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Monday, April 30, 2012

Pale, Thin People

Sweet Snake-Oil Dept.: I found this pamphlet in my attic while re-wiring and insulating. It's undated, but there's a companion piece at the end from the NY Times from 1894, and as far as I can tell from the Times piece, it was passed off as a legit news story. (It was also referenced in the Charlotte Medical Journal from 1895.) Has dietary science really improved since then? I'm going to contemplate that over lunch. Note: It's lengthy, but they sure wrote convincing copy back in the day! 



  • Simply suffer from want of nourishment.
  • If you are thin, it is because the food you eat does not digest properly.
  • It is not healthy to be too thin. It is better to be hearty and fat.
  • If your food doesn't digest properly, what can you do? You must change your diet.
  • To get fat you must eat less fat and more starch, for fat and oils are indigestible.
  • Starch is the only healthy fattening food
PASKOLA is starch food artificially digested; treated by science, the way nature treats it in your digestive organs.

PASKOLA forms fat without giving your digestion any work. It is a delicious, healthy pure food.

It is a food that will make you bright and rosy and healthy and fat, without the use of drugs or medicines.

What Makes the Difference?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spring Chickens

From the Coop Dept.: Against all odds, we still have two of the Rhode Island Reds we acquired eight years ago. Otherwise, the brood is a mix of breeds, with a handsome rooster who is as friendly as his never-eaten predecessor was mean. Here's a piece from seven years ago that explains it.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I ENJOY CAESAR SALAD and live on a farm, so it seemed logical to get chickens. We’ve been told to avoid those raw-egg dishes like the classic dressing for that salad – not to mention egg nog, boeuf à la tartare and most morning-after concoctions – because of salmonella danger.

That’s also why we’re exhorted to clean any prep or body surface that touches raw chicken meat. This isn’t because chickens are inherently disease ridden. It’s because the chicken-processing industry raises the beasts in such horrific conditions that they spend most of their brief, antibiotic-laced lives mired in ordure.

So why not turn some of my acreage over to a flock of them? We’d have fresh eggs, which are significantly better than store-bought, and we could kill and dress our own birds for dinner.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Heavy on the Light Verse

I WRITE LIGHT VERSE. I also write song lyrics. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that such efforts best succeed when they’re rhymed correctly, if rhyming is appropriate.

I received the parody lyric presented below some years back, and fortunately cannot remember who forwarded it to me. It also figures in an urban legend suggesting the Julie Andrews actually sang the horrible thing, which she didn’t.

Another thing I can’t remember is whether I sent my annotation to whomever forwarded the parody lyric to me. I hope so. What’s written below should give warning to the untrained parodist: you probably don’t know what you’re doing.


What's needed here.
Here’s the problem with trying to parody someone like Oscar Hammerstein. You have to know the rules of scansion and rhyming. And you have to know how to set up a gag so the payoff is as effective as possible. Let’s see what we’re working with here:

These are a few of my favorite things

Is this meant to be the title? If so, the title is merely “My Favorite Things.” It doesn’t work as an opening line, and messes up the quatrain.

Maalox and nose drops and needles for knitting,
Walkers and handrails and new dental fittings,

“fittings” and “knitting” don’t rhyme properly.

Bundles of magazines tied up in string,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Ditto “string” and “things.” In the original, the line is “Brown paper packages tied up with strings.” For a parody, this should be a payoff line. You’re constricted by the need to rhyme with “things,” but a quick check of the options suggests the following: “Wasting the time that retirement brings,” “Wrapping your butt in disposable slings,” etc.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Old New Dining Resolutions

Vintage Stuff Dept.: In late 1985, I was settling in as one of the Albany-area arts-writing hacks. I made my debut in the Schenectady Gazette in March, 1983, began writing for Metroland Magazine a year later, and soon added Albany's Knickerbocker News to my roster, which provoked a wee scandal I'll write about in the coming days. In December 1985 a glossy magazine called Capital Region appeared, brainchild of Metroland founder Peter Iselin. I wrote some features and food pieces for the short-lived publication, and for its second issue, I asked four area restaurant critics about their gustatory New Year's resolutions – little knowing that I'd join their ranks in a mere few months. The photo, by Bill Murphy, was taken in his Albany studio, and assembled the quartet in question to sample the stuff they'd pledged to avoid. I prepared and styled the dishes and, yes, that's me serving them.


IF FOOD IS ONE of the last things you consider when charting your New Year’s resolutions, you’re paying tribute to that staunchest of internal organs, the stomach. With a language all its own, it tries to guide us through a maze of dietary offerings that must be unrivaled in history for wretchedness. The American diet is designed almost solely for mouth appeal and has caused the mouth and stomach to become enemies. The mouth may win as far as choice of food is concerned, but it’s the stomach that will get you in the end.

Fred LeBrun, Vinod Chhabra, Peg Churchill Wright,
Doug de Lisle, and B. A. Nilsson | Photo by Bill Murphy
My wife and I have a dessert technique that dresses up our craving for sweets as something romantic: “Should we?” I ask, surveying a listing that already has the stomach preparing to do battle. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she says, but adds, “that ‘Slice o’ Heaven Pie’ sure sounds good.” “If I were going to have dessert,” I say cleverly, “I’d probably go for the ‘18-Layer Cake.’” And then we both ask the ceiling, “How long has it been since we had dessert?” (overlooking last week’s binge at Ben & Jerry’s) and, when the items arrive, hold hands while digging in as if to tell the world that ours is a gluttony inspired by love.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Saga of the Longkill Diner

As a restaurant reviewer, I’ve seen places I praised suddenly close and places I hate soldier on, but I never had the experience that befell reviewer (and all-around fine writer) Vinny Chhabra late in 1981, when he did what we all love to do: stumble on a gem. Here are the two pieces that ran on successive weeks in the Albany Knickerbocker News, and then I’ll come back with some history. Here are Vinny's pieces.


IT’S EASY TO MISS, but keep your eyes peeled for a little green diner, behind a row of evergreens, right next door to a gas station, where Ushers and Longkill roads meet. It’s a diner, all right, but one like none other around. A haute diner.

Stuart deVoe bought Arlene’s Country Diner five months ago when Arlene decided to devote all her time to being a cook at the Saratoga County Jail. DeVoe had managed an inn in Greenwich, NY, before turning hair-stylist; but his interest remained in food. He catered parties, he followed Craig Claiborne religiously, he experimented with food, improvised.

“To build up business,” he offered inexpensive but classy dinners three evenings a week at the diner for around $4. It didn’t make him rich, but it attracted a lot of attention, especially from the people in the Van Patten developments close by.

DeVoe couldn’t keep up the pace, the 100-plus hours a week, so he cut out the dinners and concentrated on breakfast and lunch.

At 6:15 Wednesday morning we placed our orders: Blueberry pancakes ($1.59); eggs Benedict 1$2.75): a Longkill Omelet ($1.95).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Developing Ability

ONE OF MY FIRST photos. Note the cunning composition of power line and (just-built) fence, and the casualness of the subjects. Man, I was good.

It's a shot of my father and sister, taken in the summer of 1964. I was eight. I used my dad's camera, which was a Kodak Duraflex II that used medium-format 620 film. Then he helped me develop the negative and make prints. I'm amazed the negative survived all these years, to the point where I'm able to scan it directly into a computer -- a gadget the eight-year-old me would have found unbelievable and therefore entirely acceptible, which is one of the wonderful things about that age.

Ridgefield, Conn., 1964 | Photo by Byron (not yet B. A.) Nilsson

Monday, April 23, 2012

Vlad the Regaler

APRIL 23 IS THE birthdate of several artists whose work I admire: William Shakespeare, Sergei Prokofiev, J. P. Donleavy, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Besides being the author of such superb novels as Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada, and Pnin, Nabokov was a lepidopterist of such repute that he worked on Harvard’s butterfly collection. His trips crisscrossing the U.S. in search of specimens provided the roadmap for Humbert Humbert’s travels, and Timofei Pnin has this experience:
A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin's shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again. (Nabokov, Pnin.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Untame "Taming"

Vintage Stuffe Dept., Shakespeare Division: Long before I had any professional association with the NYS Theatre Institute, back in the days when it was the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts, I reviewed its productions for Albany's Metroland Magazine. Here's a time-machine visit to a 1985 production of The Taming of the Shrew.


John Abajian (top) and John Romeo
IF THE EMPIRE STATE Institute for the Performing Arts production of The Taming of the Shrew suffers from anything, it’s a surfeit of attention. So keenly has director Terence Lamude striven to overcome any opacity the play has gained over the ages that he has, if anything, given us too much detail. But it’s a spectacular production, the kind that makes Shakespeare as accessible as he deserves to be. There may be a large number of people, kids now, who will look back at a school trip to this play as a door-opener to something a little weightier (and ultimately more fun) than Neil Simon nonsense – never mind trash like The A-Team.

The set, designed by Klaus Helm, has a cartoon-like aspect of much detail and not all filled in. It suits the action, which joyfully discovers the burlesque In the script. Lamude also adds a few manic touches of his own, in the manner of film director Richard Lester. People bash heads; slops get dumped from a window.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


DICK CAVETT HAS A piece in today’s New York Times reflecting on the 1972 Carnegie Hall performance by Groucho Marx. Cavett, who was host of a TV talk show at the time, introduced Groucho that evening, and he discourses about what terrible physical shape the comedian was in and the mediocre performance it led to.

Dick Cavett and Michael Connolly
August 1977 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Writes Cavett: “His performance consisted mostly of an unenergetic reading of his favorite anecdotes from three-by-five cards; a thing I feared might turn even that audience to stone.

“But a sort of miracle took place. They were so pre-sold to have the time of their lives that they barely seemed to notice any difference between the all-but-drained Groucho onstage and the capering madman of the movies. And, as an actor still susceptible to a booming audience, mercifully he did ‘come up’ a lot.”

I’d like to say that Cavett is dead wrong, that Groucho fully rallied to the occasion and turned in a stunner of a show. But he didn’t. I had a sixth-row parquet seat, in a sold-out house that had a mix of the scruffy and illustrious, and saw a frail 82-year-old guy go through a halting sequence of stories and songs.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cutting Edge Cutting Edges

When it comes to kitchen knives, I've been a die-hard carbon steel partisan for decades. But I was hearing so many good reports about new handle shapes and grades of steel that about a year and a half ago, I ran a series of knives through extensive kitchen testing. A shortened version of the results appeared in Metroland. Here's the piece in its entirety.


“AT LAST! MY right arm is complete again!” cries Sweeney Todd (unless he’s portrayed by a southpaw) as he closes his fingers after many years around the chased-silver handle of his cut-throat razor. That sense of completion – of balance and totality – is shared by professional chefs, whose most-used kitchen implement is a knife that sits comfortable in the hand and, when wielded with precision and grace, seems a natural extension of the body.

In the home kitchen – at least in the kitchens of homes I visit – it seems to be the most neglected of tools. Cheap knives, stamped of inferior metal, abound, knives unable to hold an edge even if they were sharpened properly in the first place. Even the good knives too often hide in a drawer, dull and therefore dangerous. Do yourself a favor and get a good chef’s knife. Get one for a kitchen-minded family member. Get one so that visiting friends (like me) have something to cook with.

I tested eleven candidates, a variety having in common a ten-inch (or thereabouts) blade, priced from $70 to $295. Should you prefer an eight-inch blade, you’ll pay a little less.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Road to Morocco

My restaurant review in today's Metroland extols Tara Kitchen in Schenectady, where excellent Moroccan cuisine is offered. Back in November, one of my food columns looked at three new Moroccan cookbooks, in the course of which I lamented the lack of such fare in the area. As noted in the restaurant review, I quickly heard from Aneesa Waheed, who promised that she was about to right that wrong. She's done so spectacularly. Here's the piece that prompted her response, written from a mid-autumn perspective.


DAYS ARE SHORTER, nights are colder, it’s root vegetable season. It’s time to spend a little longer in the kitchen. I’ve been spending more of time with earthenware cookers, in particular one of the most marvelous of clay-pot designs, the Moroccan tagine.

I featured it during one of a quartet of Mediterranean-themed cooking classes I taught not long ago. France, Italy and Spain were the easy-to-choose first stops and, although more of Morocco extends around the Atlantic Ocean, there was enough of it on the Mediterranean Sea, I decided, to justify its inclusion. Not to mention that it has been greatly influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors. Almost simultaneously, three new Moroccan cookbooks appeared. Were it not a Turkish term, I’d call it kismet.

Take a Spanish cazuela, a large clay dish, and add a conical cover. That’s the tagine. As chef Mourad Lahlou writes in Mourad: New Moroccan (Artisan), “Their ingenuity is twofold. First, they’re designed to circulate heat in a way that’s not unlike what a convection oven does. The tapering lid forces hot air back down over the food, so that when everything is mounted the same way – the meat on the bottom, the vegetables over it, with the softest ones on top – everything cooks in the same amount of time.”

Tagine refers both to the cooking vessel and the meal it produces, and the quality it imparts is known as goût de terrior – the flavor of the earth.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Memphis in April

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
THE BROADWAY MUSICAL “Memphis” opened on tour last night in Schenectady. Immediately thereafter, Dick Clark died. A spokesman I just invented insists there was no relation between the two events.

Clark is mentioned in the musical, which charts the rise of unlikely DJ Huey Calhoun (brilliantly played by Bryan Fenkart) as he forces music by black performers onto the mainstream airwaves in Memphis in the mid 1950s. Calhoun eventually is poised for national success, and Clark is named as one of his competitors.

But Calhoun is foolishly self-destructive, mirroring the career of actual Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who parlayed his enthusiasm for black R&B and a what’ll-he-say-next hillbilly persona into a few years of local popularity.

At one point in “Memphis,” Calhoun’s about-to-be boss, Mr. Simmons (the always-impressive William Parry), wants to assure the radio audience that Calhoun isn’t black. “Tell them what high school you attended,” he insists, which is book writer Joe DiPietro’s borrowing of a Dewey Phillips incident, in which the high-school ploy was used to reveal Elvis Presley’s race.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Improvising vs. Composing

Guest Blogger Dept.: Today's author is Sergei Prokofiev, who offers a diary entry from June 16, 1913.


. . . . In the evening I yielded to the entreaties of the landlady and some of the ladies in our pension, and improvised on various themes they picked out. I played them all kinds of nonsense, but they were full of admiration. I do not like improvising, and do it only rarely, perhaps once a year.

The process of composing at the piano has nothing in common with improvising: composition consists of intensive, urgent searching, in the course of which the composer divides himself into two people: the creator and the critic. The first rapidly clothes his thoughts, one after the other, in snatches of music; among this throng there will be a number of purely automatic reflexes, but buried deep in them will be ideas of true originality. It is like sifting through gold-bearing sand and occasionally coming across a nugget of something valuable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fletcherize Your Music!

Yes, I got cranky in a recent review of a splendid performance by The Knights at the Troy Music Hall. And that's an edited version! (Although it adds some text dropped from the print version.) I fear that I've mellowed over the years, a state of being that can seem like part of the slow descent into Giving Up, so I looked back to if I was any crankier in an earlier decade. My conclusion: Not really. Even this piece below is far too kind.


IN A BOOK TITLED Fletcherism, What it Is or How I Became Young at Sixty, Horace Fletcher, a leading crank of the early years of this century, insisted that “nature will castigate those who don't masticate.” He insisted that the key to good health was to chew each mouthful of food from 30 to 70 times before swallowing.

The American way to satisfy such a requirement would be to hire someone else to chew it for you. That’s a ridiculous way to deal with dinner, but unfortunately, it may become the popular way to digest music – pre-chewed to a paste.

There seems to be a conspiracy between record companies and radio stations, abetted by those of us entering our fourth decade, to place music into compartments like so many shipboard staterooms; music is offered as a commodity that shouldn’t tie up our senses. Being an aural experience, music frees the dominant sense of vision to scan a newspaper or dinner partner.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Lot to Like

Back in the old days, when we all were exciteable pups, significant classical music events got a newspaper preview and then a review right after the event. In the mid-1980s, I was a stringer for the long-gone Albany Knickerbocker News, the city's afternoon paper. Noting that tonight marks not only an appearance by Musicians from Marlboro at Schenectady's Union College but also the final concert of the season, I offer a preview-review combo from 28 years ago. The preview piece is so unexciting that I can only assume most people who were interested in the event ignored it or attended anyway. And the review shows my pathetic attempt to satsify an editorial decree that you should be able to find something wrong with any event.


THIS SEASON'S SERIES of chamber music concerts at Union College in Schenectady – sponsored by the college and the Schenectady Museum – will conclude with a performance by Music from Marlboro Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the college’s Memorial Chapel. The featured performers are bass-baritone Sanford Sylvan and French horn soloist Robert Routch.

Sylvan first received national recognition when he won third prize in the 1979 Kennedy Center-Rockefeller Foundation International Vocal Competition. He has received three fellowships to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. His recitals throughout the country have provoked a storm of critical acclaim – and he should be well known to area concertgoers for his terrific performance last February at Union College, singing the title role in the Monadnock Music production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Man of Versatility

Yesterday I posted one of my rewrites of the Major General's song from "The Pirates of Penzance." It wasn't the only time I used that number as a model. Four years ago, I was asked to participate in a memorial for Doug De Lisle, with whom I shared aspects of my profession (restaurant and theater reviewing and, on one occasion, the stage ("The Cradle Will Rock," Schenectady Civic Players, Oct. 2004). Most often, I'd see him with fellow press people at opera performances, where we'd debate such things as the merit of translations. So I decided to present my tribute as a song, and once again ravaged the legacy of W. S. Gilbert.



He was the very model of a man of versatility,
Intelligence and humor were the heart of his ability;
His writing covered topics from the opera to gastronomy
And came across with elegance consistent with his bonhomie!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I Run the Very Model of Maniacal Machinery

From the Technology Vault Dept.: This time I saw it coming: a hard-drive failure. I backed up everything just in time, and, fortunately, backed up the backup. But while buying its replacement, I splurged for a fast, new desktop unit that I'll be laboring for days to fill with the data I saved (there's much to be said for mirror-style backups). It led me to recall a new computer I acquired about fifteen years ago, and which I celebrated by rewriting the Major General's song from "The Pirates of Penzance." Oh, how dated those technology references are today! Apologies, as always, to W. S. Gilbert.



I run the very model of maniacal machinery,
To make it more amazing would no doubt be misdemeanory,
It wakes me in the morning and it tells me if it’s soggy out,
And if it’s really soggy my machine will let my doggy out;

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One Man, Four Walls

TRUE TO ITS commedia dell’arte roots, Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guv’nors” plays fast and loose with the theater’s fourth wall. That wall – the imaginary boundary between audience and players – is itself a 19th-century conceit, but so firmly rooted that unless you grew up with the likes of British pantomime, it’s a surprise when one of the actors fully engages the spectators.

Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 classic “The Servant of Two Masters” is Bean’s basis, borrowing an absurd-from-the-start situation in which hapless Francis Henshall finds himself not only doubly employed, but working for a pair of on-the-lam lovers, neither of whom knows the other is in Brighton.

Produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain, and movie-theater broadcast last year as part of its NT Live series, the play was such a hit that it transferred to London’s West End, and is currently in previews on Broadway with most of its British cast intact.

Which means that we have the pleasure of seeing James Corden give the comic performance of a lifetime as the wily servant.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Heritage in West Virginia

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Late in 1989, my wife and I piloted a VW camper from Schenectady to California and back, and I sent back a couple of dozen Ernie Pyle-inspired dispatches that ran in the Schenectady Gazette. On the way back, we stopped to visit my some of my West Virginia cousins and found ourselves in the midst of the Pittston strike.


THE SIGNS IN NEARBY Williamson tell you you're In the Heart of the Billion-Dollar Coal Field, but you don't need signs to tell you what's king around here. Route 52, which takes you through that city, parallels the train tracks. You pass a yard in which endless combines of coal-filled cars sit on the 24 sets of tracks.

There are no dry valleys in this area. The high mountains meet at stream-filled crevices. The roads are etched into the hillsides. As you round a hairpin curve there's a good chance you'll meet a coal-filled dumptruck coming the other way.

Sixty-eight years ago a Williamson jury acquitted Matewan sheriff Sid Hatfield and a crew of union miners of charges that they murdered a group of Baldwin-Felts detectives. These detectives were nothing more than hired thugs sent by the Stone Mountain Mining Company to turn striking miners out of company-owned houses. Matewan is over in the next hollow (pronounced “holler”), near Pigeon Creek and Red Jacket and Varney, but Williamson is the seat of justice for Mingo County.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Watch Me

EXIT THE N TRAIN at Canal Street and you have the option of ascending to the sidewalk in a very slow glass-walled elevator that takes you to a glass-walled box, an excellent metaphor for what you’re about to become: a fish in a fishbowl.

At least that’s what happens to me. I never feel quite so large and slow-moving and touristy as when I hit the nerve center of Manhattan’s Chinatown. But I was a man with a mission. Well: a couple of missions, one of them lunch, which you can economically obtain when you poke carefully around the side streets.

But I also wanted a watch. I headed east on Canal. Between Baxter and Mulberry Streets is where the streetside shopping potential peaks. Beside you is a row of storefronts promising jewelry, perfume, watches, souvenirs. At your elbow pass a succession of people murmuring, “Handbags. Watches.” Near the curb are carts and table displays. On a pleasant day, the block can be packed with people, most of them tourists like me.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

Dutch Treat

I felt bad knocking the Albany Symphony's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. True, it was a piece I wrote at the time the performance took place, which was in 1986 or so. And while I have no direct recollection of the concert any more, I'm willing to trust my long-ago appraisal. But the Albany Symphony has come a long way since then. Here's a look back at a terrific concert they gave ten years ago.


The Dogs of Desire,
David Alan Miller, conductor
Troy Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY
Friday 21 March 2002

OSTENSIBLY COMMISSIONED TO CELEBRATE the 350th anniversary of the founding of Albany, NY, by Dutch settlers, the eight works premiered by Albany Symphony Orchestra members on March 22 more aptly celebrated the varied voices of youngish composers – and proved that the technique arsenal has never been more fully stocked.

Tonality, atonality, minimalism, jazz – all of it was represented, with a healthy dollop of humor, too.

The Albany Symphony always has paid attention to new works, and music director David Alan Miller draws an avant-garde unit from the ranks, a group dubbed The Dogs of Desire. (This is a city whose hockey team was named The River Rats.)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Boring Orchestras

Here's another old piece I found while searching for yesterday's essay. It's undated, but based on the reference to Paul Henry Lang and the fact that it's typewritten, I figure it's from 1986. And I'm guessing it's one of the pieces I submitted to a number of Albany-area newspapers as an example of my skill as a classical music critic, a strategy that got me work at a few of those papers over the years. I can't say I'm much impressed by that putative skill when I read the piece today; it labors to make its points and gets annoyingly look-what-I-know. Since then, I've struggled to correct the first of those problems, but I'll be damned if I'll change the second.


DURING A RECENT LECTURE in Albany, 85-year-old musicologist Paul Henry Lang declared that he was adding his distinguished voice to the clamor against the zealous use of antique instruments in performances of antique music. “They may drum me out of the musicological societies,” he said, “but I don’t believe that we should turn our backs on the progress achieved in building and playing modern instruments.”

Opponents of his opinions (he described a baroque violin as a “beautiful product of an Italian craftsman that is then given a hysterectomy”) left the lecture grumbling and found solace in a performance a couple of weeks later in Schenectady by the Hanover Band, an English-based orchestra that recreates the ensemble of Beethoven’s day, with Beethoven-era instruments.

The modern-instrument crowd got to glory in a concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which shared a piece with the Hanover Band: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. The rest of the ASO’s program comprised 20th-century works, which were played with excitement. The Beethoven, however, in common with so many of the older pieces being played by the big orchestras, was dull. Played by the Hanover Band, it was thrilling.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"Clarence": A History

Speaking of Tarkington Dept.: Syracuse Stage presented a revival of Booth Tarkington’s play Clarence during its 1983-84 season (if I’m remembering correctly), and I got wind of this and persuaded them to let me write program notes for the piece. I can’t find a copy of the program, but my original draft is at hand and shows the obsessive enthusiasm I had developed for Tarkington’s work. In other words, I wrote this for them for free. Just as well: it's a pretty dry piece of work.


John Flood, Alfred Lunt, and Helen Hayes
in Clarence, 1919
“WHEN WE WENT to the theatre,” wrote Booth Tarkington about his life in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, “we paid a dollar and a half for an orchestra seat; though when Sarah Bernhardt came  over that winter the impressive charge for such a seat was three dollars. . . . There were table d’hôte dinners with wine for thirty-five cents at Italian restaurants; a dollar and half paid for a Sunday evening table d’hôte, with music, under the great gas chandeliers of the best hotels in the town.”1

Like so many young novelists, Tarkington developed an interest in the stage. He had gathered a reputation as a talented actor while at Princeton, where he co-authored a successful satiric revue. His second novel, Monsieur Beaucaire, achieved enough popularity to invite interest in a stage version, so the author travelled to New York City in 1900 to assist in that project. To his delight, he was sponsored for membership in the Players Club, where he met such theatrical luminaries as Richard Mansfield, John Drew, and Joe Jefferson. Tarkington described the experience of seeing Jefferson in The Rivals: “(He) was an elderly man, but there was no elderliness in his ‘Bob Acres.’ A fresh-colored country youth came before us, inimitably the funniest young coward ever seen on the stage, and not until he played that part with increasingly fierce electric light glaring upon him was the illusion of youth dispelled.”2

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Mary Smith

Guest Blogger Dept.: We've asked Booth Tarkington to step in again as today's wordsmith, with a story that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, August 17, 1912. Tarkington was greatly influential as I learned to write, and is second only to P.G. Wodehouse in his ability to turn a comic descriptive phrase. During his heyday he was one of the country's most popular writers, but despite winning two Pulitzer Prizes (The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams), his work began falling out of fashion as a less-sentimental school of writing emerged in the 1930s.


HENRY MILLICK CHESTER, rising early from intermittent slumbers, found himself the first of the crowded Pullman to make a toilet in the men’s smoke-and-wash-room, and so had the place to himself — an advantage of high dramatic value to a person of his age and temperament, on account of the mirrors which, set at various angles, afford a fine view of the profile.

Henry Millick Chester, scouring cinders and stickiness from his eyes and rouging his ears with honest friction, enriched himself of this too unfamiliar opportunity. He smiled and was warmly interested in the results of his smile in reflection, particularly in some pleasant alterations it effected upon an outline of the cheek usually invisible to the bearer. He smiled graciously, then he smiled sardonically. Other smiles he offered — the tender smile, the forbidding smile, the austere and the seductive, the haughty and the pleading, the mordant and the compassionate, the tolerant but incredulous smile of a man of the world, and the cold, ascetic smile that shows a woman that her shallow soul has been read all too easily — pastimes abandoned only with the purely decorative application of shaving lather to his girlish chin. However, as his unbeetling brow was left unobscured, he was able to pursue his physiognomical researches and to produce for his continued enlightenment a versatile repertory of frowns — the stern, the quizzical, the bitter, the treacherous, the bold, the agonized, the inquisitive, the ducal, and the frown of the husband who says: “I forgive you. Go!”

Monday, April 02, 2012

Finding Your Place

Vintage Glowing Stuff Dept.: Even after 22 years at my rural compound, I’m still asked how I ended up here. My wife, Susan, and I lived in Schenectady for many years, a place to which I moved from Connecticut in 1980 to work as a classical radio announcer. Soon I eased into freelance work as a writer and actor, writing and acting. Thank goodness Susan remains gainfully employed. Although we lived in an attractive, historic part of that city, the neighborhood was changing. One morning we were awakened by the sound of the FBI breaking into the house next door, from which they removed guns and drugs.

Seeking a new residence not more than a half-hour from Susan's job site, we plotted a circumference on a map and examined its slices. We were familiar with all of the pie pieces except a section to the west where a village with unlikely name of Glen fell on the circumference line. To reach it, we took a stretch of the NYS Thruway, followed by a series of small state highways. About a mile before we reached the village, just as a lovely view of the Mohawk Valley was rising to our right, the car ran out of gas.

Plenty of daylight remained on this pleasant August evening. We walked on into Glen, pleased to see that the farmland sparseness soon gave way to a modest cluster of houses, some of them attractively old. But would there be a gas station?

At one of the houses, a cottage that we later would learn was one of the oldest structures in the village, a man and woman relaxed in kitchen chairs on the small front porch. Susan is bolder than I about such things, and hailed them from the street, explaining our predicament. “There’s no gas station here,” we were told, so I asked if I could use their phone. “It’s right inside,” the woman said. “Go on in.”

Not the kind of invitation I’m used to getting. I dialed a friend in nearby Amsterdam and got no answer. As I returned to the porch to discuss the predicament, I found my wife chatting away with the couple. “You’re a writer?” the woman asked. “I have some pamphlets to give you.”

Oh no. Religious nuts. So sure was I of the annoying nature of the material pressed into my hand that it took me a moment to realize that they were politically based screeds giving information about a low-level radioactive dump-siting commission’s target of Glen as one of several candidate sites.

Their names were Sherrie and George Dedicke. They phoned their friend Tim Lane, who was leading an opposition group, to come over and talk to us. I took some notes. We got a ride back to our vehicle with some jerry-can gas to get us home. I returned and did more interviews, and the piece ran in Metroland not long thereafter.

“Remember how you said you’d like to live out here?” asked Sherrie, phoning a couple of weeks after the piece appeared. “There’s a house for sale just down the street. Got lots of property, too.”

The siting commission gave up. But we’re still here. Here's the piece I wrote:


Sherrie and George Dedicke
Photo by Michael Ackerman

TIM LANE KNEELS by a row of leafy plants and detaches a ripe cucumber from each stalk. He works quickly: he has to. It’s hot and he’s tired and he’s working this farm alone. The property belongs to his grandparents, and puts him high on a scenic hill in the town of Glen in Montgomery Country. If he’s fast enough and can get the produce to market while the demand remains brisk, he might turn a profit this year. It might be as much as two or three thousand dollars.

He brings a young man’s passion to an old-fashioned job. He is constantly experimenting: with soil, with irrigation. He hopes to establish a hydroponic system to grow lettuce. He respects the land and is careful to use only organic substances for disease control.

His wife, Laurie, is expecting their first child any day now and is on a leave from her job as an accountant in Albany. A lot is riding on Tim’s enterprise in the field. But he’s been handed another full time job, one which pays nothing and demands all the hours he can give to it. The dining room table in the little farmhouse is piled with books on two subjects: vegetable gardening and radioactive waste. This farm that the Lanes hope to buy is a few miles from one of the sites chosen by the State of New York as a possible home for a dump that would contain low-level radioactive waste.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Rolling Green

I'm happy to note that, in the two years since this was published, several big-box department stores with food departments, such as Target and BJs Wholesale Club, have joined the program described below. Wal-Mart remains a holdout, however, and continues to deny that it's due to the store's reluctance to deal with unionized truckers.


NEXT TIME YOU SEE a Consolidated Foodworld truck at Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, or any of several other chain restaurants, study the vehicle’s sides and roof. New models are sporting a complicated array of solar panels and plexiglass windows sturdy enough to withstand speed and the elements, but transparent enough for a novel use of the greenhouse effect.

“We’re big fans here of the ‘locavore’ movement,” says Consolidated Foodworld spokesman Doug Tisch, “and we’re pleased to have come up with a way to apply it to our nationwide families of restaurants. The Albany area is home to many successful units, so it’s one of several key markets we’ve chosen in which to test market this idea.”

Rather than serving only as delivery conduits for the restaurant’s produce, the new trucks have been fashioned into rolling gardens equipped with multi-level growing areas and a computer-based hygrometer and light-monitoring system that allows the driver to keep constant tabs on the state of his cargo.

We inspected a prototype truck in the parking lot of the Latham Applebee’s. Tisch, who started with the company as a nutrition planner before moving into PR, led me up a ramp and down the very narrow aisle separating rows of growing areas spaced like old Pullman berths – but with the unusual addition of sunlight.