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Present at the Creation

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Jan. 7, 2002 -- Monopoly. The Hollywood Sign. "The Raven." The Lincoln Memorial. Overalls. "New York, New York." Those and dozens of other uniquely American icons will be the subject of a year-long NPR series called Present at the Creation.

Present at the Creation grew out of the success of the Peabody Award-winning NPR 100 series featuring the most important American musical works of the 20th century. The new series will examine the creative process behind the designs, sounds, images and writings that helped shape American culture.

Initially, members of the NPR News and Cultural Programming staffs compiled a long list of creative works that included visual arts, film, television, music, photography, games, advertising, literature, fictional characters, places and monuments. Nominations had to meet two of the following three criteria: 1) The work had to be widely recognized. 2) It had to have been created in order to express an idea or value. 3) It had to have moved people or inspired awe.

A panel of artists and scholars was asked to review the list. They pared it down, added some works of their own, and ultimately helped NPR identify the creations that have become a vital part of the American experience. To launch the series, which will air Mondays on Morning Edition, NPR asked five of the panelists to pick a favorite American icon and explain why they liked it.

George Holt, director of public programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art, praised Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks" of three customers in an all-night diner. The painting, he said, has "an undeniable spiritual quality to it that reveals the wonder in even the most common place. Some see themes of melancholy and alienation in his art. Hopper himself said, 'The loneliness thing is overdone.'"

To playwright Naomi Iizuka, the 50-foot-tall Hollywood sign overlooking Tinseltown "conjures up every movie I ever saw, the face of every movie star I can think of, from Buster Keaton onwards. It's this embodiment of all that is Hollywood. And at the same time... I see that sign and I think of all these people who arrive in L.A. hoping to make a name for themselves and not making it... "

One actor who did make it in Hollywood is the Warner Brothers' Road Runner. Will Hermes, senior editor of Spin magazine, says the cartoon character epitomizes "the American lust for the highway and the freedom that it supposedly represents, or maybe just this general infatuation we have with speed. Any trouble he gets in with Wile E. Coyote and all of his ACME Corp. war toys, the Road Runner just goes 'Meep, Meep' and bolts down the endless road in a little puff of dust... "

When Lolis Elie was growing up in New Orleans in the 1970s, the French Quarter was his amusement park. Elie, now a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, says he would venture into the Quarter, where he could peek into the strip clubs, play pinball or buy comic books. Since then, Elie has traveled to Disney World and Six Flags, but he's come to realize that the "architecture in the French Quarter, its courtyards and its balconies and the feeling of being in that old place, is something that can't be bought and can't be sold and can't be so easily replicated... "

Of course, a visit to the French Quarter wouldn't be complete without purchasing a souvenir T-shirt. Trina Turk, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer, says America wouldn't be the same without this simple fashion statement: "Just think how dismal it would be if there were no concert T-shirts, marathon T-shirts, tourist T-shirts, film festival and museum T-shirts, or slogan T-shirts like 'Keep on Truckin' or 'I'm With Stupid'... and now especially the 'I Love New York' T-shirt... "

Previous NPR Coverage

See the NPR 100 list of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.

Other Resources

• Read about Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago.

• Learn more about the Hollywood sign.

• Visit a Web site about the French Quarter.

• Read the rules of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote on the Looney Tunes Web site.

• Read a history of the American T-shirt

The French Quarter
The French Quarter is one of the American icons to be featured in the Present at the Creation series.
Photo: Carl Purcell, © New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc.

Nighthawks Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks "reveals the wonder in the most common place," panelist George Holt says.
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Photo: Friends of American Art Collection, digital file © The Art Institute of Chicago. All Rights Reserved.