Monday, July 27, 2009

HAIR in the Park--Forty Years Later

The Age of Aquarius Re-Visited

The first time I saw the rock musical “Hair” in 1968 in London, I had left my job and my boyfriend in Manhattan to work for a British magazine, arriving just in time to enjoy two years of swinging London. “Hair” was a scandal (the cast famously got naked at the end of the first act.) It was no coincidence that it opened in London one day after the abolishment of the Theatre Acts which had given the Lord Chamberlain the power of censorship since 1737. I was thrilled by my first look at the theater of the streets—the music of a new anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-everything generation: my own.

When I learned, last summer that a revival of “Hair “ was being staged at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, that the tickets were free and there was a special line for senior citizens, I drove from home in Grafton, MA. , listening, on the way, to the original cast album and getting a little misty at the thought of how young and optimistic we were in 1968, protesting a misguided war and believing we could make a difference. I slept on my daughter’s couch and set out early for the Park.

I reached the Delacorte box office at 8:15 a.m. and joined the seniors’ line – thirty-some individuals sitting patiently on three very long benches. The other line stretched out of sight into the park—young people sprawled on the ground, some in sleeping bags.

I sat next to Ivan, a lawyer smartly dressed in a dark blue suit and black tie who was fielding clients’ calls on his cell phone. Soon all three benches for our line were filled and there was no more room to sit. A newcomer passed by muttering “Bunch of hippies!” and we chuckled. But we were a bunch of hippies….grown up. When Lorraine, a striking woman with her English spaniel on a leash, mentioned her recent trip to India—floating down the Ganges and sleeping on the riverbank in tents—she collected a handful of retirement-age listeners, including me, all of us planning trips to India and eager for advice.

Our five-hour wait was eased by nearby bathroom facilities, a hot-dog cart, and menus from Andy’s Deli on Columbus, which delivers to the line. We did the Times crossword, read, debated politics and exchanged life stories. Lorraine related her years of struggle to protect her rent-controlled apartment which ended in a settlement and a new home.

“I used to be all about work,” Ivan mused, “But now I think it’s more important to enjoy life.” He fished out a photo of his grandson whom he frequently flies cross country to visit.

At 1 p.m. Curt returned with a handful of tickets. “One ticket or two?” he asked each of us, then checked proof of age. Triumphantly, Lorraine, Ivan and I all scored two. Then, right after me, I heard Curt say, “I’m sorry folks. That’s the last one.”

At 8 p.m. we gathered with our guests on a perfect summer evening, under the “brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” as Shakespeare and the tribe members of “Hair” described it. The first six rows of one section were for us. The rest were filled with hundreds of people who, like the cast, had not been born when “Hair” premiered.

The performance was just as electrifying as when I saw it in London, only this time I kept turning around to look at the beaming faces of my generation —singing along and remembering. The lithe young cast members displayed better abs than I recalled from the original production and at the end of the first act they shed their clothes and ran off stage.

During the intermission, my daughter pondered the changes in bikini waxing since 1968. Lorraine and I exclaimed in unison that no one had heard of bikini waxing back then. The conversation turned to pot smoking and a stately woman sitting nearby chimed in—“I started late. I was stoned for most of the summer of ‘73. That was after my ex-husband came out of the closet and before people started dying of AIDs.”

As we reminisced, I realized that for most of the audience, like my daughter, this performance was a time capsule—an entertaining look into an era long gone. But for us it was a chance to revisit our youth and reflect on how things had changed. It wasn’t depressing, although we were no longer young and optimistic and our country was once more fighting an unpopular war. At least we were still here. Some among us could no longer sing “I got my hair”, but like the kids on stage, we could belt out “I got life” without it being a lie.

As the second act began, Lorraine asked me, “Are you going to go up on the stage and dance at the end?”

I thought about it. “I didn’t forty years ago.”

Lorraine leaned forward. “Joan, I think this time you should.”

As the Tribe danced to “Let the Sunshine In”, she ran down to the stage. So did most of our age group. I didn’t dance and I didn’t smoke pot that night, but I left Central Park on a contact high of pride. Maybe my generation didn’t end war, eliminate racism, and create universal tolerance— despite all the anthems about peace, love and freedom now. But we tried. And we still had the motivation to try… to sit for half a day in the hope --but not the certainty-- of getting free tickets to revisit the first ever “American tribal love rock musical.”

(A few days later, Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton attended—although I suspect they didn’t have to wait in line.)

Leaving the park, we caught up with Ivan, who remarked that forty years ago, a woman alone could not be walking here alone at night without fear, but now there were several visible ahead of us, leaving the concert.

As we passed the Temple of Dendur, I was struck by a variation on that ubiquitous Mastercard slogan: “Cost of tickets to ‘Hair’: zero dollars. Time spent to get tickets: five hours. Watching your generation let down their ‘Hair’ 40 years after the first time: priceless.”

(The reception to Hair in Central Park was so good last summer that the same cast is now performing it on Broadway and the tickets will cost you from $37 to $122!)

Sunday, July 19, 2009


(please click on the photos to enlarge)

Reading my weekly Antiques and The Arts newspaper, dated July 17, I came across a small item that thrilled me. It said that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, wove textiles for wall hangings early in her life and when she moved to Indonesia with her son in the 1960’s, she began to amass a collection of the vibrant batik textiles of the country.

She had married an Indonesian after Obama’s father left Hawaii to return to Africa, and her daughter, Maya Soetoro Ng –Obama’s half sister—has loaned her late mother’s collection of batik textiles for an exhibition in Washington D.C. from August 9-23 in the Textile Museum there. ( ): “A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks.” “She did not acquire rare or expensive pieces, but rather contemporary examples that were an expression of a living tradition, patterned with both classic designs and those of passing fashion” according to the press release.

Later, when Ann was studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii, she tried to find ways to help craftspeople. She worked with the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and with USAID and the World Bank, and set up micro-credit projects in Indonesia, Pakistan and Kenya to benefit poor women making textiles.

I have always considered textile making (weaving and embroidery) a fascinating art form. In many countries this the only medium of artistic expression available to women and the only way they can earn money. Whenever I travel, I buy textiles –ideally from the women who created them. Now my walls are covered with antique American quilts, Mexican huipils, Haitian voodoo flags and Greek embroidered table runners. Most pieces cost under $100 but they’re priceless, because they embody the maker’s artistic talent as well as (in some cases) their religious or political beliefs and their dreams ,(the embroidered wedding couples worked into a Greek tablecloth as part of a dowry.)

Around 1970 I got interested in antique American quilts. On our second floor stair landing I hung a “Tumbling Blocks” quilt behind a sea captain’s chest full of teddy bears. (The worn teddy with wings on the wall is my childhood friend who has passed on to his reward.) The section from an unfinished velvet and silk Victorian quilt is called “Windmill Blades” and the large “Barn Raising” quilt is from a very old variation on the Log Cabin pattern.

Mexican and Guatelmalan embroideries fascinate me with their sophisticated and wild use of color. I’ve decorated the wall of my studio with antique Mexican huipils that indicate the native village of the woman who wears them. The lady on the right is Maria, whom we met in the marketplace of San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. She was the best among the many women weavers and embroiderers who crowded the marketplace. (San Cristobal is heaven for the collector of textiles.) Near the border of Guatemala I found the embroidery made by a Zapatista woman who was also selling dolls with faces masked like Commandante Marcos. The pillow that was made in Guatemala looks to me like a happy man walking in a graveyard. Could this be a memorial or something to do with the Day of the Dead?

Daughter Eleni, who studied folklore and mythology, introduced me to the sequined voodoo flags made in Haiti and used in the religious rites. These are usually made (and signed) by men and they represent the gods who take possession of the worshiper. These sequin flags and the artists who make them are taken very seriously as art now, which means they can be very expensive. The two large ones represent La Sirene—-The Enchantress—and Baron Samedi—who mitigates between life and death.

Textile artists reflect the life they see around them—the Greek wall hanging is an island scene with table, chairs and cat; the festive wedding scene (brought from Pakistan by Eleni) shows a wedding party celebrating beneath an umbrella. The exquisite antique Chinese embroidery was in a box of textiles I bought for $75. The incredible detailed work and the wonderful reproduction of all those birds, animals and flowers make it beyond price. ( The knots are so small I think it must include the “forbidden knot” that would render the sewers blind.)

Finally there is lace: a simple lace handkerchief and a lace runner that I’m told represents French cathedrals. It may sound silly to buy pieces for a few dollars and then spend much more to frame them, but I do. Last Monday, at the Antique Textiles Vintage Fashions Show and Sale in Sturbridge, which kicks off Brimfield week three times a year, I photographed that lace runner with the deer.—The price tag says $950.00.

I always go to the “Vintage Clothing Show” in Sturbridge, as I call it (The next one is Sept. 3) partly to gape at the celebrities and crazily dressed fashionistas talking into their cell phones in French or Japanese, but I also go to educate my eye and find the rare bargain, and when I go home I enjoy my own collection all the more.

*(To all my English major friends—don’t write to tell me that ‘Like me’ is bad grammar. I know it but used it anyway!)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

World Largest Crustacean Means Summer in Worcester

(Click on Buster to make him bigger.)

We who live in (or near) Worcester MA, population 170,000, are fiercely loyal, even though big city papers like The New York Times tend to refer to Worcester as a “sleepy industrial backwater”.

Worcesterites fondly refer to their town as “Wormtown” and “The Paris of the Eighties”. The Worcester Historical Museum even sells a T-shirt (above) that makes fun of the way people always mispronounce the city’s name . (The correct pronunciation in the local accent is: ”Wusta.” If you call it “Wor-chester” everyone here will think you are wicked lame.)

With its rows of three-deckers and its mostly deserted brick factories, Worcester is like a time capsule that was sealed in the 1950s or ‘60’s. (It’s also a great place to shoot a movie—and several have been filmed here.) We have at the moment an airport with no scheduled commercial flights (well, I think there’s one to Florida), an auditorium,a courthouse and a vocational high school that stand empty (making great movie sets) and a central downtown discount fashion mall that has been deserted for years awaiting the wrecking ball.

Worcester has a quirky history full of rebels-- from Isaiah Thomas, who took his printing press and exited Boston ahead of the Tories (the Declaration of Independence was first read in public on our courthouse steps) to Abbie Hoffman who grew up in one of Worcester’s three-deckers (they were built for the families of the factory workers.)

We still have Coney Island Hotdogs with its famous neon sign, and the Boulevard Diner where Madonna ate spaghetti after a concert at the Centrum, Table Talk Pies and Sir Morgan’s Cove (now Lucky Dog, I think) where the Rolling Stones in 1981 gave an impromptu free concert. Worcester boasts seven colleges and universities including Holy Cross, WPI and Clark (where, in 1909 Freud gave his only American lectures.)

Luminaries who came from Worcester are a motley bunch including S. N. Berman, Emma Goldman, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, Dennis Leary and Marcia Cross--the red-headed desperate housewife. Also the Coors twins, Diane and Elaine Klimaszewski.

Worcester is especially proud of its “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the first commercial Valentines, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball and, most famous of all, the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon.

In Worcester, the perennial sign of summer, as sure as the fireworks and concert in Christopher Colombo Park on the Fourth, is the arrival of the gigantic figure of Buster the Crab, lying on the roof and hanging over the Sole Proprietor Restaurant on Highland Street.

My husband and I ate there last week. There was a special menu of crab dishes, in addition to the regular Sole offerings. From the menu, I learned the following fascinating facts: This is Buster’s 17th year at the Sole Proprietor. Buster is the world’s largest inflatable crustacean. It takes 45,000 cubic feet of air to inflate him. He has a 75-foot claw spam. Buster could feed 200,000 people if he were real. That would require 35,116 pounds of butter and 45,447 lemons.

The crab dishes on the special menu ranged from fried tomato and crab Napoleon with smoky tomato dressing , Spyder Maki with soft-shelled crab, masago, cucumber and asparagus, to crab, mango and pickled cucumber cocktail and Crabmeat Casserole au gratin. I had crab and shrimp salad, which included avocado and tomatoes and sweet lemon herb vinaigrette. My husband had the soft-shelled crabs (sautéed, not fried). It was delicious. On the way out, I even wangled a copy of the Buster the Crab coloring book, usually meant only for kids. When we left, the wind was blowing and Buster’s giant claws waved good-bye.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Michael Jackson and Art Collecting-- Death Was a Smart Career Move

Today columnist Liz Smith asked “Will there be no end to this?”—‘This’ being the wall-to-wall coverage of every little Michael Jackson-related bit of ‘news’.”

I agree, but I can’t stop reading everything about Michael’s life and pitiful death, because the story’s got as many plot twists as an Agatha Christie novel. Two days ago we learned that the real father of Michael’s two oldest children was his dermatologist. Who knew? Yesterday I read that Michael would throw away his children’s toys every night, when they were little, (for fear of the germs that might be on them) and buy new ones. Today we learned that Debbie Rowe, the nurse who gave birth to the first two children, is going to try to get custody from Michael’s mother. (In the past Michael convinced Debbie to give up her claims – twice — with infusions of cash. She has never lived in the same house as the children.)

I hope, for their sake, that whoever gets custody, the children will have near them Grace, that nanny from Rwanda (originally she was a personal assistant to Michael) because I think she’s the person they bonded with and she seems to be the only person in this story who is not motivated by the desire for money. (I could be proved wrong about that. Tune in tomorrow.)

Michael Jackson was an art collector. He would go into a gallery and buy millions of dollars of paintings in one shopping trip. As far as his taste in art, I read that he commissioned – and hung in his most recent home — a copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper with the figure of Michael in place of Christ. The disciples included dead celebrities like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

Today’s New York Times (July 3) had an interview with an art gallery owner from whom Michael had ordered numerous copies of Norman Rockwell paintings of children and animals — he had them framed but never picked them up. The Times also reported that Neverland is deserted and the rooms empty, except for numerous statues throughout the grounds of children at play.

Despite my reading all the flood of Michael news, on Wednesday I found a rather sad and, as far as I know pretty much unreported, story about Michael and his art in – of all places — “Antiques and the Arts Weekly”—a fat newspaper that I get once a week about the antique trade, published by The Bee Publishing Company in Newtown Connecticut. (Everyone calls the paper “The Bee”.)

The newspaper, dated July 3, had two separate stories about sales of Michael Jackson memorabilia. The first article described the sale on May 1 (weeks before his death) of items from the Hollywood Wax Museum, which has evidently closed down after 44 years. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a true piece of Hollywood history,” said the president of Profiles in History which ran the sale. Life-size figures of Jesus and his disciples (from Da Vinci’s Last Supper — no Hollywood celebs in this version) went for $15,340. You sort of wonder how the buyer will work that into his home’s décor. Michael Jackson’s costume from the 1988 “Bad” concert went for $35,400. That, of course, was before his death.

More revealing and sad was the second news story describing a sale in Las Vegas of twenty-one items once owned by Jackson and given to David Gest. You remember him -- “the producer and promoter once married to Liza Minelli”, the article explained. “Jackson introduced the couple and was best man at their wedding.”

This sale in Las Vegas, held by Julien’s Auctions at the Planet Hollywood hotel-casino, had estimated the Jackson items would go for about $6,000 for the entire collection. But that was before he died. Turns out the auction, held as scheduled on June 26, the day after he died, went for a total of $205,000.

A 55-year–old Tina Turner impersonator named Larry Edwards came to the auction intending to buy a drawing of an African-American Mickey Mouse, drawn in primary colors when Michael was a child and signed “Mike Jackson.” (Don’t you think it’s sad that the child Michael imagined Mickey Mouse as an African American but as an adult, when he was ordering up his children, he decided to have them be Caucasian?)

My friend Bill Wallace, director of the Worcester Historical Museum and one of the world’s great collectors of Disneyana, told me about an auction in Los Angeles when he paid a premium to get in early before the doors opened and found himself standing next to Michael Jackson as they both examined a rare 1930’s Mickey Mouse tea set in its original box. They decided that the price was too low — there must be something wrong with this treasure. Then, as the doors opened to the general public, Michael’s keepers whisked him away.

The Tina Turner impersonator was ready to pay $1,000 for the childish drawing of Mickey but the opening bid was $1,500 and it finished at $20,000 plus a 25 percent commission.

The most expensive item in the collection was a Swarovski crystal-beaded shirt worn in Michael’s 1984 Victory tour that went for $52,500. The man who bought it said “I see Elvis Presley costumes go for a quarter of a million….I’m hoping this will be an investment.”

That’s a pretty good bet.

One of the most revealing and sad items sold in that auction was a handwritten note from Michael to someone named Greg. The misspelled and badly punctuated letter was undated. He wrote:

“Thanks for a magic moment in my life, I hope it was the same for you, please come visit me at Neverland. Lets hope this is the beginning of a lovy friendship and never lose your boyish spirit its immortal.”

The note sold to an unidentified bidder on the phone for $18,750.

Also in today’s Times there was an article about Jeff Koons, the artist who specializes in pop art — if that’s how you describe a giant “balloon dog”. I enjoy his work. Some of it was on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum last year. Now he’s opened a show in London featuring an inflatable lobster and many paintings of Popeye with his can of spinach. (You may recall that Koons has also done statues of himself making love to his ex-wife who was an Italian ex-porn star.)

One of Jeff Koons’ most famous works is pictured above — a life-sized statue of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee Bubbles. (He had to give Bubbles away because the animal started getting aggressive about the time Michael started having children.)

At the end of the long article about the new exhibit, The Times mentioned the Bubbles and Michael statue. “His 1988 sculpture of Mr. Jackson with Bubbles was decorated with gold metallic paint and brought $5.6 million when it sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001. Larry Gagosian, the New York dealer who represents Mr. Koons, said on Wednesday that if one from the edition (he made three along with an artist’s proof) was to come up for sale now, it could make more than $20 million. ‘And that’s conservative,’ he added.”

Good thing I don’t have twenty million to buy that statue. I don’t know how I’d ever work it into my home’s décor.