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Monday, August 15, 2016

Press Tour of the New Philadelphia Mormon Remple



   Last week I participated in a press tour of Philadelphia’s new Mormon temple. On the way to the event I thought of my introduction to Mormonism as a teenager.
   After a Mormon family moved into our neighborhood, I quickly read the only Mormon book in my high school library: Joseph Smith’s No Man Knows My History.  Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church (established in 1830), claimed to have had a visitation from an angel who showed where to dig to find the ancient religious history of American civilization on a hill near Palmyra, New York.  That history was engraved on metal plates and became The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon purports to be the story of Jesus Christ’s presence in the Americas after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
   One other memory concerns a trip I made with my parents to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Here I saw a number of religious sites, such as the Vatican Pavilion, a Russian Orthodox chapel, and the Mormon Pavilion. What stood out for me in the Mormon Pavilion was the famous copy of the Christus statue (by Thorvaldsen) in Copenhagen
     The tall, imposing white statue of Christ was conceived by the Mormon Church for the 3 million dollar Pavilion. Its sheer size and dominance not only commanded attention, but it helped put the Church into the popular consciousness. The Christus statue followed the accepted Mormon practice of representing Jesus as striking and extraordinarily handsome. Mormon Jesus’ were not dark and swarthy Rembrandt likenesses but cleft chinned, blue eyed, well built golden or auburn haired model gladiators.  This is the Jesus of Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, not the thin, ascetically inclined Jesus in Pier Pablo Pasolini’s wonderful, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. 

   The New York World’s Fair, in fact, was a pivotal moment for the Mormon Church. “…The  huge leap forward initiated by the Mormon Pavilion must be considered a seminal event in the evolution of the Church’s use of media in spreading the gospel message to the world,” writes Brent L. Top, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University.  “From that time to the present day, the Church’s outreach through its use of technology and media has increased steadily and exponentially.”
   I’ll say. 
   This fact was clearly in evidence during the Philadelphia Temple’s first media tour. 
   The press group of about 22 people included print and broadcast media. A Fox News reporter was there along with her camera crew. There were other unidentified camera crews and a number of photographers although no pictures were permitted inside the temple itself since it is considered the House of the Lord. The press met in the less than inspiring Robert A.M. Stern-designed Meeting House, the place for Mormon Sunday worship, since the Temple is reserved for marriages (and the “sealing” of those marriages for eternity) and for the baptism of the deceased. The tour was to last 2 hours with light refreshments at the end. 
  There are 112 operating Mormon temples worldwide. At times the building of a temple or a Mormon institution caused some controversy. In 1984, when ground was broken in the Mount Scopus area of Jerusalem for the Brigham Young University Jerusalem campus, all hell broke out. Ultra Orthodox Jews saw this invasion of Mormons from Utah as a proselytizing threat and sought to have construction halted. The Mormon Church had to hire security guards to proceed with the project.  A famous ultra Orthodox pop star, Mordechai Ben David, even composed a hit single titled “Jerusalem is Not for Sale.”
   Jerusalem is not for sale!
   Voices, crying, thundering throughout our cities,
  You better run for your life, back to Utah overnight,
   Before the mountaintop opens wide to swallow you inside.

 Today the BYU Jerusalem campus hardly raises an eyebrow although students there must sign a contract promising not to missionize.

     Our Philadelphia Temple tour guide was the Harvard educated Larry Y. Wilson, who serves as Executive Director of the Temple Department in Salt Lake City.
   The silver haired Wilson had a sleek ‘Father Knows Best’ demeanor. He took us from the Meeting House to the Temple entrance where coverings were put over our shoes. The shoe coverings were to keep street dirt off the meticulously clean Temple floors and rugs.
    Inside the Temple, Wilson described the furnishings and the commissioned art on the walls, including several original murals. He also explained how the Temple’s features were aligned to fit a southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia theme, right down to the temple’s main door and frame with its bas-relief mountain laurel “Pennsylvania” blossom design. “We believe that the founding of this country was divinely inspired,” he said.  
      The interior of the temple is an extravaganza of quality craftsmanship. Nowhere will you find flimsy/cheap construction materials that you see in new construction all over town. There are no thin walls or doors that weigh a few ounces. One astonished journalist asked how the temple was able to ward off the sound of outside traffic. Wilson replied, “With very thick walls.”

         Press questions about the Mormon religion began early on. This was to be expected, given that much of the tour included references to Mormon theology and doctrine. These references were woven into descriptions of the temple’s Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, the decorative lighting, flooring, the outside fence, walkways and the landscaping.  “We believe that this is the Lord’s House,” Wilson reiterated, something that many Christian denominations might ascribe to in theory but that in practice falls short, especially when one considers those Protestant sanctuaries that are used for services on Sunday but on Tuesdays are transformed into jazz festival arenas or concert halls.  
      Emaneul Swedenborg, A Swedish scientist, mystic and founder of the Swedenborgian Church, wrote that heaven is filled with cities and houses of many different types. There are mansions and simple homes, lavish communities and humble communities.  We reap in heaven what we sow in life, meaning that those who were terrifically good in life live in afterlife mansions of marvelous splendor, while those who lived mediocre lives on earth inhabit less than spectacular ‘heavenly’ neighborhoods.
   In Mormonism, there’s a belief that non-Mormon ancestors in the after life are free to accept or reject the offer of baptism into the Mormon faith by living relatives or friends.  A yes answer, however, would transfer the deceased to a Swedenborg-like greater heaven. 
    In the Philadelphia temple, each floor is designed as a stairway to Heaven, so as one goes higher the furnishings and the chandeliers on each floor become more elaborate until one reaches the apex, or the Celestial Room, the most scared and beautiful room in the temple.
   In the Celestial Room the hanging chandelier fans out into the room like an exploding comet. Visiting Mormons in good standing (Mormons must get a recommend pass from their bishop or stake leader in order to enter the temple) pray and meditate here despite the fact that this room, as well as the entire temple, tends to resemble a lavish Ritz Carlton Hotel with a lot of pictures of Jesus.
   The press’ fascination with Mormonism came to a fore at the Baptismal Font. Generally, a concerted design effort would be necessary to transform a baptismal area into a secular looking space, but one can see elements of that here for it is not hard to imagine someone perceiving this space, despite its sacred nature, as a hot tube of the highest quality, perhaps a faux Disney recreation of the baths of ancient Rome. Still, ‘spectacular’ doesn’t begin to describe the Font area that had journalists gazing into the pool of water as if lost in the bliss of hypnosis.  Like characters in a Robert Altman film, we journalists formed a long line along the circumference of the curving marble barrier that overlooked the oxen accented pool as questions about Mormonism ricocheted back and forth like tennis balls.
    The Baptismal Font was to me the highlight of the tour, although later in the marriage sealing room, where couples kneel facing one another across a small altar to have their marriages sealed for all eternity, things got a little dicey.
  A journalist inappropriately dressed in shorts, a tight T-shirt and a frayed baseball cap, asked Wilson if same sex marriages are preformed in the sealing room. 

     The question seemed to come across as a triggering device, designed to set off a series of consecutive explosive comments from other members of the press, all related to same sex marriage and engineered to put Wilson on the defensive.

   Perhaps it was possible that a reporter in this day and age had no clue about the Mormon stand on same sex marriage. Americans, after all, are tremendously ignorant about religion. This is why the wife of one visiting Mormon Elder told me that people who should know better mistake her for a Mennonite or Amish. “But would an Amish woman wear these kinds of heels?” she asked me, showing me her feet ensconced in the brightest of the bright Frederick’s of Hollywood heels that would attract a thumbs up at a Philly Style magazine party.
   As for that baseball capped reporter, his question did set off a few same sex marriage follow up comments, although the ever savvy Wilson was able to defuse whatever small bomb lay hidden in the reporter’s initial inquiry.    




The DNC in Philadelphia


Thom Nickels

     The Democratic National Convention is now history. City streets are quieter, the traffic less daunting, and there’s finally a sense of being able to breathe easy. Though a national convention may be good for a city’s PR image, sometimes for residents the going can get rough. An overcrowded Frankford Market El and Broad Street subway filled with swat teams and wall to wall people is not a pretty experience. 
    But on Monday, July 24, the first day of the convention, expectations were bright. That’s when I headed to the Jill Stein for President Green Party protest in front of City Hall and got an eye full. This protest reminded me of the Occupy Philly protests a few years ago and of certain demonstrations I participated in the early 1970s. I will always feel a connection to grassroots protest even as some of my political views evolve.  

  The Green Party’s ‘Power to the People’ 2016 platform is attractive enough. The Green vision it to end world poverty, put a moratorium on pesticides and institute community control of the police rather than the other way around. The Greens also want to terminate unconstitutional surveillance on American citizens. These are noble goals.
     I remember what happened to the Greens in 2008 when their presidential ticket, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala were arrested and handcuffed to a chair for 8 hours for attempting to participate in the Hofstra University Obama-Romney debate. Stein and Honkala should have been included in that debate.  Thirty years ago presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. That’s when any third party presidential candidates on the ballot in enough states were invited to debate the Republican and Democratic nominee for president. 
   In 1988, the League withdrew its sponsorship of presidential debates because of the demands of the two party system. League President Nancy M. Neuman said at that time that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” and that “the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.” 

   It was fascinating to hear Stein supporter Chris Hedges from Truthdig and then observe the Green protestors (of all ages), some of whom were in costume, like the woman dressed as Hillary, the Queen of Death (based on Hillary’s reputation as an interventionist with a fondness for starting foreign wars).Large Green Party flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze as activists from the 60s chanted the same chants anti war protestors chanted during Vietnam War sit ins.
    I heard lots of ‘up’ talk in the crowd about Bernie pulling a fast one during the convention. No, he would not capitulate to the corporate Clinton, but he “had a surprise in mind,” some said. Utopian dreams die heard. I kept my mouth shut and did not share my belief that Bernie had nothing in mind except…capitulation.  
   A band of youthful drummers caught my attention with the following chant:
                  Communist Revolution is the only solution 
   The Communist Revolution wrecked havoc in Russia and ended in failure. The French Revolution, as Jonah Goldberg has written, was “the first fascist revolution to turn politics into a religion. Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a "secular" faith.”

   While we’re at it, let’s not forget this pro-revolution maxim from Thomas Jefferson: “If you discourage mutiny and riot what check is there on government?” 
      Green Party dress was decidedly downtrodden and raw; frumpy shorts, pigtails askew, shredded baseball caps, pony tails and the occasional ‘culturally appropriated’ dreadlocks on tall thin activist white men (some of whom had a man bun on top of the dreads). Unfortunately for the Greens, the numbers of protestors were not large enough to shut down the DNC at Wells Fargo, the original goal of the march. Whole Earth Catalog style post hippie costumes, floppy hats and black anarchist flags would never win over America’s heartland. A cosmetic makeover might be a good first step to start this revolution.   

     Next stop on my list was the Wells Fargo building. I had my US Secret Service photo ID badge and my green Arena pass around my neck. A green Arena pass got you inside the Arena but not inside the actual Hall where you could sit down and watch the convention. Most press organizations sans big names like The New York Times had green Arena passes. Monday night, being the first night of the DNC, the ASK ME volunteers were quite liberal in allowing green ID press into the seating area, but green press passes were essentially useless unless one enjoyed standing for hours, or sitting on the Arena floor like a homeless person in front of 7/11. The DNC was quite stingy in its allotment of Hall press passes. In some ways it seemed to me that the ASK ME volunteers had it better than credentialed press.
    I sat in the upper tiers in the Hall Monday night with my green pass. I was behind the stage so I only saw the backs (and behinds) of Paul Simon, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders.  Two hipster DC online publishers who told me they were conservative libertarians sat beside me. Most of the press did not applaud or cheer the speakers although when Bernie Sanders mounted the podium, very few people did not lean forward in their seats.

   Before each speech, DNC pages distributed banners and signs with a slogan or the name of the next speaker. This was for the benefit of the television audience. Generally, journalists attending political conventions do not show support for candidates, so the props offered by the pages went nowhere in the press section although a few newbie reporters from college newspapers scooped them up, causing one of the libertarian editors to remark, “Those kid reporters don’t know what they’re doing.”

  On Monday night there didn’t seem to be many American flags on the floor. For some people this may not be an important matter, but it did catch the eye of certain conservatives like writer Tammy Baldwin, who noted, “Americans notice things like no American flags on the DNC convention stage. It might be small to some people, but it’s a statement…. After criticism mounted, they added them the second night…” The lack of flags was more than amply made up for by a double tsunami of balloons, some as large as beach balls and small planets, that fell from the ceiling like a plague of locusts over the Clinton-Kaine team during the convention’s closing moments.

      Viewers watched as the Clinton team seemed to walk ankle deep in a sea of rubber. I couldn’t help but notice a dazed looking Hillary bending over slowly, as if in extreme arthritic pain, to pick up a balloon and then throw it to Bill or Chelsea. The balloon extravaganza was clearly the most bizarre moment of the convention and called to mind the antics of that famous clown, Clarabell.
    I found much to admire in the behavior of Bernie Sanders supporters. Some of them came dressed in funny hats, capes and motorcycle gear. The emotional build up to Sanders’ speech had all the tension of a Wagnerian opera. Bernie, however, still had many detractors. Charles Hunt of The Washington Times, wrote:  “During his quarter-century in Congress, Mr. Sanders has been viewed as something of a gadfly with Tourette’s syndrome. Always dressed like a homeless person shambling along the hallways, Democrats felt sorry for him and let him into their meetings. He looked like he needed a cup of coffee and free danishes.”
   Well, whoever said that politics was charitable? 

      On Thursday evening, the night of Hillary’s speech, there were far fewer Sanders supporters on the floor. Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together Crowd’ was out in force: lots of women in black men’s suits and “Planned Parenthood’ bob cut hair dos.
    I got a taste of the privileged political class when I went up the wrong escalator on Hillary night and wound up in a high donor area with special cocktail lounges and restaurant skyboxes serving crab, lobster and cherry filled Manhattans. Culinary security was out in force, so I did not get in. All in all, there were five intense security check points one had to go through before arriving in the Hall.    
    On Hillary night, Monday’s generous press pass atmosphere had disappeared. Ask Me volunteers were now guarded the Hall gateways like 1950s Communist border guards. I tried to negotiate a seat several times, but failed. 
    I made do with touring the (so called) food courts, and noticed right away that Wells Fargo wasn’t doing the Democrats any favors: small bottled water sold for 4.50 a bottle, and a slice of pizza was double that.
    When the “enough is enough” alarm sounded within me, I left for home and watched Hillary’s acceptance speech online. 




Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Psychic Says (re Hillary Clinton)

   Psychic says Philly DNC
        Won’t trump Chicago’s historic 1968 convention when
   Jean Genet hung out with Norman Mailer
   When Huey Newton looked “sexy” in a big wicker chair
   When Angela Davis spoke French, & Susan Sontag & Jane Fonda hightailed it to Hanoi.
      Psychic says 2016 DNC
                     Will not be a convention but a coronation
          Hillary in a chariot roaring into Wells Fargo 
         To thunderous applause, clamor & cowbells.
          The placards will read:
      No human is illegal;
     Islamic fanaticism does not exist
    You want to enforce immigration laws, you’re a racist
    I hate Fox News
   You’re a racist, I’m a racist, we are all racists & we should all die  

   Psychic sees Hillary in Goldman Sachs makeup & a blue pants suit when she mounts          the podium, blowing kisses
  As Bill does the retiree shuffle an all too common sight at the casino luncheon buffet
       Beware, however, of some unrest from assorted protest groups
    FDR Park social justice warriors with blue hair & bandit Lone Ranger masks will remind us that Hillary’s election was always in the cards
     (Yes but even Trump said the system was rigged against Bernie…) 
 Psychic says Hillary will be inaugurated &
   The Sanderites will retreat to form another political base that in four years will also fail to send one of their own to the White House.
  Psychic sees a honeymoon phase where Hillary can do no wrong
  Psychic sees the honeymoon luster morphing into a grey patina 
  Psychic says Bill will restart love affairs with interns & female bicycle messengers as Hillary agonizes over whether to triple power punch upstart internationals like Vladimir Putin. 
   Psychic says there will be a war with Russia & we know what that means: the end of career options for everywhere.
  Psychic apologies for being so negative
   Psychic says in Hillary’s second year there will calls for her impeachment from the Wallmart mainstream, even as

     Attorney General Loretta Lynch jump starts her campaign to get Americans to show ISIS the love
      In Lynch meditation rooms Americans will slip into Yoga pants, sit cross legged on rubber mats, and send love vibrations to foreign and domestic terrorists.
      Stop all beheadings with hugs! 
    “Slowly breathe in and out. Picture a bearded ISIS terrorist then release the love energy.  Imagine them dropping all thoughts of bombs then watch as they place their hands in yours…..Show them the love!”
 Psychic says new world order will be up and running.
 Psychic says that after Donald Trump’s November loss, he will retire like Howard Hughes to a penthouse suite atop a large Las Vegas casino. There never will be a wall.  Prophet says the feeling of relief after Trump’s defeat will last five minuses because   Hillary’s dragons will surface.
 Psychic says very few will be counting their political blessings. 
  Psychic  says the system is rigged.  @copyright TFN 2016

Monday, July 25, 2016

                                             ICON Magazine Theater July 2016

    The Secret Garden (by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon and directed by Matt Pfeiffer) packed them at the Arden, proof of the popularity of fantasy escapism, But does this musical really work? The story of ten year old Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon), a cantankerous girl who is sent to live with her wealthy Uncle Archibald (Jeffrey Coon) after cholera claims her parents, Rose (Sarah Gliko) and Albert (James Stabp), has the perfect Disney ingredients: a haunted mansion, a secret garden, and a spoiled prince type, the shut-in son of Uncle Archibald, little Colin (Hudson Orfe), who thinks he’s growing a hunchback.  Mary’s life in the mansion is monitored by the strict house mistress, Mrs. Medlock, played to the dour hilt by Sally Mercer. Life changes for Mary when she discovers the key to the garden and Colin’s “off limits” bedchamber, where Archibald has him locked up because of his eerie resemblance to his deceased wife. While Ryon is believable as the contrarian Mary, her saucy attitude is so coquettish and unchildlike that even her technical polish— every line is delivered with robotic perfection—comes across as creepy. The story ends on a happy note when Mary manages to bring Colin back to health, proving that when misery meets misery, good things sometimes happen.   

   Playwright Lucas Hnath’s marvelous Hillary and Clinton at the Suzanne Roberts Theater closed out PTC’s 2015-16 season. While this satiric look at gender and power within the Clinton marriage is supposed to take place in an alternate universe, most everything that happens onstage would seem real to Clinton watchers. The washed out ex-prez (John Procaccino) is presented as a tired, bored-to-death retiree offering to help his wife (Alice M. Gatling) win the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Tension builds as the complex intricacies of their marriage surface. Hillary refuses Bill’s help campaigning but she’s conflicted, deferring to her mega-mouth, Bill-hating campaign manager Mark, adequately played by Todd Cerveris.  Gatling as Hillary is completely believable: she shows the right amount of stubbornness and independence while segueing into more vulnerable emotions, such as when she collapses on the hotel room bed after hearing that she won New Hampshire because Bill secretly campaigned for her.  Procassino’s Clinton captures the spirit of a man who has climbed life’s highest peak but who is now aimlessly wandering around the mountain’s base. The play is a potpourri of Hillary witticisms and Bill philosophizing,  the best being the latter’s admonition that Hillary needs to appear less cold and show the public just how warm and fuzzy she is on the inside.   

What was playwright Young Jean Lee thinking when she wrote Straight White Men (Interact Theatre Company)? The play’s title indicates she was thinking about race but only in a labeling sense, since the four men, Ed (Dan Kern) and his three sons, Jake (Tim Dugan), Drew (Kevin Meehan) and Matt (Steven Rishard) who celebrate Christmas together, are all white. The play’s straight label is also a misnomer because for race or sexuality to be framed this way there should be thematic follow up. The family banter that Lee creates might as well have been lifted from the movie, Animal House. All these immature sons do is slap one another around and dive into the furniture while laughing at their own jokes. The highpoint occurs when Matt bursts into tears, causing Drew to exclaim, “Is Matt gay?”  Of course he’s not gay; he’s just a depressed white straight guy, nothing that more diving into furniture and a dose of psychotropic drugs won’t cure. Inappropriate audience laughter throughout the performance got me thinking that it wasn’t Matt who needed psychotherapy, but the audience.   


  Sister Act at The Walnut Street Theatre might seem like a tired has been, but not this Riverside Theatre production, directed by Bernard Havard.  Here’s Broadway at its finest, an intense over the top razzle dazzle cacophony of song and dance that’s much funnier and better than the Whoopi Goldberg original. Havard gives it a Philadelphia setting, so we hear names Like Cardinal Krol and the Philadelphia Police Department. Dan’yelle Williamson as Deloris Van Cartier, the racy girl who goes undercover at Holy Angels Convent, has the talent of a Diana Ross, and the numerous singing and dancing nuns are as polished as The Rockettes at Rockefeller Center.              

Friday, July 8, 2016

When Howard Hughes Met My Grandfather

    I’m standing on Aramingo Avenue waiting for a bus when a guy passing on a bicycle skids to a stop in front of me. The stranger takes off his helmet and introduces himself: Anthony Campuzano, a Pew Fellow artist with work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and PAFA. He also tells me that he grew up in my grandfather’s house at 40 W. Albemarle Street in Lansdowne.  
  I do a double take and check to see if I’ve been struck by lightning.
   My grandfather, Frank V. Nickels was a Philadelphia architect of some note (his papers are archived at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia). He designed the house at 40 W.  Albermarle Street sometime in the early 1920s and sold the mansion to the Campuzano family shortly before his death in 1985. The mansion was a place I visited many times as a child. I can still recall its Old World charm: the museum style oil paintings, wall tapestries, hand carved Chinese furniture, a Steinway piano, shelves of books and an immense bust of Dante Alighieri on the high living room fireplace.      
   Anthony tells me he’s been trying to track me down for a while because he wants me to contribute to an exhibit, Beyond Cold Polished Stones, by artists with ties to Lansdowne, currently at the 20/20 House. I agree to send him photos of my grandmother in the living room of 40 West as well an original poem and some items related to my grandfather’s architectural practice.
     At the exhibit’s opening reception, I learn that one of the legends of 20th Century America visited my grandfather sometime in 1936 or ’37. The occasion was the negotiation of land rights for the proposed building of Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.
  Because my grandfather was hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to design Nazareth, he was asked to try to get an agreement of sale from the owner of the land. Without land rights, the hospital could not be built. 
   The owner of the land was the 6’4” tall Hollywood playboy and movie producer, Howard Hughes, who had made a name for himself in 1928 when his comedy, “Two Arabian Knights,” won an Oscar.  Hughes had also co-directed the 1930 film, “Hell’s Angels,” a film about WWI combat pilots starring Jean Harlow. Hughes’ inherited family wealth enabled him to buy all the combat planes used in the film. A natural daredevil and pilot himself, Hughes took part in the filmed combat dog fights in which 3 pilots died.  

    As Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, the handsome Hughes had had affairs with Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and many others. In later years he had the habit of collecting beautiful women with movie star aspirations. It was his habit to put them up in apartments or small houses while paying their rent and daily expenses. Initially Hughes may have shown a romantic interest in these women but over time this interest would wane. Hughes was content to call them once a month as he continued to send them checks, sometimes for years. He was also attracted to male stars like Cary Grant and Randolph Scott but this part of his life was kept secret, given the tenor of the times.  In 1939, two years after his meeting with my grandfather, he flew around the world and was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City.
   Let’s go back to 1937 when Hughes piloted his own plane to New York and then to Philadelphia’s Northeast Airport where my grandparents stood waiting for him on the tarmac. My grandmother, Pauline Clavey Nickels, a former opera singer from Wilmington, was probably wearing one of her big hats, and no doubt Frank was dressed in his herringbone best.

      When Hughes arrived, pleasantries were exchanged, and then the group went off to a meeting near the grounds of the proposed hospital. What was said then can only be imagined. No doubt Frank and Pauline were a little star struck, especially when Hughes accepted Frank’s offer to go back to 40 West so that he could have a look at his proposed hospital design.  
   I wonder if the group had lunch on the way to the mansion. Did Pauline ask about Rita Hayworth, or did Hughes inquire about the stern bust of Dante on Frank’s mantelpiece? Did Hughes let it slip that in two years he planned an around the world solo flight? What I do know is that both Howard Hughes and Frank Nickels were eccentrics (although grandfather was not mad), so I’m sure there was an instant bond.
   Frank, one of four brothers and a sister, was born in 1891 to William Bartholomew and Dorothy G. Nickels of Roxborough. As a young man he was already setting his own style: he had a penchant for getting his shirts dry cleaned and then carrying them on hangers on various local trolleys. In 1914, he graduated from Drexel with a diploma in architecture and after that he established architectural offices in Center City at 15 S. 21st Street, 225 S. Sydenham Street and later in the Land Title Building.  His concentration was industrial and commercial projects, as well as schools and churches for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and in the Reading area.

     Several years ago I had an opportunity to tour two of his buildings, 1521 Spruce Street and the Frances Plaza Apartments at 19th and Lombard Streets.  For many years Frank partnered with architect C.J. Mitchell, whose papers are also archived at the Athenaeum. Frank split with Mitchell when the latter challenged him in a bid to design a school for Saint Philomena School in Lansdowne. Somebody who knew grandfather told me that he never spoke to CJ again. 
     Frank and Pauline Nickels raised three children, Frank, Thomas C (my father), and Joan in the Albemarle mansion. Frank’s bonsai garden behind the mansion was so famous that local Cub Scout Packs would organize tours of the space.
   Both Hughes and Nickels were basically shy men with loner tendencies. My grandfather was not a joiner. As far as I know he never was a member of the Philadelphia AIA or the “must do” T Square Club, unlike CJ Mitchell who was a member of both. Both men had a difficult time controlling their tempers.
       At eight years of age while staying overnight at the mansion I was kissing my grandparents goodnight when grandfather suddenly pulled me close because he smelled something on my neck. That ‘something’ was grandmother’s talcum powder that I’d dusted myself with after my evening bath. Grandfather sat me down in a high backed medieval looking chair and proceeded to scold me for being “a sissy.” I didn’t know what a sissy was; I just knew that I liked talcum powder. I had never seen grandfather angry before. The event was so traumatic I was never able to rekindle an interest in talcum powder after that.
   When grandfather and Hughes met at 40 West, it’s possible that they reviewed the Nazareth plans in the dining room at the long table for 16 situated under a chandelier.  Grandfather’s drafting room was on the second floor overlooking the bonsai garden and carriage house, so perhaps he and Hughes retired there as Pauline played a few bars of Chopin on the Steinway downstairs.
   “Frank, I like your plans for Nazareth, I really do,” I can imagine Hughes saying. “The design is modern with a touch of art deco and I like the way the building meets the sky. There’s something about your design that reminds me of aviation. I’ll tell you what, Frank. I’m going to give the Archdiocese of Philadelphia this land for free. You can tell them that down at the Chancery…Now I’m going to fly off to one of my kept women on the west coast.”
     The truth is, Hughes admired the hospital plans so much he gifted the land to the Archdiocese at zero cost. Perhaps they sealed the deal with a drink, a toast of port or a round of straight up Manhattans whipped up by Pauline at the cocktail bar.
    Grandfather must have told this story at Sunday dinner parties or at Thanksgiving and Christmas years after Hughes had become a recluse, living as a hermit on top of the Desert Inn Hotel Casino in Las Vegas or jetting around the world to hole up in other darkened hotel rooms with his ten inch long fingernails, and long gray hair and beard resembling the monks on Mt. Athos.  
   What is amazing to me, however, is that not long after Hughes’ visit to 40 West he opened the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But before that, in 1935, he designed the H1 Silver Bullet, the world’s fastest racing airplane noted for its sleek modern look. As I checked out images of the H1, I couldn’t help but think how the plane eerily reminded me of Nazareth Hospital. How can a plane remind anyone of a hospital? Well, I can only conclude by saying that the plane had a sleek modern look that conjured up the “feeling” of art deco.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on Orlando

    It’s hard to know what you or I would do if confronted with a gunman in a crowded nightclub. Any decision about where to run or hide would be a complete game of chance. Predicting the trail of a killer, where he will turn and shoot next, would be impossible to gage, so in the end we’d only have our instincts, hoping against hope that where we chose to hide would be the one place the killer would not look.
   In many horrifying accounts of mass murders, there are always reports of people who pretend to be dead in order to fool the killer. But pretending to be dead takes a certain amount of risk. You pick a spot and you stay there, immobile, until the killer passes over you but one false move and it’s over.  
   If you run and hide in a bathroom, as many in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub did on the night of the killings, you risk penning yourself in a corner with no way out, hoping somehow that the killer will forget to check the stall where you are hiding. Since bathrooms generally only have one exit, this solution isn’t a good one. When a shooter is shooting there’s no time to debate the pitfalls of various hiding place. 
   Of course, if you had a gun, you might get lucky and pick off the killer but a revolver is no match for the Sig Sauer MCX-semi automatic assault rife that killer Omar Mateen used in his slaughter of 50 gay people and the maiming of 50 more in Orlando’s Pulse.  
        When Mateen began the shooting at Pulse he knew he’d be encountering people at a vulnerable time: at the end of a long drinking night when individual responses would be staggered or slow. As news reports indicate, as the shots rang out, patrons assumed they were a component of the music, a DJ improvisation. During the Paris massacre in 2015 at the Eagles of death Metal concert at the Bataclan, concert goers at first thought that the opening gunfire from the terrorists was fireworks or pyrotechnics. It took a couple of minutes before reality set in. By the end of that slaughter, 130 people had been killed, the largest public massacre death count in France since World War II. 
  The massacre in Orlando got me thinking of a lot of things. I thought of the big gay dance clubs I used to frequent with their erotically charged reverely and music, of jam packed dance floors where thoughts of violence and death were as far away as the Arctic Circle.
  I also thought of sudden death, and why it is that some say that it is the worst kind of death because it takes us unaware without time to pray, meditate or say good-bye to loved ones.   
   St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, an Orthodox saint who died in 1801, wrote that “death shows up like an unexpected thief and we do not know how or when he will visit us. He may appear today, at this hour, at this very moment and you, who woke up feeling fine, will not last until the evening, while you, who have reached the evening, may not wake up…Therefore, my brother, take heed and tell yourself: “If I die suddenly, what will become of the wretched old me? What would be my benefit even if I enjoy all the pleasures of the world?”
   The massacre also made me think of what a (now deceased) friend of mine was fond of saying: “Line them up and mow them down” whenever he talked about his political enemies. He was talking about mowing down members of the religious right, bigots who preached hate in the name of Christ, bigots who should not really call themselves Christian.  “Line them up and mow them down” had an offbeat forbidden ring to it although my friend was far from violent. Saying this for him was a kind of catharsis or personal exorcism.  

    I used to repeat my friend’s line myself line when feeling especially exasperated by certain groups of ignorant people.  Line them up and mow them down.  I’d laugh while saying this to offset the horrible sound of it. After Orlando, however, I’m through saying anything remotely like this again. 
   The aftermath of Orlando set off a series of political fights, of liberal vs. conservative, gun righters vs. 2nd amendment advocates, Trump vs. Sanders and Clinton supporters. Orlando hadn’t been in the news for five minutes before certain people started blaming Christians for the slaughter. The reason? Because two or three crazy ministers announced that they supported the jihadist Marteen who murdered 50 gay men and women at Pulse. Blaming Christians for Orlando is as absurd as blaming Tony Orlando and Dawn for the floods in Paris
    We also saw the antigun folks call for a ban on assault weapons as if banning assault weapons would make terrorism disappear. Jihadists, however, can just as easily don a suicide belt or “recycle” household items like gasoline or kerosene into fatal weapons.

  Assault weapons like the Sig Sauer MCX, however, do not belong on the open marketplace. Even Ronald Reagan (a man I do not admire) advocated their banishment except in the hands of the military. Assault weapons do not belong in the dens and kitchen cabinets of ordinary Americans.
    Next up was the Facebook wars over the Orlando massacre. These battles were disheartening to observe, mainly because of the polarizing opinions there.
    Some said that the massacre was caused by the easy access of assault weapons, while others blamed homophobia or radical Islam. It was the rare, intelligent commentator who put the blame on all three.   
     God forbid that a card carrying progressive should admit that Fox News might be right when it comes to fighting radical Islam. Just because Fox News is wrong 90 per cent of the time doesn’t mean it can’t score a bull’s eye on one or two issues. Neither the right nor the left are infallible sources when it comes to political solutions.  
     MSNBC, Buzzflash, Alternet and Salon. Com, all progressive news outlets, might be clueless when it comes to President Obma’s or western Europe’s immigration policies, but these sources get my vote every time when it comes to their opposition to tampering with Social Security and programs for the poor.
    Sadly, the “mow them down” mentality resigns supreme in America. The vitriol against Trump on Facebook is so thick that one can easily imagine an anti-Trumper edging towards violence.
  Obama haters are just as ferocious in their obsessive rage. Some of these postings on Facebook express the wish that some disastrous event would come along and end the Obama presidency. 
   As for the Omar Marteen, since the massacre it has come out that he was a frequent visitor to Pulse. There have even been reports that he picked men up there despite his marriage to Noor Salman. Gays are all too familiar with this type of man, the downlow covert guy who lives one life on the outside and a gay one on the inside. As I used to tell people, the numbers of men who live this way are far more numerous than the ordinary person could imagine. It is, in many ways, America’s biggest secret.
   While there’s nothing wrong with a healthy, questioning curious sexuality, in some men this secret life has adverse effects, especially when they hate themselves for what they’re doing.

     This rage, this self hatred of course might at any moment coalesce into violence, especially when fueled by religious fanaticism.
  This is why men who have nagging, persistent secret homosexual thoughts and fantasies they wish to get rid of are the ones who often lash out at gay men who feel comfortable in their own skin. In plain terms, the man who is always yelling “faggot” is somebody to watch out for and take note of. More often than not, this man is fighting repressed homosexual desires and putting on a show so that his friends and family will not suspect his secret desires.
   I experienced this on a Septa bus recently when a passenger, a male, lashed out at me as I pulled the cord for my bus stop. Perhaps I glanced at him too long when I boarded the bus at Front and Girard, but is this any reason to get upset?
    Whatever the reason, he yelled “pervert” as I got off the bus, then said it again. He wasn’t carrying a gun or a knife but he might have well been.
                  I gave him the finger, although even after I got off the bus he was still making hostile gestures through the window.  This fanatic would not stop.
                  He wasn’t Middle Eastern; he was just your run of the mill neighborhood dude in black athletic shorts… with a very bad attitude.