Monday, July 21, 2008

Museum of the City of New York

After living in New York for most of my adult life, I finally made it up to the Museum of the City of New York ten days ago. This is particularly odd because I’m so fascinated with New York City history. I also highly recommend the bookstore; I made out like a bandit at the sale table.

I’m sure that the Museum’s theatre collection is excellent, certainly judging from their website and picture collection. What of it was displayed was disappointing, and with very little context. The toy collection is quite extensive. I thought that I’d like the dollhouses best, but the toys from the first half of the 20th century were at least as good, if not better. I found a toy from my childhood that I’d forgotten. It was a metal dog covered with fur that sat on a stand. In the front of the stand were keys that looked like typewriter keys. The dog made a different move (head turns right, tail wags, etc.) for each different key. I saw that dog, and I was five years old again, sitting on the windowsill in my grandmother’s dining room.

One of the special exhibits is Catholics in New York, 1808-1946 (runs until December 31st). If I knew anyone who was raised Catholic in New York and old enough to remember 1946, I think they would have really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I don’t. This show was less famous Catholics (other than the clergy) than the Roman Catholic experience in the five boroughs. The main audio component was a long video loop of Frank Macchiarola (who looks old and tired) reminiscing about growing up in an Italian parish in Brooklyn. It is exhaustive and exhausting, for which I blame the editor, not Macchiarola.

The other special exhibit is Campaigning for President: New York and the American Election, which is fascinating (runs until November 4th). You thought all that cheesey political marketing is a post-World War II phenomenon? No! There were commemorative buttons given out at Washington’s inauguration; paper hats supporting James Monroe; John Adams’ torch-carriers; even a Teddy Roosevelt dolly. So go see this intriguing exhibit, that bears witness to the good-old-days being pretty much the same.

Dorothy Parker

I am in the midst of doing research for a play set in New York in the 1930s. The protagonist grew up in Manhattan in the 1920s, and wants to be a writer when she grows up. So I spent much of the weekend rereading John Keats’ biography of Dorothy Parker. Parker had been on my mind for a couple of reasons. My incredibly patient Pilates teacher Loves Dorothy Parker. There was an article by Marian Meade in "American Theatre" a few months ago about the residency hotel where Parker died, The Volney. I was surprised to discover it’s the same building where I get my hair cut.

The other reason that I’ve been thinking about Parker is that a friend who I used to work with used to say: “What fresh hell is this?” before she’d pick up a ringing phone. When she died in March, I was reminded of a story about Dorothy Parker after her second husband Alan Campbell died. Keats recounts this story in his biography. Some officious-type neighbor lady is fussing over Mrs. Parker, who isn’t well enough to attend the Richmond VA funeral.

According to Keats, the nth time the woman asks her what she can do:
’Get me a new husband,’ Dorothy Parker said.
For a moment, the woman could not believe what she had heard, ‘I think
that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life,’ she
said. ‘With Alan not yet buried.’
Dorothy Parker regarded the woman with weary patience. ‘Well, if that’s
the way you feel,’ she muttered. ‘So sorry. Then run down to the corner
and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.’

I never found that a horrible or distasteful story; I’m very fond of it. Because it’s so nakedly honest, and not (at least to the Upper East Side Lady) socially acceptable. So in my way, when my friend died, I said to my long-suffering boyfriend, “Get me a new friend.” And it that way, I meant every word.

Falls & Park

Yesterday was mighty warm in Brooklyn. I didn’t know any of the 2,000 people without power, but they sure had my sympathy. My boyfriend Tom and I went to see the waterfalls and the new Brooklyn Bridge Park- what there is so far, on Pier 1. It’s quite an ambitious plan. We admired the waterfalls (or as my niece Maggie used to call waterfalls in her babyhood, “the water fall down,” which I thought was pretty genius). Tom took photographs (the above are from the New York Times). We saw luxury condos for rent, near enough to the Manhattan Bridge that you could hear every train go over it. I don’t hate my neighborhood (Gowanus), but if money was no object I wouldn’t be living on top of two limited access highways.

We walked around to Empire State Park, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. You could actually get to the river here; scramble over some rocks and sand, and there it is in all its tidal basin glory. There were little rolling hills of grass, yesterday dotted with sculptures from the Brooklyn Waterfront Arts Coalition show. My favorite was a large steel Hot Wheel, about twice the size of a plastic one. There were some great old warehouse buildings- absolutely infested, judging from the amount of rat bait out.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park project is so ambitious- linking waterfront from Atlantic Avenue to north of the Manhattan Bridge- I find it difficult to believe it will come to fruition anytime soon. But the immediate goal- to work on the public space on Pier 1 and join it to the Empire State Park- looks within the realm of possibility. It’s a relaxing place. For more information,

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Recycled Puppets III: Marionettes and More

In a way, marionettes seem like the most logical of puppets: basically jointed dolls with strings attached to their limbs. There was a renaissance of marionettes in Britain in the first half of the last century; one of George Bernard Shaw's final plays was written for the Malvern Festival of puppets. Marionettes are an important part of the revival of Czech culture under the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. They continue to be important in the Czech performing arts, and Czech marionette troupes are found not only in Prague, but also in New York City.

In Western culture, the most single most famous puppet character is Mr. Punch, of Punch and Judy. He is in many countries: in Russia, he's Petrushka; in the Netherlands, Jan Klaassen; in Romania, Vasilache. In the middle of the last century, certain puppets became famous on television: Miss Piggy, Howdy Doody, Madame (of Wayland Flowers and), Lampchop, Ollie the Dragon, etc. One internationally famous puppet is Topo Gigio; originally on Italian television, and appeared frequently on the Ed Sullivan Show.

There are many puppeteers who left their mark on the world of puppets, and whose characters are embedded in our minds: Jim Henson, Bil Baird, Shari Lewis, etc. Burr Tilstrom created Kukla, Ollie and the rest of the Kuklapolitan Players (their Christmas card is above). Puppeteers in Paris risked imprisonment during the Revolution if they performed. Bil Baird and George Latshaw were puppets who performed live and on television all over the United States during the second half of the last century. Although I once hear Austin Pendleton describe working on a Muppet movie as "spending all day shooting so that Kermit's string doesn't show." I’ve also read Edward Albee’s description of going over to Burr Tillstrom’s place and he’d only address Albee in character as Beulah Witch (which becomes weirder the more you think about it). The link above is to a Tillstrom site which itself has some wonderful links, as well as the author’s first hand impression of him.

Recycled Puppets II- Rod and Shadow

Rod puppets are built on dowels (the puppet's spine) with rods to manipulate the arms. Rods are usually attached to wrists and feet (perhaps ankles, if the puppet needs to dance). They can be built around a dowel (approximately the width of a broomstick so they're easy to grasp for long periods of time), or be a hand puppet that uses rods to manipulate the arms, called a hand-in-rod. Rod puppets are very old; examples of ivory rod puppets have been found in Egyptian tombs. Kermit the Frog is a rod puppet because rods move his arms. The photo is of a dancer rod puppet from Bengal.

Shadow puppets continue to be popular in the Mid- and Far-East. Some cultures don't allow live performances of plays, so shadow puppets fill that dramatic gap. Shadow puppets in China go back two millenia, where they played to all social classes, not just the nobility. The ones cited are from Bali; similar shadow puppets, called "wayang kulit," are from Java (see photo). Shadow puppets also traveled to the west to Turkey, where they're called Karagoz.

Recycled Puppets

Another subject that I had for that freelance gig that ended early (for which I have yet to be paid) was puppets. The odd thing was that as opposed to film criticism, I actually know something about puppets. I’ve built them, manipulated them, performed voices and manipulated puppets in plays. But my editor would not agree to run my puppet writing. So here it is.

Though puppets first are in our lives when we're children, they have been around a very long time, the past 30,000 years. They were some variety of representational figures used to perform for an audience. Puppets (in Greek "neuropasta" is "to pull the string") were first written about by Xenophon, ca. 522 BCE. After the Dark Ages, Roman Catholics used marionettes to perform miracle and mystery plays. Out of these grew comedic puppet plays, and finally the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. Today, puppets are still popular in some parts of the world: marionettes perform operas in Vienna and Salzburg; the Czechs still attend rod, marionette and black light puppet shows; and American Basil Twist builds and choreographs new shows frequently, his latest being a "Petrushka."

Small children play with hand puppets, made from socks, gloves or paper bags. They are also used therapeutically, e.g., for children with speech impediments. The above link and photo are from the Victorian and Albert Museum, which has a description of hand puppets, with reference to Punch and Judy (both in England and Europe), and other important puppet characters, like Faust. It is not chockfull of puppet trivia, like the fact that author George Sand had a big thing for hand puppets. One thing that drove Johann von Goethe to write his "Faust" is that the story was "only" performed as a puppet play; he want to return the legend to the pantheon of German literature.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Nearly Normal Life

I work near Park Avenue in the 70s, and I walk past the service entrances of several fine apartment buildings between the office and the subway. In one building, either an old tenant or the tenant’s maid put out a box of unwanted books. This was not the usual trashy stuff; I’ve bought no books to read for pleasure this summer, my selection from the box sufficed. First, a truly compelling book about the French idea of the Vichy Republic, and how it was used as political collateral in the following 30 years. I didn’t study much French history in college, but every five pages or so there was some truly outrageous quote from DeGaulle that made my jaw drop. Next, an exhaustive biography of Walter Winchell by Neal Gabler, that also charted the rise of the cult of celebrity. Third, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”- did any kind of editor go near this in manuscript? They should have been fired. It’s an interesting story, some of it. But it’s full of inconsistencies, and so overwritten, and the one relationship that you are pretty much promised you’ll see resolved by the end if you keep reading, isn’t. It was all I could do not to throw it at the all.

But the fourth from the cardboard box, I liked. “A Nearly Normal Life” by Charles L. Mee, is about his battle with polio at the age of 14. He nearly died, lost his faith, and left the Midwest to go to Harvard, and pretty much didn’t go back. There is almost nothing about his playwriting, though you can see given this background what led him to playwriting. He writes about his incredibly emotionally intense relationship with books and reading, which I share. Mee also writes about growing up in Illinois, and recognizing as a young adult that while life there was familiar enough to him, he really didn’t belong there at all. That there is, as Erik Erikson wrote, the “once-born” and the “twice-born.” The “twice-born” are those like Mee and myself who see the adult world where they grew up and go “I can’t be here, I need to be somewhere else to thrive.”

I like Mee’s plays okay: “Vienna: Lusthaus,” “bobrauschenbergamerica,” “Iphigenia 2.0,” and “Hotel Cassiopeia” (about Joseph Cornell) are the ones I’ve seen. I actually didn’t remember that Mee wrote “Vienna: Lusthaus” until I looked at his website. I spent an hour one hot day in July looking for the Lusthaus in the Prater Park in Vienna. Never found it, though I did see a carousel with four real ponies which was pretty great. What I really like are Mee’s essays on playwriting and theatre- there was a fantastic one in American Theatre a few years ago, which I saved. His aesthetic really speaks to me. As do parts of “A Nearly Normal Life.” I’m going to give my copy to my sister, who’s another “twice-born.”