Archive for December, 2016

Ring in the Old (On the Virtues of the “Obsolescent”)

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , on December 31, 2016 by travsd


During this festival of renewal, from deep within a nation a city predicated on change, a post on the virtues of preservation.

I read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy a few years back; I can’t imagine that it didn’t help provide the organizational framework upon which I now hang these several long-held ideas. The crux of it is this. America is all about the clean slate, the reinvention, In America, we will sometimes embark on projects to remake ourselves quite heedlessly disposing of the “outmoded” with scant contemplation of the possibility of its retaining or regaining any useful value in the future. In this sense, even our conservatives are not conservative. By contrast, Britain, also a capitalist country, has other social structures which can ameliorate some of progress’s more drastic effects. Often in America we regard conservatism (in the sense of cultural resistance to change) as an unmitigated bad . In our history, there have been occasions when we have regarded many major structures and institutions as expendable. Nothing is sacrosanct. So we tear things down to make way for newer, improved things. But our mania for efficiency and our fetish for the new often leads to a kind of tunnel vision, blinding us to virtues of the old structure that has been superseded. Then years or even decades later, as we are now seeing in the 21st century, a new perspective allows us to appreciate the value of what has been destroyed and we begin to wish that it had been retained, especially in light of the fact that the costs of re-creating them are now painful or prohibitive. Ironically the Gods of cost effectiveness and efficiency resulted in losses.  Here are some specific examples, few of which should surprise our readers.



As I argued in No Applause, vaudeville wasn’t just a style or form of entertainment, it was an infrastructure. To performers, if offered entry level opportunities, training and employment. During the transitional period when it was phased out, it provided movie studios with highly seasoned actors, and performers for live entertainment prologues to film screenings. Abandoning vaudeville meant trusting to luck for talent, and from an audience perspective I’m the first to admit, it has worked out just fine. I am the first to celebrate the fact that contemporary entertainment is in a sort of new Golden Age. What I would argue is that here is a case where the movie studios and tv networks, as well as performers, are missing out. For a short time in the ’90s NBC operated a venue out of HERE Arts Center called PSNBC where they auditioned and showcased potential talent. That’s sort of what I’m talking about. What if movie studios and tv studios operated their own chains of comedy clubs, improv schools & clubs, cabarets and so forth? Sure, with a bar and restaurant attached. It’s a simultaneous revenue stream, marketing for products, and talent development/ recruitment workshop. That’s what vaudeville was, and vaudeville was good. Don’t give me “it wouldn’t work” — I’ll smash your head with a brick.


Similarly, I think the WHOLESALE abandonment of silent film by Hollywood was short-sighted, especially where comedy is concerned. Not just because “of course I do”, but for real reasons which I outlined in Chain of Fools. It would be foolish and weird to argue that all films ought to be silent or even that films should be COMPLETELY silent (sound effects and music have always been part of the package). But SOME stories are best told with little or no dialogue, and genres like comedy clowning and horror can be particularly effective told that way. It is a valid artistic choice to tell a story without spoken dialogue. By abandoning it 100% , the option was lost to make that choice. Because several generations of audiences have gone without seeing silent films, it has become risky and rare for them to be made. There is no inherent, logical reason for this to be so.


Here is one place where the British were wiser. In the US, network radio drama and comedy died in the 1950s when television came in. But just like silent film, audio theatre is a legitimate form. Television doesn’t replace radio, although here in the US it certainly displaced it. Whereas, the BBC never stopped presenting it, and it’s always had an audience. Now, thanks to the internet, it’s coming back in America thanks to streaming audio and podcast, proving that it has always been efficacious. But think of all the wasted time, and all the lost opportunity for writers and performers and other professionals. There was never a reason to kill it.



The abandonment of passenger dirigible service was merely a failure of nerve in the wake of some high-profile disasters. Hydrogen proved dangerous as a lighter-than-air medium, but helium is much less so, and it is used for that purpose by industry to this day. The public remains prejudiced but I think what has been lost is a majestic, charming form of luxury travel, mixing elements of cruise ships with the thrill of flight. Its purpose would be strictly for leisure and tourism, not for getting anyplace in a hurry. Today I think there is a fear in investing in it, so it can’t be “re-started”. This wouldn’t have been the case it had never have been abandoned in the first place.


The rest of the world continues to have it over the US here, at least since the 1950s when America started to abandon train and trolley travel, and devoted its focus to the independence (and voracious consumption) of the automobile. Except for a handful of of key rail routes, most existing train and trolley tracks were abandoned, neglected, torn up. Investment was made in highways. A lot of the public transportation slack was picked up by buses, which are frankly a miserable, uncomfortable, and slow way to travel, in addition to the toll on the environment. Realizing this, in recent years some cities have been reinvesting in “light rail” again. And in so many cases that has meant having to lay track again — an unthinkable stupidity considering this country already had that infrastructure in place. It was short-sighted and self-destructive, I think to place all of our chips on cars, trucks and buses.



Am I right? Who knew Brooklyn would come back, even better than ever? People in Brooklyn, that’s who! Moving the Dodgers to LA must have looked like the future in 1957. But in 2016, when we have both the Nets and the Islanders here, as well as our AAA team the Brooklyn Cyclones, tearing down Ebbets Field seems like blind madness. Flatbush could use a stadium right now, eh? I’m guessing it all seems too cost-prohibitive to start from scratch again, but I just know you’d sell those seats in the Brooklyn of today. Never shoulda left in the first place.



One of the great architectural sins of all time, taking the wrecking ball to that beautiful old station in 1965. Today there are plans to rectify the sin by placing the new station under the majestic post office across the street, and naming it after Senator Moynihan, whose dream it was. But it would have been “cheaper to keep her” in the first place.


Again, in the mid to late 20th century, when many of the Broadway houses became porn theatres, crack dens, or simply condemned buildings, it made business sense, one supposes, to tear many of them down. Who knew that Times Square could be turned around, and a theatre economy would return? All it took was leadership and will. Today there is sufficient demand for more shows in that neighborhood, but building new theatre space (there) is cost-prohibitive. If only they hadn’t razed the architectural jewels that were already there!


Ha ha, yes, THAT’S how old-fashioned I am. Besides the works of Shakespeare, it’s the finest work of art in the English language (with Milton coming in third), but most modern churches have stopped drawing from it, preferring to rely on modern translation. The result, I am convinced, is a grossly impoverished culture, at least among the 83% of Americans who profess to have something to do with Christianity. My point has less to do with religion than with language — and the thought processes that go with it — by the way. Lincoln thought like a poet; modern presidents think like economists. It’s a question of what sort of culture you want to have, and I prefer the soul of Lincoln to the soullessness of modern politicians.



A small example, a sort of Richard Scary example, but not an absurd one. Fireboats were a familiar tool of the FDNY back in the days when New York was much more of a harbor town, full of wooden docks, warehouses, crates and cargo. This changed towards the end of the last century, and the fireboats were almost completely phased out BUT….one proved its efficacy on September 11, 2001, when the water became a crucial means of getting to the devastated World Trade Center. The fireboat John J. Harvey proved her usefulness that day. And while we’re at it, so did ALL of New York’s fire stations. We keep these facilities operating for emergencies. By definition, emergencies  don’t occur every day. But they do occur. Close them down at your peril, bean counters, but more importantly at OURS!


Starting in the 1970s, the development trend began to be about building shopping malls on the outskirts of towns, near freeways, which put stores in historic town centers out of business. And this has never really changed. This is strictly anecdotal, but my experience, almost universally, of towns in New England and upstate New York is one of boarded up windows and “for rent” signs on stores in the formerly beautiful downtowns, with all of the shopping done at malls that everyone has to drive to. And when I’ve traveled to other parts of America I have found the same thing. The downtowns have beauty and character and convenience and tourism potential. The malls are eyesores and identical throughout the nation and the world. They are like a cultural cancer. I wouldn’t shed a tear if every last one of them vanished off the face of the earth!




It is apparently a source of frustration to some Americans, this “gridlock” and compromise which are the core of our system of government. It’s so hard to get things done! That’s how Fascists felt as well. Outmoded! A thing of the past! How much more efficient if just one man can just tell everyone what to do! Well, you have your wish, America. I hope you enjoy your civics lesson. Too bad you didn’t listen better in the fifth grade.

New Year’s Eve in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), New Year's Eve with tags , on December 31, 2016 by travsd

In honor of the day, some favorite movies featuring New Year’s Eve scenes. This holiday is often used to mark extreme or catastrophic change in the life of the characters or their environment — a theme for us to contemplate this year in particular when the clock strikes midnight.

the gold rush_new year's eve

The Gold Rush (1925)

Shame on you if you don’t know this movie or this scene. Led on by the supercilious dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) lone prospector Charlie Chaplin prepares for what he thinks will be a delightful New Year’s party with Georgia and a few friends. He sleeps and dreams a magical time, but awakens to find himself alone and stood up. Warning: don’t watch if you’re alone and depressed!


Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Something about the early Technicolor adds to the eeriness of this, one of the creepiest of classic studio era horror films. The opening scenes depict feisty girl reporter Glenda Farrell making her way through the crowded New York City streets on New Year’s Eve, clogged with carnivalesque revelers. Holidays are always interesting in older films — what people wear, the different ways they celebrated. Farrell’s journey will lead her to a corpse, and eventually to mad wax sculptor Lionel Atwill. 


Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

Mae West loved to celebrate the period of her early childhood, the gay ’90s, in her films.  Something about the era symbolized relative freedom to her, I think: saloons and bawdy houses and crooked politicians. That’s the milieu of her last true starring film Every Day’s a Holiday, set in Tammany era NYC, with crucial scenes taking place on New Year’s Eve 1900 — just when the city and nation were poised to go from horses and buggies to automobiles.


Sunset Boulevard (1950)

One of the most touching scenes in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece has William Holden briefly escaping from the virtual tomb he has been inhabiting with former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to the relative joy and vitality of a proper New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house, full of youth and music, and a much more appropriate girlfriend. The moment is a poignant blip, a last chance, a fleeting glimpse into a happy life he’ll never get to have.


The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

At age seven this was my introduction to New Years’s Eve, the first place I heard “Auld Lang Syne”, witnessed a countdown to midnight, saw grownups with noise-makers and party hats. It’s part of the mysterious magic of this film (which is still one of my favorites) that the moment of disaster strikes just at midnight: it’s a new year and everything turns upside down. Celebration turns to tragedy in the blink of an eye. It’s part of the peculiar dream logic and symbolism of movies, and it works extraordinarily well.


Jaws the Revenge (1987)

This is  a most entertainingly terrible movie which has only recently become a new classic around my house. (I never bothered with it when it came out.) It’s predicated on the concept that now-deceased Amity Island Police Chief Brody’s wife Ellen’s most irrational fears are TRUE — that a sentient, malevolent, psychic shark has designs on her family for some reason, and that you get killed every time you are crazy enough to go into the water. That her son managed to become a MARINE BIOLOGIST given such a family dynamic is one of the film’s countless delightful head-scratchers. Lorraine Gary is the film’s star, Roy Scheider having long since decided he had far better things to do. At any rate, the film starts around Christmas (her other son is killed by a shark while people on shore sing Christmas carols), and so the family travels to the Bahamas to forget it all (wouldn’t you choose someplace far INLAND?) At any rate, the New Year’s Eve scene in this film is memorable for being one of tent pole WTF moments, where you go…”H’m, we seem to have lost the narrative thread here.” As Gary and Michael Caine dance and romance each other and talk, and various other characters move around the party and talk, and you’re like, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a thing about sharks?” Oh, but it will be, for Bruce the Shark soon swims the thousand or more miles to the Bahamas from New England just to have another go at this particular family. New Year, same old killer shark!


Boogie Nights (1997)

Much like Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, P.T. Anderson’s porn-industry portrait features a scene on a historically significant New Year’s Eve, in this case not a century demarcation but an important change of decades. The coming of the ’80s (and home video) will mean the end of porn theatres, and the end of the time when the industry had some claims to professionalism. Soon any amateur could grab a video camera and make their own porn and the industry would be glutted. The death of the old era is symbolized by a tragedy at the party — but I won’t spoil it, in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this terrific movie.


New Year’s Eve (2011)

Let’s get one thing straight: New Year’s Eve is a nearly unwatchable trough of expensive garbage. You can just hear Garry Marshall saying, “Ya like good lookin’ young people? I’ll give ya 28 good lookin’ young people — plus Robert de Niro!” I watched a good hunk of this rubbish for the first time last year, and there was one aspect I found very interesting, however. Its structure…of constant cross-cutting between over-expository scenes of diverse people bustling around in anticipation of some major event….feels EXACTLY like the opening act of a DISASTER MOVIE. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that it’s set in New York…TIMES SQUARE, to be precise. A major terrorist target. And I LOVE disaster movies . So I so badly want this to be a disaster movie, to re-cut it, so that instead of a midnight countdown, the climax will be a gigantic wall of water coming from the Hudson River, or a bunch of mid-town skyscrapers toppling like dominoes. And the fact that this DOESN’T happen, in particular, to all these beautiful Caucasian cipher-people, is a total let down.  Roland Emmerich, please step in and give us a new third act for this movie.

Art Startup at Theater for the New City

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, ME, Protests with tags , , , on December 29, 2016 by travsd

L-R, Michael-David Gordon, Brianna Bartenieff, Crystal Field

See this week’s Chelsea Now for my article on Theater for the New City’s community meeting this week in response to NYC’s announced Cultural Plan. 

It was interesting — I didn’t mention this in my article (it’s more objective than that) but as a private citizen I felt that only a couple of people at the meeting seemed to have any sense of the tidal wave of awfulness headed our way. One of them who clearly did was artistic director Crystal Field, who’s seen a thing or two in her day, not just as a New Yorker, but as a child of Europeans. People with family in Europe the 20s, 30s and 40s all seem to get it. Most people (especially younger ones) all seem to still have their head up their butts or to be in serious denial, and seem to be picturing what’ll be happening six months or six years from now as a PRECEDENTED inconvenience, the kind of stuff we’ve always dealt with. Sure, the concerns most of the people were expressing were legitimate, in the sense that all concerns are legitimate, but my instinct is that most of them are going to be moot. We cannot plan for tomorrow as we have always planned. Much of what you are taking for granted may not be here, including entire government agencies, including a safe or “neutral” or non-hostile environment for self-expression. People seem to lack the imagination to apply what has-historically-proven-to-be-possible to our formerly-fortunate slice of the earth. Where so much is so unknown, I think it is a good idea to plan for it being worse beyond your wildest dreams. If it’s not, that will be a wonderful surprise. If it is, perhaps it won’t be as terrible. Anyway, call me a Jeremiah, call me a Cassandra, but most of all call me a TAXI, because I WANNA GET OUTTA HERE!!! My Chelsea Now piece is here. 

A Cultural Plan for New York City

Posted in Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , , on December 28, 2016 by travsd

Just learned about this last night at a special meeting at Theater for the New City. Given what will be happening at the federal level, such plans may be essentially moot, but it is good to know about


The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Hester Street Collaborative have launched the development of New York City’s first-ever comprehensive cultural plan. NOCD-NY is excited to be a partner in this process. Through intensive public input and an in-depth evaluation of the city’s cultural assets, the plan will become a roadmap for supporting the entire creative community and expanding opportunities for residents to access and participate in the city’s rich cultural life. For the plan to be successful, we need to hear from you! Visit to learn how to participate in the process.

photo: etccdb (West Indian Day)

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W.C. Fields has a Cameo in “La La Land”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , on December 27, 2016 by travsd


I didn’t see La La Land yet, but Dr. Harriet Fields reports she spotted the mural containing her grandfather in the film. She says the mural is located “just off Hollywood Blvd., and up from the Roosevelt Hotel, where the first W.C. Fields star is” (meaning, his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame). The muralist humorously grouped Fields (whose screen character was supposed to dislike kids and dogs, with Shirley Temple and Lassie. Meet Dr. Fields live in person this Thursday at our screening of Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) at Metrograph! 

Trav and Fields at Metrograph This Thursday

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , on December 26, 2016 by travsd


Fields Fest continues! Come see me and Dr. Harriet Fields (W.C.’s only granddaughter, a global health advocate) as we present the neglected 1935 WC Fields classic Man on the Flying Trapeze, this Thursday, January 29 at Metrograph. Information and tickets are here

70 Years Ago Today: W.C. Fields Meets the Man in the Bright Nightgown

Posted in Christmas, Comedians, Comedy, W.C. Fields with tags , , , on December 25, 2016 by travsd


We’ll be blogging about comedian W.C. Fields all through November and December as part of our tribute to the comedian called Fields Fest.  For a full list upcoming live Fields Fest events go here. 

It’s well known that W.C. Fields was a comedian, a screenwriter and a juggler — probably less well known that he was an amateur cartoonist. His drawings were interesting, original, funny and very much reflective of his personality. I came upon this Christmas card he designed a few months ago. There are ironies and meaning aplenty here. Fields the curmudgeon wasn’t crazy about Christmas. And also he died on Christmas day, 1946 — 70 years ago today. (He often spoke of death as “meeting the Man in the Bright Nightgown”. )

Today was originally intended to be the last day of Fields Fest, but we have spillover! On December 29, we’ll be presenting Man on the Flying Trapeze at Metrograph with guest speaker Dr. Harriet Fields, W.C.’s only granddaughter, a global health advocate. And we will be rescheduling our talk on “W.C. Fields: from Dime Museums to the Jazz Age”, co-presented by Zelda Magazine, originally scheduled for the Morbid Anatomy Museum. We’ll have an article on Fields in Zelda, and more blogposts about him here on Travalanche. It appears that Fields Fest is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for being part of it!

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