Steve Allen, who some of you may remember as the original host of the Tonight Show and others won’t remember at all, used to host a show on PBS called “Meeting of Minds”. I loved it. Every week four or five actors and actresses portraying famous folks from the past would sit down at a table with Mr. Allen and have a conversation.
One week there might be, say, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Genghis Khan, Michelangelo, and Harriet Tubman. The next week a whole new group would show up, maybe Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Mozart, Poncho Villa, Picasso, and Eva Peron.
Now, I can’t imagine what Emily Dickinson and Genghis Khan would possibly find to talk about, but Steve Allen could. Being the genius that he was, he wrote the script, served as moderator, composed the theme song, and produced and directed the show. He probably swept out the studio when everybody left.
Those discussions were inspired and witty and razor sharp. I learned a heck of a lot of history, and liked it best when diametrically opposed people – like Gandhi and Napoleon – would first argue and then grope for some little piece of common ground. If there was an overall theme to that show, it had to be that when we, as a worldwide hodgepodge of cultures and beliefs, quit looking for common ground we might as well close up shop.
“Meeting of Minds” didn’t run long, probably a season or two in the late 70’s. It was billed as the “ultimate talk show”, but it lacked the sex, violence, and action that most viewers wanted. Any title with the word “mind” in it will likely send a large percentage of the television audience in search of another channel.
I’ve long imagined my own Meeting of Minds scenario, not with actors but with real people brought back to life. You can play, too. But you have to follow the rules.
Choose six people, from any era, who you would like to sit down and have a conversation with. They can’t be people you actually know, or have known. You can never have met them, even when you were a small child. You can choose a family member, but not one you’ve ever actually laid eyes on. They had to be out of the picture before you were in it.
Here, after much deliberation – years, in fact – are who I would invite to my magic table. I won’t serve coffee since two of my guests won’t know what it is, and that might make for an awkward moment.
Two of my favorite writers of fiction – Flannery O’Conner and W. Somerset Maugham – will be there; if I’m going to do this, why not get some useful information on how they crafted such perfect stories? Plato will sit between them, because a little philosophy never hurt a gathering, so why not invite the guy who pretty much invented it? Sam Houston will sit right beside me. I just spent three years researching and writing about him so I feel like we’re already buddies. 12 century martyr St. Thomas Beckett, a faith hero of mine, will have to make the longest journey time wise, nearly a millennia. Rounding out the group will be my paternal grandmother, who died a decade before I was born. By all accounts, she was a pistol: a teller of tall tales, practical joker, and a big laugher. Who knows? This group might need a little joviality.
Steve Allen, who started all of this, might have made my short list. But I actually met him once, for just a couple of minutes. So choosing him would be a violation of my own rules. We were both guests at a talk radio station in Houston not long before he passed away, and I only had time, during the commercial break as he was being hustled out of the booth and me in, to shake his hand and thank him for “Meeting of Minds.” He looked a little confused as he was led out by his handler to another radio station; I’m sure most compliments that came his way were for his stint on “Tonight” and or for the many songs and books he wrote.
But “Meeting of Minds” was his masterpiece, in my opinion. And I wanted him to know that.
So, who will be on your list? Narrowing it down will most probably prove a harder task than you think. Flannery O’Conner once said anything worth doing well is difficult.
At least I think she said that. I’ll ask her.
[ Most of this first appeared as a newspaper article some years ago, but I made a few changes in the lineup this time around ]