Sunday, February 28, 2010

Advertisements - Windows Into the Past

Advertisements reflect the culture of the times in which we live. In this case we are looking at past representations of American life. Take this ad for contraception. Undoubtedly from the World War Two era this ad places all of the responsibility for disease upon the woman. Still, she is kind of pretty.... I wonder if this ad was very effective at the "moment of truth." They say that "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush." I doubt it.

Here's an interesting ad promoting the "bulking up" of America. In the days after World War Two had ended and rationing came to a halt, we were apparently a nation hungering for the things we had forsaken during the war. Still, I never recall my family eating lard after dinner. We usually had chocolate cake from Ebingers, a local bakery that specialized in disguising lard as cakes. Contrasted with todays trend villifying any weight gain at all, I find that I am hungering for a big slice of that nicely disguised lard cake.

Ads can be funny when viewed from the distance of many decades. Things change rapidly in the world of health and food sciences. You can't ignore the varying effects which some products have upon different people. Take this next advertisement for tobacco.

Whenever I went to see our family Physician I received confirmation of this ad. Dr. Frieri smoked like a chimney - even while eating his dinner simultaneously. He vehemently advised my Dad to quit smoking. My Dad did and gained 50 pounds and was dead at 71. The good Doctor, by comparison, continued to smoke until the end of his life. He died in his sleep at age 87. As I said, different things affect different people in different ways. Besides, I always thought the M&M's did my Dad more harm than the cigarettes. After all, Dr. Frieri never ate M&M's. He must have been wise to the lard thing.


Now here's a brillant ad for marital bliss. The ad is for women and advises them to pour Lysol into their vaginas as a way to please their spouses and engender good female hygeine. Now I don't know about you but I can't stand the smell of cleaning products in general, let alone during intimate moments. And a quick look at the label tells you this product is "Hazardous to Humans and Domestic Animals." Really-read the label. Besides which, I cannot even imagine me having this conversation with my wife, Sue, who provided me with these ads. I would rather drink the Lysol first.




Finally, a sensible ad we can all live with. After watching an Uncle of mine almost chop his hand off trying to open a beer can with a hatchet, this innovation was a relief to every member of our family back in the late 1950's. The Uncle in question went on to lead a long and productive life, eventually extolling the virtues of the "pop top" can in his later years.

Old advertisements are like works of art. They open windows into the past and offer reflection upon where we stand today. Looking at some of these ads makes me think "We've come a long way baby!"

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: "Night On Earth" with Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Rosie Perez and Roberto Benigni


This film was first released in 1991. It takes place at the same time in 5 different cities around the world. The stories all concerns taxi cabs.

Beginning with Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder as passenger and driver in Los Angeles and continuing on to New York, Rome, Paris and Helsinki the film is divided into five 20 minute segments which all take place in the same hour. Five clock faces on the wall illustrate this as they are set back after each of the stories.

The 2 American cities are done in English. The New York segment is the wildest and also most poignant. The Paris story is a cutting statement about people. But my favorite is the Rome sequence with Roberto Begnini as the zany midnight cabbie who roams the streets of Rome. His insights and adventures are well worth the subtitles.

Newly released on DVD this is a movie everyone should see. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch it is a delight.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"A/K/A Tommy Chong" A Documentary by Josh Gilbert


In 2003, as the George Bush Administration was invading Iraq, an even more sinister scenario was taking place, largely unnoticed, here at home.

Thomas B. Kin Chong, aka Tommy Chong, half of the legendary comedy duo Cheech and Chong, was arrested and charged with selling "bongs" through the mail. On September 12th, 2003 Mr. Chong was sentenced to 9 months in Federal Prison and forfeited over $103,000 in cash and all of the merchandise that had been taken during the February 24th, 2003 raid.

The United States government had targeted him with an operation named "Pipe Dreams" which was aimed at Mr. Chongs mail order business Nice Dreams. US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan prosecuted the case against the actor-director-comedian. Part of her argument against Mr. Chong was based on his "career of glamorizing pot smoking." When asked if Community Service would be an option for sentencing, Mr. Chong, who had no prior convictions, and his defense team were met with a perfunctory "No." The same answer applied to detention at a halfway house. Dangerous criminals such as Mr. Chong clearly need to be incarcerated.

Josh Gilbert, an associate of Mr. Chong, has made a documentary about the arrest,trial and sentencing in this case. It is about 80 minutes long and features many luminary personalities such as Lou Adler, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Cheech Marin.

The movie is not shown in too many theaters. If you are wondering why, then you do not know, as I did not, that as late as May 13th, 2008 in Newport, Kentucky the FBI was raiding a warehouse and confiscating 10,000 copies of the completed film "A/K/A Tommy Chong." The movie that the Government didn't want you to see has become the movie that the government doesn't want you to buy. I have just watched the trailer and I have to agree with Roger Ebert who said of the film, "You don't have to approve of drug use to be offended."

Tommy Chong was placed under a Federal "gag" order to keep silent about the arrest. Too many complicated First Amendment and Ninth Amendment issues to deal with. Too much light on this subject might expose the "man behind the curtain." At a time when we are supposedly fighting for freedom in 2 wars, do we really want too much examination of our own policies here at home?

John Ashcroft and Mary Beth Buchanan spent over $12 million of YOUR tax dollars to keep you from seeing this film. For a look at this film and more information about it go to the following link;

http://akatommychong.com/

The site will introduce you to the facts of the case and filmmaker Josh Gilbert. You can also order a copy for your private viewing. I wish to thank Mr. Gilbert for his "heads up" on this film. It is important to remember that this country was founded on certain principles. Artistic and political freedom are paramount to our continued existance as a free society. At a time when we are battling the enemies outside of our borders, we should not have to be concerned with fighting "the enemies within."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Cheech and Chong-The Unauthorized Autobiography" by Tommy Chong


I never thought I would even read this book. It has stared at me from the shelves of several libraries for almost 2 years now and I have kept on passing it over. Couldn't be good. Couldn't be worth reading. Boy, was I wrong!

This is one of the most well written and entertaining autobiographies that I have read in quite awhile. If you are expecting, as I did, a rehashing of old Cheech and Chong bits, with not too much substance in between, forget this book. It's not for you.

But if you are looking for a true life story that spans the 1950's through the 1980's and takes you from Calgary, Vancouver to Detroit and the Second City Comedy days and then on to the rest of the world- this is your book.

Whatever preconceived notions you might have about Cheech and Chong need to be checked at the door before you begin to read. This is the story of Tommy Chong, a Chinese-Canadian-Black Man who plays jazz guitar. Turned on by a Chinese jazz musician to marijuana he begins a musical journey that leads him to the world wide fame he imagined while growing up.

Along the way he performs and tours with the Supremes, T. Bone Walker (the Blind Man Chittlin' skit comes from a memorable night when Mr. Chong shared a bill with him), The Temptations and Berry Gordy himself. He even mentors Joe Jackson when The Jackson Five receive their first contract from Motown. Along the way he jams in London with Jimi Hendrix on bass. This guy has really been around.

In 1967 he was a member of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. They recorded for Gordy Records, a subsidiary of Motown. They had several minor hits, among them "Malinda" and "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" The latter was written by Tommy Chong.

By 1969 when he met Richard Cheech Marin, Tommy was on his third marraige. Rae Dawn Chong is his oldest daughter. Although some of the stories here do end up as the basis for the comedy duos sketches, the book is more a history of the changes taking place in show business during the early 1960's. Mr. Chong does an incredible job of relating the Canadian club scene of the era and how it came to cross with the American entertainment of the time.

Influenced by comedians such as Lenny Bruce and especially Redd Foxx, he begins to veer away from music and is drawn toward the comedy of Second City in Detroit and the comedy clubs of Los Angeles.

Tommy Chong was a Canadian trying to get into the United States and obtain a "Green Card" at the same time Richard Marin was trying to get into Canada to avoid the draft. Through a series of misadventures they meet in Canada in 1969. Mr. Chong is by this time an accomplished musician and an Improvisational Comedian. He is looking for someone to play off of when he meets Cheech.

After a few false starts things really take off for them. A meeting with Lou Adler at A&M Records lands them $1,000 apiece and a tape recorder to make demos with. Before the day was over they had recorded the first sketch of the album that would make them famous. By the next morning Lou Adler had the "Dave's Not Here" bit sent to every major radio station in the country. The phones were ringing off the hook with requests to play it again and again. "Big Bamboo" had arrived.

There is also a little mystery being played out in this book. In the beginning Mr. Chong recounts sitting in an airport with his wife Shelby when Cheech passes by. Mr. Chong makes no effort to greet him, wondering instead why he does not "have the urge to reach up and grab him, as I would have a few years before..... why did I just watch as he passed by? ...What caused the rift that has seperated us for more than 20 years?"

I'm no spoiler so you will have to read the book to find out the answer. As for me,this was such a good read that I'm going out to get a copy of Mr. Chongs first book, "The I Chong."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cold War Duo- "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" by John LeCarre


I am a big fan of the Cold war. It had all the necessary elements for a good spy story on a daily basis. And they were true.

Growing up during the some of the hottest times in the Cold War was kind of exciting. The Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missle Crisis, the Berlin Wall. All of these real life dramas made interesting fodder for the writers of spy novels and the stories they spun. "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" is one of my all time favorites.

John LeCarre takes a man, a broken and tired man, Alec Leamus, and turns him into a political anti-hero. Here is a man who has been engaged in espionage against the Russians for a decade or more, who knows all the ropes, and yet finds himself caught in a web he inadvertently helps to create.

The book and the movie are almost identical. It is helpful to have read the book first, but not necesssary. Alec Leamus is asked by MI5 to leave the agency on the pretext of not having gained promotion due to his drinking. Richard Burton plays the part in the movie and his own public struggles with alcoholism make this role very believable.

As he skids down the path of his affliction he takes a job as a research librarian, filing books in a private collecton. There he meets a woman named Liz, played in the movie by Claire Bloom, with whom he forms an instant connection. Two lonely people trapped in their own gray and dreary lives. The film is in black and white. It is an accurate depiction of England at that time, still reeling from the ravages of World War Two. Rationing didn't formally end until 1965. Both the novel and the movie capture this aspect with perfection.

When Alec defects to the Russian side for a price, at the direction of his superiors, a chain of events ensues that brings sharply into focus both the differences and the similarities of what we call Freedom and the other side calls Communism. Both sides have agendas. Both sides resort to unthinkable means in order to obtain their respective goals.

Caught in a struggle between a principled Communist Party member who tries Leamus for espionage, and a ruthless ex-Nazi who may be a British double agent, Leamus finds himself in the grips of a plot that will either reinforce his beliefs or tear them apart, revealing them as the other side of the same coin.

The book is riveting, as is the movie. Richard Burton gives one of his finest performances as the troubled spy. And Claire Bloom is exceptional as a woman torn between her beliefs and the reality with which she finds herself confronted.

Stark and intense writing give the book the feel of the gray and colorless world of Communism in Eastern Europe at the time. Stark and intense direction by Martin Pitt transfer these elements to the screen with perfection.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Looking Back? A Musing.

It's been a lazy kind of day, didn't get much of anything done. Watching the rain has made me a bit reflective and I find myself looking back. That's me on the left, 35 years ago, looking forward, I suppose. I never did see anything there, but I was looking.

Life is strange, with twists and turns that take you down paths you didn't expect to find, let alone wander down. And then suddenly it's too late to turn around and do it over. You can find a new path, or alter the way you navigate the one that you're on, but for the most part, at this point- you're committed.

I spent a good part of the day speaking with old friends. Really old friends. Talking to them helps me gauge my own life. I know that sounds mercenary or self serving, but I think we all do it to some degree. And I came out with mixed feelings.

I haven't missed anything I wanted to do. I've sailed far and wide on 4 oceans to 3 continents. I've tasted all the things that came my way and enjoyed what I liked best when I could. And settled for less when I had to.

But now I'm at rest and time is winding down. I used to feel like the Hartley Coleridge poem "Long Time A Child."

Long time a child, and still a child,when years,
Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I,
For yet I lived like one not born to die;
A thriftless prodigal of smiles and tears,
No hope I needed, and I knew no fears.

But sleep, though sweet, is only sleep, and waking,
I waked to sleep no more, at once o'ertaking
The vanguard of my age, with all arrears
Of duty on my back.

Nor child, nor man, Nor youth, nor sage,
I find my head is gray,
For I have lost the race I never ran
A rathe December blights my lagging May
And still I am a child, though I be old,
Time is the debtor for my years untold.

But now I'm more inclined to feel like Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody."

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Good there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Strange - I started looking back and now I find myself looking forward like the young man in the picture. I'm searching for that "next thing." I'm sure there's an unexpected path here somewhere.... It's all so, well, a musing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Happy Birthday to The Ghost Singer- Marni Nixon

This is not Julie Andrews. This is Marni Nixon, known as the "Ghost Singer of Hollywood" for all of the films in which she sang for the stars.
And there were alot of them!

Incredibly talented, Ms. Nixon did the voice overs for Audrey Hepurn in "My Fair Lady", as well as Deborah Kerr in both "The King and I" and "An Affair to Remember."

In "West Side Story" she did all of Natalie Woods' singing and in the song "Tonight" she even sings duet with herself!

In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" she is the voice on all the high notes that Ms. Monroe could not reach. Along the way she has been the sound of the angels heard by Ingrid Bergman in "Joan of Arc" and also the sound of the geese in "Mary Poppins."

It's rare for me to post twice in one day- but today is Ms. Nixons 80th birthday. She is still performing and I just wanted to wish her many Happy Returns! She has given us all great joy with the magic of her voice.

"Boyhood Photos of J.H. Lartigue- The Family Album of a Gilded Age"


This is a most unusual and rare book. I found it in circulation at The Mooresville Library yesterday. I have been looking at it ever since I picked it up. Sue and I sat in the car turning the pages and laughing with the Lartigue family and their antics.

It is bound and arranged exactly as a family album would be, the photos are seperate from the pages and pasted in. The captions are descriptions of the who, what, when, where and why of each photo.

Jaques Lartigue first began to take these photos in 1901 with a camera given to him by his Dad. He was seven years old. By April 1904, only 4 months after the Wright Brothers had launched their first plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Jacques was in Berck and photographing the first sucessful French aero flight. He was barely 10 years old.

The times in which these photos were taken, in France, were times of invention for the whole world. Marconi and the Wright Brothers, the automobile, balloning, these were all the rage and the Lartigue family was trying it all. And photographing themselves as they crashed go-carts, motorbikes, gliders and even contrived various watercraft.

The "Belle Epouque" was a gifted time in the history of France and the Lartigue family managed to chronicle that golden period in this wonderful collection. These photos of the family engaged in tennis, swimming, bicycling, and just having fun together are priceless peeks into the past. The weekend promenades were the rage and gentleman were expected to tip their hats to aquantinces no matter how many times they passed during the days walk.

Some of the photos are historical in nature. They include early car races, sports, fashion and even swimming. But the best photos are the ones of the family engaged in so many different and bizarre activities.

The book was published in Switzerland in 1966 and is a collectible today. I looked it up on Amazon and it goes for up to $475 in used condition. There are not too many copies of this unique and beautifully crafted book available. Clearly this needs to be placed in Special Collections.

This is what I love best about our Public Libraries - that you can walk in empty handed and walk out with a treasure like this is a truly wonderful thing. That we can so easily look back on the more innocent times experienced by the family Lartigue is an absolute treasure. My special thanks to Mooresville Public Library for the loan of this most unusual book.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jill Dineen Blues Band- Blues with Gusto

We Saw The Jill Dineen Blues Band last night at The Irish Cue in Cornelius, or Lake Norman if you prefer. They can count on me to show up and soak in their gutsy brand of blues any time.

Covering everything you can imagine, they opened with some traditional stuff like "I Don't Believe" and Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long."The piano player, Mike Peters ,took a turn at vocals delivering a truly admirable version of the Allman Brothers' "Ain't Wasting Time No More." From there Ms. Dineen took back the vocals with one of my all time favorites "At the Dark End of the Street." Melts me every time I hear it.

Solid work on guitar by Jim Snyder, and the driving force of Harold "Woodstock" Woodside on bass along with the steady, insistent drum work by Jimmy Honeycutt made this another outstanding Jill Dineen Blues Band performance.

It's hard to hold an audience's attention on any given night- but throw in some pool tables and you have a heavy task before you. The Jill Dineen Blues Band lives up to that challenge in any setting. Check them out at www.jilldineen.com and I'll see you at the next show!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Wings" - Will Kimbrough


Got the newest Will Kimbrough recording today. It's called "Wings" and contains some of Mr. Kimbroughs best writing since the release of his 2008 CD "EP."

He kicks this one off with a ballad, "Three Angels", about his family. Melodic and soothing it sets the tone for most of the CD. "Wings", the title track, is introspective and thought provoking, and is also co- written with Jimmy Buffett.Mr. Kimbough has worked closely with Mr. Buffett on several of his past hits, including "I'm A Piece of Work." ( You really haven't seen or heard it right until you see and hear Will Kimbrough do it live.)

"It Ain't Cool" is co-authored by Todd Snider. They are a natural together. And the song creeps up on you just like JJ Cale. A real snakey song that captures the feeling of a sultry summers night when trouble could be brewing. "It ain't cool to talk about people when they're not around..."

"Open to Love" is a bluesy number with some brass to accentuate it. Very tasteful and understated guitar work by Will on this one. The band really carries itself and Mr. Kimbroughs' vocals are plaintaive.

"Let Me Be Your Frame" (co-written with, and harmonies sung by Sara Kelley) along with "A Couple Hundred Miracles" (written with Irene Kelley and performed solo by Will) round out the album for a fine and mellow finish. I have enjoyed Mr. Kimbroughs' work with Rodney Crowell as well as his more recent work with his band Daddy. But I have always most enjoyed him as a solo act. He is just so human and states so beautifully the many things that we all have in common.

And that is the beauty of his work, he is truly one of America's great modern day troubadors. If you ever get the chance to see him you will know what I mean. You can follow him on Willkimbrough.com and myspace.com/willkimbrough as well as on Reverbnation and Twitter. And for a look at Will Kimbrough in action you can bring him up on You Tube. Get a taste of Will Kimbrough, you will be glad you did.

Friday, February 19, 2010

USS Mason - Fighting Three Wars

Most of America fought two different enemies in World War Two. That was hard enough. But the men of the USS Mason- DE 529, a Destroyer Escort, had the added burden of fighting a third enemy, Jim Crow.

At the outbreak of World War Two the Armed Forces were segregated, just like half the country was. This would not change until after the war was won, but during the war there were some courageous efforts on the part of some, to integrate America's fighting force. The story of the USS Mason is the story of one of those efforts.

Built in the Boston Navy Yard and launched in 1943, she was commissioned in March of 1944 under the command of Lt.Commander William Blackford, a white officer. He would command the Mason with a handful of white officers and an all black crew.

After a sucessful shakedown cruise off Bermuda in the spring of 1944 the Mason headed into action. They escorted a conoy from Charleston, SC to the Azores, arriving on July 6th. The ship then put into Belfast, Northern Ireland for Liberty ashore. The crew was astonished at how well they were received by the locals. Even in England they were denied access to many facilities, but the Irish, albeit neutral in the war, welcomed these men as "Yanks" rather than "Tan Yankees" as they were referred to by the British.

But her greatest story was yet to come. On September 19th, 1944 the USS Mason left New York City with Convoy NY 119. They were to protect her from the German U-boats which had been sinking ships as close as 10 miles off the coast of the United States.

This convoy was done during one of the worst months of severe weather that the North Atlantic would experience in the 2oth Century. In less than a month the weather had claimed 16 of the convoys vessels. The only way to prevent more loss was to send the smaller, faster ships ahead with an escort. The USS Mason was the ship chosen for this duty.

Attempting to lead the ships into Bishop Rock, England the ship was beaten by severe weather that actually split her deck and collapsed main beams. The Mason was a step away from sinking.

Calls for assisitance were ignored and the crew of the Mason were left to their own devices to stay afloat. And stay afloat she did. Within 2 hours the ship was repaired and leading the convoy safely into port. She then turned around again and returned to the remaining ships. The two British ships assigned to help in this endeavor turned back, leaving the Mason to struggle by herself to bring the convoy in. It would take three more days, and nights, in harrowing weather to accomplish this task.

The ship and it's crew were recommended for Unit and Individual Commendations for these efforts by their Captain, Lt. Commander Blackford, as well as Convoy Commander Alfred Lind. The crew would not learn of these nominations for almost 50 years, during research for the book "Proudly We Served."

As a result of the book the crew was awarded the Citations in 2003. Former President Bill Clinton would present the awards on the deck of the latest USS Mason in New York City.

A movie was made of this story with Ossie Davis as Singalman First Class Lorenzo DuFau. The movie was rivetting, especially the storm scenes. The story is told from Mr. DuFau's perspective when his grandkids wake him up late at night with some loud music. He tells them the story in a flashback that encompasses not only the story of the Mason, but of the segregated makeup of our nation, even as we were fighting to liberate the world at large.

The Mason story has been told in other books about the war, but never so vividly as in the book and movie. And for a real quick look at what these guys did you can drop in on them at their web site www.ussmason.org/

That this crew, made up of city kids and farm boys, some of whom had never seen an ocean, banded together in facing the Germans, as well as the forces of the sea, and won, make this one of the greater sea stories ever told. That they did it while under the thumb of Jim Crow is simply incredible.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who Are You?

I've been getting alot more hits lately and I'm beginning to wonder who is out there looking at this blog. And, more importantly, how did you get here?

I love this drawing by Sarah Hoffman. This was done in 1995 when she was 7 years old. It reminds me of the faceless ones who pass through here. I can almost see you...but not quite.

I'd love to do something where you leave a comment to this with a brief description of who you are and what you do. Kind of a public art project. No personal information is necessary. I respect the desire to protect your anonymity. I just want to get a little closer to the readers. Tell me what you like, or don't, about this site.

And thanks for dropping in, Rooftop Reviews will be 1 year old at the end of March. I started it out of boredom and as a way to keep track of my reading. When I started getting comments and e-mails I was hooked. When I started getting books in the mail for free I was amazed!

Now I'm hoping for some feedback and a closer look at who you are.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Big Fish" with Albert Finney, Ewan MacGregor and Jessica Lange


What would you do if you knew exactly how and when you were going to die? That is the predicament in which Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) finds himself after confronting the towns witch on the dare of some freinds. She has a glass eye that shows the future.

Ewan MacGregor is refreshing as the young Edward Bloom, and Albert Finney is simply fantastic as the grown up and dying Bloom. He has lived a full life, rich with fantastic stories, all of which his son believes to be untrue,at best. His father tells stories, tall tales. The son is a writer. There is a conflict between the two stemming from the sons doubt about his fathers tales. He wants to know the truth before the old man passes away.

In a sequence of extraordinary adventures told in flashbacks, this movie is reminiscent of "Second Hand Lions" with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. It has that same quality. And pretty much the same message.

With an excellent script and flawless direction, this movie is one that I would not have expected to like. Fantasy is not my usual forte. But this one is an inspiring tale of faith in the things you cannot always see for yourself. It is about trust and belief - both in those you love as well as in yourself.

Superb acting by Albert Finney as the old man, Jessica Lange as the wife, and Robert Guillaume as the Doctor. Coupled with the competent acting of Billy Cruddup and Ewan MacGregor this film is one you will want to see twice. It's simply that good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Old Dilworth Fire Station # 2 - A Fight for Survival

This lonely little building on South Boulevard reminds me so much of "The Little Red Lighthouse." It is located between the Arlington Condos and the adjoining parking deck.

The red brick building, built in 1909 and known as Old Dilworth Fire Station #2, is fighting for it's life. The owner,Marcel Starks, who acquired it for $1.03 million is now set to demolish it for a new office building. The City of Charlotte has offered him $950,000 for the property but so far, no deal.

First, a little bit of local history. We build things here in Charlotte. We have become so obsessed with building things that we no longer stop to think before we build. We build arenas that no one wants or even uses. We build Whitewater Rafting Centers with public money and then charge the taxpayers $5 to park there. We tear down old banks and historic landmarks and replace them with buildings that are identical to the other buildings and block out the sun. We just can't seem to tear them down fast enough to suit some people.

Walking downtown in Charlotte 12 years ago, I noticed little brass plaques in the sidewalks. They said really interesting stuff, like "The Last Confederate Cabinet Meeting was held on this site May, 1865." Or "On this spot once stood...." You get the picture. There were days when I was afraid to leave the house, in fear of returning home to a plaque that said I used to live there.

I looked around in the streets and there were no stores! Turns out they were all tucked away inside of the office buildings. No more department stores on Tryon Street.Just food courts and newstands and upscale restaurants for the banking crowd. I got curious and started looking at books with pictures of old Charlotte from 1857 and on through the present.

The heyday of Charlotte's business area, immediately adjacent to this firehouse, was in the 1930's through the early 1970's. You can see pictures of people shopping at the local stores. Women and children shopping amidst all the office buildings and the office lunch crowd. Just like New York when I was a kid.

In 1909 Charlotte was still a quaint city, although it was already the largest in North Carolina. Raleigh, with it's Research Triangle, was still many decades away from being the place it is today, although it was and remains, the capital.

The Dilworth area, immediately adjacent to downtown, and home to Fire Station # 2, was in development then. Mr. Dilworth was busy engaging the services of the Olmsted family of landscape architects to design an enviromentally pleasing place where the cities workers could live and raise their families.

In 1908 the city purchased the land from James M. Oates for the sum of $1,000. Mr Oates had paid $375 in 1891. The property is 50 feet by 150 feet, not including the two 10 foot wide alleyways. In 1948 the city closed the staion and sold the land and building for $30,000. By 1976 the property was fetching about $100,000. It passed on in this fashion until 2006 when Mr. Starks purchased the property for the aforementioned $1.03 million.

The problem here can be boiled down to this; Mr. Stark borrowed $828,000 to purchase this unique building in 2006, intending to open a combination car club and parking garage. He planned to use the original building and add a second floor in the areas where there were high ceilings. He also planned to widen the building to utilize the maximum space available. The plans fell through and the building still sits empty.

With only the sum of $80,000 dividing the City and Mr. Starks from closing a deal, you would think this is an easy fix. Just split the difference. But it's not that simple. Mr. Starks stands to lose a few bucks that way. And so does the city.

While the Historic Landmarks Commission stands by it's current offer, which is not acceptable to the owner, it is plain to see that they are not seriously trying to save this beautiful piece of history. After all is said and done, both Mr. Starks and the City will be better served by tearing it down. Mr. Starks will get out from under his loan obligations and make a handy profit. The city will then tax the new things that replace it and everyone will be happy. Everyone except me.

You see, I can still see and hear the fire engines being drawn out into the street on a cold winters night. I can hear the neighing of the horses as they struggle to pull their heavy loads. I can feel the relief of the victims as the fire equipment arrives to salvage their home.

When Dilworth Fire Station Number Two goes, she will take with her a bit of us all. Now I don't know about you, but I don't think there is that much of the past left that we can let it slip away so easily.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eric Clapton and Steve Windwood- Live at Madison Square Garden

In May 2009 PBS aired the Eric Clapton- Steve Windwood concert "Live from Madison Square Garden." Where the hell was I? How did I miss this?

Clapton and Windwood go way back. Windwood recounts that “I was 15 or 16 and he was 18 or 19, and he definitely looked after me. We played records and talked about music. From very early on, he took on a brotherly role."

Clapton moved on to Cream, making musical history. Windwood moved on to form his own band, "Traffic." They would become huge and leave a definite mark on the music scene with "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and other groundbreaking hits, such as "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." The freindship between these two musical giants would continue to flourish.

In 1969, after the breakup of Cream, Clapton formed the legendary "supergroup" Blind Faith. The album was a smash and the music was fresh and exciting, uniting the ethereal sounds of Traffic with the searing guitar work of Clapton. Rounding out the band were Ginger Baker on drums and Rick Gretch on bass. "Sea of Joy" was a monumental step forward in music, combining blues, pop and even a bit of jazz for a new and unique sound.

The Blind Faith album was still on the charts when Clapton decided to move on. This strained relations between the two but over the years they have remained friends.

In late 2007 Clapton was thinking of doing something to revive the old sounds and he turned to Steve Windwood for assistance. As they explain on the DVD they each chose songs from one anothers catalogues for the performance. The resulting concert at Madison Square Garden on February 25th, 2008 is mind boggling.

Windwood alternates between an organ and guitar, delivering magnificent versions of "Had to Cry Today", "Well All Right" and of course, his signature hit "Dear Mr. Fantasy." This was one of the highlights of the performance for me. Clapton takes the initial lead, but Windwood takes it home with his searing licks that cut right to the bone.

Equally breathtaking is the Blind Faith tune "Can't Find My Way Home." Clapton and Windwood mix it up together like a couple of prize fighters. The audience wins.

They both shine when they tackle "Voo Doo Chile" by Jimi Hendrix. Wisely avoiding any attempt at imitating Hendrix, they serve up a wonderful mix of guitar and vocal.The result of this collaboration is astounding. Clapton had covered "Little Wing" by Hendrix when he was with Derek and the Dominoes. Windwood had played on the Electric Ladyland album with Hendrix.

The concert is about 2 hours long but leaves you wanting more. The whole performance is flawless and not to be missed. I don't know how this one slipped past me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Mona Lisa- NYC circa 1845

I found this little treasure back in 1980 in the basement of Jackie Onassis' apartment building on 5th Avenue across from Central Park. I was doing some work for my Dad at the time. We installed anti pollution controls on incinerators.

Rich people throw away some pretty cool things. This pencil drawing from about 1845 is a good example of some of the things I found.

Just look at this picture. She stares with beauty in her eyes and just a hint of a smile plays across her mouth. I snatched her up in her black wood shaved matting with a matching black frame. She has been with me for the past 30 years.

Was this a portrait done for a loved one? Or perhaps just a sketch by an amateur artist?

I find her mysterious, yet so real. There is something flirtatious about her that captivated me long ago. She hangs on the wall beside my bed. She is the only woman that my wife doesn't object to my seeing on a regular basis.

The pencil strokes, when the sketch is held at an angle to the light, are vivid and exact. They give life to the portrait. I must admit to being in love with this woman - our age difference notwithstanding.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Betty Smith- Life of the Author" by Valerie Raleigh Yow


They say good art comes from pain. The life of Betty Smith proves this to be true. But before you read this biography you need to be aware that you may be tearing down the facade that makes her novel, " A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," such a pleasure to read over and over again.

The author, Ms. Yow used to pass a quaint little house adjacent to the UNC Campus at Chapel Hill. Inquiring about it she found that it was the home of the author Betty Smith. Realizing that all of Ms. Smiths papers are stored at the Chapel Hill location she requested, and then obtained permission, to look through them, with the aim of writing this wonderful book.

Drawing upon the University archives, Ms. Yow has written an extensive and accurate biography of both the life of Betty Smith, and her landmark novel "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." Originally written as an autobiography and then, at the suggestion of an editor, reformed into a novel, this is one of my favorite books. Actually, it is my favorite book.

Beginning with the histories of the real Wehner (Nolans) and Hummel(Rommely) families, the author takes on the novel, piece by piece and points out the differences in the fiction versus the real life stories. They are slightly different, but remarkably the same.

To begin with, Katie's family was Austrian, not German. And Johnny's family was German, not Irish. This was kind of a shock. But almost all of the remaining features of the novel were taken from real life.

Beginning with the caul that was coveted by the midwife at Francis' birth, and continuing on to the local junk dealer and even Aunt Eva, the story is clearly an autobiography. Even Uncle Willie Flittman is there. But sadly, there appears to be no real Aunt Sissy.

The caul story is one of the more fascinating tales in this book. I knew that the practice of obtaining a caul was common amongst seamen of the time, but this was the first book that really drove it home. Maybe because it's real and takes place in Brooklyn.

Another of the striking sequences in the book is the direct replay of her Dad's drinking and day dreaming, much to the dismay of Frances' (Betty Smith's) mother(Katherine) in the novel. Some of the dialect is verbatim and it hurts to think how much this must have hurt Ms. Smith to hear. She clearly worshipped her father, flawed as he was.

The story of her mothers remarraige is also sad. A trash collector 20 years her seinor was bawling her out for sweeping into the street. He came back to apologize and eventually they entered into a marraige of convenience. He had two sons. In many of her private letters and some of her short stories Ms. Smith alludes to some sort of uneasiness concerning her stepdad. And this caused some friction with her Mom. She blamed the daughter for imagining things.

Leaving school at 14 years old so that her brother could continue on to High School is another true event. And it had lasting repercussions. While her brother went on to finish High School, he wound up owning a gas station for his entire life. He never needed his Diploma at all. Ms. Smith, on the other hand, worked for everything required to gain her Bachelor of Science degree, but never received it due to not having a High School Diploma. And when it came time to receive her Master of Fine Arts, she lacked the necessary Bachelors Degree to be awarded the Masters.

There is so much more to this book than just the story of the novel. This book chronicles the entire life of Betty Smith, her marraige and her writing.It is a very interesting and well researched book that strips away all the sepia toned quality of Brooklyn as a serene and quaint place in the summer of 1912. For that reason, and that reason only, I am sorry that I read this book.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sophie Feldman aka Totie Fields

Totie Fields (1930-1978) was a groundbreaking comedienne in the 1960’s. She took a page from Phyllis Diller and turned it into a full length persona. At a time when “thin was in” she was unafraid to poke fun at herself- and in doing so made us all more comfortable with ourselves and our own shortcomings.

Born Sophie Feldman in Hartford, Connecticut in 1930, she began her career as a singer in local nightclubs around Boston. She was still in High School at the time. As her popularity rose she changed her name to Totie, which was a childhood nickname, and changed her last name to Fields.

In New York she began doing the nightclub circuit. With her combination of singing and comedy she caught the eye of Ed Sullivan one evening at the Copacabana. Her first big break would come on his show. Soon she was performing on all the talk shows such as Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and on The Tonight Show as well. She was everywhere, including the Brighton Beach Swimclub where I saw her in 1965. She was dressed in a wildly patterned shift dress that would have been the envy of "Mama Cass."

Her struggles with her weight were a big part of her act. In 1976 she was diagnosed with a blood clot and her left leg was amputated above the knee. This brought a new meaning to the phrase “break a leg” and she soldiered on, if only briefly, before her next health crisis. She did a one woman show in 1977, unheard of at the time, and opened the show in her wheelchair.

Suffering 2 heart attacks and breast cancer, she kept performing, using her infirmities as part of her act. In 1978 she was voted “Entertainer of the Year” and "Female Comedy Star of the Year” by the American Guild of Variety Artists. The honors came just in time.

In August of 1978 she was appearing at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas when she suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism. Originally buried in Las Vegas she was later moved to Los Angeles and buried beside her husband who passed away in 1995.

But she's still around- you can bring her up on You Tube anytime you like. She's still funny and in some ways more relevant than ever.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Movie Review: "The Long Voyage Home" with Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and Barry Fitzgerald


This is simply one of the best screen adaptations of any of Eugene O'Neills' works.Director John Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols did the adaptation of the 4 separate one act plays that comprise this movie. The work is seamless.

Beginning with the varied nationalities of the crew O'Neill explores the relationships of men at sea. With a stellar cast of actors which includes Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Ian Hunter, Ward Bond, Wilfrid Lawson, Arthur Shields and even John Wayne (who plays the entire role with a Swedish accent) Mr. O'Neill has given us a glimpse into the troubled lives of the men who sail on ships.

With his use of flawed characters he paints a wonderfully realistic portrait of life aboard a tramp steamer. Filmed in 1940 when U-boats were prowling the Atlantic to keep supplies from reaching Europe, this film captures all the darkness of the times in which it was filmed. It would be less than a year before the Rueben James was sunk off the East Coast of the United States by a German submarine.

From the over zealous camaraderie to the brawls and tradgedies, this film captures all the pathos of life at sea. Even now, with DVD's and cell phones and e-mails, life aboard a ship is a lonely affair. Tempers run high, words are said and instantly regretted, unfound suspicions abound. That is the life of a ships crew.

One of the best moments of the film involves the crew ashore in England during a blackout. Thomas Mitchell- always the drunk- cries out to the heavens- "Blackout, blackout! Is there to be no more light in the world?"

The most amazing thing about this film is that John Ford would go on making films for another 40 years. He would use the same group of actors time and again in Westerns and later on even "The Quiet Man" with John Wayne and Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields and Maureen O'Hara. That these actors were so verstaile, and John Ford so well versed in literature, is a tribute to the old school of film making.

The plot of this film would seem mundane were I to attempt to recount it here. Suffice to say that it is the story of a group of lost souls, looking for themselves. You'll just have to trust me on this one- Eugene O'Neill termed it the "best adaptation" of any of his works. That alone should be reason enough to see this film.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock's Shower" by Robert Graysmith


From the author of “The Laughing Gorilla” comes another mind blowing saga of true crime. In his usual style Mr. Graysmith takes us on a journey of intrigue and suspense.

In 1946 Ed Gains mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. This seemingly inconsequential death would set in motion a series of events that would range from the writing of a short story to the making of the blockbuster movie “Psycho” and at least one copycat serial killer. Having one of the victims turn out to be Marli Renfro, Janet Leigh’s double in the infamous shower scene, only makes this book more fascinating. Ms. Renfro was a self proclaimed “nudist” and would appear in Francis Ford Coppola’s first film “Tonight for Sure.”

Robert Bloch was home in Wisconsin for vacation in November 1954. He was a writer who would go on to write several stories that Alfred Hitchcock would use on his TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Opening his morning paper that day, Mr. Bloch read of a murder in the nearby town of Plainfield. A woman was found, decapitated and hanging in a barn. She had been eviscerated, and then hung, like a deer. In the house, investigators found belts made of nipples and pots made from skulls.

A man named Ed Gains was questioned and charged with several counts of homicide. His mother had been ill and when she died he nailed her room shut and began his descent into mental illness. His mother fixation morphed into an obsession with the bodies of dead women. He began, with the help of a friend, to dig up the graves of local women. The bodies would be mutilated and whole skins were taken to be used as costumes while dancing about. This was the genesis for Mr. Bloch’s short story “Psycho.” He would sell it in 1959 for $750 to a “True Detective” type magazine.

Alfred Hitchcock was, in 1959, looking about for his next subject. His secretary presented him with the magazine article and the race was on to acquire the rights.Being a big name like Alfred Hitchcock makes it necessary at times to use a “straw” buyer in order not to be overcharged. In this case the rights for the film were purchased for a mere $7,500. After taxes, Mr. Bloch would only ever see $5,000 for his story.

Meantime, in Los Angeles, Sonny Busch, almost a double of Anthony Perkins, lived with his mother about 8 miles from the set of “Psycho” and less than 1 mile from Ms. Renfro’s apartment. He was living with his mother on a temporary basis and she was becoming increasingly concerned with his erratic behavior. Several women had been murdered in the area recently and Sonny was a suspect in what became known as “The Bouncing Ball” strangulations.

After seeing "Psycho" he begins a murderous rampage. Over the Labor Day weekend alone, after seeing "Psycho", he kills several women who remind him of "Mother."

As usual with Mr. Graysmith, it is necessary to keep a close eye on all of the details in this true life murder mystery. You will be shocked at the ending.

Ms. Renfro was murdered in 1988 by a serial killer who had all the mental problems faced by the fictional Norman Bates in “Psycho.” The man who killed her was a handyman named Kenneth Dean Hunt. His mental illness also included a "mother fixation." In March of 2001 he was finally convicted of the strangulation deaths of 2 women in their own homes.

At times the book can be a bit confusing as you attempt to put all the pieces in their proper place. But when all is said and done, Mr. Graysmith has given us another compelling story of true life murder.

The only question that remains unanswered is this- Does life imitate art? Or does art imitate life?

Friday, February 5, 2010

"The Mountain of the Women" by Liam Clancy


In a striking contrast to books such as "Angelas Ashes" and "Teacher Man" by the brothers McCourt, which were both excellent books, Liam Clancy, of Clancy brothers fame, has done what would seem impossible. He has created an Irish memoir that, while it acknowledges the rationing and illnesses that plagued Ireland in the 1940's and on into the 1960's, does not leave the reader worn and depressed. With a simple and engaging style he takes us through the stages of his life and career, duly giving note to all the Irish myths and songs that came before him.

Born in Carrick on Suir in the shadow of the Slievenamon Mountain, the area Mr. Clancy grew up in was rife with the history of man. The ruins and burial sites which abound the place predate the Pyramids of Egypt. These are humble beginnings.

The most amazing thing about this book is the complete honesty in which the author presents his life. While acknowledging all of the poverty he never dwells upon it, instead he is always looking forward to a future. He has dreams to fulfill.

His descriptions of the harsh education in Catholic School make you think about, rather than recoil at, the injust and archaic practices that passed for education.

Music has always been part of the Clancy family tradition. As the youngest of the clan he tries to enter into the insurance business like his Dad, but it holds no interest for him. His brother and wife send home recordings from America and Greenwich Village that spark his love for folk music and his lust to travel.

At the age of 19, and hardly been kissed, he meets American heiress Diane Guggenheim, who falls in love with him. She makes several trips to Ireland to record local folk songs for Alan Lomax. Mr. Clancy soon finds himself traveling with her on a journey of musical discovery. And shortly after that he finds himself in New York, where he meets the elder Mr. Guggenheim and begins the life of a troubadour in Greenwich Village.

Although his relationship with Ms. Guggenheim eventually fades away, she has begun Mr. Clancy on a journey that will earn him fame and adulation as a member of the Clancy Brothers as well as his work with Tommy Makem. Their adventures in the Greenwich Village scene of the late 1950's will thrill you. It was a time of beatniks and hipsters, poets and folksingers. The thrill of the music and art was in the air. The brothers Clancy and the brothers McCourt are no strangers to one another as they inhabit, and dominate, this small enclave of art.

Filled with stories of, as well as keen insights into, the folk scenes of both Ireland and America, this book gives the reader a wonderful portrait of a very vibrant period. Through the music they were playing, The Clancy Brothers would help give rise to a fusion of sounds that would blossom into the Folk Music Scene and even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

A pleasant read with just the right balance of pathos and joy. Makes me want to shout "Erin Go Braugh."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Olmsted Family - An American Legacy

If you live in the United States your life has been touched upon, as well as improved, by the works of Frederick Law Olmsted and his family. Born in Connecticutt in 1822 Mr. Olmsted arrived at his calling rather late. He was 35 when he designed Central Park in New York City. It was the first of many such projects to come, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. It was also the beginning of a life devoted to making all of our lives more enjoyable.

Often noted as the Founder of Landscape Architecture in America, his vision was to create livable communities for the emerging middle class at the turn of the 20th Century. When he passsed away in 1903 his son and step son went on to form Olmsted Brothers.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. along with his cousin, John Charles Olmsted would create some of these Landscape Communities across the United Sates. They would also leave their mark in the form of the many National Parks and monuments which we take for granted today.

Two of the residential communities that I have seen or worked in include Roland Park in Baltimore, Md. as well as the Dilworth Community in Charlotte, N.C. The winding streets with their abundance of trees are the hallmarks of these developments. The houses are set back a good distance from the roadways and the topography is used to create fabulous vistas in what would today be flat,urban sprawl.

Some of the projects which were designed by the Olmsteds' include the National Mall in Washington and the Jefferson Memorial. The system of parks in Buffalo, New York are the work of the Olmsteds. Their designs and influence even created the beautiful parks in Montreal, Canada as well as the extensive parks system in Los Angeles, California.

With the death of Frederick, Jr. in 1949 the firm continued to design and build many public projects. After closing in 1980 the firm became an historic landmark in Brookline, Massachusetts. Known as the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historical Site and located on 7 acres of landscaped grounds, this museum offers the visitor a look at the original plans for, and photos of, the parks and communities that were created by the Olmsteds.

No matter where you live in America, your life has been touched, and made better by the visions and creations of this remarkable family.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Little Boy Blues - A Memoir" by Malcolm Jones


North Carolina in the 1950's and 60's was the South. You felt it the moment you got beyond Virginia in those racially charged days. I never thought I would be living there someday. And so it is no surprise that I am an avid follower of Southern memoirs. Rick Bragg is one that comes quickly to mind in connection with this genre.

In "Little Boy Blues" the author, Malcom Jones takes us on a similar path storywise, but his approach is different than any of the others I have read. He seems to have dug deeper in this chronicle of becoming a man. Not an easy task when raised in a home that rivals a Tennesse Williams creation.

A dysfunctional home is like a minefield. You learn the patterns and the signs early. Then you learn how to not trigger any explosions. This was the world in which Mr. Jones was raised.

His parents were vastly different people- his father was frequently absent for days, weeks, or months. His mother was a schoolteacher in Winston-Salem. The whole story takes place in a straight line from Winston-Salem through Statesville and on south to Charlotte and into South Carolina and a town called Lancaster. This line cuts right through where I live in North Carolina. And this lends an unusually realistic sense to the events portrayed.

With a understated style the author takes you with him on a journey of self discovery. Along the way you meet his Aunt and Preacher Uncle, who help raise him. And you come to understand the problems faced by a single mother in 1960's America.

Another interesting aspect to this book is the interplay between husband and wife and how it affects the author. Torn between love for one parent and respect for the other leaves a child cleaved in two. This type of childhood colors your world forever.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Citizen's Constitution- An Annotated Guide by Seth Lipsky


This book is a must for followers of the Court. Carefully put together by Mr. Lipsky the book is laid out Article by Article and Amendment by Amendment with the history and thinking behind each one.

I took this book out because I have always been confused by the thinking that went into Roe v. Wade. It has always been my opinion that a woman's right to privacy, hence the choice to have an abortion, was well founded under the Third and Ninth Amendments of the Constitution. The Court found that right in Article 14, one of the so called Reconstruction Amendments.

And of course, my all time favorite Amendment is the 27th, which was proposed in 1789 and not ratified until 1992. It's about 30 words long and delienates the Compensation for Senators and Members of Congress. I don't do politics here, but this is some Amendment!

In short, for a guy like me, who has copies of the Constitution in the car, on my scan stick, and even by my reading chair in the TV room, this book is an indispensable tool for deciphering the intent of some of our most basic and controversial laws. Coupled with "The Oxford Companion to The Supreme Court" this book will see you through the 6 o'clock news and beyond.