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Saturday, May 11, 2013

April 2013 City Beat Column, ICON Magazine

Participation in a paid focus group used to be relatively easy with just a few quirks along the way. Focus groups are opinion forums where participants are paid for their thoughts and opinions about a wide variety of products and services.

One of the largest Center City-based focus groups is Focus Point Global.

It’s not unusual for FPG subscribers to answer 150 to 200 online screeners per year to determine eligibility for a 3 to 4 hour session that can pay upwards of 75 to 150 dollars. In a down economy, subscribers generally try to “out trick” FPG’s eligibility screeners, even if 90 percent of these pre-qualifying questionnaires ask applicants if they work (or have ever worked) in TV, radio or print journalism. A ‘yes’ answer in this case is an instant disqualifier, as the corporations who pay FPG to conduct the surveys don’t want journalists in their focus groups.

A similar thing happens when it comes to serving on juries. A Yes answer to one eligibility question-- Are you a journalist?-- will likewise guarantee an automatic rejection.

Want to get out of jury duty? Tell the attorney in charge that you’re a journalist. Watch and see how fast they run.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to state: journalists need not apply?

Tarnished Sidewalk Plaques

Let’s here it for Philadelphia’s Walk of Fame!

That mantra sounded big in 1987 when the Philadelphia Music Alliance put into action its plan to create a Walk of Fame along the Avenue of the Arts. The idea then was to install in the sidewalk commemorative bronze plaques with the names of famous-born Philadelphians who made it big in the music world. Developed as an idea of the Philadelphia Music Alliance, a community-based, non-profit organization founded in 1986, the first plaque inductees included Philadelphia greats like Marian Anderson, Mario Lanza, Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith and Chubby Checker.

For a decade at least, the South Broad Street plaques were shiny and bright. With every new inductee there were parties, photo ops, champagne toasts and gala dinners.

The last Walk of Fame commemoration in bronze was in June 2010 when The Tonight Show’s band leader, Kevin Eubanks, was awarded a plaque. Since then the Walk of Fame has gone the way of Philadelphia’s abandoned and boarded up houses:

It has become the Walk of Neglect.

A good many of the plaques are partially sunken in cement or so dirty and corroded it makes you wonder if anybody in the city even cares about these bronzes anymore. Gone also are the parties, the plaque galas, the on site photo ops.

In the 1990s there’d be periodic “Star dust” cleaning parties where music celebrities and others would lend a hand scrubbing grime off the various plaques. Parties like this are no more, which may be indicative of either a change in PMA’s financial priorities or a change in the way the normal citizen perceives celebrity.

Our age is the age of instantaneous celebrity when people expect to become famous for nothing. A musician working for decades may not achieve the star power of a silicone lipped reality TV bit player who happens to catch the eye of a lascivious producer. So yes, the nature of celebrity has changed: A square sidewalk star has become a cheap thing, indeed.

Traditional Catholic Liturgical Art

What’s a nice Jewish couple like Roberta and Richard Huber doing collecting 17th century Latin American Catholic art? Richard began his career at the First National Bank of Boston but later relocated to Buenos Aires (where there’s always been a large Jewish community) with his wife, Roberta in 1962. The couple decided to purchase local sculptures and paintings that interested them—mostly Catholic iconographic or Spanish and Portuguese Colonial Art. They say they bought only what interested them with no thought of where an item stood on the art hierarchy scale. That artistic intuition has resulted in the transformation of the Exhibition Gallery at PMS’s Perelman Building into a small basilica. The timing, of course, blends well with that other “Argentine” event in the city of Rome: the election of a pope who was known to join with local Jews in Buenos Aires to celebrate Hanukkah. Viewing the plethora of startling silver, ivory and wood masterpieces--most imported to Latin America at the bequest of patrons-- we were reminded of the Museum’s The Arts in Latin America exhibit in 2006, organized by Joseph J. Rishel and aided by the Huber’s, who also happen to be Rishel’s longtime friends.

Bold and Brassy: hanging out in the local Casino
The brassy, neon world of casinos stands in stark contrast to almost everything else in life, but when we were invited to check out a Philly Style party at Sugar House in Fishtown recently, we jumped at the chance. The gambling arena is only slightly larger than a casino on a cruise ship, but the players—poor, minority people at the slots, most smoking and drinking robotically, confirmed for us what we’d always known: casinos are mainly a draw for the down and out. The faux glitz put us smack down into a “garden” of life size Queen of England cardboard cut outs meant to advertise this year’s British themed Flower Show. The Queen looked odd in this mix of Secret Service -looking male employees in ultra-sheen polyester suits and party-happy Style babes primping for vodka martinis and photo ops. We thought we’d die of Stylitis until Einstein Healthcare ‘s Senior Manager of Communications, Kerry O’Connor, took us aside and made the observation that if Sugar House was savvy they’d make arrangements for a pier to be built on the river so that boaters could anchor up for a Sugar siphon from the rear of the building.

No sooner did we toast Kerry’s proposal then we found ourselves thick inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center to take-in a special Wedding Wednesday party for brides-to-be. We watched as future brides sampled a variety of wedding reception miniatures, from chocolate candies, cupcakes and wedding cake squares to (very) carefully measured portions of vodka and wine. The Queen, still cardboard stiff, acted as a magnet for photo-op brides, as did a cutout of Prince Harry, whose mischievous grin seemed to suggest, to the future wives at least, that one last round of dirty dancing before their big day might be the way to go. We ran into photographer HughE. Dillon, who snapped our picture, after which we checked out the wedding gown samples which unfortunately made us think of Mummers costumes. We recalled the bridal gown shop near 13th and Locust Street with its storefront displays of over-the-top dresses that always put us in mind of the Fellini film, Roma, especially the scene where the clergy of Rome, some on roller skates, model holy taffeta and brocade. “Where is the simplicity of the Aubrey Hepburn or Jackie O?” we asked a woman offering us cupcakes. “Why do so many brides in modern weddings have to look like white plume ostriches on parade?”

 The Sham of (much of) Modern Art 

Pablo Picasso confessed that he was a fraud when he stated, “…I am celebrated, I am rich….But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer.” Picasso even adds, “The less [my public] understood me, the more they admired me….Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear.” Architect Al Holm forwarded us this quote shortly before the annual Al Holm lecture at the Athenaeum on Washington Square. These lectures, though named after Holm, offer a different speaker every year. This year’s topic was “The Great American House: Tradition for the Way We Live,” by New York architect Gil Schafer. An Athenaeum lecture is the next best thing to being in Rome or Paris, though this year’s event was packed to the gills due to the renovation of the new Bush Room (which Bush was never specified). Al and his wife Nancy joined us at the congested after party where we chatted with Wesley Parrott, former president of the Franklin Inn Club. We ran into a smiling Daniela Holt Voith of Voith & Mactavish Architects who told us that the firm’s move to 2401 Walnut Street, 6th Floor, has finally been made and that-- despite reports to the contrary-- the new digs do offer spectacular view of the city.

Goodbye Toothless Yahoos

Philadelphians who still refer to Kensington as a terrain of toothless yahoos and empty syringes need only to walk along the Frankford Arts corridor to see that a revolution has occurred. Bundled up in winter scarves, we got an eyeful in late February when we headed to the FJord gallery at 2419 Frankford for their annual Valentine’s Dessert Party. The Frankford Avenue renaissance got us thinking of New York’s Soho because this once barren industrial-waste land dotted with deserted lots, boarded up factories, remnants of soup kitchens, now looks as though it’s been combed free of infestation with RID. The FJord Arts collective was co- founded by Philly-based urban planner and antique car expert, Rick Shnitzler 28 years ago. Rick introduced us to Fjord’s new president, Lindsay, who gave us an impromptu tour of the upstairs studios for working artists. These small rustic spaces crammed with canvasses, paint, and preliminary sketches had great window views of nearby tall factory smokestacks. For a peek:

North Philadelphia is another neighborhood beating the odds despite the long lines there at many PhilAbundance outlets. We headed over to the new Stephen Starr 11,000 square foot commissary at 667 North Broad Street for an evening of “interactive stations and demos.” Although the commissary’s understated wood Swiss chalet entrance is located near a small Dunkin Donuts and a gas station/car wash named East Coast, the place is a culinary Kubla Kahn. Are their people anywhere in this city who can claim to dislike Stephen Starr food? We chatted with Laura Krbes (Cashman and Associates), and Janet Binswanger and Morgan Bedore (Starr restaurants). High energy reigned supreme as A. D. Amorosi remarked, “It’s a sexy night,” and as Queer Times Three Musketeers Thom Cardwell, James Duggan and Josh Kruger gave us their spin on local politics.

Philadelphia’s Weekly Press celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, not an easy fete in an age when hard copy newspapers are not only shrinking in size but in content. Bob and Claudia Christian, publishers of the Weekly Press along with its West Philly counterpart, The University City Review, have weathered intense competition from online publications and two other alternative city weeklies. Through the years, they’ve have had to dodge snide attacks from some who have dubbed their paper, The Center City Toilet Weekly, which is far from the truth, really, considering that from the very beginning the couple took an oath that they wouldn’t accept ads from massage parlors and escort agencies to help fund the paper. Turning down the lucrative ad cash flow of the T and A industry is no easy task when you’re almost always in the red, but this newspaper has managed to do just that. More interesting still is the fact that many of the stories in The Weekly have been picked up (and expanded) by the competition.

The City Beat Patrol, somewhere near Rittenhouse Square.