By Tanya Silverman
Photo by Tony Alter.
“Everybody has to have a hometown,” television writer and producer Rod Serling once said, “Binghamton’s mine.”
The best memory people today may have of Rod Serling’s legacy might involve personal impressions from iconic Twilight Zone episodes like “Obsolete Man” or “Time Enough at Last”. Serling stands on camera in the mid-century television series, often smoking, narrating audiences through their science-fiction storylines, delivering commentary along their eerie acting and ironic moral twists through his stoic, intelligent demeanor.
In the all-too-real-life zone, Serling’s legacy is embedded in the town of his birth, a small city in the southern tier of upstate New York that’s marginally acknowledged as the “carousel capital of the world.”
In downtown Binghamton, NY, the letters “ROD SERLING/WRITER” sit engraved into a monumental bronze star at the city’s Walk of Fame. Though the “Binghamton Sidewalk of Stars” is not currently adding more talents who have hailed from the region, Serling was the first name to be placed. His 1989 posthumous induction–he died in 1975, at age 50–spawned headlines commemorating his regional upbringing.
Travel west across the Chenango River, over the Court Street Bridge, and continue down Main Street to the front lawn of Binghamton High School, and there stands a bold blue plaque with gold lettering to memorialize Rod Serling, who graduated in 1943.
Photo by Doug Kerr.
The famous alumna is also honored inside the building, being the namesake of its fine arts department.
Lawrence Kassan, who works as a program director at the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts, organizes the annual video festival in the TV legend’s name as a contest is open to K-12 students to submit short films. Very active in preserving and promoting Serling’s legacy, Kassan praises him for contributing to what he considers the “Golden Age of Television”–plus acting as a groundbreaker as one of the first writer-producers for TV.
“I have an hour program where I will speak about his life, his influences, how he became a writer, and how he was known as ‘the angry man of television,’” Kassan describes.
One recent occasion where Kassan delivered a lecture was in February at the nearby SUNY school, Binghamton University. It was during this time that he helped to coordinate consultation between the university’s theater department and Rod Serling’s daughter, Anne, in adapting two Twilight Zone episodes as live performances.
“It was pivotal for us to get the family’s permission,” Elizabeth Mozer, the Binghamton University Assistant Professor who directed the plays, tells BTR.
Mozer made sure to get Anne Serling’s consent to put the plays together, and then to make appropriate adjustments to the original scripts and sets of “Dust” and “Monsters Are Due on Main Street”. The director says she also added a dance sequence. She tells BTR that the students were enthusiastic about these plays, recalling how they took time to research television history from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The experience was especially meaningful, Mozer remarks, to work in the geographical background of Serling’s “home turf,” and under direct permissions from the family, especially after having her appreciation for Rod Serling his work “rekindle” after relocating to Binghamton a year and a half ago.
Another lasting local factor of Rod Serling’s legacy is the Twilight Zone episode that relates to his upbringing in Binghamton: “Walking Distance”.
Tony Albarella from the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation discusses how the show can be considered Serling’s most autobiographical.
“He was raised in Binghamton and enjoyed his whole childhood there,” Albarella says, elaborating that Serling had a good deal of friends and a supportive family to foster a “wonderful American upbringing at a time of innocence.”
The innocence then diminished after Serling graduated from Binghamton High School and served in World War II. His father also passed away in his absence.
“There was always a really nostalgic bend to him, a longing for a simpler time,” Albarella says of Serling’s return. He continues that when Serling was employed as a writer in the early days of television, his interests and ideas were often subject to censorship by sponsors who objected to the topics he wanted to cover.
“That was frustrating for Serling, and that was why, in parable form, he was able to try out the same kind of stories in a more allegorical kind of format, through science-fiction and fantasy,” he says.
Branching off to write, produce, and act in The Twilight Zone, Serling not only reformed the public perception of science fiction, but also had an outlet to discuss the ethical issues he deemed important, like totalitarian societies, racism, and conformity.
In the fifth Twilight Zone episode, the beloved “Walking Distance”, the plot culminates certain parallels from Serling’s prior professional life–the protagonist being a “burnt out network executive from Manhattan” who travels “to his hometown in upstate New York,” to try and re-experience his youth. His mission comes to a halt at a carousel, where the character learns the hard lesson that however much you miss your past, you cannot return.
The scene represents the mechanical ride that still stands at the carousel capital’s Recreation Park. A plaque about the show also rests at a bandstand there.
At Binghamton’s Twilight Zone 50th celebration back in 2009, Lawrence Kassan worked on many aspects this four-day celebration, part of which included that very episode.
“We surrounded the carousel walls with flat-screen televisions, where we broadcasted the ‘Walking Distance’ episode while people sat on the horses and watched it,” Kassan describes. Tony Albarella, who has written extensively about Serling, was also a guest speaker at the upstate New York event.
Though, no matter the particularly memorable episode, important period of his life, or the geographical location he represents, aspects of Serling’s legacy may even transcend such specific examples.
“Rod Serling’s vision and his sense of ethics was valid then and resonates now,” Elizabeth Mozer summarizes. “That’s one of the reasons his work is still provocative.”