CHAUTAUQUA - Welcome to catch-up day!
I don't know if you've ever felt like a juggler who had too many balls in the air, but I've been feeling that way for about the past month. I've promised people columns and then encountered problems which made it impossible to write those columns, and I've pulled columns intended for later publication up to fill the unexpected holes made by the vanished columns.
Today, I'm going to write the column I had scheduled for two weeks ago -- sort of. Naturally the tense of many verbs is going to need changing, and I know many more outcomes than I would have known back then.
Film and Broadway star Dame Julie Andrews spoke on the first Friday of the 2012 season, together with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. The two women have co-written a lengthy list of bestselling books for children, and shared their experiences with the Chautauqua audience.
Weeks and weeks ago, I received in the mail the annual spring publication of "The Chautauquan." That is a tabloid-sized newspaper, sent out by mail to give frequent attenders at our area's largest and most influential cultural institution, a reasonably accurate idea of what will be presented on most of Chautauqua's stages in the coming season.
We all know that people intended to sing or dance or lecture might fall and break an ankle or get a high-paying offer to appear on television, so everything projected to happen may be subject to change, but barring the unexpected, it makes it possible to do some planning of the approaching summer.
Looking at the schedule of morning lecturers, brought back fond memories of when I used to cover most of their presentations, not that many years ago. I learned a great deal about subjects which I might not have investigated under my own steam. Undoubtedly there were readers who stuck pins in effigies of me, but a great many readers used to compliment the coverage. Colleagues in the teaching profession used to tell me they cut out pieces of coverage which dealt with the area in which they taught and used them in their classrooms.
Sometimes my own students would be doing research for an assignment and would quote my summer coverages of Supreme Court Justices, scientists, and business executives and the like in their bibliographies. Sometimes it smacked of pandering, but often it was academically and intellectually justified.
This year, I looked over the list of speakers coming to the Chautauqua stage, and selected three who especially interested me and whose areas of expertise related to the arts. Week One of the Chautauqua season was the week which has come in recent years to be labeled "Roger Rosenblatt and Friends Talk About ..." This means that Rosenblatt, who is one of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating writers and speakers around today, brings well-known people with whom he has formed some kind of personal connection, and he sits with them on the lecture platform, asking pointed questions which nearly always point out the qualities about them which are most significant.
In fact, Rosenblatt is one of those people whose wry, dry humor leaves someone who encounters him casually, thinking for days how to take the things he has said to them in passing. Although I've interviewed him several times in the past, there is no reason why he would remember me, so I was introduced to him by a member of the Chautauqua staff who incorrectly remembered my name as Richard. I politely corrected the minor mistake, but he latched onto the opportunity to continue calling me Richard.
I luckily recognized a test when I encountered one, and after a brief period of conversation, I said casually, "Roger, why don't you call me Dick." That won him onto my side, which helped quite a bit in getting at least one of his important and powerful "friends" to give up some of their precious time to talk with me. I put the word "friends" in quotation marks because every time someone says the name of the lecture series, Rosenblatt always insists that he doesn't have any friends; he just asks people he works with if they want to spend a day or two in a beautiful setting on a lake.
I decided there were three lecturers from Week One about whom I would like very much to write. These would be Norman Lear, Jules Feiffer and Julie Andrews. As soon as their names were announced, I contacted the editor who deals with my columns, and asked if I could cover them. He contacted the other editors who assign reporters and eventually agreed that I could do so. Once that was granted, I then sent an email to Chautauqua's press relations office to request phone interviews with the three.
I envisioned a column for June 23 which would feature interviews and photographs with each of the three, which I could eventually reference when I actually covered their lectures. Both Jules Feiffer and Julie Andrews have published books about their lives in recent years, so I obtained both and began reading, taking copious notes of things I could ask them which wouldn't be the things they already answer six times per day, day after day.
I also began doing extensive research on the trio's careers, eventually piling up more than 80 hours of preparation.
When I used to cover lecturers regularly, the lecturers were chosen by a person employed by the program office principally to choose, contract, publicize and present the lectures. It was included in the standard contract for a lecture that the individual would talk with a number of reporters and radio programs to promote their lecture and the platform itself. The press relations office used to hold press conferences nearly every day with the speakers for a number of local media outlets.
So, June 23 seemed to be a possibly special publication indeed.
JULIE ANDREWS AND DAUGHTER
I'm not really sure how the current Chautauqua bureaucracy deals with hiring lecturers, but it has changed. Eventually I got an email which had been through several offices, which said Ms. Andrews would not be willing to speak with any press representatives. Now, I can understand why someone in her position wouldn't want to do it, but believe me, it's part of her job. She doesn't owe us days of her time, but 20 minutes isn't too much to ask. The woman knows she is news, and being news has made her career the international smash that it wouldn't have been otherwise, no matter how wonderful her talents -- and they are truly wonderful.
Ethel Merman did it. Margaret Mead did it. Buckminster Fuller did it. Jonas Salk did it ... I could go on for pages.
Remaining chipper, while pondering the hours spent reading and notating "Home -- A Memoir," I asked if her daughter, Emma Hamilton, might be willing to do a brief interview. I vowed to myself not to ask how it felt to be Mary Poppins' daughter, and to stay entirely on the topic she was there to discuss: children's literature, which I began to research eagerly.
Some days later, I was told Emma would not do an advance interview, but she might be willing to speak in person on the day of the lecture, at Chautauqua. So, things were looking grim for June 23, and the juggling of the places I needed to go and the things I needed to do began. But the triple interview column idea could still work.
I have always envied local radio personality Jim Roselle. He has captured most of the powerful and important people who lecture at Chautauqua for his morning programs. He's always prepared and many speakers have later told me how impressed they were by his knowledge and skill on the air.
I understand that someone asking, "On your way to the lecture, will you take a few minutes to speak on the local radio?" is easier to accomplish than "Will you talk on the phone with a newspaper man for a small town newspaper, who has a deadline more than a week in advance of one of your coming speeches?"
Still, neither of the women deigned to talk with me, or with Jim, either. Alas.
By the way, Ms. Andrews has recently been singing in public again since her famously botched throat surgery in 1997, which came close to destroying her famous singing voice. I notice that her performances are less frequent than before, and they tend to involve singing only music from musical theater. Her voice was always crystal clear and beautiful to hear, but not of a power to do a great deal of operatic literature. Both "The Sound of Music" and "Casta Diva" are good music, but someone who is good at one probably isn't right to sing the other.
She sang a few bars from the lecture stage, and I heard people commenting that this was historic because she doesn't sing any more. Their information was incorrect.
On my way out of the lecture, a friend asked me if I had read Ms. Andrews' book, and if it was worth reading. Choking a bit on the disappointment, I was on the verge of answering, "Oh, heck, no," which isn't true. It's quite an interesting read, in fact.
But a passing stranger butted right into our conversation, as people at Chautauqua are unusually prone to do. "Oh yes, it is," she said. "It's just as warm and wonderful as she is."
And I smiled ...
Faithful readers have already been struck by a contradiction. I interviewed Norman Lear and I covered his lecture. I didn't interview either of the women, but my coverage of their lecture was on Page One. But, then, why haven't we heard about Jules Feiffer?
As my deadline for June 23 approached, I got an email from Chautauqua, to the effect that Lear would do the phone interview, but would prefer to do the interview face-to-face. Jules Feiffer had reported that he has become hard of hearing, so telephones give him trouble. He would, however, agree to a personal interview on the day of his lecture.
With the women out of the running, Feiffer wanting to do the interview later, in person, and Lear willing, but reluctant, I decided for June 16, to do a preview column on the big Canadian theater festivals, which I was planning to delay until later in the summer, on the basis that local events ought to get more notice than distant ones in this column. Then, I could move my "Critic's Picks" column for the Chautauqua season from June 16 to the 23, to replace the trio of lecturers.
I have been a fan of Jules Feiffer for most of my life. I first made his acquaintance when I started in college. Being an excellent college with an excellent library, it had a great many magazine subscriptions -- a whole room full of them.
I and several of my friends used to arrange in our very hectic schedules a 20-minute period between dinner and beginning to study for the evening, during which we would go into the periodical room and immerse ourselves in at least one magazine each. I enjoyed reading news magazines about the events of the world, and international magazines in which I not only get a different point of view, which is very rare in a country in which it was possible to drive for many consecutive days without meeting anyone who spoke a different language.
My favorite day was the one on which the weekly Village Voice arrived. One of the many highlights of reading that periodical was the cartoons by Jules Feiffer, which he drew for 42 consecutive years.
Always signed just "Feiffer," his cartoons presented a single panel with a number of images in it, usually of the same person or group of persons. The subject would set out to accomplish something, and nearly always come to some unexpected conclusion. A woman in dance togs, for example, would undertake to perform a dance in honor of a particular person or thing or idea. "A dance to 1967," she would begin.
As she contorted herself and leapt from image to image, she would recite the events of that current year, failing increasingly to emphasize the positive aspects of those events, and feeling disillusionment coming on, she would end the cartoon slumped on the floor, an image more huge, sad eyes than any other anatomy.
Reading "The Voice" awakened in me a realization that I could read things I didn't agree with without needing to try and stamp them out. I could learn things which would make the things I did agree with more truthful, more accurate, and I felt challenged to find reasons to disagree with the stated opinions, rather than just feel negative toward them because they didn't agree with me.
There were days when my 20-minute study break was the most important element of my education, and I had excellent teachers. When the Village Voice was purchased by Rupert Murdoch and became another examination of "the scene," something primal died inside me.
When Feiffer went on to write plays such as "Little Murders" and "Grown Ups," and when I got a small role with the Cleveland Play House in "Hold Me!" I remained a fan. When he wrote the screenplay for "Carnal Knowledge," and for Robert Altman's odd, yet remarkable "Popeye," and other feature films, in a day when one needed to find a theater showing the films and buy a ticket, rather than catching them on the television set in the family room, I attended every one I could.
In 2003, when the New York Historical Society did a retrospective exhibit of his cartoons, called "Julz Rulz," I did everything I could to get to the big city and see it, only to lose out to lack of cash, teaching in school where vacations came when I was told and not when I wanted desperately to be somewhere, and to foot surgery.
I loved reading his book of memories, titled "Backing Into Forward," in which he describes his life with more clarity and a more unbiased point of view than I am typically used to reading. So on Tuesday of Week One, I arrived at Chautauqua's gate four hours after having crawled home to bed, nonetheless full of energy and excitement and with pages of notes from his book and the research I had done about his career.
Alas, the inside of the gate building was plastered with pink posters, announcing that Feiffer would not be speaking after all. A contact with Chautauqua officials got me the news that he wasn't able to coordinate his schedule with the schedules of the airlines. I would love to know the real story.
I recommend his book to you. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, and it sells for $19, in paperbound edition. The title again is "Backing Into Forward," and it has 453 pages, including a number of his cartoons -- both the great ones from past years, and original ones, drawn specifically to illustrate the difference between his writer's voice and his cartoonist voice. Clearly it's easier to be forthright and outspoken when your words are attached to a drawing. Find the book with ISBN number 978-0-226-24035-0.
Gosh, I'm sorry I missed interviewing him and hearing him in person. I'll close his section with a story from his book about Julie Andrews.
He writes that his mother's sister came to visit him, at the point he was experiencing success as a playwright and screenwriter. Wanting to impress his aunt, he took her to a party at which a number of celebrities were present, including Ms. Andrews. To his dismay, his aunt began to shadow the actress, following her from room to room as she circulated at the party. He discusses his desire to avoid upsetting the celebrity, yet not wanting to make a scene with his aunt, especially in public.
Just when he had decided to take the elderly stalker by the elbow and try to lead her quietly away, his aunt rushed up to Ms. Andrews, pushed her nose to within an inch or two of her nose, and started to sing, "I Could Have Danced All Night..."
Poor Norman Lear was willing to do the phone interview, showed up for the in-person interview, and was polite, cooperative and wonderfully informative.
And, here he is at the bottom of the column, while I'm nearly out of space, because I don't need to explain why I didn't fail to talk with him. I owe him some more space, because he has been a major figure in the history of television and what he had to say was important.
I discussed with the creator of some of the greatest comedy programs in the history of television, the fact that television exploded, with the development of cable television and satellite programming, from the days when even people in large cities typically got only three channels on their televisions; or four, if they were lucky enough to live in a city which had a PBS station. At the time, it was proclaimed everywhere that now there would be a vast smorgasbord of ideas and influences, and people would learn and develop their intellects.
He responded that it's true, that was what was said, but it was never true. "Typically, people, even in small towns, can choose from programming on a hundred channels or more. The sad thing is that they rarely understand that all of those channels are owned and programmed by only three giant corporations.
"If people see the same point of view from five or six different channels, they tend to give it more credibility, and yet chances are that all of those channels and many more are owned by the same big businesses," he said.
Lear has been politically active, both as a personal speaker and interviewee, as a financial supporter of certain causes and as a writer of material which won over many viewers' beliefs. How does he characterize the current political scene?
He responded that when he was younger, many politicians ran for office to accomplish a certain goal or goals. Today, he continued, nearly all of them say they're running to support or oppose laws or practices, but people have learned just to assume that their full-time job becomes getting re-elected, and if they have to compromise or abandon the ideas they claimed to support, they're ready and willing to do it.
I've already done a front page story on Lear's actual lecture, so I wanted to devote most of this column to the events surrounding the coverage of Week One, so Lear gets short shrift this week. How I wish he were 1/8 of the June 23 column. I'll hang onto my notes and see what I can do about sharing them in the future.