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Monday, June 10, 2019

The Sound of Silents: The Charles Chaplin Film Music Anthology

MY FIRST VIEWING OF “CITY LIGHTS” took place in a midtown-Manhattan revival house in the mid-1970s. I went to a midday showing with a high-school friend who had landed a job with a nearby ad agency. The half-filled theater was populated by men, mostly, men in business suits, taking, I suspected, an extra-long break from the workday.

What knowledge I had of Chaplin’s movies was gained from TV showings of his silent shorts, movies that had been mangled over the years and were interrupted by commercials. I fell in love with them anyway.

“City Lights” transported me to a very different place. Now I was enjoying Chaplin’s work with an audience around me, raising the delight factor even as the shared laughs caused the timing of the gags to land as they were intended. Released in 1931, it was a silent movie thumbing its nose at the newly born talkies. But it wasn’t at all silent.

Chaplin long had been telling his stories with little or no dialogue. Part of his genius lay in using the constraints of the screen and the versatility of framing and cutting to convey or heighten the emotional changes that inform the universe he evolved. He knew that pathos and comedy effectively complement each other, and combined them to greatest effect in “City Lights.”

Friday, June 07, 2019

Dinner and a Movie, Maybe

From the Food Vault Dept.: Somehow I managed to experience a dinner-and-a-movie venue in Saratoga Springs without actually seeing the movie, and I was very kind about the food weendured. But this was in 1997, when the world was young. The place endured for at least a decade, but it succumbed to Saratoga’s upscale pretentions, and is now an Embassy Suites. Which was the only photo I could find of the complex.


“SPORTS BAR? I HATE SPORTS BARS,” I muttered as we pushed our way into the place. Too much football regalia. Too many TV screens. Too much – but then I spotted the baseball stuff. Baseball stuff is good. And I’m too much of an Anglophile to resist a dartboard, even if I don’t take a crack at it myself.

What's there now.
My wife and I were in the Broadway Joe’s half of Joe O’Hara’s sports and movie complex, in the former Grand Union at Congress Plaza, a half-block down East Congress Street from Broadway, across from Congress Park.

Our intention: to check out the dine-while-you-watch movie theater. Our problem: we weren’t really crazy about seeing any of the listed movies.

The politest way to get from the sports bar to the theater is to go outside: there are separate entrances. (You could squeeze by the ticket counter, but I hate dislodging service staff trying to get their work done.) “Here for Star Trek?” asked an usher/waiter.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The Century Club

AS WE CONTEMPLATE the implications of the life-changing choices we make, we’re dogged by a persistent worry: What will the neighbors think? For Joan and Stevie, recently settled in a Florida condo-style residence, it’s more than a worry. Their new neighbors start by mistakenly occupying Joan and Stevie’s residence, and it goes downhill from there as scatterbrained Helen and imperious Ray undermine what little remains of the other couple’s sense of well-being.

Kevin McGuire, Colleen Corcoran,
and Keith J. Conallen.
Photo by Richard Lovrich
Richard Dresser’s “100 Years,” which is getting its world premiere in a production by Troy Foundry Theatre, puts us not too far into the future as two couples contemplate the implications of a life-changing decision they’ve made. They have signed up (at great expense) to undergo a mysterious process that requires them to live in this cookie-cutter community and consume nine large portions of some kind of shake each day, shakes that seem to have all the appeal of a dose of Miralax.

“I don’t like all the rules here,” Joan declares early on, and it’s easy to see how stifled she feels. Colleen Corcoran has a beauty of a role with this character. Her relationship with husband Stevie (Keith J. Conallen) is, on the whole, a happy one, but we see a credible range of contention and discontent as they grapple with their odd new life and odder new neighbors. Conallen also conveys the complexity of such a relationship, as well as deftly giving us a character who isn’t as tough as he’d like us to think.

And just as we’re getting used to them, the neighbors appear. Helen is Raymond’s second wife. His first, she explains, died in a sinkhole, an accident that “didn’t have to happen, but, then again, what does?” In order to marry Ray, Helen gave up her job consulting for trauma victims – “Talk about a growth industry!”

Friday, May 24, 2019

Heil, Brooklyn!

HIS FIRST INKLINGS of the immediacy of Nazi atrocities took place in a neighborhood bakery, in 1956, where the four-year-old Bobby Rosen spotted the tattoo on the forearm of a woman working the counter and coaxed a whispered explanation from his mother. This opens an awareness of the ubiquity of such signs in his neighborhood, and why “A day never passed when I didn’t hear somebody express an opinion about the Nazis – usually my father,” a World War II veteran who was particularly infuriated by the sight of German-designed cars. “Yeah, we all hated the Nazis,” Rosen continues, “and if anybody didn’t, he kept his fool mouth shut about it.”

Rosen describes his boyhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in his new memoir Bobby in Naziland (Headpress). It’s his third book, following the best-selling Nowhere Man, an account John Lennon’s final days, and Beaver Street, a look at the porn industry as experienced by Rosen when he was an editor of erotic magazines.

Bobby in Naziland takes an episodic stroll through a Jewish neighborhood that seemed stuck in its own kind of timelessness, colored by the multi-directional progression of prejudices reported throughout the book. Anyone who is German is, of course, a target, which for Rosen included his building’s super, Mr. Kruger (“My father called him ‘that damn Kraut’”). “We also routinely beat the shit out of his blond and suspiciously Aryan-looking twin sons ... who were my age.”

But there also were Catholics to despise, and Poles and Puerto Ricans. “It was garden-variety bigotry, inane and vicious at the same time.” What Tom Lehrer parodied in his song “National Brotherhood Week” played out for real in Flatbush, where “everyone ... I knew hated black people – Jew and goyim alike.” Although racial integration of the Brooklyn Dodgers made it seem as if the borough “were some kind of racially harmonious mecca,” in truth it was bad enough that the 1965 Voting Rights Act had to be applied to Brooklyn as well as the former Confederacy.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Can’t Help Falling

From the Opera Vault Dept.: We’re gearing up for summer opera season, so here’s a re-visit to a time, thirty years ago, when the NYC Opera performed in Saratoga Springs each summer. When the NYC Opera existed at all.

THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA’S opening production of their short Saratoga Performing Arts Center season this year was marred only by two adversities: the weather, about which no one is able to do much, and the perennially unkind acoustics, about which ditto.

Marilyn Mims
Other than that, it was a glorious trip to that fancified Paris of “La Traviata” Wednesday night with a die-hard crowd that sloshed into the amphitheater to share in the magic of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Marilyn Mims and Walter MacNeil sang the roles of Violetta and Alfredo, the lovers whose affair, you get the feeling, is doomed the moment she starts coughing in the first act.

The opera is a soprano’s showcase, both in talent requirement and the skill with which the part is written. Mims did a lovely job transforming herself, during the first act, from a live-for-the-moment character into a woman seriously touched by Alfredo’s attention. She echoes the elements of two of his first act arias and then launches into two difficult arias, back to back: “Ah fors’e lui che l’anima” and “Sempre libera,” all of which was sung with strength, precision and a keen sense of grace.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Lesson Number One

Guest Blogger Dept.: Hello again, Mr. Benchley! The estimable Robert is here again with a piece that’s more timely than ever.


FRANKLY, I AM NOT MUCH OF A HAND at machinery of any sort. I have no prejudice against it as such, for some of my best friends are of a mechanical turn of mind, and very nice fellows they are too. But the pencil sharpener in our office is about as far as I, personally, have ever got in the line of operating a complicated piece of mechanism with any degree of success.

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
So, when George suggested that he teach me to run his car, it seemed a reasonable proposition. Obviously, some one had to teach me. I couldn't be expected to go out and pick the thing up by myself, like learning to eat olives. No matter how well-intentioned I might be, or how long I stuck at it, the chances are that I never could learn to drive a car simply by sitting in the seat alone and fooling around among the gadgets until I found the right ones. Something would be sure to happen to spoil the whole thing long before I got the hang of it.

The car was, therefore, brought out into the driveway at the side of the house, like a bull being led into the ring for a humid afternoon with the matador. It was right here that George began to show his true colors, for he stopped the engine, which was running very nicely as it was, and said that I might as well begin by learning to crank it, as I probably would spend seven-eighths of my driving time cranking in the future.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Sky Lights

From the Vault Dept.: It was pretty cutting-edge when I wrote about this melding of music and lights at the Schenectady Museum and Planetarium in 1987. Everything has moved on since then – including Raytel founder Alan Jackson, who co-founded an outfit called Voxon that’s exploring 3D volumetric display.


YOU SIT BACK AND OBSERVE the stars of a clear, dark night. The throb of music begins: drums, twangs and vocal of a Pink Floyd number. A red beam of light hits that sky, wiggles, expands to a shimmering beam, forms the pattern of a singing face. Behind it a mosaic of iridescent green winks in a changing geometry, a spider-web twisting to the beat.

The sky is the inside dome of the Schenectady Museum Planetarium; the lights are the lasers of Raytel, a Troy-based company presenting a new Visual Music Festival at the Museum on Nott Terrace Heights at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, and continuing through the following weekend.

Alan Jackson, founder (and licensed laserist) of the company, began building robots when he was a child. “In 1976,” he says, “I was getting interested in building computers. At the same time I saw a laser show and decided that was what I wanted to do.”

He has combined his talents into the design and construction of the units that form the basis of shows that have been presented throughout New England and as far away as Arizona and Oregon.