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Saturday, December 14, 2013

City Beat Column: Robinson Luggage, Diane Burko, Food, Henri David, Timothy Rub and Peggy King

December CITY Beat Column ICON MAGAZINE 2013

Wave your white hankies for Robinson Luggage, the Broad and Walnut superstore that kept Philadelphians happy for years. We shopped there a long time ago for a large wheelie that saw airports in Helsinki, Rome, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. The wheelie took quite a beating by rough airport (and TSA) handlers. When we headed back to Robinson’s last year for a replacement, we found that prices had doubled. Close to one thousand dollars for a new wheelie sent us straight to Macy’s where we found what we were looking for. Nancy Center, the store’s VP, told local media that the closure “was heartbreaking,” and blamed “declining sales” while posters on complained of Robinson’s exorbitant prices. Founded in 1927, Robinson’s weathered a bad storm in 2008 when Phillies fans, drunk on a World Series win, looted the place. Prices at Robinson seemed to rise after the incident, as if the family-owned business imposed a (secret) penalty tax because of the rowdy violation. What we don’t understand is why sports thugs, who aren’t generally known for their good taste, wanted stylish luggage anyway. Perhaps they wanted to bag their bad character and carry it elsewhere.

We thought of The little Engine that Could while boarding the Diane Burko (rental) bus, to make our way to the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick to catch the artist’s latest exhibition: Freeze Frame: Art and the Cryosphere (until July 31st). A glacier-cheeked Burko presented a stunning slide show of her photographs and paintings of glaciers negativity impacted by climate change. Loyal Burkoites filled the hall and delighted in the artist’s account of her 5 week sojourn to the North Pole with husband Richard. We felt like shivering in the well heated room (pictures of glaciers do that) while enjoying the artist’s tales of how she handled downtime in the land of the lost: editing a film while her sailing ship compatriots battled an on board illness. The Zimmerli is an excellent small museum. We spotted a sculpture of Stalin as Michelangelo's David (buff totalitarianism?) as well as fascinating collection of French 18th and 19th century puppets. By the end of the night we were convinced that glaciers, like a good Baked Alaska, are indeed rare delights, especially when they are capped with (conversational) ice floes like Elizabeth Osborne, grand dame of Philly painters, and Carol Saline of Philadelphia Magazine.

Is food the new gold? The cut in SNAP benefits or food stamps and the rise in food prices in general got us thinking about the city’s free food banks, where the less fortunate go for sustenance. We headed over to the PhilAbundance food dispensary at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue, one of many such free food banks in the city, where on designated days you can see long lines of people waiting to obtain very small amounts of canned goods, meats, milk and cheese. An official there told us that just a year ago the lines outside the Lehigh Avenue outlet were moderate in comparison to the serpentine lines one finds today. Taking in the scene, we noticed that a good many people were elderly, and that many brought portable stools or fold up chairs (Diner en Blanc?) since the line moves at a snail’s pace. Volunteers stock the food bank and help guide participants through a small room packed with selections that vary from week to week. Regular freebies include canned beans, lots of corn, plantains (not bananas), crème of chicken soup and frozen pork sausage. While the PhilAbundance scene is enough to make those uppity Whole Foods Foodies hold their noses, if food prices in the future climb to the height of one of Burko’s glaciers, culinary snobbery will have to come to a screeching halt.

For this year’s Henri David Halloween Ball we dressed up as a long haired hippie journalist (circa 1971) in a jean jacket, buttons and sunglasses, and danced the night away with Roman soldiers, zombie cowboys, biker chic sluts, mermaids, female impersonators, vampire seductresses, nuns in neon habits, hobo werewolves, and people dressed as boxes of Franzia (Merlot) and macaroni and cheese. Afterwards we headed home but took the wrong El shuttle bus so that we wound up at the Frankford Terminal, where more than one person assumed we were dealing drugs. When we made it home for real (and removed the wig), we vowed, “Never again,” although days later Henri called, asking “How’d you like it?” Of course, we said “fantastic,” leaving out the terminal part, as Henri went on to inform us that for his post Ball respite he was taking his partner Paul to a B-52s concert and then later to meet former Philly Welcomat writer, Kiki Olson, now a London resident. “Kiki’s on her fifth husband,” Henri said, “and she’s as buoyant and slim and as full of life as ever!” We expected as much, despite false rumors to the contrary that had Kiki crashing the weight scales. Though we don’t know if Kiki went out for Halloween, Henri did remind us that his annual ball was helped to get its start from Rittenhouse Square society ladies who told him initially that the idea reminded them of their own Masked Balls. He also confided that when he was invited to their fancy cocktail parties he met the likes of Fernanda Wanamaker and Hope Montgomery Scott (who lost vision in one eye when she “missed” while uncorking a champagne bottle).

It’s always been true that one definition of cool is a love for surrealist art. One of our must-do jaunts last month, aside from taking in one of The Choral Arts Society’s memorable Bach at Seven concerts at St. Mark’s church at 17th and Locust Street (where we met Artistic Director Matt Glandorf) was a visit to the Museum of Art’s The Surrealists; Work from the Collection, on display until March 2014. Here we saw familiar pieces from the museum’s holdings of Dali and Miro masterworks, a much larger display than we had anticipated. An even greater surprise was a Thomas Chimes panel portrait of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, looking as fine as it did in 2007 during PMA’s Thomas Chimes Adventures in Pataphysics exhibition, when Anne D’Harnoncourt announced, “Tom is a magician.” The exhibit reminded us that the leader of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, had a vehement dislike for one group of people. Like poet Ezra Pound’s hatred of the Jews, it may be hard to conceive of a hatred of homosexuals in so revolutionary an art environment; but in Paris, on January 27, 1928 the Surrealists under Breton met in Paris for the first session of the “Researches sur la Sexualite” where Breton exclaimed, “I accuse homosexuals of confronting human tolerance with a mental and moral deficiency which tends to turn itself into a system and to paralyze every enterprise I respect.” Salvador Dali mustache wax indeed!

From PMA, we headed to Green Street where we noticed busloads of French tourists pouring out of school buses. The well coiffed, fashionably dressed crowd seemed to be husbands and wives, all chatting amiably while being escorted by cassocked Catholic clergy into the Chapel of the Convent of Divine Love. A tall monk from Belgium (in a blue habit) informed us that the event was the beginning service of a 3-day event to celebrate a new reliquary of Therese de Lisieux (the Little Flower), universally beloved by people of all faiths. The new reliquary, designed by French sculptor, Fleur Nabert, consists of 3 bronze cylinders, an artificial rose and two lilies in a transparent case shaped like a house. A cross sporting Dali-like sun rays dominates the background. Upon discovering the reliquary, our first impulse was to contact Timothy Rub or Norman Keyes and tell them that the boundaries of the PMA exhibit had mysteriously expanded.

We ended the month swinging from the rafters listening to sultry Peggy King at an All-Star Jazz Quartet held upstairs at Square on Square, 1905 Chestnut Street. We’d been searching for real jazz for a long time, not the squiggly incomprehensible anarchy sounds that sometimes passes for jazz. The self contained piano playing style of Andy Kahn, with Bruce Klauber on drums, had us believing we were in a Manhattan film noir setting. The music made us think of a lot of things, including another delight that week: PAFA’s Bacchanal celebration, where we chatted with Heike Hass (who good humouredly chided City Beat for last month’s take on KAWS (“Did you bring your paddle tonight?” she asked, before going on to describe how she wound up on the Colbert Show). Wonders never cease, as we also discovered at an Institute for Classical Art and Architecture (ICCA) talk at the Franklin Inn Club, where we learned all about Philly architect Thomas Ustick Walter, chief assistant to the architect of City Hall and the Fourth Architect of the Capitol. The talk was anything but a suffocating convention of scholar squirrels, for Walter was as real a person as any artist: He fathered ten children and often spent periods of time without employment besides going from house to house because he couldn’t pay his bills.