Monday, January 27, 2014

A Town that Time Forgot (11/29/13)

As you probably know, “Black Friday” is now followed directly by “Small Business Saturday.” My wife, also always on the lookout for new and interesting things to do, suggested we take the latter concept a step further. She suggested we spend this special Saturday in the town of Smicksburg, PA. Like most anyone reading this, I had never heard of Smicksburg. My wife had, but she wasn’t even sure of where it was. She only knew it was somewhere in western Pennsylvania, so I was commissioned by her to find out more about it and determine whether it was a viable destination.

I was surprised to find that the town not only had its own web site, but that the site included local business descriptions, maps, and a calendar of events that even many cities’ Chambers of Commerce don’t bother with. After cataloguing the number and variety of local commerce conveyors, I recommend that we take trek off in the Mini, leaving space around a small cooler, in case we found any treasures worth bring home. Off we went, promises of gift stores, pottery shops, quilt makers, wineries, and local foods lying an hour and fifteen minutes or so toward the middle of nowhere.

Marking the way to Smicksburg
Winding our way through various small towns, a partially frozen lake, and one isolated power plant, we came nearer our destination—marked by a curious feature we called the “cow on a stick.” As you enter the Smicksburg from the south, you pass several Amish families in quintessential horse-drawn buggies. They politely greet you, whether coming alongside or passing in the opposite direction. Although they are a subculture that prefers to keep to themselves, all of the people we saw seemed friendly in passing. Perhaps it is the dependence on outsiders for the many handcrafted furniture businesses that dominate the town and its environs. The Amish who live in this area seem comfortable doing without most of the technologies we take for granted, but they seem just as comfortable with exposure to it. I did respect the assumed wish of abstaining from photographing them, however.

After an initial stop in a general gifts and furniture market—candles, preserves, Christmas ornaments, some of that handcrafted furniture, and more—we decided to have lunch in the middle of town. I had a rather odd combination: Reuben with a side of sweet potato fries, complete with syrup. After a warm lunch we ventured back out into the cold to check out the other shops in town.  Standard fare, with one notable exception.

Meet Donn Hedman
A pottery store baring the town’s moniker and owned by a retired clay professor and his wife, really caught our attention. The pieces were both beautiful and unique. The face pots, egg cookers, salt shakers filled the former site of the town’s First National Bank, and the Donn Hedman was a wealth of knowledge about pottery techniques, the building, the town, and even something about road tripping (he turned me on to Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, an excellent book that I wish I had written).

"Golden Gate" and Fort Point
As for the rest of the shopping, it was everything I expected, but more. Antique shops specialized more in “primitives” from earlier centuries than what I tend to seek out. Even so, I scored a Sinatra 78, stereoscope card of the Panama Canal, and master glass photo of the “Golden Gate” (pre-bridge but with Fort Point and its lighthouse in the foreground). This antique shop was part and parcel to Windgate Winery, a good ways out of town and off the hardly-beaten path. I was glad we had the small car, as we found ourselves sharing narrow, snow-covered dirt roads with more than one buggy. Wingate’s offerings were worth the mud on the Mini, especially their drier whites. The winery was much busier than I would have expected, a probable tribute to the quality of the product.

Delinquent beauty
On the way home we stopped at a few more places—a spice shop, quilt and Christmas store, and small general store. At the last stop of the day, we fed our cooler with a two-pound roll of rich Amish butter and a pound each of butter cheese and garlic ring bologna. I feared I would soon look like the cow that now seemed an omen, but I couldn’t resist the culinary step back in time. An old, rusting gas pump to the side of the store caught my eye. It seemed to epitomize the feel of Smicksburg to me. It was old and worn, but still somehow alive and beautiful as a photographic study.

Wingate Winery
And that really sums up the day. It was a complete escape from life and work, even compared to other road trips I’ve shared. It was fascinating to see the artisans and Amish families coexisting in a truly bucolic setting. It was a nice vacation from the norm, if only for a day, and I look forward to a return visit.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Austin's Institutions on Congress Ave. (11/9/13)

Stevie Ray's vigil over FFF Fest
“Fun Fun Fun Fest” is a stupid name. Sorry. It just is. The event is epic for a metro-specific, Bonnaroo kind of event, but it needs a new brand. I happened to be in Austin the same weekend, for nothing more than a visit with good friends and some local music and Texas grub. I was looking forward to catching a show at either one of two venues that had been recommended to me by local indie music hero. I didn't attend the fest, save for taking a walk around the periphery as part of a Friday afternoon exercise session. It wasn't the name, but my prearranged itinerary and $79 daily ticket price that kept me on the beyond the fences enveloping of the festivities.

State capitol from South Congress
Austin is probably best linked to the PBS show recorded there and consequent Austin City Limits festival. South By Southwest is also a big deal, but it’s not the institution that ACL is. Institutions are interesting entities, and some are less recognized, but no less important to a Music Mecca such as this. Happily I experienced three others worth my time and yours.

The Continental Club's bar
On evening number two of the FFF Fest, my host and I ventured onto South Congress Avenue. The view of the state capital is worth the hike, but we were here for a good Tex Mex dinner at Guerro’s and some blues and the Continental Club. The Continental was one of the two places recommended to me by native musician Lincoln Durham, whom I had the pleasure to hear and meet back home the week before. The club is located in the heart of the thoroughfare’s evening buzz of clubs, bars, and curious shops with names like "Lucy in Disguise" (a costume shop, of course). The Continental Club has been a fixture since 1955—so it says on the t-shirt I bought. The Continental has a small, but well-stocked and visually busy bar on the left wall. There's a poolroom in the back that we didn't feel comfortable loitering in and a gallery upstairs that I didn't even get to.

The Blues Specialists
I was forced in place by the crowd and the music eminating from a stage the size of my office. The loud and seasoned tunes were delivered with all the authenticity of an old mule. The Blues Specialists are a fixture at the Continental, to the tune of standing Friday night set, 20 years running—a long time, yet a little less than half of the Club’s existence. Mel Davis and company (seemingly minus one player) blew through a authentic $200 a night set of Texas blues with all the seasoning you’d expect from such a tenured band. Nothing fancy, just raw and real—like the club. We stayed through the set, but decided to skip the featured act, Junior Brown. In hindsight, that may have been a tactical error (check the link to see what I mean).

Tips are always appreciated & usually deserved
Most cities that nurture independent music, like Seattle, New York, Madison, and others are populated with street musicians. These alfresco entertainers earn amounts commensurate with the “feel good” aura they project as much as their talent. They usually work day jobs to support themselves, and dream of being discovered by a producer who just happens to walk by and connects with them. Lack of A List level chops is almost always overshadowed by the genuine passion these minimum wage maestros have for performing. I admire the guts they have to have the antithesis of a captive audience. I'm always willing to pause and give a listen and fund their efforts, if only for a couple minutes and at least for a couple bucks. I didn’t catch their names. One rarely does.

Maybe years from now, some of these same folks will find the way to the "FunX3" Fest. By then, perhaps the event will have become another Austin institution. I just hope they change the name.

Next week: "The Town that Time Forgot"

Monday, January 13, 2014

Moving in Stereo(scope)  (11/6/13)

3-D TV doesn’t appear to be as popular as investors thought it would be , although movie theaters continue to sell out for this format. It seems like such an advanced science, unless you grew up on Viewmaster collections of famous places and Disney animations. That these visual devices were around as long as 75 years in one thing, to realize that 3-D imagery has its roots as far back as the late 1800’s is astounding.

A few items from my collection
Early advances in this surprisingly simple technology came mostly out of the little town of Meadville, PA, now mostly known as the home of Allegheny College. Here, at the Keystone View Company, 3-D images and devices designed to view them put pre-television consumers in the middle of the Grand Canyon, most any major city in the world, on World War I battlefields, and coutless other places. The cards were produced by the hundreds of thousands and distributed worldwide throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

1939 military training reel
Besides being popular family entertainment, they were used for a wide variety of other activities. Various specialized sets helped bring stories to life and better illustrate scientific concepts in classrooms. They were used as military training devices to identify both friend and enemy craft (as were the earliest Viewmaster reels in the late 1930’s). They were—and still are—aids for vision testing, used by corporations and in over 40 states for drivers’ license testing.

The Keystone Company shut its doors in 1972, as wider commercial interest in the devices and cards waned. This pioneering, low-tech item is all but gone and forgotten, except to collectors like myself.

The re-purposed church
Thanks to a family of former Keystone employees, the public can still appreciate the simple elegance of this viewing system firsthand, at the Johnson and Shaw Stereoscope Museum. Housed in a small Christian Science Church once attended by the Keystone founder, the one-room museum opened in 2002 and is operated by a third generation of former company employees. The collection is well organized and more informative than most. Displays are attended to by mannequins, giving context to the work that was done in manufacturing the product, as well as its applications.

One of several displays
The gentlemen who lovingly tend to the place share their knowledge with photography students who make regular visits from both Allegheny and Edinboro University. They also open the doors by appointment to those interested. If you ever find yourself anywhere near Pittsburgh or Erie, it is worth a call to make an appointment. Your visit will be a unique experience, and your host’s stories will help you experience a fascinating period of American technological development.

To request information call 814-333-4326 or send email to
Next Week: Austin’s Institutions of Congress

Monday, January 6, 2014

Meet Genya Ravan—Finally (2/26/13)

I was in my 26th year teaching in an all-girls environment. I didn’t seek my first job at a single-sex private school because I believed strongly in such an education. I took it because it was one of scant opportunities in an economically challenged city into which I had married. As you could imagine, however, the advantages of such an education were internalized over the quarter century of my first-hand experience.

This is important to understand before telling you about how I came to meet Genyusha Zelkovicz, a woman who not enough who should appreciate women in music have heard of, even when going by her professional names—Goldie or Genya Ravan.

I was attending a national conference in Philadelphia on an unseasonably mild but rainy February weekend. Consistent with my usual MO, I decided to arrive a day early and take in whatever interesting local event might be available. I came upon the World Café schedule. As luck would have it, there was a show that evening on the edge of the Penn campus venue. Although I had never heard of the featured artist, I had already decided to go.

Goldie (top) and the Gingerbreads
As I began to research Genya Ravan, it became clear that this would be a great person to see and talk with. She was, after all, the leader of the first true all-girl rock group (in that they all played their own instruments) to sign on a big label—a fact lost on most. Goldie and the Gingerbreads scored a semi-hit with “Can’t You Feel My Heartbeat?” in 1963 (you may better remember the Herman’s Hermits version). She went on to join a very good fusion rock band called Ten Wheel Drive in the 70’s and later had a string of solo efforts, while being a regular a CBGB’s and producing Dead Boys and Ronnie Spector. After a supposed battle with substance abuse (take a number), she was making the next level of her comeback. Genya was tapped to host a Sirius Radio show by Steven Van Zandt, and she had released a book and companion CD which are brilliantly combined as an eBook available on iTunes, called “Cheesecake Girl.” Both text and music create the autobiographic account of her immigration from Russia as a young girl, through work as a “cheesecake” model, her music career and the rollercoaster ride it all has been.

Genya and the band
Her music is pure rock’n’roll. It’s old school, and it’s genuine. So is she. The show was amazing. I had a great seat at the end of the bar, just feet away from the stage. The band was tight, while the banter was loose and warm. A sense of the band in its current incarnation can be experienced here. For whatever reason, I never wrapped my head around the fact that she no longer outwardly resembled the woman of the 60’s through 80’s era. But at 68, she still possessed an aura that drew one to her. Maybe 70 is the new 40?

Genya and the author
After meeting her and learning about her experiences in her book, I considered the story from its varied aspects. Is she an historical role model for today’s girls? Is her career one of being a Madonna/Miley opportunistic entertainment whore who we should protect our young girls from idolizing? I vote for the former, although I don’t see her being incorporated into anyone’s modern history curriculum. It’s a shame that she probably won’t get her due. Watch for the movie “CBGB” (in which Stana Katic from TV’s “Castle” plays Genya), and cross your fingers that the film stirs up interest in this underappreciated originator.

Postscript: Another female pioneer worth knowing is Gloria Jones. This 60’s R&B artist had a minor hit with her original version of “Tainted Love.” She later sang with, and married, Marc Bolin, of T-Rex fame.

Next Week: "Moving in Stereo(scope)"