Tuesday, December 27, 2011

From EnCompass Magazine: I write about swing dancing in Denver

Lovely! Thanks so much to the kind folks at EnCompass for commissioning and running this feature story from me on the swing-dance revival scene in Denver -- in their Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

12 Daze: One dozen despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 3)

Now you're saying: "OK, smartass. Is there ANY Christmas-themed cultural event that doesn't work your last nerve?"

Yes. There are three. Not surprisingly, all three are funny. The humor not only lets in the welcome contrast of cynicism in, it leavens the deadly-serious sentiments encoded in their holiday DNA. You can play these over and over and over -- I will never tire of them! They are "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (the original animated TV feature, NOT the horrible feature-film adaptation) and "A Christmas Story."

Now, on to the quartet of unbearability, a homiletic hoedown of Brobdingnagian proportions.

4. The living Nativity scene

When I was twelve, I enthusiastically volunteered for duty at our church's living Nativity scene. I was a shepherd. I found a nice staff, and I made my mother sew a patch over the embroidered "W" on my dad's blue bathrobe (always the drive for authenticity -- I did not find any mentions of monogrammed clothing in the New Testament).

Little did I suspect that one of the coldest, snowiest Christmases in Colorado was in the offing. That special night, we assembled outside the front of the sanctuary. In the name of realism, none of us wore coats. Or gloves. Or hats. Or long underwear. Boots were a hard-won concession from the pastor.

Out in the raging blizzard we stood for hours, as cars drove by and honked, and delighted people walked up and took photos. We knelt or leaned in, centered in shivering adoration of the plastic baby doll in the manger (no one was willing to give up a real infant for the cause).

Ever since then I've just had a thing about that kind of event. A shudder of sympathy overwhelms me. Brrr. Friends don't let friends do living Nativity scenes. Outside. At night. In a blizzard.

3. Any and all Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials

I raged about this mind-bending phenomenon a few years ago -- it's still a well-visited post here, so I'll just put the link right here. Enjoy my bile-spewing rundown of the Animagic roster!

2. "A Christmas Carol"

Historians now agree that Charles Dickens invented Christmas. His 1843 classic reignited what we now think of as the classic Western Christmas traditions. His story of redemption and personal transfiguration is great, regardless of the seasonal theme, and profoundly written.

But -- madre de dios! Hundreds of adaptations of the 1843 classic litter the stage, screen, television, radio and bookshelves. There are Western versions, contemporary versions, zombie Carols, a Batman carol, a -- Klingon -- Carol. The story's adaptability to any and all genres and audiences makes it the corner streetwalker of Christmas stories. It will hop in your car and do you, for any fee.

1. The Nutcracker

First of all, I hate Tchaikovsky. He's so damn melodic.

Second, hate ballet, dance and/or movement, save that needed to get from one place to another.

Third, hate that creepy Nutcracker story. True, it was written by one of my sentimental favorites, the crazy syphilitic drunken E.T.A. Hoffman, but the psychosexual overtones of one-eyed godfather Drosselmeyer giving little innocent Clara a wooden soldier are just too disturbing to go into in any detail. Evil mice, followed by a procession of cloying solos performed by candy? Stop. IT's diabetes in a tutu.

The best diagnosis of this "sugarplum overdose" comes from Sarah Kaufman, the Pulitzer-winning dance critic for the Washington Post, who sees the prevalence of this sickening ritual as stifling creativity and draining resources from more inventive and adventurous fare.

Standing O, Sarah! Thanks. You nailed it, babe. I call for a five-year ban on productions, or at least a boycott. Occupy Christmas, people. Together we can change the zeitgeist!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 Daze: A dozen or so despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 2)

And our countdown continues . . . as we move into the heart of darkness. You know, it's not that I don't value love, kindness, faith, and redemption. I treasure them. But when you fetishize any values and work them and work them and work them, they ossify. They sour. They become shorthand for real feelings. Then they take their place entirely. That's when they become despicable.

8. "The Gift of the Magi"

O. Henry (in reality, William Sydney [originally Sidney] Porter) was a formerly celebrated, now largely ignored early 20th century American writer. You used to find his work on every home bookshelf in the country, alongside the excruciatingly sentimental poetry of Edgar A. Guest ("It takes a heap o'livin'/In a house t' make a home").

Among other activities during his life, Henry was an embezzler, a drunk and a jailbird. He was a master of the "twist" ironic ending, which he stole from Maugham, who stole it from de Maupassant. Keeping the tradition alive, Rod Serling stole it from Henry -- now it is known as the "Twilight Zone" twist.

"The Gift of the Magi" is his most irritating work. At Christmastime, an impoverished couple tries to find a way to get each other a gift. She sells her HAIR to buy her husband a platinum watch fob (n.b. a chain or ribbon which attaches a pocket watch to a waistcoat) . . . and he sells his watch to buy her some hair brushes. GAAAK! They hug, as somewhere a dark figure laughs hollowly.

I can't think of a contemporary version of this. She sells their baby to buy him some beer; he sells his kidney to buy her a bassinet? Och. It's the thought that counts.

The Gift of the Magi - watch more funny videos     

7. "Miracle on 34th Street"

What hath Valentine Davies wrought? A simple little story became an award-winning film -- which spawned four remakes and a stage adaptation and a musical adaptation. And a puppet show. No, really.

The plot hinges on two impossible events -- first, the American legal system errs on the side of compassion; second, the Post Office delivers something desperately needed just in the nick of time. It takes far more faith in these entities than it does in Santa Claus to make this shaky story work.

Additionally, watching the conversion of a skeptical little secular humanist into a goggle-eyed Santaphile is just too sad. And I'm talking about Maureen O'Hara, who plays the mom! Although I am happy for John Payne's character -- without her spiritual conversion, he wouldn't have had a hope in hell of getting into her pants. P.S. I don't believe Natalie Wood for a New York minute. She just wants that damn house Kris promised her.

It's odd, too, that we coo and chuckle over cute little old crazy-as-a-bedbug Kris Kringle, but would cringe, shout and flee if anyone tried that on us in real life. Oh, and by the way, Kris -- Daniel D. Tompkins was NOT John Quincy Adams' Vice President. John C. Calhoun was. Get it together.

6. "It's a Wonderful Life"

The most terrifying ever made, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a fever dream of redemption in the mind of a dying suicide. George Bailey actually lives in Pottersville, and desperately dreams of an alternative, wonderful life as he drowns. A fruitless life spent sacrificing for others leads to a snowy bridge and a watery grave. Waah.

Put Gordon Gecko in George Bailey's place -- THEN you have a film.

At least, that's how I like to think of it. Merry Christmas, everybody! If you prefer to keep faith ith Frank Capra's twisted view, you can punch in to the amusing synopsis below, courtesy the 30-Second Bunnies:


5. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"

A glance at the illustration above is enough to send any self-respecting parent into paroxysms or protectiveness. Look at what's happening in this home-invasion poem! Disturbing the peace. Airspace violations. Trespassing. Breaking and entering. Animal-rights violations ("he was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot"). Second-hand smoke. Disturbing behavior. Dumping. Levitation.

Make it stop, mommy. Make it stop. Don't let the bad man in the house!

TOMORROW: The Final Four -- shivering in the cold, traumatized by puppets, a mean old man and weirdos in tights

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Daze: a (baker's) dozen despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 1)

More traumatizing events happen during the Yuletide season than any other. In my family it’s referred to warily as the Holiday of Guilt and Shame.

Still, the crushing rush of Christmas is so culturally pervasive that you can’t escape the traditional holiday entertainments that dragoon your children, force your attendance or attention, make your teeth grind and exhaust all remaining reserves of comfort and joy.

And this is the money time of year for artists and entertainers. Whether we are scraping away at a cello down at the mall, doing a puppet show for angry institution-bound seniors, or cavorting in tights in the bright light of the concert hall, we work work work it, from mid-December through New Year’s.

The resentment steams from the audience. The holiday season seemingly compels us to get dressed up and exposure ourselves to culture, like an unwelcome form of radiation therapy. We go see the old chestnuts because mom/grandma/Aunt Martha insists we do (guys would be happy on the couch, as God intended) – and just pray that there’s a cash bar.

This time of year, you can’t throw a brick without hitting a holiday well-wisher. Believe me, I’ve tried. Here, in ascending order of potential awfulness, is a baker’s dozen of doubtful entertainments. Bah.

13. “White Christmas”

No, not the song. Love the song. I’m talking about the stage adaptation of the 1954 version of the 1942 original, “Holiday Inn.”

“Holiday Inn” is a great, fun movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, based on an idea by Irving Berlin to make a movie that would showcase a number of his holiday-themed songs. The conceit, a hotel that is only open on public holidays, works well, and the script is a hoot.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by a blackface number about Lincoln’s Birthday, “Abraham.” America’s institutionalized racism was on its way out, but still going strong at the time. You will not likely see the film unless you purchase it or see it with the offending sequence lopped off.

The VistaVision color remake is a complete rewrite, and substitutes Danny Kaye for Astaire. It sucks, save for the catchy little “Sisters” turn. The stage adaptation has only been around since 1994, so it hasn’t had time to engrain itself into the national consciousness. Just you wait.

12. Carolers and wassailing

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 80,000 deaths a year result from caroling.

You are a talented singer, in charge of a magnificent voice. Now take it outside in sub-zero temperatures and howl close-harmony doggerel while staggering through deep snowdrifts. What are you, Alferd Packer?

I have participated in these door-to-door sonic assaults. They are not yet illegal.

And I’m confused. There’s something Halloweenish about this whole affair. Shouldn’t you ask us in? Can we have something warm to drink? A cookie? Can we just grab a memento from your mantelpiece?

And what in the hell is wassail? Isn’t it a flaming bowl of something? Something English? I know we ask for it in some convoluted 18th-century way, as in: “Good husbandman, come bring/With tidings glad this/Hot steaming burn-ed drink/Hol-tol fiddle-rol tee dol downy-doo.” No thanks. I’ll stick with Scotch.

11. The Messiah

No, not THE Messiah. I mean Handel’s “Messiah.” A lovely oratorio, including catchy numbers such as the state song of Wyoming – “All we like sheep”!

However, it does go on. And on. And on. And actually, you know, it’s an EASTER oratorio, so the second half is full of smiting and chastising and rods of i-ron that sort of thing. Plus, we’re supposed to stand up during the Hallelujah Chorus! Like it’s the seventh-inning stretch! This is a tradition based on the mistaken belief that George II did it during the first performance, which is a big fat lie.

So, if you’re stuck listening to this, and everyone stands up suddenly, stay seated (unless the venue is on fire) and explain loudly about the vile calumny that forces people to their feet. You’ll be glad you did.

This disdain for the "Messiah" encompasses all modern, alternative variants, including the rock Messiah, the jazz Messiah, the blues Messiah, the R & B Messiah, the gospel Messiah, the rap Messiah, the punk Messiah, the ambient dub Messiah, the mbalax Messiah, and all other "more accessible" corruptions thereof.

10. “Amahl and that Night Visitors”

The first opera written for television, this one-act piece of schmaltz went out over the airwaves from NBC studio 8H (where “Saturday Night Live” now reigns) on December 24, 1951. Although Gian Carlo Menotti was a darn good opera composer (try “The Consul” and “The Medium” sometime), this was not one of his best efforts, in my humble etcetera.

Still, this tearjerker is a cash cow. Poor, crippled shepherd boy + single mom + baby Jesus = boffo box office.

And who can forget the great "This is my box" aria?

9. “The Littlest Angel”

Less an immediate danger to mass consciousness -- more a traumatizing flashback for me. Like “Amahl,” this was a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. It featured Johnny Whitaker (the curly-headed freckle-face from “Family Affair”) as a little 8-year-old  shepherd boy (sound familiar?) who ACCIDENTALLY RUNS OFF THE EDGE OF A CLIFF and dies . . . or rather, finds himself in heaven.

In a plot development stolen from “Our Town,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “A Guy Named Joe” and other he wanders around, not really able to figure out that he’s DEAD, why he’s DEAD, and how to feel about it. With an all-star cast that includes Freed Gwynne, Cab Calloway, Tony Randall, George Rose, CONNIE STEVENS? JAMES COCO? And E.G. Marshall as -- God. Yep.

And it’s a musical. A musical. It was broadcast on Dec. 6, 1969, and it traumatized me for life. 
You know how if you see something vastly inappropriate on TV and the kids are in the room, you leap for the remote to turn it off? I want you to do this if “The Littlest Angel” EVER makes an appearance. It makes “Poltergeist” look like an episode of Bob the Builder.

TOMORROW: O. Henry, Jimmy Stewart, Santa on trial, and that horrible poem

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 ...