American portraits -- We go inside the lives of a few panelists to see what pop culture they love

Mario and Anabel Gonzalez
Ask the Gonzalezes what they do for fun, and the answer will be a question: ”Before or after?”

Meaning, before or after their wedding, which was on March 2. When they were dating, they went out to dinner, then to a movie or a play. These days Mario, 27, and Anabel, 25, both Cuban-Americans, are spending more time with a bag of microwave popcorn in front of the VCR.

Even when having fun, ”we have to do things because they’re cost-effective,” says Anabel, who has found a drugstore that rents videos for two nights at 69 cents. Recent engagements in the Gonzalez living room: Narrow Margin and Presumed Innocent, both high scorers, and Navy SEALs, a letdown. They saw Misery on their honeymoon because it was playing on pay-per-view in their hotel.

Says Mario, a financial planner: ”We won’t go out to the movies unless it’s something that you have to see,” like Dances With Wolves and Home Alone.

In her musical choices, Anabel, an advertising account executive, is cold to Michael, Janet, or any other Jackson. ”That’s music that I get sick of after hearing twice,” says this fan of Basia and Anita Baker. Still, there are few albums or tapes in the Gonzalez home. They listen to most of their music on radio.

And the TV doesn’t get much use either — six or eight hours a week at most. Mario and Anabel frequently watch Nightline together. She likes the way anchor Ted Koppel ”takes a topic and really goes in depth, without making it into a big thing.” After Koppel, she goes to sleep. Mario watches Arsenio.

Unless, of course, Misery is playing on cable. — Juan Carlos Coto

Earl and Marie Barth
Silverdale, Washington
Earl and Marie Barth used to get excited about the movies. In his teens, Earl saw The Great Caruso at least 14 times, and he saw all of James Stewart’s and Paul Newman’s movies. Marie never missed a Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn film. But times have changed, movies have changed, and the Barths have changed. Earl, 58, is a retired sales executive, and Marie, 54, a homemaker; their three kids now live on their own. The Barths don’t like going to movies now because, they say, the films aren’t as good as they once were, they have too much profanity, and audiences aren’t as considerate.

Instead, the Barths watch TV about 30 hours a week, a little more during football season. Marie likes L.A. Law and Cheers. Earl likes sitcom reruns (his favorites: Barney Miller, Bob Newhart, and Mary Tyler Moore).

Before turning on the TV in the evening, Earl and Marie often listen to music, mostly compact discs that cover a broad but conservative range from the Boston Pops to the Oak Ridge Boys to Pavarotti. Nothing in their collection comes close to rock. Says Earl: ”Rock & roll is music to some people. To me, it’s noise.” Earl reads about eight hefty books a year (his favorite author: James Michener) while Marie reads two or three a month (she likes Leo Buscaglia).

Once in a great while, they go to a movie but rarely to the same one. The last movie Marie saw in a theater was 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…Earl’s was 1988’s Rain Man, which he enjoyed. But Earl and Marie say they’re disappointed with most of today’s pictures. When they rent a film on video, ”we’re usually glad we didn’t pay to see it in a theater,” she says. — Alex Tizon

Alison Stewart
New York City
”I get a lot of music for free,” says 24-year-old Alison Stewart, an associate producer for MTV. ”So buying an album depends on how desperately I want it and how immediately I want it.”

The albums she recently had to buy? Joe Jackson’s Laughter and Lust and Peter Gabriel’s greatest hits collection, Shaking the Tree. Her favorite singer is k.d. lang (”because she’s just got the most phenomenal voice in music, pop or otherwise, right now”), and her favorite bands are the Waterboys, the Replacements, and the BoDeans.

On her must-see list for TV are what she calls ”the women power hour” of Murphy Brown and Designing Women (”where there are no bimbos, or bimbos are made fun of”) and ”the second coming of Letterman” (”He seems to have come right back around to being fun again”). Her taste in movies is just as definite. ”No bang-’em-up car or slasher films. I like comedies, kooky foreign films, and revival stuff,” says Stewart, who sees about four movies a month.

She borrows about a half-dozen books a year from a friend who works in a newspaper literary section and buys 12 more that are recommended by friends. ”I don’t like these writers-under-25-wacky-life-in-the-big-city books,” Stewart says. She does like Saul Bellow, both for the way he treats traditional themes in a modern way and for his ”incredible” sense of humor.

Her favorite commercials tend to be media-savvy spoofs. ”Like those Energizer ads where they do that takeoff on A Room With a View. That stupid rabbit just cracks me up.” — Suelain Moy

The Roberts Family
The Roberts family — Alfred Sr., Billie, and their children, LaTasha, 15, and Alfred Jr., 10 — can never agree on what movie to see. And their tastes in music clash: With Alfred Sr. a devotee of James Cleveland’s gospel music, his wife an opera lover, and the kids listening to such R&B groups as Special Generation and Guy, the radio dial gets a workout at their Dallas home.

But come Friday night, they find common ground in front of the TV, when Family Matters comes on. ”It’s one thing we count on doing together,” says Billie, 46, who sells real estate and is a music director at a Methodist church. The two kids watch the most TV — about 26 hours a week. Mom watches an hour of news a day and Dad about 90 minutes a week of sitcoms. Other shows the family likes: In Living Color and the now-canceled Amen and Equal Justice.

Alfred Jr. sees the most movies, at least two a month. (The Perfect Weapon is a recent favorite.) Alfred Sr., 48, a school administrator, hasn’t gone to the movies since he took his son to see Dick Tracy, but his wife and daughter have seen a half-dozen films in the last year (with To Sleep With Anger their favorite).

But the family does rent a lot of movies — about 20 a month in the summer, when the children cruise the video store to see what looks good. ”We’ll probably come home with two or three, watch them, and go back for several more in a few days,” LaTasha says.

The Roberts family buys about 35 books a year. Alfred Sr. reads nonfiction on education, Billie books on salesmanship (like Power Real Estate Selling, by William H. Pivar), LaTasha contemporary African-American fiction (such as Family by J. California Cooper), and Alfred Jr. mystery and suspense stories.

When they’re not reading, listening, or viewing, they’re avid game players and love to spend an evening, or what’s left of it, with a round of Clue, Monopoly, or Outburst. — Mary Barrineau

Greg van Eekhout
Los Angeles
When Greg van Eekhout, 24, was growing up near L.A.’s MGM studios, ”going to the movies was a big event.” But these days, the 1990 UCLA graduate says, ”I can’t afford it. The entry-level job market is very tough, and the first thing you have to give up is entertainment.”

When he does go to the movies, van Eekhout says, he has to compromise between the action-adventure-horror films he loves and the movies his girlfriend prefers. Yet Hamlet, not the biggest action movie around, was one of his favorite films of the last year. (”Wouldn’t a sequel be great?” he says with a sly smile.) He also admires Jodie Foster’s work (he loved The Silence of the Lambs) and has a warm spot in his heart for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Van Eekhout, who works in a bookstore and aspires to be a writer, figures he reads 15 to 20 books a year, mostly horror. ”I really like Dan Simmons. He has all the commercial elements of Stephen King, but a more cerebral subtext.”

At home, he says, the TV is turned on only at mealtime — ”maybe eight hours a week if I eat slow.” He pronounces most television ”pretty awful” but admits a fondness for Cheers and Star Trek. Mostly, though, the TV is used to play videotapes. ”Video rentals are still a great deal — you can often rent two movies for the price of one. You can always rent a concert video and see the bands that you really can’t afford to see live.”

If van Eekhout could see one band live, it would be Rush: ”There is none of this MTV stuff where it’s all about how you look on camera.”