Month: November 2018

Dr. Richard Connors – The Road to the Armistice 1918

This November we commemorated the centennial of the Great War’s conclusion. Fittingly, in October, historian Richard Connors published his latest volume on the First World War. With The Road to Armistice, he explored the conflict’s final months from the battlefields to the negotiating table to the hustings. As in his 2017 work, New Jersey and the Great War, he included sections that described the war’s impact on the Garden State. A witty and engaging read resulted.

Dr. Connors employed several writing techniques that made the book very enjoyable; his vernacular style chief among them. Academic historians have a bad habit of overusing fancy words. Some like to include epistemology and ontology with the same frequency that most people use and and the. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He expressed his ideas in lucid language that made them easy to understand.

In his analysis of the “Black Day” of the German Army, the professor provided a clear yet detailed description of events. He did so in a way that would’ve impressed Sir John Keegan.

Instead of the traditional days-long artillery barrage, which alerts the enemy to the location and immanence of an attack, the Allies rely on a last-minute rolling barrage. This is an approach where the artillery fires ahead of the infantry at a prescribed distance, and continues this pattern as the soldiers advance. At 4:20 a.m. on August 8 the guns roar for three minutes, aiming two hundred yards in front of the assaulting tanks, infantry, and cavalry. This formula is repeated until the shells reach a maximum depth of 4,500 yards. The artillery teams then move forward. But plans don’t survive for long. The gods of war take over. Little if any resistance by some German units, wholesale surrender by those surrounded, stiff resistance by other units, difficulty communicating in any direction amid the ear-shattering din and blinding smoke of battle, orderly advances by some troops, pell-mell rushes by others, tank breakdowns, halts to avoid being caught in the rolling barrage or to outflank bullet-spewing machine guns, the roar of airplanes diving down to strafe the enemy, the shrieks of the dying. The result is chaos and confusion accompanied by incomprehensible death and destruction. Chaos and confusion might not be the best choice of words; berserk bedlam might be better. (Loc 118)

As readers could determine from the above passage, Dr. Connors wrote in the present tense. By doing so, he gave the story an immediacy one doesn’t typically encounter in works of history.

The Road to the Armistice 1918 contained excellent use of humor. That’s quite an achievement with such sullen subject matter. In the chapter describing the life of a platoon leader in the 29th Division he observed:

Runners are used as contact agents; paths for them have to be found and maintained. Runners are not always reliable. Sometimes they will run to the rear and just keep on running. (Location 697)

When describing the training the 78th Division experienced in Europe, he noted an unanticipated hardship the war forced American troops to endure.

They are also exposed to the “delights” of British rations, which feature tea, biscuts, jam, and cheese. Not very popular with the doughboys raised on meat and potatoes. (Location 723)

Even with the nation at war, newspapers didn’t limit their coverage to carnage. On August 3, 2018, papers reported the following stories.

New Jersey news includes details of a “slacker roundup”, involving raids of theatres, hotels and saloons, sending some 300 men to the local armory for questioning. On the lighter side, Belmar arrests twenty-three “drippers,” persons walking on the boardwalk with wet bathing suits and inadequate covering. The fine: $5. (Location 107)

The author included interesting information regarding wartime New Jersey. He wrote that in October:

…a Presidential order banning German aliens from a number of coastal towns in Monmouth and northern Ocean counties. The order covers communities east of the Jersey shore railroad tracks, from Matawan south to Point Pleasant. It was triggered by fears that German submarines will bring in spies and saboteurs, bent on destroying war industries and interfering with shipping. (Unknown to the general public, a U-boat shelled the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook during August.) (Loc 264)

I only had one criticism of the book. While I liked the professor’s conversational writing style, I did read a number of clichés. As Dr. Connors is an excellent writer, I thought he could have used more creative expressions than “money to burn” (Loc 409), “spiraling downhill” (Loc 420) and “to put it mildly.” (Loc 466)

Dr. Connors commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the war’s conclusion by publishing The Road to the Armistice 1918. I reflected upon the centennial by reading it. I finished just before Veteran’s Day.

 

Lecture Review – Christopher Andrew Maier: “Just for the Record: The Life of Eldridge Reeves Johnson”

What better way to commemorate the anniversary of someone’s death than through a celebration of that person’s life? As part of the “History Speaks” series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown, Mr. Maier did just that. He delivered a first person lecture on one of the town’s most famous residents, Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The event occurred at the Moorestown Library on November 14th: the 73rd anniversary of the entertainment industry pioneer’s passing.

Perhaps inspired by Mr. Johnson’s life, the Historical Society of Moorestown pioneered a trend of its own. Several months ago I attended a lecture they sponsored that included an “opening act.” This came about due to the lateness of the featured speaker. At this event the speaker fulfilled these dual roles himself. Mr. Maier began the evening by displaying some stellar musicianship on the grand piano.

Then the speaker transitioned from tickling the ivories to massaging the audience’s intellectual curiosity. Mr. Maier segued into his lecture on the life of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s founder, Eldridge Reeves Johnson.

The speaker’s passion for his subject came through in his remarks. He chose to deliver them in the first person; in essence, becoming his subject. Mr. Maier described the development of the gramophone, “as important as the Guttenberg Press.” This innovation led to the company employing such cultural luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It even hired an unknown artist named Andy Warhol to design their artwork.

It seems odd that someone who founded such a remarkable organization had such inauspicious beginnings. A high school instructor told Johnson to “learn a trade” as he wasn’t “college material.” That’s the polite description of the conversation. Mr. Maier even said this person referred to Mr. Johnson as “dumb.” Mr. Johnson opted to become a machinist. Circumstances showed he made a good choice. The skills he developed served him well upon meeting his future business partners Emile Berliner and Alfred Clark.

Johnson’s career proved the business adage about the importance of surrounding one’s self with “good people.” While working with Alexander Graham Bell, Mr. Berliner developed a microphone used on the first telephone. Mr. Johnson’s future rival, Thomas Edison, employed Mr. Clark. The latter invented a governor that regulated a gramophone’s speed. The one he produced served a key function in Victor’s record player.

When the Victor Talking Machine Company opened for business in 1901, it earned $500 in sales. When adjusted for inflation that equates to approximately $15K in 2017 currency. Just when that instructor who called Johnson “dumb” may have felt vindicated, both the company’s popularity and its revenue grew exponentially. Just five years after starting up, the organization generated $12 million in sales. In 2017 figures, that would come to over $332 million. (Source: westegg.com inflation calculator.)

Mr. Maier described the gramophone’s technical details. He even provided an authentic one as a visual aide. The device lacked a volume control. Shoving something into the horn served as the only means of deadening the sound. The lecturer demonstrated by literally “putting a sock in it.”

In 1906, the company developed a more practical way to address the issue. During that year, the Victor Talking Machine Company produced the Victrola. The speaker’s position beneath the turntable helped to lower the volume.

A Victrola could best be described as a multi-purpose cabinet. The lower portion contained a section where consumers could store their records. It also included a pull-out shelf where consumers could place the records they wanted to play.

Unlike many business barons, such as Mr. Edison, Eldridge Johnson possessed a humble disposition. Decades before management guru Jim Collins advocated this trait, Mr. Johnson recognized that it made good business sense. He understood that Victor’s performers were the company’s real stars. As Mr. Maier speculated that he said: “All is vanity. That’s why no one knows my name.”

In addition to his revolutionary contributions to the entertainment industry, Mr. Johnson contributed his substantial means to philanthropic causes. As Moorestown residents know, he generously provided funds for the Community House. Mr. Maier added that Johnson tore down one of his own mansions to provide a site for the Merion Tribute House (formerly the Merion War Tribute House) located in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. He intended the building as a memorial for local residents who served in the armed forces during the First World War.

After covering the serious side of Mr. Johnson’s life, Mr. Maier added wit to his presentation. He shared a few YouTube videos he produced. One showed his discovery of where Mr. Johnson’s original machine shop stood. (https://youtu.be/cfR9QlL1oUg) In the most amusing segment, the speaker swapped his piano for a beat box. He kicked it old school with his tribute to Victor’s mascot in the form of “Nipper’s Yap Rap.” (https://youtu.be/IFUK4TULQYU)

It seemed fitting that Mr. Johnson’s company rivaled Mr. Edison’s. As Mr. Maier explained, “Edison was an inventor. Johnson was an artist.” With the speaker’s proficiency at music, performance art and knowledge of the gramophone it’s understandable why he developed such an interest in the latter. After attending his lecture, one can also understand why his audiences experience that same enthusiasm.

 

Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.

 

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Burlington County Footlighters

This is not an easy show, as director Alex Davis prefaced her remarks in the playbill. That’s a trenchant point. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead included themes from the disciplines of rhetoric, philosophy and mathematics. Add to that some Shakespearean dialog and an approach to action that made sitting through a Beckett play seem like watching the X-Games. Some would argue that Tom Stoppard produced the theatrical equivalent to Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” Whatever one’s take, I’m sure most would agree it makes for some pretty deep theatre. I attended the opening night performance on November 2nd at Burlington County Footlighters.

High minded dialog combined with stretches where little action occurs puts a lot of pressure on the actors. Ms. Davis selected the perfect duo for this challenge with Josh Ireland and Matt Dell’Olio.

One of the key precepts of writing is to hook the reader with the first sentence. The same goes for drama. Mr. Stoppard proved himself quite the iconoclast. This show began with two characters discussing the results of coin tosses for several minutes. That forced the actors to interest the audience through their histrionic skills alone. Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio deserve great respect for meeting this challenge.

The conversations seemed to shift topic randomly. While ostensibly about dry subjects on the surface, it contained serious philosophical undertones. The dialog even modulated into Shakespearean language during several scenes. Once again: Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio didn’t allow the difficult material to impede their performances.

Mr. Ireland played a spirited Rosencrantz. In addition to his natural means of speaking, he displayed the perfect gestures. At times they reflected my own confusion with some of Mr. Stoppard’s complex dialog.

Mr. Ireland showed poise when a miscue occurred. During the opening scene one of the coins rolled into the audience. He leapt off the stage, said, “Excuse me”, took it from the spectator who had it, and resumed playing the scene. Even during this unexpected incident, he remained in character.

In 2016 Mr. Dell’Olio took delivering a soliloquy to a new level. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone he made the selfish justifications of a narcissist sound as weighty as Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. It seemed fitting that he’d play a role that interacted with the same character who delivered it.

Mr. Dell’Olio treated audiences to another sublime performance. He showed exceptional stage presence as Guildenstern. Mr. Dell’Olio displays a method of speaking that makes even the commonplace sound profound. Through his gestures he brings powerful emotion to his roles. It’s a testament to his abilities that even this material didn’t restrain him from delivering a Matt Dell’Olio style performance.

As The Player, Dennis Doherty delivered the funniest line of the show. “We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!” Mr. Doherty also brought out one of the script’s most serious themes. His character demonstrated the subtext that explored the relationship between reality and art. Mr. Doherty executed both the humorous and serious attributes of this character brilliantly.

It’s quite an achievement to make madness and a hunger for vengeance comical. Enter John Hager. He transformed Hamlet into one of the funniest characters I’ve seen performed on stage. Mr. Hager selected the perfect voice for the role. Through his eccentric mannerisms, he made the audience laugh even when not speaking.

Performers Howard Goldberg, Jenny Scudder, David Rizzo, Liz Baldwin, Courtney Bundens, Joshua Kurtz, John Salera and Michael Mueller rounded out the cast.

This high minded show became a high tech spectacle. Jim Frazer’s set and lighting design established a perfect setting for the dramatic action. The use of projections and lighting created flawless impressions of nighttime and daybreak. Amanda Cogdell’s period costuming transformed the stage into a replica of seventeenth century Denmark.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead made for an evening of sophisticated theatre. Ms. Davis added:

You could look at it through the lens of existentialism, questioning whether or not these men truly are free to choose their own paths, or if their fate is sealed and, in turn question your own reality, and whether or not YOU choose your own destiny.

The show may not be “easy”, but the choice to see it is. For those allowing fate to decide whether they should, flip a coin: preferably one of Rosencrantz’s. For South Jersey theatregoers who prefer to control their own destinies, the show runs through November 17th at Burlington County Footlighters. After that it meets the same fate as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…and Hamlet…and Ophelia…and Polonius…and Claudius…