Category Archives: theater

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet

I was lying in bed, actually.  It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking.  I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.

The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.

I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.

Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.  I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before.  I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.

I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus.  Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar.  He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked.  One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.

There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot.  This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace.  (Another story for another day.)  It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA.  Interesting!

I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October.  (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.)  I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me.  “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby.  She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there.  When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school.  I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.

Marv called me the next day, and we began dating.  It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.

By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.

As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door.  It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.

I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.  As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.

Marv tried to reassure me.  He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely.  He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged.  (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)

We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else.  It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9.  It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.

The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself.  The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.

But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless.  Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself.  Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.

I felt the earth move under my feet.  It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea.  For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.

When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan.  (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)

Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving.  I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice.  Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.

Events during the next few months helped to persuade me.  Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy.  So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA.  If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse.  If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.

These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past.  I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan.  But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening.  I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.

We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor.  Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.

Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it. 

Marv agreed.  We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us.  In California, if that was possible.  Another college town if need be.  Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.

Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco.  So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.

I could live through another Sylmar Quake.  Or not live through it at all.

In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.

 

 

 

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]