Archive for May, 2010

Monday Night Magic

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on May 31, 2010 by travsd

It’s Monday, that means it’s time for Monday Night Magic! Like the firmness of the earth (and yet like the mists of the mystical heavens), this weekly magic showcase featuring some of the most interesting performers in the magic world has been going strong for a baker’s dozen of years. I first caught them when they were in the Sullivan Street Playhouse when The Fantasticks was still playing there, which is going back a ways.

The concept is very smart — Mondays are dark in most theatres. Since magicians aren’t bound by the same rules as actors, they can step in and perform in a theatre that would otherwise be empty. Everybody benefits. The audience is an interesting mix of “in the know” New Yorkers out for a reliable evening of entertainment, and tourists who’ve undoubtedly been referred there by concierges, since most of the other theatres are closed. I think this business model is just ingenious.

It’s a different line-up every week. On the recent Monday I attended, the show was fronted by Matthew Holtzclaw, a low key but compelling host with a crisp bow and a level gaze that has no doubt been cultivated to distract you from whatever his hands are doing. He’s funny in a deadpan way; and he did do a little magic, a clever bit where he purports to teach an audience member a card trick, and the missing card winds up in his pocket.

The opener on the bill was young Jeff Grow, a laid back performer in jeans (in contrast to Holtzclaw’s impeccable suit and — ye, gods! — pink shirt and tie). His most memorable bits concerned a floating cigarette (black thread courtesy Philip Morris) and a shell game with cans of Wasabi peas. While plenty skilled, the material seemed a bit old hat.

More to my liking was Rob Zabrecky, who is new to my consciousness and about whom I just cannot rave enough. He’s hard to describe — simultaneously funny, odd and dark in ways that remind me of Steven Wright, Andy Kaufman, Charles Addams, John Waters and Vampira, among others. As a vaudevillian, I have to say I’m bugged by our age of specialization. Whether you’re a singer, a juggler, a magician, a comedian or whatever, the most important thing to me is an ACT. I don’t care if you saw your own head off and birds fly out — I want to see a start, a finish, patter, and a big big big character who stands out from everyone else. Zabrecky’s tricks are impressive, but even better, his jokes are funny and his personality is compelling. But my words won’t do him justice, so go here and click “performance”.

Last on the bill (i.e., the headliner) was my old pal and one of the show’s producers, sideshow stunt maven Todd Robbins. We met at Big Apple Circus about 15 years ago; he was one of their staff clowns, I was a fundraiser. He has proven a mensch many times over, performing for my wife and I when our baby was sick in the hospital, and doing turns at many of my shows in cesspools and hidey-holes far from the limelight of Leno and Letterman to which he is far better accustomed. It’s been amazing to watch Todd over the past decade and a half — it really has been the experience of watching a vaudeville act evolve over time, a very rare privilege in this, the heyday of slackerdom. By now, Todd knows every nook and cranny, every molecule, of his 20 minutes – – where the laughs are, when to let out a little slack…and when to reel ’em in. To him, the act must feel like a favorite baseball glove. Nowadays he has an army of copycats. Every city has its local scene where tattooed skate-punks eat fire and swallow swords and hammer nails up their noses. But Todd got there first (or, earlier at any rate), and he has a degree of confidence, charm and polish none of the others can hope to match. I for one, have always relished his comedy stylings as much or more than the stunts themselves. I won’t divulge his jokes — only that his courage in delivering them must be equal to his thirst for danger. As for the stunts (they are not tricks, that is, not fakes) in addition to the above mentioned, he also eats a light bulb, and does something with a balloon animal you’ll not soon forget. (I’ve also seen him put out a cigar on his tongue and blow up a hot water bottle over the years, although he didn’t do those bits last Monday). If you’d like to see some of Todd in action, you can check out his performance at my recent No Applause show at Theater for the New City right here.

Monday Night Magic takes place every Monday at 8pm at 45 Bleecker. For more info about the show, go here.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The 21st Annual Tap Extravaganza

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on May 30, 2010 by travsd

Tonight at 7pm is the 21st Annual Tap Extravaganza, sponsored by the NY Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day. It’s being held at the Bayard Rustin High School For The Humanities.All the info, including a complete roster of performers is here.

To find out more about the history of the variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #164: Stepin Fetchit

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , on May 30, 2010 by travsd

A problematic figure in these annals, Stepin Fetchit is much maligned nowadays for having played a shiftless, shuffling, mumbling, lazy no account servant in Hollywood movies throughout the 1930s. On the other hand, he’s one of the first African Americans to get his foot in the door — even if the foot was wearing a hobo shoe. Mel Watkins, in his terrific book about African American comedy On the Real Side, postulates that the comedian’s character was actually a brand of subversive sarcasm, an exponent of a coping strategy that dates back to slavery days. Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) was the first African American to get  screen credit and the first to make a million dollars in show business.

At the age of 14, he’d run off to join an all-black minstrel show. Later, he formed a two man act with a friend name Ed Lee called “Skeeter and Rastus — Two Dancing Fools from Dixie”, and they worked the black vaudeville circuits. Gradually, the act evolved and they became “Step ‘n’ Fetchit”. When his partner left the act, Perry kept the name for himself. He got his first film role in 1925, reportedly by remaining in character before, during and after the audition, a strategy he was reported to have used frequently in order to outsmart his directors and producers. He was in some of the biggest hits of the 1930s, including several with his friend Will Rogers and one with Shirley Temple. He was also highly influential: performers of the era who emulated include Matthew “Stymie” Beard from Our Gang, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best (a.k.a “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”).

By the 1940s, however, the Hollywood parts were few and far between (although he made numerous low budget all-black pictures) and he was forced to declare bankruptcy). It was back to the chitlin circuit and nightclubs for his last few decades. I will say this: you can see him in the amazingly weird 1974 picture Amazing Grace starring Moms Mabley, Slappy White, Moses Gunn and Butterfly McQueen. I’m warning you right now: I consider it well worth watching, but you just may consider it far too weird. Stepin Fetchit suffered a stroke in 1976 and spent his last few years in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, passing away in 1985.

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Luna Park Opens Today!

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, PLUGS with tags , , on May 29, 2010 by travsd

It’s opening day at Coney Island and the most exciting one in years, thanks to the grand opening  of the brand new Luna Park. It would of course be sheer madness to head out there this weekend — and that’s just why you should go! Incidentally, the terrific novelist Kevin Baker has written an excellent article about Coney past, present and future in this week’s Village Voice. Frankly, I think his prognosis is excessively grim, but the piece is rich in information and well worth a perusal. But save it for a rainy day. Right now you should step away from the computer and go to the beach.

Stars of Vaudeville #163: Toy and Wing

Posted in Asian, Dance, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on May 28, 2010 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Dorothy Takahashi, better known as Dorothy Toy. With Paul Wing Jew (a.k.a “Wing”) she formed the team of Wing and Toy, the premier Asian American dance team of the 3os, 40s and 50s. Wing had taught himself to tap as a child growing up in San Francisco. His first dates were at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in L.A. He met the Takahashi sisters Dorothy and Helen at an audition and they formed the act The Three Mahjongs — Kicking the Gong Around. They studied with the great Willie Covan, sharpening their skills, and worked the western circuits, notably Fanchon and Marco theatres, in the vaudeville-and-film-combination days of the early 1930s. After 3 years, Helen left the act to pursue a solo career, leaving just Toy and Wing (they changed their names because “Takahashi and Jew” carried too much negative freight in the tumultuous lead-up to World War II.)

By the late 30s, Toy and Wing were hugely successful in theatres and nightclubs both in the U.S. and abroad. The war brought a major disruption, however; Wing was drafted. The Toy sisters toured together, untouched by the authorities despite the fact that their Japanese American parents were interred in a domestic prison camp. (The Chinese sounding name “Toy” threw them off the scent). After the war, tastes changed but Wing and Toy continued to work the so called “chop suey circuit” as well as the lucrative post-war Europe scene, for as long as they could.And guess what? Dorothy Foy is still with us! Check out this cool documentary piece on her here.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #162: Tony Pastor

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Impresarios, Italian, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on May 28, 2010 by travsd
The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Antonio “Tony” Pastor was born on this day in New York City in 1832. He first sang publicly at a temperance meeting at the age of 9. By the time he reached puberty, Pastor had already accumulated an impressive resume, having sung at Barnum’s Museum as a “Child Prodigy”, danced in a blackface act in Raymond and Waring Menagerie, and performed juvenile roles and acrobatic turns with Welch’s National Amphitheatre. A crucial break came when the ringmaster at the circus where he was working dropped dead, creating a vacancy which Pastor was ready to fill, even though he was still a teenager. In those days, the job called for singing, dancing, and acting in the afterpiece, in addition to the familiar announcing chores.

He began performing regularly at a music hall at 444 Broadway, just after the Civil War broke out in 1861. It was such a dive it never had a name; it was always called simply “444”. The bar offered variety entertainment, with Pastor functioning in a role similar to that of the chairman in the English music hall. He doubled as master of ceremonies and a popular singer, presenting his own patriotic songs in support of the war, as well as sentimental and humorous tunes about labor, a subject near and dear to the hearts of his working class clientele. He claimed to have a repertoire of 1500 songs. Favorite Pastor numbers included Down in a Coal Mine, The Great Atlantic Cable, The Monitor and the Merrimac, and The Irish Volunteers. The lyrics to these tunes were published in little songsters and distributed to the audience, who sang along music hall style and walked away with a little souvenir. Reportedly, Pastor had a terrible voice, but audiences loved him anyway, another tribute to his ability as a showman.

In 1865, he took over the Volks Garden at 201 Bowery and renamed it “Tony Pastor’s Opera House.” Though his establishment was no less a bar, he set about making a number of improvements that would set it apart from garden variety concert saloons. Rowdy patrons were expelled from the premises. Advertisements indicated in no uncertain terms the direction in which he was moving, claiming his show was “unalloyed by any indelicate act or expression…fun without vulgarity.”

Part of the impulse to initiate the policy change may have been a genuine conviction on Pastor’s part, he being a man of his times and all. A devout Catholic, he would eventually have a prayer room built in his theatre, and a poor box installed in the lobby. His strongest curse was said to have been “jiminetty”.

But the times themselves must have played a role. A businessman with any instinct seeking to stay afloat in those years of high Victorianism must have been constantly mulling over the tirades of clergymen, temperance advocates, reformist politicians and journalists railing against saloon culture. The Concert Bills of 1862 and 1872 mentioned in the previous chapter, while easy to evade, nonetheless existed and were on the books. As any life-long New Yorker can tell you, such laws are like sleeping grizzly bears. All it takes is the election of a reformist Mayor to jump start the enforcement of such laws and the party is over. A savvy businessman tries to stay two steps ahead of such developments.

If Pastor’s motives weren’t pure as the driven snow, neither was his impulse to court families particularly original. German New Yorkers, suggested a third way between a never-ending debauch…and total abstention from intoxicating liquors. It is impossible to imagine the 4th of July had the Germans never arrived. It is to them we owe hamburgers, cold cuts, hot dogs, mustard, pickles, pretzels, brass bands, and most importantly, beer.

For years, German and Austrian immigrants in New York had enjoyed their own imported type of drinking establishment, known as the beer garden. Beer, as Hogarth taught in his famous engravings, is of a lower order of intoxicant than hard liquor. As depicted by Hogarth, the inhabitants of “Gin Lane”, are a debauched and sordid collection of dregs. In “Beer Street”, life is sane, productive and normal. Similarly, in contrast with the rowdy, whiskey-soaked concert saloons, beer gardens were genteel places, where families went to listen to musical concerts together. Germans had a different relationship with alcohol. Beer and wine were served, but generally consumed responsibly. Relaxation for the Germans did not mean urinating outdoors, crying, fighting, singing dirty songs, and putting lampshades over their heads. One can picture transplanted burgers sedately sipping lager from Rococo steins whilst their apple–cheeked kinder, in shorts and lederhosen, frolicked in Der Garten, supervised by “mama”. Nearby, a string quartet plays music from the old country – a lullaby by Brahms. German families played together, stayed together, didn’t break up the furniture – and surely brought in several times the proceeds.

Furthermore, Pastor’s experience at Barnum’s Museum surely suggested the possibility that variety could and should be presented in a respectable environment. Above all, there hovered the lure of a vastly increased market. The concert saloon clientele consisted of a mere percentage of men. If he could include all the men, plus their wives and children as his potential audience, think of the increased revenue.

By the 1870s, the overall environment was transitioning. “Variety Theatres” and “Music Halls” had arrived and were gradually displacing concert saloons. For the most part, they were a cocktail containing the same ingredients, but mixed to a different formula. Instead of a bar with a theatre attached, it was a theatre with a bar attached.  Still disreputable in some quarters, but marginally more genteel. Some were quite fancy, but they were still men’s joints. But here and there, these institutions began to sponsor special cleaned-up ladies matinees, temporarily banishing the beer and cigars for a few hours. Pastor, more than any other saloon man, saw the potential in this trend and put himself at the center of the movement.

In 1875 Pastor moved “up” again, out of the ever-degenerating Bowery to 585 Broadway, near the present-day site of New York University. Liquor was still served, but he was in a respectable neighborhood, in close proximity to the most popular theatre in the city, the Theatre Comique, where the Irish comedy team of Harrigan and Hart starred and were soon to be proprietors. This stretch of Broadway had become one of New York’s first official theatre districts, due to the proliferation of nearby minstrel halls in the 1850s. Pastor’s establishment was also now an easy distance from the city’s main shopping district, known as the Ladies Mile, and the emerging theatrical strip on 14th Street, known as the Rialto.

He made the leap to the Rialto itself in 1881, to a theatre literally located in Tammany Hall, right on Union Square. At first, he tried to follow in the footsteps of Harrigan and Hart, who had enjoyed major success by expanding to full length form the comic afterpieces that still capped every variety bill. After the team assumed proprietorship of the Theatre Comique in 1876, a series of their sketches featuring a loveable character named Dan Mulligan became so popular that they became the whole show. Many regard them as forerunners of today’s musical comedies. The plays featured the so-called Mulligan Guards, a rag-tag Irish militia mustered by the title character. From 1878-81 there were numerous sequels including The Mulligan Guards’ Christmas, The Mulligan Guards’ Picnic, The Mulligan Guards’ Surprise, The Mulligan Guards’ Ball, the Mulligan Guards’ Chowder (as a clambake was sometimes called), the Mulligan Guards’ Nominee, and The Mulligan’s Silver Wedding.

You can’t argue with success. To Pastor, the expansion of the variety afterpiece seemed a winning formula. He had been presenting such afterpieces at his various venues since 1865, usually parodies of classics and popular shows of the day, as had been the tradition since minstrel times. In 1881, he inaugurated his move into the Tammany location with The Pie-Rats of Pen-Yan, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s recent hit The Pirates of Penzance. But it didn’t click. Within a few months, Pastor settled down to concentrate on his great contribution to American popular culture: straight, clean variety.

This is the common marker for the official genesis of vaudeville as an organized and respectable institution. Recall that only men went to the variety theatre at this time, and they only went when they were misbehaving. Pastor instituted new policies: no drinking, smoking, no vulgarity on stage, no mashers. The fact that there was a bar next door (in the Tammany building, but technically outside his own premises) helped him ease his customers into this radical new practice. Next, Pastor widely publicized his revolutionary policies. In ads, he referred to his theatre as “the Great Family Resort of the City.” To actively attract the better half, he started by making Friday ladies’ night, offering door prizes: dishes, coal, bonnets, flour, dress patterns, sacks of potatoes. When he changed the prizes to sewing machines and silk dresses the trickle of estrogen into his theatre became a flood.

One feature of that 1881 production of Pie-Rats that Pastor retained was the acme of his efforts as a promoter and a by-product of his outreach to women: the singer Lillian Russell.

Russell represented something new in variety. A more typical female singer in those days was one of Pastor’s other stars, Maggie Cline “The Irish Queen”. Irish Mag’s sentimental repertoire ranged from humorous tunes to tear-jerkers, but her fame rested largely on a single signature song, a rowdy, raucous, crowd-pleasing number called “Throw Him Down, McClosky”, a song about a pugilistic bout. On the refrain, the audience sang along music hall style and everyone backstage would throw whatever they could get their hands on, onto the stage. While there is nothing technically objectionable about Cline or her song, we see right off the bat that it is a saloon act. The fact that it is a crowd-pleaser is in its favor, but in no sense does it represent a break with the past.

The same came not be said of Russell, who in the best vaudeville spirit, Pastor is said to have “created”. In her day, she was the most famous woman in the world, the paragon of the age, the epitome of all that women aspired to be, and that all men aspired to possess – and one of vaudeville’s and the legitimate stage’s biggest stars. To generate this furor, Pastor relied largely on the template Barnum had used in promoting Jenny Lind, billing her as a young woman with the soul and voice of an angel. But Pastor went the old showman one better by starting from scratch with Russell. After all, Lind had already been a sensation in Europe when Barnum “discovered”  her. When Pastor came upon Russell, she was merely Helen Louise Leonard, an operatically trained singer from Clinton, Iowa. Bit parts in H.M.S. Pinafore and Evangeline at the Park Theatre in Brooklyn brought her to Pastor’s attention. Captivated by her voice and her beauty, he booked her for his oldBroadway Music Hall in 1880, then sent her out to San Francisco and a tour of Western mining towns to get a bit of seasoning.

When she returned, Pastor gave the girl her stage name (meant to sound like “Lily and Russell”). He began to tout her as the most beautiful woman in the world. When she returned to star in The Pie-Rats of Penn Yan in 1881, he billed her in true Barnum fashion as “the beautiful English ballad singer I’ve imported at great trouble and expense.”

While Russell would appear in vaudeville from time to time over the decades, she grew to be primarily a star of operetta and the just-hatching musical comedy. Many of Pastor’s female singing stars such as Russell, Fay Templeton, Blanche Ring, and Mae Irwin and many others moved gracefully between the two stages, which enhanced the reputation of Pastor’s theatre. Far from the rough-and-tumble precincts of the Bowery, Pastor’s new variety theatre was surrounded by legitimate theatres and starred legitimate stars.

Pastor’s new lady stars were presented as ideals, as soulful and feminine – in touch with that higher realm wherein Beauty and Goodness were synonymous. “Airy, Fairy” Lillian Russell was known as “The American Beauty”. Blanche Ring was called by critics “radiant”. Lottie Gilson was “The Little Magnet”. The singers would be clad in elaborate costumes, often with an accessory prop such as a parasol or a fur muffler. Interestingly, these women were at their height in the 1880s and 90s, when the theatrical district was at Union Square, just a dainty trot away from all the new department stores over on the stretch of Sixth Avenue known as Ladies’ Mile. As producer and author Robert Grau put it at the time, the theatres of Union Square were “distinctly popular with the class known as shoppers.” After getting an eyeful of their ideal on the vaudeville stage, women in the audience could then run over and plunder the dress and hat departments at A.T. Stewart’s. As if the stage were not pedestal enough, for awhile there was a vogue for singers to do their act perched high atop a swing, evoking both the public parks and amusement parks that were still coming into existence at that time.

At Pastor’s there were other subtle hints of a changing dynamic on the variety stage. Some his Irish acts began to explore the possibilities of a toned-down approach to exploring their identity. John W. Kelly, known as “The Rolling Mill Man” would simply park himself on the stage on a chair and weave long, humorous, extemporaneous stories based on audience suggestions – an act that could never have been heard, let alone appreciated, in a concert saloon. Song and dance man Pat Rooney, while still dressed in the ridiculous Leprechaun-like outfit that was standard “Irish” attire of the day, is credited with bringing a more three-dimensional, sympathetic approach to his portrayals. Monologist George Fuller Golden rose to fame telling flowery, affectionate anecdotes about his friend Casey.

One of Pastor’s acolytes became the premier producer of that wholesome vaudeville staple known as the kiddie act. German-born Gus Edwards had been discovered by Pastor at age 14, and was hired to be a balcony singer. (It was a convention of the time to occasionally surprise the audience by having a ringer stand up from a seat in the house and join the onstage singer for a number). Edwards was to gain his first fame as a songwriter, penning such classics as “School Days” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”. His first kiddie act, the “Newsboy Quintet” included himself as one of the cast members. As he outgrew that act, he went on to produce countless others featuring children hired from auditions: “The Kid Kabaret”, “9 Country Kids”, “School Boys and School Girls” and “A Juvenile Frolic”. Scores of children went through the Edwards machine, which is why he was able to boast such a distinguished alumni: Groucho Marx, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Walter Winchell, Eleanor Powell, Mae Murray, Phil Silvers, Bert Wheeler, Jack Pearl, the Duncan Sisters, Sally Rand – these are just some of them. Edwards imitators (and there were many) included Ned Wayburn (who was later to start the premier “college” of vaudeville) and Minnie Marx, who employed not only her unruly sons, but a company of ten others in some of their vaudeville acts. These are just some of the many acorns to fall from Tony Pastor’s oak.

Pastor was a showman of the first water. A genial, hearty presence, he greeted every patron at his theatre personally. He continued to dress like a ringmaster even when he had exchanged the sawdust of the ring for that of the bar-room floor, and then swept the sawdust up completely. With his silk top hat, handlebar mustache, swallowtail coat, and riding boots, he carried a bit of the magic of the big top around with him. He loved children, and began throwing an annual Christmas party with prizes for the kiddies. He was also kind to his performers, never closing an act prior to the end of their contract, and never firing his veteran orchestra members long after old age had stolen their chops.

Interestingly, though he is often known as the “Father of Vaudeville” he refused to use the word vaudeville himself. For him it was always just variety. No frou-frou Gallicisms required.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Two Timely Education Films

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , on May 27, 2010 by travsd

June 1 is the deadline for New York State lawmakers to OK an increase in the number of charter schools in New York, that is if they want to receive Federal “Race to the Top” funds to the tune of $700 million. The State Senate has already voted to raise the cap from 200 to 460 schools, but the Assembly, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, has been dragging its heels. I have been following the story with greater than usual interest due to two compelling films that have come my way: Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery, which I caught earlier this month in the Tribeca Film Festival; and Bob Bowdon’s The Cartel.

The Lottery is a surprisingly moving documentary about charter schools. The film follows four candidates for entry at the kindergarten level into the Harlem Success Academy. If the title of the film makes it sound like it is about the Lotto (as one of the subjects in the film accidentally called the process, much to the audience’s amusement), the differences couldn’t be more stark. In this particular lottery, the contestants have a great deal to lose. For these lower income African American children, acceptance into the competitive program may make all the difference between a bright future and a lifetime of struggle and hardship. In one of the film’s more powerful sequences, one of the kids and his single mom go to visit the child’s father in an upstate prison, a scary warning about possible outcomes when children don’t get a proper education and grow up in a high crime area. And the odds in this lottery? Over 2,000 families applying for roughly 500 slots. Watching the process by which these four kids make it (or don’t) into the coveted school is a painful one, a “reality show” that is all too real.

Interlaced with these personal stories is an account of the political football that is being played with the kids’ lives. Hearings wherein neighborhood parents argue for and against the lodging of a new branch of the Academy at a local public school are ugly, emotional mudfights. Leading the charge for charters is the Joan of Arc of New York’s education reform movement, former city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, president and founder of the Harlem Success Academy. Moskowitz began a citywide shake-up in 2003, when as head of the city council’s education committee, she initiated controversial hearings to investigate the city’s normally rubber-stamped contract with the local teacher’s unions, which have fought reform right along. Backing her up, a long list of other heavy hitters including NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, who has implemented similar reforms in his own city. The more thankless task of rebuttal falls to Betsy Gotbaum, former NYC Public Advocate and wife of Victor Gotbaum, former head of DC 37, the city’s largest municipal union (representatives of the UFT and AFT declined to participate). Gotbaum’s arguments against charter schools, though valiant in their way, come off as weak and supportive of a status quo all too obviously in need of overhaul. As laid out in this film, the sheer weight of statistical and anecdotal testimony to the superiority of charter schools, is just too overwhelming to dismiss.

Just as  Sackler had done with Harlem, Bob Bowdon focuses on a local picture (in this case the State of New Jersey) to highlight a problem that is national. Bowdon is a local NJ television producer and reporter whose knowledge about the problem in the state’s schools grew out of his years covering the story. The picture is particularly damning. Despite spending more per capita on education than any other state, New Jersey has one of the most dismal achievement records. Union driven-bureaucracy, lack of local oversight over state funds, and rampant corruption are Bowdon’s prime targets. Vouchers and charter schools are his prescriptions. The film is underwritten by the libertarian Moving Picture Institute but lest you think it is thereby unduly skewed, the film contains an overwhelming preponderance of facts that makes its conclusions seem inescapable. Local leaders of the New Jersey teacher’s union and state department of education are given equal time in the film — and proceed to make a pretty shabby case for themselves. As in the reporting of John Stossel , there is a spirit of delicious humor (a black, absurdist humor) in the probing of such epic, ridiculous injustice — it is no exaggeration to say that a crime on this scale comes awfully close to the horrors of war. This is how satire does its job. In one segment Bowdon compares public school education to the government funded production of Yugos. Yet, we are never wholly ignorant of the stakes — there are the tears of happiness on a mother’s face when her child gets into a charter school to remind us. The film’s major lapse that I can detect, is its failure to include rebuttals (or a disclaimer stating that rebuttals were sought) in the cases when the film’s interviewees level direct charges of (very plausible sounding) corruption on their supervisors and colleagues. One walks away with little doubt the charges are true — why would someone stick their neck out without good reason? Still, I think the niceties of objectivity are worth maintaining even in the post- Michael Moore era. Another point worth bringing up, which neither of these films does: Yes, the statistics (test scores, graduation rates, etc) are horrendous. But plenty of public schools are working just fine. My kids attend them, so did I, and I’m certain if I were to conduct an informal poll of my hundreds of friends who attended public schools, the horror stories would be very few. The main issue is allowing teachers and parents in the neighborhoods that are performing poorly enough freedom to take whatever extraordinary measures (longer days, longer years, rules of etiquette etc) will actually educate the children.

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