Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iwo Jima Memorial - Manchester, New Hampshire

From February 19th through 25th, 1945, a battle on Iwo Jima left an enormous number of casualties on both sides, and mass graves. It was late in the war, this would be the last winter, but the snows of New Hampshire were missing from this Pacific island, awash in human blood and gore, and close enough to Japan to make giving up unthinkable to both American and Japanese forces.

Most of us are familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Joe Rosenthal photograph of the victorious American marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. That happened on the 23rd. One of those fellows was PFC Rene A. Gagnon of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. He was 18 years old at the time.

A monument sits in a quiet place in a Manchester, New Hampshire park, and the green of last summer seems too-vivid, garish in the snows of today. The memorial is dedicated to Rene Gagnon, who was born and raised in Manchester, and to all Manchester service personnel who “answered their country’s call.”

Underneath the bas-relief depiction of PFC Gagnon, is a quote by him, “Don’t glorify war…there is no glory in it.” Anyone whom fate had placed on the small island of Iwo Jima during those hellish days would know.

His moment in history seemed to be something he tried to live up to, and also from which he tried to capitalize. He appeared as himself in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), and in a documentary short called “To the Shores of Iwo Jima” (1945), and a couple of TV appearances, but his notoriety as a common man captured in one of the most famous photos on one of the important events of World War II was a doubled -edged sword. He spent the rest of his life in menial jobs, alcoholic and embittered by failing to live up to, or beyond, that moment of destiny. He died in 1979. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

But here his likeness, and that uplifting moment when victory was announced with the scramble to hoist a flag on a hilltop -- are cast in metal and stone, standing in peace and serenity denied Rene Gagnon.

For more on PFC Rene Gagnon, have a look at this website. For more on the Battle of Iwo Jima, have a look here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Edwin Booth in Waterbury, Connecticut

Edwin Booth, Library of Congress - in public domain

We’ll stay in Waterbury, Connecticut this week, but much farther in the past. The great 19th century actor, Edwin Booth, whose tribulations in Boston when his brother, John Wilkes Booth, murdered President Abraham Lincoln (discussed in this post on my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog) -- came to Waterbury for what became a groundbreaking performance in “Hamlet”.

We have this episode in Edwin Booth’s career mentioned in Curtain Time - The Story of the American Theater by Lloyd Morris (Random House, NY, 1953), wherein his acting company was scheduled for a single performance of Hamlet. The author does not specify the year. Tickets had been sold out, and the eager audience filled the house. The cast arrived by train, but their scenery and costumes did not.

This incident is also mentioned in the memoirs of Booth’s daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman in Edwin Booth - Recollections by His Daughter, (The Century Company, NY 1894).

When told of the problem, Booth calmly took charge, decided not to cancel the performance and stood out upon the stage before the curtain. He told the audience about the mishap, and said they would play “Hamlet” anyway, on the bare stage and in street clothes.

This was not an era for much experimentation in theatre, certainly with few attempts to “modernize” the classics, but reportedly the audience not only accepted the bare-bones production, but were riveted, captivated by this most masterful Hamlet.

As an unexpected finale, the costumes, props, and set pieces arrived at the theater just in time for the last two acts of this five-act play.

According to the author, this was the first-known incident of performing a Shakespearean play in street clothes and on a bare stage.

“Annoying as this incident was, he enjoyed the novelty of the experience,” his daughter writes, “and frequently referred to it in later years.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Mattatuck Museum - Waterbury, Connecticut

The Mattatuck Museum Arts & History Center, on The Green in Waterbury, Connecticut, showcases art and history, with a particular emphasis on Connecticut’s cultural past. The rare melding of art and history, and community, tells the story of the region, and of Waterbury, in a profound and valuable way.

The history exhibit, with changing displays, carries us from the 1600s through the industrial dynamo years of the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century, when Waterbury found itself a manufacturing bastion. We are taken through the years, socially, economically, and politically, right up to today, and see connections and timelines that continue to morph the community.

Along with products of the mills, experience the frightening 1955 Flood. In one display case, among notable persons from Waterbury, you’ll find the graceful, confident expression of Rosalind Russell captured in a sculpture. For more on Roz, as well as her own exploits during the 1955 Flood, have a look here at my Another Old Movie Blog.

In the art gallery are examples by John Trumbull, Frederick Church, Charles Ethan Porter, and many other 19th and 20th century artists, and contemporary artists as well.

Stepping back to Waterbury’s industrial heritage again, the museum also houses the Button Museum, a unique attraction. The variety of buttons represent tiny works of art in many materials, including examples from Asia, military buttons, Bakelite buttons from the 1930s, and four engraved buttons from the coat of General George Washington.

The collection was originally part of the Waterbury Button Company, which had made buttons here since 1812, and given to the museum by the Waterbury Companies, which succeeded the Waterbury Button Company.

This museum is Waterbury in microcosm, and other communities looking to establish museums preserving their regional culture and history would do well to visit The Mattatuck Museum.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Al's Diner - Chicopee, Massachusetts

This shot of historic Al’s Diner in Chicopee, Massachusetts was taken in the summer. You can tell this by the absence of 8-foot tall snowdrifts which seem to be the main feature in most photographs taken in New England in the past month. Also, you can tell it’s summer by the “Sorry, we’re closed” sign on the window and a small note, on the glass part of the door at the right, which tells us they were on vacation.

Al’s Diner, built in the late 1950s, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Built by Master Diners, it stands on Yelle Street, its “French Meat Pie to Take Home” sign on the roof a beacon to hungry travelers and neighborhood regulars. The other sign lets you know you can take a whole ham home, too.