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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fish and Wildlife Service: Entrapment on the Beach

Philadelphians may choose to vacation in Atlantic or Ocean City, but nine times out of ten when someone in Philly says they are goin’ “down the shore,” they mean the beach at Wildwood, where all you have to do to meet a Philly neighbor is to take a walk on the boardwalk. Here you’ll find people from all over the city, but especially from the riverwards.

If you don’t drive, a New Jersey Transit bus will take you to Wildwood in about 3 hours time (an express bus will begin by the end of June). If you don’t like long bus rides that make at least forty stops en route—not to mention the lack of a bathroom on board—then you had better wait for the express service to start. My own pilgrimage to Wildwood began Friday a week ago at 8:35 pm. There were 12 people on the bus, most of them going to one of the many little Jersey towns nowhere near Wildwood.

Though my trip was well after Memorial Day, Wildwood seemed pretty much of a ghost time when the bus pulled into the station at about midnight, and when I made my way to one of the Yellow Cabs parked nearby.

Despite the wonderful ocean breeze, reality set in fast when I realized that economic hard times have forced businesses in Wildwood to get money anyway they can.

“I have to tell you,” the cab driver said, catching my eye through the rear view mirror, “that we are charging extra for bags or suitcases.” Disbelief fell like a dark shadow over my seashore optimism. In my mind I drew the obvious comparisons with the airlines’ new baggage fees, then asked the cabbie what she’d do if one of her customers had an oversized bible or purse. “I wouldn’t charge for that,” she smiled, “but… if the purse was big enough, well…”

Walking the boards the next day I saw far too many empty pizza and ice cream parlors with distraught looking vendors staring at passersby. Large signs advertising 2 for 1 or “buy one get one free” competed with loudspeaker pleas to buy new flavors of Polish Water Ice. The game people, megaphones in hand, supplied endless commentary on the glories of winning an $85.00 sports jersey.

I stopped in at the local McDonald’s and noticed that it was staffed with Eastern European teenagers—Russians and Serbs especially—replacing what was once a summer job for mostly Irish kids. The bigger Wildwood restaurants employ mostly Mexicans, some legal and some not. The Mexican influx into Wildwood has been building for years. English is only one of many languages now spoken in this once predictable, monochrome “white bread” community.

Many of Wildwood’s famous Doo Wop motels have been replaced by McMansion-style hotels with zero architectural character. These cookie-cutter monstrosities, built during the height of the real estate bubble, now stand empty, thanks to the recession. To my mind, the McMansion hotels give the town a tacky Miami flavor (Miami, in fact, has often been referred to as a mix of Manhattan and Wildwood).

The little cottage in the Crest where I stayed was built in the early 1940s and has a definite 1950s retro décor. Up the street is the Doo Wop Astronaut Motel, built at the beginning of the US Space program, and near that is the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon-inspired Beach Colony Motel. Closer to the beach is a new McMansion monstrosity built on the site of a fabulous Doo Wop hotel that was once the talk of the town. The new structure calls to mind the deserted back lot buildings at MGM’s Universal Studios. It had no tenants as far as I could tell.

I couldn’t help but notice all the half empty and closed motels. During the cold weather months a sight like this makes sense, but on a warm, seaweed scented night, the effect can only be described as eerie.

Welcome to The Twilight Zone, folks.

“So where are all the people?” I asked a check out clerk at the Wildwood Acme.
“Come back in two weeks when school’s out and you won’t be able to move,” she said. “It’ll fill up.”

But not according to one Wildwood friend, who told me that the town has never been this empty during the first week of June.

So where were all the Philadelphians?

Were they still in Philly watching the Flyers, or were they reeling from pain and laying low, like I was, after being hit with a $100.00 ticket for walking on the wrong beach, namely the National Wildlife Refuse beach currently under the surveillance of the Fish and Wildlife Service?

I won’t get into what happened-- that’s for when I contest the ticket before a judge-- but I’ll tell you one thing: I wish I had stayed home and gone to Penn Treaty Park instead!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Deen Kogan, First Lady of Philadelphia Theater (from The Weekly Press)

Deen Kogan: the first lady of Philadelphia theater

There are many wannabe First Ladies of the Philadelphia Theater World, but only one really deserves the title. She’s no steely-eyed grand dame with an uppity cadre of followers who imagine themselves as theater elitists. This humble, hard working, unpretentious First Lady of Philadelphia Theater is also a nice person and plenty easy to talk to.

Her name is Deen Kogan. No doubt you’ve seen her about town, her diminutive frame passing almost unnoticed among taller women with dramatic wrap-around scarves who seem to move from one group to the next with the ease of lead characters in movies. Deen Kogan, who together with her (now deceased) husband, Jay Kogan, started Society Hill Playhouse some 50 years ago, is one of those people I imagine it’s easy to take for granted. But way before there was a swank Suzanne Roberts Theater, or a glitzy wiggly neon Wilma, there was Deen and Jay down at 507 South 8th Street, putting on hundreds of premier productions like Jean Genet’s The Blacks, Marat/Sade, The Changing Room, Mother Courage and The Threepenny Opera.
Deen and Jay Kogan were "Philadelphia Theater" long before everybody and their grandmother jumped into the act. They bought what later became the Society Hill Playhouse in 1959, when the South Street area was anything but a Philly Style magazine photo op.

"The building was built in the early 1900s. It was originally a beneficial Hall, where weddings, parties and Bar Mitzvah’s took place. It was used for many other things over the years. During the WPA era it was used as a theater, and somewhere along the line it became a mattress factory," Ms. Kogan told me by telephone. Through the years the building went through more changes than a woman beset by Menopause (one of Society Hill Playhouse’s most successful productions) or an American nun trying to decide which religious habit fashion trend to follow (Nunsense was another famous SHP hit, running some many years).

"When Jay and I got the building all the copper had been stripped out. It had been a Bingo Church with a Catholic priest and a gorgeous altar upstairs that took six men to carry out. We searched for two years for this building but it would take another year to make it suitable for audiences," Ms. Kogan added.

The Kogan’s had friends help them spruce up the place—one project was painting the men’s room. After that they received a $5,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which enabled them to begin a street theater project. This was no Prima Donna enterprise ("Introducing the dramaturge, ladies and gents!"), but involved a huge flatbed truck with a company that went into every Philadelphia neighborhood with original shows, "designed," as Ms. Kogan told me, "for both children and adults," an almost impossible thing to do under the best of circumstances. "People used to say, if you rode with me on that truck you’d come to know the city by the police stations and the bakeries," Ms. Kogan added with a laugh. Although these were the tumultuous 1960s during the time of the Martin Luther riots, the Kogan’s flat bed theater truck was a model of racial integration.

"You always remember the good and the bad," Ms. Kogan reflected, remembering the last truck production that took place at 5th Street near Synder. What began as a show that caused a woman to dance in the street evolved into a spectacle where suddenly it seemed as if the dancer wasn’t wearing any underwear. With the audience’s attention diverted, an actor on the truck shouted through a megaphone, "Are you going to look at her or are you going to look at us?" With the audience back on track (or so we assume) - thanks to two women who gave the South Philly Salome a candy bar - things got back to normal. "That quieted things," Ms. Kogan told me. "It was kind of sad, but we resumed the show and that was that."

Philadelphia was not a theater town when SHP opened its doors, although there were the pre-Broadway theaters like the Forrest and the Walnut. After WWI came the burgeoning of Community Theater; the close of WWII saw the birth of regional theater.
"After WWII women could direct and produce plays," Ms. Kogan said, "but when I was a girl you had one female director of note in the country. After the war many people came back but didn’t want to go to New York to get involved in theater."

The derelict Society Hill area in those days was perceived as unsafe. Even today Ms. Kogan says that the theater sometimes gets calls from people in Merion or Cherry Hill, asking if the theater is in a safe neighborhood. "We’d usually ask them, ‘Where do you live?’, and then when they’d tell us, we’d say, ‘Well, it’s just as safe as where you live,’" Ms. Kogan said.

Those early days still evoke special memories. She recalls the time when the theater was named the Playhouse Village, when rehearsals would be accompanied by barbecues on Bradford Alley, a small street with derelict houses, just behind the theater. Ms. Kogan’s stories are enough to fill a short volume. "One of my actors was a bartender at Dirty Frank’s, and sometimes I’d call there and say, ‘Send him over, it’s almost curtain time!’"

Ms. Kogan will tell you stories about long-deceased Evening Bulletin and Philadelphia Inquirer theater critics. The Inquirer’s Henry Murdock was "a love of a man. Guys and Dolls was his style," Ms. Kogan said. "He’d come and shake his finger at me and say, ‘I’ve done my homework!’" The Bulletin’s Ernest Shier, once a household name, gave a terrible review to one of SHP’s plays, Crime on Goat Island which Ms. Kogan admits was "not a good production. We went out to dinner a week later and I said to Ernie, ‘Why the devil did you write that dreadful review?’ and he told me, ‘Because it should have been so much better!’" Mr. Shier, who died 5 years ago in New York, had been active with the Eugene O’Neil project in Connecticut.
Most of the people who go to SHP today are from outlying regions like Delaware, the suburbs, and New Jersey. Only two shows attracted a mostly Center City audience, School House Rock Live, and Menopause.

It’s unlikely that Society Hill Playhouse would be what it is today without the help of her husband, Jay. Ms. Kogan met Jay on her first day in Philadelphia, after a transfer from Northwestern University to Temple. Jay was in the same acting class. Ms. Kogan says that she took one look at him and knew he’d be her future husband. "I called my mother after class and told her that I’d just met my future husband," she said, adding that Mom visited two weeks later to sneak a peek at the man, though Jay remained clueless as to the nature of the visit.
The couple went to grad school together, then to Europe for a year and even lived in New York for a short time. "Jay was a WWII prisoner of war, and he was very ill. He stood 6 feet tall but came out of prison camp weighing 90 pounds. He transferred to Temple when he was better," she said.

Deen and Jay Kogan have been honored with a Special Barrymore Recognition Award by the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of Society Hill Playhouse. The award was announced at the annual Membership Meeting and Press Conference announcing the nominations for the 2009 Barrymore Awards. Audiences at the official awards ceremony in October, 2009 had the privilege of seeing Ms. Kogan walk on stage and take her bows.

"We are pleased to recognize Deen Kogan and her husband Jay Kogan for their pioneering vision of a theatre community for Philadelphia and their ongoing commitment to that vision. As an arts institution functioning as much more than a presenter of plays, Society Hill Playhouse has encouraged interaction from Philadelphians, not only as spectators but in every aspect of making theatre, reinforcing Society Hill Playhouse’s expanding role in the community," said Taylor Williams, Chair of the Barrymore Oversight Committee.

SHP’s official anniversary party was held in October, 2009. "We decided not to have a formal evening," the ever unpretentious Ms. Kogan said. "Anyone can drop in, have a drink and help us cut the anniversary cake."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Judson Hale


(From The Weekly Press, Decmber 2009)

I’m sitting with Judson Hale, the 13th (but now semi-retired) editor of the Old Farmers Almanac. We are squirreled away in a back corner of Port Richmond’s Hinge Café. It’s lunch time and the place is crowded. Mr. Hale is a tall, quintessential New England Yankee—white hair, lean, angular face, a ready smile. He’s finishing up an egg breakfast sandwich when I make my arrival.

George Washington used to read the Old Farmers Almanac, so I’m sitting with the ringleader of the most famous American publication ever. The Almanac was founded in 1792. Its world famous weather predictions have over a sixty-five percent accuracy rate. Abraham Lincoln once used the Almanac, as a defense attorney, in an Illinois murder trial. The United States banned the publication for a time during World War II.

Ask many people about the Old Farmers Almanac and they’ll tell you, “What exactly is it anyway?”

“Our endeavor is to be useful but with a pleasant degree of humor,” Mr. Hale tells me, “and that has not changed.”

In a country where change has become a moral imperative, the Almanac is an oddity. “It’s also been lucky,” Mr. Hale says, who joined Yankee Publishing Inc. in 1958 as an assistant editor but who became managing editor of both the Almanac and Yankee Magazine in 1970, then Editor-in-Chief of both publications in 2000.

The Almanac has been in the Hale family since the 1930s, when Mr. Hale’s uncle, a tall man who resembled Abraham Lincoln, became the 11th editor.

“My uncle, or my mother’s brother, has always been sort of odd, so when I went there in 1958, I was meeting him for the first time. I worked with my uncle for 12 years.”

Mr. Hale calls that mentorship “a wonderful time.”

“For over 20 years the content of the Almanac has not changed radically, but if you looked at issues at the turn of the 19th century, they would be very different, more local, noting vacations of the local colleges like Dartmouth and Harvard,” he said. “Oftentimes during vacation students would come and work on the farm….Well, there are few farms anymore.”

The 1800’s era editions of the Almanac weren’t all that interesting, he adds, noting that in the last twenty years “we really put a lot of wonderful writers in it.”

“The rough translation of Almanac is a calendar of the Heavens, and a calendar is annual. It’s always been an annual. It’s the oldest continuously published periodical in North America,” he adds, emphasizing that the Almanac never gets into politics. “As far as sex and religion go, if it’s extreme, we’d steer clear of it. We can make a little fun of sex, but we can’t make fun of religion.”

The 256-page Almanac used to be a humble 65 pages in 1958. The traditional punched hole in the Almanac’s upper left hand corner is for wall display, just like any calendar. “It costs us $42,000 a year to punch this hole. One year when I recommended that we save money by not punching it, I got hundreds of letters saying ‘Don’t do it,’” Mr. Hale said.

In the past the Almanac has advertised returnable (if they don’t fit) false teeth for $100; glass eyes that do not rotate like a real pupil but which can be ordered in different colors ($50.00) Former President Jimmy Carter once advertised how to raise fish worms in the Almanac’s classified section. Pre-Viagra pills were sold as Rooster pills.

What’s big in the Almanac these days is gardening, food (recipes, etc.), astronomy, and what Mr. Hale calls “tuning into nature.”

There are, of course, the famous weather forecasts.

“The secret formula for weather forecasts has to do with sunspots. Right now we are into Sunspot cycle 24. It is very, very quiet, and there are few sunspots. Whenever it’s been quiet sunspot-wise for a long time, it’s been very cool,” he says.

So, expect a cold winter with above average snowfall in January and February 2010.

Besides the secret sunspot formula, Mr. Hale says his staff “uses the most modern, high tech information” for accurate weather forecasts.

The Almanac’s 1816 editor, Robert B. Thomas, who used sunspots to predict the weather for 1816, wrote that it would snow throughout the summer. “He became a laughing stock,” Mr. Hale said, “so he tried to get all the copies off the newsstands, destroying everything he could, and had the Almanac reprinted. He remained the laughing stock till late spring when Mt. Tabora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) erupted one hundred times bigger than Mt. Saint Helen’s, and the dust from Mt. Tabora circled the globe causing 1816 to be “the summer of no summer.”

And it did snow in New England.

The Almanac’s astronomical/lunar forecast for November 22, 1963, the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination, stated that there would be two moons, a highly unusual occurrence and one that the writer described this way” “Night is coming on, and murder perhaps.”

“I knew the writer of that piece,” Mr. Hale recalls. “He was a literary farmer who went to Harvard. This prediction generated thousands of calls.”

In 1943, a German U-boat landed on Long Island. The boat’s operator some how made to New York’s Penn Station, where he was apprehended by the FBI. “When they searched him they found a 1943 or 1944 edition of the Almanac in his pocket,” Mr. Hale said. “They felt the Germans were using the Almanac to see what the weather would be like over here, so they banned it. The Germans were using the Almanac not for weather but they wanted to know about the tides.”

In 1857, Abraham Lincoln used the Almanac in his role as defense attorney for a man accused of killing somebody at 11:30 at night. “Lincoln was a friend of the family of the accused, the Armstrong’s, and when the prosecution produced a witness who said they saw the accused strike the victim ‘by the light of the moon,’ Lincoln turned to the Old Farmers Almanac and read, “On August 29, 1857, the moon rides low,’ meaning there wouldn’t have been enough light to see,” Mr. Hale says.

Unfortunately, Lincoln had a guilty man acquitted, for on his deathbed, the accused admitted to the murder.

Being the Editor-in-Chief of the oldest publication in America means a lot of television and radio exposure. “I used to do 3 weeks of PR all over the country, six or seven shows a day, when the new Almanac was published in June. It was exhausting and tiring. I was on the Today Show and Prime Time for years. Media has changed now. But I did 14 years of Conan O’Brien. I liked the man but a couple of times I wouldn’t do what they asked me to do. Conan had this guy dressed in a stuffed bear costume and it was the masturbating bear. I was in a skit where I was to talk about the masturbating bear, but I couldn’t say that. So I changed it, and of course it made the skit fall flat. Instead of masturbating I said, ‘masticating bear.’”

When Mr. Hale’s appearance on the Good Morning America show was cancelled because of breaking news—the death of Pope John XXIII—he was booked three months later, but that visit had to be cancelled too because the new Pope, John Paul I, had also died.

“It was strange how I was perceived as I was doing all of those things. In Portland, Oregon television I was the third guest. The first guest took off a red T-shirt and played America the Beautiful on a harmonica; the second guest was the tallest woman in the world, 7’9” tall, taller than Wilt Chamberlain. At the conclusion of the night I wondered, ‘Is there a message in that grouping? And if so, what’s the message?”

Mr. Hale is the author of “The Education of a Yankee” and “inside New England.” He lives in Dublin, New Hampshire with his wife, the former Sally Huberlie of Rochester, New York.

Wildwood: Beware the Fish and Wildlife Service (Story Coming)

"Americans only think they're free. It's an illusion. We are slowly becoming
a police state." A reporter for The Atlantic City Press

Story coming.... stay tuned.

Mary Ann Mitchell and Elmo Smith

I have neighbors who like to say, “Be careful” whenever I leave my house and head into Center City. The cautionary words annoy me. They annoy me because they seem to suggest that, unlike the brawny home improvement contractor around the corner, I need to take special precautions whenever I travel city streets, as if my legs were made of paper Mache and I had a collapsible bone structure like a mouse.

Since I’m normally polite, I accept these words of caution while realizing, on a deeper level, that anything at any moment can happen to anybody, whether male or female, brawny contractor, Mouse, thug, or Popeye without his spinach.

The tragic murder of Northern Liberties waitress Sabina Rose O’Donnell, 21, brought this home to me in a big way. Here we have a well-liked city girl riding her bike home from a friend’s house late at night, and she’s attacked and killed outside her stepfather’s home. The random senselessness of this act leaves one speechless. No words, no collection of candles or teddy bears, no flower gardens in the victim’s honor, can ever begin to get the mind to understand why someone would do this to another human being.

The act, in fact, is so far “out there” as to fit in with one of Malachi Martin’s case scenarios of demonic possession in Hostage to the Devil.

Besides reminding us that truly evil people exist, the O’Donnell tragedy is a reminder that hip, gentrified areas of the city are not immune to crimes of this nature. In fact, there are still many undeveloped, unlighted and rather dilapidated looking back lot areas of Northern Liberties where even a brawny contractor type wouldn’t venture. It’s also true that gentrification, which is a slow patchwork process at best, comes with a price: these neighborhoods offer more lucrative targets for crime.

In this post-feminist age, when nobody questions a woman’s right to come and go like a man—riding a bicycle after midnight or walking alone at night down a deserted street--we sometimes forget that while society may have made equality leaps “on paper,” the reality on the street is much different.

“During the first suffragette wave in this nation, women were possessions, like a table or a chair. So violence toward them was quite condoned,” Gloria Steinman once wrote. While this type of violence is no longer officially condoned, there should be no false sense of security that random violence against women is a thing of the past.

One has only to read the story of Natalee Holloway and Joran van der Sloot, or the Kimberly Ernest/ Center City jogger murder of 1995, to understand why, in the city at least, life can be a little different for women than it is for men.

On my own street, there are women who choose not to venture out alone at night, even if it is to go to the local Wawa. If a walk outside is a necessity after a certain late hour, women here will buddy with a friend or family member.

As a man, it’s hard for me to relate to this kind of “confinement.”
So, here’s the question: Has the world changed? Has it really become more dangerous? I think it has, but violence against women is nothing new.

I’m reminded of one of Philadelphia’s most horrendous murder stories.

In 1959, the city was rocked by the murder of a sixteen year old Manayunk schoolgirl, Mary Ann Mitchell. Mitchell, a sophomore at Cecelian Academy, had just left friends where they’d gone to see the movie, South Pacific. Mitchell was standing on Henry Avenue waiting for a bus when she was apprehended by a handyman named Elmo Smith. The next day, Mitchell’s body was found by a roadside in Montgomery County just outside the city limits. Smith was convicted of raping and murdering Mitchell and spent a couple years on Death Row in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary before execution in the electric chair on April 2, 1962.

Mitchell’s murder sent a shiver throughout the city. Young women were suddenly afraid to walk alone or even wait for a bus. As an elementary school student, I was so affected by the murder that I listened by the radio as Smith’s electrocution hour approached.

Perhaps the words “Be careful” aren’t so annoying after all, even if all the care the world is sometimes…not enough.

Thom Nickels

The new America: Prelude to the Downfall

I recently took a road trip Amtrak to Albany, New York, for business. I was relieved to be traveling by Amtrak because I find flying somewhat stressful. Airports, no matter when you travel, are always crowded, so I was looking forward to the relative leisure of the train.

From my house on Mercer Street in Fishtown I cabbed it to 30th Street Station, an architectural landmark of major proportions. Built during the Great Depression, the Art Deco interior design has always made me feel good about travel. The immense high ceilings, the lighting, and even the food court makes waiting for a train much more pleasurable than being stuck in a confined security space in an airport.

Like most Philadelphians, I tend to take the grandeur of 30th Street for granted. Opened in 1934, the original station included a chapel, a mortuary and 3,300 square feet of hospital space, not to mention a small landing strip on the roof for small aircraft.

The station is also famous for Walker Hancock’s 1950 bronze sculpture of the Archangel Michael (“The Angel of Mercy” statue), a memorial to Pennsylvania Railroad employees who died in World War 11.

In the train from Philadelphia to New York City, I had a seat to myself, but that would change once I changed trains for Albany.

Although New York’s Penn Station was the original inspiration for 30th Street Station, the interior of Penn Station today is nothing like its Philadelphia counterpart. Drop ceilings in the style of Philadelphia’s Suburban Station cover a labyrinth of corridors that zig zag among departure and arrival points, while the central departure point for interstate trains is a tight, almost claustrophobic space in comparison to 30th Street’s wide expanse. Whatever beauty Penn Station may have on the outside has been lost with interior modernization. Being in Penn Station is like being in Philadelphia’s Gallery Mall when packed with 5,000 people.

The ride to Albany from NYC was a mob scene. Boarding the train I wasn’t sure that I’d find a seat, despite the $75.00 one way ticket. In the world of train travel, people like to claim seats for themselves, spreading out laptops and newspapers and arranging their bodies in a “lounge” position so they have an optimum of leg room. This may be the ideal way to travel, but in a world already too crowded, if you board a train while en route finding a seat can be an unpleasant experience. It doesn’t help that Amtrak seems to overbook besides limiting the number of passenger cars.

En route to Albany I sat with a huge New York state Democratic committee returning from a field trip to Washington DC. Leg space was on the order of your average sardine can. If you moved your elbow the wrong way, you poked your seat mate in the ribs.

I won’t go into my stay in Albany, other than to say that I met some fellow Fishtowners in the B&B. Albany has a lot to recommend it, and it’s a city I could call home, but that’s another story.

The return trip to Philadelphia got rid of any illusions I had concerning the romance of train travel. Everybody, it seems, is now opting to forgo flying for the mythical benefits of Amtrak. The train that left Albany came from Boston, so finding a seat, once again, was a major challenge. On that ride I sat with a hung over college kid returning home from a friend’s two day wedding spectacular, and on the other side of the aisle two young women were busy handing out Bible tracts. Upon arrival in Penn Station, NYC, the scene was pure chaos. Some passengers opted to sit in a ticketed waiting room, but the vast majority chose to sit on the floor of the station in front of the train departure board. On the floor large groups of people ate sandwiches and drank soda Third World-style, something that would never be permitted at 30th Street Station. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman with mental problems could be heard shouting a litany of obscenities as military guards with guns patrolled the area, and police officers with dogs made their way among the throngs.

Nowhere did I see an information booth for lost and confused Amtrak travelers—thank you, Philadelphia, for providing one in 30th Street—but there was a very large Police booth. The officer on duty, who could not answer traveler’s questions, was busy reading a novel.
I waited for the train to Philly for almost 2 hours, and when it finally came, it was more crowded than the Orient Express.

Arriving, finally, in 30th Street Station, I almost kissed the ground before going off to find a cab.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My visit to Woodmont, Gladwyne, PA to meet Mother Divine

Noel Miles and I were invited to the monthly Sunday banquet at Woodmont. We had a meeting with Mother Divine in the French Gothic "castle" on a 73-acre estate in Montgomery County. Woodmont will be included in the book Mr. Miles and I are working on.
Watch for a story about this meeting...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ann Crumb: The Interview (from ICON Magazine, June 2010)

I’m sitting with Broadway diva, Ann Crumb, in her parents’ home in Media, Pennsylvania. This isn’t just any home. Beside me is Ann’s father, George Crumb, the famous composer of modern music, and the winner of two CHECK Grammy Awards. On the other side of the room is George’s wife, Liz, who’s just finished carrying a basket of laundry up from the basement. In front of me three, no four, large dogs playfully run circles around one another.

There’s no pretension in this house of celebrity. Ann, dressed in a pair of jeans with her long hair arranged like the young Katherine Hepburn’s, is completely relaxed.

“Now, now,” she says to one of the dogs, “Stop it. No! I said No!” A huge dog sniffs my trouser leg. “Nice dog,” I say, glancing down at my notes which spell out in Western Union code: A Crumb, Broadway debut, 1987, Broadway companies of Chess, Aspects of Love, Les Miserables and Anna Karenina (Best Actress Tony nomination). Toured in the title role in Evita; roles in ‘As the World Turns,’ ‘The Guiding Light,’ ‘Another World,’ and ‘Law and Order.’

Then there are her recordings, “A Broadway Diva Sings” with the Harry Allen orchestra, and her numerous collaborations and recordings with her father, such as her role as lead soprano when she appeared with Dad at the Kimmel Center in the fall of 2009 on occasional of his 80th birthday.

Given the George Crumb legacy, I ask Ann if it was easy for her to break into show business.

“I never mentioned my father because, you know, you didn’t want to say, ‘I’m somebody’s daughter,’ she tells me. “But people in the theater world didn’t know Dad’s work, but now they do. Now that I’ve established my own career, I tell everybody.”

That career, by the way, includes a singing voice that The New York Times once described as one that “can harden in a moment from molten to hard steel.”

In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Aspects of Love,’ Crumb sang the part of sexy French actress Rose Vibert, whose romantic entanglements cover a 17-year period. Up to that point Crumb hadn’t sung jazz but that changed when she met producer Robert W. Schachner, who got her to record “A Broadway Diva Sings” in the Florida Keys. Today, Crumb is easily one of the best female jazz vocalists in the business, no small accomplishment from one who came relatively late to the world of singing.

“Growing up, I heard all those great singers, but it was different sounds. I didn’t sing, I was really a ‘straight’ actress. Then when I finally heard the CD of ‘Evita’—the show was just closing on Broadway—I wanted to play her dramatically, so I said I’ve got to study singing so I can play her.”

Study, she did. She arranged to be mentored by internationally acclaimed American voice teacher Bill Shuman, but says it was a while before she got into the swing of singing. “I was too shy about it. I still have a terrible problem with shyness. I still think of myself as an actress, not a singer.”

I reminded her that she didn’t seem all that shy when I saw her perform her father’s work at the Kimmel.

“That’s because I’m an actress,” she explained, laughing, correcting one of the dogs again.
Crumb’s recent performance as Maria Callas in Terrance McNally’s ‘Master Class’ at the Media Theater caused Howard Shapiro of ‘The Philadelphia Inquirer’ to write, “You can call Ann Crumb, simply, Divine. She must be channeling La Divina, who died in 1977. Ann Crumb’s Maria Callas is direct, demonstrative, devastating.”

Ann Crumb, in fact, is a little like a “democratic grassroots” version of Callas. She’s played in big theaters before huge audiences, and she’s done hometown-style performances where recognized Divas don’t normally tread.

At the time of this interview, Crumb was memorizing Callas’ lines for ‘Master Class,’ and recounted, with some hilarity, how she once forgot the words “I’ll Cry for You Argentina,” when she starred in ‘Evita.’ She admitted to forgetting lines when she sings.

“With singing, even if it’s something I’ve done for a year, all of a sudden I’ll go, ‘Oh, I forget the words to it.’ It’s a horrible feeling when you go completely blank because the music keeps going. It’s not like a play where you can kinda say, ‘I’ll take a walk around the block,’—no, you have to ride, you have to make up lyrics that ride if you can,” she says, talking quickly like a fire that keeps building.

The night she forgot the lines to ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina,’ she says she was standing there on the balcony with the whole cast looking at her. The fatal mistake occurred when she substituted the word ‘hard’ for ‘strange’ during the song’s opening line, “It won’t be easy, you’ll think it rather strange.” The second she uttered the word ‘hard’ she says she forgot the rest of the song. “I then made all the lines after that up as the cast below is looking up at me not believing that I’d forgotten all the words.”

These days Crumb divides her time between Media and New York City. “She likes it in Media best,” Liz jokes, the family’s West Virginia accent still very much in evidence, “but it’s only because of the free meals.” A little later in the afternoon, when a family friend popped in to say hello (and to make everyone present a large Caesar salad), Crumb chatted about subletting her beautiful New York apartment—a former church with Gothic arches and glass stained windows—and her memories of living in Boulder, Colorado with her parents, a place the Crumb family insists is one of the best small towns in America. Having lived in Boulder myself, getting the Diva to open up about her life there was easy. She told me where to find wild horses in the foothills of Boulder’s Rocky Mountains, as well as her impressions of the infamous JonBenet Ramsey house: “It’s a beautiful mini-mansion, really quite spectacular with big fences and gardens, but it keeps getting sold. It’s like the people get in there and something chases them out.”

In between singing and acting gigs, Crumb loves hanging out with her dogs. In Media, she gets to romp with them in the Crumbs’ spacious backyard.

“I’ve always had a special love for dogs. I think I was a daschund in a past life, I certainly have the nose for one,” she laughs, explaining how she once arranged a 53 dog lift from 10 Kill shelters in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. This particular mission, she says, was conducted during an ice storm, and involved transport trucks with one truck going into a ditch and an unheated van filled with puppies.

As coordinator of this vast enterprise, she had to arrange for the transfer of dogs and puppies into other vans and trucks in a Chicago parking lot, and then supervise the release of 40 excited dogs, after the long journey east, into her parents’ house. The ever resilient Crumb happened to have a concert the same night that the first transport of puppies arrived in Media.

“While they were running around the house, I literally ran in the bathroom, threw on some makeup, threw on a gown and walked out, sang at the concert, left, and came back. And when I got back the truck had arrived with all the big dogs. They were flying around the yard; it was pouring buckets of rain. But it really worked out well. They all have homes now.”

Nine of the digs were placed in Pennsylvania, and the rest found homes in New Hampshire.

“I always say I’m never going to work again,” she tells me, flipping her hair back so that I can see her face is anything but daschund-like. “It’s a huge and expensive job just to get a job with auditions and training.”

She’s obviously talking about finding work after Master Class.

“There’s an old saying in the theater that there are these cycles. There’s one cycle where you are desperate to get a job, then you hear that you got the job, so you have a few exciting days where you say, ‘I got the job!’ but then either the job fails, the show bombs or you’re killed in the press. Then you’re really upset and have to stick it out till the show’s over. If not that, you get bored and say, ‘Boy, I wish I had a different job.’ The next thing you know you’re out of work and you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to find a job!’”

The saving grace in all of this, she says, are those first few days of jubilation after being hired. “That feeling is unbelievable!”