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Becky: Hello and welcome back to EnglishClass101.com. This is Culture Class, Season 3, Lesson 15 - The Top 5 Most Influential People in Entertainment History. I’m Becky.
Eric: And I’m Eric. It's great to have you here with us for this lesson!
Becky: Now, when we originally envisioned this lesson, we planned to talk about people who have influenced the entertainment industry. However, as we researched, we realized that there are a few interesting stories that involve people in the entertainment industry, but whose major influence was in some other area, like business or politics.
Eric: That’s right. So we’re going to look at things from both angles. Some of these people influenced the entertainment business and others are people originally in entertainment who went on to impact the world in a different way.
Becky: With that, let’s get to it!
Eric: Number 5 of our Top 5 Most Influential People in Entertainment History is Elvis Presley.
Becky: Elvis Presley is quite simply, the king of rock and roll. He was a singer and later a movie and TV actor.
Eric: His position as the king of rock and roll is so firm, he’s often just referred to as “the king.”
Becky: He started his music career with gospel songs but with his own “rock” feel. He is most famous for the way he danced on stage. At the time, it was considered objectionable by most preachers.
Eric: That’s right. He was a unique musical talent and by the time he was 20, had a better understanding of jazz, blues, and gospel music than many university music professors, and could play and sing better than them too.
Becky: Presley was drafted into the military and unlike other figures of the time, he accepted the draft and was stationed in Germany for two years.
Eric: Accepting the draft made him respectable in American culture at the time, because most of the business owners and political leaders were WWII veterans.
Becky: Presley wasn’t a political activist and did very little social activism, but his influence on societies around the world would be felt for generations.
Eric: Elvis Presley was also famously disrespectful of racial segregation. He didn’t organize rallies against racism, he just didn’t care if he was at a black bar or a white bar or singing with white singers or black singers.
Becky: He was openly supportive of and grateful to the African-American influence that created his style of rock and roll. Many white people didn’t like that, but again, he didn’t care.
Eric: That’s right. For him, it was a simple historic fact that rock ‘n roll developed out of rhythm and blues and that rhythm and blues came from the African-American population.
Becky: There are some who say that Elvis Presley was the first step that made the 1960s so revolutionary in the United States. Not that he actively tried to make it happen, but he was part of what made people in the sixties more open to racial integration and rebellion.
Eric: Which bring us to another entertainer who also opened doors for African-American people.
Becky: That’s right. Number 4 in our Top 5 Most Influential People in Entertainment History is Louis Armstrong.
Eric: Louis Armstrong was a singer and a trumpet player in the early 1900s. For those well versed in American music, Louis Armstrong is one of the key figures of jazz.
Becky: Jazz was probably the first truly American music genre, and since then almost every genre of American music can be traced back to jazz.
Eric: That’s right. And Armstrong is sometimes considered the father of jazz because he created the characteristic of improvisation that is so central to jazz expression.
Becky: That’s also what makes jazz such a difficult genre to learn and master, especially at the level Armstrong reached. He astonished both white and non-white listeners with a style of music that was unique every single time.
Eric: Exactly! No two performances were alike, which brought people to see him again and again, even if they’d already seen him a hundred times.
Becky: This special ability gained the attention of wealthy business owners, politicians, and the general public alike. He was able, for the first time, to make the color of his skin secondary to his ability to perform.
Eric: This was pivotal in a culture where many still believed that African-Americans were less capable than whites.
Becky: Today that may not seem significant because many of the best singers and songwriters are African-American. However, people like Beyoncé probably wouldn’t be popular today without Louis Armstrong.
Eric: That’s right. Armstrong is largely credited as being one of the first African-Americans to break the “color” barrier in entertainment. He was the first African-American entertainer to be popular with all audiences.
Becky: Which brings us to our next person, who is?
Eric: Oprah Winfrey.
Becky: Some of you might think it’s odd to have Oprah Winfrey on this list but, if you think that, you probably think she's just a talk show host. Trust us, Oprah is much more than just a talk show host.
Eric: So, to start things off, she’s a woman and the only woman to make this list. Throughout American history, entertainment has been dominated by men. The fact that Oprah is more influential than most of those men is a big deal.
Becky: Second, she’s African-American. Again, this shouldn't matter, but it does. American entertainment is not only dominated by men, it’s also dominated by white men!
Eric: Oprah Winfrey was able to break through these barriers and her show was one of the few places on TV that discussed racism in an open and honest way.
Becky: Not only has the American view of race changed during her lifetime, she was instrumental in making that change happen.
Eric: That’s right. She has always been active against racial discrimination and active in helping people overcome adversity.
Becky: Third, she’s the first and only African-American female billionaire in history.
Eric: While it might not be very polite to measure someone by how much money they make, this is a business series, so money is important.
Becky: Right, so let’s talk about what she did with her billions. She’s also a world-renowned philanthropist. She’s consistently ranked among the top fifty individuals who donate money to various charities on a yearly basis.
Eric: And of those billionaires she’s the only one listed among the top 20 most powerful people in the world. That’s because she holds a unique position of influence as a talkshow host, an actress, and a businesswoman.
Becky: That’s right. People call it the Oprah Effect. When she endorses a product, sales will rise the same day. Just a mention from her can make or break a business.
Eric: Finally, she became successful through serious, dedicated effort and a sincere desire to help other people. You can’t say that about many billionaires.
Becky: That’s right. She even started and continues to fund a leadership academy in South Africa for girls.
Eric: Pretty awesome. She has received criticism thought that she built schools in South Africa, but not in Chicago, where her show is filmed.
Becky: I never thought of it that way. Well I guess everyone sees it differently.
Eric: That brings us to our last two people on our list.
Becky: Yep. Now, we had a bit of difficulty with these two because depending on which angle you take, either one could be number one.
Eric: That’s right. But let’s not confuse anyone, number 2 of our Top 5 Most Influential People in Entertainment History is Ronald Reagan.
Becky: You may be thinking that he was in politics and not entertainment, but you’d only be half right.
Eric: Ronald Reagan worked for over two decades as a theater, radio, movie, and TV actor and host.
Becky: It was his acting career that made him popular enough to run for President of the United States of America.
Eric: And he held that position for eight years. But even while he was acting, he began to become more involved in politics.
Becky: In the 1960s and 1970s, he was the governor of California, opening the door for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor of California decades later.
Eric: By the time he became president, he had become a firm Republican and supporter of capitalism and the US economy. He had his own opinions about how the economy should work, which were nicknamed Reaganomics.
Becky: Reagan believed that if people paid lower tax percentages, then it would be easier to have businesses, and if there were more businesses, then there would be more sources to tax.
Eric: Some people laughed at his ideas and thought they would destroy his presidency. However, in his last year of presidency, inflation had dropped 8 percentage points, unemployment had dropped 2 percentage points, and the actual amount of money the federal government brought in each year had increased by roughly 16%.
Becky: However, eight years is a long time and many things happened during his eight years as the president. Many argue that the economic improvement that occurred during the 1980s was not because of his tax plan, but because of external global factors.
Eric: But the influence of his tax plan was so great that Republicans have run on a similar tax plan almost every year since Reagan, up to the elections involving Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Becky: But Reagan’s influence was much more than just economics. He also negotiated heavily with Soviet leaders during the Cold War and during his term as president. He developed an important treaty that worked towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. He also set the stage for the Malta Summit in 1989 where Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the U.S.S.R. and George Bush Sr., the new president of the United States, officially announced the end of the cold war.
Eric: Back in the United States, he also signed new laws that increased the penalties for drug use and distribution, known as “the War on Drugs.” A lot of people have criticized this decision, saying that it hasn’t gotten rid of drugs and unfairly targets black communities.
Becky: Yes, it’s a complex issue. Speaking of the war on drugs, we should not forget about the Iran-Contra Scandal. High ranking officials in the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran in the hopes of securing the release of hostages and to raise funds to train Nicaraguan contras.
Eric: Contras were rebels who wanted to overthrow the socialist government in Nicaragua. Congress had enacted a law that the US would not deal with either Iran or Nicaraguan contras, so this was doubly illegal.
Becky: Wait a second. What does that have to do with the war on drugs?
Eric: Oh, some of the money was given to drug traffickers.
Becky: Ironic. Well nobody knows how much Reagan knew, but as the congressional report after the scandal said, “If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”
Eric: Even though I’ve never seen any of his movies, I think it’s safe to say that Reagan is probably the most influential actor in history.
Becky: And number 1 in our Top 5 Most Influential People in Entertainment History is Walt Disney.
Eric: Now, if you look at things like the Cold War, Walt Disney wasn’t particularly influential in that. However, when you look at the entertainment industry, no one has had more influence on the entertainment industry than Walt Disney.
Becky: This is the tradeoff we were talking about before. On the grand scale of things, Ronald Reagan has had a greater influence on the world, but he didn’t affect the entertainment industry very much.
Eric: Walt Disney - on the other hand - founded, built, and administrated what is now the largest entertainment company in the world.
Becky: Like Ronald Reagan and American politics, the effect that Walt Disney had on the entertainment industry can’t be measured. He popularized cartoons, and the company he created has been entertaining and teaching children and adults for generations.
Eric: Disney has also been a leader in entertainment technology for decades. They were the first to colorize cartoons and use a multiplane camera to film cartoons. They were also the first major multimedia corporation to create a theme park, and produced the first variety show aimed specifically at children.
Becky: They were also the first major studio to distribute films for Pixar and later purchased the company. All because of Walt Disney, the man who started it all.
Eric: Well, that’s all for this lesson.
Becky: Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time!
Eric: Bye!