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Friday, June 29, 2012


WHEN THE MOON'S greyish grimace is looming
And the willows have started to weep,
When the nightshade the night is perfuming,
It’s your bedtime. Go to sleep.

In the darkness, all creatures are stirring.
To your bedside they’re trying to creep.
When they’re ready to eat, they start purring.
It’s your bedtime. Now sleep.

Have you worried that nobody loves you?
It’s a world where most creatures have teeth.
In the daylight, they’re kind,
But at night they’re inclined
To reveal what they feel underneath.

Every creature has favorite dishes
And I have a promise to keep.
You’re so beautiful, soft, and delicious –
And so tired. So tired. Sleep.

– 10 May 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shooting the 70s

From the Film Cans Dept.: Every so often, I've written about or reviewed movies. I'm ill-qualified to do so, having seen too many films made before I was born, and thus having an inordinate fondness for black and white. For reasons I've forgotten, I wrote the essay below for Metroland in early 1988, recalling a decade part of which I worked as a movie-theater usher.


Marlon Brando in
Last Tango in Paris
THE MOVIEGOING MIND WAS switched on and then off as casually as a light switch at each end of the 70s; both times it was a sci-fi epic, but one was a thought-provoking, ground-breaking masterpiece; the other was a brainless, assembly-line piece of twaddle. Film fans are still feeling the result as a new generation of audience demands only similarly witless entertainment.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke fashioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey an unprecedentedly realistic look at spaceflight while telling a story that raised many questions and kept smugly silent about the answers. The year was 1968, but 2001 really began the 70s for filmmakers.

It saluted a trend toward independence of thought that already was set in motion by the death of the studio system, moribund through the 60s. Along with innovative late-60s pictures like The Graduate and Easy Rider, it heralded a celebration of youth and dreams.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Great Scape

From the Fridge Dept.: It’s garlic scape season. To get good, fat bulbs from your garlic plants, it’s important to snap off the scapes. What you do next is described below.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
CURLY LIKE A PIGTAIL, bulbed like a phallus, green as a rain-swept lawn, the flowering stalk of the garlic plant right now is a luscious, unusual addition to your dinner table. Find some, cook them, enjoy them – and soon, like me, you’ll be impelled to try to grow them. Unlike many of my gardening pursuits, the garlic crop I put in last fall grew spectacularly well and just yielded a bounty of those stalks, known as scapes, that I harvested last week. I’ve been experimenting with different preparations and sharing these creations with friends, and because you weren’t able to share the delicacy at my table, I offer the following.

Garlic you know, of course, as the spicy, pungent partner of just about everything short of dessert, and even then you haven’t truly experienced its flavor until you’ve tried garlic ice cream. Garlic is part of the onion family (Alliaceae), and carries its own moniker, Allium sativum. What we’re looking at is a variety known as hardneck garlic (or top-setting garlic or serpent garlic) which is where you’ll find the coiling scape stalk.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to Write Smut

From the Vault Dept.: I recently emceed the launch party for my friend and former editor Bob Rosen’s book Beaver Street. It’s a beautifully written account of the sixteen years he spent editing porn magazines. I contributed a variety of pieces to several of his titles for a few years, most notably as advice columnist Dr. Marilyn Vas Deferens in Sex Acts. Here’s an old Metroland how-to piece sharing the insights I gained in those trenches.


I DID IT BECAUSE I thought it was hilarious. The money wasn’t all that great, but at one time I was covering technology, reviewing Web sites, writing short fiction and maintaining an advice column—all for a variety of magazines typically relegated to the far end of the newsstand. Even as Senator Exon was railing against Internet smut in Congress, I was telling readers where to find it.

And it was a challenge. It’s more difficult to write a convincingly erotic story than it is to craft decent mainstream fiction. Forget any notions of morality that might condemn the language and subject matter. When it comes to sex, the written word is affected by the same phenomenon that governs dirty movies: Once the sex starts, story and characterization tend to screech to a halt.

If you want to write smut, you have to read and enjoy smut. During my formative years, Penthouse magazine’s Letters column introduced me to the genre. Here was the playout of fantastic, first-person scenarios in which some average schlub—hey, it could’ve been me!—found an unexpected sexual encounter at a Laundromat/neighbor’s pool/campsite. The numbing sameness of the letters didn’t slacken my enthusiasm, and, like all genre fiction, there are formulas to be followed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Here's a review I wrote for Metroland in April, 2011, of a long-anticipated book that proved a delight to read. I'm afraid I got a bit sidetracked by the self-indulgent Garrison Keillor review. Twain's writing is timeless, and this book helps keep it that way.


IT’S BEEN A CENTURY in anticipation, and yet it turns out we’ve seen much of this material before. Twain wrote a few autobiography fragments over the years and in the twilight of his life dictated many thousands of words more, with the provision that it not see print until a hundred years after his death. Then he promptly turned around and published a bunch of it.

So, too, did two of his literary executors and a biographer, each of whom cherry-picked material. So you may have seen much of it before, but this new Autobiography, the first of three fat volumes, collects everything, false starts included, adds a thoughtful, informative, slightly overlong introduction, and annotates the text with notes galore that wait, unobtrusively, at the rear of the book.

With the successes of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad and so many other titles behind him, Samuel Clemens believed that his own story would be of interest but fretted that there it would never be as truthful as he would wish.

So he devised a fresh approach: “Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.”

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Cousin Len's Wonderful Adjective Cellar

Guest Blogger: Jack Finney. You know Finney's work from his novel Time and Again, the best historical perspective of Manhattan ever written. Its sequel, From Time to Time, takes a side-trip into the world of vaudeville that’s breathtaking. Then there’s his early novel The Bodysnatchers, which got “Invasion of the” tacked onto the title’s beginning when the first film of it was made. Finney started out in advertising, placing short stories in magazines beginning in the late 1940s. Here’s his fifth such effort, a delightful, cautionary tale for all who write.


COUSIN LEN FOUND HIS wonderful adjective cellar in a pawnshop. He haunts dusty Second Avenue pawnshops because they're such a relief, he says, from Nature. Cousin Len doesn’t like Nature very much. He spends most of his days outdoors gathering material for The Lure and Lore of the Woods, which he writes, and he would rather, he says, be a plumber.

So he tours the pawnshops in his spare time, bringing home stereoscopic sets (World’s Fair views, Chicago, 1893), watches that strike the hours, and china horses which hold toothpicks in their mouths. We admire these things very much, my wife and I. We’ve been living with Cousin Len since I got out of the Army, waiting to find a place of our own.

So we admired the adjective cellar, too. It had the grace of line of a fire hydrant, but was slightly smaller and made of pewter. We thought it was a salt cellar, and so did Cousin Len. He discovered it was really an adjective cellar when he was working on his column one day after he bought it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Horrors of Raggedy Ann

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Renowned playwright William Gibson developed a theatrical version of the classic Raggedy Ann and Andy tales for the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts (ESIPA) in 1984, a show the company eventually took to Broadway. As it previewed in Albany in December of that year, a ridiculous controversy erupted. My Metroland opinion piece, reprinted below, was far kinder about it than I would be now. Perhaps you have to be a parent to be truly motivated to slap other parents upside the head.


Ivy Austin as
Raggedy Ann
SIMPLY BECAUSE A PERSON is physically capable of bearing children, that person isn’t accorded a divine right to determine what’s best for a child’s welfare. You and I believed that when we were kids, smarting under yet another seemingly arbitrary ruling by our parents. But have you ever occasioned to thank them for the punishment they inflicted while promising you that someday you’d thank them for it?

During the preview week of ESIPA’s production of Raggedy Ann, a surprising controversy erupted, sparked by a combination of a parent’s hysteria and overzealous TV journalism. This snowballed into the sort of thing which, if allowed to go unchecked, could create an unnecessarily restrictive climate in the arts community. This is particularly terrible when it involves an organization dedicated to arts education, as is ESIPA.

After one of the show’s previews, a woman complained to Patricia Snyder, ESIPA’s producing director, that the musical was unfit for children. The woman then took her complaint to a local television station, which put her on camera the following night to repeat her complaint. Over a shot of the woman, Ellen Allen of Albany, at home with her children, the reporter summd it up for her: “She says there were portrayals of gruesome characters, a mother deserting her child, death and even suicide.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Had Miles Met Maurice

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Several years ago, I wrote a series of program notes for CDs issued on the Dorian Recordings label. This one was especially interesting as it featured Peter Blanchette, virtuoso of the archguitar, which is described below.


“And there’s another thing,” Blanchette points out. “Miles and Maurice both were pretty natty dressers. Ravel had something like 400 neckties, while Miles was famous for commissioning designer clothing for his everyday wear.”

A Julian Bream concert lured Blanchette from electric guitar to classical guitar and lute, but he longed to find a way to combine aspects of the sound of both worlds. So he worked with guitar-maker Walter Stanul on a new design that took shape in 1982, when the archguitar was born. With a smaller body than the standard Spanish guitar, it also has added strings and frets. The smaller body also gives it more in the way of overtones, which improves the sound.

In contrast with his previous Dorian release, Archguitar Renaissance (DOR-93178), Blanchette here offers a program that more closely reflects what his ensemble performs in concert. The musical mix of the title track also plays out in the juxtaposition of tunes. “I don’t want to play just one type of music for an audience all evening, and I don’t think people always want to hear that,” Blanchette explains. “That’s why they buy CD changers.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dirty Little Secrets

From the Slush Pile Dept.: An unpublished short story of mine from many years ago, the technical details drawn from my brief own experience as assistant to a private investigator.


“YOUR WIFE IS killing me!”

Ken Sherwood gestured toward Camille with one hand, the hand with which he held a drink, and toward me with the other, cigarette-holding hand. “Where does she find these things to say?”

Camille lowered her head and smiled. She had short, dark hair that framed her plump face in a page-boy cut, setting off her high, ivory forehead. She wrinkled her nose and set her mouth in a moue. “I haven’t said anything — ”

“No, listen to this!” Ken drained his drink and dropped the glass on a nearby table. “I was telling her about that little shit we followed to the mall the other day, the kid with the pickup, looking to see what kind of trouble he’d get himself into.”

I’d mentioned the case in passing to Camille, who showed no interest.

“She says, ‘I don’t understand going to the mall to get in trouble. Isn’t that like having sex with your sister? I mean, you can do it, but why bother?’” Sherwood shook his head and laughed, shoulders heaving, while Camille allowed herself another smile.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Waller Bag

From the Woodpile Dept.: Here’s a piece from 2006 I never quite finished, and I can’t remember why. Slothlike neglectfulness comes to mind as a possibility. I’ve given it an ending and added a postscript to bring the recorded world of Waller up to date.


SUCH A PRODIGIOUS recording artist, and so sketchily served by his label over the years! Fats Waller’s hundreds of studio recordings sold like hotcakes in the late ’30s and early ’40s, before any scholarly kind of discography could be assembled; from there into the LP days his stuff was the stuff of albums here and there, a dozen or so Waller sides gracing each collection.

Just as LPs were gasping their last, RCA Bluebird embarked on a series of two-record sets intended to present a complete collection, but its vinyl provenance doomed the project.

Producer Orrin Keepnews eventually was able to do Waller theoretical justice with a set of 18 CDs, issued as singles and in twos and threes, but they suffered (as did so many reissues in the early CD days) from a cloth-eared use of noise-reduction software. And they were issued over so long a period of time that the earlier issues had gone out of print as the later ones appeared.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Wuorinen Gig

From the Vault Dept.: At the beginning of May, 1984, I got a call from the editor of Musical America magazine asking me if I could review the upcoming concert by the Albany Symphony. It would feature the world premiere of a piano concerto by Charles Wuorinen, a formidable American composer. The concert was supposed to have been reviewed by Scott Cantrell, who was writing for the Albany Times-Union at the time, but Scott (a former colleague at WMHT-FM) was suddenly unavailable. Eager for the shot at appearing in a national magazine, I took the gig.

It felt like a tremendous responsibility. It was. A word-picture of music is tricky under the easiest of circumstances; with the first performance of a piece by a composer as thorny as Wuorinen could be, it promised to be impossible. So I attended two of the rehearsals. Wuorinen was kind enough to lend me a score during one of them. By the time of the concert, I felt far more prepared. Then the editor phoned again to say that Scott had become available. “But I’ve been to rehearsals!” I protested. “I studied the score!” Didn’t matter. But it gave me a taste of editorial unprofessionalism that I’ve met many times since.

Here’s the review I wrote for the Albany Knickerbocker News. Not as insightful as I wish it had been, but I’ve since allowed myself much more leeway in the heightened language department in order to better serve the music.


Charles Wuorinen
Photo by Bob Adler
IF PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING composer Charles Wuorinen were able to persuade the classical music audience to share his attitude toward listening, there would be no need for music critics.

Wuorinen stresses familiarity with a work as the most important prerequisite for understanding it, not a written analysis.

“If I could have told you in words what I wished my piece to say,” he advises, “I would have written it, and not composed it.”

His comment preceded the premiere performance of his Third Piano Concerto, played by Garrick Ohlsson and the Albany Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Julius Hegyi in a pair of concerts last Friday and Saturday.

The commission for this work came from the Albany Symphony and a consortium of four other orchestras in the Northeast. (Ohlsson will perform the concerto next season with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Entering the World of the Book

SUNDAY NIGHT, A LITTLE before midnight. I’m driving the NYS Thruway, heading home after a weekend in Manhattan. A fun weekend of performing and being entertained, making me more aware than usual of the role of the audience such enterprises. And compelling me to look more closely at a couple of the longer-range projects in which I’m immersed.

Short pieces – reviews, essays – I can usually knock off in a single sitting. A little pre-thought, in which I envision an outline and mentally write the lede – and they typically can be finished within an hour or two. Especially in the reduced-distraction realm of the coffeehouse.

But I’ve got a novel in progress. And I’m working on a new play. Both of these consume large parts of my consciousness, and I’m sure they’re percolating in realms of my unconsciousness as well.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Two Moods for Symphony Seven

Sergei Prokofiev
I WORKED FOR A classical-music radio station for two years in the early 1980s, a time when Reagan-era politics eagerly vilified all things Russian. Which meant that each burp of trouble would inspire a certain class of numbskull listener to call to complain when I aired a work by a Russian composer.

Never mind that the works played either predated the Soviet regime (Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky, and the like) or came from the pen of that regime’s victims (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, et. al.). The mere fact that anyone involved should have set foot in the USSR’s variable borders was indictment enough.

Stravinsky got out before the Revolution. Vladimir Dukelsky escaped with his family shortly thereafter, and made an American success as Vernon Duke. Shostakovich stayed and suffered for it. Prokofiev got out in 1918 and lived and worked in Europe and the USA for the next eighteen years. Then he returned to his native country to stay, a move that has inspired endless controversy.

Could he not see the terrible conditions to which he was returning? Probably not. It wasn’t until he’d resettled that the Soviet Composers’ Union was formed, with stringent but highly subjective dictates about what kind of music could (and could not) be written.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Perils of the Actor's Life

Guest Blogger: Fred Belton. From Belton's 1880 memoir Random Recollections of an Old Actor.


WE LAUGH WHEN WE see Hogarth's picture of the strolling players, but many things not fifty years ago have been enacted as ludicrous. In Wigan . . . occurred a laughable circumstance. The juvenile leading lady, a good actress and very pretty woman by the way, and a young mother, was cast to play Juliet, in “Romeo and Juliet.” Her baby had been placed in her dressing-room for security, and to be near the mother. But just before the balcony scene the young tyrant became unruly and impossible to control.

What was to be done? A mother’s tact hit upon the true soothing syrup. She nestled the infant to her breast, and from that moment the young villain became silent as a mouse. Being called, she hastily mounted the rostrum that supported the supposed balcony, throwing a lace scarf over her shoulders, which concealed the little suckling; and leaning over the balcony, with her other arm pensively placed upon her cheek, she looked the picture of innocence and beauty. The scene opened and went glowingly.

But, alas! Juliet has to appear and disappear three times, and in her effort to do so gracefully, and yet conceal the child, she stumbled against the iron brace that held up the frail structure. Down fell the balcony, and, lo! the love-torn maiden was discovered with a baby at her breast—seated on a tub, that served for a stool, and at her foot, accidentally placed there by the thirsty carpenter, was a quart pot. The said carpenter was discovered on all fours, steadying with his back the rickety structure above. Shrieks of laughter from all parts of the house greeted the tableau, and of the play no more was heard that night.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Solar Lunacy

“When you write your blog piece,” my daughter said, “you could mention that the glasses tell you not to use them with cameras or binoculars.”

“They do? Where?”

“It’s printed right on them.”


Sizzled Specs with Sun | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
LAST TUESDAY, VENUS SCOOTED across the surface of the sun – or appeared to. It was the second and last time I’d have the chance to see this phenomenon.

The first one I saw took place on June 8, 2004, already in progress for viewers in the eastern U.S.A. as the sun was rising. Much of the excitement stemmed from the fact that most recent transit before that was in 1882.

My family turned it into an event for my homeschooled daughter, inviting fellow-homeschoolers and their families to stay overnight or arrive at dawn. I set up a solar-filter-equipped telescope in a field behind the house, where I also set up a stove from which to serve breakfast to the attendees. We had a guest astronomer on hand to describe and discuss the proceedings, giving a look at its very significant scientific value.

And as I nudged the telescope to follow the sun’s ascent, the little black disc of our neighboring planet eased its way across the fiery orb of gold.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hacking Around

How I Spent My Summer Vacation Dept.: This piece appears in the current Metroland, but because I like it so much, I'm also giving it a spot here. According to, people believe that the act I describe below could wreak havoc with a train. I'm here to tell you that it doesn't. You just have to watch out for flying pennies.


I REMEMBER THE remarkably scarred and veiny hands of my next-door neighbor, Kurt. They were hands that worked hard, unlike my own, which were pasty and smooth. I longed for the day when I’d have hands like his. I was six. He was ten.

We lived on shady South Maple Avenue in Glen Rock, New Jersey, and the summer after the end of my kindergarten year, I sought Kurt for company. Because of my size, I could almost pass for my friend’s age, and the couple of his classmates who often joined us accepted my presence with very little teasing.

“Hacking around,” Kurt called it, this process of exploring a warm-weather day. The only appealing electronic distraction in 1962 was the television, and daytime programming ran to a repulsive mix of news shows and soap operas.

“Where are you going?” my mother would call as I pounded down the stairs.

“Going to play with Kurt,” I’d holler back. “Hacking around.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blue Plate Special: Birth of a Column

I’d been covering the arts – music, theater, and dance – for Metroland Magazine for two years when, early in 1986, I suggested to founder and then-publisher Peter Iselin that I should review restaurants. At other area publications, that plum job was snatched by people high on the editorial ladder, whereas I’d recently been in the business and could bring an insider’s perspective. “I’d love to do that,” he said, “but we can’t afford it.” I was prepared for that argument, and pitched the idea that we make a virtue of poverty. “We call the place, ask them to comp us a meal, and present it as their finest effort.” The column, dubbed “Byron’s Blue Plate Special,” debuted on April 3, 1986. I restaurant-visited in the company of photographer Drew Kinum. Far from hiding my identity, the photos often featured my outsized mug. Barely discernible in the lousy photocopy accompanying this piece is the tuxedo I wore for that initial visit.

Once the reviews started running, restaurants got interested in buying more ads – but, as Peter discovered, they feared that the business of the freebie meal lessened the column’s credibility. Within six months, we switched to the unannounced visit policy that continues today. Here, warts and too many full colons and all, is my very first restaurant review. But don’t get your appetite up: the place is long gone.


Alan Yerdon and B. A. Nilsson at the Bijou Cafe
March, 1986 | Photo by Drew Kinum
Photocopy of newsprint by the author
THE TERM I’D LIKE to stress here is “homemade.” The Bijou Café doesn’t look like it’s going to be a “homemade” kind of place – until you check the menu, are told about the specials and, especially, get a basket of steaming bread.

“This is enough,” said Drew. “It can stop right here.” He slathered a bread slice with whipped butter and even forgot to take a picture of it.

Allan Yerdon and John D’Amigo opened the Bijou Café almost a year and a half ago. “We feature a continental menu,” says John, “but with some emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine. Our specialties are veal dishes, shrimp Genovese, that kind of thing.”

The restaurant features a long, narrow dining room with seating for about 50. Colors are attractive and subdued: there is much emphasis on presentation of the room and of the food.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Friday, June 08, 2012

Theater Porn

Lawrence Langner
IF YOU DIDN’T MEET metaphysical optimism in Voltaire’s Candide, you may have come across its watered-down simulacrum in Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, which put its ever-hopeful hero in an unlikely succession of recent-historical events, some of them influenced by his presence.

Imagine a story like that about American theater. You’d need to place your protagonist in New York in the nineteen-teens, when restless Greenwich Village-ites founded such stragglebum groups as The Washington Square Players and the Provincetown Players, the latter introducing the work of Eugene O’Neill.

This central character would need another source of income, of course. How about something that would take him across the country and around the world? We’ll make him a patent attorney. He’s at the forefront of the young century’s technological innovations, but his love for theater and his dream of an American theatrical identity keep him restlessly exploring production ideas.

Within the first hundred pages of his story, he’s hanging out with John Reed and Louise Bryant, Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. He would go on to become a confidant and champion of both O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw. And every time you turn the page of Lawrence Langner’s 1951 memoir The Magic Curtain, a fresh and seemingly unbelievable surprise awaits.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Sid Special Endowment

From the Vault Dept.: Back in 1990, when I was freelancing regularly for the paper, I proposed writing a column for the Schenectady Daily Gazette and submitted some samples. The editors proved resistant to the whimsy of my pen. Here's one of the samples.


Constantin Guys (1802-1892): Box Seats
WHY NOT FUND a kid at your next concert? I got this idea a couple of seasons ago when I was browsing for a comfortable seat at the Troy Music Hall and discovered a vacant box.

“You can't sit there,” the usher said. “That's reserved for Sidney Special.”

Sidney Special is someone known to us all in the area. He has lots of money and likes to be regarded as a grand benefactor of the arts. He also doesn't much go to concerts.

I asked if I could sit there until Mr. Special arrived, but was told that he'd get upset if he found me there. He never did arrive. I kept my eye on that box from my eventually-chosen gallery seat, and it struck me as a significant waste of space.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Rocking the Cradle

Pall at the Poll Dept.: Thanks to the embarrassing and tragic botched recall election in Wisconsin yesterday, we have more proof than ever was needed of how completely our political system is once again the grip of the bosses. And it's no coincidence that the likes of Scott Walker have as a priority the elimination of collective bargaining. It was the labor unions that liberated us from the bosses' greedy whims, as any student of real American history should know. I wrote what follows eight years ago for a local revival of Marc Blitzstein's labor opera "The Cradle Will Rock," basing it on a speech John Houseman gave when The Acting Company revived the piece under his aegis. And I delivered it, Houseman-like, before the start of each show. Not that it was needed: the show speaks passionately for itself.


"The Cradle Will Rock" in rehearsal, 1937
THINK OF A TIME in which unemployment is high and economic prospects are getting ever lower. A time in which an overseas war threatens to overtake our homeland with its unpredictible violence and ever-shifting foreign alliances. When a terrorist network is suspected of infiltrating this country.

Welcome to 1937.

The Federal Theater Project of the US Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 to bring quality stage productions to all parts of the country, and give work to actors, writers, directors, musicians – people whose careers had been stilled by the Great Depression.

In New York City, the project brought together three talented young men who would go on to make significant names for themselves in theater and film: John Houseman, Orson Welles, and Marc Blitzstein.

Blitzstein’s early path as virtuoso pianist took a literal left turn as he embraced Brechtian ideas of theater as political arena, and it was Brecht who suggested the idea of a “labor opera.”

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


CLAUDIO ABBADO LED the Berlin Philharmonic and soloists Barbara Bonney and Bryn Terfel in a performance of Brahms’s “German Requiem” in 1997, a stunning performance available on DVD. An unexpected moment of incredible beauty comes at the end of the piece, when the combined forces of the power of the performance and Abbado’s own dynamic presence keeps the audience hushed for a long, long time after the last note died away. Eventually, of course, applause broke out, but we got a taste of the luxury of silently savoring a beautiful finale.

I’ve attended many musical and theatrical performances after which I wished we could depart in silence, allowing each of us to visit the many colors of the kaleidoscope of emotion that great art provokes. I know it’s too much to ask for. So could we at least do ourselves the honor of saving the standing ovation for when it’s truly justified?

Although my schedule forces me to be selective about what performances I review, I don’t believe I have any special talent for picking the winners. Yet just about every concert or play I attend finishes with an ovation. I’d like to think it’s because we in the Capital Region are passionate, loving people, eager to confer our approbation upon those who entertain us, but I’m more inclined to put it down to a nervous wish to not appear uncultured.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Working in Coffeehouses, Part 1,435

SCHOOL HAS FINISHED for The Offspring, who is now the bailiwick of her work-at-home dad. But working at home means working on the home, so Dad prefers to hightail it to coffeehouses in order to get any writing done.

The Offspring resists. She believes that one should not perch on one’s ass for hours, ingesting carbs. She just finished a term on her school’s rowing crew, and gained the sparkle of one who exercises regularly and rigorously. She wishes to continue this exercise. And she’s taken to bullying her father into joining her “at least on a walk, Dad!”

Fortunately, Dad knows how to prey upon the computer addiction she shares with her coevals (and, let’s face it, most anyone who can afford such a machine and an internet connection). He’s also getting her hooked on coffee. And so we start off today happily coffeehoused, screens aglow. She slugs a Mudslide Decaf and hasn’t yet given her father shit about the bagel he just consumed.

Next time she wants to bully him into walking with her, however, she will. Good for her.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Come Home, Father

Dry and Mighty Dept.: Back when the play "Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" was a music-hall staple, Henry Clay Work's 1864 song "Come Home, Father" found a place in it -- and reportedly led many in the audience to sign a temperance pledge in the lobby. Such has never been the case when Tom Savoy, Malcolm Kogut, and I perform this number. In fact, I fear it's had the opposite effect.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Big Freeze

From the Freezer Dept.: I received some promo packages of frozen entrees recently and wasn't terribly surprised to learn that the technology hasn't changed appreciably in the quarter-century since I wrote this piece.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
TROUBLE LURKS IN THE inner aisles of any supermarket. It beckons to me from my safe periphery, where I try to race from dairy case to butcher's display without being lured by those walls of instant brownies, corn chips and the like. But a few nights ago, in both a hurry and a quandary over what to cook, my wife and I boldly selected a couple of frozen-food items proclaiming themselves to be gourmet delights.

You know where they live: usually about dead center in the store, arrayed in stacks in the big white free-standing freezer or in rows behind glassed-in doors. They have names like Le Menu. Many of them promise salubriously low calorie levels.

I was skeptical; my last brush with convenience food was the rash purchase of low-cal Jello Instant Pudding and Pie Filling, pistachio flavor, which, when stirred with milk, hardened into quicksand and tasted like Nutra-Sweetened mucilage (if the mucilage of my kindergarten days had been that sweet, I'd have eaten much more of it). I discovered that the thickened agents include cellulose, so instead of eating the rest I poured it inside the wall of my house.