Thursday, October 30, 2008

Imaginary Martians & One Fast Horse

My mother once told me that she didn't hear the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast 70 years ago today; she was 13 then and remembers listening to Edgar Bergen that night, who were on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. She said that my father later told her he had listened to the broadcast, but being a 15-year-old pulp SF aficionado at the time, he knew full well what Welles was up to. It was fine radio in any case. Listen to the October 30 entry on this remarkable site.

Oddly enough, there's an monument in Grover's Mill, NJ, to the "Martian landing." Welles wanted to move the story from Britain to the United States, naturally enough, and for some reason picked this obscure corner of New Jersey as the site of the first landing. That's my kind of monument. If I'm ever nearby, I'm going to see it, and certainly post pictures of it. Till then, this web page will do.

Speaking of 1938, the day after tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the "Match of the Century," when Seabiscuit bested War Admiral at Pimlico. Completely by coincidence, I picked up Seabiscuit: An American Legend and started reading it a few days ago. It's very readable, keeping me interesting in something I only have a slight interest in, namely thoroughbred horse racing. Through the marvel of YouTube, a newsreel version of the Match of the Century is here for us in the 21st century to see.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mud Season

A cold wind blew in Monday, and while the wind was mostly gone by yesterday, the cold endures today. The first taste of winter, but only a small taste, not even freezing during the day. It would really have been a pleasant day today if it were January 29 instead of October 29.

On Monday I took Lilly and Ann to the Hoffman Estates municipal building, which hosts a flu shot clinic for children every year around this time at reasonable prices. This year, I'm happy to report, Ann didn't make a screaming fuss when jabbed.

The clinic was on the second floor. The first floor sported a polling station for early voting. There was a line to vote early at about 5 in the afternoon. I'd say it was the early rumblings of a large election-day turnout, even in Illinois, where the only real contests are local.

There's been a spirited contest for state rep here in my part of Cook County. At least spirited in terms of direct-mail circulars slinging mud. One candidate has accused the other of running a dangerous daycare center that possibly doubles as a coven, and lately the other has been accusing the first candidate of formerly being a obsequious minion of the disgraced Gov. George Ryan, and then moving on to be a bootlicking lackey of our current Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whom nobody likes (he polls lower than President Bush in approval ratings).

Actually, the use of "coven" and "minion" and "lackey" are my own use of colorful language, but they do reflect the essence of the mud.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wisconsin, (Partly) Home of the Bubbler

A few more things about Wisconsin. First of all, you can have a fine breakfast any time of day at a downtown Sheboygan place called Jumes. Though strictly speaking, Jumes isn't a diner, the place had that diner atmosphere: a straight pink neon tube all the way around the walls, a few pictures of '50s pop icons here and there, tables, booths and a counter, the hiss of frying, the clink of dishes, relaxed Sunday conversation, the smell of bacon, and even the faint aroma of cigarette smoke -- which isn't banned in all restaurants at all times yet in Wisconsin.

A Greek immigrant names George Jumes got into the restaurant business in Sheboygan in 1929, and the place has been under the current name at the current location on 8th Street since 1951, so the '50s memorabilia, which wasn't overdone as some chain restaurants do, is apt.

Still, I had to wonder. If you're going to dress up your place with nostalgic artifacts, why stop at the '50s? Why not go all the way back to the 1920s? More art deco, a picture of Lindbergh, some Paul Whiteman on the jukebox, though that would be a coin-slot phonograph, since I've read that the term didn't come into popular use until the '30s. Putting the restaurant back into the '20s would cross into historic territory for almost everyone, but then again the 1950s are increasing historic rather than nostalgic anyway.

After I got back from this visit to Wisconsin, I queried a Wisconsinite friend of mine -- who has lived in Chicago a long time -- about the term "bubbler," meaning "drinking fountain" or "water fountain." I asked if he'd heard it used that way, growing up in central Wisconsin in the '50s and '60s.

"I do not remember anyone I know calling a water fountain a bubbler," he answered. "It might be called that in some parts of the state, but not mine. I kinda remember hearing about this before."

I heard about bubblers when visiting Wisconsin in 1978, where I went for a national meeting of Mu Alpha Theta. There were high school kids from all over the country at that meeting at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, but as you'd expect Wisconsin was probably better represented than most other states, so I met kids from the likes of Manitowoc and maybe Sheboygan and Racine. One of them told me that she called a water fountain a bubbler, though she knew that the rest of the world didn't call it that. That odd little fact is my most enduring souvenir of that trip all those decades ago.

After visiting Kohler, that oddity came to mind again, because apparently Bubbler was a Kohler trademark once upon a time. It became generic -- but only in a few places, mainly eastern Wisconsin. And also parts of New England and of Australia. Australia? How did that happen? Even little things can boggle the mind -- a little.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Dairy State Omiyagi

While at the independent retailer called Evans in Sheboygan Falls Saturday before last, I bought a few souvenirs, so that I didn't have to face my family empty-handed when I returned. Returning from even a short trip with small gifts is a Japanese custom called omiyagi, which I've adopted. The gifts themselves are called omiyagi as well, as in "Where's my omiyagi?"

Ann received a Polly Pocket doll, which has the virtue of costing less than $5. For about that price, I got Lilly a Solar System mobile -- nine glow-in-the-dark plastic orbs (count 'em, nine), some of which resemble the planets we know, though not all. The one that seems to be Mars is more bright orange than rust red, and the putative "Neptune" is pimp purple. All the orbs come with string, and some Silly-Putty-like adhesive to fix them to the ceiling, which she has done over her bed.

Yuriko got omiyagi from a cheese shop near Belgium, Wisconsin, but that's another story. While at Evans, I also checked out the candy rack, hoping to find something novel. But novel candy racks are hard to find. Just once, I want to find a Yorkie bar in the United States; I can get Ritter Sport in this country now, why not Yorkie? (Then again, that unavailability adds to its desirability.)

But I did find a thing called the One Dollar Bar. Evans was selling it for 79 cents, so maybe that's a discount. According to the packaging, "the original One Dollar Bar was founded by chocolatiers Mark and Erica Van Wyk[,] who value premium chocolate." Van Wyk Confections LLC has an address in Colorado, but the bar I bought says Made in Canada.

A simple search reveals that the One Dollar Bar is fund-raising chocolate, a lesser-known player in that game than World's Finest. I bought one for each of the girls, and one for myself. Not bad. But expect to pay at least a dollar if a kid shows up at your door peddling them.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Item From the Past: The Harvest Moon's Mooñu!

Back in October 1985, I nicked a menu from the Harvest Moon Saloon, a joint in the Buckhead district of Atlanta. Now the menu is one more bit of the ephemera I keep in a large envelope marked "Nashville 1983-87." This is the front page of the menu:

That fall, I spent a long weekend in Atlanta. I can't remember much about it now, not because it was especially decadent, but because now and then are separated by too many years. But I'm fairly sure that the actual Harvest Moon Saloon wasn't surrounded by billowing grassland. Call it menuic license.

As far as I can tell via Internet searches, the Harvest Moon Saloon is no more. Its early history, as related on the menu (mooñu): "The Harvest Moon Saloon opened its doors to the public on the fifteenth of May, 1978. Bruce Piefke, along with a lot of help from many friends, is responsible for this Buckhead phenomenon. When Bruce borrowed $5000.00 against his car to open the "Moon" it was with the conviction that he could offer good drinks, good food and present our city's finest local music at no cover charge! Enjoy yourself!"

The menu has four pages. Pages two and three list food items, as you'd expect, and I have to note that nothing costs more than $4.95, and that price was higher than most. Even in the mid-80s, that was modest pricing. This is the back page, listing the specialty alcohol, which must have been how Harvest Moon made its money:

Even on goofy old drink menus, there are echoes of fading cultural references. The Moon offered "Hawaiian Punch," as in "How 'bout a nice Hawaiian punch? Bam!" and "The Deep Throat" and "B-52" ("She came from Planet Claire") and "The Russian Quaalude," with the symbol of Soviet Communism stamped on a bit of pharmaceutical history.

Google Bruce Piefke -- an unusual enough name -- and you find that someone by that name is running a business in the Atlanta area that organizes outdoor movie screenings, so maybe that's his post-Moon gig. Could be more lucrative and (especially) more stable than the restaurant biz.

I can't remember which musical act we saw at the Harvest Moon. It must have been somebody. The place was known for its live music back then -- in fact, I'm fairly sure I heard about the Harvest Moon before I ever went there, even as far away as Nashville. But whoever played wasn't as memorable as, say, Uncle Walt's Band at the Sutler in '82 or Afrikan Dreamland at 12th & Porter in '84 or Francis Xavier and the Holy Roman Empire at the Bitter End in '86, the last of which I remember only because of the name of the band.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Upon Saint Crispin's Day

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Sheboygan Falls Five & Dime, Adjusted for Inflation

Shucks, we're not getting very many robocalls these days, political or otherwise. I wouldn't mind hearing a few (just a few) as we did in 2006, (or was it 2004?), if only for the entertainment value. But Illinois isn't remotely in play for the presidency. I noticed a lot more candidate yard signs in Wisconsin, and saw a lot more political ads on TV there, even though recent polls suggest a Clinton '96-sized victory for Obama in the state, that is, 10 points. Could be that I'm not paying as much attention here at home, especially to TV ads.

That's because they don't make 'em like this anymore: "Immorality surrounds us, as never before," and you need me to fix the problem, which I believe moralists have been saying for a long, long time. Or this: guilt by spurious association. Actually, come to think of it, the tenor of political advertising hasn't changed, even though the details are different. So they still do make 'em like this.

I could link to the famed "Daisy Spot," but I hope that everyone's familiar with it, including those of us too young to have been aware of it in 1964. Even before the advent of YouTube, I'd seen it -- as part of a film shown in Mrs. Collins' US history class 30 years ago, though we didn't go into detail about the little girl who was it the commercial.

Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, is a pleasant little town, at some distance from the nearest Interstate, and from Sheboygan. If Kohler is a "suburb" of Sheboygan, then Sheboygan Falls is positively exurban. While in town, I went looking for the falls, and before long found them, from a vantage point along the Sheboygan River.

Niagara it ain't, but the eight- or ten-foot cascade has its charms, especially on a fall day when you have the view all to yourself. Later, I wandered down the town's main street, actually called Broadway, striving for a sense of that virtuous Main Street the politicos and pundits talk about, as opposed to the perfidy of Wall Street. I also took a short stroll on Pine St., which is another bone fide small-town street name, though perhaps not as much as Elm St.

Anyway, the sense I got was of a small town with many of its stores closed. Not because of the economy, but because it was late on a Saturday afternoon.

Evans was open. It was more like a five-and-dime than anything I've seen in years, except that it carried a lot more stock than the five-and-dimes that still existed in my youth. A five-and-dime on steroids, then. Among other things, it had an astonishing array of games and puzzles, some of which I'd never heard of before. Wish I'd taken notes. But I could see how Evans competes with certain big-box retail behemoths: it puts more imagination into its selection than is possible for a chain of big boxes, dependent as they are on mass merchandising that feeds off a distribution chain from here to the Yangtze River Delta.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cast-Iron Art Near the Sidewalk

During the day on Saturday, a flawless fall day, I had some time to walk around some of the Kohler Co. properties and parts of the town of Kohler, which is one pretty town. Near the sidewalk outside the Kohler Waters Spa -- which is adjacent to the design center -- I noticed a small cast-iron sculpture. A few steps further, I saw another. Then another.

I started paying attention to the signs describing the works. It turns out that they belong to the J.M. Kohler Arts Center and were created mostly in the 1990s or early 2000s as part of what the arts center called the Arts/Industry Program. If you follow the sidewalk from the spa and the design center, you'll continue to see the cast iron sculptures, most of them fairly small and mounted on concrete, or set inside a planting of some kind. The trail leads across a main street and to an otherwise unoccupied parcel near a small shopping center.

Many of the works were representational: a wolf head, a large baby head (enigmatically called "Waiting for Titus," by Michael Bishop), a motorcycle, and a canoe stripped of its skin and filled with stones. That was enigmatically called "Walt Whitman Cult Wagon," by Peter Flanary. A piece by Sadashi Inuzuka (of Michigan) was called "Exotic Species," and featured various blobs of cast iron, including one that looked like a doughnut, another like a sea sponge, and various others that were less identifiable and vaguely unsettling.

Then there was this, "Perfect World," cast iron set in concrete, by Richard Hanned of New York.

A close look at the hemispheres reveals that they are supposed to be two halves of the Earth, whatever else they look like at first glance. The ribbon describing an infinity sign around the hemispheres looks like a train track, and part of the track is occupied by a side view of a train that has the letters PERFECT as an integral part of the train cars.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

You Don't See Walls Like That Very Often

Usage note for the day. In my professional writings, I've been referring to the Panic of 2008, and so far no editor has changed my phrasing. I've read the phrase in a few other places, too. Good. I want to encourage the usage.

Near the American Club are a number of other Kohler Co. properties. Across the street is company headquarters, with the main structure topped by a clock tower, looking more like a university administration building than a corporate facade. Behind that building, and running far down the street behind a fence, is a large complex of brick industrial structures, old buildings covered with ivy here and there. From the street, I could hear sounds coming from within -- a radio, for example -- but couldn't tell if anything is still being made in there. Kohler, after all, is a worldwide operation with factories in a lot of other places.

Down the street is the Kohler Design Center, also brick on the outside and looking like something on a college campus, but dating from the 1980s. One of the conference events was held there, so last Friday evening I had the run of the four levels of the 36,000-square-foot building, though much of my time was taken up talking to other people. The place is a palace of plumbing fixtures, faucets, baths, showers, toilets and bathroom accessories across a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. All no doubt unimaginable to most of humanity down the centuries, but available now from the Kohler Co.

Down in the basement was a museum with exhibits of older Kohler manufactures, including early bathtubs. It seems that old man John Kohler was a pioneer of cast iron vitreous enamel baths, though he didn't invent the process. Curiously, that's attributed to David Dunbar Buick, who later when on to design automobiles. The Kohler Co. also made (and still makes) various kinds of machines, including generators. On display in the basement of the Kohler Design Center are generators like the ones -- or maybe they are the ones -- that Adm. Perry took to the pole.

Almost by itself, the back wall of the design center was worth the drive up. It was a wall of toilets. Or more exactly, an ordinary wall fitted with small platforms in columns. On each platform was an example of the art of the flush-commode by Kohler -- sometimes as many as 10 or 11 all the way from the floor to the ceiling, three stories up.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The American Club, Kohler, Wisconsin

Kitty Bean Yancey of USA Today had this to say about AAA's diamond rating system, back when the 2008 list was announced about a year ago: "The non-profit travel organization... conducts annual unannounced inspections of properties and rates them on a scale of one to five diamonds based on a checklist of hundreds of criteria, including public areas, rooms, amenities and service."

I'm not sure how much stock I should put in lists like these, but I will say this: I thought the only Wisconsin five-diamond property on the list, which is called the American Club, deserved all those diamonds.

Tucked away -- not only away from the Interstate, but away from the state road that branches off the Interstate to get there -- the American Club is in Kohler, Wisconsin, the place founded in the early 20th century by and for the plumbing-fixture giant of the same name, which maintains its headquarters there to this day. Among five-diamond properties, its evolution is probably unique. It was originally Kohler Co. worker housing for single immigrant men, opening in 1918.

Photos and other framed artifacts along one hallway of the American Club illustrate the early years of the establishment. I took a look at some of them as people passed by me in the hall. The American Club wasn't a posh hotel in those days; it wasn't that until its renovation in the far distant future of the 1980s. Still, I got the impression that as 1910s worker housing, it must have been unusually comfortable. Walter Kohler, son of the company founder, probably had a paternalistic streak, but I couldn't shake the notion that by building the club, he also felt he was doing his part to discourage Bolshevism.

These days, it is a posh hotel, with all the tangible ingredients, and as far as I experienced it, the intangibles too. The tangibles included a Tudor exterior wrought mostly in brick and festooned by colorful vines this time of year, interior oak paneling, expensive furniture, and a scattering of tasteful objets d'art, at least in the common areas. Various sedately lit passages lead off in various directions, sometimes to carriage-trade restaurants sporting names like the Immigrant Restaurant and Winery (jacket still required for gentlemen), the Wisconsin Room (regional specialties) and the Horse and Plough (80 bottled beers, plus a dozen Wisconsin beers on tap).

Toward the back of the property is a lush courtyard. As of last weekend, the first frost apparently hadn't visited this part of Wisconsin, so a lot of the flowers, bushes, vines and trees were still displaying their foliage. This was the only place I managed to take photos while at the American Club.

The American Club was my conference hotel, not where I spent the night, so I didn't see any of the room interiors. I repaired to the Sheboygan La Quinta for sleep, because I'm a cut-price person in a low-budget land, which is increasingly fitting for the times. The Texas-based La Quinta, actually structured as a hotel REIT, is part of the limited-service segment of the hospitality industry. That sounds like something I might write professionally, but in any case it has no diamonds. No diamond dust even, though it was quiet, clean and pleasant. Maybe four zircons.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hello Wisconsin

Driving home from Sheboygan today, it occurred to me that except for the four states in which I've lived, I probably know Wisconsin better than any other state. That's because if you live in northern Illinois, Wisconsin is, or should be, an amenity of your location. I've thought that for years, though the first time I visited the state was not from Illinois, but by bus from Texas in August 1978. To a lad from South Texas, Wisconsin seemed exotic.

Wisconsin's not exotic these days, but in October especially, it's definitely pretty. Large parts of it, anyway.

But there's much more to it than that. More tomorrow.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

And You Thought Chicago Votes Were the Deciding Factor

I'm not an expert on the television ads of the 1960 presidential campaign, but I saw these recently and couldn't help wondering what kind of factor the contrast between the two ads was in the ultimate outcome.

First, Nixon -- Seriously.

Then, Kennedy -- Jingly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Three Guys Sitting Around Singing

Today was cloudy and drizzly and cool like November, except that the trees were colorful like in October, and the grass as lush as in September. Call it an autumn mix.

One more detail from Monday's downtown excursion. At Schaumburg Station, where we boarded the train for the city, three guys were sitting in the waiting room singing. Or humming. Or making wooooooo noises -- or haunted wind sounds. We couldn't quite pin it down from outside. They were the only ones in the waiting room, and both times when I entered the room briefly, they quit doing it. They had the look of three college lads, so perhaps it was whimsy. Then again, maybe it was communication with the Mother Ship.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sears Tower Vexillology

At the Sears Tower yesterday, we didn't go to the tourist floor way up high. The Skydeck, as they call it, costs $12.95 for adults and $9.50 for kids over three years old. Twenty years ago, the cost was $3.50. I remember that because I paid it. Adjusted for 20 years of (fairly low) inflation, that means the cost should be about $6 now.

At that price for me and (say) $4 for the girls, a visit would have cost $14. In some minor-difference alternate universe, I might well have done that instead of going to the Art Institute. But that's not our universe. Instead of $14, the Skydeck made $0 off of me because of its price-jacking ways.

I had a short meeting on the ground floor of the Sears Tower, at the Starbucks there, with a real estate developer who's actually developing something. Nice to hear. True, the project's in Mexico, but as it happens the Mexican economy's not doing too badly. The development people and I sat at one table, and the girls at another, drinking hot chocolate, and they didn't bother me a bit during the meeting.

In the Franklin St. lobby of the Sears Tower, which has a very tall ceiling, there are 200-plus flags hanging on the wall behind the information desk. Even if you don't care one way or the other about flags, that's an impressive display -- and I like flags. But I'm not enough of a vexillology nerd to know all of them, and naturally Lilly asked me about one that looked familiar, but which I didn't know right away: blue field, yellow disc in the center.

Helpfully, one of the building employees behind the desk came forward with a pamphlet explaining the presence of the flags, and which flags they are. Turns out that one for each National Olympic Committee (205) hangs on the wall, plus three or four City of Chicago flags. Chicago, you see -- make that Mayor Daley -- wants the 2016 Games very badly. This is to remind passersby in the Sears Tower of that ambition.

Lilly had asked about the flag of Palau.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Downtown Columbus Day

Another warm day, a good one for walking around downtown. Lilly and Ann and I spent the afternoon at Union Station, the Art Institute and the Sears Tower, and sidewalks in between. Not much has changed at Union Station lately, but I noticed new things at both other places.

Mostly we were downstairs at the Art Institute, which has an exhibit of artwork you can touch, along with the Thorne Miniature Rooms. I was fairly sure both kids would like these rooms, and they did.

"The 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s," the Art Institute web site notes. "Painstakingly constructed on a scale of one inch to one foot, these fascinating models were conceived by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago and constructed between 1932 and 1940 by master craftsmen according to her specifications."

Glad to hear that Mrs. Thorne, who married into Montgomery Ward money, employed master craftsmen during the Depression. The exhibit includes the likes of "French Bathroom and Boudoir of the Revolutionary Period, 1793-1804," "English Drawing Room of the Georgian Period, 1770-90," and "Tennessee Entrance Hall, 1835," which sound like dry academic classifications, but the detail is astonishing. You half-expect five- to six-inch people to be in the rooms, going about their miniature lives (or deaths -- how about Marat in that Revolutionary bathtub?).

Also, Mrs. Thorne seems to have had a special fondness for miniature wax fruit.

Lilly asked why the bath in the Revolutionary room didn't have any faucets, which led to a short discussion of indoor plumbing. Later, she asked what a drawing room was, and I wondered why it was called that myself. I told her it was for entertaining visitors, but I wasn't sure of the etymology. My American Heritage New College Dictionary says that it's short for "withdrawing room." That's what we all need sometimes, a withdrawing room.

Before we left, I wanted to take a stroll through the first floor Arms and Armory exhibit, along a long hall that also includes a lot of European decorative arts. It's one of my favorite galleries in the museum: how could you not like a dark room with displays of full body armor, racks of medieval and renaissance weaponry, gold goblets, silver plate and a reliquary with a tooth of John the Baptist? At the end of the room, through a door under a twin staircase, you can then go straight to the Chicago Chagall Windows.

Except you can't see any of those things right now. Arms and Armory was gone. The museum's being renovated. The long-hall gallery is becoming something else -- now it's as bright as an overpriced retail boutique, and it looks like the layout of displays is going to be similarly airy, though only a few pieces are in place: buddhas, mostly. Next to the twin staircases was a man behind a desk that said ASK ME. So I did. He didn't know where the Arms and Armory had gone. (In fairness, the sign didn't say he would know the answer.)

The Chagall Windows were gone too. What's going on here? At least the museum could have posted a sign saying where they were and when they would be back.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

President Boop

At around noon today, I stood on my back yard deck, in shorts and barefooted. The warm boards felt good. Old Sol was my friend. Off in the distance, trees sported a lot of yellow and brown, but that didn't seem right. Yesterday was like that too, even warmish in the evening. I'm expecting, then, a freak snowstorm sometime later this month.

A few other things about Max Raabe. His show at the Paramount Theatre wasn't sold out, sad to say, except that it enabled me to order good seats only about two weeks ahead of time. When I called the box office to order them, I asked if tickets had been selling well. "Not as well as we thought," the gentleman who handled my order said. He speculated that had Raabe appeared downtown at Symphony Center, as originally planned, he might have done better. The Paramount seats about 1,900, and I'd say that only 1,500 of those places were occupied, if that.

Among those who did attend, the audience was a sea of gray hair and baldness. I felt young. A few few rows ahead of me was a younger couple, maybe not even 30. During the intermission, I heard them speaking German, so I suppose that explained that. I also spotted a handful of kids during intermission. But even our relative youth (40s) was a rare thing.

This Betty Boop cartoon supposedly has new currency in the blogosphere these days, and who I am to deny it? It's an interesting cartoon for a number of reasons, one of which for me is the caricatures of Herbert Hoover and (I think) Al Smith. Good old Al Smith. Though he really didn't have much of a chance against Hoover, it was a time when a candidate's ugliness didn't stand in the way of a major party nomination.

Betty Boop as president was later recycled in a Popeye cartoon, "Olive Oyl for President" (1948). A cartoon that begins like this:

Olive: "Popeye, why don't women run for president?"

Popeye: "Cause they're too busy running for husbands." (Popeye does his laugh.)

Later, though, Popeye comes to support the idea of a female president, specifically Olive, after she beans him with a really large frying pan. Here's that cartoon, to compare with Betty.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

& The Palast Orchester

A note about the other musicians with Max Raabe last weekend. How do people get that talented? Besides Raabe, the Palast Orchester had 12 other members -- two trumpeters, one trombonist, two alto saxophonists, two tenor saxophonists, a pianist, a guitarist, a percussionist, a violinist and a string bass player. But it wasn't that simple. The saxophonists played clarinet when called upon, which isn't so surprising, but trombonist Jörn Ranke also played viola. That switch gets one's attention.

It's also no surprise that the guitarist, Ulrich Hoffmeister, plays banjo, violin and, considering the musical period, ukulele. Supposedly he can also play the mandolin and the singing saw, and I believe it. But I didn't see him play the singing saw. Wish I had. As for the string bass player, Bernd Dieterich, he was also seen to be playing the sousaphone. There's an interesting combo of skills.

Then there was Cecilia Crisafulli, first violinist and only female member of the band, who not only played stunningly, but did so in a backless red dress that was stunning too. It's bad form to let your jaw fall to the floor while sitting next to your wife, and so I had to catch it while having some Oh-My-God moments. Crisafulli's relatively new to the band -- the woman violinist in all the clips I've seen was her predecessor, one Hanne Berger. I wasn't disappointed by the change. I also enjoyed hearing her name. Say Cecilia Crisafulli as Italian-ly as you can a few times and see if you don't agree.

The evening's playlist allowed pretty much all of the members of the Palast Orchester moments to showcase their instrumental skills, and do other things as well, such as when three of them did the aforementioned turn as the voices of the three little pigs. One song had all of the band ringing hand-held bells of various sizes, including a mock dispute between some of them about ringing the bells too vigorously.

All together, the Raabe and the band did two hours' worth of material, two sets with an intermission (which Rabbe called "an interval.") I wasn't taking notes, so naturally I don't remember most of the playlist, especially the German titles. But I can recall familiar ones such as "Singing in the Rain," "Bei Mir Bist Du Schein," "Dancing Cheek to Cheek," and "Just One of Those Things" (Cole Porter).

The arrangement of "Singing in the Rain" seemed fresh and novel, even though it was older than the movie version. "You may remember the song from the talking picture with Gene Kelley," Raabe said. "We play a dance band arrangement, which is somewhat different from the talking picture version, with Gene Kelly."

The first number after the intermission was "The Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)." I was mostly unfamiliar with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's original, having heard The Doors' cover much more often. Anyway, Raabe's version was closer to this, but not quite the same. For one thing, I'm fairly certain Raabe used "show us the way to the next little girl" rather than "show us the way to the next little boy." Perhaps he didn't want to take épater les bourgeois quite that far.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Essence of Drollery

"Music has always been closely linked to destiny and personal tragedy,” Max Raabe said to introduce a song, pausing a moment. “Who cares? As long as it doesn't affect you personally. This is a song you might recognize from the talking pictures."

Raabe and the Palast Orchester then proceeded to play "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Three members of the band voiced the parts of the pigs, which was a little unusual, since Raabe did most of the singing throughout the evening. The audience was much amused.

I knew going in that I would see a remarkable singer backed by a first-rate band. But the surprise of the evening was that Raabe was funny. Make that droll. The essence of drollery. This is no mean feat in one's second language.

He didn't tell jokes. Rather, he wryly described the song the band had just played, or was going to play, and sometimes described the lyrics in English if the song was German. One German song, he said, was about a cactus that falls off a window ledge onto a passing neighbor. "This is still a popular song in Germany," Raabe said. "Because we find the circumstance funny."

To introduce a love song: "Men and women are different creatures. Yet sometimes, the female allows the male to reside in the same domicile. He is useful for opening champagne bottles..."

Yet the show was much more than comedy. From a review by Anthony Tommasini of Raabe's show at Carnegie Hall last year, a spot-on assessment of the singer and the orchestra: "Mr. Raabe maintains a detached attitude about the matter. In his own way he is a tenderly expressive singer with a light baritone voice, though, like Fred Astaire, he can croon his way to tenorial highs or dip to playfully earthy basso lows. But there is not a trace of sentimentality in his singing, not a slice of ham, even when he is having fun. When Mr. Raabe, backed by the musicians playing the band’s harmonically rich, casually jazzy and inventive arrangements, performs a breezy romantic song like the 1929 'Wenn du von mir fortgehst' by Hans May and Kurt Schwabach, it comes across as affecting and piercingly true."

Detached indeed. When he wasn't singing, Raabe leaned against the piano -- practically draped himself on the piano -- calmly waiting for his lines. Then he'd amble up to the 1930-style microphone, and out came his mellifluous voice, which has been described as a "honey baritone" for good reason. This is another good sampler, including bits of some of the songs he did at the Paramount.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Max Raabe

I found out about the musician Max Raabe in a throughly modern way. I first read about him on a blog earlier this year. Intrigued by the description, I went to YouTube and found come clips. After that, I was intrigued a lot more.

Imagine if Herr Raabe (for he is German) were the sort that got bent out of shape by such clearly copyrighted material appearing on YouTube -- as certain media conglomerates are. If so, the clips I saw might not be on line. In that case, I might have read about him and the Palast Orchester, but that's about as far as I would have gotten. I'm not 17. I'm not going to aggressively seek out new music.

I certainly wouldn't have bought tickets to his show at the Paramount Theatre last Saturday without seeing those clips. What a concept: YouTube as a marketing tool. You'd think an entertainment behemoth like Viacom would be all over that.

A few weeks ago, I heard on radio station WDCB that Raabe was coming to the Paramount, and I knew that I wanted to go, and that Yuriko would probably like him too. It helped that tickets were moderately priced compared to idiot pop stars or hyped sports events.

Raabe's specialty is dance and film music of Weimar Germany. Well, not quite, because some of his playlist on Saturday included American dance and film from roughly the same period, and a few of the songs were post-1933. Still, as Raabe pointed out during the show, he and the 12-piece Palast Orchester recreated all the songs using the original arrangements.

He also sings covers of more contemporary songs, though none were included in the show we went to. Such as this. And his own songs, such as this, which I understand is about cloning.

The show in Aurora was one of the best concerts I've been to in years. (I don't go to many, but still.) It was like being transported to Berlin in 1929, overlooking the slight inconsistency of the early '30s songs. The only thing missing was a brawl between brownshirts and reds in one of the aisles, though that probably would have alarmed most of the audience.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Paramount Theatre, Aurora, Illinois

For an edge city, Aurora, Illinois, has a fairly busy downtown on a Saturday night, at least during the time I was there last weekend. Then again, classifying it as merely an edge city does town no justice, since it has long been a distinct place at some distance from Chicago. At one time, in fact, it was two distinct places, one on either side of the Fox River. They ultimately grew together like Buda and Pest, but in a much shorter period, as befitting its hurry-up-and-get-things-done Chicago-area location.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago: "In 1854 a second town incorporated west of the river, and three years later, the separate municipalities united. To ease political tensions between the two, civic offices were located on an island in the river; ward boundaries ended at the river, and the mayor was elected from alternate sides until 1913. While initially the east side was much larger both geographically and in population than the west side, the river now divides the town through its general geographic center."

The island in the river goes by the attractive name of Stolp Island, and these days it's crossed by several city streets and is also the focus of a good many of Aurora's downtown attractions, such as the Hollywood Casino. In fact, the casino's probably the main draw. The connecting footpath between a large parking garage and the casino complex was active last Saturday, as it probably is most weekend nights. Yuriko and I parked in the garage, but we hadn't come for the casino.

We'd come to visit the Paramount Theatre. The linked video doesn't even mention that the Paramount was a Rapp and Rapp-designed movie palace -- Cornelius and George L. Rapp, that is, who created so many movie palaces once upon a time, including the renowned Chicago Theatre, but also a slew of others in Chicago and elsewhere. The brothers Rapp evidently took Venice as their inspiration for this particular palace in Aurora, gilding the place with golds and reds, using strong art deco touches in the light fixtures especially, and capturing that Venetian mood through paintings that evoked tapestry scenes. It was worth part of the admission price to the show just to get in and look around.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Item from the Past: Wrong Numbers

October 9, 1992

This is what happens if you accept an invitation from your students to go to an izakaya for food, drink and mirth one weekday evening after class. You have to face rising at 6 am the next morning with a chilly little headache and a mouth reeking of dry seaweed.

Some business has recently been assigned a phone number very similar to mine. At least it isn't a Domino's. Still, someone has 609.3446, one mis-stroke on a push-button phone from connecting with me. I received about a half-dozen calls for this business this afternoon. At first I answered the phone, telling the caller in reasonably good Japanese that he had the wrong number. Inevitably, the same caller would then call back. One dim bulb called three times, even after I specified that the last digit was wrong.

I was annoyed until I had the inspiration of picking up the phone and holding it close to my radio, which was turned up a little for the occasion. Then I had fun with it. No one every called back after receiving the radio on the other end: the jolt must have made them more careful in dialing the next time.

More fun with the phone: Last week I got a couple of calls from Prague. I'm only assuming the first was from there, but I'm sure of the second, since it was from Nate and Steve, who've been tooling around Central Europe lately as an escape from their stressful occupations, salesman and MD, respectively. I believe they had some spare crowns' credit on their phone card, and called Japan on impulse.

The first call, about a minute ahead of theirs, had better enigma value. I picked up the phone, and heard a series of rapid clicks. Then I could hear a conversation between two women in an unfamiliar language, vaguely Slavic. I said hello, but they seemingly couldn't hear me. After about 30 seconds, it disconnected. Then Steve and Nate called. Steve told me they had tried to call just before the successful connection. Seems like there are still a few bugs in the Czech phone system, though I'd guess its system is an exemplar among former Soviet satellites.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Do the Madison, Monsieur

Had an interesting interview with an enthusiastic Frenchman this morning -- enthusiastic about his retail business, which is expanding into the United States, recession or not, and about the United States itself. Anti-American sentiment gets more play, but clearly a vein of more favorable feelings also exists in France. Which would also be the case here in the United States regarding France. Not that French anti-Americanism bothers me much, anyway. You're not going to be much of a great nation if you don't piss off a fair number of people.

While I'm on a Franco-American theme, here's a fine cultural blend: a clip from Jean-Luc Goddard's Band à part (1964). Definitely French. You could hardly get more French than Goddard and the French New Wave. And yet the characters are doing the Madison. If French postings on You Tube mean anything, the French are still fond of the Madison. Stay to the end of the clip, and watch for the silly walks as well:

Just as entertaining, and also a cultural mash, is the Leningrad Cowboys (Finns) and the Red Army Choir (Russians) singing "Sweet Home Alabama."

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Haircut, Illustrated

Ann recently brought home a sheet with a song about colors on it. A nice little ditty:

I love colors,
Yes I do!
Red and orange and
green and blue.
I love colors,
Dark or bright.
Yellow, purple, black,
and white!!

Kindergarten in every way, but isn't this demeaning and offensive to the color blind -- I mean, the chromo-visually challenged? What about their feelings? A clear example of the oppressive chromo-normative paradigm.

I went to see Tony the barber today in a professional capacity -- he shortens my hair, I give him Federal Reserve notes. Lilly was at a friend's house, but I took Ann with me. Tony let her sit in a chair nearby and watch the process. I'd given her some paper and a pen as something to do, and soon she came up with this:

It's a depiction of Daddy's haircut, with hair spilling onto the floor. Tony is the one with glasses -- even though the actual Tony doesn't wear any -- and Ann is in the drawing, too. Curiously, she's the only one with distinct feet and shoes.