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Thursday, December 8, 2016



    The Legend of Georgia McBride on the Arden’s Arcadia Stage is so funny the play has been extended into December. Matthew Lopez’s rollicking musical farce about Casey (Matteo Scammell), a broke heterosexual Elvis impersonator forced to become a drag queen to provide for his pregnant wife, has sent Center City audiences into non-stop laugh track mode, Ditto van Reigersberg of Martha Graham Cracker fame stars as queen diva Miss Tracy Mills who teaches Casey how to lose the macho and take pride in his hidden femininity. Casey’s metamorphosis from wooden Marlboro man to a faux woman in sequins makes this one hour and 45 minute production seem much shorter. The somewhat contrived plot twists, such as when Casey’s wife, Jo (Jessica M. Johnson) experiences a meltdown after discovering her husband’s new profession (she later embraces Casey’s high heels) have so much charm and gaiety that we hardly notice their hackneyed roots.  

When a fish falls from the sky, you can either fry up some chips or ask the universe what’s up with the weather. In Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling (The Wilma) the effects of climate change forms the backdrop of a centuries old family drama delivered in Tom Stoppard time lapse fashion. While time juxtapositions can be tricky in a Tower of Babel kind of way, director Blanka Zizka has created a structurally elegant narrative that is really poetry in motion. Actors Keith Conallen, Nancy Boykin, Sarah Gliko and Steven Rishard deliver outstanding performances, while Matt Saunders’ set and projection design transforms the Wilma stage into a transcendental canvass that helps makes coherent what is in fact fragmentary.  While Wilma productions generally tend to err on the side of existential angst, When the Rain Stops is a work that once seen will not soon be forgotten. 

While the Center City theater world tends to steer clear of populist plays like The Road: My Life with John Denver,” (billed as a “rare glimpse of the man behind the music”), Driving Miss Daisy or Jesus Christ Superstar, it does cater to plays about politics, personal alienation, the meaning or truth and all things  post-apocalyptic. City dwellers, in fact, love to be intellectually challenged when they are not in a Martha Graham Cracker mode. Consider InterAct Theatre Company’s 2017 Marcus/Emma (working title) at The Drake’s Proscenium. Marcus/Emma will mash together the legacies of anarchist Emma Goldman and black nationalist leader Garvey “to spin their legacies in the desperate hope of regaining prominence in our increasingly inequitable society.”  But is ‘inequitable’ really the correct word here? Will Marcus/Emma be an onstage continuation of the 2016 election? Perhaps it’s time to reach for an axe and head over to the 11th Hour Theatre Company at Christ Church Neighborhood House for its January production of Lizzie, a rock’ n roll retelling of the life of Lizzie Borden. Watching Lizzie take an axe and give her mother forty whacks might be this season’s perfect post-election cathartic release. If an axe isn’t your thing, try 1812 Productions opening of Jennifer Child’s play The Carols (with Mary Martello and Anthony Lawton, till December 31) for an oddball comedy about a trio of sisters and a jobless Catskills comic.  

  The Lantern Theater’s production of An Iliad is a tour de that captures the spirit of theater’s storytelling roots in 100 intense non-stop minutes. It also showcases one of Philadelphia’s best actor’s, Peter DeLaurier, as The Poet, an eternal voice who relates the story of Achilles and Hector at Troy from a script that includes masterful and funny contemporary asides. While the text (written by Director Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare) could be shortened, the power of An Iliad will keep your eyes focused on DeLaurier. If you see nothing else this winter, make sure you head to The Lantern before the play closes on December 11, although the production is likely to be extended.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The "He's Not My President" Litany



    The country’s exhaustion with the 2016 election hung in the air like a fog when I went to vote at the Firehouse at Aramingo and Belgrade Streets. It was near 10 in the morning but the firehouse was empty. Gone also were the usual sidewalk canvassers who hand out sample ballots. The scene was so quiet I wondered if the firehouse was even still operating as a polling place. Even during boring primary elections, the firehouse had always been alive with activity, but not today.
    I entered the sleepy firehouse and headed to the area where the voting booths are located when a woman appeared out of nowhere and asked if I was here to vote.
    That’s a strange question, I thought to myself.  “Yes, I’m here to vote,” I replied, “I’m not a firefighter.”
   She handed me a sample Republican ballot just as a Democratic operative emerged from the shadows with a sample Clinton ballot. I didn’t inquire why they weren’t outside on the sidewalk meeting and greeting people (it was a beautiful day, after all), or why there weren’t a multiple campaign posters and sample ballots pasted to the firehouse walls. When I got to the registration table, I signed in and voted and when I left I noticed that I was still the only voter in the place.
    After voting, I removed the I Just Voted sticker from my jacket lapel and went about my business. I ran into a few neighbors. Maria from across the street was rushing to vote for Hillary, while Joey, holding his newborn son, announced with pride that he had just voted for Trump. Meeting these neighbors reminded me of the sermon I heard in church the Sunday before about the importance of voting. It wasn’t a partisan sermon, of course, just a friendly reminder of our civic duty.

    Later that day I went into Center City on a work assignment, then met a friend for coffee at a new café, Toast, at 12th and Spruce Streets. Toast is a nice place. It’s quiet and laid back, there’s no loud music so you can hear yourself (and others) talk. Since it was Election Day a wide screen TV had been placed in a central place so that customers could keep abreast of the news. The set channel was MSNBC where talking heads were running commentary on the results of a number of exit polls. Every exit poll gave Hillary a sizeable advantage, so by my second cup of coffee I was pretty much thinking of Hillary as the next president. After all, poll after poll had her ahead, so how could so many experts be wrong?  
    In Toast my friend admitted that he was mad at himself for not registering to vote. He told me that he was beginning to regret not registering because he was feeling the stirrings of political passion. “I’m suddenly feeling the itch to vote but I can’t do anything about it,” he said, shaking his head. I pointed a finger at him and told him he was a heel for not registering. “I know,” he added.  My friends are at least honest if not perfect.   
      I’ve heard people give all sorts of reasons why they don’t vote, the dumbest of which I think goes something like this, “Well, Mickey Mouse and Jack Parr never voted, so why should I?” Singer Joan Baez once told me during an interview that she refuses to vote because it’s all a charade and there’s never a legitimate choice anyway, so why bother. “It’s tiresome and exhausting that we have to go through this show every four years,” she said. While I’ve always loved Joan Baez, I can’t quite figure out this logic although I didn’t tell her this at the time.   
    In the café, people kept coming in and checking the TV screen, eagerly taking note of the exit polls. The exit polls certainly indicated that this would be an election without surprises. When I left the café and headed into the neighborhood again, I checked to see if the firehouse was still empty. There seemed to be a little more activity there, but not much. 
   After dinner, I set up camp in my study and prepared for a long night of election return watching. Almost immediately it became apparent that Hillary Clinton was in trouble. I dismissed this as a temporary glitch but when the trend accelerated I knew the nation was in for a surprise. This election was going to be America’s Brexit. After all, every national poll had Clinton ahead by 3 or 4 points sans the odd polls that had Clinton ahead by one point then Trump ahead by one point. Everyone had assumed that Clinton would win, certainly everyone in Philadelphia where the Clinton vote was so overwhelming even Sherlock Holmes would be hard pressed to find a core group of out and proud Trump supporters. “Philadelphia is in its own bubble,” as I told a friend who was mourning Clinton’s loss the day after Election Day. “Philadelphians were so staunchly pro Clinton the bubble kept them from imagining an alternate political universe.”
     Every news source in the country, from The New York Times on down, indicated that Clinton had it in the bag. A few news sources pointed to a Trump win, as did a large number of psychics and Tarot card readers who predicted a big surprise on Election Day. This surprise, they said, would shock the nation. I dismissed both the pro-Trump Tarot readers and the Clinton-biased mainstream media as drowning in wish fulfillment.  
   When Trump was declared President-Elect, I knew the polls and the media had screwed things up. How could so many professionals have preformed like clueless amateurs?  

      After Trump was declared the winner, protestors started hitting the streets, with many proclaiming that the President-Elect was not their president.
       When I heard this chant I had an attack of déjà vu.
       How many times have I said this to myself during my decades as a voter? And yet here were people in their twenties saying the same thing but for the first time.
   “Richard Nixon is not my President,” I said as an antiwar demonstrator and conscientious objector in 1972.
   “Ronald Reagan is not my President,” I said in 1980 when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.
   “Ronald Reagan is still not my President,” I said in 1984, when Reagan defeated Walter Mondale. 
    “George H.W. Bush is not my President,” I said in 1988, when he defeated Michael Dukakis.
     “George Bush Jr. is not my President,” I said both in 2000 and in 2004, but especially in 2000 when the Florida chad recount vote had the nation in turmoil.

   I’ve grown tired of saying this but the scary truth is that the United States is not a total democracy but a Republic. This means that the states cast their votes for President through the Electoral College. This means that very often half of the country is going to get a president they don’t like or agree with. That’s the way it goes in a Republic. It’s like the ups and downs in a marriage when both spouses have to give and take, concede, negotiate, compromise and make sacrifices on behalf of the other. George Bush Jr. may not have been “my” president, but he was still president of the United States, and he still mattered.
  Likewise, President Obama was still the president of all the birther conspiracy theorists and all the “He’s a closet Muslim” fanatics.  
      That’s why when I hear protestors say that Trump is not their president, I say, welcome to the club, folks. You now know what it means to be an American. I tell them to dig in their heels and get ready for decades of feeling this way because the results of national elections are not always going to agree with your views. The upshot is that you’ll get through this with a little bit of effort but setting cars on fire and promising to shut down Inauguration Day only raises the black and red flags of anarchy.  
    It’s good to be reminded that the United States is not a banana republic where you can just dispose of a leader because you object to his (or her) political views.  




The Porch, a Fishtown Tale

    A little known film, The Porch, about life in Philadelphia in the year 1955 surfaced recently. A friend announced its discovery when he found it among his old VHS tapes. The film, as it turned out, seemed to be in fine condition. While I had never heard of The Porch, I was very curious to see what it portrayed.
    When my friend, Zorro, started the film I could see right away that the production qualities were not the best. The images in this old black and white film had a faded, bleached out look.
  The Porch opens with a row house patio scene. At first it’s not clear where the patio is located. I assumed it was South Philadelphia but on closer inspection I was pleased to see that it was somewhere in the Riverwards. In an almost modernist way, the camera focuses on just the empty patio and keeps rolling although there is no action. Finally, we see a cat running from one end of the patio to the other. No doubt this pet or feral is chasing a bird. After this nothing happens for a while until a Mummer, decked out in feathers and a cape, struts in front of the camera.
    The Mummer’s cape is far humbler and simpler looking than today’s Mummer’s costumes. The Mummer has a heavily painted face and dances from one end of the patio to the other.  All of this happens without any music. He just keeps dancing and dancing, going forward and backwards and then twirling around in this very small patio where occasionally you can see the rooftops of other row homes in the area.  

   What struck me initially was that there was no dialogue. I wanted a script, a story but even as the film progressed there were only a series of kaleidoscopic images, namely of women lying in the sun. Who were these women? Some of them wore head bandanas and looked like Rosie the Riveter. It became clear that they are women of the neighborhood, mothers, daughters and grandmothers, the women of 1955.
     Suddenly a narrator’s voice is heard.
   “The sun is warm and life is good,” he says. The voice belongs to John Facenda. When the camera pans skyward a Budweiser billboard pops into view, and then Facenda’s voice resumes. “In Philadelphia, there’s always something to make you stop crying.”
   The thing is, nobody in the film was crying until a baby in a cradle appears on screen. The baby was indeed crying, shaking its little fingers while crunching up its nose and moving its head from side to side. Once again, Facenda’s voice is heard.  “You’re crying…well, you may have your reasons but think of all the fun that lies ahead.”   
   “These were really optimistic times,” I said to Zorro. “They had no idea that Vietnam War was just down the pike. Or that the assassination of a future President was in the wings. It’s good we don’t know what the future holds.”
    I no sooner said this than the images on screen seemed very familiar to me. Yes, by God, I was really seeing Aramingo Avenue in 1955, but not only Aramingo Avenue but East Huntingdon Street, Richmond Street and many smaller streets in my immediate neighborhood. The camera seemed to be on a topography tirade as it scanned the inside the old paint factory that stood at Huntingdon and E. Thompson. There in front of me were workers in endless assembly lines.  More close-ups of the streets—all meticulously spotless without a shred of litter, mind you— then that Mummer guy appeared again and proceeded to dance up towards York Street, twirling and twirling until he disappeared like a dot on the horizon.
      O Poor Mummer, I thought, where are you now?
       The camera then panned Lehigh Avenue where I caught a glimpse of the houses I still see standing today. I recognized windows and doors. There seemed to be a lot more parking spaces in 1955 and people were better dressed. No sweat suits and baseball caps. The women wore hats and many of the men wore baggy jackets and ties. Sometimes the suits were so baggy the men looked like clowns.
       Life seemed so formal then.
      To my dismay, a Strawberry Mansion bound route 39 Peter Witt SE car appeared on Huntingdon at Richmond Street.  Ah, the beauty of Richmond Street prior to I-95! Children played on the stoops of the row houses there as Chrysler New Yorker’s and a Chevrolet Bel Air and Corvette slowly drove by. In two years, the highly eccentric looking Ford Edsel would make its way down Richmond. How many people in the Riverwards would buy an Edsel?
   “Everything was ruined by I-95,” Zorro observed.  
    The Route 39 appeared again, stopping to pick up two women in long dresses. Were they going into Center City to visit Horn & Hardart or Stouffer’s? A man in a bowler hat wobbled into view from a side street--did he just leave one of the bars along Lehigh Avenue?—just as two kids in a homemade co-cart came barreling around the corner, almost crashing into a lamppost.
   Above a small corner store I spot a Camel cigarette ad, and beside that is a faded billboard featuring Marilyn Monroe.
     A Cadillac Convertible passes in front of the camera with an Adlai Stevenson for President bumper sticker. That’s when I remember that the country was gearing up for the November 6, 1956 presidential elections, when Dwight D. Eisenhower would beat Stevenson by almost 9 million votes.  The 1956 election was the last presidential election in which both major candidates were born in the 19th century.

   Then, in a very shocking scene reminiscent of contemporary behavior patterns, a man and a woman appear out of a house on Richmond with Eisenhower signs and proceed to chase after the Cadillac Convertible. They appear to be shouting slogans when one of them drops their sign as both manage to jump on the trunk of the Cadillac. They pound the car furiously with their fists. The Cadillac breaks, then speeds up, then breaks again in an attempt to throw them off the car. Eventually the motion does send the couple sailing across Richmond Street where they land in the gutter, unhurt but apparently dazed.

  “Election animosity is as old as the hills,” I mumble, as Facenda’s voice suddenly emerges, pleading for tolerance and unity.    
    By now I am very engrossed in this film, and ask Zorro why it’s never been shown on public television. The Porch isn’t even on You Tube, as far as I know, and it might even be virtually invisible except for random showings by private collectors.

     Perhaps the most eerie thing about The Porch is that so many of the characters who appear in the film, especially after the political attack scene, closely resemble the faces of neighbors and people I see today walking in the area.
    “Really, they seem to be the very same people,” I said, lurching forward in my chair and pointing to a face that was a dead ringer of a local business owner.
      “It can’t be him, Zorro said, “The film is from 1955.” But sightings of duplicate people only increased after this, and they really mushroomed when the camera panned a shopping crowd scene near Girard Avenue.  That’s when the huddled masses on the street going about their errands were none other than the very people I see every week in the Riverwards. I spotted Citizen’s Bank employees, Washington Bank employees, Stock’s Bakery employees and more, all of them in 1950s dress and going about their business as they do today, 70 years later. “They’re living two lives at once,” I told Zorro, “one in an archival film and the other in 2016.”
   “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” I muttered, reaching for the popcorn.
    I really flipped when I began to see the faces of the neighbors on my street.
   “How is this possible?” I said to Zorro.
         I soon stopped asking how this was possible but started to wonder how I could step inside the film to find out what was going on.  Certainly such a thing was possible. I knew I had to find a way to do it in order to warn these folks about I-95 (“Don’t let them build the wall!”) and to tell that fanatical Eisenhower couple that their fighting was not needed because Eisenhower would win anyway.
  But this would only be the beginning. I’d have a lot of other news and predictions to deliver even if nobody wanted to hear about the future.  
     Once again the camera panned the face of the baby in a cradle. The baby was still crying and moving its little hands as John Facenda repeated, “The sun is good and life is good.”  



Monday, November 7, 2016

(My) ICON Magazine October 2016 Theater Reviews

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival might as well be called Fringe Subsidy Publishing, LLC.  
Participating "artists" pay an entry fee and then rent a venue space, meaning that moneyed people with
minimal talent can become temporary ‘artists.’ The big challenge is coming up a zany, absurdist
 skit and  then getting your friends to be actors. Fringe Arts founder Ezra Buzzington, formerly known
 as Jonathan Harris, likes to say what the Fringe is not: sloppy, late, unprofessional, ego-driven
 or amateurist. This is definitely true in an alternate universe.    

Playwright George Brant says he spent 5 months researching his play “Grounded,” about drone warfare. “I wasn’t expecting to write about pilots,” he wrote, “but during my research I was struck by the fact that during Obama’s
first three months in office, he was using three times as many drone attacks as Bush did.”  Grounded became an off-Broadway hit in 2015 when Oscar winner Anne Hathaway was in the pilot’s seat. Philadelphia goes ‘drone’
 when director Kathryn MacMillan teams up with actress Kittson O’Neill for InterAct Theatre’s production of this famous one woman show (until October 23). O’Neill plays the pilot who bombs targets 12 hours a day without ever
 having to leave the Velveeta cheese comfort of her Air Force trailer.  How will all this armchair warfare affect
 the psyche of this hard working woman?  "What makes Brant’s play exceptional is its driving,
white-hot sense of identification with a woman who is not, on the face of it, a sympathetic character,” Scotland’s Scotsman reported.    (

The fish that audiences will see fall from the sky during the Wilma’s production of
 When the Rain Stops Falling has a counterpart in real life: the foot long (smelly) catfish dropped
 by a bird of prey that hit a woman in the face in Fairmount Park. You might as well call this bird
 That Stupid F*cking Bird, also the name of an adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull by the
 Arden’s Aaron Posner. This irreverent, contemporary madcap take on The Seagull promises
 a lot of direct audience “addresses” and (according to a
2015 American Theatre Review), “rants about the uselessness of contemporary theatre” where “the
 word ‘sucks’ comes up often as does the F word that rhymes with it.” The play goes much deeper than
 hipster cur     the rants, however.  Scripted by Posner in 2013, TSFB has played all over the US to generally good reviews if
 only because there’s no subject like unrequited love to get audiences to shed a tear or clench a fist at
 their personal, unpleasant memories.   

  England’s Spectator magazine calls George Bernard Shaw “a smug and
 overrated babbler,” whose
 plays are “like reading a billion tweets at one sitting.” But this “nimblest of
 storytellers” continues
 to hit pay dirt with his classic Mrs. Warren’s Profession, about a high
 class prostitute and brothel
keeper played by 5 time Barrymore Award nominee, Mary Martello,
 who’s reunion with daughter
 Vivie (Claire Inie-Richards) at The Lantern (until October 9) sets off a
chain reaction with a number
 of predatory men. The legendary Martello delivers a flawless performance; she’s also fun to watch
 as she dons big Victorian hats. Inie-Richards captures the soulless quality of the unforgiving Vivie
 when Mrs. Warren comes clean about her job, though Vivie becomes human when she sheds a few
 tears. Vivie may be Shaw’s New Woman but she lacks her mother’s there there. David Bardeen as
 the blunt-to-the-bone, hyper masculine Mr. Praed gives the play its finest dialogue. Actor Daniel
 Fredrick as Frank Gardner becomes the classic image of the  beautiful Victorian lad in the style
 of Brideshead Revisited, while John Lopes as the Rev. Samuel Gardner and Andrew Criss as
 Sir George Crofts keep the acting levels in Mrs. Warren’s Profession pretty much close to perfect.   


The American classic, Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has been packing them in at The Walnut Street Theatre. Catch this time capsule gem with powerful musical lyrics and surprising literary references (Andre Gide and Marcel Proust) before October 23.  This impeccable production is a credit to WST’s Artistic Director, Bernard Havard, and writer James Michener's 1947 novel, 'Tales of the South Pacific,’ from which the show is based. 




Philly Theater Reviews, ICON Magazine November 2016

                                      (My)  ICON  Magazine Theater Reviews November 2016 

   ‘Impressive’ describes Interact Theatre’s production of George Brant’s Grounded, a one woman show directed by Kathryn Macmillan starring Kittson O’Neill as The Pilot assigned to operate a fighter drone in the Middle East from an office in the Las Vegas desert. O’Neill is brilliant as she takes us through The Pilot’s various mental states, from delirious boredom when nothing happens to Zero Hour mania when she presses the deploy button obliterating her human targets. O’Neill is even better conveying The Pilot’s slow psychological deconstruction while spending weeks tracking a major terrorist leader. Her obsession with the target affects her marriage and invites a nervous breakdown: she is ultimately unable to kill the terrorist because his daughter, a mirror image of her own child, awakens her mother’s instincts. An unsentimental male colleague is then forced to complete the execution. Feminists may hate this play because it shows the vulnerability of a mother when it comes to emotion and the language of the heart.

 The little theatres in The Drake on Hicks Street are attracting a fair amount of attention. The petite Louis Bluver Theatre hosted Azuka Theatre’s presentation of How We Got on by Idris Goodwin, an 80s ode to teenage angst and rap. The Proscenium Theatre will present another world premier. Douglas Williams’ Shitheads (February 22-March 12), about a once popular Manhattan bike shop that is losing its customers to a competing business across the street. In yet another world premier, Azuka will present Philadelphia playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s  The Arsonists (May 3-21), a Florida swamp based story about a father and daughter inspired by the Greek tragedy, Electra.  Azuka Theatre is the first theater company in Philadelphia (and the nation) to offer Pat What You Decide (PWYD) for the entire 2016-17 season.  

      When Bruce Graham’s RIZZO premiered at Theater Exile last fall, reviews were good but mixed. PTC’s production of the play with the same cast (Scott Greer as Rizzo) was much improved, thanks to PTC dramaturge Carrie Chapter. The new production incorporated many references to the current presidential race.  The PTC Rizzo was an even more divisive and controversial figure than his Theatre Exile counterpart. At the Rizzo press preview, Executive Producing Director Sara Garonzik, who will leave PTC after the 2917 season, introduced former Governor Ed Rendell, who reminded the audience that Rizzo was a product of his times and, like everyone, a combination of both good and bad traits.   Philadelphia will never see another Frank Rizzo. Intensely charismatic on a personal level, the former mayor was half in love with tyranny, police raids, and police wagons roaming the streets picking up anyone who looked suspicious or out of the ordinary.    


Jen Childs, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of 1812 Productions looks great in a fat suit, especially when she’s playing Chris Christie. Childs has also invented her own character, Patsy, a South Philly stoop lady who dispenses bits of wisdom in Philadeliaeese. Patsy illuminated 1812’s 2016 version of its oft repeated show, This is the Week That Is, when she compared Hillary Clinton to “the Iggles” and Donald Trump to “scrapple.” The bi-partisan spoof no doubt “upset” political ideologues who want satire to reflect a particular bias. The non-stop laugh-a-thon starred Scott Greer and Alex Bechtel as Trump, and had skits on Vladimir Putin, climate change and Obamacare,

 Sharr White’s plays include Stupid Kid, Sunlight and The Snow Geese. The award winning playwright’s The Other Place premiered at The Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3. The unsettling drama about a successful neurologist, Juliana, who battles a failing marriage and a crisis involving her daughter, holds yet another nightmare: the fact that she may have the same kind of brain tumor that killed her mother. Independence Studio 3 lightens up somewhat with the Irish Repertory Theatre of New York’s adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Nov. 15-Dec. 23).  The New York Times writes:  “Thomas’s work is a cavalcade of imagery and sensation — the snowy sights, smells and sounds that marked the Christmases of his boyhood. “  Figgy pudding for all! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

    Great Valley High School 50th Class Reunion Talk
               October 15, 2016

   Imagine glider flying into the past. Silently, gracefully, going from present time into the mist of past decades till finally we hover over a stretch of Chester County farmland… losing altitude till we hover over the mark: Great Valley High in September, 1962 or opening day….as below us hundreds of kids swarm into a building thick with the smell of new construction.

    Remember the aroma of new wood piled near the almost completed auditorium?
    In the coming weeks this space would serve as a study hall monitored by the stern Mr. Richard Ramsey, overlord extraordinaire, looking over the rim of his glasses at whisperers, gum crackers, mash note passers, or those induced to sleep or doodle or read B novels like William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together or the revolutionary The Catcher in the Rye while class assignments like The Taming of the Shrew or Beowulf were shoved under three ring binders.  It was in this auditorium that we would hear why Cookies for Vietnam was such a great success; it’s also where we would watch William Francis, Deborah Stearns, Joan Cotter, Joann Haas and William Hammond in the senior class play, Molier’s The Imaginary Invalid.

       Who we were: We were popular & unpopular, loners, joiners, athletes, extraverts, poll vaulters, cheerleaders, football game cow bell ringers, marching band members, compulsive pie eaters, teachers pets & hoody boys in pointy shoes, bleached blond hair and tight white pants hitched up way above the belt line. We were kids with fresh outbreaks of acne figuring out where we belonged, trying out this group or that or becoming loners in the library in the dim light of winter afternoons.

     The Yearbook says we were the energetic students of Great Valley, always ready for action and innovation: the yearbook shows….
 Mike Searcy at a Singer sewing machine hemming a garment or two
            Karen Pyne in a wide legged scissor jump, the only gym class levitation in Chester County
             Loraine Hampton hamming it up with Dave Gallup
             The shirts on/ shirts off agonizing ritual of gym class team selection; the last one picked wore the Scarlet Letter
              Jeff Slabodian’s sweaky  shiny loafers
               Karen Armstrong crowned Miss Cross Country
               The happy days when basketball shorts didn’t hang like kitchen curtains way down below the knee caps.
              Craig Marshall dressed as a French existentialist bohemian making eyes at Connie Cunningham
                Bill O’Brien’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ dance band, the Senior Prom, not quite Led Zeppelin but not Lawrence Welk either
 And, of course---The collective sigh of relief from female grads when realizing they escaped having a quote by Wordsworth put next to their yearbook picture.
               How we dressed: we wore tennis sweaters, madras jackets, white socks, oki dokey farmer plaid shirts, short tight dress pants, conventional jackets and ties, hoop earrings, pearl necklaces and plenty of hair spray on a variety of bouffant hairdos, some shaped like Utah’s beehive, others teased in a variety of ways, blown out on top then hanging straight down against the head before evolving into two small cheerleader flips at the end.

      Joanne Polomski probably had the best bangs in the class although Anne Bernardian and Eleanor Rost rate a close second while Sandra Carr and Debbie Scott cultivated a Veronica Lake look. Ron Dill’s bangs were legendary; they nearly touched his eyebrows while Dan Sipe’s and Jeff Slobodian’s had the look of an expertly trimmed lawn in Haverford. For the high hair effect, we must defer to Dale Weber and Beverly Yorkey: they resembled gunslinger girls in a Gunsmoke episode. “You want water with that bourbon, sir?” Wink, wink. D. Kingston Owens’ cut was straight out of Brideshead Revisited while Bruce Maxfield’s smooth blond top mop had the look of a freshly minted coin.


   We hailed from General Wayne Junior High and before that Katherine D. Markley Elementary or from isolated parochial schools where the tyranny of the school uniform was king.    

     We lived in split level homes, ranch houses, trailer courts, Andrew Wyeth style old stone mini mansions or exotic zoo farms like the Daniel P Mannix Social Register homestead in Bacton Hill where Elizabeth Taylor once stayed while filming National Velvet. We brought with us certain influences from our private family life, the whims and biases of Mom and Dad (because that can’t be helped). You see, we weren’t quite complete human beings yet but we were on our way.

   That mayhem filled first week of school!

  Yours truly walked through a floor to ceiling glass panel window on a first floor staircase landing thinking it was an unfinished doorway. Shards of glass rained down on all sides of me but, miraculously, there was no injury. There was Homeroom and the Pledge of Allegiance and then each of us taking turns reading a passage from the bible. By sophomore year the bible readings would morph into a moment of silence: we bowed our heads and meditated on something philosophical—the cat and the hat, the Beatles, Snoopy let your hair out-- though most of the time we worried about upcoming quizzes, or untoward comments in the latest slam book.

 The slam book was the adolescent version of adult character assassination:  So and so is fink, stuck up, or even, God forbid, a skank, meaning I suppose a possum like creature running from woodshed to woodshed. Remember, we weren’t complete human beings yet, so these faults can be forgiven although in retrospect I must say that if a female student can be a skank then so can a male student—it goes together like Yin and Yang, North and South, Great and Valley and Candy Kane and Mr. Kane, GV’s Vice Principal, may they both rest in peace. 

  Remember the very Harry S. Truman look of Principal Mr. Mark Jacoby in his suit and tie although he was not as well dressed as the dapper Mr. Richard T. Brooksbank in his Brooks Brothers tweed, 5-tiered corded belt and 100 per cent calf skin leather loafers sans a tucked in penny.

 Great Valley as a big fashion runway:  Algebra teacher Mr. Edward Eill in his big suits and garish ties; or Louise Einoff, teacher of Spanish and French, meticulously dressed and topping it off with a  pair of stilettos, her beautifully sculpted eyebrows like Greta Garbo’s in an old Hollywood film.  Martha Shelita, queen of guidance counselors, sporting a feminist look before there was a feminist look (some say she even wore sneakers). The sleepy eyed, rumbled looking Harvard educated Mr. Peter Erskine, the original bed hair hipster, so soft spoken and totally non threatening as an authority figure but outdone in personal theatrics by that Hungarian tornado, Mr. George Dobash, who once turned over a trash can in his Problems of Democracy class to illustrate a political point or two…

   Okay, so let’s talk about Dobash. I met him years after graduation while sitting nursing a draft in a Center City bar. I heard a voice that had POD written all over it. “Excuse me, is your name George Dobash?” I said. He raised his cocktail in a toast, blinked twice then commented, “Oh God, your class was one of the best. How’s your sister, what was her name?” “Susan,” I offered, “How could you forget?” He went on to tell me a variety of things-- inside stories about GV teachers, stuff we were not privy to as kids. These soap opera tales increased the temperature in the bar so that I had to open my shirt collar.

    GV’s two science gurus, Mr. Rocco and Mrs. Bravo introduced us to the joys of dead frogs--- no, not as Kentucky dish delicacies but as cold specimens for sophomore biology dissection. This project caused a slight panic, especially when laying the frog on its back, spreading out its limbs and then pinning it to the tray. The unseemliness of it all caused Sue Whitcomb to faint before she could extract anything, alerting Mr. Rocco to the fact that there might be a collective student reaction, as in students fainting en masse and being taken out on stretchers to the football field where they’d be resuscitated by cheerleaders and Band Majorettes.
     High School Biology frog dissection was a classic rite of passage but it’s not done much these days. It takes too much time and there are just too many horror stories of frogs coming back to life.

    Mention trays and the needle points to GV’s venerable cafeteria ladies and their hot serving spoons.  I remember some of them wearing white hair nets which gave them a grandmotherly appeal although they were much younger than we are now.

  And what about those GV hallways… alive with the sound of students and teachers going from class to class…  

   There’s Mr. Kessler. Remember when he took his art classes to the Barnes Foundation? Mr. Kesslser was the quietest of men, the virtual opposite of gym teacher Al Como, and brother of the famous singer Perry. Al loved to line up the boys who had bleached their hair blond, the daring fashion of the day, and giving them a swift swat from a paddle as punishment… something that in today’s world would be seen quite differently with Al probably being put on some kind of list. In many ways, yes, the old days trump the insanity of the present. 

  There’s Mr. Procopio whose name comes dangerously close to Pinocchio’s. Or poker face Social Studies teacher Mr. Sapone. Look, its Mr. Brooksbank again, this time walking with Alger C. Whitcraft, the Business Education teacher. Richard is preparing to tell his English classes another joke:  “Why did the couple get married in the bathtub-- because they wanted a double ring ceremony.” Forget I said that. Other faces are surfacing: the benign Janet Baldwin, GV librarian; Mr. Hennessey, as tall as Frankenstein who taught Driver Ed (what school today has Driver Ed?); Mr. Kadyk, the leader of the band; Mr. Molnar; Miss Smith; and the erudite “Have you read your Beowulf?” Mr. Hickman. But all this is old school. Students today don’t call their teachers Mister anymore and they don’t use Miss or Mrs. either.  Today everything is ground down in an equal playing field.  Yes, we lost something there…
   Time to head out to a Saturday football game as Deena Jordan, Doris Kraus and Sandra Carr work the crowds with pom poms, megaphones, jumps and double hooks, …not quite a human pyramid but still daring for its time as Don Broome (What man dare, I dare) and Mike Searcy (There is nothing like fun, is there?) score yet another touchdown …a real Vitalis, Jade East moment or better yet Canoe because with a canoe we can row over to see the other sports, namely cross country where Ed Zacarais is leading the pack again, running, running, running straight into the stopwatch arms of Mr. Kellerman who taught math when he wasn’t noting times in his blue sweats. It was Kellerman who told yours truly after a horrible cross country fall onto a shard of glass (I still bear the scar) that it’s time to shower up, another thing I hear they don’t do in high schools anymore.

     GV was classy. We had Arnold Palmer golf, Dave Steinback Wimbledon-style tennis, folksy Sue Hess Lacrosse, gymnastics (Terry Donnelly and the formidable Mike Talley) and Greco Roman wrestling where Ed Conaway and Dan Rossi (Thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye) almost always pinned their opponents.  Basketball got a 4 page spread in the yearbook (remember Randy Cummins?), while baseball (Gary Brag and Ed Jackman) held its own but without all the chewing tobacco and spitting. 

   Oh no, how did this happen?!  Now we’re smack in the middle of a hallway without a hall pass and the hall monitor is gunning for us. We’ve run out of excuses but the good thing is Dave Pieri has just been elected class president so the atmosphere is hardly like Stalinist Russia.

    We’re allowed to go on our way and look for lost or forgotten classmates, and there are many of them, yes, too many. Where did they go? Richard Henry, Toni Holman, Roger Harris, Michael Mark, Christine Koehler, Charles Kern, Denise Miller, Barbara Darling, Pam Perugi, Roger Peterson,  Howard McCall, Marion Pulls, John Tate, Walter Smith (rest in peace), Bob Terry (rest in peace), Harriet Thomas, Mark Washburn, and Robert Thompson.  I’ve only touched the surface, of course. A few I’ve encountered through the years:  I met Kingston Owens in Boston when he was going to MIT. I ran into Daniel Norris several years ago at a trade show in Center City. Norris was a classmate of mine in parochial school and he used to chase me around the schoolyard in comic bully fashion. We laughed about the chase over trade show coffee. The last time I saw Ed Conaway was two summers after graduation. He was crossing Lancaster Pike in Paoli holding hands with Joan Mitchell. Candy Kane and I became friends in the 1970s. I was introduced to her husband, a likeable guy; we hung out, told stories, then Candy fell ill and I didn’t see her for a very long time. Rest in peace. 

   After graduation I would revisit the GV campus and drive around and relive old memories.  I’d visit to the little creek oasis near Rt 29 where Mr. Kessler used to take his art classes. I’d ponder the track, recall where we held Cross Country practice, and remember all the walks home from school past Memorial Park cemetery as wind gusts opened our books and scattered our papers.

  Uh oh. I’m hearing a call, class. It’s a call to return to that glider and take up our lives again…up, up and away… in the spirit of hope and confidence of course because the passage of time and a 50th reunion doesn’t have to be a scary time…it can be, as the yearbook suggests,  both an end and a beginning     



Social Justice Warriors on American Campuses


      Milo’s fans are generally right of center politically although large numbers of politically progressive students agree with some of his views. Milo’s liberal fans may not like Donald Trump (Milo supports Trump) but they are avid free speech advocates and want to hear what he has to say. Most of Milo’s fans are heterosexual students, especially fraternity types: the male jocks even cheer when Milo makes a “gay pass” at a male in the audience, or when a sexy African American student stands up and asks Milo out for a date. This kind of gay liberation dynamic in a predominately macho male straight audience is about as rare as a moon landing or ice floes in the Delaware. After all, tradition tells us that it is from this generic pool of straight macho types where many gaybashers come from, but instead we find them cheering the faggot and even passing him mash notes. It’s a curious once in a lifetime phenomenon.   

       Milo is not popular with the LGBTQ community because his views don’t match the official slate of beliefs that every good gay man or lesbian is supposed to hold. Since it was the political Left that gave birth (or aided) the modern gay movement, the Left continues to hold the bulk of LGBTQ loyalty. This is understandable even if the Left is changing.   
      We can see that the Left is changing because of the effects of the (left leaning) word policing as described in the first paragraphs of this column. There was a time not so long ago when only the right wing was crazy over censorship. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was conservatives who banned books and movies and even speakers (Communists, etc.) from college campuses. Today it is the Left. That’s why the term regressive left has come into vogue. A regressive leftist can be described as someone who has an inability to listen to contrary, uncomfortable viewpoints without throwing out accusations of bigotry, racism and white supremacy. All too frequently these words—racism, bigot-- are thrown out without any accompanying dialogue. Use of the word alone is supposed to shut down all debate. It’s what philosophy professor Christina Hoff means when she says, “In their war against intolerance, they take on the extremes of intolerance.”
      Hoff also adds, “It’s going to be hard for future historians to understand what happened on American campuses in this decade.” This is true because freedom of expression on campus is being replaced by the right to feel comfortable.    
         It is true that sometimes Milo’s narcissism and showmanship can be off putting. It also doesn’t help that he is not always a nice person. He’s unnecessarily hard on fat people but he makes sense when he comes out against the body positivity movement. The body positivity movement teaches that you should love your body type no matter what size it is. Yes, being 300 pounds is beautiful and you don’t have to change a thing, even if weight that high puts you at risk of death. 
             Milo says there’s no such thing as a lesbian because so many lesbians have had affairs with men and seem to be able to move easily from one gender to the other.  This view, I might add, is not that far reaching because I once heard a former editor of the Philadelphia Gay News say the same thing.
               Milo does not believe in gay marriage and says that homosexuality is caused by a mix of nature and nurture. Born that way is crap, he says; it’s a political line invented by the gay lobby.  He has little respect for so called third wave feminism (which seems to obsess on trivial issues like man spreading (when a man sits in a bus or subway with his legs spread far apart) or when a man tells a woman that she “looks nice today.”
            He views Islam as the greatest threat to Western civilization and says that as a gay man he cannot live in any “moderate” Islamic country because he would be subject to the death penalty.
                   Milo has no respect for Black Lives Matter and calls the organization “a bunch of black supremacists.” (Milos’ sexual preference, by the way, is for African American men).
         It’s my belief that Black Lives Matter would be greatly improved if they had a change in leadership.
      Overall, Milo isn’t the issue here, it’s the contagion known as political correctness. The chronic emphasis on political correctness in society has helped create Milo, just as it has propelled so many people to support Donald Trump. The fact is, people do not want to be told what to think or what they can and cannot say.   
            Take the word racist, for instance. ‘Racist’ is so overused that it is beginning to lose its effectiveness. The word should be reserved for true racists, not for polite women speakers who talk about being the black sheep of the family. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mother Teresa, an Enemy of the Left



  When Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa on Sunday, September 4, one man will be smiling more than most in the sea of people in Saint Peter’s Square.
   His name is Michael Collopy, one of the preeminent portrait photographers of our time. Collophy was Mother Teresa’s personal friend and official photographer for fifteen years. His 224 page book of photographs, Works of Love are Works of Peace (Ignatius Press), contain more than 180 fine art quality tri-tone images, along with writings by Mother Teresa. One of Collopy’s images of Mother Teresa has been chosen as the Catholic Church’s official portrait of the new saint.  Collopy’s photograph was the basis for a painted portrait of the nun that will be unveiled to the world on September 4. .
    Collopy, a mostly self taught photographer who studied under Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon, resides in San Francisco with his wife, Alma and their two sons. He    has photographed a lot of famous people, including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, but he says that no subject affected him as much as Mother Teresa.  As a personal friend of the saint’s, he also spent a lot of time driving her around Calcutta to her various appointments.
     “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of something she said,” he tells me by phone from his home. “She was very mystical. She could ‘read’ you in a way. She had these deep penetrating eyes and she often gave me spiritual advice that was straight on.”
   Collopy also wants me to know that Mother Teresa “had the ability to see goodness in each person without judgment.”
   The most extreme example of this is the love that she and her Missionaries of Charity sisters showed to gay men dying of AIDS in the Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s. Collopy’s book contains a number of startling images from the sisters’ Gift of Love San Francisco AIDS Hospice. These black and white images are images of AIDS patients close to death... Some of the men are photographed as they lay dying. In one striking photograph we see Hospice patient “David” surrounded by sisters and staff as if cocooned in a loving circle. As Collopy wrote: “His name was David. Like the other men whose photographs appear in this section, when David found out about this book project, he wanted to be involved. So we were there at a most intimate and profound—his death.”
    One image shows David in repose in a small cot, a white sheet up to his neck near an open window with white curtains and a white statue of Our Lady of Fatima looking over the scene.  
   “I got to know all of these guys quite well,” Collopy says. “Mother was one of the first to really have a home for men suffering from AIDS. I met so many men there who were rejected by their families because of who they were, so many beautiful people that I got to know.”  Collopy adds that David told him that while living in the streets he didn’t feel like he had family or friends but that in the hospice he was surrounded by friends.  
   “Mother had complete trust and confidence that the men in the AIDS hospice were all going to heaven. How intimately God loves each one of us. Mother also made it a point never to judge anyone, and she once told Michael, ‘Oh no, I never judge anybody because it doesn’t allow me to love them.’”
   “Not having this judgment,” Collopy adds, “allowed her to love the individuals she cared for. Mother had the ability to see goodness in each person, without judgment. There was a lot of love and laughter in those hospices.”
    How did Mother Teresa become Mother Teresa?
     She was born in Albania as Ganxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu and had an older brother and a sister named Aga.  The family was well to do. Her mother, an Orthodox Christian, was very religious while her father was very active politically in the local City Council, a position that probably led to his death, or so Collopy believes, as he may have been poisoned. By age 18, the future Mother Teresa was already leading a devout religious life and reading books on India because she had a desire to work there. She wanted to devote her life to the poor as a nun and the only way to do that was to join the Catholic Sisters of Loreto (there were no Orthodox missionary nuns in India at that time).
     Collopy says that Mother Teresa received the call to work with the very poor during a train ride to Darjeeling in 1946. “At that time she had a kind of interior locution, a vision of Jesus and Mary. She was suddenly looking out over a sea of dark faces of the poor and in the foreground was Jesus on the cross,” he says. After entering the convent, she became a geography teacher and the principal of a girl’s school in Calcutta.
   Collopy tells me that Mother never liked to talk about herself and never accepted any kind of praise. When she started her work in Calcutta, she was on her own and absolutely alone. It wasn’t until British writer Malcolm Muggeridge discovered her work in 1969, leading to a BBC report on her work that resulted in world wide attention. 
   Deceased writer Christopher Hitchens, author of a book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position,” says the BBC report was the beginning of “the Mother Teresa media myth.” Hitchens called Mother Teresa an “ally of the status quo,” because of her readiness to meet infamous world dictators to further her work. Other critics of Mother jumped on the bandwagon, including journalists who insisted that her Missionaries of Charity homes for the dying in Calcutta and elsewhere were understaffed, provided bad medical care, were too crowded and had insufficient pain killers and food. Mother’s Missionaries of Charity were also charged with gross financial mismanagement.  Krithika Varagur of the Huffington Post went out on a limb when she wrote: “…Mother Teresa’s imminent sainthood is freshly infuriating. We make god in our image and we see holiness in those who resemble us. In this, Mother Teresa’s image is a relic of white, Western supremacy.”  These and other critics who criticized Mother Teresa’s looks as well as her stand against abortion were taken aback when she was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Freedom.   
    Collopy says that when he and Christopher Hitchens were in Berkeley at the same time, somebody tried to get them together for lunch. “I had a conversation with him on the phone, and he was very nice, very articulate, but his criticism of Mother certainly wasn’t accurate based on my 15 years with her.”
   The aged nun, after all, lived in a simple room without any amenities, wore broken sandals that were five years old, refused to use the telephone longer than a few minutes because poor people in India had no access to phones.
      “I never met anybody who was that selfless. Her life was a life of selfless service. She did not desire publicity or fame. In fact, she had a deal with God that for every photo taken of her a soul was released from purgatory. You know, when you consider the life of Jesus—he did not hang out with the best of characters—a far more difficult pain for him to accept other than the physical pain he experienced was the pain of rejection from the apostles at the Garden of Gethsemane. This really corresponds to the poverty of sorrow that Mother saw in the West. It was the poverty of being unloved and uncared for that made the poverty in the United States much more difficult to care for. But she was called to attend to that.”
   Collopy tells me of the time he was driving Mother to one of her appointments when they came upon a group of electricians working on electrical wires. The scene moved Mother to say, “You have to be the empty wire and allow God to be the current that runs through it.”
   I ask about the photographs of Mother’s feet and hands. The images of Mother’s feet are shocking to look at because they do not resemble feet but, as Collopy says, “tree roots.”
   “Yes, the sisters used to encourage me to photograph Mother’s feet. She never used to wear sandals in her house in Calcutta, because the poor didn’t have sandals. She had an extra toe under her right foot. That must have been very painful. But her feet looked like tree roots. There were notches on her ankles from the way that she prayed, the prostrations and so forth…”  
   He says there are many times when he feels Mother’s presence. In one instance a good friend of Alma’s announced that she had breast cancer. Because the woman was very distraught, Collopy immediately drove to her home to give her a small medal of Our Lady that Mother used to hand out to people.  Mother would kiss these medals individually then distribute them to pilgrims and the sick. Sometimes she would leave them on the property of buildings that were for sale that she wanted to buy. According to Collopy, “99.9 percent of the time after she would get that house.”
      After delivering the medal to his wife’s friend, Collopy tells me that the very next day the more than grateful woman drove to the Collopy home to make an announcement. She said that when she received the medal on the previous day, she saw Mother Teresa standing in the room.  Shortly after this, his breast cancer vanished completely.   
   Collopy reminds me of something that Mother once said: “I can do much more for you in heaven than I can on earth.”     
   The San Francisco photo-journalist is currently working on a new book, Courage, portraits of people he feels have exhibited courage in their field of work, including Nobel Prize Laureates, Civil Rights heroes, and of course the Dalai Lama, who once rubbed Collopy’s shoulder because he said he needed the healing presence of Mother Teresa’s love.