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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Toys of Days Past

Until a time machine is invented, one of the best chances for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s to recapture the joy of playing with our toys of those days is to visit the Smithsonian American History Museum. 

At its Pause and Play Lounge, the museum is featuring  pop culture objects related to the emergence of youth culture from 1950 to 1964. In addition to exhibits from the time to view, youngsters and oldsters can engage in a variety of activities ranging from creating Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head dolls to drawing comics and cartoons on giant wall boards.

You can begin your trip down memory lane by checking out the showcases. In one, there is the Superman suit actor George Reeves wore. Another contains artifacts from early childhood TV shows such as the original Howdy Doody puppet, a Mickey Mouse Mouseketeer cap, a Lone Ranger lunchbox, and a Capt. Kangaroo coloring book.


There is a showcase that contains a tribute to the jukebox and the vinyl records of the period. A song list of 21 tunes ranging from Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" to the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" plays continually in the background during your visit.


Until this era, all market advertising was aimed at adults. But with the advent of TV, advertisers discovered that they could appeal directly to the young people they were trying to entice with their products. On a large screen, there is a loop of more than a dozen advertisements for toys and food items such as cereal.

The large lounge offers 2 hands-on areas. On one wall, you can draw your own comic and cartoon character. At a series of tables you can build with Legos, etch a sketch, or watch a Slinky slink.

On three panels are photos submitted from visitors who grew up between 1950 and the early 60s where contemporaries can wax nostalgic and those who aren't can discover what it was like to grow up then. If you would like to contribute copies of photos to be included on the panels,  you can do so by clicking here.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
 Many of the toys from the Pause and Play Lounge are still available today, making them a play staple of kids for 6 decades. Here are did-you-know facts about some of them.
  • The View Master was not orginally marketed as a kid's toy. In fact, the View Master was created as a way to see 3D color images of popular tourist attractions.
  • The 1st Mr. Potato Heads used real potatoes. From 1952 until 1964, the toy was sold as fun features that could be stuck into potatoes or other vegetables to make silly faces.
  • Slinkys were inspired by an accident. A U.S. Navy engineer accidentally knocked a specially designed spring off a shelf and was suprised to see that it could "walk."
  • In 1960, the Etch-a-Sketch was so popular that the Ohio Art Company continued manufacturing it right up until noon on Christmas Eve and then shipped them out for last-minute shoppers.
  • Legos, among the earliest plastic toys, comes from the Danish words leg godt which means "play well."

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Of Football and Kings

The Redskins on offense against the Buccaneers
The preseason game between the Washington Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was still in the first quarter when the chant began. It started with the fans in the Redskins' end zone and spread around the stadium. "Bring Cooley back!" "Bring Cooley back!"

That morning it had been reported that the Redskins had released tight end Chris Cooley, one of the most popular and productive players in the team's history. Cooley had been plagued by injuries the past 2 seasons, but appeared healthy this year.

In the off-season, the Redskins had drafted star college quarterback Robert Griffin III in hopes that he could return the Redskins to the glory years when they were regularly winning Super Bowls. It was something Cooley, although he played hard and squeezed the most out of his ability, had been unable to do.

The fans in D.C. loved Cooley not just for his hard play on some pretty pathetic Redskins teams, but for the crazy incidents stemming from his oddball character. There are dozens of great Cooley stories, but none probably more widely told than this one. A few years ago, Cooley was photographed with the Redskins playbook. Now, in and of itself, that doesn't seem strange. However, at the time Cooley was holding the playbook in his lap. He was also naked. So the photo featured not only Cooley's playbook, but all of his genitalia as well.

If anyone had any doubts about how popular Cooley was, they would have been dismissed by counting the number of fans wearing his #47 jersey last night. But while fans are important, Cooley's dismissal proved that modern sport is a bottom-line business. In today's professional athletics,  there is little, if any, room for loyalty. Older athletes are replaced by younger, faster, and in many cases, cheaper versions.

Sports is a lot like politics. There are winners and there are losers. Old kings make way for new ones. In Washington, old king Cooley is gone. The young RGIII is set to take his place. All hail the new king. But no matter how the RGIII era unfolds, the fans made it clear last night that old king will not soon be forgotten.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Sonny Jurgenson as an Eagle
We had really good seats to the game which we had picked up on Stubhub for a total of $20. They were only about 15 rows from the field, right at the front edge of the end zone. Sitting next to us was a black Redskins father who had brought his 11-year-old son to his first professional football game. The game had been a surprise. The son had thought he was going to peewee football practice, but the father had gotten permission from the coach to let him come see the Skins in person. As I listened to the father explain the intricacies of the game, I couldn't help but think about my own experiences with football with my father. Even though he was a fan of the old American Football League, my dad knew I liked the local Philadelphia Eagles. I was one year younger than the young fan sitting next to me last night was when pro football became a Sunday ritual for my father and me. 50 years ago, my favorite Eagle was quarterback Sonny Jurgenson. In my eyes, he could do no wrong. That's why I was so excited when some of the Eagles were scheduled to play a charity basketball in my home town in the winter of 1963. Jurgenson, along with Tommy MacDonald, Pete Retzlaff, Ted Dean, Theron Sapp, and more of my Eagles' favorites would be in the same gym where I played City League basketball. I begged my father to take me. I just knew I could get all of their autographs, but most especially that of Jurgenson. After the game, I joined a crush of young fans outside the locker room. I got many signatures. But there was no sign of Sonny. One of my friends tapped me on the shoulder. "Sonny's already outside. If you hurry and get out there, you can catch him." I rushed out into the cold night without a coat.  I scanned the parking lot. I saw Sonny, his beautiful girlfriend on his arm, approaching a sports car. He opened the door for his girlfriend. I sprinted to the car just as he got in the driver's side. I held my pen and and notebook out for him. He looked at me, smiled, threw the car in gear, and sped away. I was stunned. I didn't understand, but I didn't cry. Why would my idol do something like that? A few years later, Jurgenson was traded to the Redskins, where he became an even bigger star. Last night, as now happens at pro games all over America, former stars of the home team are feted on giant stadium screens. During a time out, Jurgenson, in all his Redskins' glory, received such treatment. Long-time Redskin fans showed their enthusiasm for their great quarterback, cheering and clapping loudly. I did neither. Make no doubt about it, Sonny Jurgenson was a great NFL quarterback. But to me, he will always also be a fallen idol who sped off into the night, leaving a star-struck 10-year-old boy shivering in a dark gym parking lot, an unsigned piece of paper in his hand

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

By the Book

Washington D.C. is a book lover's paradise. There is Politics and Prose with its more than 450 free book talks a year. Busboys and Poets frequently has left-leaning authors such as Ralph Nader and George Pelecanos as speakers. Authors writing about media and its concerns are a staple at the Newseum. The National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Library of Congress all provide forums for authors to discuss their books.

And there is the D.C.book biggie of them all, the National Book Festival, sponsored annually by Library of Congress and held on the National Mall..

This year's festival is set for Sept. 22 and 23 and festival organizers have released the schedule. Here are the authors I am most looking forward to seeing and hearing:


Saturday - Sept. 22
  • Mike Lupica
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Thomas Friedman
  • Philip Roth
  • Stephen Carter
  • Michael Connelly
  • Sandra Cisneros
  • Robert Caro
  • Douglas Brinkley
  • Colson Whitehead
  • Philip Levine
  • T. C. Boyle
Sunday - Sept. 23
  • Avi
  • Eric Weiner
  • Mario Vargas Llosa
  • David Maraniss
  • Stephen Carter
  • Junot Diaz
  • Patricia Cornwell
  • Thomas Mallon
  • Charlaine Harris
Of course, just like with big music festivals such as Bonnaroo or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, you aren't able to see everyone you want. You have to make choices. Some will be relatively easy. For example, as much as I like Douglas Brinkley, David Maraniss, and Walter Dean Myers, I have seen them before and, if there is a conflict with their times, I will choose another author. However, there are 2 writers I will not miss - Michael Connelly, who is my favorite crime writer, and Charlaine Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels on which HBO's show True Blood is based.

Boy, whoever coined the phrase so many books (and, in this case, book authors, too) and so little time was right on the money. Especially when it comes to National Book Festival.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to know more about the National Book Festival and who will be there, click here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

George Bellows: American Artist with a Punch

"Dempsey and Firpo"
From his early days as a baseball player coveted by the Cincinnati Red Stockings to his later years as a noted painter of boxing matches and scenes of New York, George Bellows was a quintessential example of an American steeped in the American concerns of his times.

Bellows, who died in 1925 at the age of 42, is the subject of a current comprehensive exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. He was also the main focus of a weekend lecture delivered by Gallery lecturer Lorena Baines entitled Creating the Legacy of George Bellows: The Artist and His Critics
which was designed to explore Bellows' art in broad social and cultural trends.

"Bellows was always known as a specifically American artist," Baines told a large crowd assembled to hear her Sunday talk. "To understand Bellows, you have to ask - what did it mean to be an American in 1925?"

In the 1890s, right before Bellows emerged on the art scene, Americans, for the first time, began to consider American art as equal to that created in Europe. "Until then, American art was still under European influence," Baines said. That trend escalated through Bellow's career, "fueled by a surge of patriotism that came after World War I," she added.

Another factor reflected in Bellows' art was a growing tendency to celebrate a culture of masculinity and manly pursuits, much of it established by the personna of popular progressive President Teddy Roosevelt, who was a huge supporter of boxing.

A 3rd factor was a sense of isolationism, a belief that America should keep itself separate from all foreign concerns and press its own agenda. "There was a lot of reveling in American ingenuity,  American achievements such as the Panama Canal, and man's power to change the landscape," Baines said.

Finally, there was a real interest in regionalism, a rooting of art in "the familiar and understandable linked to American values," Baines said.

In his time, because he dealt so well with so many of those period concerns, Bellows "was hero-ized and much talked about," Baines noted. Even as recently as 2011, a critic contended that Bellows  "shows us what it means to be American."

Bellows was identified with the Ashcan school of art, which "believed art should make a social statement," Baines said. One of the best examples of social concern in Bellows' work is contained in his painting "The Lone Tenement" (1909) with its focus on the daily struggles of people displaced by increasing modernity and industrialization.
"The Lone Tenement"

His classic "Both Members of the Club" (1909) captures both the beauty and brutality at the heart of boxing, which at the time was illegal in New York. Enthusiasts, however, got around the ban by staging matches at local sporting clubs, making the boxers temporary members of the clubs. A closer look at "Both Members ..." shows the garish, grotesque faces of the crowd as if Bellows "was saying something special about the type of people that would go to these events," Baines postulated.
"Both Members of the Club"


And, of course, there are the magnificent renderings of New York City such as his series on the creation of Penn Station and "New York" (1911). In that latter work, Baines said Bellows "with his almost visual overload, captures the frenetic energy of New York City."
New York

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you can, I would highly recommend that you check out the Bellows exhibition. I think it is the best retrospective now viewable in D.C. The show closes on Oct. 8.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Sax Sideman Takes Center Stage

Bobby Keys and me
Here's a great rock and roll question for you: what do "Live with Me" by the Rolling Stones, "The Wanderer" by Dion, and "The Letter" as performed by Joe Cocker have in common?

If you answered that they all feature sax solos by the legendary Bobby Keys, you can take your place in the rock fan's Hall of Fame. And if you added that they are the 1st 3 songs on Keys' latest touring project, Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards, set list, then you must have been at the restored Howard Theater last night as the band played an energetic, two-hour show packed with songs Keys contributed to both live and in the studio and a few sax classics.

Of course, the staples of the night, and the highlight for many of the older crowd at the Howard, were the Stones songs from the Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street period of the late 60s/early 70s. In addition to "Let It Bleed," the band interspersed "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," and "Sweet Virginia" in their 2 sets. The group closed with "Can't You Hear Me Knockin" and encored with Keith Richards' "Happy."

Keys, who will turn 69 this year, kept up a Texas-twanged patter with the audience throughout the night, often providing humorous commentary and background on each song before it was played. Keys 1st made his mark as a session player. "The first time I heard myself on the radio, well it was little but it was a real radio, was on 'The Wanderer,'" Keys said.

After touring with Cocker's all-star project "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," (Keys also included Leon Russel's "Delta Lady" last night), he became a regular sideman for the Stones, then living with his still-best friend Keith Richards in the south of France. "Man, those were great days," Keys told the audience. "Don't remember much about 'em. The mind's kinda' vague. But we had us some good times."
Keys with the Suffering Bastards

Keys has been performing with the Stones live since those days, and if, as expected, the Stones take to the road soon to celebrate 50 years of making music, you can be sure that Keys will be there with Mick, Keith, Charley, Ron, and the rest.

But Keys also has close ties to 2 of the late Beatles. He played sax on George Harrison's "What Is Life?" and provided the start to one of John Lennon's last hits "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." The Lennon song provoked a lot of good-natured humor last night. Keys told the crowd that the song begins with the highest note he can hit on his sax. "Some nights I get it, and some nights I don't," he said. Well, last night was one of those nights. But after 2 aborted  attempts, Keys hit the note and Sufferin' Bastards were off and playing.

Even after more than 50 years on stage, it's clear that Keys truly loves the life he chose. "Man, playin' for ya'all, it doesn't get any better than that," he said. Keys' on-stage foil is lead singer and guitarist Dan Baird, formerly of the Georgia Satellites. A few times, Baird had to point out to Keys that he was skipping over songs in the play list order. "So, I'm old, and fat, and can't see," Keys responded. Keyes acknowledges Baird as a songwriter by always including Baird's piano-driven honky tonk rager "You Look Like I Could Use a Drink."

Keys said when, as a youngster, he begged his mother to buy him a saxophone, she finally relented if he would promise to learn one of her favorite songs, Duke Ellington's "Harlem Nocture." Keys did and performed an extended version of it as one of 3 instrumentals in the set. When he was 15, Keys met soul sax man King Curtis. "Man, I had questions. What kind of reeds do you use? What do you listen to? What do you wear? What do you eat?" Keys explained. Finally, Curtis imparted simple advice to Keys on how to get better. "Just point that thing near your mouth and blow," he said. Today, Keys' rendition of Curtis' "Soul Serenade" serves as a tribute to his mentorship. The 3rd instrumental was a relatively unknown B-side for Motown saxman Junior Walker entitled "Hot Cha."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As evidenced by his impressive resume, there are few in rock n' roll who have had the longevity and the depth of career of Bobby Keys. Of course, he has been sharing that experience from stages all over the world. But earlier this year, Keys released a well-reviewed autobiography entitled Every Night's a Saturday Night: The Rock 'n' Roll Life of Legendary Sax Man (as Keith Richards warns in the foreward "not to be confused with sex man") Bobby Keys. After the show, Keys signed copies of the book and talked to fans in individual sessions in the Howard's green room.  And, of course, Judy and I were there. When Keys asked how I wanted the book signed, I asked if he could make it out to our son, Michael Keith, born in 1973 and named after Michael (Jagger) and Keith (Richards). "Yeah, ol' Michael Philip (Jagger) himself just had a birthday. We're all gettin' up in years." I told Keys how much we had enjoyed seeing him on a small club stage. "Yeah, well I still love these places," he said. "Man, I started out in some small places in Texas. There were clubs where they not only shot at you, they threw grenades up on the stage." Of course, I had to ask Keys about the much-discussed, upcoming Stones special extravaganza. "I bet you'll be getting a call pretty soon, huh?" I asked. Keys eyes twinkled. "They call me all the time. They're always askin' my advice," he said. But what about that special call? "Yeah, I might be gettin' one," he said.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Uncle Sam Needs More She-Heroes

If you think there is a gender gap in political power, statistics support you. While 52% of the American population is female, there has never been a female president in the 200+ years of this country. Only 17 of the 100 U.S. Senators are female. That same 17% percentage holds in the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, the United States ranks only 91st in the world when it comes to women in the national legislature. Gender disparities are even greater at state and local levels where men occupy 44 of the 50 governor's seats and run 92 of the country's 100 largest cities as mayor.

So why the gap?

Dr. Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, believes that myths about the electability of female candidates such as they can't raise enough money to be successful are partly to blame.

"The myths become a self-fulfilling prophecy,"  Lawless says. "They are a real response to what you perceive as an unlevel playing field."
  
Then there are actual impediments as well. For example, men are recruited to run for office in far greater numbers than women. "There are growing numbers of women who have the credentials and qualifications, but they are not getting the same encouragment,"  Lawless maintains.

Lawless was one of the panelists appearing last week at the National Archives to discuss the topic Beyond the Vote: Post-Suffrage Strategies to Gain Access to Power. She was joined by Dr. Joy Kinard, central district manager of the National Capital Parks and Jennifer Krafchik, assistant director of the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum for the talk, which was moderated by Page Harrington, the executive director of Sewall-Belmont.

A study co-authored by Lawless with Loyola Marymount professor Richard Fox found 7 main factors for the political gender disparity. They are:
  • Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
  • Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin's candidacies aggravated women's perception of gender bias in the electoral process.
  • Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
  • Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.
  • Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
  • Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office - from anyone.
  • Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.
The panel agreed that more effort must be made to increase women's political power. "Equity and a seat at the table are 2 different things," Lawless said."We need seats at the table. We need someone other than just 55-year-old white males making decisions."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Interestingly, as evidenced daily in news of the 2012 election campaigns, there is a not-so-subtle shift
happening in the battle over what have been traditionally considered women's issues. It appears as if party affiliation, not gender, is determining the sides, with Democrats increasingly on the pro side and the anti's populated by Republicans. "There is an increasing party polarization. What we're seeing is an opportunity for Democrats to benefit from the gender gap and feminist issues," Lawless said.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Burning of Washington

It was Aug. 24, 1814, and, as usual for that time of year, summer conditions were creating a humid, hot inferno in what was a still-swampy, but slowly developing new capital city of the United States. The males of the city, along with President James Madison, were gathered in militia units about 6 miles away at Bladensburg, hoping to repel superior British forces determined to enter Washington and destroy it.

However, in less than an hour, the outcome was clear. American forces had been defeated and the way to Washington was clear. The news created a panic. Residents frantically scrambled to flee the city, saving only the possessions they could carry.

"Transportation had become more valuable than gold or jewelry," said author Anthony Pitch, who appeared at the National Archives today to discuss his book The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.

The British troops entered the city unopposed. First, they burned the Capitol, the home of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the young American Republic. They then staged a silent, orderly march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Arriving at the White House, they found the home of James and Dolley Madison completely deserted. While some of the troops feasted on a table set for 40 in the White House dining room, others spread through the home, looking for war-time souvenirs. They found a hat worn by Madison. An officer placed it on his bayonet. "If we can't capture the little president (Madison was only 5'4") we will parade his hat in London," he said.

Within an hour, all that remained of the White House was charred limestone and piles of ash. The British stayed in the city for another day, torching other government buildings. Cannons were spiked and dropped into the Potomac. A magazine of gunpowder exploded, killing and injuring dozens. Until a violent storm set in, the fires burned so brightly they could be seen in Baltimore. The British troops were under strict orders not to tamper with personal property. But that edict didn't apply to the residents of D. C. who hadn't been able to flee. Gangs roamed smokey Washington, taking advantage of the chaos and confusion to destroy buildings and loot any valuables they could find.

"Those 2 days were definitely a low point in American history," Pitch said. "But in times like these there are always a few individuals who represent the best stuff we are made of."

Pitch recounted 2 such stories; one well-known and the other not so much so. Despite orders to leave earlier, the President's wife, Dolley, refused to evacuate until she and her servants could save the giant painting of George Washington which still hangs today in the White House. "Now that's incredible," Pitch said. "That is real patriotism. It is a word that is much bandied about today and cheapened. But that is real patriotism."

Another hero was clerk Stephen Pleasanton, who saved America's most valuable historic documents from British torches. Acting with little help, Pleasonton acquired several coarse linen bags, and filled them with as many State Department records as they would hold. These included the still-unpublished secret journals of Congress, the commission and correspondence of George Washington, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and all the treaties, laws, and correspondence of the Department since 1789. He had all of this carted to a grist mill  three miles beyond Georgetown. Before he left, he noticed the Declaration of Independence had been forgotten and was still hanging in its frame on the wall, and took that as well. Pleasonton became fearful that the British would destroy a nearby cannon foundry and possibly even the grist mill and procured wagons to take the material another thirty-five miles to Leesburg, Virginia, where they were stored in an empty stone house until they could be returned to Washington.

"Because of the actions of Stephen Pleasanton you can still see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution upstairs in this building," Pitch said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Even though it began 200 years ago, the War of 1812 and its aftermath share similarities with today's political headlines, Pitch maintains. For example, initial intelligence indicated that the British would march on Baltimore, not Washington. "History does repeat itself," Pitch said. "That (bad intelligence) happened a few years ago in the Middle East." Then there was the task of rebuilding D.C. itself. The process was delayed by political bickering and cost overruns. Columns that were supposed to cost $1,500 actually ended up costing $5,000 each. "You see Congress never changes," Pitch said, provoking much laughter from the crowd.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

All the News That's Fit to Paint

Ken Keeley's "Newsstand:" Reading as Art
Most people look at books and journals as reading material. But since the 16th Century, visual artists have been using books and other forms of the written word as symbols and images in their paintings, a point driven home with exactness at a recent lecture at the National Gallery.

The lecture, entitled All the News That's Fit to Paint: Reading as Art, served as an introduction to the gallery's upcoming major exhibition Shock of the News, which will examine how artists have used newspapers during the 20th and 21st centuries.

Virgin Mary reading
During the one-hour talk, Gallery Lecturer Eric Denker outlined the use of print in art from the Renaissance to the French impressionists of the 19th Century. Early such works were religious in nature, with painted scenes of the Virgin Mother or the saints holding or reading books, usually the Bible or a book of Psalms called a Psalter.

In England, the British painter William Harnett pioneered the use of various forms of reading material as still life. The writing in such works looked like real words but on closer inspection they were just unrelated markings painted to resemble the formation of sentences and paragraphs.

In the 18th century, broadsheets began using art work to illustrate points. In 2 famous related  drawings by William Hogarth entitled "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane" the artist drove home the point that while beer could provide stability and happiness, the demon gin would leave drinkers in ruin.
Hogarth's "Beer Street" on left; "Gin Lane" on right

American artist Richard Woodville provided a classic painting of the emerging power of newspapers with his "War News in Mexico" (1849). "The painting is a patriotic reminder of the victory over Mexico. The young man is reading the news. At the American Hotel, there is room for everyone. Meanwhile the man talking to the older man at the bottom may be symbolizing that reading is replacing talking as a way to convey information, " Denker said.
Woodville's "War News from Mexico"
 Indeed, after the 1850s, "the press not only reported the news, but it became the most important way to disseminate artistic news," Denker said.  By the 19th Century, painters were using reading as a subject to convey stability, family togetherness, and as an acceptable activity for women of all ages.

Many of the impressionists including Degas, Manet, and Cezanne employed reading and readers as a subject for their works. Paul Cezanne used his father reading a paper in one of his paintings. However, he used the title of an underground publication of the day, similar in nature to DC's The City Paper or Rolling Stone, as the paper his father was reading. "Cezanne's father would not have been reading that," Denker said. "Cezanne put that avant garde paper into his father's hands as a way of legitimatizing his own (new) art."
Paul Cezanne captures his father reading a paper

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So what will the Shock of the News exhibit be like? Denker says it will include work from artists such as Andy Warhol and others to celebrate the last great years of newspapers. "Today, we are inundated with information, but it's less likely to come from newspapers and journals than electronically," Denker said. The exhibition will open on Sept, 27 and close on Jan. 27. According to National Gallery press, soon after the turn of the 20th century, visual artists began to think about the newspaper more broadly—as a means of political critique, as a collection of ready-made news to appropriate or manipulate, as a source of language and images, as a typographical grab bag, and more. The exhibition will examine this trend as it quickly grew into a phenomenon, encompassing both Europe and America, and will trace its development from 1909 to 2009. From Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pablo Picasso to Ellsworth Kelly and Adrian Piper, most of the 60 artists in the exhibition will be represented by one exemplary work, ranging from collages, paintings, and photographs to a nearly room-size installation by Mario Merz, À Mallarmé (2003).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ad-ding Up the Vote

It has the simplest of names. It is called the Daisy Ad. It is 1 minute long. It aired only a single time. But it is the most famous, and controversial, TV ad in the history of political advertising.

If you have never seen it, here is what it contains. The ad begins with a very young girl pulling daisy petals and counting them. For the sake of childlike reality, she miscounts and then resumes. As soon as she reaches 1, a shrill military voice begins an ominous backwards countdown "10 ... 9 ... 8 ..." As the voice nears zero,  the camera zooms in, coming to rest inside the young girl's eye. Reflected there, we hear a roar as an atomic bomb is unleashed and we witness a mushroom cloud climbing skyward. The voice of Lyndon B. Johnson utters a brief statement ending with the phrase "...We must either love each other or we must die." The words Vote for President Johnson on November 3 appear on the screen as an announcer intones "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Although it never mentioned Johnson's opponent by name the message was clear - Republican challenger Barry Goldwater was too hawkish to trust as president. A vote for him would doom the planet - and all of its little boys and girls - to fiery, horrific destruction. The ad was immediately pulled after it ran, but political pundits continued to discuss it and display it through the 1964 race. And on Nov. 3, Johnson handed Goldwater one of the most crushing defeats in presidential political history.

Not surprisingly, the Daisy ad features strongly in the short film about political advertising now showing at the Newseum to accompany the exhibit Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press.

The era of television ads for presidents began with the 1952 election campaign of Dwight Eisenhower. The Disney company produced a primitive ad entitled "I Like Ike" for the American public. Only 32% of American homes then had television sets, but as the TV rose in prominence over the decades, so did the amount and sophistication of the televised political ads. Many, following the tone established by the Daisy ad, fell into the negative category. There was the infamous Willie Horton ad, which linked Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to a black criminal which he had paroled while governor of Massachusetts. Horton, while out of jail, committed a murder. Perhaps the most mean-spirited of all belonged to the 1968 campaign of Hubert Humphrey. When his opponent Richard Nixon chose unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew as his running mate, the Democrats aired a commercial  with only the words "Spiro Agnew for Vice President" on the screen and the sound of a man convulsing in fits of laughter. An announcer intoned at the end: "This would be funny if it weren't so serious." Ironically, even though the Nixon/Agnew team won, neither successful candidate was able to finish their term in office as both were forced to resign.

While many of the ads showcased focused on negativity, not all did. The film cites two of the most effective positive TV political ads in history - President Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" and Bill Clinton's "A Man from Hope."

The film concludes with a segment showing how then-candidate Barack Obama used such new social media as YouTube and Facebook to help lead him to the White House in 2008. However, as the current presidential election season is graphically demonstrating on an hourly basis, the days of TV ads are still far from over.  Political candidates in the pioneering days of television may have believed that trying to sell a campaign on TV would result in translating the presidency into a bar of soap. But today's candidates know that without these ads, they will never obtain their goal of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
People constantly complain about negative political ads. So why do they continue to air? One answer was delivered recently by Washington Post political writer  Chris Cillizza during a talk at the Newseum. "You  may not like them; everyone says that. But they work. Campaigns are not going to dump money into things that don't work. They worm their way into your consciousness. I guarantee if you go into a voting booth, whether you vote for Romney or not, you're going to think about the fact that he really can't sing 'America the Beautiful,'" Cillizza said at that time..

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Armed and Aiming for Serious Thought

In Colorado last month, a lone gunman in body armor, his hair dyed a wild orange-red, burst into a theater, opened fire, and killed 12 and injured 58 more theatergoers. In Washington, after perfunctory prayers and condolences, both Democratic and Republicans leaders were silent on the issue of violence.

Earlier this month in Wisconsin, an Army veteran who performed in a hate punk band, strolled into a Sihk temple, opened fire, and killed 6 and injured 4. In Washington, prayers, condolences, and silence on the violence.

Last week, in Washington, a lone man who volunteered at The DC Center for the LGBT Community, armed with a gun and a bag of 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, entered the Family Research Council in downtown DC, shot and wounded a security guard, but was apprehended before he could cause further harm. Again, from the White House to Capitol Hill, silence on the violence.

But apparently, although the Corcoran Gallery of Art is within view of the White House and within easy walking distance of the Capitol, the self-imposed political silence on statements about violence doesn't apply to artists who are exhibiting work there.

An exhibition, entitled Manifest: Armed, which is the inaugural show in the new Manifest series, features a trio of artists whose challenging, thought-provoking work is definitely connected to both the allegorical and frighteningly literal world of guns, weapons, and violence.

As you enter Gallery 31 where the exhibit is housed, you will be greeted by a display of meticulously crafted white paper guns, hanging from the ceiling and arrayed on the floor like an arsenal., which is appropriate since the entire installation is entitled "Arsenal."

Artist Sarah Frost, the creator of the ghostly paper guns, has gathered online instructional videos from YouTube in which young boys teach viewers how to make elaborate and detailed models from white paper, tape, and scissors. The models range from precise reproductions of popular guns in circulation to fantasy weapons found in video games such as Halo and Mass Effect.

The most conceptually complicated project on display is "FireSaleTM"  by Colin Beatty and Craig Smith, who operate as the collective SmithBeatty. The project involves purchasing a gun, disassembling it and mailing its pieces to “33 stakeholders, including museum directors, art curators, artists, university professors, lawyers and a weapons manufacturer president.” The pieces are defined as shares in a corporation and beautifully packaged into sturdy cases. Recipients aren’t asked whether they want to participate, and when the collective issues a call on the shares — the gun pieces — the participants can ignore the whole thing or return the gun parts as asked, which are then reassembled.The inevitable “missing” pieces are manufactured using a 3-D printer and then reassembled. The art comes from the documentation of the entire process.
The glock apart
The glock case

Julian Oliver’s “Transparency Grenade” uses a small computer, wireless antenna and microphone — inside a translucent, grenade-shaped case — to capture (theoretically) anything that is floating around on wireless signals (and ambient noise) wherever it is “detonated.” The data are then  uploaded to a server where they “can be mined for information,” according to a Corcoran description of the object.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So what does the Corcoran hope to accomplish with the exhibition, which is running until Sept. 2? "We hope that the confrontational and politically charged themes of the exhibition lead to an urgent and constructive conversation about our artistic, political, and technological climate," says Director of College Exhibition Joseph Hale. In other words, the exhibtion seems to be screaming let's break the silence on violence.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's SUNdeVICH for a World-Class Sandwich

Would you like to take a culinary trip around the world, use only local ingredients, make an environmental statement and, at the same time, never leave a DC alleyway? Sound impossible? Well, it's not if you visit SUNdeVICH in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington.

Located in a reconverted garage on 9th Street between N and O streets, SUNdeVICH is a unique sandwich shop which features 15 sandwiches daily, each one named after an international city and containing ingredients and flavors true to those used in that region of the world.

Here is a recent list of the sandwich menu destinations:
  • Athens
  • Beirut
  • Berlin
  • Buenos Aires
  • Cairo
  • Capri
  • Havana
  • Isfahan
  • Istanbul
  • Kingston
  • Madrid
  • Moscow
  • Paris
  • Shiraz
  • Tehran
Unlike actual traveling, you can visit more than one place at a time. On my most recent SUNdeVICH stop, I was accompanied by my DC educational consulting companion Paul Smith. I ordered the Kingston (jerk chicken, pineapple salsa, greens, spicy slaw, and garlic mayo). Paul ordered the Cairo (hummus, cucumber, brined vegetables, walnuts, and fresh herbs). The sandwiches, all made on hard-crusted baguettes that are baked especially for the shop by a local bakery, are cut in half. To create a bi-national noon-time feast, Paul and I swapped halves. Beaches of Jamaica, meet the pyramids of Egypt.

SUNdeVICH follows a strict “green” and eco-friendly approach. All  paper goods and carry-out supplies are not only bio-degradable, but compostable.  The construction of the sandwich shop utilized a wide range of recycled material, such as reclaimed wood, refurbished metals, and old original bricks. The company plans to add a solar powered heat and air conditioning system.

The popular sandwich shop (you can expect long lines but service is quick and efficient), opened last summer. Recently it added 4 breakfast sandwiches - the Mexico City, the Milan, the Oslo, and the Zurich to its menu. This summer a SUNdeVICH food truck took to the DC streets.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Make no mistake about it, I love the food at SUNdeVICH. But you don't have to take my word for it. Urban Spoon reviewers give it 4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars. Yelp makes it 4 out 5. And here is a thumbs-up 1st review from The Washington Post.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Bitch Made Me Do It, Sucking the Toes of Hookers, and I Am Not a Crook: A Tour of DC's Most Sordid, Sleaziest Scandals

A Sarah Palin look-alike stripper: Is this the next great DC scandal?
Washington is America's capital, so it makes sense that D.C. would also be the capital of political scandals, shenanigans, and skullduggery. And when it comes to the sordid, the sleazy, and the downright sickening, D.C. officials are very, very good at what they do.

The names have become part of our history. Watergate. Teapot Dome. AbscamIran-Contra. Then there are the nicknames of the colorful characters - The Argentine Firecracker, Hot Military Stud.Com, Tricky Dick. There are break-ins, money laundering, money passing to FBI agents dressed like Arab sheiks, deadly duels, crack smoking, blackmail, phone taping, illegal wiretapping, naked Playboy posing, provocative picture passing, a House of Representatives gay prostitution ring, hot, steamy sex behind the columns of the Capitol, illicit sex in the White House, and even a double castration. High-level hijinks here have placed 2 words in our everyday vocabulary - lobbyist and hooker. And, long before there were internet memes, came one of the great slogans of all-time for when your wrongdoings get captured on videotape - "The bitch set me up".

From Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (sexual blackmail, fatal duel) to modern-day former Congressman Anthony Weiner (self-shot photos of "personal junk" emailed to admiring young females), there's no shortage of scandal to digest. If the subject interests you, you can read about it. But, if you want more active exposure, you can take the Great American Scandal walking tour, one of several free walking tours offered by DC Walkabout.

The two-hour tour begins at Lafayette Park, just across the Street from the White House, where guide and company owner Sean Williams tells you "we can spend a long, long time here but we have to move on." So you receive the Presidential high points (or maybe low points would be more apt). Andrew Jackson (duel). Grover Cleveland (father of an illegitimate child, recipient of the "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" campaign chant, legal guardian of an 11-year-old girl whom he married 10 years later in the only White House presidential wedding ceremony in history). Warren Harding (Teapot Dome where part of an illegal payoff was given in cattle). John Kennedy (Fiddle, Faddle, and Marilyn Monroe?). Richard Nixon (Watergate). Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky, thongs, cigars, a blue dress, and a different way of serving your country by servicing your  president).

As you wind your way toward the Capitol, you will make several stops and receive point-outs to other places. The Willard Hotel (President Ulysses Grant would come there to escape the pressures of the White House with a cigar and a glass of brandy. He would be besieged in the lobby by people seeking favors - thus the term lobbyists). The Jefferson Hotel (where political operative Dick Morris used to make late -night phone calls to President Clinton while enjoying sucking on the toes of his favorite prostitutes). And speaking of prostitutes, you will see the area of D.C. where Union troops preparing for the Civil War once frequented brothel tents. So many of the men were under the direction of General Hooker that his name was given to the breed of girls we now refer to as hookers.

Congressman Mills and Ms. Foxe
During the tour, you will be pointed in the direction of the Silver Slipper strip club where Congressman Wilbur Mills first hooked up with Fanne Foxe, the end result of which was one of Washington's greatest sex scandals. In October, 1974, Mills, a powerful Arkansas Congressman, was involved in a traffic incident in DC.  His car was stopped by U.S. Park Police late at night because it had no lights.  Mills was intoxicated, and his face was injured from a scuffle with Annabelle Battistella, better known as Fanne Foxe, a stripper from Argentina.  When police approached the car, Foxe leaped out and jumped into the nearby Tidal Basin in an attempt to escape. Despite the scandal, Mills was re-elected to Congress in November 1974 in a heavily Democratic year with nearly 60% of the vote. On November 30, 1974, Mills, seemingly drunk, was accompanied by Fanne Foxe's husband onstage at The Pilgrim Theatre in Boston, a burlesque house where Foxe was performing now under the name of the Tidal Basin Bombshell.  Soon after this second public incident, Mills stepped down from his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and acknowledged his alcoholism.

Mr. Barry
But federal officials aren't the only politicians with great escapades. Local D.C. government leaders have provided their share, too. And none of those is more known that that of former Mayor Marion Barry, who began his political career as one of the key figures of the Civil Rights movement. He later became Mayor of DC and served 3 terms, until he was captured on videotape smoking crack with a well-known prostitute. Barry's defense became infamous - "The bitch set me up." he said. However, Barry, after a short prison term and a brief self-imposed political exile, was returned to a 4th term as mayor and today, at 76, still serves as a DC City Councilman. After describing Barry's tale, Williams pointed to the spot outside the John Wilson Building where Barry likes to park his silver Porsche. Ironically, in a city government where 2 council members have already been forced to resign this year for illegal activities and the mayor is under a cloud of suspicion for a $630,000 shadow campaign, Barry, when he isn't making disparaging remarks about immigrants, is becoming regarded as one of the city's moral rocks (which shouldn't be confused with the rock cocaine he used to smoke).

Ms. Jenrette
And just when it seems your brain can't handle another piece of scandal information, you arrive in view of the Capitol and its shining dome where Williams says "we could spend a ridiculously long time here." However, once again time constraints allow for only the quick modern highlights. Senator Ted Kennedy (Chappaquiddick drowning incident) Rep. John Jenrette (who according to his then wife and later Playboy poser, Rita, an engager of consensual sex on the Capitol steps) Senator Strom Thurmond (an anti-integrationist who among other things served in the Senate longer than anyone else, fathered a black daughter when he was in his 20s, and even in his later years, kept such a reputation as a lothario that a fellow senator said "When Strom finally dies they're going to have to beat his pecker with a bat to get the casket closed"), Rep. Robert Bauman ( a staunch conservative prone to criticizing the state of morality in America who was accused of soliciting oral sex from an underage 16-year-old boy, then having the charges dropped when he sought treatment for alcohol addiction, and at last writing the book The Gentleman from Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative, which was published in 1986), and, finally, the aforementioned Mr. Weiner.

"So what does it all means? What's the moral?" Williams asked with the wry smile and engaging humor he had shown throughout the past 2 hours. "I don't know. I just give out the information. The rest is up to you."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
OK. So let's tackle Williams' question - what does all this scandal in Washington mean? I suppose you could look long and hard to some quotations for answers. For example, to err is human, to forgive divine. Or power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe, politicians are just like you and me, only their egos and their sins are bigger (you won't find that one anywhere; I just made it up). In the end, I have to agree with Williams. I am not sure what it all means. But I do know that if you take the Great American Scandal Tour you will find it informative, interesting, and highly engaging. You will also find yourself wanting a shower. But I'm not sure if that is because of all the heat and humidity that hangs here in DC or because of all the disgusting political dirt you've just encountered. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How World War I Birthed Monty Python

This painting captures some of the the horror of WWI
For Lowell Fry, the society-shattering and world-altering impacts of World War I are often undervalued, perhaps because they aren't fully understood. "The Civil War defined us as a nation and then there is World War II. World War I seems to be a blip in between," Fry says.

But Fry, who is a Park Ranger at the National Mall, is attempting to change that with a walking lecture he regularly delivers provocatively entitled How World War I Birthed Monty Python.

"World War I was a game-changer if there ever was one," Fry told a small, but interested group he was leading on a recent warm summer evening.  "The world had never had anything like it before. It was a war that boggled the mind. It seemed to change everything that people thought would never change"

First and foremost, there was the incredible death totals from the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918.  The final tally showed more than 8 million soldiers had died and 21 million more were injured, some of them so gruesomely that they had to wear masks for the rest of their lives.

"If you were to build a monument for the dead like the Vietnam War wall it would stretch for 25 miles, half-way to Baltimore," Fry said.

The kill totals were multiplied by the 1st widespread use of modern weaponry such as machine guns, tanks, planes, and, most terrifying of all, deadly poison gas. The large cannons used were so powerful that not only the soldiers bogged down in the disease and vermin-filled trenches could hear them, but citizens in far away London and Paris could, too.

While the actual event that triggered the war, which America finally entered in 1917, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, conditions for the conflict had been developing for decades. Countries like Britain, France, and most of all Germany were looking to increase the prestige of their empires. "Germany really wanted their place in the sun," Fry said. Throughout Europe, a special breed of nationalism had developed, with each country believing it was superior to its enemies. At the same time, because of restrictions of royalty, many of the crowned heads were related as cousins, leading to simmering in-family rivalries. The ordered, science-and- progress-will-make-us-better Victorian world of the late 19th and early 20th world was rapidly changing. No event captured that change better than the debut of Ivan Stravinsky's musical ballet piece "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which so shocked audiences that it provoked rioting in the streets.

By the end of the war, the change was complete. The old order was gone. While armies had initially marched off singing cheery anthems to patriotic fervor, those who made it back returned with a belief that they had experienced collective madness and the worst of humanity.  "It was the slaughter of the old world," Fry said.

At first, America, heeding George Washington's words to avoid foreign entanglements, stayed out of the conflict that was devastating Europe. Finally, after a German sub sank the Lusitania  and the German government pledged support to Mexico if it would attack the United States, America entered the war and, a little more than 1 year later, the Germans and their allies surrendered. "Probably, the French and British would have lost if we didn't enter," Fry said. "We came out of the war as the greatest power in the world."

Americans waged the war under the slogan "the war to end all wars" but the results of the war-ending Treaty of Versailles sewed the seeds of World War II, much of the strife of the later 20th Century, and even some of today's conflicts, Fry contended. He cited France's refusals to let Vietnam have a separate country, the Near East where conflicting promises were given to both Israelis and Arabs, special considerations given to Japan that forced China toward the Soviet Union, and dispositions toward Kurds and Muslims in the Middle East.

"It was said at the time that it was harder to wage peace than to wage war and we found that to be true," Fry said. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Eric Idle, John Cleese, and the rest of the Pythons
OK. So much for a brief accounting of World War I. But where does Monty Python, that wildly wacky, popular group from England whose influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles' influence on music, come into the picture? At the end of World War I, the world's industrialized population, especially its young, were left alienated. Gone was the binding staple of love of God, glory, and country. "It (WWI) blew up not just the men, but the mores of the times," Fry said. "The individual was now the center. People were asking such questions as what is truth? And the answer was, we don't know."  Fry suggested witnessing the fullness of the change this way. "At the beginning of the war the troops left singing patriotic songs and, at the end, the men in the trenches were singing 'we're here because we're here because we're here," he said. Meaning was gone. The new nihilistic, meaninglessness-of-life ideas were expressed in art as Dadaism. And in comedy, the time was right for the groundwork that would eventually lead to the absurdist, boundary-pushing work of the Pythons, Fry said.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Live. From DC. It's Saturday Night Live Politics

On its most basic level, politics is a serious business that should be taken seriously. But even the most serious politician or political scholar has to acknowledge that there is much ridiculousness interwoven throughout all levels of our political process. And, for more than 35 years, no one has done a better job of highlighting that ridiculousness than the TV show Saturday Night Live.  


From Chevy Chase as a bumbling Gerald Ford in its first years to Tina Fey as a spot-on Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election, SNL has not only created cascades of political laughter, but has actually had an impact on how America sees the candidates and their foibles.

That's why its appropriate that the Newseum has chosen to begin its special exhibition Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press with a special look at SNL's campaign show from the 2008 race.

All the major props are on display. There is the red suit that Fey wore as Palin and the blue one that Amy Poehler donned to portray Hillary Clinton. There is the moose suit that was used in a skit spoofing Palin's hunting skills. Ditto for the Obama mask that Barack Obama wore when he hosted the show and the special set of knives GOP candidate John McCain hawked during his guest appearance.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Every Four Years is not closing until January of next year which means you have plenty of time to check out both the SNL portion and the entire exhibit.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Native American Olympic Heroes

With the Olympic competition in London completed, talk for the next 4 years can  focus on the question - who is the greatest Olympic champion ever? And one name that will invariably enter into such a discussion will be that of Jim Thorpe, who 100 years ago captured gold for both the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Thorpe was a member of the American team. He was also a member of the American Indian Sac and Fox tribes, which of course makes him the featured competitor at the Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics exhibit now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Native Americans have a storied history with sports. Long before contact with the 1st Europeans, the Mayans participated in a ballgame where losers faced death. In North America, tribes focused on such spirited sports as lacrosse and chunkey.

The 1st Native American to participate in the Olympics was Seneca tribe member Frank Pierce, who was an American marathon runner in the 1904 St. Louis games. Those games also demonstrated how much prejudice still existed toward Indians. As part of a special Anthropology Days series, untrained "savage" people were placed in track and field events they were unfamiliar with to confirm Anglo/European feelings of superiority.

But 8 years later the successes of 2 Native Americans propelled recognition of the athletic contributions of their people to the forefront. One, of course, was Thorpe. But even though he returned to America as a conquering hero, his star quickly faded when it was discovered that he had played in a couple of low-paying professional baseball games before the Olympics. Thorpe was stripped of his medals. He went on to star in baseball, basketball, and football. But his family never gave up their fight to have Thorpe's Olympic contributions restored. In 1983, they finally were successful and his 2 medals are now part of the museum's exhibit which will be closing Sept. 3.

The other Native American 1912 Olympic star was Duke Kahanumku, who gained medals for his swimming and recognition for his native Hawaii. In later years, Kahanumku became a legend for bringing the Hawaiian sport of surfing to the west coast of the United States and high-waved waters of Australia.

Sports experts point to the 1912 games for 3 huge contribution to native American culture and history:
  • showcasing the highly developed athletic program of the Carlisle (Pa) Indian Industrial school
  • demonstrating running as spiritual exercise and
  • introducing Hawaiian island culture to both the USA and the world.
While 1912 was the high-water mark for Native American Olympians, they have continued to make contributions to American teams up to and including this year's competition. One of the most heralded of that group was Billy Mills (Ogala Lakoda) who came from behind in the 10,000-meter race in the1964 Olympics to become the only American to ever win gold in that event.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I am virtually certain this will be my last post involving the London Olympic games. (For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit I didn't watch a single competition or ceremony. The only glimpses I had of 2012 games were those I caught from TV screens in my travels around DC). That's a reason why I will let author Dave Barry have the final word here on this year's Olympics. Not only did he attend the event in person and, unlike me, actually watch the contests, I consider him to be the funniest American to set pen to paper (or, in his case, more accurately fingers to keyboard) since Mark Twain. To see what Barry has to say in his column "The good, bad, and the awesome about Olympics", click here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy 100th, Julia Child

Julia in her kitchen
Before there was Emeril, before there were Iron Chefs, before there was a Food Network, there was Julia Child, the gracious grandmother of Americans' fascination with fine cuisine and one of the most popular celebrities of her era.

If Child, who died in 2004 at the age of 91, were alive, she would have celebrated her 100th anniversary today. And to celebrate that milestone, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, unveiled a special Child exhibition that includes the completely restored kitchen of her Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Child's love of food and cooking really began during World War II when, as a member of the OSS (a precursor of the CIA) she lived in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China and began sampling their dishes. In 1948, she and her husband Paul moved to Paris. "As soon as we got over there and I tasted the food, I couldn't get over it," she once told an interviewer.

Paul encouraged Julia to enroll in the elite Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was so impressed with French food and the French way of cooking that she wanted to write a cookbook encouraging Americans to think about cooking the way the French did. The result was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the 1st of 14 cookbooks she would write during her long career. That book changed the way cookbooks were written. Previous cookbooks had basically been compendiums of traditional recipes that were simple lists of measurements and some general instructions. Child opted to offer a complete explanation of what to do, tool-by-tool and step-by-step.

In 1962, Child debuted on her 1st cooking show on PBS entitled The French Chef. That show would run for 10 years. She would star in various cooking shows and specials until she retired from TV a few years before her death. Viewers were drawn to Child as much by her sense of humor as they were her cooking prowess. Her message was simple - she wanted people to view cooking not as a chore, but as an immense pleasure and a true, creative outlet.

While dozens of visitors to the Child exhibit crowded around a large screen to watch segments from her popular shows today, others peered through the glass protecting her kitchen. The kitchen represents more than 50 years of cooking history, as tools from the 1940s hang next to ones from 2001, the year she donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian.

The restored kitchen and Child's contributions to the world of cooking will eventually serve as an anchor for the new section Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000 that the museum plans to open in November of this year.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What better way to continue to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Child after our Smithsonian visit than by heading to one of the top French  bistros in D.C. for lunch? Our choice was made even easier by the fact that Washington is also celebrating one of its two annual Restaurant Weeks and the Bistro Bis (under the direction of Chef Jeff Buben, also head of the marvelous Southern-themed Vidalia here in D.C.) was offering a special 3-course $20.12 lunch menu. So what did I have, you ask? The appetizer - Pate de Campagne (country-style pork pate with mesclun salad, pistachios, toasted baguettes, and mustard sauce. The entree - Porc Toulousienne (honey-glazed pork belly with sweet corn, pearl onion, and heirloom bean ragu. Dessert - Gatea Tirimasu (coffee genoise layered with bavarian mascarpone cream and mocha sauce). Was it good, you ask? I think I'll let the before and after pictures of my dessert dish answer that.
Dessert: The before ...
... and the after.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Scenes from an Outdoor Screen

For those who came of  age between the late 1940s and the mid 1970s, the drive-in theater was often a place to be. Youngsters in their pajamas found it fun to take in a movie with their family before falling asleep. Teenagers loved the drive-ins, albeit less for the movies than as a perfect place to practice night moves on the opposite sex. Meanwhile, the few oldsters in their cars struggled to hear the dialog on the tiny, tinny single metal speakers attached to the drivers side windows of their Ford or Chevy station wagons.

But no matter what the reason, there was something truly cool about watching a film on a giant outdoor screen. But several changes conspired to bring about the death of the drive-in. On the economic side, land prices became too high to continue to use valuable real estate for what was essentially a warm-weather only business. At the same time, the advent of color television, followed by the introduction of VCRs and video rentals contributed to the downfall. By the late 1980s, only a handful of what were once more than 4,000 drive-ins nationwide remained in operation.

But as the 21st century dawned, a new type of outdoor theater blossomed. While the drive-ins were mostly situated in suburban or rural areas, the new outdoor films offered an urban experience. Utilizing names like "Screen on the Green," neighborhoods in cities around America began showing once-a-week films in the summer. Technology allowed for giant, collapsible screens and state of the art sound speakers that could be installed and taken down quickly. And although the drive-ins had always been cheap entertainment, the city screens were an even better value - they were free.
Here's a look at the Crystal Screen setting

For the past 6 years, our neighborhood of Crystal City has been offering such films. The screen is set up in a large plaza between 2 high-rise office buildings every Monday night for 13 weeks. Mobile food trucks replace the old concession stands for hungry movie goers. Some sites use porta-potties, but in upscale Crystal City an adjacent Marriott provided that bathroom service.

So last night Judy and I grabbed a blanket and walked less than a block to join hundreds of our neighbors at this week's Crystal Screen presentation. Like many of the community screenings, Crystal Screen shows a series of movies with a theme, which this year is RomCom (or chick flicks as they are commonly called). Tonight's choice was the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere classic of that genre Pretty Woman. When we moved to Crystal City last year, we vowed to attend at least one showing a season. Last year's theme had been By The Numbers (each of the titles offered had a number in its title) and our choice was 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Like many of the other screenings, Crystal Screen is sponsored by a business or government organization, in this case the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID) to promote community growth. At the end of each season, residents are allowed to vote on next year's movies either at the Bell Street movie site or on-line. The 2013 season will feature Blockbusters. To see what choices are being considered, you can click here for the voting list.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As soon at this year's Crystal Screen offerings were released, I knew we would be attending Pretty Woman, which is one of my wife Judy's 2 favorite romantic comedies, the other being Dirty Dancing. Fortunately, while they aren't my favorites, I can watch both movies. Interesting, last night I found Pretty Woman taking on a different motif in light of this year's presidential race. For those of you who have never seen the film or need a plot refresher, in the modern version of the Cinderella story, Richard Gere stars as a cold, extremely wealthy business tycoon who finds true love with a lovely and loving prostitute portrayed by Julia Roberts. In the movie, Gere's character buys businesses, breaks them into parts, and sells off the parts for much more money than the whole could ever bring (Sound like any GOP presidential candidate we know, Mr. Romney)? By the end of the film, Gere's character has found his heart in both business and love. Of course it's only a reworking of a fairy tale, but I wonder if Romney could have such a revelation if he is elected president? Anybody know what Julia Roberts is doing for the next 4 years?

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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