly colorless location outside of town. Having gone there once, I have no interest in returning. Going to the old place was the next best thing to sitting down for an afternoon’s chat with a 90-year-old who’d lived in town all their life.
At his best, Wambach captured a touch of that same magic — the feel of bygone eras, simpler times and escape.
He makes gold from the story of a scenic short-line railroad through Amish country. And when he ends, “It’s a wonderful old way of life, riding the Strasburg Railroad, and in 1969, you have a month or so of it left,” it’s enough to make you pack up the Rambler and set off in search of the station, racing to get there before the last leaf falls.
By and large, though, I find that Wambach talked a little too loud, stood a little too close and embellished a little too effusively for my taste — in the manner of the eternal booster.
One would scarcely expect him to talk about race riots or industrial pollution, of course, but his relentless praise for every tree-lined acre and folklife festival in Pennsylvania wore thin on me.
There’s no room for contrast or variation or shading or disagreement when it’s always a BYOO-ti-ful day in Pennsylvania.