Wednesday, March 31, 2010

‘Schoolhouse Rock Live’: Sing-along for the sentient

The ensemble of "Schoolhouse Rock Live" at the Arvada Center. [Photo credit: P. Switzer]

There are two kinds of parents in the world – those who have never heard the songs of “Schoolhouse Rock,” and those who can’t get them out of their heads.

Thanks to the excellent current production of “Schoolhouse Rock Live” at the Arvada Center for the Performing Arts, we can all get on the same page.

Under the inventive direction of Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, the sextet of performers give literal life and bounce to the material developed by TV producer Tom Yohe beginning in 1973.

Thanks to great writing and performances by people such as Bob Dorough, Blossom Dearie, Jack Sheldon and Lynn Ahrens, the bite-sized series of animated songs that covered topics such as math, science, grammar, American history, economics and more are indelible. My wife can sing the Preamble to the Constitution thanks to the show, and I believe that if you turn a figure 8 on its side it’s a symbol meaning infinity. And one of my offspring thinks that there is some Kabbalistic profundity about the song “Three is a Magic Number.”

The stage adaptation finds a clever framework within which to place the action. A young, nervous teacher, Tom (Seth Caikowski) finds himself surrounded by an ensemble of alter egos that lead him through the material he plans to address to his class – Schoolhouse Rock style, of course.

The five avatars of Tom (Amanda Earls as Sparky, Ashlie-Amber Harris as Whynona, Matt LaFontaine as Coolroy, Daniel Langhoff as Mathu and Julia Perrotta as Hap) exhibit great singing voices, bold physicalization, and cheery stamina. This is a fast-moving, high-energy show, and no one drops a beat throughout.

The result is fun for the kids, who will love the loopy set, costume and makeup designs as well – and nostalgic for we who drove them there and know each one by heart. I almost held up my lighter at the end. I was trying to get them out for an encore of “Interplanet Janet.”

“Schoolhouse Rock Live” is presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, through May 15. Tickets are available by calling 720-506-4130 or by visiting

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Your mom goes to the opera: the ever-threatened fine-arts audience

Ever notice how the arts are always dying? They’ve been in a perpetual swoon since I can remember. Periodically, a U.S. study is released stating that arts attendance and participation are lower than ever, and that “something must be done.”

There have been forays into topics of the moment, such as “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and a newly proposed piece about the life of Anna Nicole Smith

Orchestras, museums, theater companies, and other entities are constantly trying to reach the coveted 18-35 demographic by feigning hipness, good cheer and snarky humor in their promotional materials – and showing some skin doesn’t hurt either.

Fine-art appreciation is stereotyped as a rich man’s pastime. In fact, many times high-art tendencies are supported and perpetuated by people with disposable income and a desire for prestige. And, many times, they drag themselves to high-falutin’ cultural events for reasons of social distinction, not on the basis of enthusiasm or deep appreciation. Yep, those dudes in the tuxes are just as bored as you.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining and expanding arts education and participation for school-age kids. A recent proposal by Colorado’s Boulder Valley School Board to reduce or eliminate 5th-grade music programs has raised parental uproar, but is a typical move for a financially distressed school district.

But is there much you can do to lure audiences of young adults to the concert hall? I doubt it. Should you try? I say get Grandma and Grandpa gussied up and send them down to the cultural events only they are capable of appreciating!

Japanese philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi split art, for the sake of analysis, into three categories: pure, popular and marginal. Pure art requires a certain level of expertise and knowledge from both its creators and its consumers. In popular art, the creator is still a professional but the audience is undiscriminating. Marginal art is everything else – from decoration to gesture – the raw material of aesthetic creation and response in everyday life.

So pure art is smart art. It needs the audience’s critical tools to complete the communication circuit. It requires contextualization, intelligence, education, and indoctrination; it has connoisseurs, cognoscenti, specialists and interpreters. Smart art aims high, features demonstrations of technical expertise, and to be sure errs on the side of seriousness and significance and pretentiousness. Accordingly, it has a much higher failure rate. It’s despised, made fun of and marginalized by a populist reverse snobbery that discourages explorations that can’t be easily packaged or sold.

The very things that are unique about these niche arts are what marketers and publicists are trying to overcome. Instead of trying to make them palatable, perhaps their best move would be to emphasize these points of difficulty.

Smart art doesn’t require money – it requires passion. Occasionally, art bridges the categories of pure and popular for a time – opera in the 19th century, jazz up to the bebop era. Its popularity phases out, or never develops, but the art form stubbornly persists and continues to speak to its audience, however small.

Smart art also requires maturity – that dreaded word! Hopefully, the longer life goes on the greater the stock of life experiences and learned lessons grow within each person. Those who age successfully develop a tolerance for ambiguity and complexity, develop longer attention spans and more nuanced receptivity. And I think that those closer to the end of life have a more keen appreciation of artistic work that asks hard questions.

Smart art has a research and development arm – it’s called life. Life grows the gray-headed, always-dying-off audiences that mysteriously maintain the arts in America, replacing the fans that pass away with others who have aged out of the commercially bombarded demographics into the more deserted areas where, at last, they can sit down and look and hear and feel and think.

Now, get cracking!


 A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings; Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994.

The New Penguin Opera Guide; ed. Amanda Holden, Penguin, 2001.

The Grove Book of Operas; Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy, Oxford University Press, 2009.

The Metropolitan Opera Stories of the Great Operas; ed. John Freeman, W.W. Norton, 1997.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, 1994.


"P.D.Q. Bach: The Abduction of Figaro," dir. Kaye S. Levine -- 1984.

"Anna Russell Sings! Again?," Anna Russell, CBS Masterworks, 1953.

"Das Ring Gott Farblonjet," by Charles Ludlam, 1977.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ice fishing: as painful as it looks?


Howdy, thrill-seekers! How would you like to combine the slam-bang titillations of fishing with the palpable danger of freezing to death?

Well, look no further! Ice fishing is here. This year, I’ve heard dozens of folks in the Colorado area talk about it – this distinctly Northern pastime has really caught on out West recently.

For those of us without the syrupy blood of native-born Michiganers, Minnesotans or Wisconsonians, this perilous enterprise has got some explaining to do.

Evidently this sport began as a desperate survival tactic. The breathtaking nonchalance of the ice fisherman, or person, suspended above the abyss by an unknown thickness of cracking, groaning temporary solidified from of water, while making a play for dinner is inspiring.

No wonder they drink.

My friend Joe started me out by cluing me in that the last people you want to ask “How well are they biting?” are the people who run the bait shops next to the lake. “Of course, they’re biting! Here, let me ring up that beef jerky for you.”

Joe spoke movingly of the quiet simplicity of the experience. He lovingly described augering a special second hole in the ice for the beers, watching them float – “sort of like watching a campfire burn on the beach during a summer night.” Damn!

Then he compared ice fishing to women – “you never know what you’re going to get.” Well, we were deep into Hemingway territory now. My manhood was at stake -- I had to try it.

I recruited two very close friends to accompany me, who I thought frankly would hold up a lot better under the strain. Now that we’re out of urgent care, I have time to sit back, relax and reflect.


Needless to say, always check on ice conditions. ALWAYS CHECK ON ICE CONDITIONS. Don’t make me say it again. A great resource in Colorado is the state Division of Wildlife – their ice fishing Web page is at Trust them. Budgets are tight, and no one has the money to send a diving crew to collect your remains.

Good rules of thumb are: 4-6 inches of ice thickness to walk on, 7 inches to drive a car or snowmobile out on and 10 inches to drive a truck out on. “Inches?” I enquired. “How about feet?” Nope – too tough to cut through, and no room for the fish below.

You are fishing for, depending on your location and time of year, panfish such as bluegill, crappie, yellow perch, sunfish, and pumpkinseeds; also, northern pike, walleye, lake trout, burbot and bass. Please note: feeding times in the winter largely adhere to the dawn/dusk patterns of fish during the summer, so you still have to get up when it’s dark and cold and stay out until same if you want results.

To make it, you need to dress in layers. Polypropylene first, then wool, then Gore-Tex. Get the order straight. I did this backwards, contracted hypothermia . . . and parts of me shriveled up as well.

You should have a shelter to crouch within while fishing, hopefully with a gas heater by your side. These “ice houses” come from the most simple to the fanciest, complete with bunks and satellite TV. What they all have in common, though, is the capacity to asphyxiate you via carbon monoxide poisoning – the same way Emile Zola died, although he was not ice fishing at the time. Zut alors!

A hole between 6 and 8 inches in diameter will be cut in the ice – hopefully, not by you. Tools for this task include an ice saw, ice chisel and auger. Whew! Let the drinking begin. Most ice fisherfolk use the ubiquitous “tip-up” pole, which is positioned on a frame over the ice and signals a nibble by the raising of a small flag, after which the prey can be hooked, gaffed and stacked over in a corner until the haul is complete or the game warden is gone.

Alternatively, you can use a short jigging rod, with which the wielder is compelled to shimmy and bounce around incessantly in an effort to attract the attention of some sluggish, recalcitrant future filets. This second approach is more for nervous types who are out for results, not simply hiding out from their spouses, work or the law.

Bait: some swear by live minnows, chubs, shiners, wax worms, fly larvae. Others count on chunks of raw meat, cake and uncooked oatmeal. Still more rely on lures with cool names such as spoons, jigs, teardrops, glows and fry. What they all have in common is that NONE OF THEM WORK. This is fishing, remember!

Oh, here are a few more recommended items: an ice skimmer, chairs, compass, map, flashlight, GPS, depth gauge . . . and the stuff with weird monikers! I love those the most, as they constitute the terms you will sling about widely and inaccurately after your adventure. Flasher – gaff hook – spud bar --- creepers – awesome.

Here’s my favorite pair of must-have items – the ones that pushed the big, hooting alarm in my head. Ice pick, 50 feet of rope and personal flotation device! 


I should have known the other pescadores del hielo would laugh at me as I shuffled out onto the frozen surface of Dead Bastard Lake clad in a life jacket. Too bad, suckers! While you will be swept away under the ice, I will bob to the surface, unscathed and praising my creator.

The ice pick clutched in my hand? What’s that used for? Well, when the ice breaks, you stab frantically at the edges of the frozen mass with it in an attempt to keep yourself from full immersion.

And the 50 feet of rope wound about my middle? That’s in case the ice pick doesn’t work. Evidently you can calmly pass one end to your companions as you rapidly subside into that sleepy-bye Jack London “To Build a Fire” hypothermic coma, so they can drag your carcass out at leisure.
And beer. And whiskey. And schnapps. And some food, if there’s room.


(Three men wander in a forlorn skirmish line across the surface of a high-altitude frozen Colorado lake. Blizzard conditions make their exact coordinates doubtful. Each carries an absurdly heavy and large bundle of equipment. MUSIC: Symphonia Antarctica, Movement 3 by Vaughan Williams.)

CASEY: Hey, guys, this looks like a great place!

OAKLAND: Whe-whe-whe-

ME: This is the worst idea you ever had.

CASEY: This was your idea!

ME: Shut up.

OAKLAND: I’m cold.

ME: Shut up.

CASEY: I brought a spear!


CASEY: You can spear them through the hole.


CASEY: I guess they come up to check it out.

OAKLAND: My parts are cold.

(CASEY grinds hole in ice, stands watchfully crouched over hole, spear in hand. The others try and fail to construct a shelter around him, using broken-off car aerials and Saran wrap.)

CASEY: This is fun! I’m having fun.

OAKLAND: (Lays down ceremoniously, preparing for death) This is the last of earth; I am content.

ME: Move over, I want to try this flip-up contraption.

CASEY: I can’t. I can’t move, really. I’m frozen.

(I pour whiskey on Casey’s lips until he can form his mouth into a spout. He thaws.)

OAKLAND: (Mumbling) Thomas Jefferson still lives.

ME: (Addressing sky in grand fit of hysteria) Nothing works. My hands can’t flex to put the lure on. I can’t see the car. We’re all going to die.

CASEY: We’re not licked yet!

(CASEY fires flare gun into sky. It strikes a hovering rescue helicopter, the sudden presence of which requires a serious continuity revision. The helicopter explodes, crashing in flames upon our three protagonists, and burning through to the icy waters below. Finis.)

ME: Ow.


OAKLAND: Pretty . . . fishie . . .

Monday, March 1, 2010

Obit Patrol

I can't help it -- I read the obits. Do you? Now I've started keeping track. The Obit Patrol's a way to note the passing of interesting and significant people from the world. Check it out.

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...