Friday, December 20, 2013

How to Hear Yourself Living

Watercolor by Clare Dunn
“When I felt myself escaping from the earth … my reaction was not pleasure but happiness. It was ‘a moral feeling.' I could hear myself living, so to speak.”
— Dr. Jacques A.C. Charles, the 18th century French inventor, scientist and mathematician who, at 2:45 p.m. Dec. 1, 1783, became the world’s first hydrogen balloonist.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hubris and Julius Caesar

Orson Welles as Brutus in his 1937 production of "Julius Caesar"
The actors were understandably concerned when Orson Welles demanded that they negotiate four open trap doors on the set of his “Julius Caesar” — and do so in darkness!
“When they spoke to Orson about them, he was amazed and indignant,” recalled Welles’ theatrical partner John Houseman. “Were they not actors? And were not traps among the oldest and most consecrated devices of the stage? They must stop being amateurish and craven; they must get used to the presence of these traps and learn to use them like professionals.”
At the dress rehearsal of the assassination scene, everybody was ready but Brutus — Welles himself.
“He was found five minutes later, still unconscious in the dark at the foot of the stairs after falling cleanly through an open trap and dropping 15 feet before striking the basement floor with his chin,” Houseman noted dryly.
Funny. All that Shakespeare, and Welles never absorbed the meaning of the term “hubris.” I think John Houseman’s volumes of memoirs, in recounting his half-happenstance career, manage to do as good a job as I’ve seen of evoking the adventure of theatrical production — the meshing and conflicting personalities, the late-night bonding, the technical challenges, the economic uncertainties, the creative dead ends, the mysteries of inspiration, the unexpected triumphs, the passion, the romantic ephemerality of each production as the applause surges, echoes and then dies.
Source: “Run-Through” by John Houseman

Have Yourself a Baby Boomer Christmas

By Dan Hagen
Given the demographic prominence of the baby boomers, it’s almost surprising that we don’t have more stories focusing on the joys peculiar to postwar, precocious-child Christmases.
But there are, at least, two, and they are now safely ensconced as holiday classics — Charlie Brown’s first animated special, and the play now on the boards at the Little Theatre — “A Christmas Story,” a faithful adaptation of the 1983 film.
I know, this Jean Shepherd material is really pre-baby boomer, dated by such references as the Little Orphan Annie radio serial that began in 1930, and the Red Ryder comic strip, which started in 1938. But I would argue that Shepherd, born in 1921, truly anticipated the baby boomer Christmas — the experience familiar to that increasingly affluent mid-century consumer-child who had been beguiled by advertising into obsession with some particular toy, in this case a “Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”
'A Christmas Story' at the Little Theatre in Sullivan
Director Edward Carnigan has cast his show — which looked like a sellout Sunday — to please fans of the movie. John McAvaney is adult Ralph, the narrator who is recalling the story for us. He’s effective in the cowboy fantasy scheme, but needs to vary his line readings more, generally.
My old friend Jack Milo is dad. Milo and the movie’s Old Man, Darren McGavin, share certain qualities. Both are gruff and masculine and — when necessary — loud, and both have a sly and deadpan comic flair. Milo says his essential quality is being “subtle,” but — ahem — I don’t think that it’s it exactly. Milo gets the bits that always amuse me in this piece, the strange faux-cursing that the Old Man emits when he engages in his beloved battles with the furnace: “Blagojevich dog-nabbed cinnamon dish!!!,” stuff like that.
When the part of mother is well-played, as it is here by Ashtia Jewel, the audience’s heart goes out to her, saddled as she is with a younger son Randy who crawls under things, a husband oblivious enough to put a sexy leg-lamp in the front window and a older son Ralphie who seems determined to shoot his eye out.
Her loving nature peeks through the frantic events, and there are hints that she’s smarter than her husband, but keeps that fact to herself. In any case, she reads a lot and seems to require the escape hatch of fantasy — she knows an awful lot about the Lone Ranger and Doc Savage.
Randy is creditably played by Vincent Fiore, although I wish his snowsuit had looked as immobilizing as it’s supposed to be. The child actors are all fine, particularly Zoe Bowers who plays Ester Jane. She projects her crush on Ralphie with a winsome sweetness that rings true.
The Chicago actress Mary Redmon makes her debut on the Little Theatre stage in the role of Ralphie’s teacher. She’s hilarious, wringing every laugh available out of a teacher’s pathetic quest for even margins on theme papers. She soars in the fantasy scenes — whether she’s exclaiming that Ralphie’s moronic little essay has justified her entire existence or springing into action as a witch with a laugh every bit as wicked as Margaret Hamilton’s.
The show’s centerpoint is, of course, Ralphie and 13-year-old Kyle Klein II takes that responsibility in stride. He’s an assured actor who is particularly effective in the Mitty-like fantasy sequences that give the show its biggest laughs.
A method actor, Klein told my friend Paul Wood at the Champaign News-Gazette that he actually tested the double-dog daring feat of sticking your tongue on a frozen light pole.
“We passed by a light pole on the way to McDonald's, and we tried sticking our tongues to it,” he said. “They didn't stick, though.”
And that, my friends, is dedication.
Incidental Intelligence: The cast includes Oliver Adamson, Ian Cardwell, Blaine Lehman, Nicholas Wilson, Marty Harbaugh, Heather Dore Johnson-Weber, Josh Houghton, A.J. Zaccari and Hope Miller.
The comedy has scenic design by Noel Rennerfeldt, lighting design by Chris Benefiel and stage management by Jeremy Phillips.
Performances will run through Dec. 22. Tickets may be purchased by calling The Little Theatre on the Square Box Office at (217)-728-7375 or online at www

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Truth Is the Enemy

We Americans have had many decades of indoctrination by lying, illusion-peddling advertising, PR and corporate and political doublespeak. The factual truth is now so threatening to the people who run this society that they have those unauthorized persons who dare to reveal it locked up permanently or murdered. Just ask Mr. Snowden and Mr. Manning.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advice from the Philosopher King

My favorite quotation

Behold the Moth Woman

This is Katharine Hepburn in the 1933 RKO film “Christopher Strong.” She plays an Earhart-like aviator who attends a costume party in a skinning, form-fitting, moth costume designed by Howard Greer.
Makes you realize how much superhero costuming owes to Art Deco.

Who Was That Masked Woman?

The girl behind the mask is Shirley MacLaine in “Artists and Models,” a 1955 Paramount musical comedy with Martin and Lewis. Her character works for a comic book publisher and serves as the model for their top superhero, the Bat Lady.
The film appeared a year before Batwoman debuted in DC Comics. An inspiration?
A scene from the 1944 Paramount comedy "Artists and Models"

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Grandfather of the Doctor

Professor Challenger as envisioned by Dave Elsey

A time traveler both in fantasy and BBC longevity, the Doctor fits in a tradition that spotlights a distinct variant of the stiff-upper-lip British hero — the rationalist-scientist who, in the name of humanity, confronts and counters a string of utterly bizarre and often global science-fictional menaces.
The Doctor is a direct descendent of Professor Bernard Quatermass, the protagonist in a series of chilling, high-grade British radio and television serials which became films, as well as of John Wyndham’s “cozy catastrophe” novels like “Day of the Triffids” and “The Midwich Cuckoos.”
But Quatermass himself is an heir to the 19th century sage Professor Edward Challenger, that loud and egotistical genius whose adventures included the discovery of living dinosaurs in South America and the rescue of mankind from a seemingly fatal “poison belt” in space.
So the father, or maybe the grandfather, of the Doctor is clear.
Doctor Who? Doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that’s Who.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Americas

When you're rich enough, you get to crush the peasants beneath your wheels and complain their blood has stained your tires.
A tale of two cities. A tale of two Americas.

Call It What It Is: Goebbelsdygook

What’s most disturbing is the fact that the corporate news media was willing to treat Sarah Palin as a credible candidate for vice president — and therefore, by extension, for president — when they knew, beyond any doubt, that she was in fact a cretin. Such a breathtaking level of professional negligence is tantamount to treason.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Panic in the Sky

The swifts nest in
Stacks that for generations
Flowed smoke. The patience of
Hawks is over the cities:
They circle in clean light where the
Smoke last year frightened them.
— Archibald MacLeish, from his 1930s verse play “Panic”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Chicago, Land of Enchantment

John Houseman by Fran Gregory
At 23 in 1926, John Houseman — born in Bucharest, raised in Paris and London and already tempered on the lonely plains of Argentina — was excited to be traveling on the Twentieth Century Limited to what he regarded as the center of a “vast, enchanted land,” a place we would call Chicago.
He was eager to experience “…the America of Whitman and Sandburg, and Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Norris and Sherwood Anderson — of which I had already formed such a vivid literary image and which I was now impatient to discover for myself.”
Through the dining-car window, Houseman caught his first sight of “…the Loop, deserted on that Sunday morning, the air tainted with a faint, sickening smell of putrefaction from the stockyards. There was a motion-picture convention at the Drake Hotel when I arrived and the lobby was jammed with men in Western hats and cigars and girls who looked like Clara Bow, with pillboxes on their shingled heads. When I got to my room, I could see the vast expanse of Lake Michigan through my window, its shimmering, wind-swept water stretching out beyond the breakwater for what seemed like an infinite distance into the sky."
So your viewpoint always depends on your perspective, my friend. And romance and adventure remain, like beauty, in the beholder’s eyes.
Source: “Run-Through” by John Houseman