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Mad for Hobo Heiroglyphs

by Bruce Nofsinger

November 8,2009

My wife and I have been a little slow on becoming mad for Mad Men. Thanks to Netflix we’re rapidly making our way toward the current season. For those of you who are equally hooked, you may remember the episode from the first season called “The Hobo Code.”

In an episode filled with flashbacks to the time of the Great Depression, many people hopped the rails and traveled from town to town looking for work. (Any link between the current state of the economy and that of the 1930s is incidental!)  Out of work and destitute, these “hobos” had a code — a series of symbols that they would etch on a fencepost or something like it outside the home of someone they visited. For example, one symbol communicated that it was a good place to get a hot meal, while others might have warned of a mean dog on the premises or dishonest residents.

The final flashback scene in Mad Men reveals an old hobo hieroglyph that an overgrown bush had obscured, so the visitor had missed the message etched years earlier by another traveler. Which got me to thinking about this idea of a simple symbol permanently etched near the front door for all to see (unless it happens to be blocked by a bush). The images encapsulate and basically seal the homes’ reputations.

How’s that for build up?

Here’s the connection to today. In August, I began my two-year term as President of the Board of Directors at Theatre Charlotte. This season marked the beginning of my fifth year on the Board. And in my day job, some of my company’s (Topics Education) work centers on helping arts and social service organizations (some of which are here in Charlotte) make a deeper educational impact on key stakeholders.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that my viewpoint would encourage me to connect an image and idea from Mad Men to these types of organizations.

It seems to me that many of our community’s arts and social service organizations are stuck with or are banking on reputations that have long been etched in people’s minds. Granted, whether their reputations are stellar or stained, a number of organizations reinforce the reputations that they have earned.

But I can’t help equating many local organizations with those homes in the 1930s that were undeserving of their hobo hieroglyphs — the ones whose occupants moved or mean dogs died. How many travelers mistakenly avoided them or entered them based on outdated information? How many of us base our decisions on whom to patronize or not patronize on outdated reputations?

What’s interesting to me is that never before has it been any easier for organizations to tell their stories to more people — to refresh their reputations by reshaping their images or simply by reinforcing to new people what has come to symbolize them. And never before has it been any easier for people to learn about the many arts and social service organizations in our area.

Theatre Charlotte is in its 82nd season, yet it feels new. The work is alive and vibrant. Thanks to an incredible staff and a fully-engaged board, the organization has successfully stripped away its hieroglyphs from 10 – 15 years ago and created a whole new set of them. Every year I’ve been on the board, I’ve seen more and more visitors who would have avoided us in the past. Every year, we engage a more diverse and larger group of our community. Yet, we still battle against reputations of yore.

I plan on doing my best to look past reputations. I encourage all of us to take the opportunity to be part of the process for establishing new channels and different symbols that better communicate what our community’s organizations are all about. More important, I hope that the organizations will make it easy for me and for you to see them as they are, not as they once were.

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