What's Entertainment
A new multidisciplinary center named
for sitcom king Norman Lear takes a no-joke approach toward the study of what’s amusing.
IN AN AGE WHEN “entertainment” has come to mean everything from a televised freeway chase to a summer blockbuster movie, USC has founded what is believed to be the first multidisciplinary center to explore the implications of the convergence of entertainment, commerce and society.
In January, the USC Annenberg School for Communication unveiled the Norman Lear Center – a multidisciplinary research and public policy center that will study entertainment as a defining concept of 21st-century life.
“Entertainment is overwhelming practically every part of people’s lives – news, politics, education, religion, law, architecture, fashion, business, technology – and not only in our own country,” says Annenberg School associate dean Martin Kaplan, who has been named founding director of the Lear Center.
Charged with the dual goal of prompting intellectual debate and training the next generation of media moguls, the Lear Center will work with USC schools that offer entertainment-related courses and programs. A recent review of the university’s catalogue identified more than 250 entertainment-related courses already offered at USC.
The center is named for legendary entertainment figure and civil rights activist Norman Lear, whose $5 million contribution early this year capped off funds provided by the Provost’s Office and other private sources.
“The University of Southern California is uniquely situated to be the home of the Norman Lear Center and this new entertainment initiative,” said USC President Steven B. Sample at the announcement of the center’s creation. “We are at ground-zero for much of the world’s entertainment, and our existing university-wide links to that world are a great building-block for this program.”

A gift to the future: Kaplan, left, and Lear with USC Annenberg School dean Geoffrey Cowan.

The famous television writer-director-producer, perhaps best known as the creator of the politically charged 1970s sitcom “All in the Family,” described the gist of the initiative by relating a recent New Yorker cartoon depicting two of the Founding Fathers with quills in hand: “One of them says, ‘Perhaps we should provide for the separation of entertainment and state.’ The joke,” Lear told a crowd of reporters and guests, “wouldn’t have worked if the concern weren’t real.
“It is a gift to my kids and their future that the USC Annenberg School has elected to explore so seriously the impact of entertainment on news, information and other aspects of our culture.”
A pioneer of a more candid, socially realistic genre of television programming, Norman Lear’s credits include “The Jeffersons,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” During nearly 40 years in the industry, he has become famous for his willingness to take extraordinary creative and commercial risks in the name of quality and for wrestling with issues of conscience while providing remarkably good entertainment. A champion of democratic values, Lear was instrumental in founding People for the American Way, which works to defend core First Amendment freedoms; and the Business Enterprise Trust, which celebrates and promotes businesses that advance the public good while achieving financial success.

Annenberg School, the Lear Center has strong interdisciplinary support from other USC schools. Intellectual direction for the initiative is provided by an advisory panel of faculty (among them six deans) from 21 disciplines representing 11 different schools.
In Kaplan, the new Lear Center has a leader whose own career illustrates the way entertainment overlaps with politics and commerce in our society. A former chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale, he was once vice president of motion picture production at Walt Disney. A Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford-educated academic, he has also been a Washington-based journalist, a film producer and a screenwriter (his credits include the 1992 comedy The Distinguished Gentleman).
Kaplan describes the program as an effort to bring the intellectual rigor long applied to topics like politics, education and high culture to a study of the driving engine of mass culture.
“Each of those areas is supposed to have standards and hierarchies and epistemologies that stand up to the world,” Kaplan told the New York Times. “Entertainment’s only value is ‘do I like it, am I bored, does it keep my attention?’ When you apply that to these other realms, very interesting distortions begin to happen.”

Three Knights of Guitar

Pepe plays while Angel conducts

The Romeros – the world’s undisputed “royal family of guitar” – appeared in a history-making concert at USC on February 11, as part of the President’s Distinguished Artist Series. The ensemble has its antecedents in a family quartet created 40 years ago by the late composer-virtuoso Celedonio Romero. The Romero Quartet has since performed at the White House, Buckingham Palace and the Vatican, and for Spain’s monarch, King Juan Carlos I.
Sealing the ensemble’s “royal” status, the Bovard Auditorium concert began with the induction of Pepe, Celin and Angel Romero – all sons of Celedonio – into the Order of Isabela La Catolica. The knighthoods were conferred by the Spanish ambassador in a ceremony Webcast live over the Internet. Joining the newly knighted Romeros in the concert were Celedonio’s grandsons, Celino and Lito Romero, and the USC Thornton Chamber Orchestra (directed by Angel Romero) in a program of all-Spanish music by Rodrigo, Albéniz and the Romero patriarch.

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Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth / Romeros photo by Berliner Photography / Lear photo by Ryan Miller/Berliner Studio

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