MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today, May 20, is Eliza Doolittle Day. It's taken from the character played by Julie Andrews on Broadway and Audrey Hepburn in the movie version of "My Fair Lady." This is the kind of unofficial holiday that only musical fans would know about, but commentator Marc Acito thinks there are good reasons for us all to observe it.
MARC ACITO: In Act One of "My Fair Lady," Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl learning to speak like a lady, fantasizes about meeting the king of England. Of course, because it's a musical, she sings:
(Singing) One evening the king will say, oh, Liza, old thing. I want all of England your praises to sing. Next week on the twentieth of May, I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day.
ACITO: Since I'm not Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn or Marni Nixon, who sang for Audrey Hepburn in the movie, I'll spare you the rest. But suffice it to say, Eliza envisions all of England celebrating her glory.
However, the only people who recognize Eliza Doolittle Day are musical theater geeks like me. And while an evening of cocktails and show tunes is always fun well, it's always fun to me, at least - it's insufficient to mark the occasion because Eliza's message is all too relevant today.
You see, "My Fair Lady" is based on George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," and both pieces explore the ramifications of learning how to speak properly at a time when elocution was valued as a symbol of education and upward mobility. Emphasis on the was.
Listen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt say the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and it's almost inconceivable that ordinary Americans trusted someone who sounded like Thurston Howell III from Gilligans Island. We are now in an age when Sarah Palin speaks to a quarter of the electorate even though she talks like she's translating into Korean and back again. Even the rhetorically gifted President Obama has felt compelled to drop his G's while trying to sell health care reform.
I myself have heard college graduates say things like, me and him hung out, because apparently, he and I sounds pretentious. Well, me thinks you just sound stupid.
Nowadays, sounding folksy has become more important than sounding educated. As Eliza's teacher Henry Higgins says: Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak. But our country's biggest competitors are learning proper English and, judging from all the Indian call centers, learning it quite well. Our country was built by people striving to move up, not dumb down. So, on this Eliza Doolittle Day, perhaps we should all take a moment to think before we speak.
NORRIS: Marc Acito is the author of the novels "How I Paid For College" and "Attack of the Theater People." He'll celebrate Eliza Doolittle Day tonight at a party in New York with Marni Nixon.
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