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Saturday, April 18, 2015

                                             ICON MAGAZINE CITY BEAT APRIL 2015
                                                                     Thom Nickels


   We fell down the Who’s Who rabbit hole at the Reading Terminal’s fifth annual Party for the Market fundraiser. Some sightings: Lynne Abraham, whose white hair recalled the bonnets of absent Amish and Mennonite vendors; the large, moon-shaped eyes of DA Seth Williams, staring fixedly into space and reminding us of Transcendental Meditation; and City Council-at-Large candidate Paul Steinke, who seemed to be surveying his old work site. The Market’s promise of unlimited food, drink and dancing held true even though we never did locate Molly Malloy’s Breakfast Buffet or the gypsy palm readers. Our cozy chat with Greta and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger (while munching a Hershel’s Mini Reuben) preceded two other sightings: Judy Wicks’ comet of long white hair and a Seth Williams redux, his TM eyes still dilated.  

Crowds at the Philadelphia Flower Show this year were rock concert thick. Ice, snow and sleet didn’t deter the armies of mommies with strollers, serenading couples, or the leg weary huddled masses camped out on carpeted corridors like stand by passengers at Philadelphia International. The public’s violent obsession for a spring flower infusion seemed to parallel Tennessee Williams’ quip: “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” PFS has come a long way since its first show in 1829, the same year that Eastern State Penitentiary welcomed its first prisoners. At the PFS lgbt party we counted less drag queens and familiar faces than we did last year. The party’s guest of honor, Pam Grier, and host Josh Middleton’s on site interview could hardly be heard because of a botched sound system.

 At the opening of U-Bahn at 1320 Chestnut Street familiar faces dominated: AD Amorosi, Toni and Suzi Nash, Kory Aversa, Bobbi Booker, Nathan Lerner and I Am a Camera, HughE Dillon. The photo op extravaganza included lots of interlocked arms, group hugs, and bar-fueled smiley faces.  Introverts had no place to hide in this tight. German style subway bunker space. Dillon must have taken a million shots but only a few showed up on Phill.com, proving that even the best poses often wind up on the cutting room floor.  

     

  The annual Red Ball held at Memorial Hall’s Please Touch Museum to benefit the Red Cross attracted over 1400 guests many of whom rode the carousel or “drove” a faux Septa bus. We met the newly crowned Miss Philadelphia, Julia Rae Schlucter, 22, currently enrolled at Fordham University, and a dead ringer for Grace Kelly. Julia will go on to compete in the Miss Pennsylvania contest in June. We chatted with Jane and Roger Willig of Norristown and Center City, and told Lenny Bazemore of Bazemore Galleries that the only wine on hand was Barefoot Wine, a step up from Manischewitz and definitely low rent. “Tell them to come to the Bazemore,” Lenny said, implying that his wine wears good shoes. The mostly dessert-heavy ball had us wondering about diabetes and extra pounds, but with the Red Cross nearby, most opted to indulge.   

The Bach At Seven Cantata series (Choral Arts Philadelphia) is one of our favorite monthly events, transporting mini concert goers to the high gothic realms of the city’s most beautiful Episcopal churches. But how about switching Bach for Chopin At Seven; Baroque At Seven; Mozart At Seven; Stravinsky At Seven, or maybe even Wagner At Seven?  Choral Arts could even pair up with Moore Brothers Wine Company, the event’s libations provider, to do an all-Moore composer program: Carman Moore At Seven; the 18th Century composer Thomas Moore at seven; Australian composer Kate Moore at seven, or the award winning Dorothy Rudd Moore at Seven. This Moore on Moore action would surely make the snail’s pace after concert wine line move a lot faster.

We attended a lecture at the Athenaeum in Philadelphia’s Washington Square. The subject matter was the life of Saint Katharine Drexel, the Catholic saint canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. The speaker was Cordelia Biddle, a direct descendant of Francis Martin Biddle, grandfather of Saint Katharine Drexel and Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. Cordelia was just getting into her  talk– expounding on Katharine’s wicked sense of humor, and explaining that before she enetered the convent  she was "the Paris Hilton of her time," when something unsettling happened..She stopped talking and put her left hand to her head as she slumped to the floor, landing with a thump. Gasps could be heard among the audience. There was a frozen feeling in the room as people in the front rows attended to the fallen speaker.  While the Athenaeum brass waited for the ambulance to arrive, the audience was ushered into an adjoining room for an early reception, where a mostly somber mood prevailed. Cordelia survived the fainting and is back on the lecture circuit.

Photos: Paul Steinke, The Red Ball, Barefoot Wine (Ugh!)

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Harry and Me :Journalism School Radicals

The Local Lens

Published
Wed, Mar 25, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The world was a very conservative place in the 1970’s, the so-called Vietnam War years. If you were a student then, as I was, you belonged to one of two camps: the anti-Vietnam War people or the pro-war people. There were very few in-betweens. This was a time when everybody had an opinion on war.

I met Harry at the Charles Morris Price School of Journalism, near 13th and Locust Streets, in Center City. I’d gone to the Price School right after high school and was one of the youngest students in the school; Harry was 26-years old, which seemed old to me then. Harry lived with his parents in Huntington Valley and took the train to school everyday, while I took the Paoli Local in from Malvern and Frazer, where I grew up.

I was a shy and nervous kid who very often stuttered when I spoke. On the first day of journalism school, I was shocked to learn that one of the required courses was Public Speaking. I knew there was no way that I was going to stand in front of the class, stutter and possibly be laughed at. The only solution, I decided, was to cut Public Speaking class altogether by sneaking around the corner to a greasy spoon named Dewey’s, and wait out the class.

After cutting that first class, I headed back to school and noticed another student coming from the opposite direction. That student was Harry, who told me upfront that, like me, he had just cut class because he had a fear of public speaking. We bonded immediately as fellow stutterers. We made a pact on that sidewalk in front of the school that we’d cut Public Speaking together, and we’d use that time as an excuse to hang out at Dewey’s.

The school newspaper, at that time, was a small, mimeographed four-page newsletter called The Kite and Key. The name had a Benjamin Franklin connection, since the school was associated with The Poor Richard Club. The Kite and Key was a tame, safe, cute little paper. One could read it and come away without having any sense of what was going on in the real world.

The newsletter’s cuteness, and the fact that people called it "little," bothered Harry and me. During our breakfasts at Dewey’s, we decided that we wanted a far more daring publication for the school. We wanted a newsletter or magazine that wasn’t afraid to possibly offend the suit-and-tie wearing teachers and professors, who, by and large, were advertising, marketing and journalism professionals.

The editor of the Kite and Key was an amiable and professional female student in her late twenties. She wore sensible shoes, and it was easy to see that her one goal in life was to make a lot of money in marketing or public relations. Despite our feelings about her, Harry and I wrote "little" pieces for the "little" newsletter, never dreaming that anything would change—until the day we heard that the efficient editor with sensible shoes was graduating early, which meant that the "little" newsletter would need a new editor.

We decided to run for the position as co-editors, so we put together a plan for a much thicker, more diverse and controversial publication, which we christened The New Price Review. By changing the name to NPR, we were thinking of magazines like The Paris Review or even Rampart’s Magazine, which were popular at the time. Our NPR vision included the publication of short stories, poetry, commentary pieces, one-act plays, essays and even editorial cartoons. The only student competition for the editor’s slot was a marketing major, a young woman who happened to be a friend of the former editor.

The campaign for a new editor was like a mini-presidential race, although Harry was the one to make the campaign speech before the student body. He was less of a stutterer than I was, although when he gave his speech before the student body, his face turned a terrible shade of red.

Harry promised the students that we would give them something substantial to read.

While Harry was speaking, I surveyed the class and got the feeling that we would win the election. Our competition, the efficient marketing major, wanted to keep the name Kite and Key. She also emphasized the editorial value of entertainment and fun, and that the newsletter should stick to school topics.

The class voted by paper ballots. Harry and I were elected co-editors in a near landslide. We celebrated by going to Alvin’s Alley, an old-time, very dark and rustic Evening Bulletin newspaper bar for reporters at 13th and Walnut streets. Alvin’s Alley smelled of stale draft beer and cigarettes. It wasn’t a big bar, but a tidy, efficient hole-in-the-wall where women never entered. The bartender was an old guy who looked like a Noir character in a Glenn Ford film. Alvin’s Alley was my first introduction to beer and serious discussions in dark bars.

After the celebration came the hard work. Now we had to make good on a promise to the students.

We put out the first issue of NPR right away after collecting submissions from students, writing pieces ourselves, and holding editorial meetings at Journalism School Radicals over French toast. Since the magazine was mimeographed, we had to buy mimeograph stencil sheets that contained strips of blue carbon, and then retype the articles for publication on each sheet—a process that took many hours. Since Harry wasn’t one for this sort of task, I gladly welcomed the opportunity, because it meant that I could fill in blank pieces of pages with quotations or sections of books that I found interesting.

I’d spend entire weekends editing and then typing articles onto these long stencils on a typewriter lent to my by my father. Problems like stuck typewriter keys, botched or dried-up typewriter ribbon, typos, or excessive build up of White-Out often plagued these weekend work sessions. When Monday morning rolled around, I’d take the completed stencils to a printing place on Sansom St., where it would take the printer at least a couple of days to print out multiple copies of the 27-page magazine. Back at the school, Harry and I would collate the pages and then staple them. This process took hours, and was done after class.

Working on the magazine became our hands-on journalism experience. We were still cutting Public Speaking class and using that time to visit the city’s many old bookstores, obscure pizza caf├ęs, or even Larry Robin’s original bookstore near 13th and Market Streets, where there was more radical literature than in all of San Francisco or Berkeley.
The first edition of The New Price Review was met with curiosity and excitement. It also put some professors on the offensive. The more conservative professors started calling us "The Berkeley Bunch," and the Dean, Mr. Kaplan, was rumored to be unhappy with the publication.

But this was the age of protest, and there was no stopping us. When the Poor Richard Club awarded Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge Michael A. Musamanno an award for Patriotism and "Love of America," we organized a petition drive and drafted a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer. We protested Judge Musamanno’s characterization of anti-Vietnam War protesters as ill-intentioned and unpatriotic. The published letter in The Inquirer caused consternation among the faculty, but Dean Kaplan made no steps to pull the plug on NPR.

But it was the second issue of NPR that really got the school talking.

As thick as a small Yearbook, the second issue’s front cover was a collage with satirical references to LSD, Vietnam, LBJ, the CIA, God is Dead, Sex, Mount Airy hippies, and Clutch Cargo. The contents included the results of a student poll in which Philly was voted a dull city. By a slim majority, most of the students also supported the Vietnam War. Harry wrote a piece on the faculty’s perception of the NPR as "The Berkeley Bunch," while I wrote a one act play on Vietnam. There were stories on drug addiction, poems about The New York Times, and profiles of students and teachers. The profiles balanced out the perceived radical nature of the magazine.

As much as we hated to do so, we also published pro-Vietnam views to emphasize our belief in freedom of speech.
The second issue of NPR was so popular among students, they had to be told to stop reading it during class.
Long-suffering Dean Kaplan kept his nose out of the magazine the entire time Harry and I were co-editors. He could have squashed the magazine at any time, but he relegated his criticisms to short meetings with us in which he registered his concerns. Dean Kaplan passed away a while ago, but I can still see him clearly with his auburn-colored, Wise Owlglasses and bald head.

At our graduation ceremony at the Franklin Institute, Harry and I were shocked when the ceremonial MC (M.C. or emcee) announced that we had both won the Carrie May Price Award for Best Student in Journalism. We nearly fell through the floor. Among the crowd congratulating us was Mrs. Kearney, the Public Speaking teacher, who had mysteriously given us both a ‘C’ as a grade for her class—despite the fact that we never attended it.

Photos: Charles Morris Price School; Dewey's at 13th and Chancellor; Actor Anthony Perkins, a dead ringer for Harry.





Benjamin Franklin, the Santa Claus of History

The Local Lens

Published
Wed, Apr 01, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The myth of Benjamin Franklin is probably greater than that of Santa Claus. That’s because the Ben Franklin that most school children know is nothing more than a jovial, benign Kris Kringle—a smiling, kite-flying granddaddy figure—filled with chuckles, winks and wise sayings that sound like they were lifted from the pages of Readers Digest.

The undisputed fact, of course, is that Ben Franklin really was a genius with a dark history. Born in Boston in 1706, the 10th son of soap maker Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger, Franklin was many things: a printer, inventor, writer, publisher, adventurer and lover, as well as a man of secrets and mystery. His childhood was difficult, with his father marking him early on as "destined" for the clergy—although that plan failed when the cost of divinity school proved prohibitive. Instead, the precocious, troubled boy who liked to read was farmed off to his older brother James, then-editor and publisher of The New England Courant.

James put young Franklin to work as a printing hand, so the 12-year-old was soon diligently working all the time, setting type. In the end, the ‘technical only’ job proved unsatisfying. Little Ben wanted to write for the Courant, but knew his brother would never allow a lowly print assistant—much less his younger brother—to become a contributor to the magazine. Ben, undeterred, went on to invent a nom de plume, "Silence Dogwood," supposedly an anonymous female writer who wrote letters to the editor criticizing the treatment of women in the colonies. Unaware of his younger brother’s duplicity, James published Dogwood’s letters in the Courant and they became quite famous, on the order of a Colonial version of Dear Abby. Soon, everyone in town wanted to know who Silence Dogwood was.

When Ben owned up and confessed the truth to his brother, James’ reaction was not nice. In fact, it was downright volatile. James became self-righteous and claimed that Ben had harmed the publication, and then proceeded to beat him. But the teenage Franklin had had enough. He found passage to Philadelphia, where he hoped to find a job in printing, arriving with just enough money for a few loaves of bread. On his first day in the city, it is said that he walked the streets soaking wet (it had just rained) and that his "odd" look impressed his future wife who, serendipitously, happened to catch a quick glimpse of him walking the streets. They would marry years later, after her first marriage failed, and after Franklin had established roots working for The Pennsylvania Gazette.

The Founding Father’s life then takes on a mythic cast. He fathered an illegitimate child named William before his marriage, but after his marriage, tales of his flirtations with other women, especially in France—where the spirit of sexual licentiousness always seemed to rule with an iron fist—began to circulate. He also embarked on a number of simultaneous careers, including that of inventor. His inventions included the lightning rod for homes, and the glass armonica. On one sailing trip, he was the first to discover the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. He also resurrected Silence Dogwood in the form of another pseudonym—"Poor Richard," or "Richard Saunders"—when he published the annual Poor Richard’s Almanac, a chapbook of aphorisms, quotations, reflections, weather reports and other oddities that the public found endearing.

Noted by some as America’s first arms dealer, Franklin went to London to work on behalf of the colonies, and stayed at the estate of Lord Snowdon, in East Wycombe, just outside the city..

Here’s where his life takes a mysterious turn: Lord Snowdon was the founder of the "Hellfire Club," a secret society that held meetings and parties underneath the Wycombe estate, where the male members dressed as monks and the women as nuns. The behavior among Hellfire Club members was in perfect alignment with Philadelphia’s own ‘Sin City’ reputation in the 18th century, when bawdy houses (brothels) were common in the city. This may be difficult to imagine now, but in 18th century Philadelphia, most neighbors had a ‘live and let live’ attitude when it came to the local bawdy house. People left the houses alone, as long as no trouble came from them. When trouble did come from these houses, it was often in the form of fights, noise, and gunshots. If a house was too troublesome, it was often razed by neighbors, but it was razed not from a sense of moral outrage, but for practical reasons—too much noise is never acceptable.

In some correspondence, Franklin makes references to Wycombe’s ‘underground’ life, although the extent of his involvement there is unknown. Ben, after all, was the ultimate public relations man. In his book, Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man, Francis Jennings, wrote: "To begin with, Franklin’s Autobiography is about as valid as a campaign speech. It sounds good. Everything he wrote sounds good. Franklin’s public life was devoted to public relations, of which he became a preeminent master."

Jolly ol’ Ben was a man of so many "different selves." In fact, today there are still a number of people who accuse him of being a British spy, or of murdering and then burying the corpses of women and children under his old house on Carver Street in London. Others even reduce him to a Satanist who worshipped Lucifer in the Hellfire caves at Wycombe.
But it was Franklin’s PR abilities that continue to affect how biographers see him through the present day. These biographies paint too sweet a portrait of the man, an image that thoroughly keeps up with the touristy imitation of Franklin’s walking around Independence Hall. If your knowledge of Ben didn’t extend beyond this Santa image, you would never know, for instance, that novelist D.H. Lawrence found Franklin "a little pathetic…ridiculous and detestable," and that German sociologist Max Weber summed up Franklin’s thinking as a "philosophy of avarice."

Franklin, for instance, called German immigrants "the Refuse of their People," and he referred to the black slaves on American soil of having "a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel…"

The most evenly balanced depiction of the man is Mark Van Doren’s biography that spells out—quite literally—that when Franklin’s wife was dying in Philadelphia, ol’ Ben was spending his time living it up surrounded by French women in Paris. Van Doren also describes how Franklin and a friend played a prank on a young man in Philadelphia’s Oyster Alley, and then accidentally burned him to death. Then there was Ben’s cynical view of American Indians in western Pennsylvania. It seems that before negotiating a treaty with these Native Americans, Franklin sent them a case of whiskey to "lubricate their compliance."

At his funeral in 1790, 20,000 people paid tribute to this remarkable human being who was really much more complicated than the fake glossy image that’s become popular today.

At age 39 in 1748, Franklin wrote:
"Fair Venus calls; her voice obey;
In Beauty’s arms spend night and day
The joys of love all joys excell
And loving’s certainly doing well."

Life, for Benjamin Franklin, was all about the next conquest, be it political, scientific, or romantic.



What Passes Today for Breaking News


The Local Lens

Published
Wed, Apr 08, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The "new" journalism of today can be quite sloppy and can lead to a lot of confusion. Let me explain:
Every once in a while, a crime story will catch my eye, and I’ll look into it. Recently, I came across an Action News 6ABC headline that read: Teen Shot Outside Port Richmond Mini-Mart Dies, Gunman On Bike Sought. The reporter states the address of the mini-mart as the corner of Amber and Cambria Street.

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture, other than the fact that a gruesome murder has been committed? This Amber and Cambria street corner is clearly a Kensington address, not a Port Richmond address. The comments section that accompanied this story contained many messages addressing this fact.

My first thought when reading this report was, "Here we go again," even though I wasn’t all that surprised to read that another misidentification of Port Richmond had occurred. For many years now, both print and broadcast media have frequently misidentified the Fishtown-Port Richmond area. Not to be cynical, but I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

One reader comment, however, caught my eye. This comment alluded to the fact that 6ABC is controlled by folks who want to do everything in their power not to tarnish the Kensington name because, well, Kensington is currently cool and on the upswing, despite decades of a bad rep. But fact is fact, after all, whether or not the "new" Kensington is currently cool or not cool. "Traditional" Kensington is still a pretty dicey area while Port Richmond has never played that particular "game of dice." Port Richmond has never had much of a reputation problem.

I also don’t think that there are behind-the-scenes broadcast media hipsters who regulate the positives and negatives when it comes to using the name Kensington. While I subscribe to some conspiracy theories (the Kennedy assassination and the death of Pope John Paul I), the idea of a bunch of bearded, mustached guys in flannel shirts, skinny jeans and tats altering news headlines to save the reputation of the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby and Festival seems cartoonish and far-fetched.

Several years ago, the neighborhood misidentification problem had a different twist. That’s when I walked into a broadcast media camera crew outside Applebee’s on Aramingo Avenue. I forget why the film crew was there, but at that time, the misidentification problem was the reverse of what it is now.

News sources like 6ABC had a tendency to call most of Fishtown and Port Richmond Kensington. So, I took it upon myself to tell the camera guy to please remember that the area where he was filming is not Kensington. As it happened, he was getting a lot of people coming up to him, explaining where one neighborhood ended, and another one began. In many ways, the comments reflected the old neighborhood boundary line controversies, although everyone agreed on one thing: The area was definitely not Kensington.

In retrospect, I hate to think that perhaps I helped create the present day misidentification problem, because now the news media rarely uses the word Kensington. In fact, it seems they go out of their way to avoid using it.
While we’re on the subject of broadcast and online news, I’ve noticed another dangerous trend lately. That trend is to categorize what used to be called "petty news" as "breaking news."

Consider the case of the man who stole eight cans of Red Bull from the Wawa at 3222-48 Richmond Street: 6ABC reported this incident as a major robbery, because the Red Bull shoplifter was said to have "pushed" a cashier who tried to block his exit from the store. But really, what self-respecting shoplifter is going to let himself get caught if all it takes is a push to clear the exit? And when did shoplifting become breaking news?
A couple of months ago, there was a story on Philly.com about a protest at a college lecture, because of the lecturer’s views on rape. The story quoted the protesters, and described the scene during the lecture in which people held up signs and/or walked out.

What was left out of the story was a crucial element: Just what were the lecturer’s views that made her so detested and so controversial? This was left unsaid. To me, this seemed incomprehensible. How could any reporter—or that reporter’s editor—miss such a thing? The reader finished the story not knowing what made the protesters angry.
While I’ve been critical of Philly.com in the past for its sensationalistic, tabloid tendencies, I admit, the website has been slowly improving despite still having problems with what passes as "breaking news." Do we really need to know about every high school teacher who exchanges mash notes or who has a love affair with one of his or her older students? Are these really mega stories on par with the latest ISIS attacks? Years ago, even truly scandalous sexual molestation and abuse cases were reported on page 15 in The Philadelphia Inquirer not only that, they were condensed down into small box notations, almost as a journalistic afterthought.

When I was 16 years old, there was a huge sex scandal in my Chester County high school involving an English teacher and over 20 underage male athletes. The Daily Locals News, located in West Chester at that time, buried the incident in the middle of the newspaper, even relegating it to a small box item. It was as if reporting on a dog that had been hit by a milk truck. Today, that story would go viral.

It seems that journalism has yet to find a respectable middle ground when it comes to this topic.
Then there’s the very controversial subject of race. Fear of talking about race, or even alluding to the subject of race has become more of an issue than talking about real race problems.

In March, a CBS Philly story on the rape and robbery at gunpoint of a young woman at 3900 Richmond Street, by two underage teen boys, spelled out all the pertinent details of the incident, except for a physical description of the alleged rapists.

Descriptions of the two rapists were no doubt omitted because they were caught almost immediately. But if that were not the case, a thorough ID would have been necessary, because other women in the area late at night would want to know who to look out for: such as a boy with freckles, a crooked nose, a cleft chin, or a uni-brow. Without a physical description, everyone is left guessing, and guessing leads to confusion.

More bothersome, however, was the fact that the reporters did not say where the underage teens were from. Were they from the immediate neighborhood? Were they local Catholic school students? Were they kids from other neighborhoods who came into Port Richmond to cause trouble? It’s important to know these things because it gives residents a frame of reference.

Without a frame of reference, we don’t get the full story.