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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Standard That’s Automatic

Working in Coffeehouses Dept.: There’s a monochromatic consistency to the interior of a Panera Bread outlet that’s quietly reassuring, a panoply of earth tones on floor and walls, a gas-fired fireplace for a sense of House Ideal, yellow pendant lights to distract from the overhead floods, and wall-portraits of bagels and people eating bagels to remind you why you’re really here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sometimes it’s the only choice. In Amsterdam, near where I live in upstate New York, the coffee shop I’d frequented in recent years went under, becoming more of a restaurant instead. A delightful Polish eatery where the coffee was good and the wi-fi free, run by an Olympic bobsledding champion, closed its doors a few years ago. There’s little call here for the kind of place I seek, I suppose, although we’ll never truly know until we give ourselves the chance.

Like all successful chains, Panera has styled itself with as little threat as possible to the nervous, which characterizes the majority of chain-restaurant customers. This nation of pioneers lost its nerve a few decades ago, and seeks comfort in bland standardization.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Making Tracks with Trackballs

On the Right Track Dept.: Do you know where you’re headed next year? Neither do I. So let’s wander back a couple of decades for another nostalgic look at the kind of computer gadgetry I wrote about. I found my original copy and compared it to the witless editing it received before seeing print and, so that you, too, may keep your holiday bubbly down, herewith provide the former.


THERE’S NO STANDARDIZATION among pointing devices, which is both a luxury and a headache. Plenty of gadgets compete for our attention, some of them admirably suited to particular applications. But when it comes to portable computing, the need for something small and lightweight and versatile is obsessive, and it has kept a lot of pointing device designers busy.

Trackballs are the most popular add-on pointing devices, giving the flexibility of a mouse in a stationary package. According to the ergonomics experts, it doesn’t hurt--literally--to move your hand around from time to time. So a trackball that gets you away from the keyboard, even briefly, is a good antidote to the aches of cramped typing.

The seven trackballs we tested are a testimony to imaginative design, all of them variations on the simple theme of an ensemble of ball and buttons. Each is designed for use with an IBM-compatible computer, and all of them could be used with a desktop as well as a portable machine. And they all recognize that we’re differently handed, usually offering extra buttons to anticipate where our fingers might land.

Friction is the key to trackball success. A tiny bit of resistance controls the ease with which you’re able to scoot your cursor across the screen. Unfortunately, friction also means that the ball is picking up grease from your palm and fingers (and even the cleanest hand has some measure of, sorry to say it, slime), so that an annoying coating eventually inhibits easy use. Therefore it’s important that the ball be accessible for regular cleaning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Art of the Edible

Moving On Dept.: Five years ago, I wrote about a recently opened pastry shop on Albany’s Lark Street. I was amazed and impressed to find such a stellar quality of dessert items, and delighted to know that the attached café was available for espresso-fueled lingering between bites. The café is closing this week, but the bakery will continue and the operation is planned to expand. So here’s a wistful re-look at what I found back then.

CLAUDIA CRIŞAN HAS A MASTER’S in metalworking. Her husband, Ignatius Calabria, has a Master’s in music ed. Is there a rewarding career in which they can combine their specialties? Of course. Baking.

Claudia Crisan | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Art of the EdibleIt’s not as improbable as it may sound. Claudia, a native of Romania, grew up in a family of bakers, and her parents still operate three retail stores in that country. “Mother was always a baker,” says Claudia. “She got good training in the early part of the Communist regime, but then Ceauşescu came into power and everything changed for the worse.”

Claudia learned traditional recipes from her mother, as well as “a style of working that you don’t find any more.”

“We met at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia,” says Ignatius. “We married, and Claudia emigrated here.” He reflects on that statement, then decides: “It sounds so unromantic.” His aunt and uncle in Woodstock were among those encouraging them open their own place, and discovered that this Albany property was available. Claudia and Ignatius bought it and went to work. “We pretty much gutted the place.” says Ignatius, “and every surface we removed revealed surprises. Surprises we had to fix.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

Freeze That Frame!

From the Tech Vault Dept.: It’s tough to remember the pre-digital image days of VHS tapes and the like, but 20 years ago it seemed state-of-the-art to try to edit your analogue-shot material. Here’s a how-to-piece I wrote for Computer Life magazine that ran in early 1996. Despite my proselytizing, the result was fantastically crappy. This is the copy I submitted; what ran was subjected to a then-new wave of editorial butchery that attempted to pander to the stupidest reader on the subscription list.


ONCE YOU GET USED TO taking digital pictures, you get really used to it. My digital cameras feature, elsewhere in this issue, left me with an electronic album of vacation pictures that I turned into an audience-numbing slideshow. And that got me thinking of vacations past, documented only on video (yeah, I’m the guy with his head glued to the eyepiece of a camcorder).

Camcorders and digital cameras are technological cousins, but camcorders have the luxury of a constant stream of videotape to save those images. Plug it into the right computer hardware, however, and you can grab stills off that tape – or save entire video sequences, complete with audio.

I had an ulterior motive for this project. Last summer I shot some nice video sequences at the beach, and I’ve been promising to forward some footage to the friends who rented the cabin with me. Sending some choice stills through e-mail would take them completely by surprise--and remind them of my formidable technical prowess.

What’s needed, then, is that camcorder, a computer with a good graphics environment (I’m using Windows 95), and a video capture card. I chose the versatile Video Blaster SE100, which not only lets me grab stills but also saves complete video sequences to the hard disk as AVI files. It can also superimpose video onto other applications, in case I want to accompany a presentation with a full-motion image and don’t mind connecting all of this hardware to do so.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Best of 1994

From the Year-End Vault Dept.: Let’s glide back 20 years for a wistful look at the Albany-area eateries that impressed me the most in 1994.


ALTHOUGH THERE WERE GOOD MEALS to be sampled locally during the past 12 months, some of the best eating was found farther away. Keeping in mind that a good diner meal can be the apex of culinary splendor in the right circumstances, it doesn't take away from the fact that a special anniversary dinner held last February at The Point in Saranac Lake was the finest meal I’ve encountered. Chef Bill McNamee, working with guest chefs David Lawson and Jean-Michel Lorain, put together a masterful menu that I’ll highlight: chilled terrine of Arcachon oysters, sea scallops finished in a cappuccino sauce, then a combination of Brussels sprouts and Beluga caviar before the venison entrée, dark-flavored and buttery.

Dining Room at The Point, Saranac Lake
Down the road at the newly-refurbished Lake Placid Lodge, we sampled more of McNamee’s cooking, which I’ve termed Adirondack gourmet. Game dominates the entrées – we tried a hearty portion of Muscovy duck, served on a bed of red cabbage and currants, braised to an appropriate sweetness – and even meatless eating can be rich as demonstrated by the Tagliatelles aux truffes noires, which is pasta made from white truffles, sauced with porcini mushrooms and black truffles.

One of the area’s best chefs took off to Woodstock some months back, and we finally got out to Ric Orlando’s New World Home Cooking Co. last summer. He’s still cooking the exuberant, salubrious stuff you may remember from Albany, but the Woodstock setting is much more encouraging (a sad commentary on the Capital Region).

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot like Christmas

CHRISTMAS IN MY HOUSE would seem fairly austere to you. We decorate for the holiday, but with what I consider admirable restraint. We do not allow the occasion to persuade us to watch badly animated nonsense on TV. My must-watch list includes only Alastair Sim as you-know-who and the cartoon version of “The Snowman,” because it’s brilliantly animated and only 27 minutes long, and I can plug my ears when the strident boy soprano belts forth.

Boston Camerata's Joel Frederiksen,
Dan Hershey, and John Taylor Ward.
Photo by Marc Schultz
It’s the holiday music that’s most likely to drive me crazy. No other occasion occasions so many horrible sounds, but by the time the day itself arrives, I have sated myself with what’s always my high point of the season: the annual Boston Camerata performance at Schenectady’s Union College. They’ve been bringing one of their several Christmas programs to the acoustically splendid Memorial Chapel for 25 years, and I have yet to weary of any of them.

Yesterday they concluded this year’s tour with “An American Christmas,” a program devised by group founder Joel Cohen 20 years ago, rooted in the 19th century, and yet more contemporary and holiday-appropriate than anything on the airwaves.

What keeps a performance like this fresh? It’s so well-routined that I’m sure the group could walk through it. There will be a brass call from the balcony; something will be sung early on as a processional along the aisle; the Biblical Christmas story will be recited (in one language or another) to link the tunes.

Yet the brass call – in this case, the melody of “Wayfaring Stranger” intoned by a vintage trombone – was calmly thrilling, if you can join me in imagining such a thing. The segue into the lean vocal line of  “Judicii signum,” from 10th-century Spain, was as charming as it was seemingly abrupt, but not so fast – there are melodic links, and they persisted into the 19th-century spiritual “Sinner Man.” And all this before we’d even caught sight of the performers!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Woman’s Place

Guest Blogger Dept.: So much that we take for granted was hard won only a short time ago. Ruth Hale campaigned fiercely for a woman’s right to retain her maiden name, winning a partial victory against the State Department in 1921 over the wording on her passport. She was a noted journalist who contributed the following piece to the 1922 anti-Volstead Act essay collection Nonsenseorship.


AT LAST THE WOMEN OF THIS COUNTRY are about to perform a great service – not one of those courtesy services about which so much is so volubly said and so little is done in repayment – but a good sturdy performance, that will probably bring these magnificent men folks right to their knees.

Ruth Hale as a XXth Century
woman guarding the Home Brew.
Drawing by Ralph Barton.
They are going to teach the unfortunates how to live under prohibitions and taboos. Of course there has never been any prodigality of freedom in this country – or any other – but what there was belonged to the men. The women had to take to the home and stay there. So the two sexes adjusted themselves to life with this difference, that the women had to do all the outwitting and circumventing, all the little smart twists and turns, all the cunning scheming by which people snatch off what they want without appearing to, whereas men got their much or little by prosily sticking their hands out for it.

This developed, naturally, not only somewhat diverse temperaments, hut also greatly diverse equipments. When men cannot get what they want now by either asking or paying for it, they have no more resources. Bless them, they must return into the home, where the secret has been perfected for centuries on centuries of how to hoard a private stock and how to find a bootlegger. Under the steadily growing nonsenseorship regime, they are obliged to come and take lessons from the lately despised group of creatures to whom nonsenseorship is a well-thumbed story. If the world outside the home is to become as circumscribed and paternalized as the world inside it, obviously all the advantage lies with those who have been living under nonsenseorship long enough to have learned to manage it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Seems to Me

From the Vault Dept.: More chaff from the back of a file-cabinet drawer. This piece has to date from early 1983, just before the marriage referenced within went pffft. At the time, I lived in Schenectady’s Stockade area, a historic district on the riverside site of the first Dutch settlement. A newsletter called The Stockade Spy was distributed to the neighborhood, and this was one of my contributions. I apologize for its nagging, holier-than-thou tone. And I do currently own a television set.


TWO YEARS AGO a person or persons unknown jimmied my front door and made off with a new color TV set. It was not a welcome loss. My wife and I were discovering the nice combination of cable service and crisp colors, as well as the fact that it was possible to be over ten years old and still fight over who’d watch what.

“We’ll get a new one,” I sighed, but that purchase kept getting postponed. We’re still without a TV and it now looks as if we might happily stay that way for a while.

Oh, I’m not going to go on about lousy programming, biased news geared for the short-on-smarts, that sort of thing. I don’t believe that I’ve “risen above” anything. Although it was interesting to hear the reactions our TV-less life first brought forth: “No TV, huh?” commented a friend. “Well, as for myself, I watch only the educational station and the news.”

As if it were necessary to apologize to us for even owning one of the things. “You don’t understand,” I hastened to point out. “Mine got swiped. I’d watch it if I had one.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Schlafly in Schenectady

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Here’s a piece that turned up as I searched for something else in a file cabinet recess. I’m guessing I wrote it in the mid-1980s, possibly in 1985, as it’s typewritten and I was switching over to a computer shortly thereafter. It was turned down by The Nation, with a note explaining that arch-conservative woman-hater Phyllis Schlafly was old news at that point. A group called “Ladies Against Women” demonstrated amusingly outside the event, mocking the Schlafly-ites by pretending to agree with them in a manner that lampoons their idiocy. Here’s my report.


ALL YOU NEED are a few NRA eagles hanging here and there to give crumbling downtown Schenectady the time-warp look of the early ‘30s. During vaudeville’s heyday, performers got a laugh at just the mention of the city’s name. They knew it as a tough city to please. It’s tough on business, tough on entertainers, tough on the workforce. General Electric looms beside the arterial, but even that institution has taken to closing down – and then knocking down – its unprofitable plants.

Phyllis Schlafly
A has-been city doesn’t bother to roll out the red carpet for a has-been entertainer, but some civic pride could be taken in the reception given to Phyllis Schlafly when she spoke at Union College in early March. A local chapter of the Berkeley-based “Ladies Against Women” turned out in full ‘fifties regalia to wave placards. “We’ll be there to protect Mrs. Schlafly from those radical, bra-burning women’s libbers,” one of the members declared in preparation, but there was no need for worry. The audience of about 300 comprised college students and the curious from the community. Some students heckled, loudly; there were some oldsters who applauded Schlafly, even louder. But nobody got too excited.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Twisted Christmas

Here's another opinion about tomorrow's Caffe Lena concert in which I'm performing. The opinion in question happens to be mine, but it's filtered through an excellent interview piece by Don Wilcock:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cooking the Books

Making a List, Checking It Twice Dept.: I prefer cookbooks that give me more than mere recipes, and the ones on this list are particularly noteworthy titles that were issued this year. And I’ll be recommending even more in the days to come.


OUR GOD, WHO ART IN THE LIVING ROOM, flat-screen be Thy name. We flock to wrest possession of them when the shopping fever hits, then structure our time and sensibility around What the TV Tells Us. Which is why the cookbook market has gone to shit, driven by televised nonsense that seeks to turn cooking into a major-league sport and has created a celebrity cult that has more to do with screen presence than talent.

I suppose my task here thus is made a little easier. Dismissing the celeb-engendered texts, there are fewer books to wade through, but the best of them remain impressive. Here are my suggestions.

What makes a meal special? You’re going to have to wade through a mind-numbingly academic tome to find out, but if you meet The Perfect Meal (Wiley Blackwell) halfway, many rewarding nuggets await. Did the fork lead to the overbite? Why are plates used to frame our food? What’s the role of sensory incongruity in a meal? Authors Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman seem to hAave ingested everything ever written about the experience of dining, and distilled it into one dense volume. It’s fascinating and rewarding—just take small bites and chew slowly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Longest Holiday: Almost Here!

Keep on Plugging Dept.: My latest press release for Friday’s holiday show at Caffè Lena, and I’m leaving it in the third person although, when it comes to self-promotion, I’ll be the first person to tell you how good this show is going to be.


Musical theater veterans Byron Nilsson and Amy Prothro present a Scrooge-free holiday show of song and story – “for and against the holiday season,” as Byron puts it, at 8 PM Friday, Dec, 19 at the legendary Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs.

Byron recalls that he “grew up with this awful record by the Harry Simeone Chorale blasting in my ear each December, and when I got older, I worked in a restaurant where one of the writers of the horrid but ubiquitous song ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ played cocktail piano for tips in order to pay the bills. In other words, I’ve never had any illusions about the Christmas season.”

The program includes songs by Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, and Stephen Sondheim, with some anti-Christmas songs by Tom Lehrer, Loudon Wainwright, and Bob Gibson, among others. When Nilsson and Prothro bring their show to the Caffè’s small stage, it becomes the most intimate form of black-box theater, but with the spirit of American song behind it.

Making it all the more appropriate to salute some of the best songwriters of the American musical. Berlin is known for his holiday songs, and the inclusion of Sondheim recognizes the imminent opening of the film version of his “Into the Woods.”

“And where else,” says Amy, “do I get to be a prince?”

This special holiday edition of Songs to Amuse was directed by Byron and Amy, with musical direction by Malcolm Kogut, and has one performance only at 8 PM Friday, Jan. 19, at Caffè Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, NY. Tickets are $15 and are available at this website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Classic Reviews

What’s in Store? Dept.: You’re trying to find a gift for a classical-music minded friend? Try some of my recommendations.


FOUR YEARS AGO, Sony Classical released all of Leonard Bernstein’s symphony recordings (with the New York Philharmonic) in one 60-CD box set that quickly sold out its initial pressing. Bernstein’s conducting is always reliable, often surprising, and if the symphonies set filled a gap in your collection, here’s the sequel: Leonard Bernstein Edition: Concertos & Orchestral Works (Sony Classical) puts into one 80-disc set all of the works he recorded that didn’t have the word “symphony” in the title, but excluding operas and other vocal works. Thus there are 28 CDs of concertos, with too much Isaac Stern for my taste–but there’s plenty with Francescatti to make up for it and such pianists as Rudolf Serkin, Glenn Gould (the notorious Brahms No. 1 is here) and Bernstein himself. Leaving 52 discs of basic-rep orchestral works, ranging from the ponderous profundity of Strauss (R.) and Wagner to the lighthearted capering of Strauss (J.) and Rossini. Some pieces you get more than once, some come with and without narration, but all of it is a bargain-priced bounty.

The late Claudio Abbado bounced from label to label during his long career, eventually more or less settling with DG, but Sony has issued a 39-CD set of his Complete RCA and Sony Recordings, most of which were made during eight of his years at the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, although he recorded CDs capturing the varied programming of his Prometheus- and Hölderlin-themed seasons there. There’s a nice chunk of Mozart, a Beethoven’s Ninth with Jane Eaglen and Bryn Terfel, Mussorgsky’s “Boris Goudonov,” and a bubbly New Year’s Eve all-Richard Strauss program. Abbado’s recordings of all six Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Chicago Symphony are here, Rossini and Verdi overtures with the London Symphony and, earliest of them all, a delightful set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos recorded with a handful of members of La Scala orchestra in 1976.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014


To reinforce yesterday's review of the forthcoming Anonymous 4 album "1865," here's a teaser from Harmonia Mundi:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Abide with Us

THE OPENING STRAINS of the opening song – “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely” – are so ethereal, so gorgeous, that when we reach the lyric –
Oft in dreams I see thee lying
On the battle plain,
Lonely, wounded, even dying,
Calling, but in vain.
– it comes as a start. Of course it’s a song about the horror of the ongoing war, but there are moments when the lovely intimacy of this performance suggests that it might merely be one couple sundered, not an entire country.

Anonymous 4 won a deservedly stellar reputation from their performances and recordings of medieval music, and achieved similar acclaim for their first two forays into American music: “American Angels” and “Gloryland.” The latest, “1865,” concentrates on a handful of the many songs associated with or inspired by the Civil War.

That war inspired enough music to shift our national musical identity away from the Irish melodies that dominated a few decades earlier. The rise of minstrelsy in the mid-19th century contributed an overlapping strand. Stephen Foster contributed to both, and his “Hard Times Come Again No More” gets a five-part setting that brings out the rich beauty of this seemingly simple tune.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Once Upon a Time

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: Over a decade ago, and for a very brief time, there was an excellent diner not far from my house. What I wrote about below was the latest of several attempts to get something going in a too-large space, and this, too, died a few months after this piece appeared. The power of the press can’t fight the culinary apathy of this area.


FOLLOW THE MOHAWK RIVER west from Waterford and you encounter a string of dying cities, a tribute to the boom and bust wrought by the Erie Canal. Even after canal trade was superseded by over-the-road (and rail) shipping, cities like Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Utica and Rome continued for several decades to thrive as business and manufacturing centers. Now they cling to whatever vestiges of economic opportunity they can summon. Amsterdam’s former rug factories are shells, and downtown Amsterdam’s most visible entity is a failed mall that confounds traffic.

Photo by Martin Benjamin
Take the Amsterdam exit of the NYS Thruway (it’s exit 27), turn left on Route 30 and make a quick left into the parking lot of Super 8 Motel and you’ll see the sprawling New Amsterdam Diner, reopened not quite three months ago after many years dark – and with a terrible reputation even before that.

Right now it’s one of those gems where the food is far better than the location and appearance would suggest.

“A friend showed me the place,” says chef John Papis. “I had restaurants in Manhattan and I wanted to get away from there. Too much excitement. Here you have fresh air, a beautiful view. . . . ”

Monday, December 08, 2014

In the Family

From the Vault Dept.: I should have posted this around Thanksgiving, but, as with all great artists, Arlo is timeless. Here’s my account of his family’s 2009 Albany performance.


ON THANKSGIVING WEEKEND IN 1965, Arlo Guthrie was convicted of creating a public nuisance. You probably know the story. It involved litter. The same weekend, Arlo could have watched the King Family on television and seen a horrific vision of white-bread musical hell. If he did, it may have planted a seed. But even if he didn’t, he has redefined the notion of what a musical family is all about. It’s highly doubtful, for example, that the King Family would celebrate an amorous mismatch with a song titled “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow.”

Arlo Guthrie | Photo by Brian Blauser
But this, the fourth number in a satisfyingly long and refreshing program, came to us from the pen of Arlo’s ukulele-wielding daughter Cathy, who performed it with siblings Abe (keyboards), Annie (autoharp) and Sarah Lee (guitar), along with Abe’s son Krishna on guitar and drummer Terry Hall.

The program started with the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, guitar wizard Johnny Irion, with their evocative “When the Lilacs Are in Bloom.” And then more of the family was added with each song, until Arlo emerged to sing his father’s “Gypsy Davy.”

Sunday, December 07, 2014

No High Volume

Guest Blogger Redux Dept.: A couple of days ago we stopped by James Thurber’s desk at the still-young New Yorker magazine, where he turned out unsigned “Talk of the Town” pieces. Identities are revealed in a more recently assembled index; thus it is that we can credit another such squib in the same issue, this one made notable by its implied characterization of Albany. True then; still true.


James Thurber
NOT LONG AGO a man of no little renown died, leaving a remarkable library. Many of his most desirable volumes were bequeathed to his wife; more, in fact, than she had room for in the modest home to which she removed. Accordingly, one of her first acts was to invite the brother of her late husband, who lives in Albany, to inspect the books and select whatever he wished for himself. He made an hour's investigation and finally approached his sister-in-law, bearing not a single treasure. When her raised eyebrows connoted surprise he explained. “I guess he didn’t have any books on home brew,” was the explanation. Then, thanking her just the same, he departed.

– James Thurber, The New Yorker,
24 December 1927

Friday, December 05, 2014

Trial of the “Night”

Guest Blogger Dept.: James Thurber weighed in on a subject that continues to inspire controversy, viz. the authorship of that most famous piece of Christmas doggerel, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The matter will be put to a jury trial in the poem’s hometown, Troy, NY, at 2 PM Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014, at the Rensselaer County Courthouse, when attorneys representing Henry Livingston and Clement Moore will square off in a re-match of last year’s inconclusively settled trial. I plan to be there in one form or another.


UNBEKNOWNST PERHAPS TO MOST PEOPLE, two families of this town have been arguing for years about whose great-grandfather wrote “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The fly-leaf of your copy will reveal the name of Dr. Clement Clarke Moore. At the turn of the eighteenth century he lived in a big house with many chimney places, near Chelsea Square. More than eighty when he died – during the Civil War – he was buried in the cemetery behind the Chapel of the Intercession on upper Broadway. This Christmas Eve children will gather about his tomb, carrying lighted candles and singing the verses of his poem. Meanwhile, in a home on West Seventy-first Street, the household of Dr. William S. Thomas will await the coming of St. Nicholas as one of their own family. It is their contention that Dr. Thomas’ great grandfather, Henry Livingston, Jr., wrote the poem in a big house near Poughkeepsie more than a hundred years ago and read it to the family one morning at breakfast.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Getting On, Getting Off

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Here’s another page from the depths of my files, a typescript that may or may not have seen publication. It’s not written in the style I used for Metroland or the Schenectady Gazette, my two major outlets at the time, yet it seems to have been submitted someplace and then returned. So I’m guessing that this is its first appearance, a museum piece about a museum piece – specifically, Anthony Newley’s 1986 tour in his show Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off! His co-star is now better known as Suzie Plakson, and has appeared on Star Trek, Mad about You, and Bones, among much else, and is also a writer and sculptor and more, as you’ll see at her website.


A QUARTER-CENTURY’S WORTH OF HINDSIGHT places Anthony Newley’s tribute to the English working class, the music-hall musical Stop the World ... I Want to Get Off!, smack in the Angry Young Men tradition. But there’s no post-Osborne bitterness here; Newley was really only a Rather Concerned Young Man when he wrote and first performed in the show.

He and the show are older now, but the high-spirited production that came to Proctor’s Theater last week had at its helm a star with sensational vigor and an unfailing sense of timing. And, of course, that voice, that oft-parodied but very affecting voice.

Every great clown finds a solid character in an Everyman, from belligerent Chaplin (whom Newley has portrayed) through more contemporary Britishers like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. And so with Newley, who gives us clown-faced Littlechap and an odyssey that crosses several continents and spans a lifetime without ever leaving a music hall stage.

Stop the World ... has the structure of a revue, its elements strung with music and characterization. The plot is flimsy, an excuse to offer sketches. It culminates with the Clown as Tragic Figure in the T.F.’s favorite device, that of self-sacrifice.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

A Vote Against Writers Who Write of Writers

From the Vault Dept.: I’ve been a crank for as long as I can remember, but it’s nice to have that perception reinforced with empirical evidence – in this case, my first and only appearance in the NY Times, instantly reduced in prestige by it having been in the letters column – in the “Connecticut” section, yet.


In the “Speaking Personally” column of April 23, which was given over to Jill Robinson’s arabesque on the Kathryn Kollar dance company of Westport – granted the writer’s opinion is supposed to be the focus of that column, but must it outshine and obliterate the subject to magnify Jill Robinson?

She is, she informs us in the opening clause of the first sentence, a writer. The tag at the end identifies her current book. The thrust of the article that follows is not so much the dance company – a group that seems, in the glimpses we get, quite interesting – but of Jill Robinson’s experience writing about the company. Most paragraphs feature a personal pronoun coupled with a patronizing thought (“Sometimes, I remembered, when I am writing I reach out my arms, cock my wrists, move my head this way or that to find, to stretch for a word that cannot quite do, catch it, that thing I am trying to say.”)

If Jill Robinson wants so badly to be a dancer, then why doesn’t she go ahead and dance? But if she wants to be a writer, I wish she would realize, as E.B. White once observed, that most of us really aren’t that interested in writers writing about writers. We would rather just read some calm, enjoyable writing.

– Byron A. Nilsson, Ridgefield, 7 May 1978

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Force of Nature

Recollections in Passing Dept.: Writing Sunday’s post, which was a tribute to my late friend Ron Nicoll, reminded me of a concert my wife and infant daughter attended at Tanglewood on Sunday, August 4, 1997. This was a regular summer pilgrimage for Ron and some friends, and it was always a pleasure to join them when possible. 

On this day, the skies opened during the opening work, Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” and most of the party got drenched in the rush to cover my six-month-old child, who sat happily in her stroller under their jackets and umbrellas. During the next piece, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the sun came out (appropriately, given the nature of the music) and I cradled Lily in my arms and walked to the shed, hoping to dry more quickly.

Rainy Tanglewood | Photo by Hilary Scott
I was not the type of parent to inflict its young upon others in inappropriate places. But Lily was quite peaceful and the strains of the just-beginning Adagietto seemed to further that peace. We stood behind the standees. All we could see of Ozawa was the shine of his white jacket. The music grew quieter and quieter.

And then some damn maiden-aunt busybody caught sight of my daughter and waved, making an “isn’t-she-cute!” face. Lily obligingly waved back. Which prompted some other crone to wave to my child. Who waved back again. At which point it seemed as if every lawn-dowager in the place had to add her own cutesy-assed wave, just as the movement reached its quietest moment.

Lily, delighted by all the attention, bellowed, “HI!!”

I’m sure even Ozawa heard it.