Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crooked River Burning



My city was dead before the day I was born.

Mark Winegardner’s 2001 novel Crooked River Burning weaves a love story through the most tumultuous years in the history of Cleveland, from its final urguable peak in 1948 (date of our last successful World Series appearance – as with everything in this city, success is defined by sports) through its 21-year descent into 1969. Dead city, dead river, dead lake.

I was born in 1968, not in Cleveland though everyone in the Cleveland area claims to be “from Cleveland.” Reaching the nadir does not necessarily mean we are now on the way back up. It just means we are at the bottom, and we may be here for a while. Perhaps forever.

I contacted a local historian about life in Cleveland in the Fifties (you didn’t know I was also researching the Fifties, did you) and she demurred, saying she was a suburban East Side girl and wouldn’t have anything of value to share about the City. She did recommend this book, among others. It has taken me about a week and half to read. I have for the most part been loathe to set it down.

At the start, I was worried that Winegarder’s trick – threading the true lives of historic figures from Cleveland’s past into his fictional narrative – would be daunting to me, because I had planned something similar. It is not a unique technique … but it is Cleveland … but seriously, this is not my play. Teamsters and City Council and Shaker Heights the halls of Cleveland are not my area of focus. Instead, it was inspiring to read, and fun. And as someone raised here (around here) in the Seventies and who never left, I found it hilarious and heartbreaking. (Insert Cleveland comparison here.)

There is a scene near the end, a wedding anniversary in the mid-60s spent catching a first-run movie at the Palace. It made me cry. His description of this 2,700 seat vaudeville theatre built in 1922, in its crumbling death throes, a dozen people in the house to gaze at a torn screen, the balcony and historic boxes condemned, was truly shattering.

I work here in the middle of PlayhouseSquare. I took my children to see The Muppet Movie in the Palace last Sunday, with a full house of families taking advantage of the five-dollar summer movie series. Many were in the restored balcony. My son complained there were no cup holders, but really, look around. The Palace is beautiful. It was saved. But only just in time. It had closed in 1969, and would not reopen for almost twenty years.

The things have without question improved in the past forty years .... or perhaps they are merely different.

Where our story ends, white people had stopped taking Hough Road to get downtown, speeding down Chester instead. On Sunday night I read the chapter on the Hough Riots. Yesterday I drove Hough Road, to see where it had all happened. My window was open. This is not 1966.

The wife used the word “race” at dinner the other night. Noticing the unusual use of a word he thought he knew, the boy – age 5 - asked “what is race?”

With a little confidence I said, “It is a word people use when they want to describe people who share a common origin or background. It is a made-up word. It doesn’t actually mean anything.” He was satisfied with this answer and dinner continued.

I am from Bay Village, a safe little homogenous bedroom community on the lake. No matter where I have been, I will always think of myself as a white kid from an middle-to-upper-middle class suburb. But my children are from the Heights.

What is better, what is worse, is subjective. The only thing certain is change.

Monday, August 23, 2010

When Roosevelt Is Dictator - And How!


What I had hoped would be a mcguffin has turned into a red herring. What a boondoggle.

Headed back from NYC, I chronicled my success in finding a rare and unusual artifact in the microfilm stacks at the NY Public Library. Entitled When Roosevelt Is Dictator - And How! (A Fascist Prophecy) and published in January 1936, I thought I had found a document which would clue me into the left-wing school of thought that FDR was not only not the Socialist he was accused of being, he was actually a little Mussolini, seizing unparalleled power from the other branches of government.

I don’t actually need a pamphlet to spell out how that thinking might go. But a period expression of such anxiety, coming as I thought this would as a frantic screed on the subject … well, I was giddy at what it might contain. It’s brief, I had it photocopied because I did not have time to look it over right there in the library.

Well. You can see where I am going, this was not the discovered I had hoped for. In fact, I am still not sure what it is. The piece was written by James Francis Thierry, and the only other item I can find from him from anywhere is the short story The Adverntures of the Eleven Cuff-Buttons, a parody of Sherlock Holmes written eighteen years earlier, in 1918.

The fact that the protagonist of Cuff-Buttons is named Hemlock Holmes should give you an impression of the overpowering wit of Mr. J.F. Thierry.

Subtitled A Reply to “Red” Lewis’s Novel “It Can’t Happen Here” the pamphleteer describes in ludicrous detail exactly how FDR plans, following his reelection, to kick out most of his cabinet, replace them with Commie apparatchiks, and order the U.S. Military to shut down Wall Street, drag certain well-known moguls out into the street (naming names - Morgan, Hearst, &c.) line them up against a wall and SHOOT THEM (his emphasis, not mine) and basically single-handedly take over the nation by force.

From the prose, which is full of MOCKING CAPITALIZATIONS, weerd sperring, and by punctuating the description of certain acts of terror with the refrain, “Ain’t we got fun?” (he uses that phrase so many times for comedic effect he sounds like a vindictive nine year-old with ADD) you can be sure this is meant to be a hilarious piece of satire.

But what is his point? By continually referring to “Red” Lewis you would think he were a Republican, except for 1) the contempt with which he obviously holds Republicans, too and 2) the fact that he can’t possibly believe FDR would do any of what is being described. So he thinks “Red” Lewis did write his book about FDR, and that his plot is too tame and not what a true despot would actually do - which was already made clear by Mussolini and Hitler up to this point in history.

Is that it? He’s an FDR supporter, who does believe Sinclair Lewis is a Communist suggesting FDR is the dictator represented in his novel It Can’t Happen Here.

Or maybe he’s just a scattershot satirist, with no point at all except making fun of everybody. And like most satirists with no point of view … it’s obnoxious and not very funny.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The New York Spaghetti House


The great, hideous, vacant Cleveland Trust Office Tower was built in 1971 (not to be confused with the majestic and sadly neglected Cleveland Trust Rotunda next to it on the corner of East 9th & Euclid - more on that someday) and my father worked in foreign exchange on the 27th floor. I won't get into the history of that awful, obsidian atrocity, with its hermetically sealed bathtub-like windows, home to the largest spiders I hope I never see again.

The reason I mention it is that on those occasions I would visit my father in his place of work, he would usually take me to lunch at the New York Spaghetti House, just a walk up the street across from what is now Gateway.

The New York Spaghetti House was established in 1927 by Mario Brigotti at 2173 East 9th. The design was very much inspired by a warren-like New York bistro, taking up a less-than Cleveland-sized footprint, with a intimate dining rooms available by walking down stairs into a sub-level.

The building itself was constructed in 1870 as a parsonage to an adjacent church. According to their own website, Mario and his wife Maria were the entire staff in the early days. And during the 30s, as legend has it, they might accept unusual items in lieu of payment. A "life-size" plaster Indian hung from a wall in the bar for 60 years.

My strongest impression of the place (which I last visited in 1992 or 1993) was always the fact that the meat sauce was kind of beige. The family now bottles the sauce for supermarkets, the restaurant closed in 2001.

Source: The New York Spaghetti House website

UPDATE: 12/16/2015 (Photo: Bud Hilf)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Little Orphan Annie

My earliest experience with Little Orphan Annie was the 1977 Broadway musical. I saw a touring production (at the Hanna?) in the late 70s, a copy of the soundtrack shortly followed. The second time the tour came through I saw it then, too - I asked to. I am not saying this as an excuse, but I was only ten or eleven years old at the time.

When the movie came out in 1982, like most people, I despised it. As a fourteen year-old this should not have been a surprise, finding something I liked as a kid to be cutsey and obnoxious, though I had developed an air for British actors and so convinced myself I was there only to see Albert Finney (because I was rakish and classy) and Tim Curry (because I was underground cool.)

What I knew I disliked at the time was how long it was, how boring it was, and how they changed the ending so much. Well. A couple years ago when we found ourselves with an evening in New York City and two very small, tired children on our hands (it was Easter evening, we had been parading all day) my wife slipped out to pick up something, anything at Border’s, and brought back that for the kids to watch on her computer DVD player.

If she had asked, I would have let her know about the 1999 for-TV version Disney made which is by all accounts superior. But today I learned something new about the original comic strip I did not know which throws a few things into perspective.

The 1982 version is the "Reagan" version, because it de-emphasizes the poverty, the Depression (like the Disney version, they cut the Hooverville song, which makes sense as it is the only song that is sung by an ensemble, and not by any of the main characters) and basically gives Warbucks’ grotesque wealth nothing to stand in contrast to.

One obnoxious added gag involves a “Bolshevik” attempting to throw a cartoon bomb into Warbucks’ mansion. After the bomber is dispatched (we won’t get into Punjab, who was at least an actual character in the strip, if not the musical) Annie asks Miss Grace why anyone would hate Mr. Warbucks.

Miss Grace sighs condescendingly and says, “He's living proof that the American system really works and the Bolsheviks don't want anyone to know about that.”

http://www.talespinnerchildrenstheatre.org/performances/slumberland.htmMore glaring to me than that, when placed side-by-side with the Disney version, is how much the 1982 film wants to ignore New York City. You can’t even tell that’s where it’s set, it looks like California. When Warbucks decides to take Annie on the town, instead of singing a lovesong to “NYC” they sing an extended and wearying song (found only in this film) about how great the movies are, and he rents out Radio City for them to watch (get this) Camille.

And then (get this) we get to see a condensed, but not condensed enough, edit of Camille! Alone. In Radio City Musical Hall, all alone. An example of wealth and influence, but it looks cold to me.

The Disney version features Victor Garber singing (because Albert Finney really can’t) NYC and we get the whole thing. I mean, I get it, Disney bought Times Square and has been pushing the place ever since, but this is a pretty classy way to do it. And the 1999 version is a lot more sincere, less sloppy. The girl playing Annie is charming in her ordinariness, not obnoxiously optimistic like the freakishly freckled kid in the 1982 film.

And then there’s the matter of FDR, who is a honest-to-goodness superhero in the musical, as you know, he was in real life. In 1982 we do the FDR thing (including a hideous Eleanor impersonator who appears in no other version) but makes it clear he’s not relevant and we don’t see him again. In 1999 he’s front and center, the New Deal is the savior of the nation - and he even appears at the end, like Eliot Ness, with his G-Men blocking the door so the crooks can’t escape!

Now. The irony. Let us go over a brief history of Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip.

Created in 1924 by Harold Gray (following a number of “Little Orphan” variants by Gray and other cartoonists, ragamuffins with names like Little Orphan Otto and Little Orphan Rooney) creates an orphan girl with a doll named Emily Marie for a companion who escapes from the orphanage and survives in the street by sheer pluckiness.

A year later she meets Mr. - and Mrs. - Warbucks. Warbucks takes a shine to the little girl, and almost immediately urges her to call him “Daddy.” Mrs. Warbucks is a snoot who does not like the little girl, which eventually leads to Annie running away. Mrs. Warbucks eventually sees her selfish ways, apologizes … and then disappears from the strip, never to be mentioned again, as if she never existed.

Warbucks is the perfect picture of well-functioning capitalism. He despises snobs, treats his employees well and they all apparently adore him. It is this kind of world that Harold Gray approved of - one where those who were less fortunate would get ahead if they only applied themselves, and could one day be rich beyond their wildest dreams and perpetuate the cycle of endless prosperity.

He also approves of vigilantism and people getting what they deserve. As many storylines required getting in and out of scrapes with shady characters, Warbucks (and soon enough, Annie, too) would prefer to let criminals suffer any kind of grisly fate or terribly violent death than turn them over to the authorities.

Gray also made it clear through the comic that he despised the New Deal, FDR in particular, and the rise of the labor movement.

The 1977 Broadway musical, coming as it did during a bleak period in American history, was written to intentionally draw parallels between that time and the Depression, but to also offer optimism, and in the 30s a great deal of optimism arose from the promise of a “New Deal for Christmas.” Harold Gray luckily had passed away in 1968, or 9 short years later he surely would have heard that song and shot himself.

In 1936 the radio serial of Little Orphan Annie would broadcast a 15-minute episode on the Blue Network six days a week at 5:45 PM. It was the first children’s radio serial and wildly popular. The program was sponsored by … oh come on, you know who the sponsor was.

Talespinner Children's Theatre presents Adventures In Slumberland by David Hansen, Nov. 30 - Dec. 22, 2013.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It Cannot Happen Here



“Written? Too mild a word. The play was created by polygenesis.”
- Hallie Flanagan, Arena

Telegrams …
Denver: WHERE IS REVISED VERSION ACT THREE LEWIS PLAY RUSH IMMEDIATELY.

Chicago: NEW ENDING REVISED ACT THREE LEWIS PLAY DOES NOT MAKE SENSE PLEASE ADVISE

Tampa: SPANISH COMPANY RESTIVE CANNOT LEARN LINES BY OCTOBER 27 UNLESS RECEIVE FULL TEXT PLAY IMMEDIATELY

San Francisco: OBJECT TO CUTTING WHITE HOUSE SCENE ONLY GOOD SCENE LEWIS PLAY

Nebraska: PERSON IN HIGH PLACE CONSIDERS WHITE HOUSE SCENE QUOTE ILL-ADVISED UNQUOTE LETTER FOLLOWS

Los Angeles: MAKING SUPERHUMAN EFFORTS TO MEET OCTOBER 27 LEWIS PLAY STOP IMPERATIVE HAVE NO MORE REVISIONS STOP STOP
William Watts, San Francisco production director …
The chief obstacle was the script itself - because of its hurried and superficial writing.
Orders from Washington to all productions …
… avoid all controversial issues - political angles of any degree - special appeals - racial or group appeals - or inferences in any of these directions, since Federal Theatre is interested only in presenting good theatre, neither adapting nor assuming any viewpoint beyond presenting a new and vital drama of our times, emerging from the social and economic forces of the day …

Also forbidden in most positive terms are any references to any foreign power, any policy of a foreign power, the personalities of any foreign power or government; any comparison between the United States and any specific foreign power, system, personality, etc. Our business is with a play of our time and country by a great writer of our time and country and our job is wholly a job of theatre.
A phone call from Sinclair Lews on the morning of October 25 …
I haven’t slept all night - for the matter of that as yiou know I haven’t slept for weeks. Nobody can say I haven’t given everything to the Federal Theatre … Now it is all terrible - everybody has gone into a coma … I want you to get right on the train and come to New York and postpone the play a week and get new people to do everything, or do it yourself. It is all terrible. It is all a failure.
Dorothea Lynch, Florida Project director …
We didn’t have the last act until it was just about the time to start. Then it came, without who was to say what.
Telegram evening of October 27 …
Cleveland: RESPONSIVE AUDIENCE KEYING UP FOR PERFORMANCE APPLAUSE AFTER FIRST ACT TREMENDOUS

The Plain Dealer - October 28
Sometimes it moves slowly, but it moves. On the whole it is a satisfactory production of a propaganda play that is worth doing.
- William McDermott

Sources:
Arena by Hallie Flanagan (1940)
Showtime In Cleveland
Free, Adult, Uncensored

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mulatto

The New York Evening Post - November 11, 1935

Item: Langston Hughes, the short, smiling, eyebrow-mustached brown man who wrote MULATTO, a play which is right up there fighting with TOBACCO ROAD for the higher percentage of shock content, places the thoughts of this play back ten years and a thousand miles up the Niger River to Africa.

Hughes was working on a boat that stopped at a little town called Burutu. A mulatto there, the son of a native woman and an English banker who had returned to England, often came to the boat to talk to the dailors. No one else in town would have much to do with him, neither the black natives in their huts nor the pale Europeans in the English compound. Hughes went away and ever saw him again, though often wondering what had become of him.

The tragedy of the person of mixed race stayed in his mind more vividly after that experience and some years later he wrote it, though in a different land and with different characters.


...

The New York Times - October 25, 1935
Race Problems in the South the Theme of MULATTO, a ‘New Drama’ by Langston Hughes
By Brooks Atkinson

After a season dedicated chiefly to trash it is a sobering sensation to sit in the presence of a playwright who is trying his best to tell what he has on his mind.


...

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 25, 1935
MULATTO: A Play by a Negro Poet about the Tragedy of Being Colored in the South Comes to the Vanderbilt Theatre
By Arthur Pollock

A good deal of warmth of feeling and sincerity has gone into the writing of “Mulatto,” the play that came to the Vanderbilt Theatre last night, but Langston Hughes is not adept in getting his ideas into shape for the theater and as a result the play is frail. MULATTO cannot expect to get much attention from the public, a fact which will no doubt not surprise the author.

...

The New York Daily Herald - May 9, 1936

Item: MULATTO the Martin Jones production of Langston Huges drama, will close tongiht at the Vanderbilt Theater and re-open Monday at the Ambassador, where the producer expects to continue it through the summer.

...

The Cleveland Press - Friday, October 16
Hughes Entertains Cast of MULATTO

Item: Langston Hughes, Cleveland poet, novelist and now a playwright, may not attend his first nights but he has no objections to throwing a party for the people who speak and act out the lines he has written.

Last night Hughes took the cast of his play “Mulatto” now at the Hanna, on a midnight junket into the local Harlem. The party included all the performers and such Harlemites as were attracted by the smell of grease paint and tagged along to join the fun.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I’m in love!


Incredible. Last night and this afternoon I caught two plays which could not have stood in greater contrast to each other as re: how two people can behave in a relationship.

It Was A Set Up, written by Kirk Wood Bromley in collabotaion with Leah Schrager was performed in a Brooklyn living room by two extremely driven, high-intensity performers exploring a relationship in total free-fall. The husband, Tim (played by a guy named Tim) a 30ish artist of questionable professional ambition and his writerly wife Charise (played by Charise) have ceased to communicate - I mean, they communicate, all the time, their hearts and desires are on their sleeves, their faces, their everything, holding nothing back only it has been a long time since either of them have been able to provide the other with anything they want.

Only I don’t think that’s fair to her. I see him no longer interested in her and her being understandably angry because this isn’t what she asked for. Making matters worse is his one-night, fliratious but otherwise non-actually-fucking encounter with a woman ten years his junior named Juliet (played by - wait for it - a woman named Lucy, who I found an incredibly watchable dancer.) The introduction of the presence of the memory of this woman makes what was merely a dysfunction relationship now non-functional.

She says, “Look at me,” and he says, “All I see is Juiet.” Actually, they never say those exact words, they say words much more inspired. But that’s what they mean.

Witnessing the sad disillusion of a once loving (?) partnership, with a glass of whiskey in your red, plastic tumbler (ice slowly melting, neglected) in an actual living room, right in your face, as they say, was not merely some theatrical trick. It was something I want to have happen again.

This afternoon I watched the Magdalyn, whom I adore, inhabit the Ruth in My Name Is Ruth, an unflinchingly sweet, mid-20th century retelling of, well, The Book of Ruth. Props to the other actor in the production and co-creator of the show Jeffery Querin (sorry I had to run guy, I wanted to shake hands!) who moved into and out of a number or supporting characters, including Ruth’s befuddled, sweaty, painfully adorable romantic interest Boaz.

I have seen Magdalyn play bloodthirtsy Lady Macbeth in close, urban classrooms. I have directed her as both the plotting, Lady Macbeth-like Peggy Shippen and the goofy, pint-sized Lord Cornwallis in Kirk Wood Bromley’s The American Revolution. I have worked alongside her performing Neo-Futurist plays in the scene shop of CPT for an audience of ten, crammed into a freight elevator. I do not believe I have seen Magdalyn play a character who at once is as earnest, unironic, rock-steady and true, and yet pulls it all off with a silly Minnesotan accent. Magdalyn Donnelly iz tha beez neez.

It Was A Setup, in its inaugural run, closed last night. My Name Is Ruth, in its New York premiere, opened this afternoon. And I got to see both. I love live theater!

Not missing the Fringe.


Planning as I was to return to NYC in August to catch Bromley’s show (more on that later) I was worried I would get all angsty about not participating - or ever seeing any shows in - the NY Fringe. Why does the Fringe, this Fringe matter? Force of habit, I suppose. I have been disappointed with it at times, but mostly my thoughts of it (watching in 2000, participating in 2001, 2004, 2009) have been very positive.

One thing I was concerned about was having a big freak-out yesterday, throwing over my planned afternoon and seeing some shows … shows I would inevitably find disappointing (because things never go as planned) and fret about wasting time. Never fear, I was a good boy. And I saw a show Friday night, which I have grown more content with over the past day and a half for what it instilled in me, and I will see another in forty-five minutes. For as I blog, I am sitting in the lobby of the Connelly Theatre on East 4th between A & B waiting to see My Name Is Ruth, featuring none other but my former co-worker and friend Magdalyn Donnelly in what I believe is her New York debut. Could be wrong about that, I will know more once I have opened a program.

I am not missing the Fringe. And I am not missing the Fringe. Get it? Called a car to pick me up right after curtain, to whisk me to LaGuardia. Good weekend! Thank you.

Research


Library research can be well=planned, it can also be a scavenger hunt. Having never been a very good student, not really, not ever, walking into the stacks and fill me with overwhelming dread. I have a laundry list of items to enquire about, but it's really a crap-shoot. And when they come up dry, and I have time ahead of me, and nothing to read, the feeling of failure looms large and just want to get outside, anywhere, away from the air conditioning, the guy typing way too loud on his laptop, and the people who tell me it doesn't matter I am from out of town, I cannot view an archive video without an appointment, even though the viewing room is entirely empty.

What has been thrilling about the Performing Arts Library are the Special Collections, many of which are catalogued on cards. Physical cards, in a card catalogue. Goodness, I was taught how to use one of those when I was in first grade, they are like the literary equivalent of an abacus. And listed therein are references to ... I never know what! Could be a thin manilla folder of loose, undated articles on Langston Hughes, or a single, brief, sticky tape-mounted article from Variety Magazine, or a large folder of crumbling performance posters carefully preserved in thick plastic sheathes.

Sitting, nearly defeated and only around 2.30 in the afternoon (place closed at 5, I had a date at 6) I found two microfilm references that intrigued me. One was the actual prompt script for Welles's Macbeth which was extremely interesting. It is a liberal, almost radical reworking of Shakespeare's text, attributing certain keys lines to different players, and collapsing the entirety of the action - it was almost cinematic to read.

Let me share one example: Macbeth returns home, greets Lady M. and tells her the King is coming. Almost at that moment, Duncan arrives! Malcolm gives the news of the death of Cumberland, Duncan praises Malcolm and names him heir - and then Lady M. says to Macbeth:

The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step
On which you must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in your way it lies.

The entourage departs, leaving the Macbeths, and they finish the original scene (abbreviated) the one where concludes "leave all the rest to me." A lot of story and action in a compacted space.

That, and Hecate comes off like a major badass.

The other was a microfilm not of any theatrical business, but a pamphlet called When Roosevelt Is Dictator - And How! (A Fascist Prophesy) - a response to "Red" (Sinclair) Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here. What on earth was this? In order to find out I needed to get to the Main Library on 42nd Street (you know, the one with the lions) and see if it was even there.

This I did. And for my pains I have a photocopy of this ten page document I intend to read on the plane ride home. A good deal of my research into this period in Cleveland involves understanding a mindset for a time and place I have never been. We have a flattened out depiction of the Depression, created by decades of documentaries, or more often than that Hollywood version (like say, Annie or more recently Kit Kittredge - I have a daughter) that plays out the same story of what things were like, but honestly, those movies make things look not so bad ... because they're movies. They certainly do not get into the details of the arguments from all sides, only two - New Deal good, New Deal bad. FDR good, FDR bad.

It Can't Happen Here was an obvious comment on Mussolini's rise to power, and to a certain extent Hitler's, and how that could happen anywhere. Therefore, it is a pro-FDR book/play, because we all know FDR was Hitler's chief rival and would eventually defeat him. And that it is a highly simplistic way to look at things, and based on events which had not yet happened.

I have read rumblings of those who believed Lewis's work could be an unintended metaphor for FDR's grab for total Executive power ... and now I have a document which is going to lay out one man's entirely thesis for this belief.

And for my purposes, that was worth the trip.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Call and Response

NEW THEATRE - November, 1935
A letter from Hallie Flanagan

The Federal Government allocated, as you know, $4.8B for relief under the WPA. This appropriation included $27M for putting back to work musicians, writers, painters, sculptors, and theatre people. Each Federal director plans to work through regional directors for some twelve areas throughout the United States.

It will be seen that while our immediate aim in all these projects is to put to work thousands of theatre people, our more far reaching purpose is to organize and support theatrical enterprises so excellent in nature, so low in cost, and so vital to the communities involed that they will be able to continue after Federal support is withdrawn.

During the next few weeks of planning, and later, as the various projects start, we need the active interest and help of every person who cares about the theatre and about the problem of unemployment; we need the support of people who believe, as we do, there is skill, experience, enthusiasm and intelligence in the theatre people now on relief rolls and in the thousands of theatre people who will cooperate with them.

We need the support of people who share our belief thatthe theatre horizon is not contracting, but widening to include Santa Fe Desert, the Rocky Mountains, and the valley of the Missisippi; windening to include a consciousness of the social scene as well as the social register; widening, in short, to include the impossible - that same impossible which has led our conetmporaries to soar to the stars, whisper through space, and fling miles of steel and glass into the air.

We need the belief of all you who care about the theatre in terms of the art and economics of 1935.



The Plain Dealer - January 2, 1936
McDermott on the Arts Dole
“Why not fan dancers? Theater project a bust. Not all can be Hamlets.”
by William F. McDermott

It is apparent that the federal theater project in its present status, and despite some earnest efforts of some copetent people, is a bust. There are not enough really experienced theatrical folks on the relief rolls to organize any practical theatrical project except, perhaps, in New York and, there, organization is held up by red tape and bickering between the groups involved.

Even to a sympathetic eye, the arts projects generally are plainly in a mess. They come up against two almost insuperable obstacles: First, the number of unqualified and inexperienced people who want jobs in arts projects and who will often have to be accepted because of a lack of better materials, second the fewness of competent art workers on the relief rolls.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Velvet Gentleman


I do not like to be alone.

My therapist advised me to think about what I am thinking. Why am I thinking that? Where does this thought come from? This evening I had to ask myself ... what's the rush?

Forgetting we have half-days at work during the summer, I scheduled my flight (rewind that - my wife reserved the flight based on the information I provided to her, because I fear making reservations) for 6.30 from CAK. Getting off work at 1, I went to the airport and considered a) hanging around in the Great Lakes Brewing Co. pub for three hours, getting hammered on Lake Erie Monster while reading Crooked River Burning or b) seeing if I could just show up at another gate to leave early, without having to pay the $50 fee.

I opted for the latter. If I had done the former, I would only just now be checking into my hotel (The Larchmont, thanks again, sweetheart) and have a serious headache.

Checking in 8.30, I realized I could actually catch a NY Fringe show tonight! I mean, really! I hightailed (really, not cooling, walking fast in the West Village) to the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre for something which may have proved interesting; The Velvet Gentleman which is actually titled The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentleman, a play which pretends to be an amateur "dada" theatrical company putting on a newly discovered bio-play about Erik Satie.

I really like the program-within-a-program featuring the bios and other information for the fictional actors who perform the play-without-the-play. The only problem I found with the production, which I enjoyed in fits and starts, was that in order to break the fourth wall by presenting people we are supposed to be believe are real people, and not people playing real people, is that we believe - or are persuaded to believe, or really want to - that they are not actors but real people who are also actors.

Follow?

At 1 hr. 35 min. I would have been thrilled for the actual play within the play, the one about Satie. Those parts, thankfully, the lion's share of the actual production, were the most interesting, humorous, enjoyable, and so on. It was unfortunate for the performance that the show, which begins with the director/performer making flustered apologies to us, the real but also fake audience, about technical errors that may occur - when WHAAMMM, a large, dangerous-looking, rusty metal part of a curtain fell to the floor, exposing a number of surprised actors.

Only one of the company, John-Patrick Driscoll, tricked me into believing, for a moment, that that was part of the show, but soon after it became apparent that nothing so startling or believable was going to happen again. Mr. Driscoll was also excellent at dealing with a paste-on mustache that didn't paste on very well.

Viva la Fringe!

Cedar-Central Apts.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Charlie Chan at the Circus



"Free ticket to circus like gold ring on merry-go-round.
Make enjoyment double. "

Opening March 27, 1936, Charlie Chan at the Circus was the 11th motion picture in this hateful series of flicks based on the books of Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers was born and raised in Warren, Ohio, and was inducted into the Warren City Schools Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.

Chinese-American Yunte Huang has written a new book (Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History) about the character, one which is more sympathetic to the figure than popular history would support.

It is disturbing to learn that Swedish actor and "heavy drinker" Warner Oland, who is most closely associated with the role of Charlie Chan, liked to tie on one prior to performances of Charlie Chan, he claimed, to mess up his speech and put a stupid smile on his face in order to better play an Oriental. Because, you know, he would never drink before or during any of his other performances.

In this film, Chan takes his wife and twelve children (Get it? Because the Chinese used to bear an obscene amount of children?) attend a circus where the owner fears for his life from the workers in his employ. Soon enough, the circus owner is slain by a gorilla, but you know it's just a guy in a gorilla suit and Chan needs seventy minutes to prove it.

Source:
Wikipedia
The New York Times
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History

Monday, August 9, 2010

How I Will (Not) Be Spending My Summer Vacation


Currently making plans for my follow-up visit to New York. I have tickets for a show Saturday night, intend to revisit the Performing Arts Library on Saturday, and make make plans to attend NY Fringe shows on Sunday before flying out late. One thing I will not be doing, if only because it doesn't mesh with my current agenda, is to catch Julius Caesar, as part of the Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.

This is a pity, because I love outdoor Shakespeare, I love performers who are willing to risk performing Shakespeare absolutely anywhere, I love actors who can execute this tricky piece of work without a mic. And I love women who pop their blouses open in the name of art.

While I have not missed being the producer of a small theater company, I have missed the freedom of producing whatever the hell I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. I had a dream the other night (after reading a review for this production of JC) where I was an artistic director again, and the mission was to produce outdoor Shakespeare. In this dream I was reminded of the 32-minute adaptation of The Comedy of Errors produced at the Expo (which, in waking life, I have an actual script for) and started concentrating on which other dramas I might rip down to under an hour.

Because, you see, I've never really done that. We mounted Bromley's The American Revolution outdoors, but other than that I've never had a successful go with the Bard al fresco. I do think there is something wildly attractive about that kind of urban, guerrilla Shakespeare that involves few props, no costume changes, a tiny cast, no sound system or lights, and a set based on wherever the show takes place - ideally somewhere with lots of walking traffic where unknowing passersby might even walk through your staging area, or even better, stop for a while to watch and listen.

Of course, we not have such thoroughfares in Cleveland. Not really. Not at all.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Clifford Odets


Born 1906, Clifford Gorodetsky wrote Waiting for Lefty, went to Hollywood, and lost his teeth.

"Odets, where is thy sting?"
- George S. Kaufman

Named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, rarely wrote again.

Died in 1963 of colon cancer. He was 57.

Source: Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Waiting For Lefty (1935)


Brian Pedaci was Harry Fatt

Life imitates art.

So now, after consuming several Federal Theater Project agit-prop "Living Newspapers" I finally turn to the grandfather of all labor agitation plays, Clifford Odet's Waiting for Lefty. Caught part of the Charenton Theater production, presented in a urine-scented alley as part of the Ingenuity Festival in 2005, but only the last few scenes.

Odet's play was first presented by the Group Theatre in March 1935. Harold Clurman famously described it as "the birth cry of the thirties." Framed by a Union Hall meeting, the play is a parade of brief vignettes, presenting numerous cases of injustice, or the Little Guy kept down by the Big Guy. Outrage is heaped upon outrage - marriages fall apart, relationships are abandoned, underlings are urged to spy on their co-workers, the well-connected are moved ahead, and there's even some examples of racism - against Jews, the only Black in the play is a lowly errand boy referred to by the 'n-word' who is never actually seen.

Surprising to me is how this play, which pre-dates all the others I have so far read (not itself a Federal Theater Project production) provides the template for those which follows. I understand that Odets did not create this form of drama, the episodic panorama on a common theme, but I did not expect it to resemble a Living Newspaper so closely.

In addition, events presented in this play, produced in early 1935, set the stage for the real-life events of late 1935 and 1936 in during the Akron Rubber Strikes. Lefty begins with Harry Fatt, porcine, cigar-chomping union boss, telling his constituents to sit still, forget about going on strike, that the union was looking out for them and that everything was going to be fine. This is what the national union organizers kept telling the rubber workers of Akron.

Even more hilarious; every time someone in the crowd speaks up, to question Fatt's call for calm and order, and reassurances that Roosevelt would take care of everything, Fatt immediately roars that the interlocutor is a Communist, a dirty red, and demands they be thrown from the hall. This was the same technique used by the union bosses in Akron.

This is not to suggest that substance followed form, or that Odet's was some kind of awesome prognosticator. No, it provdies me the education that these things were happening, this was the times. The only prophetic aspect of the production is the very end, when ordinary taxi driver Agate Keller takes the stage to speak, others rise to hold Fatt and his cronies at bay, and Keller stages a worker led call to STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!

And so it finally happened in Akron - almost a year later - that the rubber workers stopped waiting for Lefty, refused to wait another day, and began the modern labor movement without a leader, and did it themselves.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Macbeth

The Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project featured a “Contemporary” branch and a “Classical” branch. Inarguably the greatest success of the Classical branch was its production of Macbeth, commonly referred to as “Voodoo” Macbeth.

This production, featuring an all-African-American cast, was directed by Orson Welles, and set his national career as a stage director. Citizen Kane still five years away. Welles was already a known star as a voice for radio, having established himself as the original Shadow. When Macbeth debuted on April 14, Welles was 20 years-old.

In 1937 Welles would direct what should be referred to as “Fascist” Julius Caesar, creating a Mussolini-type Caesar in a modern-dress production that starred himself as Brutus. For this work, his thinking went that as long as the task at hand were to create a large-scale Shakespearean drama featuring an all-black cast, it would be more acceptable to a modern audience to see this supernatural, blood-soaked tragedy set in a place like Haiti rather than Scotland. The actual setting is undefined, but the design strongly suggests the Caribbean.

There was controversy during the rehearsal process, and picketing. Many in the African-American community feared this would be a burlesque of some kind. When the production opened, and all could see that it was by all modern measure a legitimate presentation of Shakespeare’s work, and grand and exceptional, such criticism disappeared.

Hecate’s role, often cut from modern productions, was expanded. He was a cast as a large man with a whip, and delivers the final line of the production - The charm’s wound up. (In Shakespeare’s text, from Act I.) Professional African drummers were employed, but only five of the cast of over 100 were professionally experienced actors. However, this was often the case for Federal Theater Project productions.

Following a highly successful run in New York, the play went on tour. Referred to in an advance piece in the Plain Dealer as “bizarre” the show came to Cleveland in Fall, 1936.

Federal Theatre E. 9 & Prospect
NOW! New York’s Triumph now Cleveland’s Sensational Hit!
William Shakespeare’s MACBETH
(Original All-Colored Cast of 150)
Directed by Orson Welles
“Here is something bizarre, breath-takingly colorful and startling”
- Arthur Spaeth, Cleveland News
Eve 8:30 - Sat. Mat. 2:30
$1.00 - 75¢ - 50¢ - 25¢ Plus Tax
WPA Federal Theatre Project
(Oct. 1, 1936 - Cleveland News advertisement)

Source: Wikipedia, Cleveland News, The Plain Dealer

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Feller: Verbatim


Cleveland News - July 7, 1936
‘A Natural’ Dizzy’s Tribute to Feller

Dizzy Dean: "The kid’s a natural, he can’t miss."
Emett Ormsby: "The best pitcher I have ever seen come into the American League in all my experience."

* * *

Cleveland Press - July 20, 1936
Indians Home as Heroes After Winning 10 Games
by Franklin Lewis

Maligned and generally regarded by Cleveland fans as apt material for baseball’s ash heap only two weeks ago, the Indians returned to their home orchard today the toast of the town and the latest scourge of the American League.

(Includes brief mention of “Bob Feller, high school right-hander who made his big league debut by striking out one Senator, hitting another and walking one.”)

* * *

The Plain Dealer - August 24, 1936
Schoolboy Feller Whiffs 15 (St. Louis) Browns In First Start

“I knew Dizzy Dean had the record, but I didn’t know the American League mark was sixteen. It wouldn’t have made any difference because I gave all I had. I was afraid that my arm would tire along about the sexith or seventh inning but it held up fine.”

* * *

Cleveland Press - August 24, 1936
Feller Happy, But Hat Fits After Those 15 Strikeouts
by William Miller

Bob Feller wasn't surprised when he struck out 15 St. Louis Browns because he knew he could do it, “if my stuff was working.”

He didn’t even save the ball he won with. “I’ve got a lot of balls from here and there and I didn’t need anymore.”

“I didn’t know I would strike so many men, but I knew I could win. I knew I would win if my stuff was working, and it was.”

What’s he going to do now?

“Just go over to the park like I’ve been doing and throw the balls around with the other rookies till they want me to go in again.”

He was one strikeout short of the American League strikeout record set in 1908 by Rube Waddell, and two short of the all-time record - 17 - set by Dizzy Dean in 1933.


Bob sold peanuts at League Park between practice with other rookies.

* * *

“Oh, I was sort of tired.”

Cleveland Press - August 25, 1936
HE’S SOME FELLER
by Stuart Bell

He learned to walk like that in Iowa. His fizz is stamped with the trademarks of adolescence and you don’t realize he is a man until you see him pitch. That swagger he has when he walks makes him look like a policeman who is going to raid a bookie joint, but it doesn’t mean anything.