Month: January 2020

“An Illustrated History of RCA/Victor” by Frederick O. Barnum III

There’s a cliché that a picture paints a thousand words. One could easily say that a lot of pictures provide material for one excellent lecture. On December 3rd, Frederick O. Barnum III delivered a speech inspired his 1991 book: His Master’s Voice in America. The Moorestown Library hosted the event.

The book contains numerous photos documenting the history of Victor Records through the RCA years. Mr. Barnum III drew upon “a lot of material” for his project. He spent 35 years working for the organization’s Camden plant. He retired there in 2017.

Shortly after Mr. Barnum III began working for RCA, he inherited ten to twelve filing cabinets containing the company’s archives. He decided to compile the photos he discovered for a book that he titled His Master’s Voice in America. The company only printed five thousand copies that it released on November 18, 1991. Extant editions are rare. Fortunately, for those interested in the history of Victor Records and RCA, Mr. Barnum III shared its images with the audience.

Mr. Barnum III opened his remarks by noting that most of those in attendance “had a connection to RCA.” He delivered his presentation so that both those familiar with the material and those new to it could be equally entertained.

Mr. Barnum III began by discussing Camden, New Jersey’s industrial background. He described the city as a “manufacturing mecca one hundred years ago.” Camden provided a home for companies as diverse as Campbell Soup, the Van Sciver Furniture Company and Camden Beer.

Camden hosted a number of firsts. The Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first such ensemble recorded there in 1918. The first music video took place there in 1928. In 1933, the world’s first drive-in movie theatre opened along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. During 1934, first fax machine was produced in the city. The first television production line went into operation there in 1946. Both the 45 record and the corresponding record player entered the world through Camden in 1949.

The main portion of interest for Moorestown residents occurred when Mr. Barnum described the early years of Victor Records. Moorestown resident Eldridge Johnson founded the organization. He incorporated it on October 3, 1901.

Johnson moved to Moorestown in 1920. He purchased the former home of Flexible Flyer Sed founder Samuel Leeds Allen. While known as Bridenhart Castle, Johnson named it “The Towers.” In the present day, the building serves as the Lutheran Home.

Johnson donated the funds to construct the Community House located on Main Street. That building opened in 1926.

According to Mr. Barnum III, Johnson’s visionary acumen allowed him to foresee a market for home entertainment. He sought out the talent needed to accomodate this niche. Enrico Caruso became the first entertainer he signed to the Victor label.

Mr. Johnson possessed a genius for business. He developed the record player / cabinet called the Victrola in 1906. From 1912 through 1917 he reinvested his profits back into Victor Records. The company grew so large that it needed its own railroad to travel between buildings.

His efforts allowed Johnson to enjoy a comfortable retirement. In 1927 he cashed in his stock for $28 million dollars. He sold the business for $50 million to investment bankers. Even without Johnson’s leadership, Victor continued to grow. In 1929, the same investors sold the company to RCA for $150 million.

Mr. Barnum III then discussed the history of Radio Corporation of America (RCA). His remarks covered the time the organization purchased Victor through its time in Camden and Moorestown and into a period that included a mind-twisting series of mergers.

The speaker shared some amusing anecdotes about the company. In 1937 RCA sponsored a contest for its dealers and distributors. The first prize winner received a free trip to Camden.

He added that the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) received the first ever trademark for a tone. The company’s musical theme includes three pitches: G, E and C. The letters represent the initials of NBC’s parent company: the General Electric Corporation. GE purchased RCA in 1985.

RCA’s Camden facility continued to produce significant products. RCA built the radar that mapped the surface of the moon during the final Apollo mission. The plant manufactured the television antenna positioned on top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

In 1953, RCA opened its Moorestown facility. That plant also manufactured systems for the Apollo missions. That branch built the satellite dish used on the lunar module that accompanied the last three.

RCA/Victor has a rich history in the South Jersey area. While copies of His Master’s Voice in America may be difficult to locate, fortunately its author isn’t. Mr. Barnum III mentioned that the library only scheduled the lecture for an hour. He joked that he knew it would be impossible to hold him to that time limit. With his engaging presence, the interesting nature of his talk and the abundance of material he compiled, it’s easy to understand why.

 

The King’s Highway by Jason Sherman at The Historical Society of Moorestown

The latest installment of the Historical Society of Moorestown’s History Speaks lecture series included a format change. In lieu of a lecturer, this one featured a film. The Society both educated and entertained audience members with its screening of The King’s Highway; a documentary film written, directed and narrated by Jason Sherman.

Mr. Sherman’s website describes him as an entrepreneur, a film maker, an author and journalist. In spite of this busy schedule, Mr. Sherman visited the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 8th.  After the audience watched his documentary regarding one of “the most important roads in American History,” he participated in a talk back.

1650 King Charles planned development of a road that extended from Boston to Charleston. The actual King’s Highway proved an ambitious endeavor. So did the film documenting its history. Mr. Sherman explained that he performed 90 per cent of the work himself. He self-funded the project through its first six months.

The documentary included beautiful panoramic views of the Delaware Valley. The film maker added interviews with local historians and political leaders. They provided insights and valuable information for local history buffs.

The King’s Highway included three themes. The history of the area the road traversed took the forefront. People have resided in the Philadelphia area for over six thousand years. The film described the cultures of indigenous people who served as its first inhabitants. The film also showed how European settlers lived. Both groups shared a common interest in the King’s Highway.

The film then showed how Northeast Philadelphia played as crucial a role to the development of the American republic as events in Center City Philadelphia did. The community’s inns and taverns entertained a host of important figures from American history. They included George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The documentary reported an anecdote about the “Frankfort Advice.” John Adams claimed that these ideas discussed at Frankfort’s Jolly Post Inn were later included in the Declaration of Independence.

The final third of The King’s Highway explored the issue of building preservation. When Mr. Sherman made the film in 2016, Philadelphia allocated $500,000 to address this issue. Only two per cent of the city’s historic buildings were designated for preservation. In the film’s most dramatic scene, the director included footage of a nineteenth century home getting demolished by a wrecking crew. The image made one member of the audience gasp.

Mr. Sherman explained that his film has stimulated an interest in historical awareness. Since its release, he has conducted walking tours of Northeast Philadelphia, he’s posted his own historical markers and he’s hosted reenactments. The City of Philadelphia has declared August 20th “King’s Highway Day.” The documentary has also sparked a movement for historical preservation.

The King’s Highway received the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2016 First Glance Film festival. It is available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Those interested in learning more can visit the website: kingshighwayfilm.com.

Holmes and Watson at Burlington County Footlighters

Theatre fans won’t have to do a lot of sleuthing to find good theatre this winter. Burlington County Footlighters is presenting Holmes and Watson. The game was afoot on Friday, January 17th. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance that evening.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher put Sherlock Holmes’ observation that “what one man can invent, another can discover” into crafting this play. He also disproved the fictional sleuth’s musing that, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” Mr. Hatcher expanded on the “whodunit” premise and added a “whoisit” element to the tale. Holmes and Watson explored a mystery in which the famous detective served as the source.

Three years following Holmes’ death, Dr. John Watson (played by Ed Marcinkiewicz) received a strange memo. A man named Dr. Evans (played by Kevin Esmond) summoned him to an asylum off the coast of Scotland. Three men had arrived each claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Evans invited Watson to identify the correct one. In a set-up that seemed a bit like a Victorian version of the game show To Tell the Truth, Watson went to this island and then interviewed each alleged Holmes.

Each supposed Holmes had an eclectic personality. Three outstanding actors portrayed the alleged sleuth.

Performer Matt Becker played the most conventional of the three. Mr. Becker captured the attributes of the confident, analytical Holmes. He spoke in a quick fashion, reminiscent of Jeremy Brett, and exhibited the detective’s self-assurance. He best portrayed these features during his first meeting with Watson. Mr. Becker illustrated the sleuth’s powers of deduction by interpreting the scent of the tobacco on his clothes and evaluating the cut of his suit.

Joe Chialastri portrayed the neurotic version of Holmes. Mr. Chialstri showed superb delivery with his narration of Holmes’ final encounter with his nemesis Professor Moriarty. He deftly varied his character’s lines by talking in both American and convincing British accents. His hurried speaking expressed the character’s anxieties. His nervous demeanor added humor to the show; as did the straight jacket he wore throughout the entire performance.

Dave Pallas enacted the deaf, mute and blind incarnation of Holmes. These personality traits didn’t provide Mr. Pallas many opportunities to flex his histrionic muscle. C’est dommage. The performer, however, exploited the opportunities the script presented him. When hypnotized by Dr. Evans he delivered a gripping description of Holmes’ last confrontation with Moriarty.

Like many detective stories, this one became more complex as the story developed. To add to the mystery, Dr. Evans revealed that an inspector (played by Bernard DiCasimirro) arrived before Watson. Someone murdered this investigator. His final words were, “Sherlock Holmes.”

The plot then became even more involved. A missing document and the arrival of a woman (played by Kristin Curley) who claimed to be “murdered” became part of the story. Dr. Evans and Dr. Watson each struggled to solve these mysteries while attempting to identify the true Holmes.

“It has been a long axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important,” Holmes said in A Case of Identity. The same premise applies to directing.

A story featuring a legendary character requires a renowned director to present it. Burlington County Footlighters chose theatrical maven Gabrielle Affleck to lead this project. Ms. Affleck has directed several shows at Footlighters including Kimberly Akimbo (on BCF’s 2nd Stage) and the award winning productions Dracula and The Explorers’ Club. For the latter, Ms. Affleck received the Best Director honor for Footlighters’ 2017 – 2018 season.

Ms. Affleck may have found inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Perhaps recalling Sherlock Holmes’ observation that he couldn’t “make bricks without clay,” Ms. Affleck selected excellent performers to bring Holmes and Watson to the stage.

Mr. Marcinkiewicz applied Holmes powers’ of deduction into Watson’s character. The performer displayed calmness and cunning reasoning ability. He also delivered the quick reasoning more often identified with Holmes’ character. His slow walk as he explained his analysis showed an underlying arrogance.

Kevin Esmond played the guarded Dr. Evans as an enigmatic figure. His laconic responses showed that he knew much more than he was willing to tell. His character gave Watson incomplete information; in many cases telling him that he couldn’t share the details. The only ideas he expressed openly were those on Watson’s writings. His character harbored a belief that he understood them better than Watson himself. Mr. Esmond’s critiques made his character even more intriguing.

The two characters’ personalities allowed Mr. Marcinkiewicz and Mr. Esmond to perform gripping exchanges opposite one another. These two thespians’ performances made them much more engaging than the dialog suggested.

Mr. Hatcher added elements of literary criticism to the script. Mr. Esmond accused Watson of writing exaggerated “stories” about Holmes. He argued they enhanced the Holmes mystique at the expense of facts. Mr. Marcinkiewicz countered that he wrote accurate “accounts” of Holmes’ deeds. A tense, yet witty conversation resulted.

Kristin Curley played all the female roles in the show. They required a range of acting skills. Ms. Curley expressed the different accents and character traits believably. Her characters included the traumatized “woman”, the unemotional Irish orderly and the ebullient woman in red.

Bernard DiCasimirro added his monumental talents to the show. Even while in the background, Mr. DiCasimirro’s presence hovered over the scenes. His funny accent, shuffle and bushy beard allowed the Orderly to provide excellent comic relief.

Mr. DiCasimirro played another very notable role in the show. He took on the role of the detective genre’s most famous villain in the form of Professor Moriarty. The dark hat and cape he wore gave him a Snidely Whiplash aura sans the handlebar mustache. Mr. DiCasimirro brought out the character’s malicious persona without degenerating into melodrama.

This portrayal of Moriarty once more showed Mr. DiCasimirro rather adept at playing “bad guys.” In October of 2018, Mr. DiCasimirro played an outstanding Richard Nixon in Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Frost/Nixon. After his mastery of portraying antagonists, it would be interesting to watch Mr. DiCasimirro play a likable protagonist. The strength of his recent performances shows that he has the ability. Perhaps Mr. DiCasimirro should consider trying the role of someone like Sherlock Holmes. If his performance in this show is any indication, he could do so without audiences even knowing that he’s acting.

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia. Judging from the gasps of surprise your correspondent heard during the show, this audience did much more of the former than the latter. The script contained more plot twists and surprises than the last two minutes of a Saw film. While mind-bending at times, the shifts made the suspension of disbelief more interesting.

Once again, Jim Frazer proved himself a set designer beyond comparison. In the past, he’s turned the Footlighters stage into a Christmas village, a Victorian explorers’ club and the Bonnie and Clyde death car among many other locations. This time he transformed it into both Switzerland and a late-Victorian asylum.

Holmes and Watson contained flashbacks to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty. This scene occurred at the Reichenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland. The rocks combined with creative lighting (also designed by Mr. Frazer) to simulate moving water made Mr. Frazer’s set appear even more uncannily authentic than usual.

Mr. Frazer displayed excellent attention to detail with the asylum. Exposed brick showed through sections of the gray concrete walls. The archways leading off-stage added to the dreary ambiance.

This set provided the director with opportunities for some mesmerizing visual spectacles. Ms. Affleck used them brilliantly. The scene at the falls where the silhouette of Holmes played his violin looked more like a movie scene than live action theatre.

Ms. Affleck used lighting ingeniously for another key scene. When Kristin Curley (as “the woman”) explained the events that led to her situation, Ms. Affleck had her move to center stage. A spotlight provided the only illumination. This staging gave the scene more impact.

Mr. Frazer and Sound Designer Bob Beaucheane combined their talents to create realistic thunder and lighting. The crashes and flashes enhanced the tension on stage at the appropriate times.

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” He (Sherlock Holmes) remarked with a smile. “It is a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

The same premise applies to theatrical performances. The cast and crew at Footlighters sure showed their own brand of genius for Holmes and Watson.

Other members of the production team included: Assistant Director Pat Frazer, Producer Torben Christiansen, Stage Manager Chrissy Wick and Props/Special Effects Coordinator Jasmine Chalfont. Amanda Cogdell, Ty Chalfont, Jen Scache Bloomberg managed costumes. Valerie Brothers performed hair and make-up.

The real mystery is why theatrical fans would miss the opportunity to see Holmes and Watson. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work will enjoy the show; as will anyone interested in detective stories. Its plot twists will also appeal to fans of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. South Jersey’s community theatre fans don’t need someone as smart as Mycroft Holmes to tell them to see it. The decision to watch this show is “elementary.” It runs through February 1st at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

Sweet Charity at the Ritz Theatre Company

Valentine’s Day comes early this year compliments of the Ritz Theatre Company. The production team replaced all the theatre’s Holiday decorations with hearts, red streamers and a musical about the joys and sorrows of looking for love. The fickle finger of fate led your correspondent to attend Sweet Charity on Saturday, January 11th.

Charity Hope Valentine (played by Lauren Bristow) endeavored upon a quest for love. A series of unfortunate choices caused some navigational problems along her voyage. One boyfriend threw her into a lake. Another used her as his personal ATM machine. The third time seemed more promising.

An encounter with Oscar Lindquist (played by Matthew Weil) led to a blossoming romance. Unfortunately, quirks riddled Mr. Lundquist’s personality. His pathological obsession with purity functioned as the most glaring. Charity feared her job as a ‘dancehall hostess’ would cause him to terminate their relationship. It caused Lundquist to wonder if his taste in women could be as flawed as Charity’s taste in men.

That’s pretty heavy material for a book written by Neil Simon based on a concept by Bob Fosse. While witty at first, the story contained the potential of becoming a 1960s answer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Fortunately for theatre fans, directors Bruce A. Curless and Roberta Curless kept the performance lighthearted and entertaining.

Sweet Charity featured a host of impressive dance routines choreographed by Co-Director Roberta Curless. Most of them highlighted Charity. Lauren Bristow proved herself the perfect performer to play the part. Ms. Bristow opened the show with a wonderful solo dance that contained no vocal accompaniment. She deftly incorporated a hat and a cane into the “If My Friends Could See Me Now” number while singing Dorothy Fields’ lyrics. (Cy Coleman wrote the music.) Later in the show, Ms. Bristow executed a series of quick twirls while performing “Where Am I Going.”

The other cast members performed a memorable sequence themselves. The instrumental “Rich Man’s Shrug” included an eclectic mix of music. It allowed the choreographer and ensemble to explore their creativity. During the number’s first part, this reviewer thought: if Mike Myers wrote Austin Powers as a musical, this song would be in it. The piece’s second section hearkened back to the sound of the Roaring Twenties. The routines Ms. Curless crafted well suited both these unique musical styles.

Charity may have struggled to find love, but audiences will find it easy to love Lauren Bristow as Charity. Ms. Bristow turned in a superlative performance. Because of the strength of her solo dance routines, her dancing ability impressed the most. She also showcased stellar vocals all evening on songs such as “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Ciao Baby” and “Where Am I Going” as well as on the ensemble tracks.

Through her acting ability, Ms. Bristow captured the character’s inner hopefulness. In spite of Charity’s romantic turmoil, Ms. Bristow’s smile expressed her indomitable optimism. Her curious yet amused facial expressions during the Rhythm of Life church scene, showed how the character could find amusement in even the most awkward situations. In addition, Ms. Bristow delivered her many comic lines with both seriousness and the proper timing.

Ms. Bristow also captured the serious side of the character’s personality. For a story written in 1966, Charity evolved into a model of female empowerment. Ms. Bristow portrayed this change with believability; in large due to her skillful display of Charity’s inner optimism.

After the completion of his latest directorial project, Willy Wonka, Matt Weil returned to the stage for another show about sweetness. Mr. Weil pulled his own version of a ‘Nicholas French at the Ritz’ performance.* Mr. Weil played all three of Charity’s boyfriends. He played the first two as humorous characters. He wore a pompadour wig and dark sunglasses for Charlie. Mr. Weil adopted a silly voice while wearing a shaggy wig for the second beau.

Well known for his directing prowess, Mr. Weil showed himself just as adept a performer while on stage. In the role of Oscar Lundquist, Mr. Weil sang an impassioned rendition of “Sweet Charity.” He displayed a comical, yet believable case of nerves when trapped on the elevator with Ms. Bristow. His vocals on “I’m the Bravest Individual” expressed his anxiety.

Ms. Bristow and Mr. Weil complimented one another very well. When Ms. Bristow confessed Charity’s real profession, Mr. Weil exhibited empathy and understanding. Later, Mr. Weil did an excellent enactment of Oscar’s inner conflict. He modulated his character’s attitude making the confrontation scene much more moving. Ms. Bristow’s response gave the resolution added impact.

Vocal Director Tim Brown conducted wonderful arrangements. “Big Spender” featured performers Lauren Bristow, Lindsey Krier, Kelly Govak, Kristin Hegel and Melanie Ervin singing together. Mr. Brown split the vocal sections between the performers. The organization allowed the melody to create a unique audio effect.

Other memorable tunes populated the set list. Ms. Krier and Ms. Govak turned in a strong performance of “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Craig Bazan led a terrific rendition of “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Terrance T. Hart delivered an operatic sounding “Too Many Tomorrows.”

Sweet Charity’s ambiance gave the performance an excellent 60s vibe. The set (designed by William Bryant) contained a mix of bright and semi-dark colors. The choices reminded this reviewer of the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album.

Costume Designer Tina Greene-Heinze used the same patterns in her work. She placed Ms. Govak in a bright yellow dress. The sequins on Ms. Krier’s blue dress sparkled and enhance the brilliance. The black dress Ms. Bristow wore and the tuxedo on Terrance T. Hart offset the bright colors. The psychedelic patterns on the Rhythm of Life Church members’ clothes fit the time period.

Jim Reed’s wig designs kept the audience rooted in the period as well. They comprised currant buns, long shaggy hair and big Afros. With all the high impact dancing, it surprised this reviewer than none of the performers lost their wigs during the show.

Other members of the Production Team included: Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher, Lighting Designer Chris Miller, Technical Director Nathan Kunst, Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Properties, Meg Iafolla, Assistant Stage Managers Melissa Harnois and Alyssa Sendler, Sound Board Operators Anastasia Swan and Natasha Swann and Spot Operators Gabe Slimm and Jessi Meisel.

The show your correspondent witnessed included a moment for the blooper reel. Since there is no video recording of live theatre, fans will have to be content to read about it. When Matt Weil’s character entered the dancehall, performer Craig Bazan (as the proprietor Herman) called him by his real name, Matt.

Charity observed, “Without love, life has no purpose.” Without shows as fun as Sweet Charity, musical theatre has no purpose. Make a date to see it at the Ritz no later than February 2nd. After that, this run will seem as ephemeral as one of Charity’s relationships.

 

*In the Ritz Theatre’s January 2019 production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, performer Nicholas French played all eight members of the D’Yasquith family.