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Friday, September 13, 2019

Actors Should Animate

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: O, witless youth! Here’s the young (or at leastsubstantially younger) me carping about populist entertainment. My stage bias never sounded more keen, yet I'm having trouble making sense of the thing. It’s one of my early pieces for Metroland, from January 1985, when I was signing myself as George Gordon so as not to offend the pernickety editor who ran pieces of mine in the soon-to-fold Albany Knickerbocker News.

                                                                               
           

HIGH-TECH ESPIONAGE DRAMAS ARE fond of employing as a deus ex machina such unpredictable elements as the villain’s daughter’s amorous interest in the rugged hero. Unpredictable, that is, to the villain who, with his brilliant logic, has covered all the other angles only to stymied at the end by the “human element.”

This is a somewhat flabby metaphor for what goes on onstage in the most common kind of dull production: the sets can be lavish or imaginative but nevertheless well done; the blocking superb, all sightlines accounted for; costumes and makeup first-rate – but where’s the human element? In this case, some terrific acting?

An actor’s job never has been easy.

He’s always been a “man apart” in the sense that he makes public the agonies of self-discovery through his facility for adopting other people’s personalities. A good stage performance calls for something more, however: the ability to devise a personality that will cooperate with the invented personalities of the rest of the cast.

Monday, September 09, 2019

What to Do While the Family Is Away

Guest Blogger Dept.: Robert Benchley weighs in with sound advice for the temporary summer bachelor. The Detroit Athletic Club, founded in 1887 and still going strong, moved to a clubhouse in 1915 and simultaneously began publishing a monthly magazine, also still going strong. Benchley had an essay in almost every issue of it between 1920 and 1932.

                                                                                         

SOMEWHERE OR OTHER the legend has sprung up that, as soon as the family goes away for the summer, Daddy brushes the hair over his bald spot, ties up his shoes, and goes out on a whirlwind trip through the hellish districts of town. The funny papers are responsible for this, just as they are responsible for the idea that all millionaires are fat and that Negroes are inordinately fond of watermelons.

Robert Benchley by Gluyas Williams
I will not deny that for just about four minutes after the train has left, bearing Mother, Sister, Junior, Ingabog and the mechanical walrus on their way to Anybunkport, Daddy is suffused with a certain queer feeling of being eleven years old and down-town alone for the first time with fifteen cents to spend on anything he wants. The city seems to spread itself out before him just ablaze with lights and his feet rise lightly from the ground as if attached to toy balloons. I do not deny that his first move is to straighten his tie.

But five minutes would be a generous allowance for the duration of this foot-loose elation. As he leaves the station he suddenly becomes aware of the fact that no one else has heard about his being fancy-free. Everyone seems to be going somewhere in a very important manner. A great many people, oddly enough seem to be going home. Ordinarily he would be going home, too. But there would not be much sense in going home now, without—. But come, come, this is no way to feel! Buck up, man! How about a wild oat or two?

Friday, September 06, 2019

Artist of the Portrait

From the Vault Dept.: T.E. Breitenbach’s painting “Proverbidioms” took on a life of its own as it was discovered and studied by countless curious people. The poster was published in 1980; a decade later, I journeyed to Breitenbach’s castle to write the profile below. He has gone on to create more posters, more rooms in his castle, and even a couple of delightful stage musicals, one of which was filmed for PBS.

                                                                        
    

THERE’S THIS OLD SANTA CLAUS-LIKE GUY named Grumparar who first tipped off artist T. E. Breitenbach to the verifiable existence of the Nu Creatures. Like all of us, Breitenbach knew about them – they’re those fleeting images you see moving on the periphery of your filed of vision, images that vanish when directly confronted.

Photo for Metroland by Michael Ackerman
“I’ve spent the past five years cataloging them,” says Breitenbach, and his studio is filled with their likenesses, collected in groups that each reflect a particular range of emotion. Soon you’ll be able to find the information in a book that describes the creatures, Grumparar and, no doubt, a little bit of Breitenbach. In the meantime, take comfort in knowing that you’re not crazy to spot these things.

“If I have a fight with my wife,” he says, “then one sort of creature appears, the one who represents jealousy or stubbornness or whatever started the argument. When we kiss and make up, this little one who looks like a Latin lover appears instead.”

Monday, September 02, 2019

Sit Down

Celebrating Labor Day as it was meant to be celebrated.


The Manhattan Chorus sings Maurice Sugar's "Sit Down." Recorded in April, 1937, shortly after the successful sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, that helped the United Auto Workers union organize General Motors.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Hilarious

From the Vault Dept.: Speaking of comedy, and going back a mere decade this time, we find Louis C.K. peaking in his ascent to the top tier of American comedians. His terrific cable series “Louie” lay ahead – but so did his undoing. Industry power and sexual pecadillos are bad bedmates. Here’s a piece I wrote in advance of a performance of his in Albany, NY. Now the article seems more of a museum piece than ever.

                                                                                    

LOUIS C.K. TAKES TO THE STAGE as a modern-day everyman who identifies those ingredients that make the seemingly commonplace hilarious. Such as the experience of trying to suppress an intense bathroom need as you hurry home. “And then I see my house,” he says, “and my eyes tell the rest of me, fuck it, man, let go, we’re here.” He widens his eyes, gives a little we’re-in-this-together grin, and adds, “Because my eyes are fuckin’ retarded and they don’t know the difference between the outside and the inside of my house.”

Louis C.K.
The pacing, the build-up, the payoff are all so well done that you forget he’s performing and feel as if you have a personal spokesman articulating your own folly.

“I work on a show during the summer,” he says. “I write on stage, in front of an audience. Here in New York City, there are clubs where I can do ten or fifteen minutes, and the show grows until by August or September I have something.” He’s a keen observer of the minutiae of everyday experiences – does he jot such thoughts in a notebook? “I lose notebooks. And if I write things down like that, my brain says, ‘Oh, it’s in a notebook’ and I forget it. But I record all my shows, so if I spend, say, five days alone with my kids, my brain gets wiped clean and I can go back to those recordings for the material.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

Comedy Gets Serious

From the Vault Dept.: New York’s Capital Region endured a comedy threat 33 years ago – at least, that’s when I wrote this piece about it. Otherwise, the story speaks for itself. But I should note that Janette Barber has gone on to win six Emmy Awards, including those for her work with Rosie O’Donnell; Vinny Montello became known for “Between Brothers,” “Pranks,” and “Loonatics Unleashed.” The clubs mentioned below have long since shuttered.

                                                                             
      

“COMICS AND ROCK STARS are the only people today who are talking about anything important,” says comic Janette Barber. “I mean, this country is making such an incredible swing to the right that somebody’s got to say something!”

Original Metroland art by Brian Pearce
She has just finished a high-energy set at Bicycle Annie’s in Colonie and is talking quite seriously about what drives her up on stage looking for laughs. She was all orange and white onstage – white outfit with big padded shoulders, a curly orange mane, bright cheeks. She flashed a big smile as she delivered another killer thrust: “How old are you, honey?” she asked a man in the front row. “Twenty-eight? I’m 33. I always tell my age. They say a man reaches his sexual peak at 18.” This was exhaled in a sweet Katharine Hepburn voice. “Now, a woman doesn’t reach her peak until her mid-30s. Sorry, dear.”

Stand-up comedy has been an entertainment staple for as long as people have failed to laugh for themselves. The concerns that repress laughter – careers, families, ethics – are the comic’s best targets.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Clannish Behavior

From the Vault Dept.: It was a delight to review all manner of entertainment event, and the opportunity to see Margaret MacLeod was not to be missed. Here’s my review of a 1988 edition of “The Gathering of the Clans.”

                                                                                     

BLACKNESS. The eerie drone of bagpipes, then the plangent melody of the chanters. When the lights came up, it wasn't Brigadoon we saw but a row of four pipers in traditional Scottish garb sounding a noble tune.

"The Gathering of the Clans"
“The Gathering of the Clans” took place at Proctor’s Theatre on Friday night, but it was much more than traditional plaid and pipes. A scrim behind the players lifted to reveal an up-to-date rhythm section that gave an extra kick to the polkas and reels that followed.

There were kilts and decorative sporrans, but there were long pants as well. It was a show that moved most professionally but had the relaxed air of a good folk-club act. And it brought together some superb performers who would do well in any song-and-dance setting.

Margaret MacLeod, a versatile and moving singer (who organized the show) welcomed the audience in Gaelic and then in English, and treated us to a wedding song (“Come Along”) that was as good an excuse as any to present an ensemble of fine dancers, six women and two men who stayed aloft by almost invisible bounces on their permanently-pointed toes.