PBS takes a cheerful look at Labor Day


A Labor Day etiquette quiz: What color shoes should one wear while walking across the Mackinac Bridge?

If you think Labor Day is the wrong time to contemplate such a question, think again.

"Labor Day is very dear to the heart of etiquette," Miss Manners tells us on "The Labor Day Show," a 90-minute stew of a program on PBS tonight (8 p.m. on Channels 22 and 67; it repeats at 10:30 p.m.).

Miss M. (stand by, gentle reader, the quiz answer will come in time) is one of what seems like a cast of thousands that includes filmmaker Spike Lee; twin-sister 75-year-old New Jersey farmers; the first female mayor of Leighton, Ala.; and Texas drama teacher Gilbert Zepeda.

And it's all centered on a diner where a comedian playing a waitress acts as a goofy mistress of ceremonies. She can't wait until tomorrow -- not because she hates working holidays but because, she says, "I get better-looking every day."

This show is a lot like Labor Day itself. It seems to follow no regulations. Sometimes it's exciting. Sometimes it's boring. And it meets the major requirement of Labor Day: It's pleasant, and it requires no heavy lifting.

You'll learn about Labor Day, how it was dreamed up by Peter J. McGuire, who founded the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1881 and got 10,000 unionists to march in New York on the first semi-formal Labor Day in 1882. Congress gave the whole thing national legal status in 1894.

Only Canada and the United States are smart enough to set their Labor Day in September, "the most pleasant season of the year," in McGuire's opinion. Every other country that honors the working person does it on May 1.

Miss Manners tells us that Labor Day represents a revolution in etiquette that went along with the American Revolution, when, for the first time, people of influence like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson conferred social status on labor.

Before that, the best people in society looked down archly on anyone who actually had to toil for a living. Now, of course, it's just the opposite and perhaps as foolish. People without formal jobs -- from homemakers to playboys -- are often looked at with suspicion.

"The Labor Day Show" doesn't meet with any homemakers or playboys, but it does go from Moose Lake, Minn., which turns out tons of canoe paddles, to Lockman, Okla., which may be the clown-shoe manufacturing center of the world, and to lots of places in between.

It talks to folks on the street about their summer jobs (apple-stem remover sounds like the worst) and visits Hershey Park for an inside look at the venerable Comet roller coaster, followed by a ride.

And "The Labor Day Show" shows how Americans celebrate the holiday, from the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, held annually in Morgan City, La., since 1936, to the walk across the five miles of the Mackinac Bridge.

Michigan's governor leads the crowd over the span that connects his state's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. It's the only time pedestrians are allowed on the bridge all year, which leads us to the answer to our etiquette quiz.

You simply "must" sport white shoes on the march, because it's the last day you'll have a chance to wear them until Memorial Day. Unless they're athletic shoes, which well they might be on such a schlep. You can wear white sneakers all year.

Just "a little bit of clothing symbolism," explains Miss Manners in this delightful little bit of a documentary that makes the end of summer a bit easier to face.

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