Saturday, August 6 in Bryan Park – An Evening with Tom Roznowski followed by The Grapes of Wrath  – Free!

Bring a blanket. Bring a snack. Bring the dog. It’s time for our summer Under the Stars film program in Bloomington’s parks.

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Bring a blanket. Bring a snack. Bring the dog. It’s time for our summer Under the Stars film program in Bloomington’s parks.

Saturday, August 6 in Bryan Park – An Evening with Tom Roznowski followed by The Grapes of Wrath  WFIU Porchlight host, singer/songwriter Tom Roznowski, will perform from 8-9pm. Then at 9:45, John Ford’s classic film, The Grapes of Wrath, will be shown. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad, the iconic itinerant ex-con leading his large family down Highway 66 in search of work and a better life in California, The Grapes of Wrath—one of American literature’s great politically liberal books adapted by a famously conservative auteur—stands as perhaps Ford’s most powerfully compassionate movie.

There are more fun films this summer in the park...

Friday, September 16 in Bryan Park – Encanto (2021) – Rated PG – Dusk
A lot happened at the Oscars this year, so you could be forgiven for forgetting about Encanto’s win for Best Animated Film. Here then is your chance to see (and hear) what the fuss is all about on a lovely summer evening in the park! Encanto is the enchanting story of a multigenerational Colombian family and their teenage daughter who possesses magical powers. Encanto features an incredible, Oscar-nominated score and fantastic original songs that you can overshare on social media!

Saturday, October 1 in Switchyard Park  – Ghostbusters (1984) – Rated PG – Dusk
You know the theme song, you know the legendary cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Sigourney Weaver. You know the plot: three parapsychologists lose funding from their parent university and decide to go into the business of removing ghosts in New York City. At one point the demigod Zuul shows up in all its stop-motion animated glory! You’ve undoubtedly seen Ghostbusters before, but this time watch it under the stars and quote your favorite lines.

AN EVENING WITH TOM ROZNOWSKI followed by THE GRAPES OF WRATH: Free, Under the Stars in Bryan Park

Saturday, August 6 in Bryan Park
– An Evening with Tom Roznowski followed by The Grapes of Wrath  WFIU Porchlight host, singer/songwriter Tom Roznowski will perform from 8-9pm, After Tom’s performance, John Ford’s classic film, The Grapes of Wrath, will be shown. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad,

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The Forgotten Folk: B-Sides from The Harry Smith Folk Anthology

The Carter Family (left to right) Maybelle, Sara, and A.P.

By Tom Roznowski

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Down by a western water tank
One cold December day
–  Dick Justice,   The Harry Smith B-Sides (Track 1, Disc 1)

And now it lies broken. Probably for the length of our lifetimes. The deep divisions in America around race and class, which were always rooted in wealth, have stunned us all into collective dysfunction. The depth of our divisions were clearly exposed in a yea or nay national referendum. The result of that democratic exercise illuminated this estrangement for all to see. As for the business of resolving policy issues or choosing a future direction, the outcome of this once-in-a-generation election decided nothing.

Backward glances are not natural to Americans. If we have never quite measured up as a forward-thinking people, we can at least be considered a forward-looking people. Each of the major migrations in our nation-building: across the Atlantic to North America, westward into the frontier, or more recently from farm to city, required a personal resolve to never glance back at the consequences of your actions, or stop and consider how they might be slowly gaining on you.

One manifestation of this resolve has been the exploitation and subsequent abandonment of large portions of lands and people, stretching from sea to shining sea. You don’t have to look far for evidence of the damage done anywhere east of the Mississippi: the vacant small towns, the impoverished mountain communities, the tired aging cities. No question that daily life was hard for many even when these areas were thriving. In fact, as we can see now, that’s exactly what allowed them to thrive in the first place.

The Harry Smith B-Sides, recently released as a handsome boxed set by Disc-To-Digital, provides listeners a director’s cut of an already legendary work. These are the companion tunes for the A sides from original 78 r.p.m. releases that appeared on The Anthology of American Folk Music curated by Harry Smith. That initial collection, released by Folkways Records in 1952, featured 84 performances of American roots music, the majority recorded in just three years, from 1927 through 1929. The selections are divided into three categories: Ballads (the English folk tradition of storytelling through song), Social Music (played and sung where people gathered: primarily church and dances) and finally, Songs (covering the waterfront with meditations on birds, prison time, rough neighborhoods, and fishing).

As distinctive as the sources and subjects of these performances are, there is a cohesion that binds each of these collections together as a concept. This is astounding, especially given the social, racial, and class divisions that coursed through America at the time. A period photograph of African-American and Cherokee musicians Andrew and Jim Baxter (Georgia Stomp b/w 40 Drops) reveals perhaps more than was intended. The two men are seated outdo15ors posing with their instruments. They are apparently the invited entertainment for the day. Behind them, at a remove of perhaps 10 yards, a group of fashionably dressed white women stand behind a long table. Welcome to Gordon County, Georgia in the 1920s.   

Of course, being uniquely American, the original Anthology American of Folk Music was a serendipitous combination of creativity, evolving technology, and market forces. In the mid to late 1920s, the process used to capture live music took a huge leap with the introduction of electronic recording, vastly improving the fidelity of performances. Voices and instruments no longer had to shout to be heard. Almost overnight, Enrico Caruso became Bing Crosby.

These advances moved in lockstep with a growing consumer market eager for portable, re-playable versions of folk songs by rural artists; performances that a couple decades earlier could have been absorbed only in the moment. What Gutenberg’s press did for story, the 78 rpm record did for roots music. Yet another step away from the imme15diate and the individual, anticipating that a broad acceptance would surely follow.

Harry Smith was not a musician, but he listened like one. He was a genuine eccentric born of eccentrics. His mother claimed to be the vanished daughter of Czar Nicholas, Anastasia. His father had once been a cowboy. Every bit as essential as his fascination with American folk music was young Harry’s penchant for collecting. Whatever he earned at various odd jobs was largely spent acquiring ephemera: catalogues, paper airplanes, painted Easter eggs. Around 1940, Harry Smith began to accumulate commercially released folk recordings created during this rich three-year period of the late 1920s. Conveniently, Harry’s curiosity and energy coincided with yet another enormous shift in recording technology that had occurred during the late 1940s: the emergence of LPs (Long Players) spinning at 33 1/3 rpm and the conversion of two song, A and B side releases from 78 to 45 rpm., which facilitated the growing popularity of jukeboxes.

In the 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, songs were consigned.

In response to this market shift and eager to create warehouse space for new releases, major record labels began off-loading their remaining stock of 78s to local retailers for pennies on the dollar. Much of that stock had been sitting undisturbed during the Depression and World War II. With few notable exceptions, the musicians who had performed on these recordings had either moved on with their lives or simply died.

The initiative to release The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 was guided by Moe Asch of Folkways Records. The new LP format had made it marketable. Harry Smith’s vast collection provided the content. The resulting wave of inspiration arising from the public’s exposure to the songs and styles of these lost artists is evident in the original music created during the folk, blues, and rock boom of the 1950s and 60’s. “One singer playing an instrument and telling a story” pretty much sums up the majority of cuts on the original anthology. Earthy vocal styles. Driving rhythms. All of a sudden, it was daylight again.

But in that generation between the last recordings featured on the original Anthology and a young Bob Dylan playing at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, the world had become a different place. The books included with each Harry Smith collection show us just how different. Consider the names of the artists, or the titles of the songs: Columbus Fruge, Uncle Bunt Stephens, The Williamson Brothers and Curry, or “I Heard The Voice Of A Pork Chop,” “The Royal Telephone,” “My Mamma Was A Sailor.” Clearly not from around here, at least these days.

This is what, in the first anthology’s introduction, Greil Marcus refers to as “the old, weird America.” But actually, that’s only because we collectively closed our ears, turned our backs, and walked away. Even in 1952, these recordings must have sounded raw and primitive by comparison. The emergence of multi-tracking in the mid-1960s made these initial performances seem even more remote. A little math to consider: The distance between the releases of The Anthology of American Folk Music and The Harry Smith B-Sides is 68 years. Reverse that amount of time back from the original release and you are midway between the patent for Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the formation of his company to market recorded wax cylinders.

The sudden availability of The Harry Smith B-Sides, much like the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945, basically takes a hard right turn off of our accepted reality. It’s not that these added performances are inferior or secondary by appearing on the flip side. Rather, they enhance and broaden our understanding of these rare artists, the music they played, and significantly, the America that surrounded them.

In the late 1920s, the B-sides were often where the racy, and racist, selections were consigned. A small note included in this set of 4 CDs states that three songs which matched contributions on the original Anthology are not included here because of racist lyrics. One of the artists, Uncle Dave Macon, had either a natural affinity or a supreme indifference to racial epithets. Another one of his recordings included a slur right in the title. A popular Grand Ole Opry performer, Macon still stands enshrined in the Country Music Hall Of Fame today.

There are other names in these collections that might be familiar to folk, country and blues fans today: The Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, but the vast majority of performers here would only be fleetingly captured in their brief recording sessions before being cast back into the river of time to sink or swim. These include voices that belie age and broader influences. Richard “Rabbit” Brown sounds like no one has since, though you’d imagine many a soul with a guitar on their knee might have thought it was a style one could learn through imitation. Dock Boggs was only 29 when these initial recordings were made, sounding twice that old because of all that he had seen, heard, and swigged. As one listens here, there is a creeping realization that as technology continues to guide us away from the sensory and what’s become lost in the process is something personal, immediate, and genuine.

The opportunity for individuals who had only played locally for town folk, family and friends to record in a professional studio must have involved a leap of its own. Imagine a visit to New York City or Chicago for someone raised without electricity. Consider too the fragile trappings of fame that might suddenly surround them: a printed poster for their performances, a professional photograph posing with their instrument, then this brittle black disc with their name and song neatly printed on a light blue label. All this when there might have been two phonographs within five miles of home.

This thrilling feeling, this startling moment in time, was all gathered in two and a half minutes of recorded music. On the second disc included on The Harry Smith B-Sides, The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers encourage you have to a little talk with Jesus. Heart and soul while making every small stop in between. Then, there’s the foot-stomping careening fiddle tune “Old Red” by Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers. Country music is often described as three chords and the truth. “Old Red” is two chords touching eternity.

The question one is left with after a visit to the days before tube microphones, multi-track overdubs, and isolation booths is not how much better the finished recording might have been than a live rendition but exactly the opposite. Listening to the sheer raw force of these sessions, one aches for the lost experience that must have preceded them. Maybe a random Sunday in a tiny church with Blind Willie Johnson testifying. Or maybe searching Appalachia with a name and destination in mind: Back roads traveled, directions asked, until you hear the banjo and fiddle a little further up the hill, just before your scent reaches the dogs.

All this time and distance allows for the fact that the lyrics here are frequently offered a strange patois or shouted, garbled, and growled in a way that defies understanding. As Om Kalthoum or the Rolling Stones have proven, this alone does not preclude a listener’s transcendence.

Technology continues to guide us away from the sensory.

What’s become lost in the process is something

personal, immediate, and genuine.

Can this collection of 165 songs spread out over two releases nearly 70 years apart be considered essential listening for someone who loves the American music genres of country, rock, and blues? Is reading the Bible cover-to-cover a given for a devout Christian? Or visiting the Pyramids for someone who loves travel? It’s out there. You decide.

Perhaps it’s enough for now to simply extend thanks to the folks at Disc-To-Digital for the enormous effort and collaboration necessary to present these artifacts for your consideration. One thinks about the thousands of early films shot on silver nitrate stock, the vast majority lost to the ravages of time, fire, and indifference. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, originally shot in 1928, was thought lost forever until a complete copy was discovered over 60 years later in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. Often, the margins of extinction are just that slim. But still the search continues.

This is 20th century archeology, which in the case of The B-Sides involved using model airplane glue to restore the only surviving recordings. This collection may provide entertainment but beyond that, it may provide some cause for hope. Can something so fragile from so long ago survive the rough transition to our current reality? It is a question that involves remembering and mending as part of the answer. Acknowledging that it’s been badly broken. Needing it to somehow be made whole again.   

[editor’s note: Tom Roznowski has spent most of his creative life singing, writing, and exploring in his particular locality, the hills of Southern Indiana. Currently, Tom is the host of Porchlight, airing on WFIU Saturday evenings at 6PM]

December issue of The Ryder

The new issue of The Ryder, funded in part by a Recover Forward grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association, is on the virtual newsstands! Here’s your personal copy, and here’s some of what’s inside….

Passages Craig Brenner’s new album reflects a difficult time in his life. By Mike Leonard

Arts Alliance Artists shouldn’t have to sneak in through the back door. A look at the first ten years of the Arts Alliance of Greater Bloomington. By Rachael Himsel

The B-Sides A new collection of classic American folk songs asks us to consider if something fragile from long-ago can survive in our current age. By Tom Roznowski

Pedaling Peace and Global Activism Inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dnyan Yewatkar has embarked on a global tour he calls Pedaling for Peace. He’s traveled 30,000 miles through 23 countries, and lived through close calls with a hungry tiger and a hungry drug cartel gang. By Mason Cassady

Queen’s Gambit Chess is not just a game but a discipline and the high-wire world of professional chess has never been portrayed with more care and respect. Who says “Girls can’t play chess”?. By Stephen Volan

Searching for Vito Scotti Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Columbo – it’s a never-ending list. You might not recognize his name but if you watched TV in the 60s and 70s you’ve seen Vito Scotti, character actor extraordinaire. And we haven’t even mentioned his work in feature films – including  indelible performances opposite Brando in The Godfather and the Monkees in Head. By John Bob Slone

Flip through the magazine. If you stumble upon a story that you like, or if you just want to support local, independent journalism, please consider making a donation.

Strangers In A Strange Land: The Luminous Guidance of Roman Holiday

By Tom Roznowski

“Life isn’t always what one likes”: a line from Roman Holiday, the 1953 Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Pairing this with another timeless mantra, “Life is brief,” one might feel trapped beneath the weight of despair. We travel this path. We tear up maps. We remain lost until we’re found.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo achieved considerable success during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Increasingly though, his populist and pacifist sentiments drew him into conflict with America’s dominant post-war message: that the material and manufactured would elevate our mortal souls.

The inevitable collision of perspective and policy occurred in 1947 when Dalton Trumbo was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in the film industry. Along with Ring Lardner Jr. and Edward Dmytryk, Trumbo became one of the original Hollywood Ten, individuals whose names and talents would be blacklisted by the major studios.

In his appearance before the Committee, Trumbo refused to answer direct questions, remaining steadfast and unapologetic about his contempt for the inquiry. His comment about the sentence that would result in his incarceration for nearly a year at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky: “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint.”

Upon his release, Trumbo and his family moved to Mexico City. Exile from one’s homeland has informed and enriched the work of writers from Dante to Durrell. Separation from one’s origins will often focus the writer’s gaze upon life’s essentials as deeply-held values become more precious and their expression suddenly more critical.

During his time in Mexico City, Dalton Trumbo would produce perhaps the most resonant single work of his creative life. The screenplay would emerge as a light romantic comedy, oddly enough; carrying with it a far-seeing wisdom that had somehow eluded Trumbo during his years of political activism. It is ironic, yet somehow logical, that due to the on-going blacklist, this signature piece would be presented to the world anonymously. It was not until 2011, thirty-five years after his death, that Dalton Trumbo would finally receive formal writing credit for Roman Holiday.

Money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.

The film opens with a newsreel report about Princess Ann, a young royal-in-waiting in the midst of a whirlwind goodwill tour through post-war Europe. Her stress levels reach a saturation point in Italy, which in 1953 was still bearing the social and economic scars of the previous decade. The country’s rampant post-war inflation, with 10 American dollars being equivalent to over 6,000 Italian lira, serves as a running joke throughout the film.

In a strange way, the modest circumstances of daily life in Rome provide a common ground for the film’s two disparate characters. The Princess, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is privileged and sheltered. Her stress arises from hauling the weight of abundance. Every waking hour is planned in advance by her handlers. She walks through her days in a daze, motivated by other’s expectations.

On the first night of her visit to Rome, the Princess steps out onto the balcony of her embassy, drawn to the laughter and music of an open-air party just outside the gates. She is transported, initially by a desire for meaningful connection and later by a laundry truck as she sets off on her journey of discovery.

Trumbo then introduces us to Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter for the American News Service. Bradley is also eager to escape his daily reality. For him, though, it is the lack of abundance that proves confining. His one-room walk-up flat has no kitchen, no telephone. His life abroad has no traction. He can’t even win at poker when dealing the cards.

The desperate reporter’s discovery of the sleeping princess suddenly offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: a relative fortune of $5,000 U.S. dollars for an exclusive story about his new friend. The fact that the amount translates to over 3,000,000 Italian lira means little to our hero. Joe Bradley wants to abandon his modest situation in Europe and return to America.

The chance meeting of these two characters produces a brief spark that illuminates the space surrounding them. Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason. In fact, at the moment when Princess Ann, still concealing her identity from Bradley, agrees to a day of doing everything she’s always wanted, time actually reverses itself. The clock tower of Trinita dei Monti above the Spanish Steps reads 11:30 AM, a half hour before the chimes that actually begin their day.

Symbolically, this illusion wipes the drab slate of reality clean and propels the fated couple into a mystical adventure: their past, their future, forgotten for just a few stolen hours from one precious day in pursuit of the now.

So just how does one get to the now? In transitioning from a formerly comfortable life to sudden exile, Dalton Trumbo has some thoughts to share. The full embrace of the present is a fundamental goal of the searching soul. The couple’s day together in Rome plays out with a mix of the unanticipated and the intentional, a range of emotions from fear, to reverence, to delight. And as it all unfolds, Dalton Trumbo’s script places his personal values squarely in the couple’s magical experience.

Fundamentally, Trumbo is inviting us to explore and come to know the place where we find ourselves, beginning with the other people who share it. Trumbo considers this in both its global and local implications. Throughout Roman Holiday, the Italian language is neither anglicized nor sub-titled. It remains the visitor and the viewer’s responsibility to understand. The couple deepens their awareness of Rome’s history, its fables, and its legends, all the while reveling in the beauty and pleasure the city affords.

These discoveries are necessary in our lives, Trumbo believes, because we walk this way but once for a relatively short time. Indeed, Princess Ann realizes that she is living out a fairy tale and at midnight she will return to her previous reality – to be a princess once again.

On the other hand, for Joe Bradley, this return to reality proves stark and sacrificial. At journey’s end, he does not collect his prized interview with the wayward princess. He does not collect his $5,000. In fact, he emerges even deeper in debt to his employer and his photographer friend, Irving. Rome, temporarily a fantasy of escape, will become Joe’s everyday reality going forward. America is relegated once again to being his perpetual dream.

With Roman Holiday, Dalton Trumbo urges us to commit to life’s simple pleasures, whether an afternoon glass of champagne or dancing to a live band beneath the stars. An enduring populist truth emerges: that money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.

In 1953, this guide for daily living was still on display throughout Europe as the continent recovered from two devastating wars within a generation. Dalton Trumbo provides us just the briefest glimpse: noon to midnight on an average day in Rome, Italy. In the film’s final scene, Princess Ann continues on her path to a life of structured, subsidized luxury. Joe Bradley heads toward a life of material uncertainty. With their last glance, they both share knowing grins, no sign of despair as they turn away – maybe because from now on each of them truly has no idea what might happen next.

 

Tom Roznowski is a performer and writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. His new radio series PorchLight with Tom Roznowski airs at Saturdays at 8:00 PM on WFIU-FM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curly Little Shirley Explains It All For You

A Luminous American Life ● by Tom Roznowski

 

In a curious way, Shirley Temple’s recent death at 85 resonated with popular culture as much as her famous childhood did. While turning her back completely on Hollywood and serving in far-flung outposts as a U.S. ambassador, Shirley Temple Black somehow managed to avoid both vicious gossip and the public eye. Hiding in plain sight, as it were.

Over the course of the 20th Century, media in various forms came to direct and define fame in ways that have made this type of anonymity virtually impossible. Because her early public career coincided with the emergence of sound movies, Shirley Temple would become the first celebrity for whom chronological aging became a serious inconvenience. Her film career began in 1932, the same year that the venerated vaudeville venue, The Palace in New York City, converted itself to a fulltime movie house. In the depths of the Depression, a quarter could buy you hours of escape in air-conditioned darkness. Standing all of four feet as she tap-danced, sang, and lectured cranky adults, Shirley Temple reminded a suffering nation that daily life could actually contain joy.

As exhausting as her schedule was, starting at age 5 with 16 feature films completed in three years, Shirley Temple achieved nationwide recognition without appearing on the stage. Her filmed performances ran simultaneously in thousands of theaters across the United States multiple times every day with a brand new feature being produced every few months. By the time Shirley Temple blew out the candles on her 10th birthday cake, she had appeared in 40 separate film titles. From 1935 to 1938, she was the top box-office draw in America.

Good thing, too. Because within just two years the American movie-going public would summarily reject this beloved and bankable star for the simple reason that she was no longer a little girl. With the increasing clarity of visual film images and recorded sound during this period, every half-inch of her growth was being notched on the door jamb. Fox Studios, anticipating that their investment had a fixed time signature, had altered her birth date by a year.

From today’s perspective, we can see that even as sound film multiplied access and more accurately replicated reality for audiences eager for escape, it also encased film stars and their human personas in amber. And all of this happened within the average American life span of Shirley Temple Black. The first Oscar for Sound Recording was awarded at the first Academy Awards ceremony after her birth. In 1932, just as she was getting in front of a camera, sound mixing was introduced. Then she sang “The Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” performances so definitive no one else even bothered. She held her own dancing on with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Not backwards in high heels but rather down a staircase in Mary Janes.

Shirley Temple’s popularity began to wane even before she reached adolescence. As you might expect, it all started with some bad decisions made for her by adults. She was initially the choice for the lead role in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, but Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox Pictures, refused to loan her to MGM.  He was very confident about Shirley’s upcoming release the following year; a picture you’ve likely never seen called The Blue Bird.

It became the first of four consecutive flops for three different studios.  Shirley Temple would then marry at age 17. A measure of just how completely she had vanished from the public eye was the fact that her subsequent divorce at 21 did very little damage to either her reputation or her career. Two weeks after the decree was finalized, she married Charles Black – very wealthy and not an actor. Then, poof! Even for the still curious, she was gone. Now she could finally smoke a cigarette in peace.

As film and sound recording became more technically sophisticated in the 1930s, screen characters were presented in ways that defied the passage of time, allowing audiences to permanently project their deepest fantasies. In 1955, popular culture would freeze Marilyn Monroe’s white dress in mid-air as she stood over a subway grate. This, and her death at age 36, conveniently banished the thought that she would have been nearing ninety when the dress was finally auctioned in 2011. Its entire reputation was based on a ten second movie scene. The winning bid was 5.6 million dollars.

The great blues singer, Bessie Smith, had been born just a generation earlier and also never saw 50. She at least had the advantage of leaving her best performances in the present moment. Legend has it that her voice was capable of putting some audience members into a hypnotic trance that drew them like zombies towards the stage. Afterwards, her scratchy Victrola recordings became sepia postcards from the trip. Already been there, thanks.

Over the course of the 20th Century and accelerating every decade, technology has narrowed the breadth of our imaginations. With digital formats in sound and film absorbing more and more creative presence, the work of interpretation is now increasingly being done for us. Illusion created in print or with black and white film can gently guide the senses and the emotions. But as every shade of color and every bit of detail is filled in, illusion is becoming a thrill with diminished impact. The effects extend far beyond the artistic. While it’s true that peaches imported from Chile are camera-ready and consumer-friendly, the process of transporting them across a hemisphere in real time comes at a high cost: It turns out they don’t taste anything like peaches.

This slow fade from the imaginative and the sensory began long before Shirley Agnes Temple drew a breath, yet one could argue the process took a pronounced leap with her first flop. The Blue Bird started production at 20th Century Fox Studios in the wake of MGM’s astounding success with their own film adaptation of a popular children’s tale. The production looked good on paper, at least in the contracts and publicity releases. While Judy Garland was a discovery, Shirley Temple was an icon.

The reasons for the failure of The Blue Bird now seem so plain with the perspective of time. Stark reality collided head on with advancing technology: Shirley Temple at 12 and in Technicolor. Her hair was no longer curled in ringlets. Her pouts were temperamental rather than charming. Her talents were suddenly considered pedestrian rather than precocious. At a time when Bessie Smith’s hypnotized subjects still walked the earth, the movie star was no longer worth the cheap price of admission. It’s the oldest vaudeville adage of all: Never follow a kid act.

 

The Ryder ● September 2014

 

Pull quote

The slow fade from the imaginative and the sensory began long before Shirley Temple drew a breath, yet one could argue the process took a pronounced leap shortly after she blew out the candles on her 10th birthday cake.

ARTS: The Petit Paris And Me

Correcting Life’s Little Mistakes ◆ by Tom Roznowski

Childhood is about entering life through doors left unlocked. I was taught from an early age that America has more doors with light shining under them than anywhere else in the world. Growing up here, you sense it must be coming from the sun shining on a distant horizon: the satisfaction of a good day past or the anticipation of the new day ahead.

A few years ago, there was a historic analysis done of the so-called happiness index. It indicated that collectively Americans felt the greatest sense of optimism and security in their lives during the year 1957. Statistical guru Jeff Sagarin tells me it’s even more definitive than that. He focuses on the resonance of one single day: October 4, 1957. That Friday saw the launch of the Sputnik satellite into space, the television debut of Leave It To Beaver, and a travel day for the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Yankees as they battled in an epic seven game World Series. (I should mention here that the previous week, “That’ll Be The Day” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets was the hottest selling single in America).

Curiously, that year has also been cited by long-time New York City residents as the finest the city ever felt during the 20th Century. Urban environments are by their very nature dynamic and complex, so calculating the high point of their evolution is at best a doubtful exercise. That said, in 1957 New York City Miles Davis was recording Miles Ahead, Madison Avenue had real Mad Men, and My Fair Lady was playing on Broadway. Oh yea, and Mickey Mantle was 25 years old as he trotted out to play center field for the home team. I consider this some fairly persuasive evidence.

My own childhood was spent in the post-war suburbs of Albany, New York, which in 1957 was the capital of the most populous state in America. New York would be eclipsed by California in that regard while I was still in grade school, but culturally and commercially the Empire State remained the nation’s epicenter for a while after that. This was another random stroke of good fortune for me. California would come to reflect America in the last quarter of the 20th Century, when we were obviously not at our best.

Friday, October 4, 1957, would have found me walking home from school along another Madison Avenue, the main commercial district for my neighborhood. Albany was about 135 miles from New York City, a far greater distance back then. I don’t think I’d insult my hometown by remembering it as comparatively provincial. Still, Albany was close enough to absorb occasional cultural resonance from the great city to the south.  If one could have ever devised an antenna expressly for that purpose, I believe it might have been planted on the roof of 1060 Madison Avenue.

I always had a fascination with the building as I passed by it back then. But as a small child, my curiosity would have only been met by a locked door. So now it’s left up to me, over 50 years and 700 miles distant, to uncover the secrets of what lay hidden on the other side. That light beneath the door is dim and smoky. Press an ear close to hear the music and chatter, occasionally punctuated by a loud laugh and the clink of plates and glasses. Inhale the aroma of strange cooking and imagine some big fun for adults inside.

1060 Madison Avenue in Albany, New York was the address of the Petit Paris. I remember it as an undistinguished stucco building with weeping ivy and a plain wooden sign. Modest elegance, you might say. Tiny windows were set to either side of an arched oak door; an indication that daylight held little sway with the business going on within.

Petit Paris

The Petit Paris, Albany, New York

A restaurant—that was about all it revealed to me. The dinner menu for was framed in a showcase above the mail slot. It featured Flaming Sword Coq-au-vin, Escargot, and Crepe Suzette: generic French cuisine for post-war America. I would guess that more than a few of the customers had served in France during the war. Having experienced the country at its worst, perhaps some veterans were eager for a chance to change their impressions. A skilled chef and a full bar might help there.

So would the movie Gigi, which would soon premiere to rave reviews, eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar. Set in the vibrant Paris of the 1890s, Gigi was originally intended by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner to be follow-up to their tremendously successful run of My Fair Lady on Broadway.

Turned out they took a detour on the way to the stage. Hollywood producer Arthur Freed essentially made the pair an offer they would not refuse, yet one more victory for California over New York. Already in 1958, New York City and Brooklyn had lost major league teams to the West Coast. To some, Gigi justified the means by grossing over four times the film’s bloated budget.

This was essentially the same method of persuasion used to dispatch the Petit Paris. One afternoon as he was wiping down the bar, owner Mike Flanagan received an early visitor. He inquired whether the place might be for sale. Mike named an unreasonably high price, figuring it would discourage a merely curious buyer. One month later, the visitor returned and they shook hands on the deal. On July 3, 1973, the Petit Paris closed. Within two months, it was bulldozed to make way for a supermarket. I was working a summer job in the Catskills and heard the news in a phone call home.
So I never did walk through that big oak door and I guess I must have regretted it ever since. On a whim recently, I entered “Petit Paris Albany” into the Ebay search engine. Lo and behold, there it was. An old unused postcard revealed what was waiting on the other side in that smoky light.

The photograph shows white linen tablecloths with napkin tents and champagne buckets. A huge painted mural on one wall depicts something regal and historic. Soft blue colors dominate the club. I imagine Maurice Chevalier’s top hat in Gigi was a similar shade.

And then, an unexpected surprise; the kind previously locked doors can reveal when you get past childhood. An elevated stage for live performance complete with velvet curtains, a baby grand, and huge potted palms to either side. Wonder of wonders, it turns out the Petit Paris was actually a swanky nightclub.

Looks like there would have been just enough room on stage for a five piece combo. Why, after few phone calls a long weekend of dates featuring Miles Davis and his road band might be arranged. Maybe the core group he’d use for the Kind of Blue sessions. Do you think Coltrane would make the trip? Friday night.  I’d order an appetizer, their best vintage, the Chateaubriand, saving just enough folding money to bribe the band into playing “My Funny Valentine.” And the waiter would keep filling my glass.

After the last set, I’d step out into the brisk October night and hail a cab. Union Station, I tell the driver. I check my wristwatch. Last train to Grand Central. Game Three of the World Series is tomorrow afternoon in Yankee Stadium. I have box seats along the third base line.

Sure, I already know the outcome. That’s why I’ve set my dream date for New York City one year later: October 4, 1958. Game Three on that Saturday will still feature the Yankees and the Braves with Mantle in center. Only this time, the Yankees win in seven.
A short stretch of perfection; just enough to make me believe that there are no locked doors; that every knob I reach for will turn gently in my hand.

The Ryder ◆ July 2013