Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Signal

“Why do you have to go
The night is still young yet.”
         “Why Do You Have to Go,” The Dells

In the final scene of “The Signal: A Doo Wop Rhapsody” Henry Farag describes returning to the concrete hallway of Marquette Park Bathhouse in Miller, one of his teenage haunts, recently refurbished as the Gary Aquatorium.  He suddenly breaks out singing “Why Do You Have to Go,” a Dells hit on Vee-Jay Records that became a staple in live performances by several Fifties doo wop groups, including the El Dorados. It was Vivian Carter’s WWCA radio show “Livin’ with Vivian” that introduced 11 year-old Farag to the music he loves and performs to this day.  Henry ends his autobiography with these words:
  The reverberation was still there in full force and – something I didn’t remember – the echo actually rings off the walls like a bell.  It rings.  It’s magic.
 Stormy Weather, Henry Farag second from right

Because I had over an hour for my presentation, I could play more music than when I talked to a similar group at Valparaiso University.  I attributed Vee-Jay’s decline both to self-inflicted financial mismanagement and racist practices by the Internal Revenue Service, which commonly targeted successful black performers and entrepreneurs.  Also the hits came less frequently due to the mid-Sixties British invasion, the ever changing musical tastes of young people, and competition from labels like Motown for a shrinking share of the market.  Someone asked where artists such as Pookie Hudson and Jerry Butler got their training.  I mentioned church choirs and school choruses and that many groups on their own started harmonizing “under the street lamp” (as the saying goes), first imitating songs heard on the radio and then developing, in the case of the best, their own unique sound.  It became a cool thing to do and a way to attract girls.

After the program came a tour of the South Shore Arts gallery exhibit “Motown vs. Chi-Town: The Indiana Connection.”  Curated by Stefanie Mielke of the Chicago Blues Museum, it devotes much space to Vee-Jay artists such as the Spaniels, Jimmy Reed, the Dells, El Dorados, and Gene Chandler.  On the way I noticed a number of seniors lined up at the theater box office to buy tickets for “The Signal: A Doo Wop Musical.”  South Shore Arts education director Jillian Van Volkenburgh asked me to return next year. I might talk about popular culture in 1957, covering music, movies, sports, fads, and celebrities in the news 60 years ago.
Gregg Parker

A day later I returned with Toni to the Munster Center for John Cain’s 23rd annual “Holiday Reading,” preceded by a gallery reception at which wine was flowing.  Introducing himself at the “Motown vs. Chi-Town exhibit was Chicago Blues Museum founder and CEO Gregg Parker, a musician in his own right, who has played with a host of entertainers going back to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder. At the IU Northwest table for lunch in a ballroom where some 20 years ago we attended Tony Panepinto’s wedding reception I sat next to Michelle Dickerson, who recently took over for retiring Director of Finance Marianne Milich.  Michelle grew up three blocks from campus, graduating from Gary Lew Wallace and then Purdue.  Her mother still lives in the same Glen Park residence.  Michelle joked that she’ll probably gain ten pounds from her home cooking.  George Van Til stopped by our table to say hello; a “Holiday Reading” regular, he told Cain he was sorry he couldn’t attend last year’s event.
Michelle Dickerson; photo by Erika Rose
John Cain

Before reciting the ribald “Why I Love Christmas” from “Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters” (2003), Cain got laughs from the crowd of 300 reading an email decrying “Hairspray” director Waters as a purveyor of smut. Then, noting that his favorite writer is Truman Capote (whom he resembles), John mentioned coming across an online auction of Capote memorabilia, including a small box allegedly containing some (not all) of the author’s ashes and a collection of the author’s pill containers.  Both went for thousands of dollars.  Cain was tempted to bid on a hat that eventually sold for nearly a thousand dollars but didn’t think it would fit because the size was listed as a small.

Asking Karren Lee to stand, Cain announced that it was she who suggested he read the Waters selection that originally appeared in his book “Crackpot” and to blame her if disappointed or outraged.  On screen he played “Santa Is a Black Man,” supposedly Waters’ favorite Christmas carol, even better than The Chipmunks’ Christmas Album, the Barking Dogs’ “Jingle Bells” and "Frosty the Snowman" by the Ronettes.   He is how “Why I Love Christmas” ends:
            I always have an "office party" every year and invite my old friends, business associates and any snappy criminals who have been recently paroled. I reinforce all my chairs, since for some reason many of my guests are very fat, and after a few splintered antiques, I've learned my lesson. I used to throw the party on Christmas Eve, but so many guests complained of hideous hangovers I had to move up the date. No more moaning and dry heaving under their parents' tree the next day as their brothers and sisters give them dirty looks for prematurely ejaculating the Christmas spirit.
I usually invite about a hundred people and the guests know I expect each to get everyone else a present. Ten thousand gifts! When they're ripped open at midnight, you can see Christmas dementia at its height. One thing that pushes me off the deep end is party crashers. I've solved the problem by hiring a door man who pistol-whips anyone without an invitation, but in the old days, crashers actually got inside. How rude! At Christmas, of all times, when visions of sugarplums are dancing orgiastically through my head. One even brought her mother—how touching. "GET OUT!" I snarled after snatching out of her hand the bottle of liquor that she falsely assumed would gain her (and her goddamn mother) entry.
Happiness and good cheer should be throbbing in your veins. Swilling eggnog, scarfing turkey and wildly ripping open presents with your family, one must pause to savor the feeling of inner peace. Once it's over, you can fall apart.
Now is the time for suicide if you are so inclined. All sorts of neuroses are permitted. Depression and feelings that it somehow wasn't good enough would be expected. There's nothing to do! Go to a bad movie? You can't leave the house between now and January 1 because it's unsafe; the national highways are filled with drunks unwinding and frantically trying to get away from their families. Returning gifts is not only rude but psychologically dangerous—if you're not careful you might glimpse the scum of the earth, cheap bastards who shop at after-Christmas sales to save a few bucks. What can you look forward to? January 1, the Feat of the Circumcision, perhaps the most unappetizing High Holiday in the Catholic Church? Cleaning up that dirty, dead, expensive Christmas tree that is now an instant out-of-season fire hazard? There is only one escape from post-Christmas depression—the thought that in four short weeks it's time to start all over again. What're ya gonna get me?

At Gino’s during a History book club discussion about an article ranking America’s presidents Ken Anderson noted that the top trio – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt – were in office during times of great peril and speculated that FDR might not be so iconic had it not been for World War II.  Rich Miroc praised strong chief executives Andrew Jackson and Harry S Truman.  Brian Barnes believed Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist, did not deserve to be in the top ten.  Me, too.  Ditto Ronald Reagan, who, like U.S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, was asleep at the wheel in terms of tolerating corruption by cabinet members.  As one who believed that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan appointed Interior Secretary James Watt and HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce, neither of whom believed in their agencies’ mission.

At the very bottom of the list was James Buchanan (my great-great-great uncle).  Not far behind were Buchanan’s predecessors Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce.  Most historians criticize their efforts to preserve the union by appeasing the South.  While the strategy failed, war was probably inevitable at a cost more than a half-million lives.  Buchanan also gets blamed for not taking a strong stand when states began seceding following Lincoln’s election.  He was by then, however, a lame duck with an unprepared army commanded largely by Southerners.  Precipitous action would have caused Maryland to secede, leaving Washington, D.C., surrounded by slave states and indefensible.  By evenings end there was general consensus that Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was our worst president.

Chesterton Y duplicate bridge director Alan Yngve asked if I’d be an emergency substitute since Charlie Halberstadt’s regular partner is on her way back from Australia.  He’d call me at the last minute if needed to fill up a table since I lived nearby.  I was flattered but declined; by 6:45 I’m in for the night unless aware in advance that I’d be going out and thus able to get in a nap. Alan’s lesson, utilizing a hand from the previous week, involved what to bid with a strong hand containing five spades after an opponent opens one heart.  Claiming that a spade overcall would be too weak, he suggested a take-out double.  The partner had five clubs led by the Ace-King and four little spades, and Alan suggested a spade response.  The contract ended in spades.  I suggested that a 2-club bid would have been a better choice so the one with the stronger hand could be the declarer.  When Alan stuck to the spade response, I said, “Well, maybe you’re right.”  Everyone laughed.  Realizing it looked like I was second-guessing the expert, I quickly backtracked, saying, “I’m sure you’re right.”

David Parnell’s students discussed Jean de Joinville’s “Life of Saint Louis.”  The French King Louis IX (1214-1270) embarked on the Seventh Crusade after recovering from a life-threatening disease.  After capturing the city of Damietta, his army was routed at Al Mansurah.  Louis was taken prisoner shortly thereafter and released in exchange for a huge ransom.  Two decades later, Louis landed troops in Tunis but succumbed to dysentery, bringing an end to crusading in North Africa and the Holy Land.  David asked the class to guess where a statue of St. Louis was located.  The answer: St. Louis, Missouri.   

In an essay entitled “A Team of Amateurs” Ray Smock wrote that the angst over the impending Trump Administration is palpable.  He added:
            It is not just Democrats who are the Nervous Nellies but many Republicans as well. The transition is unsettling because Donald Trump is a complete political novice with no government experience whatsoever. During the campaign the Democrats talked about this and about his lack of temperament. These are real concerns for sure. But it is Trump’s complete and utter lack of what to do that is most troubling. So far the people around him are just as clueless. He is getting off on the wrong foot from day one because he doesn’t know what he is doing.
Working on a New York Times puzzle, Toni asked if I knew who had been nicknamed “The Kansas Flash.”  Easy: former Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers.  Next she needed the location of Teddy Roosevelt’s Long Island home. The last letter being “y.”  Voila: Oyster Bay.
IUN’s History Club has scheduled a “Weird History” event in December.  I’ll bring up that Abraham Lincoln is in the Wrestling Hall of Fame.  He won 300 matches and lost only once, in 1832 to Hank Thompson, a fellow Illinois Volunteer during the Black Hawk uprising, in a battle for the regimental championship. According to Carl Sandburg, the six-foot, four-inch grappler once dispatched an opponent and then taunted onlookers with this boast: “I’m the big buck of this lick.  If any of you want to try it, come and whet your horns.”

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