You will want to watch this television program, and I’ll explain why momentarily, but I want to say a word about Cliff Holman first. As I’m typing this, I’m looking at a fading Kodacolor photograph likely similar to one that could be found in a multitude of scrapbooks across Central Alabama. In it, a handsome gent sporting a blue blazer and a string tie is grinning broadly as he stands in front of an audience equally delighted to be in the frame. Back in the days when this town had only three TV channels and fast food meant Jack’s Hamburgers, James Clifton Holman Jr. bestrode Birmingham like a media Colossus, and one that could pull a quarter out of your ear, at that.
We are besotted with celebrity now, almost to a toxic level, but in that bygone age, there was no thrill as palpable as meeting someone seen on TV, unless it was the chance to be seen on TV yourself. That was the magical gateway Cliff tended as host of The Popeye Show on Channel 13, where throngs of children mounted the bleachers each weekday to have their existence confirmed by being broadcast. The idea that you could ride up Red Mountain, sit for an hour in the presence of cultural royalty and watch cartoons on a studio monitor upon which your own face would be fleetingly glimpsed and simultaneously viewed by what for all you knew was the rest of the known world — it was as enthralling as it was inexplicable.
What separated Cousin Cliff from Benny Carle, Sergeant Jack or any of the so-called kiddie show hosts was artistry. He took to show business early, performing magic tricks professionally when he was just 14 and working night clubs in Birmingham — we actually had them then — before he turned 20. He could sing, sling snappy patter and even juggle if his antique punch lines weren’t punching. He brought an entertainer’s acuity to his television career, so even if the screen was small, he was always thinking big.
Readers of a certain age will remember Rubbing Rocks, Wham Doodle cakes, Droodles and perhaps even Poll Parrot Shoes, the Flying G Saver’s Club or Spoolies. Cousin Cliff, a tireless marketer, made money for everyone whose products he touched.
The lasting riches he created, though, could never be found on a spreadsheet. In Tim Hollis’s definitive biography, there is a photo of Cousin Cliff running down the disappearing light bulb trick with some kids at the old Sokol’s department store in 1966. Just another personal appearance among hundreds he made each year, just another sleight-of-hand illusion among thousands, but those children are rapt. They know they are in the presence of genuine magic.
Cliff Holman put in more than 40 years in the public eye, making memories for his fans. Then, in a bitterly ironic twist, he started losing his own.
In 2007, Cliff was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a shattering coda for a creative life. It cannot be prevented and it cannot be cured. In its inexorable progress, the malady disrupts the essential circuitry of the brain, depriving its victims of cognitive function, impulse control and ultimately life. Though only five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s today, a Harris survey reveals that more than 100 million have been touched in some way by the disease.
As one of the only media outlets with pockets and inclinations deep enough to tackle a subject this vast, HBO gave its award-winning documentary film division the green light to examine Alzheimer’s disease in detail never approached on television before. The result, titled The Alzheimer’s Project, consists of four full-length films, 15 short supplemental films, a companion book and DVDs, as well as a highly interactive website.
The four main films, all available for viewing free on your cable box this weekend whether or not you subscribe to HBO, cover the spectrum of hope. “Caregivers” tells of those who shoulder the unrelenting task of dealing with their loved ones’ disorder; “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?” considers the perspective of children who must cope; while “Momentum in Science” explores the ways researchers are struggling to change Alzheimer’s implacable odds.
The fourth film, “The Memory Loss Tapes,” is the one in which Cliff Holman appears, thanks to the selflessness of his family. Directed and produced by Emmy nominees Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, this documentary follows seven different patients in the deep grasp of dementia.
The filmmakers discovered a Bob Carlton profile of Cliff’s hospice residency in The Birmingham News and contacted the Holman family about including him in their documentary. Cliff’s wife of nearly 58 years, Ann, who worked as a nurse at area hospitals, clearly understood the value of sharing the experience of Cliff’s final days with a global audience, and allowed the film crew to be part of that.
What was gleaned is powerful cinema. As Cookson observed, “You see how much the disease takes from a person, how everything you’ve learned and been in your life is stripped away — yet you still get these glimmers of the person.” Doob concurred: “You get a feeling that there’s a foundation of personality that never leaves.”
Cliff Holman’s was an unforgettable personality. Even dimmed by the ravages of a pernicious disease, the light he brought to our little corner of the world shines through in this remarkable, unsettling film I hope you’ll make time to see it during its limited run, starting this weekend, on HBO.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org