Author: kevsteph

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.

 

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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…

Murder by Poe at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Halloween several performers met their “Poe” tential at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Themes involving black cats, vengeance and murder took the stage as the company presented “a descent into the maelstrom” that was the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. I put on “the spectacles” for October 27th’s performance of Murder by Poe directed by Amber Kusching.

The story began with an “enigma.” A woman (played by Hannah Keeley) encountered a house in the forest. Upon entering she discovered a “valley of unrest.” Everyone present had committed murder. While that presented “a predicament” she then undertook a quest to determine how all their stories linked together. An evening of mystery, terror and even humor followed.

Poe was a literary innovator. A pioneer of the short story form, he invented the modern detective tale in 1841. Forty six years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in The Strand, Poe introduced American audiences to sleuth extraordinaire C. Auguste Dupin.

John Nicodemo took on this iconic role. Speaking with an authentic French accent he brought out the character’s cunning, wit and arrogance. He best animated these traits through his cocky synopsis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher made the Dupin character much more complex than his creator did. Mr. Nicodemo met these demands. He displayed excellent chemistry working with Ms. Keeley; especially, as his character became the subject of her investigation. The performer brought out the character’s change and subsequent discomfort with it very believably.

After that performance, I have to say, “Mr. Nicodemo: ‘thou art the man.’”

Poe’s wrote during the Romantic Era. That may seem odd when considering the subjects of his poems and stories. While lacking in “romance” itself, his work contained many references to emotions and feelings. Hannah Keeley infused this sense element into her performance.

Ms. Keeley displayed the anxiety of her situation very well. Even when silent, her facial expressions conveyed the character’s inner turmoil. She complimented Mr. Nicodemo wonderfully. As his character changed, Ms. Keeley steadily altered the Woman. Throughout the course of the show her role converted from that of the emotional character into the more analytical of the two.

The show’s conclusion contained a “mesmeric revelation.” I won’t give away details, but it contained a “dream within a dream” sequence. I credit Mr. Nicodemo and Ms. Keeley for becoming new characters in the final scene.

The script provided serious challenges for the actors. Several performers accepted the task of reciting a Poe story in its entirety. This entailed delivering long monologues written in nineteenth century prose. Robert Bush (as Usher), Tony Killian (in “The Black Cat”), Dan Safeer (in “The Tell-Tale Heart”), Salina Miller (Marie Roget) and Alex Leavitt (William Wilson) all proved themselves adept storytellers.

I’d especially credit Mr. Leavitt. He delivered a rendition of “William Wilson” that made Poe’s tale sound like something out of Shakespeare.

Murder by Poe included an intricate visual spectacle, as well. Projections appeared on a wall at stage left. In addition to still images, it also displayed some live action. Shadow figures enacted key scenes from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The cast and crew kept everything in synch. One also has to credit them for drawing comedy out of these morbid scenes.

Gary Werner designed a set well suited for this show. The paintings, bookshelf and off white background reminded me of a scene from a Gothic mystery story. I did have one suggestion, though. In homage to Poe, I would’ve liked to see “the oval portrait” of him hanging somewhere.

Performers Deborah Tighe and Tina Currado rounded out the ensemble.

Unfortunately for Poe fans, theatre goers and “the man of the crowd”, for that matter, this special presentation of Murder by Poe ends October 28th.  The show would make for a great Halloween tradition. Let’s hope this isn’t “nevermore.”

 

“The Salem Witch Trials: A Conspiracy of Witches” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.

Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.

As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.

Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.

Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.

I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”

The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.

Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.

While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.

At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.

As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.

The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.

Into the Woods at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once upon a time there was a rapping witch, a comical carnivore of a wolf and a mooooving death scene involving a cow. Then a writer named Lames Lapine encountered songwriter Stephen Sondheim. They took these tales and translated them into a story for the stage. Director Craig Hutchings heard this fairy tale and decided to make it a reality. He worked his magic on the staff at the Ritz Theatre Company. Like Jack with the magic beans, he planted the idea of presenting Into the Woods this autumn. The audience who witnessed the October 26th performance lived happily ever after.

Into the Woods brought a unique concept to theatre. In essence, Lapine and Sondheim combined elements of various fairy tales and set them to music. They took the stories of “Cinderella” (played by Jenna Lubas), “Little Red Riding Hood” (played by Brittany Marie), “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Zachary Moore and Melissa Manzano), and “Rapunzel” (Jamie Talamo) and used them as part of a larger narrative (eloquently explained by Ryan Ruggles).

A witch (Jennie Knackstedt) promised a baker (Joshua Bessinger) and his wife (Megan Ruggles) that she would grant them a child if they could provide her with the following items before three midnights passed: a cape as red as blood, a strand of hair as yellow as corn, the whitest cow and a golden slipper. To my surprise, this quest concluded by the end of the first act: yet another happy fairy tale ending, right? Well…

As local South Jersey writer Christine Hardy once observed, “There’s a reason why fairy tales always end with a wedding.” Into the Woods proved this hypothesis. Act Two injected a dose of “realism” into this fantasy world.

Jenna Lubas delivered strong operatic vocals on the emotional number “Cinderella at the Grave.” Jennie Knackstedt sang a somber lament on parental estrangement with “Last Midnight.” Megan Ruggles performed a moving meditation on regret with “Moments in the Woods.”

To balance out this mood, Into the Woods contained humor. Robert Repici played the most comical death scene involving a cow possibly ever performed on stage. Brittany Marie made “Little Red” into an emotionally charged character. Michael J. DeFlorio turned the villain of her tale into quite the witty wolf. The audience echoed his howls with those of laughter.

Mr. DeFlorio also played Cindarella’s prince in this show. His scenes with another lovelorn regent (Rapunzel’s prince played by Anthony Crosby) made for the evening’s funniest moments. These pretentious princes exaggerated every action they took on stage. This included their singing on the melodramatic duet “Agony.” I also enjoyed Mr. DeFlorio’s struggles to sheathe his sword.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, Into to Woods put some outstanding costuming on display. Costuming Designer AJ Garcia took on quite a project with this show. The pauper style garb that Cinderella, the Baker and his wife and Jack and his mother wore appeared very authentic. On the upper class end of the spectrum, so did Cinderella’s gown, the elaborate uniforms worn by the princes and the witch’s elegant dress in the second act. Even without the music (directed by Collin Maier), the choreography (by Michele Romond) and the excellent acting, Into the Woods would’ve made for an entertaining Halloween parade.

The story book and forest setting (by Krysten Cummings and Joshua Bessinger) made an exceptional framework for action on the stage. The lighting (by Jen Donsky) enhanced it spectacularly.

The cast included A LOT of talent. I’d also credit Krysten Cummings, Ellorah Mead, Monette Solomon, Nicholas French, Jomarie Apelt, Chris Jewell, Maggie Harbord and Sadie McKenna for adding their skills to this stellar ensemble.

Into the Woods made for a scintillating sylvan spectacle; an awesome autumnal arboreal undertaking. The Sunderer of Sorrows and Destroyer of Delights will inflict upon it the same fate as the giant in Jack’s story after November 18th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

“The Salem Witch Trials: Strangely Accused” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

The Historical Society of Moorestown bewitched local historians with another enchanting evening this October 17th. The organization’s President, Mickey DiCamillo, delivered the second part of his lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials.  This installment subtitled “Strangely Accused” further described Salem Village’s decent from normalcy—at least by Puritan standards—into an environment of paranoia and zealotry. The crux of the lecture focused on the reasons for this change.

The Society selected an excellent environment for such a discussion. The cobwebs, pumpkins and eerie lighting served as an excellent backdrop. The Halloween décor along with the howling winds on this brisk autumn evening further established the mood.

The group decided to move the lecture indoors due to the cold…or so they said. I wonder if the real chill everyone longed to escape was the one the darkness and the cool breeze sent up everyone’s spine. The audience moved into a cozier atmosphere in the kitchen at Smith-Cadbury Mansion.

During the early months of 1692, accusations of witchcraft only fell on societal outcasts. As the year progressed this changed. Upstanding members of the community such as 72 year old Rebecca Nurse and church goer Martha Corey found themselves under investigation.

As expected, Mr. DiCamillo included witty observations in his lecture. “Maury Povich would want to meet the people of Salem,” he noted. Martha Corey’s life illustrated one reason why. Mrs. Corey moved to Salem Village to begin a new life for herself. While living in her previous community she’d engaged in an extramarital affair. To make things worse, she became pregnant as the result of this illicit relationship. The fact that her child bore the features and skin tone of a Native American didn’t do much to ameliorate her situation. Hence, she relocated to the community and “repented” for her sins. She remarried and became an ardent Christian woman.

Mr. DiCamillo added other interesting details regarding the witch investigations to his lecture. He emphasized the common themes that developed in the course of them. Those allegedly bewitched often reported seeing animals. Most often they witnessed dogs and yellow birds. In Puritan lore, these figures represented the Devil.

Interrogators often asked those accused if they had written in the Devil’s book. Every witch seemed to carry around a tome in which fellow sorcerers and sorceresses would sign their names. Mr. DiCamillo’s imagery made me think of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks.

While accusations of witchcraft could cost someone his/her life, those acquitted endured financial hardships. During the era prisoners paid for their own food, room and board. An accused person could accumulate large debts while waiting for trial.

Coming from this draconian environment, it seems odd that the Puritans began a benign tradition that persists into the modern era. They established the practice of attending church on Christmas.

As with just about anything the Puritans did, this one comes with an interesting story. In seventeenth century England, people celebrated Christmas much differently than those of us living today. Think mardi gras meets New Year’s Eve meets a frat party.

In the 1680s Anglicans began moving into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans objected to these raucous celebrations. They declared that if a person wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ, one should do so in a church. Revelers swapped their whiskey for communion wine and a great American tradition began.

The “Strangely Accused” lecture showed that anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Neither age, nor gender nor amount of religious devotion immunized a person from these allegations. Mr. DiCamillo piqued everyone’s interest on how this bizarre and tragic situation would resolve. I eagerly anticipate hearing it. The final segment of this tenebrous trilogy of terror takes place this October 24th at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

 

The Ghost Tour Presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown

Even the best place to live in America* has its scary side. I heard tales of Quaker apparitions, mysterious shadows and a visit from the Jersey Devil when I took part in the Moorestown Ghost Tour the evening of October 13, 2018.

Like Prince, Fabio and Bono our tour guide opted to forgo a surname. A man referring to himself by the enigmatic one-word Joe led our group through the journey. We explored Moorestown’s macabre memories surrounding Main Street. An entertaining evening ensued.

The weather accommodated the chilling atmosphere. The unseasonable warm temperatures South Jersey’s experienced gave way to the cool caress of an autumn breeze. A crescent moon bathed the area with a haunting glow on this starless night.

Our tour guide didn’t waste time in getting everyone’s attention. After sharing tales of alleged hauntings at Smith-Cadbury Mansion, we embarked.

Joe discussed the horrific occurrences in the area where the TD Bank now stands. Two local celebrities lived in a home near its grounds. Edgar Sanford served as the first rector of the Episcopal Church on Main Street. His wife, Agnes Sanford, founded the Inner Healing movement. Historians cannot identify the precise location where their house stood.

Mrs. Sanford described the Inner Healing Movement as a process of “the healing of memories,” according to Wikipedia. It’s somewhat ironic that she could have used that practice upon herself. She reported her “senses deadened” and witnessing “shadows moving without light” in her Moorestown home.

A later portion of the tour entailed a visit to Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Joe forewarned my group that some tour goers have experienced discomfort visiting that graveyard at night. In fact, a few reported the appearance of shadows in the absence of light; an intriguing observation regarding the ground next to the church where Reverend Sanford preached.

I encountered a potential run-in with the occult while in the cemetery. The young lady next to me reported seeing “beady eyes” staring at her from off in the darkness. “It must’ve been a cat. At least, I hope it was a cat,” she said. As I prepared to investigate, I thought it would’ve been impolite if I proved her wrong. I figured it more honorable to go along with her suggestion.

The Trinity Episcopal Churchyard serves as the resting place of Edward Harris. Before Iron Maiden fans “run to the hills” and become “invaders” to Moorestown they should be aware: this is a different Edward Harris than the band’s mascot. The Moorestown Edward Harris befriended John J. Audubon and owned Smith-Cadbury Mansion; the Historical Society’s current headquarters.

Joe told multiple tales of spectral figures attired in Quaker garb haunting the community. During the early twentieth century a farm worker encountered one. While at the site where Hooton’s Hall once stood, he witnessed a ghostly figure in a dark suit and hat walking across the hay and through the wall of a barn.

A customer at the real estate company occupying the Hopkins home on Main Street reported a comparable experience. Upon entering the building he witnessed a man dressed like a nineteenth century Quaker sitting on a chair and staring at him. The figure bore an uncanny likeness to the home’s original owner John Clement Hopkins.

Not all supernatural occurrences in Moorestown are of the spectral variety. January 19, 1909 proved a memorable day in the town’s history. Not only did a snowstorm affect the area, but a series of unexplained phenomena occurred. One resident reported hoof-like tracks in the snow near Stokes Hill. They began in his front yard and trailed around to the back of the house. There they stopped abruptly. That seemed rather odd as the snow had just fallen.

Other residents witnessed a UFO over the site of the current Community House. They described it as a small creature about three feet in length with a two foot wingspan. Its head bore that of a collie’s and the face resembled a horse’s. While on his legendary tour of the Mid-Atlantic region in January of 1909, the Jersey Devil apparently decided add Moorestown to his itinerary.

Joe discussed a variety of other stories that do not appear in this article. I didn’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t taken the tour, yet.

On a very serious note he asked for assistance on a local cold case. He requested that anyone with information about the August 22, 1975 disappearance of Carolyn Majane please contact the authorities. More information regarding the case can be found on his website.

I later found out that Joe does, in fact, have a last name. More information regarding Mr. Wetterling’s research can be found at moorestownghosts.blogspot.com. As he mentioned during the tour, the newspaper articles posted there are very graphic. Parents should review before allowing their children to read.

You know it’s a popular community when even those who’ve passed on don’t want to leave. After taking the Moorestown Ghost Tour, it’s hard to blame them. The program included a stroll through the downtown area. Tour goers got a close-up view of the historic homes, churches and businesses that flank Main Street. Even those interested in the more earthly aspects of Moorestown’s history would enjoy the program. The town’s beauty may haunt them long after Halloween, however.

 

*Money Magazine declared Moorestown, NJ the “Best Place to Live in America” in 2005.

“The Salem Witch Trials: The Usual Suspects” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

What words would best assess the Salem Witch Trials? Historical Society of Moorestown President, Mickey DiCamillo chose some unexpected ones. Describing the event as both “complex” and “nuanced”, he proceeded to correct a “shallow understanding” that has developed around them. Mr. DiCamillo delivered the first phase of a thorough explication of this macabre chapter in American history at the Garden at Smith Cadbury Mansion this October 10th.

Due to the event’s intricacies, Mr. DiCamillo opted to divide his remarks into three separate lectures. The Historical Society of Mooretown scheduled the following talks over three Wednesdays in October leading up to Halloween: “The Usual Suspects,” “Strangely Accused” and “A Conspiracy of Witches.”

While fusing the ghastly tone of the subject along with some superb Halloween ambiance, the Historical Society of Moorestown established the mood brilliantly. I wasn’t sure if I was attending a history lecture or walking into a coven of witches. A series of candles illuminated the walkway. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorned the periphery. Stray leaves fell from the trees throughout the evening. Mosquitos served as the only blood sucking creatures one needed to fear, however. The balmy 80 degree evening made the autumn evening feel more like the dog days of summer. A large stake and ominous witch figure behind the seating area brought audience members back into the spirit of the season.

I’ve attended several lectures Mr. DiCamillo has presented at the Historical Society. His talks include myriad details which reflect both diligent research and scholarly erudition. In this speech he added another feature to his repertoire: humor. While speaking for over an hour–without notes–, he added comical quips that made the talk even more engaging. His observation regarding a deadbeat husband showed both creativity and a flair for alliteration: “Goodman Goode was good for nothing.”

The opening lecture explored the background that served as the catalyst for the infamous events of 1692. Mr. DiCamillo described that context as including poor governance, continuous warfare and a society rent by factions.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leaders failed to fulfil the responsibilities of their offices. In fact, they proved so inept that during the 1680s the British government revoked the colony’s charter.

Interminable wars with Native American plagued the community. These conflicts became brutal affairs. Both adversaries engaged in barbaric acts against one another. When combined with an ineffective government, these struggles exacerbated the environment of fear in the colony.

Dysfunction permeated the area’s religious institutions, as well. Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) hired and fired three ministers in 15 years. As a harbinger of the American system of voting, church members elected their preachers from among the congregation. The continual turnover displayed the prevalence of factions among the faithful.

The Puritan mythos held a belief that they were chosen by God to build a New Jerusalem. It proved as practical as the striving for Camelot that inspired Europeans during the Middle Ages. Along with the conviction of a pending “Puritan apocalypse”, their failure to achieve the “City of a Hill” led them to seek a scapegoat.

While none of these matters served as a harbinger of good things to come, the community also harbored a belief in witchcraft. Their legal code included penalties for its practice. In the days long before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, the standards for conviction proved difficult. A confession proved the most durable. Lacking that, Puritan prosecutors tested the accused on their knowledge of religious precepts; such as prayers or Biblical verses. They would also investigate “body evidence.” This included either warts or odd markings on the body. Puritans believed these served as portals where “magic” could enter a person. If the “bewitched” individual claimed the “witch” appeared to him/her as an apparition, that provided another form of evidence. “Anger resulting in mischief” could also be raised against the accused. This entailed upsetting someone and then something bad happening to him/her.

This minatory concoction reached a climax in Salem Village during the early 1690s. It seems fitting that a disgruntled preacher would trigger a more ignominious phase of colonial history. Reverend Samuel Paris’ daughter and niece both suffered from a mysterious illness. The symptoms included barking, growling and running. Following these outbursts, the children would engage in a long period of staring. When the doctor couldn’t provide a medical diagnosis for this behavior, he suggested witchcraft as a potential source.

The speaker then described the events and personalities that shaped the early stages of the trials. He even included an audience participation exercise. Showing the skill of a seasoned showman, he left an excellent cliff hanger for the October 17th lecture

For readers contemplating hopping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to visit this era: there’s more. Even by the standards of the time, Puritans engaged in much quirkier practices than those described.

Mr. DiCamillo included some of these activities in his talk. People practiced an unusual means of fortune telling during the late seventeenth century. They would break and egg and pour it into a glass of water. Participants would interpret the shapes formed by the egg white in order to discern the future.

But this wasn’t the strangest thing people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did with food. They also baked “witch cakes” to determine whether or not someone had been bewitched. The ingredients included dough, flour and the urine of the afflicted. The concoction would then be fed to a dog.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented an exceptional opening program on the Salem Witch Trials. Kudos to Mr. DiCamillo for doing some bewitching of his own. His unique combination of scholarship and wit cast a spell upon the audience. One doesn’t need to pour an egg into a glass of water to know those who attended will return for the October 17th program.