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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Kovacs Land

LISTENING TO ERNIE KOVACS is a reminder that he was a storyteller above all, more grounded, perhaps, than Brother Theodore, but with a more subversive edge than Jean Shepherd. Which made Kovacs ideal for the dying medium of radio, the place where he began. The fact that he discovered television meant that he was able to apply his restless imagination to the black-and-white screen, and therefore transform the industry.

Kovacs fans know all about this, and this year, the centenary of his birth, we’re (as always) delighted to show the less-enlightened where just about everything we prize about all TV comedy originated: the mind of Ernie Kovacs.

We have some more help now in the form of the voice (or, more accurately, the sound) of Ernie Kovacs. It graced an LP issued in 1976, and has been expanded into a CD reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks.

You get a taste of his lunacy right from the start, as “Tom Swift” puts the adverb-rich boy inventor into perilous captivity – in the tuna-salad slot of an abandoned automat, to be precise. Other sketches lance his favorite target, TV conventions, making fun of commercials, interview shows (“Welcome Transients” features a guest with a compelling story to tell who is unable to remember its key points), sentimental stories, newscasts, and, of course, a generous helping of the poetry of Percy Dovetonsils (“Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” and “Happy Birthday to a Bookworm,” among others) recited over a shrill wordless background chorus.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Cats as Cats Can

From the Vault Dept.: Sometimes a book showed up on an editor’s desk that was unusual enough (the book, that is, not the desk) to merit outsourcing to a reviewer unfazed by such things. In fact, what they didn’t know was that I was, am, and shall remain a devoted cat person. Sorry, pooches. Myrna Milani continues to write and has added blogging and podcasting to her activities; her website is here.


DR. MYRNA MILANI, veterinarian and author of “The Body Language and Emotion of Cats,” has added a new element to a busy schedule: endorsement of cat food.

The brand name is Sheba, sold by the Kai Kan company, developed in Europe where the perception of cats is different enough to encourage the necessary research. “The European attitude accepts cats as hunters. An American looks at a cat and sees this gorgeous, graceful creature, ignoring the fact that the animal is by nature a hunter. When we see it stalking a toy, preparing to pounce, we think that's cute.

“So we don’t always understand the elements that contribute to the perception of the cat as a fussy eater. They’re susceptible to several items: sound. motion, odor, texture, and, finally, taste. What do we feed them? Something that doesn’t make noise, is still, has no odor, but has flavor and texture based entirely on what’s economical to produce.”

Not that Dr. Milani recommends an unswerving diet of anything, unless it’s rodent. “Nutritionally, the ideal food for a cat is a mouse. The two have co-evolved with this symbiosis. But nobody has really been able to pinpoint what it is about the mouse that’s so good for the cat. And keep in mind that the mouse in Los Angeles is probably eating different things than the cat in New York, causing subtle fluctuations in the co-evolutionary balance but not changing that essential relationship.”

Monday, August 05, 2019

Someone Is Interviewing the Great Chefs of Albany

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece from 1989 that ran in the short-lived Capital Region magazine, a glossy book that died, as did so much else, in the early 1990s. The idea was to create a five-course meal woven through interviews with five superior area chefs. As was usually the case with that magazine’s nutcase editor, what ran wasn’t what I’d written, and it was changed against my wishes. So here’s the draft I prefer. As to the chefs and eateries named below, Jean Morel ran L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, NY, from 1971 to 1996; he died in 2004. Susan Lenane died in 2016, and her husband, Bill Bensen, closed the Palmer House a year later. Selma Nemer ran Eartha’s Kitchen for five years, until 1990; she now owns and runs One Roof Holistic Center in Saratoga Springs, as well as being a noted painter. Yono’s has moved a couple of times since it was at Robinson Square, and now occupies a handsome space at Albany’s downtown Hampton Inn, alongside a casual-dining space called dp: an American Brasserie (named for his son, Dominick, who works alongside him). Dale Miller went from The Stone Ends to the Inn at Erlowest to an eponymous place in Albany to Saratoga’s Sperry’s – and now works as a consultant.


A MAGNIFICENT MEAL puts life’s lesser imperatives in their places. You quiescently float halfway home from the restaurant before you find yourself wondering how the chef accomplished those marvels. It wasn’t just a veal pistache you polished off: it was a Platonic ideal of veal. And chocolate, that child’s delight, became instead an exotic showcase of richness so compelling that in finishing your torte you surely committed a mortal sin.

A great chef owes as much to Robert-Houdin as to Auguste Escoffier because cookery is a form of magic in which a flamboyant (often flaming) result conceals a journeyman’s care and preparation. CAPITAL Region chose the five best chefs in this area and asked them their secrets. They demurred. We persisted; “Surely,” we said, “you can crack open the kitchen door for us?” We invoked a New Year’s spirit; we pleaded. We begged.

Being the best, they acceded. And in doing so provided a dream menu, a five-course meal of a sumptuousness that a person could be tempted to die for. Lucky for us we need only diet.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Setting the Table

AFTER THE DELUGE, IT WAS THE RESTAURANT. When the Mohawk Valley village of Fort Plain was hit by flooding in the summer of 2013 – four years to the day after a similar horror – nearly 90 businesses told the town’s mayor that they couldn’t afford to reopen. Aaron Katovitch had only recently opened his restaurant, The Table at Fort Plain, and he, too, faced a scene of devastation. The restaurant’s basement flooded, wiring was destroyed, and his wine collection was lost, among other damages.

Aaron’s family rallied to his side; they rebuilt the restaurant in a scant four weeks. By the time I made my first visit there, six months later, the attractive eatery was humming with good business and great food.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Five and a half years later, he’s still going strong. He is defying the odds. As much as New York’s Montgomery County likes to promote its villages, Fort Plain is not a tourist destination. If a single restaurant could make it so, then Katovitch’s cooking ought to be enough. 

The menu changes as often as new ingredients demand, and summer is a time when there’s fresh, local produce a-plenty to liven a dish. The chef has set himself a challenging mission: the window for fresh and local opens for a few fleeting months, but when it’s open there’s a considerable bounty.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Comedy of Confinement

From the Vault Dept.: I wrote this review little over a year ago, and I don't remember why. It wasn't published (until now), but it's a nice salute to the work of one of the most original writer-directors at work these days. I'm particularly looking forward to Iannucci's forthcoming film of "David Copperfield" (and you can see Iannucci pay tribute to Dickens here).


THE MOST TELLING MOMENT in Armando Iannucci’s film “The Death of Stalin” occurs as the dictator’s body is laying in state and the people – some of whom have traveled a great distance – throng past the bier. They are shocked and reverential, the uncertainty in their faces and manner an indication of the ideological lockstep in which they’ve been trained to march. Clearly, the cult of Stalin was wildly successful in its oppressive zeal.

We see them herded into this crowded space; previously, we’ve seen the mourners herded onto trains and then massing the city’s streets, many of them shot by overzealous security forces. Confinement becomes a central motif of the movie, whether it be the lonely confinement of a rape victim in prison or the ideological confinement of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who continues to cling to the delusion that his wife was guilty of Stalin-invented charges even after the dictator’s demise.

It is 1953, and Stalin’s Central Committee must name his successor. These men are the supposed loyalists, the ones who endure too many late nights watching John Wayne movies with their leader, but who also deal in fear – both in its administration (Simon Russell Beale, as the loathsome Beria, casually directing family executions) and as its target (Molotov brings a chew toy to a meeting in a car so that his dog will bark over the conversation).

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Chance of a Ghost

THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES are there to greet you as you settle into your theater seat. They’re garbed in white; they languish in the gloom behind a scrim of, essentially, many strings. The stage is bathed in blue. The music starts – a plangent peal of woodwinds joined by a chorus of high strings – and more ghostly figures drift from the wings.

Brian Wallin, Emily Mirsch, Joanna Latini,
Kayla Siembieda, and Ben Schaefer
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
The Ghosts of Versailles is the 1991 opera by John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman, inspired by the life and times of the polymath Beaumarchais, the man best known for his plays “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” He wrote a third Figaro play, titled “The Guilty Mother,” which becomes an opera-within-an-opera in this metafictional piece.

It’s a piece with a large cast, calling for the considerable resources that the Glimmerglass Festival has been able to lavish upon it – and a spectacular production is the result. “Another evening at the opera,” say a woman in the ghost audience. “I’m so bored,” declares a nearby man, winning a laugh from an audience puzzled at the outset by the keening sounds and haunted stagescape (with varied and thrilling set design by James Noone). The candelabra on the curving walls that dominate center stage suggest Cocteau; although these fixtures are still, the music’s unearthly sounds make the stillness seem animate.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Rise of the Fallen Angel

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY the Patriarchy fell victim to what’s termed the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, in which certain men, the dears, find sexual fulfillment only with reputation-tarnished women, reserving their admiration for the (as they see it) unsullied. The topic has been pondered by thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Naomi Wolf, and informs all manner of art and literature.

Kang Wang and Amanda Woodbury
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Alexandre Dumas fils spun out a roman à clef in his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, recounting his own brief affair with a Parisian demimondaine (the term is a Dumas coinage) who died of tuberculosis (or syphilis, depending on who you wish to believe) at the age of 23. In the novel, this offers the character a kind of redemption, which was a handy device for the fictionist – although Richardson’s Clarissa, a century earlier, maintained her virginity for several hundred torrid pages, when she’s finally raped by the scheming Lovelace, she re-achieves a convoluted kind of innocence by dying fairly turgidly thereafter.

Dumas turned his scandalous novel into a scandalous play, and Verdi, with his keen sense of effective musical drama, quickly turned it into La traviata, which, after a rocky initial reception, has become an opera-house mainstay. The spectacle of a “fallen woman” achieving recognition and wealth through her profession continues to delight us, although we suspect from the start that hers will be an unhappy end. Transgressors must be punished, according to a hoary moral code, relieving an audience of guilt over any sense of unwonted pleasure.