Tuesday Before Thanksgiving Leftovers

Back on Sunday, November 26. A good Thanksgiving to all.

At about 9 p.m. on November 21, I went outside and there he was. Orion, just rising in the southeast. Winter’s here. Fitting, since it will be well below freezing until tomorrow morning.

Visited the library again recently. Did another impulse borrowing: a box set with five Marx Brothers movies on five disks. Their first five — The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’m going to work my way through them over Thanksgiving because it occurs to me that, except for Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, I haven’t seen any of them in more than 20 years. Maybe 30 in some cases.

A booklet comes with the box, including reproductions of the movie posters. The Cocoanuts is praised on its poster as an All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit! Talkies came along just in time for the Marx Brothers.

I’m glad the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville is a long-standing success. I remember visits there as far back as 1984, for meals or music, such as a show by Kathy Mattea sometime in the mid-80s, and always chocolate chunk cheesecake. But I wasn’t glad to read the following in the Washington Post this week:

Nashville, first on ABC and now CMT, has made the 90-seat venue so incredibly popular over the last five years that it’s impossible to get in unless you have a reservation (snapped up seconds after they’re available online) or wait in line outside for hours.”

Hell’s bells. Not that I visit Nashville often enough for this to affect me, but still. The thought that the Bluebird has lines like a Disneyland ride bothers me.

Still, I have many fond memories of the 1980s Blue Bird, along with a number of other small Nashville venues I used to visit, such as the Station Inn, Exit/In, Springwater, 12th & Porter, the Sutler, and Cantrell’s.

The Station Inn offered bluegrass. One fine evening ca. 1985 I saw Bill Monroe himself play there. Some years earlier, I went now and then with friends Neal and Stuart. After ingesting some beer, Stuart in particular was adamant that the band, whoever it was, play “Rocky Top” and “Salty Dog.” Usually the band obliged.

Something to know: the Osborn Brothers released the first recording of “Rocky Top” nearly 50 years ago, on Christmas 1967.

While putting the “detach & return” part of my water bill in the envelope the other day, I noticed in all caps block letters (some kind of sanserif): PLEASE DO NOT BEND, FOLD, STAPLE OR MUTILATE.

Two of the classic three. Poor old “spindle.” As neglected as the @ sign before the advent of email. As for “bend,” that’s an odd choice. I bend paper a lot, but unless you fold it, paper pops right back.

Correction: Not long ago, I recalled a kid that came to collect candy at our house one Halloween in the late ’90s, dressed as a Teletubbie. I had the time right: it was 1998. But oddly enough, I actually saw two little kids as Teletubbies, at least according to what I wrote in 2004:

“That year, all the kids came during the day, and I have a vivid memory of two kids aged about three to five, dressed as Teletubbies in bright costumes that looked like they could have done duty on the show itself.”

Odd. Memory’s a dodgy thing. How much remembering is misremembering? Or are the details that important anyway?

Thursday Havering

A lot of the ads popping up lately on YouTube have been to promote Canadian tourism. Mostly the ads depict, in music video style, young people doing the kind of vigorous activities that (some) young people must imagine is the essence of traveling to exotic places like Saskatchewan. Actually, one today featured the Yukon.

I’m all for visiting Canada, and encouraging people to do so, but the ads don’t really speak to me. Besides, Canada’s not really top of my mind in November. Then again, it’s good to plan ahead, so you can visit Canada, and even the Yukon, during that short window of opportunity when the place is pleasantly warm.

I never knew until recently that The Proclaimers did a charming version of “King of the Road” back in 1990. No one does it like Roger Miller, but I smile when I hear lyrics like, “destination Bangor, Maine” in that burr of theirs.

“King of the Road,” in the way things go on the Internet, soon leads to a song stuck in mid-60s amber, “Queen of the House.” Even better, the song is done in a Scopitone.

I was in the city not long ago with a camera in the front seat, so I took a few pictures while stopped at traffic lights. Such as this place. So very Chicago.
Then there was Thunderbolt.
It’s an ax throwing venue, only the second one in Chicago, according to the Tribune, opening this spring.

“Ax throwing — indoor or outdoor — is a skill-based sport; [owner Scott] Hollander likens it to pool or darts, where participants can take the competition as seriously or lackadaisically as they please,” the paper says.

“Easygoing ax throwers can book an hour at a lane for $15 per person Wednesdays and Thursdays, and for $20 per person Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Food and nonalcoholic drink is allowed and can be consumed at the plywood stands behind each pair of lanes or at the picnic tables in the building. Thunderbolt also is available for bachelor or bachelorette parties, birthday parties and corporate events.”

What do I think of when I hear about ax throwing? Ed Ames, naturally. Tomahawk, but close enough.

Casablanca at 75

Yesterday we all went to see Casablanca on the big screen. It was in a few theaters nationwide on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of its late 1942 release.

At $4.50 a pop, how could I pass that up? I checked, and the other movies showing at the same multiplex are Thor: Ragnarok, Daddy’s Home 2, Murder on the Orient Express (starring Kenneth Branagh’s facial hair, I’ve read), A Bad Mom’s Christmas, Jigsaw, Boo! A Madea Halloween, Happy Death Day, Geostorm, It, My Little Pony: The Movie, Seven Sundays, and, interestingly, two Bollywood features: C/o Surya and PSV Garuda Vega.

I’ll never live long enough to confirm this, but I suspect that not a single one of those other titles will be revived for a 75th anniversary showing, or for any other year.

Ann had never seen Casablanca before. I didn’t expect her to know, for instance, much about the geopolitical background of the movie, such as why “Vichy” might be important, so I spent a few minutes beforehand explaining a few things to her. I went as far as whistling a few bars of “La Marseillaise.”

She said that sounded familiar — of course it does, it’s an aural shorthand for “France” in English-speaking media — but she didn’t know what it was. I said it was the national anthem of France, and that the movie puts good use of it.

Rick Blaine has been characterized as a stand-in for the United States and its isolationist ways before Pearl Harbor, and I suppose there’s something to that. After all, Victor says to Rick (and I think it’s too-good-by-half Victor Laszlo’s best line): “Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.” An optimistic line, that. It’s sobering to think that the movie was not only set when the fate of mankind was in the balance, it was made then.

I’ve seen Casablanca a number of times (not sure how many) since the first time in film class in 1983, so I could focus on details, such as the evocative sets, especially Rick’s. Carl Jules Weyl, who did the splendid sets on The Adventures of Robin Hood not long before and on The Big Sleep a few years later, was the art director.

It also occurred to me how well Victor and Ilsa were dressed. Awfully stylish for a couple barely staying ahead of Nazis pursuing them across the Mediterranean and then North Africa. We never see the luggage that Rick sends Victor off to deal with at the airport, so he can have a moment to tell Ilsa what’s what, but it must have been a steamer trunk or two.

But that’s overthinking the matter. This is the Golden Age of Hollywood. Of course the luminous Ingrid Bergman is going to be dressed to the nines, even in a war-torn world.

Something else I noticed this time was a line with distinct foreshadowing, spoken by Major Strasser to Ilsa: “My dear, perhaps you have already observed that in Casablanca human life is cheap.” Indeed. As it turns out, cheap for Major Strasser, the only major character who dies on screen. And I never get tired of hearing Capt. Renault say, “Round up the usual suspects.” When my film class heard that, we cheered.

Ann wasn’t entirely sure what nationality Renault was supposed to be, so she asked me after the movie. I suppose that’s a function of not watching enough old movies with French policemen or soldiers in them. The kepi is all earlier generations needed to spot a Frenchman, but that must not be so any more.

I also suggested to Ann that she pay attention to the supporting and minor characters, who are widely regarded as one of the chief delights of the movie. Especially these two.

I’m glad to report that Ann liked the movie. It’s entirely possible that she’ll see it again when she’s older, and get more out of it, as one does with good movies re-watched or books re-read. Maybe she will see it around the 100th anniversary. I’m sure Casablanca will still be watched then.

Thursday Tidbits

Last night Northern Illinois dropped below freezing, and it wasn’t a lot warmer during the day. A taste of winter, dressed like fall.
Fall colors, ChicagoI didn’t know until recently that Lotte Lenya, who can be heard here singing “Mack the Knife,” or maybe more properly “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” played Rosa Klebb, the SPECTRE operative who tries to off James Bond with her poison-tipped shoe in From Russia With Love.

Not an important thing to know. Just another one of those interesting tidbits to chance upon.

A rare thing: a YouTube comment that’s actually funny. It’s at a posting featuring “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!” sung by Oscar Seagle and the Columbia Stellar Quartette, recorded January 25, 1918.

Someone calling himself Xander Magne said: ” ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ ain’t got s–t on this, sonny. Damn 30s kids with their jazz and their swing and their big band and their ‘World War 2.’ We used to have a Great War and it was Great and you liked it!”

One more thing I saw at the International Museum of Surgical Science, a polemic cartoon by Edward Kemble that was part of a display about patent medicine, the Pure Food & Drug Act, etc.

International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago“Palatable Poison for the Poor.” Whew. Good thing that’s not possible in the 21st century, eh?

Again, too melancholy a note on which to end. Here’s something I saw just before Halloween. Pumpkin π.

Pumpkin π

A bit o’ pumpkin whimsy.

Upon Saint Crispin’s Day

I’ve posted this before, but it was nine years ago, and besides, you can’t watch the St. Crispin’s Day speech often enough.

Laurence Olivier’s version is, of course, very accomplished, but somehow it doesn’t resonate with me like Kenneth Branagh’s.

As it happens, I’ve been reading about Agincourt in The Face of Battle by John Keegan (1976) these last few days. I’ve had the book a long time, though not 41 years, and only recently decided to get around to it. In Keegan’s capable hands, the historical Agincourt is every bit as interesting as Shakespeare’s.

The Pirates of Penzance

Not long ago Ann and I went to Evanston to see a production of The Pirates of Penzance by a troupe known as the Savoyaires, directed by Amy Uhl (choreography) and Timothy Semanik (music). I’d seen it advertised in the Iolanthe program last spring, and it occurred to me that I’d never seen it on stage. So I wanted to go.

img492I saw the Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt movie version sometime in the mid-80s at the Vanderbilt cinema. It was essentially a filming of the 1980 Broadway production. I’m not sure what it was, but I remember the movie being a little off. A little stiff.

Maybe it didn’t offer enough of that jolly good time that you should get from Gilbert & Sullivan. We got that from the Savoyaires, who didn’t need an elaborate venue to pull it off. The show was staged in a sizable but plain junior high school auditorium, complete with an orchestra.

Phillip Dothard played the Pirate King with gusto, and Sahara Glasener-Boles brought the right amount of sauciness to the part of Ruth. Of course what everyone was waiting for was the Major-General to show up and sing his signature song. An actor named Bill Chamberlain did that part.

“How did he learn to do that?” Ann asked later.

“Practice,” I said, though in fact, even if I had the voice, I doubt that I could ever do “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”

And while Chamberlain was very good, he didn’t quite get all of the enunciation. Close enough, though. He was definitely part of the jolly good fun.

The program included “A Pirates of Penzance Glossary,” including the likes of Babylonic cuneiform, The Frogs of Aristophanes and Heliogabalus, whom it described as an “infamously depraved Roman emperor.”

“What was he depraved about?” Ann asked.

I couldn’t remember. It had been years since I’d read about him. A vague sense of perversion clings to him, but I wonder if there’s much to it. Ancient historians liked gossip and lurid invention as much as anyone else, and so did not-so-ancient historians.

“To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements,” Gibbon wrote of the boy-emperor.

He also wrote: “It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice.” In other words, dress as a woman a few times and people will make up all kinds of stories about you, especially if you’re emperor.

Ah, well. I will leave it to learned sages to argue over Heliogabalus. Next year’s production by the Savoyaires is Ruddigore, another G&S I’ve never seen staged. I’ll try to go.

Mr. Hall is Gone, But the Monty Hall Problem Lives On

There needs to be a verb to describe reading an obiturary, or hearing about a recent death, with the reaction: He was still alive? Or she, to be complete. Happens a lot. Example I read about not long ago: Monty Hall.

I can’t deny that I spent some hours of my young life watching him preside over eager costumed contestants vying for a new car! etc. But I didn’t know until a few years ago about the Monty Hall problem.

Another example: Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers, the other musical Tom P who died recently. How many people recorded songs about the war with Spain in the late 1950s?

For an even more obscure version, here’s “The Battleship of Maine” by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers. Recorded in 1927, when the war was very much in living memory. It’s a little hard to (easily) scare up information about Red, but it’s possible.

Harvest Moon 2017 & “Harvest Moon” 1992

This year’s Harvest Moon, which I read was a little later than usual, was obscured by clouds last week here in northeast Illinois. The near-full moon was nice and clear the day before, however.

Not long ago I found “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young and its slightly surreal video. I must have missed the song when it came out in the early ’90s. It’s a pleasant tune, practically a lullaby for adults. For middle-aged adults, to be more specific.

And who’s the guy always sweeping as the song goes along? Father Time would be my guess. Everything is swept away by time, after all.

I’ve written about named moons before. A fair long time ago, in fact. I suspect that most of the links at this posting about the Hunter’s Moon, the more obscure relative of the Harvest Moon, are long gone. Ten years is geologic time for YouTube.

September Pause

Back to posting again around September 17. Constitution Day. Maybe I’ll have finished the Federalist Papers by then.

It might also be warm again. A distinct October-like coolness has settled on northern Illinois since Labor Day.

Saw a cherry picker in the neighborhood recently. The man atop the equipment was repairing a street lamp that had gone a little funny. Not out, just flickering from time to time.

cherry picker

Why a cherry picker? Why not apples or lemons? And why do careless or unscrupulous researchers cherry pick their data? Why not grape harvest it?

Speaking of fruit, completely by chance down an Internet rabbit hole recently I came across the Citronaut — the first mascot of Florida Technical University, which eventually became the University of Central Florida. He’s an anthropomorphic orange wearing a space helmet, dating from 1968.

Florida produces citrus and shoots men into space, so it must have seemed like a bright idea. For a very short time. Says Wiki: “After one year, students petitioned the Student Government to establish a new mascot for the university.” Poor old goofy Citronaut was ignominiously dumped. You’d think he could have gone on to shill Tang or something.

The thought of Tang led me to another Internet rabbit hole. Eventually I came across the Tang Pakistan page. Is Tang popular in Pakistan? Could be. At least it seems more advertised there than its country of origin.

The About Tang page is in English, and includes such sentences as: “Being the king of flavours, its fruity and refreshing taste wins millions of hearts every day. Be it family gatherings, group studies, play days or summer struck – Tang is the Neverland for everyone to indulge, lift their moods and bond together to share good times.”

Not a peep about astronauts.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I watched The General on DVD. I’d only ever seen clips of it. It’s one of the most kinetic movies I’ve ever seen. Fittingly, with locomotives chasing each other and Buster Keaton all over the place, doing his own stunts. Funny stuff. I’m glad a movie more than 90 years old can still be so amusing.

Some scenes were flat-out amazing. Best known, probably, is when a locomotive causes a trestle to collapse, precipitating the engine into the river below. As I looked at that, I thought, that looks awfully real, not like a model. Turns out it was a real locomotive shot falling into a river (like the train fall in Bridge On the River Kwai).

Sean Axmaker writes in Silentfilm.org: “For the scene in which Johnnie sets fire to a bridge to prevent the North’s engine from crossing the river, Keaton had [set designer Fred] Gabourie construct a stunt trestle designed to collapse under the train’s weight. It was the only sequence that did not use existing track and it has been called the most expensive single shot in silent film history (Keaton biographies put the cost at $42,000).

“It is certainly the most expensive that Keaton ever executed. He had only one shot at the scene and ran six cameras to capture the spectacle. The engine that plunged into the river was one of the doubles used to stand in for the working engines and it rested there in the water, rusting away for 15 years until it was hauled out for salvage in the scrap drives of World War II.”

Later I looked up the female lead in the movie, Marion Mack, a one-time Sennett Bathing Beauty. She got tired of being in movies around the time talkies started, and lived a long time after, until 1989, including a career as an Orange County real estate broker. As for Glen Cavender, an original Keystone Cop who played antagonist Capt. Anderson, he lived until 1962. He seems to be an example of one of those actors that didn’t transition well to talkies, though he kept working.

The actual leader of the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase was James J. Andrews, a civilian scout for the Union Army. Things didn’t turn out well for him, since the Confederates hanged him. He lost out posthumously, too. This from Wiki: “Some of the raiders were the first to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Congress for their actions. As a civilian, Andrews was not eligible.”

You’d think Andrews should get something, even now, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the Congressional Gold Medal, which go to civilians.

One more thing about a movie. Recently I happened across this video on You Tube.

It’s a remarkable bit of editing to go along with Elmer Berstein’s justly famous, magnificent Magnificent Seven main theme, right down to Steve McQueen’s smile in the last frame. The video featuring the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is also worth a watch.

A Bit of the Chicago Fringe Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was pretty much out of the question this year — and it’s probably a logistics hassle of the first order, even of you’re already in the UK — so I went to the Chicago Fringe Festival for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Though not a trans-Atlantic proposition, it did involve driving into the city, which has its own small hassles.

Fringe1Naturally I left home later than I wanted to, so I caught only two performances, more-or-less picked at random: With the Weight of Her Fate on Her Shoulders and Jeff Fort and Fred Hampton: A Revolutionary Love Story. Per Fringe rules, each ran for an hour or less, with the latter taking nearly the whole 60 minutes, the former not quite so much.

The festival, now in its eighth year, is in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of the Northwest Side. One of the selling points of the festival is that all of the venues were within easy walking distance of each other, and they were. Despite all the years I’ve lived in northern Illinois, it was yet another unfamiliar neighborhood, so I spent some time walking around between the shows as well.

Jefferson Park is a pleasant strolling neighborhood, even in the fairly high heat of late summer, with its residential and commercial thoroughfares (Milwaukee and Lawrence) very much in the Chicago pattern: leafy small streets lined with small apartments, plus blocks of shops along the larger streets. In our time, Jefferson Park is heavily Polish. So Polish, in fact, that the Copernicus Center is there, at 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

The center includes the Mitchell P. Kobelinski Theater — formerly Gateway Theatre, the first movie palace in Chicago for talkies. That by itself would be worth seeing, but over Labor Day weekend, the center holds its Taste of Polonia festival, which was in full swing Sunday afternoon. So the place was jumping, having attracted more people than the Fringe could ever dream of, and making a lot more noise. As I passed, a band was playing “Come on Eileen,” sounding like the Save Ferris version.

I wasn’t in the mood for a festival, but I did walk by the entrance and took a look at the outside of the building, including the sweeping tower atop the building. That was added in the 1980s and is said to resemble the tower of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, or at least its post-WWII reconstruction.

The Fringe venues were more modest, but I was surprised to learn that three of them were actual theater spaces: the Gift Theatre, Jefferson Park Playhouse and Windy City Music Theatre Blackbox Studio. Jefferson Park, in other words, has a theater scene. Other performances were held in spaces provided by the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park.

With the Weight of Her Fate on Her Shoulders was at Gift Theatre, a 50-seat slice of space with three rows of seats, black walls and a small performance area under a modicum of lights. You can’t get any more basic than that for a theater space, so everything depends on the strength of the writing and the skill of the actors.

Weight wasn’t bad, but not that good. The three young actors certainly had some acting chops. The tight space of the theater fit the setting of a cramped refuge from unseen but definitely heard urban combat going on outside. It also fit what the play seemed to be about: war is hell, it will drive you mad, and then probably kill you. Also, words are weapons. What? One of the characters seemed to talk — verbally harass — another into a violent death. Or was that supposed to be a stray bullet coming into the room?

As earnest as it all was, the short play was something of a muddle. I couldn’t quite bring myself to care whether the characters survived, because I wasn’t quite sure what kind of danger they faced. At times I felt like dozing off, but forced myself to stay awake, like you do during a hard patch of long-distance driving. There’s no risk of causing a traffic accident sitting in a theater, but snoring during a live show would be embarrassing.

I had no such problems with Jeff Fort and Fred Hampton: A Revolutionary Love Story, a fine work of historical fiction, done in the Congregational church’s meeting hall. The thing was engaging. I wanted it to last longer than its hour. The acting was strong, especially the two leads, and while it would have been easy for the playwright — Steven Long — to stray into the tendentious, he avoided that trap, portraying the leads as human beings rather than talking points.

The story was straightforward, depicting meetings between Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, during the year before the authorities murdered him, and Jeff Fort, a major gang leader in Chicago at the time. Hampton spent considerable energy trying to persuade Fort to give up his criminal enterprise and join him in revolution, which he believed would be along Marxist, not racial, lines. Fort was less impressed by the idea of revolution.

As depicted, the two were in a kind of courtship: Hampton doing his best to persuade Fort, who resisted his pleas, along with spells of mutual admiration, quarrels that almost turned violent, and a sense of foreboding. Aptly so, since both men were doomed in their own ways. A short life for Hampton and a long one for Fort. Even now, the real Jeff Fort, aged 70, is at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., where he will surely be until he dies.

After the play, Steven Long came out and asked the audience, about 25 of us in all, to mention it on social media. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that, but probably not the last. For my part, I’m mentioning it and the festival here.

My attendance at the Fringe this year was as much an exploratory run as anything else, to see whether it might be worth committing more time and energy to in future years. I’d say yes.