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Pop Goes the Culture, and Professor Ray Browne Never Weasles About His Love of It

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Professor Ray Browne has nothing against the classics. He’s just more interested in Mickey Spillane, Mary Tyler Moore, the Bobbsey Twins, Batman and 24-year-old TV Guides. Such eclectic—if not bizarre—tastes help explain how Browne, 55, came to be appointed chairman of the nation’s only pop culture department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Browne fled the English department in 1971 so he could lecture on Rod McKuen and Kojak without criticism from his colleagues. “Popular culture is a chronicle of daily life,” he declares. “Unless you study Shakespeare’s London you really don’t know about Hamlet.”

In six years Browne has expanded his folklore specialty at Bowling Green into 18 undergraduate courses (taught by a faculty of five) with an enrollment of 700. This summer he is working with students in the pop culture graduate program. He estimates that there are now about 5,000 courses on the subject at American universities including Southern Cal, Michigan, Yale and Chicago, whose pop scholar John Cawelti acknowledges, “Browne is the originator of the movement.”

Yet even Browne misses a pop icon occasionally. “When Charlie’s Angels first came out,” he confesses, “I thought it was a born loser.” In class he likes to cover the popular Farrah Fawcett-Majors poster south of the bustline and ask, “Would you not agree that in this picture hair is everything? This is an astonishing hairdo, wild but not too wild. There is not much else.” He adds, “Farrah dresses in white and is eternally virginal. She has the bobby-socks sex of the 1940s. No one takes her to bed.” (The professor believes the actress will regret leaving Charlie’s Angels—”She needs to be in the public eye to be in its heart.”)

The artifacts of Browne’s research are stored in the university’s $500,000 Popular Culture Library and Audio Center. Rescued from attics, secondhand bookstores and junkshops by Browne, his wife, Pat, and librarian Bill Schurk in “a sort of contemporary, above-ground archeology” are complete sets of the Bobbsey Twins, Uncle Wiggily and Horatio Alger; copies of the 1891 Ladies’ Home Journal and 1953 TV Guide; Batman posters; baseball trading cards; matchbook covers; automobile sales brochures; underground newspapers; cookbooks; a four-hour tape of a drinking session with Mickey Spillane; 5,000 pieces of sheet music (some pre-Civil War) and 160,000 recordings. One prize possession is an old 78, on the KKK label, titled Daddy Swiped Our Last Clean Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan.

Browne traces his academic ambitions to growing up in Millport, Ala. as the son of a small-town banker and his wife. They imbued him with “an idolatrous attitude toward the workings of the mind.” After his father went broke in the 1929 crash, young Ray picked cotton and wrestled logs in a sawmill before getting through the University of Alabama with some financial help from a sister. A master’s at Columbia in Victorian English and a Ph.D. at UCLA in American history, folklore and literature followed. Now with Pat he runs the Popular Culture Press, which publishes books and The Journal of Popular Culture. He is also secretary-treasurer of the Popular Culture Association, which he founded.

Thinking big, Browne envisages a pop culture hall of fame adjacent to Bowling Green. It would house research facilities plus exhibits like a writer’s corner dedicated to pop culture paragon, novelist Irving Wallace. The author himself has already promised to donate one of his desks and a typewriter. “Every aspect of life has its hall of fame,” Browne explains. “Halls of fame are pop culture in themselves.”