Monday, November 17, 2014

Lancaster, City of Light

Growing up in the country made anywhere with a lot of stores and houses and traffic and noise and air that doesn't smell like a barnyard a city.  When I was growing up, Lancaster was my city.

Lancaster was never new to me.  Mother took me to movies starting at a very young age, and Lancaster was where the movie theaters were.  Three theaters were on the same block:  The Capitol,  The Grand, and The Colonial (which became The Boyd).  A fourth was built several blocks from downtown.  The King was built in the early 1950s with CinemaScope and stereo in mind.

North Prince Street, West King Street, East and West Chestnut Street, and North Queen Street were the center of my universe.  (This included East Orange Street.)  Downtown Lancaster was always both reliable and exciting.  There was always a newsboy on the square shouting, "Pay-PERRrrrr."  I can't say I envied him his job, but it was a reliable part of every visit, as were hot soft pretzels and the diesel fuel smell of the buses.

My interest in music has been lifelong.  Lancaster had two music stores.  One was a small one on East Orange Street, near the gorgeous if spooky Episcopalian Church.  The other was Troup's Music Store.  Composer and jazz musician Bobby Troup was from Harrisburg; his family owned the original store on Market Square in Harrisburg; the one in Lancaster was the branch.  (He lived on the West Coast.  Julie London was his wife.  It was always news when he'd come back for a visit, especially if he visited the Lancaster store.)

I loved Troup's.  They had a huge selection of popular sheet music.  They also had books of "serious" music.  Sometimes they had complete scores of musicals.  Instruments were always on view and, under the watchful eye of a clerk, could be touched and even handled.  I don't know when I first became aware of Handel's Messiah, but I owned the recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, and vocal powerhouses soprano Eileen Farrell and bass William Warfield.  I wanted a copy of it so I could follow along.  I sent them the right amount of money and a little more so they could send it to me.  It didn't come and it didn't come, so next trip downtown, I went to the store to ask about it.  They couldn't find the letter or a record of the cash.  I was bummed.  The clerk walked over to the rack with all kinds of scores, picked up a Messiah, and put it in a bag.  "A young man can't be without his copy of Messiah," he said as he handed it to me.  I loved Troup's.

Uphill from Troup's (literally) was where the newspapers came from.  Lancaster had three...The Intelligencer Journal in the morning, The New Era in the afternoon, and The Sunday News.  We got the afternoon paper, the Republican paper, and the Sunday paper.  The building had large store windows on the street.  They had pictures of events and what we now call flip chart paper with the latest headlines hand-printed on them.  I wasn't entirely sure what went on in there, but I knew it was filled with typewriters and people were being paid to write.

Across from that was (to me) the lesser of the two department stores, Hager's.  I don't remember it well, but I seem to remember there were different levels on the first floor.  It was all right, but it never particularly captured my imagination.

The real department store was Watt & Shand's on the southeast corner of the square. For this gayling, it was fabulous.  The store windows showed excellent men's clothes, gorgeous women's dresses and gowns, furniture, candies, that put all other stores to shame.  I can't say that I felt a gay vibe when I went in there...I wouldn't have known what that meant.  I knew, however, that it was an excellent store, beautiful merchandise of all kinds,  Plus, it had escalators.  And then there was Christmas.

Watt & Shand's and Christmas went hand-in-hand.  Watt & Shand's was our Wanamaker's and Macy's.  The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a single engine airplane flew over Lancaster County.  It's flight path and flyover times were well-known.  Santa was the passenger.  It landed at Lancaster's airport and Santa arrived downtown at the end of a parade on board a hook and ladder fire truck.  The fire truck positioned itself, erected the ladder, and a far braver than I Santa climbed up to the top floor, sack on back, and entered Santa-land through a window.

We always waved at the airplane but never saw the parade.  Not live, anyway.  WGAL-TV televised it, and watching Santa climb the ladder was a nerve-wracking experience. However, since this was the era before urban flight and countless shopping centers on what was once farmland, we'd go Christmas shopping in downtown Lancaster.  I was always awestruck by Watt & Shand's windows.  They were worth a trip to the city all by themselves.  Lancaster was open Friday evenings, so we'd get to see the windows with lights, not just daylight.  Watt & Shand's windows had figures that moved, lots of trains, dolls and stuffed animals and I can't remember what.  Lancaster was my city, and Watt & Shand's, especially at Christmas, was paradise.

We had our choice of two record stores.  One was Stan's Record Bar on North Prince Street, near the Fulton Opera House.  Stan's had albums and 45s everywhere. Something about it gave the illusion of dirty...absurd, I'm sure, but I didn't like going there.

The better was Darmstadter's.  Darmstadter's was a dry goods store.  It was all right and nice to walk through.  I walked through it because the record department was at the rear of the store, and it was magnificent.  For one thing, they had somewhat sound-proof listening booths.  This was before plastic shrink wrap.  All of the people who worked that department seemed incredibly knowledgeable, and I had two favorites, a man and a woman.  Apparently I came in often enough and had memorably odd tastes in music, so they knew me.  It was there I bought the Goddard Lieberson-produced Porgy and Bess. I bought the D'Oyly Carte recording of HMS Pinafore (and many of the other London G&S recordings).  More than likely, Darmstadter's was where I bought the album of Messiah.  I bought all my Original Broadway Cast recordings there.  And that's where I bought Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as described in another blog.

No doubt I'll come back to Lancaster again.  The theaters deserve to be mentioned, since none of them survived the century.  Downtown Lancaster no longer exists, I'm told.  The buildings are the same, but they've been re-purposed and the businesses don't sound nearly as interesting.  I didn't mention the markets, Woolworth's, the Greist Building, or the dangerous underground bathrooms.  Someday, perhaps.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Kid's Imagination Meets Edward Albee

1963.  Night.  The parents have gone to bed.  Both my brother and sister married and now have families living elsewhere.  I am the last chick in the nest.  I'm a high school senior in the wilds of eastern Lancaster County, PA.  I've tried my wings a couple of times and feel more and more ready to fly.  Still, ...

The only light in the living room is the from the control panel of the Grundig-Majestic AM/FM/ Stereo.  I've put the records on the spindle; the first record is about to drop onto the turntable.

I'm not a stranger to theater, although I'm a lot more familiar with movies.  Still, my drama club has taken me to several productions at Franklin & Marshall College's Green Room Theatre. I was spellbound by All the King's Men.  I loved a comedy about talking scales. Lancaster's Kiwanis Club (I think) annually put on a musical.  I have acted in several of my high school's productions and stage managed others.  I like and am comfortable with the theater.

I'd read about the controversy over this play.  Since people were upset about it, I wished I could go to New York to see it...especially since others defended it as one of the best plays of the 20th century.  I'd also read that a recording was to be made with the original cast.  I was prepared to camp out in front of the record store in Lancaster, not unlike people do now for new Apple products.  My favorite clerk at the record store knew I'd want to know the release date.  He said he'd make sure there'd be a copy for me.

Original Broadway Cast (OBC) recordings were standard.  Traditionally, they were recorded the Sunday after opening night.  Even musicals that wound up being flops were recorded and, to try to recoup their money, the records would be released anyway.  But these were recordings of the music, not the full show, and they had to fit into the limitations of the 12-inch vinyl disc -- about 25 minutes per side -- so the dance breaks and sometimes entire songs were cut.  It was extremely rare that a new play would receive a full recording.  And it would be on 4 LPs.  I started saving money.

I turn on the turntable.  The sound is turned way down...I know the parents probably would not approve.  Still, ...  I rest my head on a pillow facing the stereo.  The dog watches, ready for me to lie down.  Thump goes the needle, and my perception of the theater changes within seconds.

A woman's husky laugh.  The handle of a door rattles, and as the door (presumably) opens, the woman, still laughing, nearly shouts, "JEE. ZUS. H. kir-REIST!"  A man tries to get her to lower her voice.  "Sh.  Martha.  For god's sake, it's 2 o'clock in the morning." "Oh, George," she replies.  The two characters are perfectly limned within the first minute of the play.  I've memorized the pictures on the cover and in the inside booklet, so I know what they look like and what the set looks like.

I grew up during the tail end of radio as a source of comedy and drama.  By the '60s, all of that  had become TV's domain.  The general public's imagination, I now think, lessened. We no longer had to make up the characters, their movements, the was spoon-fed to us.  Obviously, one watched plays and movies, but that was different.  That was in public.  Radio and television were meant as home entertainment, and as such, imagination became a less-needed power.

Arthur Hill was an actor I somehow knew about.  I liked him.  I saw Uta Hagen's name in the Times' theatrical ads from time to time, mostly in connection with an acting school. George Grizzard made a few movies.  I hadn't a clue who Melinda Dillon was.  And yet with the help of the pictures I'd memorized, the effective use of stereo and sound effects, the words, and those voices -- God, those Voices! -- I had an encounter with theater that truly changed everything.  By which I mean everything.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of a few major touchstones in my appreciation of theater, plays, drama, and music. I'd seen plays, although few were professional productions.  But this was in a class by itself.  It's a 2-1/2 hour roller coaster ride of language (not just the swearing, but the entire script) and surprise and hurt and hate and love.  I felt guilty laughing at a line during a fight, but why not?  Everything else about this experience was new, why not laughter during a knock-down-drag-out verbal battle?

I had the play pretty well memorized by the time I got to college.  As I've said before, it was a small Christian college for small Christians.  Nevertheless, there were a few people I played the recording for and they were as stunned as I.  Twice, I was part of a reading/performance of it, always for invited friends only and never with the college's blessing or knowledge (although a couple of professors were invited because we liked them).  I played George both times, frequently off book, and knew that I was born to play him onstage professionally someday.  (Never happened.)

One performance was played as written; the other we dubbed as "Shakespearean casting," meaning 4 guys.  Martha was played by a friend who really, truly wanted to play Martha.  Frankly, it was more satisfying playing to his Martha than to the co-ed's Martha. Nick was played by a jock who also liked acting and did a damned good job.  Honey...

Honey is maybe the toughest role in the play.  George, Martha, and Nick are pretty well set, but Honey is kind of out there.  The young woman who played it never really understood her, even after hearing the recording.  The young man who played her also had trouble connecting.  Understand, he was perfectly happy that Nick was his husband, and he knew there was more to Honey than a being an innocent.  It finally clicked.  He listened to the recording again and realized why Melinda/Honey had two infinitely different readings of the line, "I dance like the wind."  It clicked.  And he briefly stopped the show in the third act with his "Why would anybody want to wash somebody who's 16 years old?"  I always enjoyed acting with him.

Liz Taylor and Richard Burton?  Seriously?  I couldn't imagine.  I was somehow forced to go see the movie version....I really didn't want to go.  I hated it.  The script had been re-written so it would be palatable for the American public.  It was a movie, so it couldn't remain in the house.  I saw most of it on TV a few years ago.  I was surprised how much better it got.  Actually, Miss Taylor was pretty good with the script she was given.  George Segal and Sandy Dennis did all right.  Burton?  Not so much.

I've seen two stage versions of it and tolerated both.  In each, the actors (and director) were aware that what they were doing was Controversial and Dramatic.  They were actors who were afraid of letting the characters take over.  Most disconcerting, no one understood the rhythm of the language.  Without understanding that there is a rhythm, a flow, a rare use of English and interaction of each character's words and language, it's just another play, at times not all that interesting.

As with the young actor's revelation about his Honey, I came to understand after the first live performance I saw how different my perception of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was.  It wasn't just that my first experience of it was with the original cast; it was that I had to imagine it.  And free from being mesmerized or dazzled by the acting, I was exposed to the voices, the rhythms, the delivery, the sentences, the words.  It became one of those things that no other production or circumstance could compare, and that's because it was mine to imagine.  I never ever felt cheated that I didn't get to see that cast perform live and in person because I had it live and in my imagination forever.

Even actors who are aware of the once-controversial nature of the play and their characters need to understand the language.  It IS similar to music.  I don't mean Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf:  The Musical, but take the 3 acts as 3 movements in an instrumental piece...I don't like comparing it to a symphony or a concerto because they're too big, and a quartet doesn't fit it either.  But there are distinct patterns in the speeches of act 1, act 2, and act 3, with act 3 being the most amazing.  I don't know that I'd have noticed it if I'd seen it first, but that idea of language being musical is crucial.

Sony has made available a CD reissue.  Mine's on order, finally, thanks to money someone gave me on my birthday.  I don't know that she'd like what her money was spent on, and I don't think she'd appreciate the significance.  Nor can she know how anxiously I anticipate once again hearing a woman's husky laugh, the doorknob twisting, and the woman, still laughing, nearly shouting "JEE. ZUS. H.  kir-REIST!"  Or to hear the towering masterpiece that is the third act.

I have appreciated many of Edward Albee's plays, but Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a one-of-a-kind experience.  Close your eyes.  Imagine.