Sunday, July 25, 2010

Paris Cinema—from Palace to Porn to Worcester Icon

Beginning on August 1, I’ll be hanging some digitally-enhanced photos of Worcester landmarks in a two-person exhibit called “Welcome to Worcester.”

The exhibit is the brainchild of Elizabeth Hughes who owns the Futon Company shop at 129 Highland Street in Worcester. Elizabeth doesn’t just sell futons—she also encourages local artists by exhibiting their work on the walls of the store.

It was Elizabeth’s idea to call the show “Welcome to Worcester” and to feature some of the city’s iconic landmarks as portrayed by Doug Chapel in his illustrations and in my photographs, which I have digitally enhanced.

The terrific vintage-style postcard advertising the show was designed by Elizabeth’s sister, Victoria Hughes Waters. It demonstrates how Doug Chapel and I differently portray the Coney Island Hotdogs restaurant with its famous neon sign.

The show will also be featured on Sunday, Aug. 8 at “Art in the Parking Lot” across the street from the Futon Company in the Sole Proprietor’s lot--along with local artists, live art and all sorts of surprises.

The reception for “Welcome to Worcester” will be held on Thursday, Sept. 9, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Futon Company and among the treats will be Coney Island’s famous hot dogs.

While photographing some of the funky Worcester landmarks that Doug has immortalized in his cartoons, I learned a lot about their history.

I already knew about the saga of the Paris Cinema (originally called the Capitol Theatre) which is on Worcester’s Common, behind City Hall. I first researched it for Preservation Worcester back in 2005. By then, what had begun as a palatial movie palace in the 1920’s had deteriorated into a seedy “Adult Cinema” offering gay porn. In January of 2005, according to an article in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, “a series of police raids resulted in the arrests of 22 men for engaging in sexual acts in the theater, some in groups and others by themselves.” City Manager Michael V. O’Brien said that the cinema “painted an ugly picture of downtown at a time he’s pushing for revitalization.”

In January, 2006, the Paris Cinema was closed down by the authorities and has sat empty ever since, awaiting the wrecking ball, but Preservation Worcester has been trying to save it from this fate. The theater was once the pride of Worcester. Inside, much of the original architectural splendor is still there, although in a dilapidated condition.

As I wrote in my summary for Preservation Worcester’s “Most Endangered” list, the Capitol Theatre (now Paris Cinema) is a rare surviving example of the “atmospheric” theaters that were popular across the United States during the movie palace era of the early 20th century. Architect John Eberson developed the atmospheric style of theater design in 1923. He wanted to distract Americans from life’s problems by creating an atmosphere of rest and beauty, “a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky in an Italian garden, in a Persian court, in a Spanish patio or in a mystic Egyptian templeyard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky” as he put it.

Eberson had his own alliterative slogan for what he was doing: “Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses—Please Patrons—Pay Profits.”

(Don’t you love the alliteration and the optimism of the era—it’s a far cry from being raided by the police for encouraging public group sex.)

Originally seating 2,500, the 1926 Capitol Theatre was the first of three atmospheric palace theaters built in Worcester in the late 1920’s. It allowed its patrons to live the fantasy of attending a show in an outdoor amphitheater in Spain.

Not only was its interior elaborately detailed with decorative plaster and wrought iron in the Spanish style, but the impression was enhanced by projectors that created the effect of twinkling stars and moving clouds on the arched ceiling of its auditorium and second floor mezzanine lobby. Although the building was converted to a multiplex cinema in the 1960’s, much of the interior and ornamental detailing still survives. But no one knows in what condition….

When photographing the Paris Cinema, I made one photo which shows the place in the rather grim (yet graphically sophisticated) condition it’s in today, incorporating an empty storefront and an African hair braiding shop, but in the other photo I’m submitting to the show, I used color to suggest the fantasy palace that it was at the beginning—a place designed to distract the citizens of Worcester from the harsh realities of the Depression by providing them a fantasy for a few hours that they were viewing the glamorous world of 1930’s Hollywood from a seat in a Spanish amphitheater, under the twinkling stars and moving clouds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

World Largest Crustacean Means Summer in Worcester

(Click on Buster to make him bigger.)

( Okay--this blog post was posted last July but it's July again and Buster is on top of the Sole again and I'm frantic-- finishing a photo exhibit and planning a wedding-- so I'm running it over again. Worcester is still as quirky and full of surprises as last year.)

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 (below) 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.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Planning a Wedding in Corfu

When we landed in Corfu last week, daughter Eleni was off and running to get her wedding plans together. She had informed us, about two weeks earlier, that she planned to marry Emilio in Corfu, Greece, on Oct 10 (10/10/10!) and she had already cleared the date with the church she had always dreamed of –the little peach-colored Church of Panayia Mandrakina at the base of the Fortress in Corfu Town. (That’s Eleni looking at the church above.)

She arrived with a list, which included checking out the reception site, priests, florists, DJs, musicians, cake-bakers, transportation (including horse-drawn carriages and boats) and the venues for the various nights’ activities.

Her sister Marina had already designed the logo that will mark the paperwork, (intertwined E’s for "Emilio" and "Eleni") as well as the invitations, response cards and thank-you notes, and had also assembled spread sheets of guest lists and addresses.

Within four days, everything pretty much got nailed down. I don’t want to give away all the surprises, but can tell the general plan. On Friday night, Oct 8, there will be the decorating of the wedding bed—in a fortress-view suite at the top of a small Italian mansion—now a boutique hotel-- in the old city. (Most of the guests at the wedding will be staying in garden rooms at the Corfu Palace, overlooking the harbor below.)

Traditionally for a Greek wedding the women decorate the nuptial bed with flowers and gold coins, while singing songs sure to bring tears of nostalgia to Eleni’s aunts.

Saturday, the welcome dinner–hosted by the groom and his family—will be held on a magical small island called Vidos. A boat covers the ten-minute ride from the Old Port every hour, and the captain plans to decorate his boat to honor the bride and groom. He can’t wait. Every Greek loves a wedding!

That includes Menios, the wisecracking owner of the taverna on the island, who had strong opinions about the traditional Corfiote dishes he will prepare and the singers who will provide the music for Saturday night. We should leave everything in his hands, he said.

Eleni asked for a meatless main-dish alternative for vegetarians—perhaps tomatoes and peppers stuffed with a herbed rice mixture. Menios retorted that upon tasting meatless yemista, the guests would throw the tomatoes and peppers at his head. He had a reputation to uphold! In the end, Eleni and the vegetarians won, I think.

The island of Vidos is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s completely overrun with rabbits and hares as well as pheasants—all of whom have become tame and will walk right up to you. Every night about sunset Menios makes a ritual of throwing feed to the hundreds of animals who drop by for dinner.

Sunday—the wedding day—will include two weddings—one in the Catholic Church (the Duomo) in the picturesque square which includes the Town Hall and the Opera House, followed by a parade with troubadours toward the Greek Orthodox Church for a second ceremony. (Guests who want to take a break or can’t fit into the churches are encouraged to sit at an outdoor café nearby with a celebratory drink.)

[To avert bringing on the Evil Eye, Eleni wants me to qualify all this by adding the words “weather permitting.” And I should spit a couple of times and keep a clove of garlic in my pocket.]

After the ceremonies finish and photographs are taken, everyone will file across the bridge over the moat into the old fortress and through the winding cobblestone paths down to the Corfu Sailing Club on the water’s edge, where sailboats and yachts are anchored and the lights from above shimmer in the water.

At the Sailing Club there will be music, toasts, delicious food and several surprises, but I promised not to tell.

When meeting with vendors, I learned that the Mother of the Bride has only one important job and that is “Don’t say anything and don’t engage anyone in conversation.” Eleni and her cousin Areti, a Corfu native who will be the maid of honor and koumbara of the wedding—have their own system for interviewing and negotiating, and it was clear that I could seriously mess things up by expressing an opinion or showing interest in anything.

Being a MOB is no easy task.

My husband likes to quote a friend who commented after one festive weekend: “The average Greek has more fun at a wedding than the average WASP has in a lifetime.”

I’m a life-long WASP, now transformed into a Greek MOB, and I suspect that on 10/10/10 I’ll find out if that’s true.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Is it a Yacht or a Floating Museum?

When we were on the Greek island of Hydra recently, I saw a very peculiar-looking yacht dock in the harbor. I had never seen a boat of that shape and certainly not one decorated with what seemed to be pop art. Painted across the stern was the name “Guilty.” I thought it might be the ill-gotten prize of some hedge-fund manager who had been convicted of a white-collar crime, a la Bernie Madoff.

So I took some photos of the mysterious yacht and then asked the nearest donkey driver whose it was. (Those donkey drivers know everything because they stand around the harbor all day waiting for people to hire them to move suitcases and baggage up the hill to their hotel or destination. There are no vehicles on Hydra, only donkeys.)

He told me that the yacht belonged to a very rich Greek who owned two side- by-side houses up above the harbor. But he didn’t know his name.

When I walked back to the Hotel Leto, I typed the words “yacht” and “Guilty” into Google and learned that the peculiar sea craft belonged to a very influential Greek art collector named Dakis Ioannou (or “Joannou” – it depends on how you translate the Greek alphabet.)

I also learned that he had launched the yacht two years earlier, in Athens, at a party attended by the most important art dealers and contemporary artists of the day. The exterior of the yacht had been decorated by Ioannou’s friend, the artist Jeff Koons.

I wrote about Koons’ life-sized statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles a year ago, in a posting about how Michael Jackson’s death had inflated the price of Michael Jackson art.

I quoted from a New York Times article about Koons: ““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.”

Ioannou, who reportedly made his money in construction, is an extremely influential collector of works of modern art. I believe he owns 20 of Koons’ super-expensive sculptures. The masterpieces he chooses are often macabre and gory He said at the launching of his yacht, “ “These are dark times. The artists recognize that. We should, too.”

Although the exterior of the ship looks like a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon-painting, the Koons told Art Forum that it was based on a World War I camouflage pattern designed to confuse rather than hide.

The magazine reported: “The dizzying, chromatic graphics did make the unusually jutting planes of the ship, designed by architect Ivana Porfiri, hard to make out on the water. The touchy-feely interior was all mirror, silver leather, and dyed materials. ‘Isn’t it wonderful how you just want to touch everything on board?’ Koons asked, smiling. … The decor also included a lot of art… including wall paintings by David Shrigley, another by Albenda, and Guilty, an unusual text painting by Sarah Morris bought because, well, Joannou said, “I had to.” The yacht already had the name. “Guilty,” he said. “It just seemed right.”

Here is a photograph of the piece which now lives in the yacht along with a lot of other expensive works from his collection.

I have to say that, unlike Ioannou, I was not struck by an irresistible urge to buy this painting when I saw it—but then I really don’t understand much of the art that is currently fashionable.

After leaving Hydra, I picked up an airline magazine—I think it was on an Aegean plane—and learned that at the same moment, a collection of Ioannou’s art was being shown in New York at the New Museum. The exhibit was called “Skin Fruit” and was curated by—guess who?-- Jeff Koons. It included 100 works by “50 world-famous artists” from Ioannou’s private collection. According to the magazine, “It’s an exciting exploration of archetype symbols of genesis, evolution and human sexuality. …The exhibition tells the story of humanity’s beginnings. It’s like a fantastic universe imagined by Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton and David Lynch, filled with twin towers of white chocolate, warped playground swings, androids and demons. Murals, paintings, installations, performance pieces, 3D pieces and live dramatized scenes of human passion make up a stunning display.”

Unfortunately, the exhibit in New York finished on June 20, so I won’t be able to see all the drama, but in the meantime I and the donkeys of Hydra enjoyed our accidental encounter with Mr. Ioannou’s yacht-as-modern art.