Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is from Associate Editor Erik Adams: What entertainment makes you beam with hometown pride?
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit at a time when there weren’t many reasons to be excited about the nearest metropolis—and even fewer reasons to feel any sense of pride in the Motor City. The pro sports teams were no help: Save for slugger Cecil Fielder and aging veterans like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, the Tigers were a bunch of bums that couldn’t hold onto a pitching staff; the Red Wings were just nearing the tail end of an NHL-leading championship drought. And Detroit was, well, Detroit, with a tradition of institutional corruption and a rich history of artists and musicians who blew up and then left the city for greener pastures. (Even Motown headed to Los Angeles in the ’70s.) And so as a kid I took a weird sort of hometown pride in the fact that a handful of mid-’90s sitcoms—Home Improvement, Martin, Sister, Sister, the short-lived Ed Asner vehicle Thunder Alley—were set in and around Detroit. Sure, they weren’t filmed in southeastern Michigan, and the shows usually fudged the setting-specific details. But it meant something, childish as it was, to see the Wings, Lions, and Western Michigan University memorabilia decorating the Home Improvement sets. If one of the most popular TV shows in the country could be set here, I reasoned, maybe this place isn’t so bad. I eventually left the area, but still feel this way about Detroit-set TV: The very authentic Lafayette Coney Island-versus-American Coney Island debate is the only good part of Low Winter Sun.
I was born in Illinois but spent most of my childhood in idyllic Shorewood, Wisconsin, which has spawned its share of worthwhile entertainers. Greatest among them—if you don’t count their later work—is probably the Zucker brothers, who went to my high school (but, you know, 25 years earlier). The brothers were responsible for Airplane! and all the Naked Gun movies, and would go on to direct Ruthless People, and Jerry directed Ghost solo. David found conservatism after 9/11, and eventually directed the Michael Moore-attacking spoof An American Carol, which is mostly good as a head-scratcher. The brothers even worked Shorewood into Top Secret: What’s supposed to be the East German national anthem is actually the Shorewood High School fight song with different lyrics. Other notable Shorewood High graduates include Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads and Charlotte Rae of The Facts Of Life. (Oh, and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but he was always brushed under the rug by the liberal community.)
There isn’t a lot to be proud of in rural central Florida—Disney World holds down the fort in Orlando, but what am I going to do, be proud of Disney? (Or Orlando?) Outside of theme park hell in Kissimmee, and various oddities on the coasts (from the Kennedy Space Center, which has a full-scale replica of the Saturn V, to Weeki Wachee Springs, which boasts the last live mermaid show, according to The New York Times) there isn’t much to look at. But that might be why Tim Burton chose to film the exteriors of his fractured paradise from Edward Scissorhands in Lutz, Lakeland, and Dade City. Squat one-story houses made of stucco, painted with pastel colors, full of secrets? Sounds about right. (My first home was even painted pink with green trim. Because—Florida.)
Not only is Lake Nebagamon, Wis. home to the heaviest ball of twine, it’s also where Jessica Lange resided from 1977 until she realized almost no one wants to live in the perpetually frozen northwest village. Regardless, I grew up hearing stories about Lange sightings at the local gas station/grocery store, and as a child I couldn’t fathom anyone famous having ever stepped foot where I grew up. Thus, I vehemently argued with my mother that Lange didn’t exist, that she was a figment of my mother’s imagination. The fact that Lange had a notable career the 20 years prior to my own existence meant nothing to me. King Kong? Tootsie? Mom, you’re full of it! But now, I happily brag that she once spent a considerable amount of time on the shores of my youth, all thanks to her roles in American Horror Story. That’s right, it took a horror anthology for me to finally accept that Lange is not only real, but also a damn good actress.
Cleveland has featured prominently in a number of things, from the opening of The Drew Carey Show to The Oh In Ohio, a terrible movie that filmed in the town next to where I grew up. But, weirdly, I’m proudest of my hometown’s completely uncredited appearance in two more recent movies: The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Most of those movies’ fight scenes were filmed in Cleveland for tax reasons or whatever, with my little midwestern hub standing in for New York when it comes time to flip cars over and burn stuff down. It’s surprisingly satisfying to watch The Incredible Hulk and Captain America strut through Cleveland’s Public Square and fight Loki up and down my beloved city’s fancy streets. I think it’s because I know that Cleveland really needed those jobs, that money, and that attention, even if the city didn’t get marquee billing.
My adopted hometown of Denver isn’t a nationally known music city, nor has it ever been. But one Denver group—which was born here and died here—makes me proud as hell to be a Denverite: The Fluid. Most notable for being one of the first bands to release an album on Sub Pop in the late ’80s, The Fluid played hard, deep, and soulful, informed by The Stooges, MC5, and Alice Cooper. That intensity made even more sense once I learned some of its members had previously been in The Frantix, a sludgy punk band that’s become a legend in Denver (and beyond; Thurston Moore has professed his adoration of The Frantix’s filth-choked misanthropy). The Fluid had its own famous fans; Nirvana did a split single with the group in 1991. Things fell apart after The Fluid signed to a major label, although a recent reunion in Denver did well. Sadly, guitarist Rick Kulwicki died in 2011, but I still hold The Fluid as a standard for local music: If the coasts don’t pay attention, rock so hard that they can’t ignore you.
I’m from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which means that NCIS has an episode set here every other week, but I can’t muster much hometown pride for a series that’s never actually filmed here, so I’m going to go with the song “Promised Land,” written by Chuck Berry, which opens with the lines, “Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia / California on my mind.” It’s not like Berry’s got any real connection to Norfolk—he wrote the song while he was still behind bars, reportedly using an atlas from the prison library to work out the narrator’s route across the country—but the first time I heard “Promised Land,” I felt like Homer Simpson watching Police Cops, only barely able to process that I’d heard my birthplace referenced in the lyrics of a song. I’m rather sure I heard Berry’s version first—and it’s been recorded more than a dozen times since then, by everyone from James Taylor to W.A.S.P.—but I’m always going to be most partial to the version by Elvis Presley. I mean, come on, the King singing the name of the city where I was born? It doesn’t get much better than that.
Like any good denizen of my city, I know Philadelphia is a trash heap. But it’s my trash heap, and I’ll cut you if you talk shit. So that’s why I love pre-tax credit movies made in Philly. These aren’t movies made in Philadelphia because some neighborhoods vaguely resemble a poor man’s New York or because production can be cheaper here, as is usually the current case. These are movies made in Philadelphia by the grace of God, highlighting my city in all of its ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s dirt-stained glory. While Blow Out is fantastic and Rocky is the marquee name, Trading Places is my personal favorite because it satirically shows off the dichotomy that is Philadelphia, the segregation between the blue bloods and the impoverished. Plus, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Ophelia lives right near my house. Special shout out to Mannequin, in which Kim Cattrall’s animated Emmy, despite dating Christopher Columbus and experiencing some of the greatest moments of human history, refers to ’80s Philadelphia as the best time and place to be alive. This is, uh, not true. Runner up: Anytime Bill Cosby wore a Temple sweatshirt on The Cosby Show.
It’s very tempting for me to cheat and use New York, the pop culture mecca where I’ve lived for the past 20 years. But I’m from Buffalo, a city whose meager pop culture contributions (Rick James, the Goo Goo Dolls, Wolf Blitzer) don’t inspire pride as much as “less shame.” Or more shame, in the case of, well, Rick James, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Wolf Blitzer. We’ll even claim 10,000 Maniacs and Lucille Ball as local heroes despite being from Jamestown, N.Y., a town 70 miles away. So it may not be surprising that we still harbor a lot of pride for Ani DiFranco. While her ’90s earnestness has not aged terribly well in our more cynical era, becoming a million-selling artist and moderate household name without ever signing a record deal (her whole discography is self-released) is still mighty impressive. In a Rust Belt city that often feels like the rest of America left it behind, any genuine up-by-the-bootstraps success story is one to celebrate.
St. Louis’ historical claims to fame are almost limited to the Arch, Lewis And Clark, and the 1904 World’s Fair. The Fair marked a time when St. Louis was a thriving Midwestern metropolis, and while it’s since slipped in prestige, nothing recaptures the city’s magic like Judy Garland’s 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis. To most people the musical is a celebration of turn-of-the-century family life (when ketchup was made in ones own kitchen) that introduced the Christmas song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” But St. Louisans know that Garland’s Esther is singing that bittersweet ballad to comfort a little sister who is distraught about leaving their beloved hometown to relocate to New York (the horror!). That the family eventually decides to stay—and attend the World’s Fair, of course—is the ultimate celebration of St. Louis. Nothing better captures the sentiment of living in a small town that occasionally does big things than Rose’s final lines as she gazes excitedly at the Fair: “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel. It’s right in our own hometown!”
Houston doesn’t have a lot of cultural exports for the fourth biggest city in the country. It’s nominally the setting of a TV show or two, and I think I can count the number of movies shot here in the past 120 years on my hands (all right, maybe my toes too). Astronauts, oil, even the eccentric private school in Rushmore all feel like an older city to me, even though I encounter these institutions weekly. There’s just something faded about Houston, its reputation, its representation. Renée Zellweger, Chloe from Project Runway, that guy on The Voice—Houstonians don’t often stick. Beyond Beyoncé, that is. I only know the hits, but still I’m proud to see a superstar from home. More to the point, I’m proud to see someone who feels like the Houston I know: young, reliable, and as vibrant as ever.
This is so obvious that I’m not sure it even needs saying, but the novels and short stories of Stephen King helped to make growing up in Maine something more than just “living in a small town where nothing ever happened.” Lyman, Maine isn’t a direct analog to Derry, Castle Rock, Salem’s Lot, or any other of the dozens of towns King created in his work, but there were enough similarities that I spent most of my childhood semi-convinced that there were monsters in the treetops, if I knew where to look. Better still, as I got older, I started to spend time in places like Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, and others that King drew from directly, and I still get pleasure in matching sites to descriptions. (That spot in 11/22/63 where the narrator comes out of a time portal? I’ve driven by there on my way to work.) It’s thin magic, and it blows away if I try and think about it too much, but still: I get to make all the killer clown jokes I want, and that’s a lot of killer clown jokes.
Hometown pride is a contact sport for New Jersey natives. Even if you don’t love the state, you have an instinct to defend it. It’s like when someone insults your jerk brother; you might not get along, but you’re the only one who can give him shit. So we cling to those New Jerseyians who’ve made names for themselves (and reject the New York impostors who made a name for Jersey Shore). Alumni from my immediate area include Anne Hathaway, John C. McGinley, Zach Braff, and Chelsea Handler, but the first time I remember feeling a swell of Jersey pride was when Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising album came out. It wasn’t even because I was young enough to blindly love everything my liberal parents loved. Springsteen wouldn’t have had to release anything after 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. to be considered a giant, but his need to create The Rising echoed our area’s desperate need to do something, anything, while helplessly watching the smoke of 9/11 curl across the sky even 15 miles away. It’s a compulsive love letter to New Jersey and its neighbors that makes me proud to come from the armpit of America.