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!
We had a quiet milestone earlier this week, and I was happy to get to share it with the people who were there. We presented a semi-staged reading of our holiday (play? radio play? screenplay?) Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at the Kraine Theatre with the stars Glen Heroy, Noah Diamond, Matt Roper, Melody Jane, Kathy Biehl, Zero Boy, Jennifer Harder, Bob Greenberg, Jonathan Smith, Robert Pinnock and Bill Weeden. (And the likeness and taxi horn of Seth Shelden)
The idea to take this old script of mine out of mothballs emerged when I realized, when working with Glen Heroy on W.C. Fields for President, that playing Santa Claus at Christmastime was also a major part of Glen’s life and career. You see, my script (begun decades earlier) had W.C. Fields as Santa Claus at its center! Furthermore, the script also features the Marx Brothers as characters; having recently worked with inspired Marx Brothers impressionists on I’ll Say Say She Is added fuel to the flame, as did recently working on Jack London’s The Iron Heel (my script has several Yukon touches, as well as some nods to communist agit-prop). The script also borrows from March of the Wooden Soldiers — and I realized I knew two professional Laurel and Hardy impersonators. It all pointed to doing a presentation of this script.
And there are other reasons. I feel like I am a bend in the road of sorts, as perhaps we all are. I hit a major birthday milestone recently, I married the love of my life, both parents have now passed away, my kids are grown, it’s winter solstice, a new year approaches and THE WORLD SEEMS POISED TO DESCEND INTO A NEW DARK AGES. All this adds up to my feeling I have reached the end of a rather long chapter of my own self-definition. And perhaps no one but me will quite notice the difference. I am calling Wednesday’s presentation “my last (self-produced, downtown) show”. Meaning the end of this mental construct, always more an idea than a reality, of myself as indie theatre company. Probably as far as most people were concerned, that had already ended a long time ago. April, 2015 was my last previous such presentation.
I’m not going anywhere, precisely — not retiring, just changing how I do things. Venues, partners, working methods, where and how I concentrate my efforts, all that sort of thing. Lately, I have been paid to act, for example. I hope to do a lot more of that. I like writing best of all, so I hope to do much, much more of that. I have interest by agents and publishers in three books, an off-Broadway company is planning a reading of one of my plays, and I am talking to an independent producer about writing his screenplay. And 2017 is full of centennial show biz milestones which I hope to observe in one way or another (talks, variety shows, blogs). I have an idea for a podcast; and a solo show I’m working on. And a thread through all of this is the political situation: how to reflect it, fight it, comment on it. (More on some of these plans to come in our New Year’s Message). But I’m setting my sights higher as to platforms and to mechanisms. And I can’t wear all the hats any more. Self-producing and directing in particular make me miserable; total independence comes at the cost of tooth-grinding and agida.
So this vehicle Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, with its recapitulation of many elements of my past, was kind of a perfect kiss-off. It was a reworking of one of the first scripts I ever wrote (suggested obviously by the eponymous movie, which happens to be a favorite of mine). And I was deliriously happy to have by my side Robert Pinnock, who has been with me through much of my folly, almost from the beginning. And it was perfect to have it at the Kraine Theatre, which was part of the indie theatre community BEFORE there was an indie theatre community, when it was quite a nascent thing in the 1980s.
At any rate, I promised pictures in the title, and all I have given is words! Here come the pictures, taken by myself, cast members, and audience members, whom I hope will forgive my pilfering of their online postings:
BEFORE THE SHOW:
NOW ON TO THE NEXT THING.
We got a badly needed lift yesterday, as well as a much overdue dose of Christmas spirit, and a highly welcome injection of “red sauce” directly into our veins, at Cristina Fontanelli’s 13th Annual “Christmas in Italy” Presentation at the Washington Irving Campus Landmark Theater near Gramercy Park.
Host Ornella Fado of the NYC-TV show Brindiamo! launched the festivities with welcoming remarks and then the mic was passed to world-renowned soprano Fontanelli, founder and prime mover of this heartwarming holiday event, which combines the best of high and popular cultural traditions, ever since its inception. The first half consisted primarily of well-known operatic selections by Italian composers like Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, ending on “The Italian Street Song” from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. We could have listened to her heavenly singing voice all night, but she generously shared the stage, singing a duet with tenor Blake Friedman (Rossini’s “La Danza”); sharing the spotlight with pianist David Maiullo, and mandolin players John La Barbera, Barry Mitterhoff, and Jay Posipanko; and even turning the stage over to accordionist Angelo Coppola, whom she said she discovered playing on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy.
That last detail was the kind of touch that particularly endeared her to me, and I believe to most of her audience. Don’t get me wrong — she has the kind of gift, and the kind of skill, that’s liable to make you feel like a piker no matter what you do in life. If you’re a plumber, you’ll say “I’m okay at my job — but I sure wish I was as good at plumbing as she is at singing.” On the other hand, she has this down to earth personality that seemed to shrink the large auditorium down to the size of a family kitchen. Her aunt was there; Fontanelli dedicated a song to her, and got us all to join her in “Happy Birthday”. She greeted old friends in the audience. She grieved for the loss of her mother, who passed away this year. There were hundreds of us in the audience, but the distance between us seemed very small.
And the second half of the show was even warmer and more family-oriented, for that’s when the Christmas part of the program kicked in and we got to hear The Christmas in Italy Choir sing their beautiful rendition of “Silent Night”, and to watch recitals by large numbers of adorable children from The Little Language Studio and the Jersey City Ballet, and to meet the winners of the Miss Italia USA Scholarship Program, and to enjoy Plu Sayampol and his dancers. And to see Santa Claus!
As I’ve been bragging to everybody lately I’m 2% Italian, and that 2% was fully on the ascendant yesterday evening. Afterwards, we rapidly decided what was for dinner. I had the spaghetti and meatballs; my wife had the chicken parmesan. The 14th Annual concert is already on our calendar for next year.
In the midst of darkness, light persists — Gandhi
We are exceedingly glad to get word of this wonderful sounding holiday event. As someone who spent a good part of his adult life in Providence and the Italian section of Williamsburg, I can tell you this with authority — the Italians know how to do Christmas RIGHT. This Sunday Cristina Fontanelli returns with her critically acclaimed Christmas in Italy show to the Washington Irving Campus Concert Hall, promising opera, ballet, Christmas songs, mandolins, accordions, cute children, Santa Claus and free gifts from the show’s sponsor Ronzoni. Featuring kids from the Little Language Studio and Jersey City Ballet, not to mention Fontanelli herself and a professional chorus singing such classics as “Torna a Surriento:, “Tu scendi dalle stelle”, “Silent Night”, “Dominick the Donkey”, “White Christmas”, “Mamma”, “Ave Maria” and “O Sole Mio”.
Che meraviglia! Can’t wait. For tickets and more info go here. And check out photos from past years below: