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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

To All the Girls . . .

From the Vault Dept.: The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center tomorrow evening for three weeks of familiar classics. That summer season is an underappreciated legacy, and I’ll dip into the archives for a few vintage pieces from my own past quarter-century of writing about it. On one occasion in 1986, however, I was dispatched (why me?) to cover a different kind of event. Here’s my report.

                                                                    

Julio Iglesias
THE POSTERS FOR HIS American tour show him in a casual suit of white, hands in pockets, smiling as if struck by an old, sweet secret. “Ooh, I hope he’s dressed in white tonight,” a woman beside me whispered.

This was in the packed house at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Sunday night, where a crescendo scream indicated the arrival onstage of Julio Iglesias. He wore a dark business suit and looked, characteristically, as if he’d just combed his hair with his fingers.

The crowd was made up of people of all ages, both sexes well represented, but the ladies were dressed to the nines, ready for adventure.

What is it about this man that is so attractive? He is a very talented song stylist, no question about it, although the songs are dressed in electronic hangings of reverb and cute percussion.

He is handsome the way Chevy Chase is handsome: it’s a utilitarian appearance that needs a personality to set it in motion.

No, the attraction is that Julio seems slightly dangerous. He’s got smooth moves and the nerve to use them. The guy your mother warned you against.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Dinner in the Dells

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Much of the appeal of writing, for me, is surprising myself with felicitous turns of phrase. Sometimes I borrow from others, and I was amused to see the Gilbert & Sullivan snitch in this piece. By request, another installment of the series I wrote in 1989 and which ran in the Schenectady Gazette as my wife and I drove cross-country in a VW camper to embrace the hippiehood we’d missed in the appropriate decade. That the request came from this selfsame wife still counts, doesn’t it? Turns out, by the way, that Paul Bunyan's is still in business with the same menu (the photos come from the eatery's website).

                                                                            

WHEN A WAITRESS BUBBLES with wit and good humor at dinnertime on Labor Day in a busy tourist-town restaurant, she’s probably able to withstand anything.

But, “The season’s almost over,” Roxanne tells us, “and I can’t say I’m unhappy about it.”

She’s hustling grub at Paul Bunyan’s, a loghouse cafeteria and gift emporium on Route 13 in Wisconsin Dells, a tourist resort about four hours west of Milwaukee. “Wisconsin Dells is kind of a joke in the state,” a Milwaukee friend warned us. “It’s a place they should have left alone.”

Now it has all the trappings of Lake George and Ocean City, which always seem to include a theme amusement park, miniature golf and a bad wax museum. And restaurants galore. We chose Bunyan’s because it advertised itself as an inexpensive all-you-can-eat place, and we were feeling broke and hungry. That must be the state of most tourists, because when you’re in that condition those flashing lights and over-written signs look mighty attractive.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hate Mail

I enjoy sharing time with kids in a casual setting, but I have little patience with the parents who schlep their tykes to public events where quiet, reasonable behavior is expected. Which I wrote about here. That piece put in mind of something I wrote twenty years ago, something that netted me the most hate mail I’ve ever received for anything. The restaurant is still around, but it now serves only breakfast and lunch, and I haven’t been there since I wrote the piece. And the belowmentioned Ashley’s has been replaced by Chats Lounge, the name of which sounds pleasantly child-unfriendly.

                                                                   

The Market at the Marriott, Albany, NY
IT ALWAYS SEEMS TO HAPPEN after we've made a tough-to-reverse commitment to staying for dinner. The appetizers are served, we're enjoying them, we're catching up on news and gossip, we're enjoying a relaxing bottle of wine . . . and that high-pitched whine sounds across the room, like nails on a blackboard. “But, Mommy, I don't wanna sit there!” “Okay, honey, we’ll sit over here.”

Right next to my table.

Something weird happens to the sensibility of my coevals when they become parents. Where the company of tykes was once regarded as a temporary distraction, they now remain surgically attached long after mother and child were umbilically parted. And they invade concert halls and restaurants, the infant spreading mayhem once its eight-millisecond attention span has been surpassed.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hummingbird Moth

Cellphone photo by B. A. Nilsson
SPOTTED THIS CRITTER at an outdoor garden center in Guilderland, NY, yesterday, and marvelled at its hummingbird-like appearance. "It's a hummingbird bee," someone there told me, which I later learned is a common colloquial moniker. There's actually a bee hummingbird, the tiniest species of that wee flyer, but it's based in Cuba. This guy is a moth.

It has a fascinating proboscis, which it curled and aimed and straightened as needed, and it visited flower after flower as I watched, letting me get much closer than any hummingbird ever allowed.

But it's still a quick little thing. With only a cellphone camera at hand, I did what I could, but, if you've never seen one of these, I think you'll be interested.




Thursday, July 26, 2012

Children under 12 ...

. . . FREE! AS THE PARENT of a youngster, I welcomed those words. I believed that I had an inalienable right not to need to pay for the tot’s entry anywhere. Not because I thought the world needed to experience the thrill of the company of my kid, but because convenient babysitters were scarce.

Thanks to the variety of my activities, this meant that I’d be hauling her to restaurants, concerts, galleries, rehearsal rooms, and business meetings, none of which is a favorite destination of a three-year-old.

And because I find the social presence of small children has the potential to be fantastically annoying, I was always terrified that my own offspring would erupt in some embarrassingly distracting manner.

Which she did. She had the small child’s center-of-the-universe need to have the bright lights of adult attention turned her way at all waking moments, and the frustrated brat’s ability to vigorously protest the lack of such attention.

When my wife was with us, we could tag-team the attention-giving. You can’t punish a dervish. The “time out” is a cruelty devised by selfish grown-ups. Yelling at yelling provokes more yelling. You can no more still such a potent energy source than you can put out the sun.

Some of the early incidents took us by surprise. Stupidly, amazingly, we dragged the three-year-old to see “The Fantasticks” as it was closing its original Manhattan run. We reasoned (with whatever reason is given to the parents of a youngster) that she’d spent enough time backstage of the shows in which I’d acted that she’d be a precociously well-behaved audience member.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tools of the Trade

From the Kitchen Drawer Dept.: I recycled a piece about knives in an April post; this one looks at other cooking tools.

                                                                          

PEEK INTO A RESTAURANT kitchen and you behold an impressive array of equipment hanging or stacked near the stove; nearby drawers and racks probably contain even more in the way of knives and whisks and other such implements.

Although no chef wants to be caught without a necessary tool, there really are only just a few called into constant use: knife, spoon, spatula, fork, and a few favored pots and pans. But other tools need to be there, need to be waiting, because you never know when you’re going to have to grate nutmeg or bake an angel food cake.

Here’s a very prejudiced list of what’s essential for the ambitious home chef—and some of the silly stuff that’s also for sale.

“It slices, it dices . . .” and how nice it would be for one tool really to do it all! Despite Ron Popeil’s claims of yore, you’ll need more than one tool to take care of all the cutting and peeling that cooking requires. That sharp-pointed twisty little vegetable peeler remains one of the most marvelous culinary inventions. Use the tip to dig stubborn eyes from potatoes, then peel it with the blade; and there’s a blade on each side of the opening to accommodate lefties and righties or, if you’re deft, to allow you use both, which is good for carrots and other smooth-surfaced items. Do you need a fancy plastic handle? It’s up to you. I prefer to buy two cheap metal- handled ones so I can always find one.

A harp peeler puts the blade perpendicular to the handle, which is nice for thick-skinned comestibles like apples. Cakes and sauces get a flavor sparkle from orange or lemon zest, so keep a zester on hand. Ditto a nutmeg grater. For cheese, a four-sided grater is essential, and serves for grating potatoes and other vegetables as well. I like a rotary grater for hard cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We Love You, Sandy Becker

RESEARCHING THE MUSICAL “The Music Man” the other day unearthed this Playbill cover from Dick Van Dyke’s 1980 Broadway revival of the show. What struck me was the resemblance of costume and pose to a kid’s-show character I grew up with known as Hambone.

Dick Van Dyke as a
Hambone-inspired
Harold Hill
As is too often the case with low-budget TV shows from the 50s (and, in this case, into the 60s), almost none of it remains. The stations wiped and reused the costly videotape. And so the legacy of Sandy Becker is one of anecdote and some blurry YouTube clips.

Becker was born in New York in 1922 and attended that city’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts before moving into radio and then television. In 1955 he began working for WNEW, which was New York City’s channel 5, hosting a weeknight cartoon show.

By the time I got hooked on the tube, living in Manhattan’s suburbs in the early 60s, “The Sandy Becker Show” was all over that channel, airing afternoons and evenings throughout the week and on Saturdays.

A fine sense of chaos prevailed. Becker was a skilled voice artist who created and portrayed a range of crazy characters. Elgar’s best-known “Pomp and Circumstance” march heralded the entrance of Becker’s “Big Professor,” a white-wigged putative sage who fumbled the answers to questions he received. Norton Nork, with center-parted hair and highwater pants, bumbled wordlessly through life’s simple problems. And a kid-voice chorus shouting over Red Saunders’s busy traps gave manic life to the song “Hambone,” accompanying the crazy dance with which that character appeared, clad in a drum major’s uniform, replete with epaulettes, sash, and centurion helmet. And a strange pair of eyeglasses with four-inch-long pill-bottle lenses.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dinner on the Go


From the Vault Dept.: How tools have changed in a mere seven years! When I wrote this piece, I had yet to acquire a smartphone, with its access to restaurant locators – and the world of online restaurant listings has exploded, creating new challenges like parsing the idiot-intensive commentary on sites such as Yelp.

                                                              

The former Dayboat
IT’S THAT AWFUL MOMENT when you’re on a stretch of interstate highway and the sun is cresting its zenith and you’re feeling the gnawing pangs of hunger. You unwisely failed to pack a lunch, so you’re going to have to get off the highway to find something. You don’t know the area. But you know it’s a minefield of ptomaine and tastelessness out there. And whatever you order probably will be fried.

Traveling around New York’s Capital Region is challenging enough, but over time you learn a few techniques and ace-in-the-hole stopping places. It’s a kind of game. You lose points for dining at chain restaurants; your license to dine out is revoked if you end up at a fast-food joint. Long-distance traveling requires a broader strategy, and I’ve boiled it down to three methods.

First is the by-guess-or-by-god approach. People have to eat, you reason, and every town must support at least a cafĂ© or diner. It’s a romantic notion I sustain despite many years of bad experiences, and just as I’m about to give up on it something happens like our recent stop in Sherman, Maine.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Copter over the Edge

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: In Sept. 1989, my wife and I drove a VW camper from New York to California and back. Along the way I wrote a couple of dozen pieces about the trip that ran in the Schenectady Gazette. Here’s an account of a memorable stop in Arizona.

                                                                    

“BUT YOU HATE to fly. Why do you want to do this?”

A fair enough question. I was trying to persuade my wife that a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon was the only way to see it. I had been lured by a billboard—take note, you who deface our highways with those things—and a visit to the Grand Canyon Helicopter booth at the local airport provided information on fares and departure times.

But Susan wanted to see the canyon from its edge, resisting my argument that it would be more dramatic for first-time visitors to scoot over the rim of it in mid-air.

Our swing through the west brought us to more national parks and monuments than we'd even known existed, which may be a provincial-mindedness characteristic of the northeast. We're very urban-minded, even we who live in rural areas, because the cities here are sprawling and never too distant.

Whereas South Dakota, a state onto which you could plop all of New York and still see an enormous amount of prarie, has a capital city that New Yorkers would view as a somewhat largish town.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Blogging Police . . .

. . . have warned me that cat photos are required.

July 27, 2011 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tale from the Crypt

ONE OF HOLLYWOOD's most reliable and unique character actors was Mischa Auer, whom I wrote about here. You’ll note the kicker at the close of the piece: “When Auer died ... his body was cremated and the ashes interred in the Souls family plot in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Gloversville, NY, about a dozen miles from my house.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
There’s little reason for me to travel to Gloversville, which is a broken-down remnant of a once-thriving industry that gave the city its name. The most famous native son wasn’t even born there: Shmuel Gelbfitz was a native of Poland, who took the name Sam Goldfish when he worked in Gloversville’s garment business at the dawn of the 20th century – soon to end up in Hollywood with still another surname: Goldwyn.

Now the city sports a sad downtown perforated with so many empty shops that it has the look of a desperate, toothless grin. The Glove Theater struggles to give the city a worthy entertainment center, and it, too resonates with a Hollywood-related past: Junius Myer Schine took over a nickelodeon in the city in 1916, parlaying his success with it into a chain of theaters of which the Glove was the centerpiece.

A friend tipped me off to a food co-op that recently opened a few doors down from the Glove, and that’s what took me to the city yesterday, to enjoy a good lunch and buy some fresh berries. And then drive to a nearby cemetery to search for a stone. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Back in the Day-O

“Put on something I haven’t heard before,” my daughter often says when we’re considering music to listen to at home. I picked out a Bear Family set of Harry Belafonte’s first recordings, including the sessions that became his multi-million selling album “Calypso.” I told her what I knew of the singer’s history, which is a breathtakingly impressive record of leadership and financial support of the struggles for civil rights. At age 85, he's still active, and his autobiography, My Song, came out late last year. “And when I talked to him,” I began, and she smacked her forehead. Seems I’ve spoken with a lot of people during the years I spent interviewing them for newspaper pieces. I knew comparatively little about Belafonte when I spoke with him in advance of a performance in the Albany area in 1986, but, as it happened, he was happy to do most of the talking.

                                                                    

WITH SO MANY PROJECTS in the works, why is Harry Belafonte adding a concert tour to his schedule? “I don't want this to get out,” he says in a deep drawl, “but I woke up this morning and discovered I had to pay the rent.”

The actor/singer/producer/entrepreneur will perform at the Coliseum Theatre at 8:30 p.m. Thursday with seven musicians, four back-up singers and a program that he describes as “a sample of new and old. People will be familiar with many of the songs, the traditional ones that I'm known for, but there will also be many new songs, songs of different cultures with global insight.”

Global insight is a phrase important to Belafonte. He was the major force behind the United Support of Artists for Africa project and continues his activism with work on a forthcoming mini-series.

'It's a motion picture titled ‘The Mandelas, a South African Story.’ It is being produced for ABC to air at the end of 1987. Right now we’re in the midst of preparing the script and scouting locations and artists. Sydney Pollack is co-producing it with me and we already have Sidney Poitier and Jane Fonda lined up for the cast.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Little Sleep

I WAS SIX FEET tall by the time I turned 13, so I didn’t experience much bullying once I was in junior high school. And the only significant event I remember from elementary school had such a sudden and fortuitous finish that it begs no sympathy.

Richard Pryor and Erland van Lidth de Jeude,
from
Stir Crazy
When I was seven, my parents moved us from New Jersey to Connecticut, fulfilling my father’s long-held dream. He was a mechanical engineer, transitioning to a company in Stamford, and my parents picked tony Ridgefield as the place to settle because it promised, among other things, a good school system.

This moved me mid-term to an all-new second-grade class. Thanks to my parents’ competitive efforts to fill me with learnin’, I was reading at some stunningly advanced level and parsing math problems with Euclidian gusto. In other words, I was an academic misfit. I also was a shy, shy kid, to the point of being a social misfit. Soon I was skipped into third grade, aggravating every aspect of my misfittedness.

So it was that I found myself in the Ridgebury Elementary School playground one autumn afternoon, soon after the move, friendless and feeling sorry for myself. When some older kids approached, I took heart. I already was big for my age: perhaps they saw in me a potential crony.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Date with the Blues

Blue Man Group originally appeared at Proctors in its infancy in 1990 as part of the Proctors Too series of experimental shows. Since then, they've become an institution, with their own theaters and several tours. Following a successful Proctors performance last year, they'll be back this weekend for three shows (8 PM Sat., July21, and 1 PM and 5 PM Sun., July 22). Here's what I wrote about last year's performance.

                                                                                   

AT THE HEART OF IT are three bald men of similar size and shape, clad in boots and black jumpers, their heads and hands a deep, shiny blue. Their faces are impassive. All expression is conveyed by head tilts and body angles, with only the occasional flash of a pair of startling eyes. They are human machines, assimilates of a society that demands uniformity.

They begin, as all humans begin expressing themselves, by drumming—but this is drumming with deafening noise and searing light and, at the height of the conflagration, colorful sprays of paint dancing on the drumheads.

In the most engaging sequence, titled “Feast,” the funniest of the many bits we saw, they coaxed a reluctant young woman out of the audience and onto the stage and seated her with them, four abreast, at a dinner table, in a routine that required her to choose actions based on a succession of often bewildering objects the Blue Men presented. These included candles, flowers, Jell-o, Christina’s World (victim of a completely unexpected and hilarious gag), and an outsized box of Twinkies.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Scenes from Childhood

L to R: Byron Nilsson (seated),
Mark Mercurio, Ric Ebeling,
Denis McKeon, Blake Milne.
BY 1972, I’D APPEARED in a few high-school produced plays and a musical (“The Pajama Game”) the summer before – that last most notable because it won me my first full-on, French-seasoned kiss from a female castmate, the taste of whose chain-smoking I was prepared to ignore because of the thrilling novelty of the experience.

This summer’s show, “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” brought together much of the same cast, without, alas, my fickle osculatory friend. And I was given the dual role of head-of-the-mailroom Twimble and chairman-of-the-board Womper, and it’s in the latter role that you see me pictured. As a 16-year-old, my hair was greyed and my belly padded. Forty years later, neither adjustment is required.

Michael Connolly, an actor ten years my senior who had achieved much acclaim in our hometown of Ridgefield, Conn., was doing a lot of regional theater and singing with Light Opera of Manhattan, a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-centric group. He would make his Broadway debut in 1977, and is pictured backstage there here.

Mike and I shared a passion for patter songs, British comedy, and opera. He watched some of the “How to Succeed” rehearsals and gave me some shameless suggestions that I even more shamelessly followed.

He was a wellspring of the kind of acting techniques Meisner and Strasberg never taught, although these techniques were more of a prop-dependent nature. He’d already shown me how to discourage a scene-stealing actor when I appeared in a community-theater production of “Harvey.” Being the youngest, I played the oldest: Judge Gaffney. Our Elwood P. Dowd, a star of the local community-theater world, tended to obscure me in the scenes we shared, and developed an irritating business of clapping me, hard, on the shoulder of my swallowtail coat.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jack's: A Tradition of Enthusiasm

From the Vault Dept.: I began reviewing restaurants in early 1986 for Albany’s Metroland Magazine. The story of my first review – and the review itself – you’ll find here. After five months, it became clear to publisher Peter Iselin that the page attracted restaurant advertisers, but the advertisers feared the “announced visit” policy wasn’t being taken seriously enough. We joined the rest of the food-review world with unannounced visits in September. Here’s my account of the first of those visits.

                                                                  

OUR GREETING AT THE DOOR was so enthusiastic that I figured something had gone wrong – that this, my first unannounced Metroland visit, had been leaked. But an eager hello is the norm at Jack’s.

It was a crowded Wednesday night and we were seated in the midst of the large dining room, facing front. “The floor show is better from here,” our host suggested humorously. And it was: we watched the mad crisscross of waiters as the tables were taken through their courses.

Jack’s has been an Albany institution for 73 years, as a sign by the door indicates, and my wife summed it up nicely: “This is the best you can get from a place this old. I’d expect something different if it had opened within the last couple of years, but this is an old-style place. They serve an iceberg salad. But it’s the best iceberg salad I’ve had.”

The multipage menu also reflects the old traditions, the pages decorated with antiquated line drawings. But the selections themselves are well-described, basic items that Jack’s has served up successfully for all those years.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet

Guest Blogger: Guy Wetmore Carryl. Time for a light-hearted trip back to a time when Mother Goose held some moral authority, and tales like this were valuable lessons. Not that such things deterred Mr. Carryl from finding his own way around these tales.

                                                                         

LITTLE MISS MUFFET
     discovered a tuffet,

(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as 'twas a June day,
    and just about noonday,

She wanted to eat – like the rest of us.
Her diet was whey,
     and I hasten to say

It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely,
     the lady not only

Discovered the tuffet, but sat on it.


A rivulet gabbled beside her and babbled,
As rivulets always are thought to do,
And dragon flies sported around and cavorted,
As poets say dragon flies ought to do;
When, glancing aside for a moment, she spied
A horrible sight that brought fear to her,
A hideous spider was sitting beside her,
And most unavoidably near to her!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The People United

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Frederic Rzewski, a brilliant composer and burn-ass pianist born in Westfield, Mass., and for many years living and teaching in Europe. His set of piano variations, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” written in 1975, stands as one of the towering works of 20th-century piano literature – a worthy companion to Bach’s Goldbergs and Beethoven’s Diabellis. I saw Rzewski perform when he visited a hall in Troy, NY, in 2004; he since has returned to perform at RPI’s new Experimental Media Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). Below is my review of the concert, and I’ve appended an earlier squib recommending a now out-of-print CD set. Since then, a DVD of Rzewski performing his signature work has been issued and is well worth watching.

                                                                                   

Frederic Rzewski
EVEN BEFORE THE CONCERT began, an unusual hipness permeated the air. Classical concerts – and classical-concert audiences – aren’t known for that quality, but this promised to be an anomaly among such concerts: A piano recital by a composer known for writing music that reacts to the immediacy of his time. Politically charged music, in fact, that’s also well crafted and emotionally affecting.

Still, it’s an act of commitment to attend a Rzewski concert. In Manhattan, it probably would have been a sellout. Here, fewer than a hundred showed up for the free event, but it quickly became an assembly of friends, because people assumed that degree of hipness about one another and weren’t shy about initiating or joining conversations.

Frederic Rzewski was born in Massachusetts but has spent much of his professional life in Europe, where he’s now a professor of music in Belgium. His work with electronic and improvisatory techniques 40 years ago has evolved into a unique musical language that is innovative without being self-consciously so, while acknowledging roots in classic music traditions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Santiago Family Restaurant

Santiago Family Restaurant
July 6, 2012 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
WE’VE ALL LEARNED by now how to parse the review attached to online restaurant-finders. Yelp in particular attracts the literacy-challenged, the axe-grinders, the angry. So to find a restaurant listed there with an overwhelming number of positives is to feel suspicious.

We were a foursome heading to Albany after a few days at the Cape. We’d easily made it off the island on a Friday afternoon, but the Mass Pike threw us a bunch of slowdowns. The GPS gave a cruel accounting of the many minutes lost to stopped traffic. We’d planned to dine in the West Stockbridge area. By the time we reached Springfield, all were hungry. With the attendant grumpiness being stuck in a car can bring.

The next exit put us in Westfield, a small city I knew only as the birthplace of a favorite composer, Frederic Rzewski (who long since has lived elsewhere). We consulted our smartphones. Although I refuse to patronize chain restaurants, even their presence was limited. But many kudos had been bestowed on the Santiago Family Restaurant.

Nothing like an air-conditioned car to build you up to an surprising fist-smack of wet heat. It was hot on the sidewalk and hotter still in the little restaurant’s dining room, where a few floor-standing fans struggled to move the moist air mass.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fireworks in Tennessee

Across the U.S.A., Lighting the Sky Dept.: Twenty-three years ago, my wife and I took a cross-country drive during which I filed a couple of dozen Ernie Pyle-inspired dispatches that ran in the Schenectady Gazette. This one bears the dateline of LaFollette, Tennessee, and was written Sept. 27, 1989.

                                                                            

THIS IS ONE OF seven states that allows Class C fireworks to be sold. Ever since we crossed the state line we've been besieged by yellow billboards exhorting us to stock up on explosives, and although I have no intelligent use for the things I'm fascinated to see up close what's been legally forbidden in every state where I've ever lived.

Bimbo's Fireworks, Hillbilly Bob's or just plain Fireworks read some of the signs. We're at Thunder Mountain Fireworks, just off Interstate 75, and owner Landsen Hill credits the highway with his business.

“We sure couldn't survive if we just depended on locals,” he says. “Nobody here could. But we know a lot of tourists who plan their vacations so they come through Tennessee, pick up their fireworks, then take 'em back to a state where they're illegal and shoot 'em off in the back yard.”

Monday, July 09, 2012

Working in Coffeehouses, Summer Edition

The Dregs | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I COMPLAINED ABOUT THIS back in March. I’m rarely a whiner. In this case, however, I can’t complain enough.

Anyone who doesn’t have to live with me will tell you I’m a calm and reasonable person. I enjoy the company of people, yet I’m bashful about seeking such company. My passions tend to center around the arts in which I’m interested. Those include classical music and jazz, theater, and literary fiction – rarefied provinces all. Folks don’t beat down my door in order to exchange opinions about the latest Simon Rattle recording.

My outlet for those passions is writing. Fiction, plays, and an unending stream of reviews. Most of those reviews run in Albany, NY’s, alternative newsweekly, Metroland. Alternative newsweeklies aren’t necessarily known for their coverage of such things, but Metroland admirably pursues a more culturally varied profile.

I also write about restaurants for the magazine.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

In the Groove

O, YE CHILDREN OF iPads and shuffle play. My early acquisition of music was comparatively more labored – yet at the time it was the only way I knew. When the mysteries of classical music began to reveal themselves to me, I was in my early ’teens and at about the halfway point in the long-playing record’s forty-year run.

Classical radio was terrific for discovering pieces of music, but it wasn’t much help for collecting them. It tended to be unpredictable, although a long-defunct magazine called FM Guide offered some help. In the pre-cassette days, sometimes I was able to borrow a friend’s hefty Wollensak tape recorder and capture a piece or two. But the physical aspect of the record stoked the joy of ownership.

I won’t argue the merits of LP versus CD audio quality. I willingly shifted to the latter to enjoy scratch-free listening. I was a dab hand at marring my records. Although it often seemed as if merely exposing the pristine grooves to air caused at least one scratch to appear, my tendency to needle-drop also took its toll.

Because early in those discovery years I’d become fascinated with particular musical moments. A record player let you easily replay those bits in a ritual that had its own appeal, a ritual much more elegant than jockeying a cassette tape back and forth. I’d eyeball the start and end locations on the platter, then carefully lift the tonearm and, sighting along the grooves, drop it (ease it, actually) back at the start of the passage. Thus wallowing in one of music’s magical (to me) moments while further destroying the vinyl.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Friday, July 06, 2012

John Roach Straton

Guest Blogger: Heywood Broun. Sportswriter, drama critic, Algonquin Round Table wit, and social reformer, Broun offered a witty and insightful voice during the 1910s and ’20s. In this essay, he takes on John Roach Straton, who held the pulpit of New York’s Calvary Baptist Church from 1918-29, his rantings bolstered by radio. Straton’s tirades against the “bestial theories of evolution” would now seem quaint were this view not still shared by backwoods anti-intellectualists. From Broun’s collection Pieces of Hate, published in 1922 by the George H. Doran Co., New York.

                                                                              


Heywood Broun
IN THE COURSE OF HIS Sabbath day talk at Calvary Baptist Church the other day, the Rev. Dr. John Roach Straton spoke of  “miserable Charlie Chaplin, “ or words to that effect. This seems to us an expression of the more or less natural antipathy of a man who regards life trivially for a serious artist. It is the venom of the clown confronted by the comedian.

Dr. Straton is, of course, an utter materialist. He is concerned with such temporal and evanescent things as hellfire, and a heaven which he has pictured in one of his sermons as a sort of glorified Coney Island. Moreover, he has created a deity in his own image and has presented the invisible king as merely a somewhat more mannerly John Roach Straton. And while Dr. Straton has been thus engaged in debasing the ideals of mankind, Charlie Chaplin has brought to great masses of people some glint of things which are eternal. He has managed to show us beauty and, better than that, he has contrived to put us at ease in this presence. We belong to a Nation which is timorous of beauty, but Charlie has managed to soothe our fears by proving to us that it may also be merry.

While Straton has been talking about jazz, debauchery, modesty, vengeance and other ugly things, Chaplin has given us the story of a child.  “The Kid” captured a little of that curiously exalted something which belongs to paternity. All spiritual things must have in them a childlike quality. The belief in immortality rests not very much on the hope of going on. Few of us want to do that, but we would like very much to begin again.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

David Bromberg and His All-American Music

“I”M NOT GONNA GET worried about this funky AC,” David Bromberg declared, referring to the electrical problems that were plaguing the lights and monitor speakers. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll unplug and do this acoustic. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again.”

Mark Cosgrove and David Bromberg
at the Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA
March 19, 2011 | Photo by Mike Thut
With one exceptional moment, he didn’t have to. He and three other outstanding players and singers turned in a 90-minute set that was as good as anything I’ve seen Bromberg do – and I’ve seen a lot.

Most people go to the beach for sun and relaxation. For me, it turns the distraction level down and I’m able to write more effectively. But I can’t leave all of my enthusiasms behind.

Having just settled in for a few days in the northern Cape Cod town of Truro, I was startled to see a streetside sandwich board advertising a concert by David Bromberg nearby. I’ve seen Bromberg perform over many years in many venues with ensembles of varying size. I’ve written about his shows. His website has prominently featured one such review.

Yet to find him and his quartet a scant few miles up the road . . . it was too tempting. Anticipating the inevitable, I phoned the venue the afternoon of the concert and was told it was sold out. “But you can try at the box office if you like,” I was told.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Sound of Ella

Albany’s Capital Repertory Company kicks off its 2012-13 season with “Ella,” a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald that stars Tina Fabrique and runs July 24 to August 12 (previews start July 20). The show (written by Jeffrey Hatcher) looks at the first three decades of Ella’s career before we see her, in the second half, performing on a pivotal night in 1966. Ella herself made two appearances at Proctors in Schenectady. The first was with Chick Webb’s band in the late 1930s, the second in 1984. It gave me an unexpected opportunity to work with her. Here’s what happened.

                                                                            


Ella Fitzgerald
AMERICAN MUSIC HAS AT its innovative heart the “standard,” a song so compelling that, as soon as it emerges, it’s performed and recorded by everyone of note. Standards are at the heart of American’s most important music, which is jazz. But standards typically originated in shows and movies, and tended to be written by an exalted few: Cole Porter. The Gershwins. Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern.

When, as a teen, I discovered Ella Fitzgerald’s “Songbook” series, it was revelatory. The first set, boasting 32 Cole Porter songs, was recorded in 1956, and over the next eight years she covered songs by Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and, in the only lyricist-based album of the collection, Johnny Mercer.

But the best aspect of those records (now available as a 16-CD set) was Ella’s transparent approach to the material. She’s an interpretive artist who puts a unique stamp on the songs she sings – but she serves the material with unique respect for its intentions.

When Proctors announced Ella’s appearance at the Schenectady theater in 1984, I was thrilled. I was also broke. I’d already been feeling the pinch of being too poor for tickets, having left the world of full-time employment a year earlier. So I pestered Proctors for some other manner of access.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Anniversary Waltzing

Susan Whiteman | June 30, 2012 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
TWENTY-NINE YEARS AGO today, my wife moved into her new apartment, a decisive move that underscored her wish to divorce. She had a new boyfriend – she’d had him for a few weeks – and was anticipating a new life with a more fascinating and far more athletic guy.

In an effort to keep my faculties intact, I’d spent the past week phoning the half-dozen or so single women I knew and liked, alerting each to the fact that my marriage was ending and much would change. “Would you like to go out?” I asked. The response from each was the same: “Sure!”

At least I could counter my overwhelming feeling of failure and loneliness with small bubbles of hope.

I also had sought the advice of a therapist during the preceding week. I spoke with my wife’s therapist, figuring he already had a line on our problems. “Be kind to yourself,” he told me. “Spend time with your friends. And take extra B vitamins. Your body burns through it when you’re under stress.”

Odd though it may sound now, in 1983 there was a health-food department at Albany’s Colonie Center Sears. I sought a bottle of B vitamins there and fell into a conversation with a delightful sales clerk who told me her name was Lisa. “You’re great fun to talk to,” I told her. “Would you like to go out?” “Sure!” she said. We set a date for July 1. I’d meet her after she got off work at 9.