Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Batman Cometh

Continuing the tradition that we started two years ago when I made a brown flannel puppy costume for Johan to wear at Halloween, I created a Batman costume for him last weekend. His gossamer wings are the best feature of the costume. He likes to shake his arms, making the wings shimmer wildly.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Calling All Bibliophiles

One of the reasons that I enjoy visiting my daughter is that she and her husband always have fascinating books laying around. I hasten to add, however, as a dedicated Mormor, my most pressing reason to visit Anna and Aage is to see my precious grandson. Anyway, a while back Anna mentioned that Aage had found a new book for her in Border’s that she thought I’d like.

Was she ever right. If you love books and have never read “Outwitting History,” by Aaron Lansky, do yourself a favor and get a copy. It’s subtitled “The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books,” and is the story of how Lansky, along with friends, started a worldwide effort to save Yiddish books and, as a consequence, prevented the demise of Yiddish language. He’s an entertaining writer with a worthy cause.

While we were out East several weeks ago, we managed to cram in a visit to the National Yiddish Book Center, which is situated on the edge of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. (This was right before all of the flooding, so I’m worried as to the current state of the Book Center.) The place is just as fascinating as is Mr. Lansky’s book. As the name implies, it’s a museum about Yiddish, but it’s so much more, as it tells the story of how Yiddish evolved and why it’s so important to preserve the large body of works that at one time were thought to have been discarded.

I’m currently on a campaign to entice CBS Sunday Morning to do a feature on it and to also bring Mr. Lansky to Champaign-Urbana to tell his story. At the Center, I noted several local connections: The University of Illinois Library has been one of the recipients of Yiddish books from the Center and the local Yiddish Club of Champaign-Urbana contributed funds for its establishment.

In planning the building for the Book Center, which was to become home to original texts and/or copies of all extant Yiddish literature, the idea was to evoke the image of an Eastern European Synagogue, none of which survived World War II. Most people agree that the goal was beautifully achieved, as evidenced above.

The spaces inside are just as charming. The entryway feels like a friendly foyer; the lighting is soft, the walls are framed in bare wood, the exhibits beckoning. It was a difficult decision as to which way to head first. Overhead, instead of Muzac, one is entertained by Klezmer tunes. For a change, there is no charge for admission and one is welcome to take pictures, so we took advantage of that freedom.
If you choose to walk directly ahead, you realize that you’re actually on a balcony, looking down to the collection of Yiddish books that are available for purchase.
From that vantage point you can also see the receiving area, with stacks of assorted half opened boxes holding books that have been sent to the Center. Sadly, one can also see a security screening device, just like those used at the airport, to screen boxes for explosives before opening them.

If you go to the right, you’re drawn into a room with a large to-scale replica of a wooden Synagogue in the middle of the room, with descriptions of the original plans and location of the building, which was in Poland. We wandered through other equally fascinating exhibits for about for an hour and a half and would have liked to linger longer, but needed to head back home that afternoon.
Even as a person of non-Jewish heritage, I was entranced by the rich historical value of all of the National Yiddish Book Center's opportunities. If you’re interested in learning more about the effort, visit their website. But do be sure to read the book.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Movin' Out

Yesterday was our day at the theater. We had tickets ahead of time for The Odd Couple with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and for Movin’ Out, which we thought was a review of Billy Joel music done by a young singer and piano player. We were right, but soooo wrong.

First of all, if you ever visit NYC to go to shows, you need to file the Edison Hotel away in your mind. Its front door is on 47th Street, its back door is on 46th Street and it’s half a block west of Broadway. It was built in 1931 and the lobby is in genuine Art Deco style; the rooms are more reasonable prices than any of the other Broadway area hotels. Our tickets for the matinee yesterday were at 256 W. 47th Street, about 4 doors west of our front door and the 8:00 tickets were at 226 W. 46th Street, literally across the street from our hotel’s back door. Dennis, who made the hotel arrangements, knew that we would be close to the shows, but somehow didn’t appreciate the genius of our location. The bonus, as though anything more could be wished for, is that the Café Edison, a well worn diner-type place off the Lobby, offers eastern European fare at modest prices for the neighborhood; actors refer to it as the Polish Tea Room. There are also several cocktail lounges, and at least one upscale restaurant, but we were loyal (and wish we would have had time to try more offerings) to the Café Edison.

From the beginning, this visit to NYC has been charmed. On Tuesday, ten minutes after our train from Connecticut passed over a Bronx intersection, a semi-trailer loaded with fuel exploded, killing the driver and knocking out power to the New Haven-New York City train line. Yesterday Amtrak managed to jerry-rig a push-pull arrangement of the trains going north, so we’ve changed our departure time today to allow for the extended travel time. Dennis’ sister, Cathy, will pick us up in northern Connecticut tonight and tomorrow we’ll drive back to Illinois.

Anyway, back to the day at the theater. Dennis went down to scope out the street scene before the Matinee and called on his cell phone to tell me that there was a huge line of folks waiting to go into the theater, and that they all had tickets for the show. As we were puzzling over this strange crowd behavior, Dennis said something to someone passing by, something like, “Would you say hello to my wife?”

He had just recognized Matthew Broderick hurrying into the theater. Dennis pointed at him, Matthew pointed back as Dennis was talking to him, and then Matthew said, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m late for work.” He did graciously shake Dennis’ hand as he hurried off. I’d be willing to bet that most of us, confronted unexpectedly with a celebrity, would just gape, but there was Dennis, with his wits about him. It reminds me of the time he struck up a conversation with the Governor of Illinois in a restaurant bathroom, but that’s another story.

The Odd Couple was entertaining; Nathan Lane was his usual comic self and Matthew was in one of his frump roles. He seems to like taking on strange speech patterns, and in this role he talks with a lisp. In short, it was a lark to get to see them together again, but in retrospect, it was classic Neil Simon with not much depth.

Movin’ Out, however, was a fully intact, forceful piece of Broadway artistry. First of all, there is the young singer, Michael Cavanaugh, who could be a clone for Billy Joel. His singing and piano playing are genuine and he’s backed by a great bunch of musicians who are all showcased by their perches on a heavy metal scaffold that raises and lowers as space is need on stage.

Then there’s the staging by Twyla Tharp. The dancers are all classically trained in ballet, but this is ballet with an edge. It’s easily the most energetic, intense performance I’ve ever seen. In reviewing the program, I note that the leads are played by different dancers in the Wednesday and Sunday matinees, which I’m relieved to hear. The dancers’ performances are so strenuous, that even for trained athletes, it wouldn’t be medically wise to do two performances in one day.
We had tickets in the second row, so good that I could see one woman’s abdominal scar. I said earlier that we thought this was a review of Billy Joel’s music, which it was, but it was similar to Mamma Mia, in which there are a series of pieces tied loosely together with a theme. The dancers had few lines, most of their expression was with their bodies, and the theme was about relationships before and after Vietnam. The theater wasn’t filled, the show closes in December, and if you haven’t seen this yet (I’m thinking of you, Leta,) you must see it!

We’ll have brunch at our favorite spot downstairs before we catch the 1:00 train to New Haven, then tomorrow head back to Illinois. This visit to NYC has been a delectable treat.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cross One More Thing Off My Life Experience List

Decades have elapsed since I last participated as a member of a nationally broadcast program. I was a knobby-kneed Girl Scout in the 1950’s when my troop visited Don MacNeil’s Breakfast Club in downtown Chicago one early weekday morning. I have vague memories of going down into a basement and filing en masse around the breakfast table as it were (there was no breakfast to be had and instead of going around a table we marched around the room.) But maybe it was an Arthur Godfrey show? The details are sadly lost to the ages.

However, the details of my recent participation on The David Letterman Show will be with me always. Whenever I’ve been in New York City over the last 15 years, I’ve regretted that I hadn’t had the foresight to think ahead and organize passes to the show. Knowing that we would be in NYC to see two Broadway shows (more about them in my next post,) Dennis inquired last summer and then, per directions, applied in early September for two passes to the show on Tuesday, October 4, 2005. Someone from the show called last week and asked Dennis a trivia question (“What’s the name of the red haired guy on the show?”) which Dennis successfully answered. It apparently mattered that he had the correct answer. We were telling some acquaintances who applied for tickets and when they were asked, “Who’s Alan Kalder?” were unable to come up with the answer. Their names were placed on a reserve list and they were never called to be on the show. Anyway, Dennis was told that we needed to report to the ticket office between 3:00 and 4:00 the afternoon of the show to pick up our tickets and to state that we were on the Adam’s Gold List.

Knowing that forgetting that we were on the Adam’s Gold List could spell the difference between getting in or being denied entry to the show, we quizzed each other periodically over the last week so we wouldn’t forget the all-important code.

We showed up at 3:05 yesterday afternoon and had to go to the end of a very long line of folks waiting for their tickets. It was then that we began to appreciate the art and science of crowd control employed by the Letterman Show. After waiting in line for 15 minutes and then showing our picture ID’s, we entered the theater lobby in small groups and were first divided into one of two lines: Adam’s Gold or Bethany’s something. I pointed out to Dennis that this was simply the A list and the B list. Our names were on the A list and we were given official tickets with hand-written numbers, then shepherded back to the outer lobby, where we were penned until there were about 30 of us. There we got our first lesson in yelling loudly, which we discovered is an expected behavior for a Letterman guest. We also got instructions to return exactly at 4:30, so we could be in time for the 5:30 taping, and to line up exactly in sequence according to our ticket numbers and to stand in the yellow section.

When we returned at 4:25, we found the yellow guide tape and stood patiently for another 15-20 minutes while our fellow yellow tapers found their places. At one point, the guy standing in back of us said something about the Cardinals; I asked him where they were from and he said, “Illinois.” With further questioning, we discovered that they live in Champaign, too, and that his wife works at the same clinic that I do. We didn’t recognize each other and never did fully introduce ourselves.

Next we filed into the lobby in tight 2-by-2 Noah’s Ark Style rows, and stood until 5:00, when they finally let us into the studio’s auditorium. During our time in the lobby we were instructed in which sounds not to make (whistles, high pitched yells, moans, etc.) and the usual instructions re: no cell phones, cameras, or recording devices. We also had further tutelage in appropriate enthusiastic laughter, applause, yelling, etc. Our guides in all of the pre-program preparations were young preppie types, the kind of folks who have recently been their schools’ cheer leaders. Once seated in the auditorium, they continued the effort to keep us loud and excited; I noted that several of the young women were so physically involved in their cheering that they should have no physiologic need to go to aerobics classes, as much exercise as they get on the job.

We were seated in the 6th row from the front, over on the far left (looking from the stage) aisle, so the view was somewhat obstructed by the various cameras and gear, but nevertheless, it was very interesting to see the stage set-up. A warm-up comedian/host further coached us in what to expect during the taping process and also entertained us in a non-irritating manner. Often I’m put off by the warm-up comics, but this guy did his job very nicely. The band members were introduced to us one by one and did some warm-up playing before the show started; they were also consistently very entertaining, besides being terrific musicians.

Dave came out about 5 minutes before the taping began and did his own little warm-up with us, then they effortlessly flowed into the taping. There were no 2nd tapings of segments and during commercial breaks, they put up funny scenes from previous shows on the monitors over the stage to keep the natives from becoming restless. During the commercials the set was a hodge-podge of casually dressed assistants (some even in Bermudas) hovering around Dave or Alan Kalder. During the broadcast, assistants held up cue cards, just as is done in Tootsie. I found myself laughing much louder than I usually do, much more often than I usually do and certainly clapping like I never do. Everyone around us seemed to fall into the same behavior patterns as well.

The taping was completed, as promised, shortly after 6:30 and we were released in normal milling style (no organized exiting was required) out into the twilight of Broadway. I watched part of the show later and could appreciate how the audience’s participation is such an essential part of the production, but very forced when you actually study it. It would be a very different production if it weren’t for the prodigious coaching that goes into the audience’s preparation.

Would I do it again? Probably not. We had to hurry up and wait (on our feet) for long periods of time and provide free services. However, I can now cross the Letterman Show off my list of Things To Do.