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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Trouble with Hitchcock

From the Film Cans Dept.: I noted earlier that I rarely review movies, yet years ago I cherrypicked some good ones to describe and therefore close out this week’s diverse offerings with a pair of such pieces that recently resurface. They’re reviews of two 1984 Hitchcock re-releases, and re-reading them now adds yet another temporal remove.

                                                                                         

THE GRUESOME CASE of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who in 1924 murdered a randomly chosen schoolboy for “intellectual kicks,” inspired a slew of studies and similarly inclined stories.

Rope,” made by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948, was adapted by Hitchcock, Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents from a play by Patrick Hamilton. It deals only with the philosophical nature of the killing, which in this case is committed by two college students (John Dall and Farley Granger). They have taken to heart the pronouncements of one of their professors (James Stewart), who maintains there is an intellectual elite that is morally justified in killing its inferiors, and so the movie begins with Dall and Granger strangling a classmate.

One of Hitchcock’s goals in making this movie was to preserve the tension of the play, in which all action unfolds in the course of a single evening. To maintain such a continuum in movies requires no cuts from scene to scene and that’s precisely what he did. In four long “takes,” the movie moves us from room to room in the students’ apartment, and from long-shot to close-up in an uninterrupted flow. Clouds move in a cyclorama seen through a large window and the sky darkens into evening; reel changes are effectuated by panning past a close-up of a character’s back.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Empire Builder

From the Vault Dept.: I’ve been reprinting pieces describing my 1989 cross-country trip in a VW camper. A year later, I rode the train to Minneapolis. Here’s my account, as it appeared back then in the Schenectady Gazette. I regret to note that the accommodations offered for overnight rail travel have changed since then, and not necessarily for the better.

                                                                   

IT’S CLOSE TO MIDNIGHT. The Mississippi River is a dark presence, sparkling under streetlights in the distance. The rhythm of this train is changing. Not slowing, exactly, but ringing with syncopated clanks and sounding the whistle more often as we whisk over urban railroad crossings.

Which also takes us by the insistent bells at the crossings, changing in pitch with the Doppler effect as we pass them. It’s a sound unique to railroad travel.

I’ve been on the train for 24 hours now and I’m sorry the ride is ending. In a week, I’ll be taking the reciprocal route back, which will be a nice climax to a working vacation. I’ve discovered something that makes vacationing – and working –  more fun: the quality of travel can be as enjoyable as the destination.

Forty years ago, the highway became king and passenger rail service began to flicker out and die in many little towns and cities. Affordable air passage made it seem imperative to get where you’re going as fast as possible.

But the train has never lost a certain romance, a certain elegance. And Amtrak, the country’s principal passenger carrier, is unique among government-sponsored corporations in that it has been making money recently. It’s also hoping to break away from that subsidized status entirely in corning years.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Nudge, Nudge

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: I’d assumed, when the Hooters in Albany’s Crossgates Mall went belly-up, that the community had outgrown it. Ha! Another one opened a few years later on busy Wolf Rd., and it perseveres. I haven’t visited it, but I’m going to guess that the review I reprint below still applies.

                                                                 


A RECENT EDITORIAL in one of the local newspapers observed that the only people who enjoy what goes on at nude-dancing bars are “its proprietor, performers and patrons.” The same can be said for Hooters. (The same can be said for Proctor’s Theatre, and, jeez, just about any other entertainment venue, but the editorialist obviously was going for an emotional effect, skillful writing be damned.)

As you probably know, Schenectady’s new mayor is gunning for the strip joints, a reliably easy target, wasting his time and the taxpayers’ money on a fruitless pursuit. Yes, strip joints play up the more annoying aspects of our Puritan sexual heritage, objectifying women into saleable, sensual commodities. But there’s no hypocrisy about what they sell, and there even are touches of the dancer’s art that figure into the entertainment.

Had the honchos behind Hooters chosen to call the place “Nice Tits,” I’d have no complaints. Well: they’d have to improve the food. We’ll get to that shortly. As it is, Hooters plays a stupidly coy game with its name and logo. The prose style of the following, taken from the menu, tells all. “Now the dilemma ... what to name the place. Simple – what else brings a gleam to mens (sic) eyes everywhere besides beer and chicken wings and an occasional winning football season. Hence, the name – Hooters – it is supposed that they were into owls.”

Sophomoric? You bet. That’s the level of humor throughout the place. Hooters is a 14-year-old boy’s fantasy come to life, and what are beer-sotted sports freaks but superannuated 14-year-olds? The waitresses wear short orange shorts cinched at the waist and white tee shirts knotted at the back to stretch the shirt all the more revealingly across the chest. The back of the shirt sports the promise “More than a Mouthful.” Get it?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Jochum’s Chaste “Trionfi”

From the Music Vault Dept.: The now-defunct classical-music website andante.com had an ambitious program of surveying concerts and recordings from around the world. Here's another one of my contributions a review of a reissued Trionfi, three cantatas by Carl Orff, as recorded by a conductor who'd worked with the composer.

                                                                        

THESE 1950s-VINTAGE RECORDINGS arrive with the composer’s imprimatur, but it’s the prim part that sticks out. Both the antique recording technology and a characteristic restraint in the performances diminish the orgiastic excesses of the works.

“Carmina Burana” is far and away the best-known work of the three. It’s also the oldest (from 1937), longest, and most innocent. Even so, its text, drawn from 13th-century Bavaria, depicts a festival of drink and debauchery, and it inspired Orff to concoct a setting he intended as the musical portion of a theatrical event.

Chorus and orchestra are augmented by three vocal soloists, of whom baritone Hans Braun is surprisingly ineffectual, sounding downright wimpy as the drunken Abbot of Cucany during the “In Taberna” segment.

There’s no question that the orchestra rocks, distant though it sounds, and Jochum brings shades of portamento that would work very well against the slashing rhythms of the piece. But audio quality ultimately betrays this “Carmina Burana” the most. The main problem stems from the original recorded balance, placing the orchestra way too far behind the singers. But the 1952 mono recording also suffers the now-too-common “restoration” phenomenon of having a phony, distortion-speckled mock-stereo spread imposed.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Delivering “Baby”

From the Vault Dept.: The Cohoes Music Hall has met its impossible goal of raising a boatload of money in order to produce this season’s scheduled shows, and that’s a triumph both for the theater and the area patrons and businesses who rallied to support the theater. To celebrate, I’ve drawn from the annals of long ago: a preview piece and then a review of the show “Baby.” This dates from 1986, when a group called Heritage Artists was the producing entity, long since replaced by C-R Productions. Trivia note: The Ob-Gyn nurse referred to in the lede was my mother.

                                                                    

AN OB-GYN NURSE once told me about the fun she and the rest of her department have tracing births to conceptions. Late September to early October is always a jumpin' time thanks to the indiscretions of New Year’s revelers: local power failures also tend to contribute to population growth.

Laura Gardner and William Hunt
“For nine months, the womb has been the baby’s universe,” writes Frédérick Leboyer in Birth without Violence. “Now it begins to crack. To where? It has no idea. All it perceives is that the time has come to leave this safe place and journey into the unknown.”

That’s also the central metaphor of the musical “Baby,” according to its lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. The six characters – three couples – comprising the cast look at the fears and realities of childbearing and are themselves changed in the process.

“Baby” is the third offering this season from Heritage Artists at the Cohoes Music Hall, following terrific productions of “The Wonder Years” and “Billy Bishop goes to War”; this time artistic director Robert W. Tolan also takes on the task of directing the show.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Remorse Code

From the Salt Mines Dept.: Here’s a piece that was intended for (the long-defunct) Computer Life magazine, for which I was a contributing editor during a brief time in the 1990s. It seems unfinished and I left it undated and even the file date reflects a disk crash recovery and not the actual time when it was written. How quaint the technology and pricing mentioned below now seem!

                                                                          

AFTER A FEW YEARS of scrounging together my computers from orphaned parts, I awarded myself a fully-assembled, spanking new system. I bought it from a mail-order dealer. I agonized over the price and configuration. In fact, I agonized over it like nothing I've bought before--or since, but we'll get to that shortly.

I read the reviews. I considered not-yet-available features: should I wait until they're available? I ran a magnifying glass over the bottom of the ad to make sure I understood the returns policy. Paid down the credit card. Got paper and pencil in front of me. Called the 800 number.

Three grand later I awaited a package that included a higher-capacity hard drive and a tape backup – thanks, Clark the Salesman – and now the torture really began. What if I saw the same system advertised for less even before mine arrived?

My luck held. It arrived a week later. It was still a smart buy. And it remained so until a fresh round of ads appeared in a fresh round of magazines, and suddenly. My system was cheaper. Three hundred dollars cheaper.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Steam Train to the Canyon

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Another installment from my Ernie Pyle-tribute series of articles chronicling a car trip my wife and I made from New York to California and back. The dateline is Williams, Arizona, and the subject is a tourist train. I wrote this on Sept. 19, 1989.

                                                                           
     

I WANTED TO TELL YOU about an old ALCo steam engine from Schenectady that found a new life pulling Pullmans on a scenic ride to the Grand Canyon. Folks in the little town of Williams got pretty excited about the service, a revival of something abandoned twenty years ago.

The train buffs, and a lot of them showed up for the inaugural journey, identified the four steam locomotives as being variously from Schenectady and Pittsburgh. No two were able to agree.

I've now got it sorted out. Actually, Gary Bensman, the Grand Canyon Railway's chief mechanical engineer, knew it all along. So did John Nelsen, archivist for the ALCo Historical Society, who lives near Albany. The engines were all from Pittsburgh.

“If it's any comfort,” said John, “they were built from plans drawn up in Schenectady.”

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fiddle and Drums

From the Vault Dept.: I missed Joshua Bell’s appearance last week with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but it put me in mind of an appearance he made there almost exactly ten years earlier . . .

                                                               

Joshua Bell
IT'S NO SUBTLE TRANSITION from Mozart to MacMillan, especially with the percussion forces required by the latter’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a work written for Evelyn Glennie and premiered ten years ago at a London Proms concert. She has performed the piece over a hundred times since, but it’s not something through which you can cruise-control: she puts her amazing dexterity to good use as she moves from vibes to woodblocks, from marimba to trap set, all arrayed across the front of the stage, flanking the podium.

Where Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture is tuneful, familiar set piece to show off string section coordination (and show it off it did, admirably), Veni, Veni Emmanuel plunges us into a half-hour of textural contrasts fired off by a thick, frantic fanfare through which the vibes peal an anticipation of the melodic elements – drawn from the Gregorian chant that gives this work its name.

Glennie swooped over to stage right, to the untuned instruments, as the strings picked up the theme, As SPAC composer-in-residence MacMillan explained in a brief intro, the work isolates a pair of two-note motifs into a heartbeat rhythm that informs much of the piece in a variety of textures, reinforced by the percussion. At the drum array, Glennie propelled the piece with a rock beat; at the marimba, she layered it with haunting tones.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

GE’s Striking Beginnings

From the Electric Vault Dept.: "Not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells's history, but history nevertheless," intones Kaspar Gutman as he unravels the tale of jewel-encrusted statuette. Here's another slice of that kind of history: the union-busting wranglings of Thomas Edison that brought his General Electric Company to Schenectady, NY, and then left the inventor out in the cold.

                                                                      

Thomas Edison
THOMAS EDISON NEVER WAS regarded as the most benevolent of employers, but considered himself something of a Croesus when he raised his employees’ pay to “twenty-five cents an hour above the prevailing rate of wages.”

This was at his Machine Works on Goerck Street in New York City in 1886, at a time when laborers were discovering collective bargaining techniques. Edison lamented that “the men, having got a little more wages, thought they would try coercion and get a little more . . . whereupon they struck at a time that was critical.”

Edison took advantage of the strike to save payroll money and to explore his newly-acquired property in Schenectady. His employees appointed a committee to meet with their boss, “but for two weeks they could not find us, so they became somewhat more anxious than we were. Finally they said they would like to go back. We said all right, and back they went. It was quite a novelty to the men not to be able to find us when they wanted to; and they didn’t relish it at all.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Life Begins at Forty

Jack Yellin
Guest Blogger: Jack Yellin. He wrote enduring songs like “Alabama Jubilee,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” and the perennial “Happy Days Are Here Again,”and he wrote specialty lyrics for revues by Ziegfeld and John Murray Anderson. Born in Poland, Yellin was raised in Buffalo, NY, and had his first Broadway successes in the 1920s. He shifted to Hollywood as the talkies came in, working on Paul Whiteman’s “King of Jazz” and various iterations of “George White’s Scandals.” He also wrote specialty material for Sophie Tucker, including “My Yiddishe Momme” and the lyric reproduced below. Yellin retired to the Buffalo area, and, supporting this song’s sentiment, lived to the age of 97.

                                                                        

LIFE BEGINS AT 40
by Jack Yellen

I’ve often heard it said and sung
That life is sweetest when you’re young,
And kids sixteen to twenty-one
Think they’re having all the fun.
I disagree. I say it isn’t so,
And I’m one gal who ought to know;
I started young and I’m still going strong,
But I’ve learned as I’ve gone along:

That life begins at forty.
That’s when love and living start to become a gentle art;
A woman who’s been careful finds that’s when she’s in her prime,
And a good man when he’s forty knows just how to take his time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What’s Wrong with Restaurants

From the Vault Dept.: Although this piece dates back nine years, the problems examined therein never grow stale. As a former server, my years of dealing with drunk and/or insane customers throws my default sympathy with the floor staff, but the wretches too often don't get the training (or freedom) to deal with the teeming, hungry horde.

                                                                                     

Drawing by Baron C. De Grimm
MY FATHER APPROACHES restaurant meals as a challenge. I won’t say he goes in with a chip on his shoulder, because he enjoys the ceremony of dining out, but it’s his wont to prepare early for the Two Major Sins. First: Receiving a salad with leaves so large he has to take a knife to it. Second and most dreaded: Waiting overlong for the check.

As a teenager, I took this to be more evidence of grown-up fussiness; now I share this fussiness. I haven’t had to wrestle a salad in recent memory, but if I could recover all the time I’ve spent waiting for a check to be delivered, it probably could be counted in weeks.

Whenever I reveal my line of work, I’m asked to identify my favorite restaurant. Then I’m usually regaled with some tale of horror enacted during a recent evening out. So, when I asked a few weeks ago what your particular peeves were, I expected a deluge of responses.

This wasn’t the case. What I did get, both as e-mail and in person, was a fairly consistent cross-section. Nobody is out there complaining about food, which is fascinating. I would think the sins of the many kitchens out there would attract criticism, but it’s the service that ticks you off the most.

One problem close to my heart was well stated by a correspondent, who dislikes “servers who insist on giving you back dirty flatware, usually forks. Implicit message: We're too damn lazy (or cheap) to get you a new one.” Should you get a new fork with each course? With the possible exception of diners, I think so. It looks good, food is more appetizing that way and it gives the server a chance to pay a little extra attention to your table.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

So You Want to Be a Luddite?

“God isn’t interested in technology. He knows nothing
of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution.”
– Michael Palin & Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits
From the Vault Dept.: Reflections from a dozen years ago, when I teetered on the edge of living some manner of the rebellion limned below. Such a life may still await me, but not before my subscription to Amazon Prime runs out.

                                                                       

ONE BY ONE, the people around you succumb to the lure of computers and soon evangelize, tirelessly, tiresomely, about the thrill – no, the necessity – of the Internet. Isn’t this the way the pod people in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers took over?

You have the unpopular feeling that you can live without a computer. Yet you’ve been warned by those evangelists that you’ll be missing out. On what?

It’s a good news/bad news scenario, but how well the yin-yang of it balances for you depends upon how eagerly you’re prepared to substitute warm, character-building stuff for the quick-fix kick of technology.

Let’s start with communications. Computers begat e-mail, allowing spur-of-the-moment messages to be exchanged as quickly as you can type them. Best viewed as a hybrid of phone call and letter, e-mail (and its absurd cousin, the online chat) reminds us how poorly people write and spell, electronic spell- and grammar-checkers notwithstanding. There’s no question that e-mail is a terrific improvement over faxes, allowing data files (like the story you’re reading) to be transmitted in an editable form. But it’s not going to replace either the phone or the postal service during our lifetime. As a slower correspondent, you have the advantage of revision, avoiding e-mail’s most insidious pitfall: the impulsive reply.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Four Diners

IN AND AMONG THE trendy, the take-out, the tortured eateries that take up a considerable amount of Manhattan’s real estate is any number of diners. By which I mean places that serve breakfast for some or all of the day, that offer little in the way of ambiance, that may make a fairly decent Greek salad, and that don’t necessarily mind if you hunker over a cup of coffee for a while when the place isn’t busy.

These are not to be confused with places like Ellen’s Diner, at Broadway and 51st, which dresses itself with self-conscious irony and charges you for it, or places like the venerable Carnegie Deli, at 55th and 7th, which is a deli.

During a recent week in Manhattan, I found myself in four different diners for various reasons. Each of them was comfortable; each offered a good-enough menu with reasonable prices; each was served by a staff that couldn’t have been more accommodating.

Like the Washington Square Diner, at the corner of 6th Avenue and West 4th Street. The place has no website, which augurs well. It has a long (if vague) history in the neighborhood. It’s open 24 hours a day, which is how it became the place that whipped up 350 sandwiches in the middle of the night for transit workers dealing with the onslaught of Hurricane Irene last summer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Subterranean Ridership Blues

OF THE THIRTEEN – make that fourteen – people gazing at some manner of distraction in not-too-crowded subway car (afternoon 1 train south to Houston Street), five of them had paper-based reading material in hand, although one of those paper-based products was the New York Post, so that doesn’t really count.

Two of the other nine items were e-readers. The remaining seven were cell phones. There were more than seven cell phones in evidence, but I didn’t count those used solely for aural distraction.

Three of the seven were earbuds-connected to their owners, but those owners also were staring at the cell-phone screens. Of the seven at-the-screen starers, five were flicking thumbs frantically enough to be game-playing or texting, leaving two who might have been using their phones to peruse e-books.

Which meant, according to this most informal survey, that paper-based reading still leads the more newfangled style, albeit by a very small factor. Conversation, on the other hand, seemed rarely pursued, but the noise factor can be inhibiting.

Later, while riding the 2, an express train, from 14th Street to 96th Street, I showed my daughter the anomaly of the 34th Street station. Unlike all of the lines other express stops, which allow you to change to a local train by crossing the platform, this throws you out on the local side – a design instituted both here and at the nearby 34th Street station that runs along Eighth Avenue and serves Penn Station.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Meet Mattie

SHE’S STROLLING THE closed-to-traffic stretch of Broadway at 45th Street, an area thronged with tourists and those who would like to make money off of the tourists. The Naked Cowboy is there, ready to sing to you and pose with you, and the Naked Indian is a recent equal-opportunity addition to the scene. A verdigris-colored Lady Liberty offers deadpan humor.

And as you approach the TKTS windows, where discount show tickets are sold, you’ll meet Mattie and the many others trying to call your attention to specific productions. In Mattie’s case, it’s “Clybourne Park.”

“Have you seen it” she asks cheerfully. I assure her I have. “But I was watching you deal with other people,” I tell her. “You must be an actress.”

“I am,” she admits. She’s young and blonde and fresh-faced and very attractive, and I’m thankful to have my teenaged daughter in tow to make me appear a little less like a lonely middle-aged man.

“You have to put up with constant rejection doing this,” I observe.

“I do!” she cries, but with a smile in her voice. “It helps thicken my skin.”

Mattie left her home town of Chattanooga two months ago in order to pursue acting here in Manhattan, and is still settling in with the challenge of balancing auditions and work. It’s a hot August evening, and she not only has to hawk the discount she’s offering and try to persuade people to take away an info sheet – she also has to keep aloft an awkward crossroads sign that serves as a symbol for the show.

And she couldn’t sound more chipper. I’m betting good things are in store for her as she chases this impossible career.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Not So Nuts

Working in Coffeehouses, West Village Branch: HE WAS A BARBER for forty years. It was the family business. But in 1927, Dominic Parisi spent his last and only $1,000 on an espresso machine that already was a quarter-century old. Imported from Italy, it became the gleaming centerpiece of the coffeehouse he opened on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village.

Lily Whiteman at Caffe Reggio
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Caffe Reggio is still going strong, and they still pull espressos from the old machine, although the tiny service counter has its share of more modern equipment as well hidden among the pastry displays and ice cream freezer.

Parisi didn’t serve food in those early days, and customers didn’t seem to care, but today there’s a menu of sandwiches and desserts, and souvenir sugar bowls and teapots, tee shirts and caps also are offered for sale. Cash only, though.

Although Café Wha’ still stands at the corner of MacDougal and Minetta, not much else remains to remind you of the area’s prominence during the great Folk Music Scare of the 1960s, never mind the days of the Provincetown Playhouse. Today that stretch of MacDougal is littered with comedy clubs and Italian restaurants, with a busy bar or pizza place here and there.

Even on a Monday night in August, when most of the natives have fled, the street is busy. People stand in sidewalk groups, dressed for business, dressed to party, dressed as an afterthought. People throng the outdoor tables, busy with meals, oblivious to the sidewalk. Loud puffs of music issue from the storefronts and cellars. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bear Facts about Camping

The Fiction File Dept.: Before it became an official alternative newsweekly, Albany’s Metroland Magazine published all manner of oddball stuff, including, from time to time, my fiction. Here’s one such piece that appeared in March 1987, its framing device and tone swiped from P. G. Wodehouse, a fairly thin-on-plot little number.

                                                                               

“THE GREAT OUTDOORS! The wide-open spaces!” Uncle Ned thrust out his arms as if to embrace Mother Nature and threw his knapsack out of balance, sending him backwards into a nest of nettles.

It was a crisp spring day not long ago when he decided that I should accompany him on a hike “into the verdant bowers of ruralia,” as he put it, meaning up the hill at north end of town. 

Between us we carried a cookstove, a small tarp, poles for the tarp, two medium-sized pots, an iron skillet, a coffeepot, coffee, two collapsible chairs, an even more collapsible table, and what seemed like fifty pounds of food. “We won’t go hungry,” he had declared at the outset.

“Let’s set up right here,” he said.

“I don’t understand why you won’t go some real forest,” I complained. “We’ve got the Appalachians on one side  the Adirondacks on another.”

“Don’t talk to me about Adirondacks!” He slipped off his pack and shook a finger at me. “I might have married the sweetest woman on earth if it weren’t for that damned wilderness! Did I ever tell you about Betsy and the bear?”

“Yes, you did,” I sighed, settling myself against a tree. . .

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jay Walking

From the Vault Dept.: From the February, 1986, issue of Capital Region magazine, whose headline story, “Doesn’t Anybody Go Out Anymore?” was written by James Howard Kunstler, and which issue also offered Bill Heller’s profile of rising boxing star Mike Tyson. The Jay Street of today is a completely changed animal, and most of the establishments mentioned are long gone.

                                                                  

NEXT TIME YOU ARE on Jay Street in Schenectady, look up at the cornices of the buildings. They are enchantingly ornate, of a style at once commonplace and yet a charming reminder of an easygoing past. The heritage of the street, like the heritage of this and so many other cities, is revealed on the facings of the upper stories.

Then look down. You’ll see the current renovation that captures the spirit of the street’s 19th-century beginnings. We’re going to take a walk along Jay Street and meet some of the people who work here and some who socialize here. They’re very loyal to the street. We’ll discover why these loyalties exist.

Just off State Street, where Proctor’s Theater, the Carl Co. and most of Schenectady’s distinguished old businesses stand, you will find Jay Street – flanked on either side by a new retail space called Center City and a submarine sandwich shop. A few stores up on your right, a large blue and white sign, lettered with a flourish, hangs over the door of Carl’s Books.

The group that hangs out in Carl’s is discussing the arrival of Roger DePriest. Roger got the wanderlust last year and traveled to San Francisco, but his recent letters declared that city too unfriendly to newcomers and so he’s on his way back. For many months he had been a Jay Street regular, journeying from shop to shop with his head thrust forward and his hands in his pockets except when returning the wave of a merchant.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Friday, August 10, 2012

Nino Zoppé's Flying Circus

“WE’RE A FAMILY and we perform for families,” said Nino Zoppé as we crowded the gate outside the circus tent. “We do this the same way we’ve been doing it for a hundred and sixty years.” Meaning small-scale. Intimate.

Even before the start of the show proper, he’d presented an array of jugglers and tumblers, and a sad-faced accordionist who led the crowd in singing “That’s Amore.”

The Zoppé Circus hit town courtesy Proctors Theater, with a single-ring tent conveniently fitted into a field across Broadway from the theater complex. Amazingly but, in the end, not surprisingly, the performers working the crowd were the same we’d seen for two days preceding the opening putting up the tent, painting scenery, getting things in order. Soon enough we’d see them working the trapeze, ropes, and trampoline inside.

“We’re not a big, flashy circus with special effects,” Nino went on. “We’re not a French dance company masquerading as a circus.” He punctuated that last crack with a triumphant “yes!!” gesture of the forearm. We understood what he meant.

Inside, the ring sported a fresh layer of sawdust. Popcorn and lemonade awaited. The bleacher we climbed had a stitched-together look. But when we settled in and the lights dimmed and a cantering horse was released into the ring, a couple of hundred years dropped away and we succumbed to a kind of entertainment that cheered people like us long before electrical-based technology took over.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Orchestral Audiences in the Dark

From the Vault Dept.: I do enjoy clambering onto my soapbox and this, from a mere twenty-three years ago, is another attempt to figure out the problem with classical music concert attendance. The Morton Downey reference is a beaut. I told the same Piatigorsky story in another post, but let this celebrate a recent performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto that I very much enjoyed.

                                                                                

Illustration by Michael Prinzo
SOME OF THE MOST staid-sounding music, music we take very much for granted, was once an earsore that garnered bouquets of hate from its critics. This applies equally to Beethoven and the Beatles. Critical drubbing is good: it can fuel the songwriter to achieve even greater standards of work, and it offers the auditor a barometer of opinion. We all have critics whose opinions are guaranteed to fall 180 degrees away from our own.

It’s the audience who decides the worth of a piece because music is a dialogue between composer and listener. The better trained an audience is to listen, the more satisfying that dialogue will be.

As music shifted from being the entertainment of kings and popes to a more streetwise relationship with the populace, composers saw the potential for a little rabble-rousing. The story of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiere is well known: the rioting it engendered attracted lots of attention and quickened the work’s enshrinement in the repertory.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Perfect Behavior

Guest Blogger: Donald Ogden Stewart. He was a stalwart at the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s, then he headed for Hollywood, picking up an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story." (Stewart also adapted Barry's "Holiday.") Blacklisted in the 1950s, he never regained his old career footing -- although Woody Allen is said to have used him in the writing of "Love and Death." The book excerpt below is from 1922.

                                                                                      

Formal Dinners in America

Donald Ogden Stewart
EATING IS AN EXTREMELY old custom and has been practiced by the better classes of society almost without interruption from earliest times. And “society,” like the potentate of the parable whose touch transformed every object into gold, has embellished and adorned the all-too-common habit of eating, until there has been evolved throughout the ages that most charming and exquisite product of human culture—the formal dinner party. The gentleman of today who delightedly dons his dress suit and escorts into a ten-course dinner some lady mountain climber or other celebrity, is probably little aware of what he owes to his forefathers for having so painstakingly devised for him such a pleasant method of spending his time.

But “before one runs, one must learn to walk”—and the joys of the dinner-party are not to be partaken of without a long preliminary course of training, as many a young man has learned to his sorrow when he discovered that his inelegant use of knife and fork was causing humorous comment up and down the “board” and was drawing upon himself the haughty glances of an outraged hostess. The first requisite of success in dining out is the possession of a complete set of correct table manners—and these, like anything worth while, can be achieved only by patient study and daily practise.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Asleep in the Deep

That Sinking Feeling Dept.: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the ocean, here's a cautionary tale of oblivious lovers (is there any other kind?), a storm at sea, a vessel clearly in violation of OSHA standards, and a weak justification of their fate. This song was once the standard test for the low-note singer, but Tom Savoy and I long ago side-stepped the issue by recruiting a basso from the audience. In this case, it's Roger Thorpe: trumpeter, bandleader, and organizer of the June music festival at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, where this was recorded in 2010. Malcolm Kogut is the pianist. Beware!


Monday, August 06, 2012

George Gordon and the Great Fire of 1895

From the Depths of the Vault Dept.: As noted in an earlier post, some high-school friends and I called ourselves the Pickwick Club, and, because our hometown of Ridgefield, Conn., was very history-conscious, created a fictional counterpart of misogynists who flourished at the turn of the 20th century. My corresponding character was named George Gordon, and you can easily figure out why. Craig Borders (“Joseph H. Haddau,” pronounced, “Ha-DOY”) and I penned an article that ran in the Ridgefield Press, the editors of which were in on the joke and helpfully provided the photo of the aftermath of what was an actual fire. The politically incorrect moniker “Ah Pong” was swiped from Spike Milligan. The piece is crawling with other in-jokes: its co-byline of “David Lawrence,” for example, uses my late brother’s first and middle names. The piece dates from 1977. The portrait of me below is from 1971.

                                                                  

George Gordon in 1894
This is the fifth in a series of articles about the Pickwick Club of Ridgefield. David Lawrence is compiling them into a book titled The Pickwick Years; Joseph H. Haddau is a professor at Wesleyan University specializing in 19th-century England.

IN THE SPRING OF 1895, a young tailor in Ridgefield named George Gordon met and fell in love with the visiting niece of one of the proprietors of the Bedient and Mead furniture store. Their engagement was announced after two months; meanwhile, the girl took a part-time job at the store and a room above it. Their courtship, according to Gordon’s son, Noel, was unusual; they would meet in the store after hours, where Gordon would design the rooms of the house he and his betrothed would share by moving the display items into approximate settings. Then they would play-act a domestic life.

In December 1895, Gordon received a poison-pen letter accusing his fiancée of infidelity. He confronted her with this letter the evening of Dec. 9, then allegedly produced the bundle of letters he had received from her and set fire to them. She became hysterical and ran out of the store. Gordon followed. At about nine o’clock that evening, passers-by discovered a blaze in the building, which quickly spread to the adjoining telegraph office, destroying both buildings and eight more before firemen and villagers extinguished it the following morning.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Top 100

HERE'S AN IDIOTIC CONCEPT: Run a radio station for about six hours an evening. Play a hundred classical pieces in the same rotation. Offer canned intros and outros and no more information than that.

I’m hard pressed to tell you how short-sighted, how downright stupid I find that concept, focusing as it does only on orchestral warhorses, doing nothing to educate the listener. Except that my ire is flummoxed by a significant fact. I grew up with a station like that. I learned the hell out of those warhorses by being able to hear them over and over again.

WJZZ-FM operated out of Bridgeport, Conn., at 99.9 kHz, and, when I discovered it, was broadcasting from 5:30 PM to about 11:30 PM every day. Which meant that an average of ten pieces would be aired of an evening, and the cycle would begin again in about a week and a half.

I was a young teen when I stumbled upon the station. Living not far from Bridgeport, I got a strong stereo signal. I listened on my nice KLH system when in my room; I put a transistor radio to my ear when I was elsewhere.

The station originated in the early 1960s with a jazz format, hence the call letters, and Dave Brubeck, who lived nearby, was its music director. It failed to catch on and another neighbor – Leonard Bernstein – was called upon to help provide a selection of classical pieces, ostensibly based on performance popularity.

Friday, August 03, 2012

“Ella”: The Long and Short of It

The Kindest Cut of All Dept.: Although I’m pretty good about keeping to an editorial word count, here’s an example of a piece I “wrote long,” then trimmed to length. Compare it to the published version and you’ll see that the cuts got rid of some (but not all) of my delightful pedantry. Fear not: I keep plenty in reserve.

                                                                              


Tina Fabrique as Ella Fitzgerald
LISTEN TO COLE PORTER’S “Night and Day.” The refrain’s hypnotic pulse draws you into its spell with on-the-beat keywords and descending melodic phrases with descending chromatic accompaniment. It has an odd construction for a pop song, with three 16-bar sections instead of four sections of eight measures apiece. As the third section begins, there’s a leap up of an unexpected minor third, an odd tonal shift to support the oddball phrase “under the hide of me.” And that sets us up the sudden bounce of “oh, such a hungry yearning,” an excitement that soon subsides into that hypnotic descent before the minor-key clouds that colored the piece clear for a strong major-key finish.

Sing the sheet music as its written and the song’s magic works. But Ella Fitzgerald didn’t sing it that way. She loosened the notes from the pulse and colored them with the jazz equivalent of Baroque ornamentation, in a style as distinctive as a fingerprint. Tina Fabrique doesn’t sing it that way, nor does she sing it totally Ella’s way. She pays astonishing tribute to Ella in the current Capital Rep show, but her own gifts, colored by a more contemporary sensibility, shine through in triumph.

The show presents her with a virtuoso four-piece band and walk-on support by Harold Dixon as Ella’s most effective impresario, Norman Granz. It takes place during a concert in Nice in 1966, when the singer is wracked with grief over the death of a loved one. Act One is a career retrospective; Act Two the emotionally charged concert itself.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Big Top Pee-wee

From the Film Cans Dept.: Why don’t I review movies? Because I enjoy them too much. Good movies, that is. I’m not mentally prepared to have the summer blockbuster shit thrown at me. This means, of course, that I’ve missed out on the press junkets with which the Hollywood Hype Machine dazzles small-market rube writers with big-time stars. On most of the few assignments occasions on which I did review movies, I attended early-afternoon press screenings, but with the looser deadline of a weekly, I had the option of sitting with civilians. Which I took one evening, under the impression that my editor had set things up for me at a local mall multiplex. The box office didn’t know I was supposed to be comped in, nor did any usher. I was handed to the night manager, a gawky teen named Ed, who explained that he knew nothing about this and really, really couldn’t just let me in because I could be just anyone trying to get in for free and he could lose his job and . . . I gave up. A fitting end to my film-reviewing career. But here’s a sample.

                                                                   

EFFECTIVE SCREEN COMEDY places a well-defined protagonist in conflict with circumstances that are bested in surprising ways. The Marx Brothers used anarchy, W.C. Fields boasted and lied. Recent comedies too often take a lazy way out, offering TV stars who merely act silly – witness the sad career of Chevy Chase.

With Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens propelled himself from talk-show oddity to star of his eponymous Playhouse. But he also made an excellent transition to film with Pee-wee's Big Adventure, a throwback to the formula of the 1930s that skillfully combined scenic design, timing and music with a throwaway plot for an episodic, hilarious result.

Don't expect quite the same from Big Top Pee-wee. Reubens and company give us the same elements as were used in the Big Adventure, but with one notable exception: it's safer going. Even Danny Elfman's marvellous music is a little less quirky this time.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Cha-Cha Lounge

Latin Beat Dept.: How is it that, even as we rocket into dotage, my wife and I can hear music with a characterisitically syncopated beat and break into a rhumba? We don’t dance. For the mental safety of others, I probably could draw a salary for not dancing. Yet the moves have been absorbed into our bodies thanks to a widespread cultural embrace. In my program notes to the 1999 Dorian Recordings CD “Cha-Cha Lounge,” I tried to figure out how that happened.

                                                                               

THE CHA-CHA LOUNGE is a fancy nightclub in an unwritten movie. It’s a clash of cultures: Afro-Cuban music and dance in the midst of strait-laced Salt Lake City. In the club is a hot band blasting its pulsing syncopations. And the tunes themselves, in the Perez Prado tradition, pack some surprises.

Weekend Jam, for example, an Anthony DiLorenzo original, opens like a typical cha cha. “Then, in the middle,” Tony explains, “you get this unexpected hit of something out of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It’s a little wacky. And you suddenly think, ‘Wow, look at those cats, jamming away in the corner–they’re having a great time!”

DiLorenzo, trumpet wizard of Proteus 7, is also the group’s house composer. For the Cha-Cha Lounge project, he even invented the house. “A buddy of mine in Salt Lake City, where I live, runs a restaurant, and he recently thought about opening a nightclub. This was when Proteus 7 was starting this recording project, and I suddenly saw this movie image of a Latin dance club in a completely incongruous location.”