Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mark Twain Statue - Hartford Public Library, Connecticut

Mark Twain stands with his back to the river, and his hand on the wheel, contemplating not the current, but the traffic on Main Street.

In this case, it is the Connecticut River, and not the Mighty Mississip.

This is the life-size bronze statue created by James E. Brothers in 1994, which stands in front of the Hartford Public Library. It remained in place for a few years, was moved temporarily while the library was renovated, and put back in place in 2010. This beautiful work of art was purchased and donated to the city by the Hollander family of Manchester, Connecticut.

Mark Twain spent his most prolific writing years in Hartford. We covered his home here in this previous post.

In August, 1868, Twain wrote a letter published September 6th in the San Francisco Alta California in which he, with tongue in cheek, describes Hartford:

…Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see this is the chief. It is a city of 40,000 inhabitants, and seems to be composed almost entirely of dwelling houses -- not single-shaped affairs, stood on end and packed together like a "deck" of cards, but massive private hotels, scattered along the broad, straight streets, from fifty all the way up to two hundred yards apart. Each house sits in the midst of about an acre of green grass, or flower beds or ornamental shrubbery, guarded on all sides by the trimmest hedges of arbor-vitae, and by files of huge forest trees that cast a shadow like a thunder-cloud. Some of these stately dwellings are almost buried from sight in parks and forests of these noble trees. Everywhere the eye turns it is blessed with a vision of refreshing green. You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.

I am able to follow Main street, from the State House to Spring Grove Cemetery, and Asylum street and Farmington avenue, from the railway depot to their terminations. I have learned that much of the city from constant and tireless practice in going over the ground. These streets answer the description of Hartford which I have given above. The large dwellings all stand far apart, each in the centre of its great grass-plat and its forest trees. There is not a mean building or slovenly piece of ground to offend the eye in all the wide area I have traversed as above. To live in this style one must have his bank account, of course. Then, where are the poor of Hartford? I confess I do not know. They are "corralled," doubtless -- corralled in some unsanctified corner of this paradise whither my feet have not yet wandered, I suppose.

The reason for this uniform grandeur is easily explained. The Blue-Law spirit is not utterly dead in Connecticut yet. The law prohibiting the harboring of sinful playing-cards in dwelling houses was annulled only something over a year ago. Up to that time, conscientious people whose instincts forbade them to break the law, would no more think of keeping an entire pack of cards in their dwellings than they would have thought of driving for pleasure in these beautiful streets on the blessed Sabbath. Therefore, they never entered into a friendly game of "draw," "old sledge," or anything of that kind, without first taking a couple of cards from the pack and destroying them. There was not a whole pack of cards in any house in Hartford. Thus was the majesty of the law upheld -- thus was its purity secured against taint. Another blue-law of the city preserves the beauty and uniformity of the streets and buildings. By its terms you must obtain permission from the city government before you build on your lot -- before you construct an addition to your house -- before you erect a stable. You cannot build a house just when you please, and you cannot build just any sort of a house you please either.

If you propose to put up a plain brick dwelling, 25 by 40, on your ground, the lord of the palace next you may complain to the Aldermen that your small enterprise will spoil the appearance of the street and diminish the value of his property. That finishes you. If you propose to build an addition to the rear of your house, your neighbor may complain that it will obstruct his view of the railway, or the church, or the river, or something, and thus bring down his gray hairs in sorrow to the grave. And that closes out that proposition. If you decide to build a stable on your premises for your horses and your carriage, the party next door may affirm "with many holiday and lady terms," that the fragrance of a stable doth offend his nostrils unto death -- and then you will find that you must build your blasphemous stable elsewhere. You must get permission of the authorities before you attempt to build -- and that you cannot get permission to build an edifice that will detract from the comeliness of the street, is a thing you may safely setting in your mind beforehand. By this means hath Hartford become a most beautiful city. People accustomed to large liberties will call this an unjust, unrighteous law. Very well, they are entitled to their opinion, and I to mine. I don't care how unrighteous a thing is, so long as it is pleasant -- I like this law. I exult in it every time I walk abroad in these delightful streets. I hope it will never be repealed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

JFK Statue - Massachusetts State House

At first glance he could be any visitor to the Massachusetts State House in Boston, or a staff member, or a legislator, or anybody at all. 

He's the 35th President of the United States.  The figure, at this distance, seems so natural as if about to descend the stairs, we have to pause to recognize John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the west plaza, striding eternally into the future. 

The statue was completed in 1990, by scupltor Isabel McIlvain.  JFK never served in the state legislature, but visited the State House in 1961 and addressed the General Court.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Daddy Long Legs" - Merrimack Repertory Theatre - Lowell, Mass.

All photographs accompanying this post are by Meghan Moore.  Used by permission of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The musical “Daddy Long Legs” starring Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock brings a bright new look at the classic tale by Jean Webster. It is deceptively simple; the wistful lyrics are intelligent and wonderfully literate, and the play reflects a sense of the vigor of a long ago progressive era. The music and the performances are delightful. The setting is New England one hundred years ago.

Debuting at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre -- in my opinion, one of New England’s very best professional regional theaters -- “Daddy Long Legs” is presented as an example of this season’s theme “American Voices along the American Journey”.

Jean Webster’s original novel (she wrote it while staying in Tyringham, Massachusetts) of the same name was a smash in 1912 as the young 20th Century burst upon a scene of reform, throwing off 19th Century injustices and inequities, sometimes with just a children’s book. Her delightful character, Jerusha Abbott, “the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home”, is given a college education by an unknown benefactor.  Webster wrote a successful stage play based on her novel.   A handful of films made from 1919 to the 1950s based on the story are probably familiar to most fans of classic films.

This newest, freshest incarnation at the Merrimack Rep, directed by Tony-winner John Caird, who also wrote the book, features a running dialogue in music between Jerusha, played by Ms. McGinnis, and her benefactor, played by Mr. Hancock. The music and lyrics are by Tony-nominated Paul Gordon. They take the form mostly of letters Jerusha writes to “Daddy Long Legs” -- she has nicknamed him this because she has seen only his tall, distorted shadow on a wall.

Ms. McGinnis, whose Broadway credits include Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Women, where she originated the role of Beth, makes her debut at the Merrimack. Her performance is stunning in part because of the sweetness of her clear, soprano voice; in part because of the earnest and honest depiction of a spirited child/woman; and in part because she makes it look so effortless. Much of her stream-of-consciousness letter writing is directed to the audience, so our connection with this character is made very early in the play. She is good natured enough to make wry jokes at her own expense, bold enough to tease Daddy Long Legs, rebellious enough to defy him.

Mr. Hancock also makes his debut at the MRT, having played in the national touring companies of Sky and Mamma Mia!, as well as numerous regional productions. Both Hancock and McGinnis originated their roles in “Daddy Long Legs” for the Rubicon Theatre. A cast album has been produced.

Mr. Hancock’s turn as the benefactor “Mr. Smith”, or really Jervis Pendleton, has a charming, Mr. Darcy-like quality. He is intellectual and businesslike, admires Jerusha’s intelligence and writing ability, but her case is only one of many charities for which he has set aside a portion of his wealth. He has no intention to set aside any of his valuable time, until her dogged one-sided correspondence with him captures first his interest, then his imagination, and then his heart. Mr. Hancock’s very pleasing tenor blends perfectly with McGinnis in several overlapping musical conversations.  The pure tone of their voices is exquisite.

Hancock is charming as a man reserved, dignified, jealous, and ultimately lonely, as disadvantaged in friendship as Jerusha is in society. We may pity him more.

The tone of the play is gently humorous, sometimes poignant, and always thought-provoking. Jerusha’s thirst for knowledge and her dream of being a writer, to make her own contribution, make one wonder if we may ever recapture the optimism and confidence of the early 20th Century.

References to the reforms of one hundred years ago, including education and voting rights for women, seem curiously less nostalgic than an echo of how far we haven’t come in maintaining an optimistic spirit of reform in this country. The characters’ seeming naiveté, and its resulting resilient determination to make life better, for themselves and others, is a quality we may envy rather than smile at with the condescension of the more sophisticated.

David Farley, the scenic and costume designer, has created a set that is evocative of the era, both functional and whimsical. Jerusha’s scenes are downstage among a collection of battered steamer trunks of various sizes, while Jervis broods in his office just behind and above her on a low platform. Dark paneled walls frame the space, enclosing his office and her college. Books are upstage, downstage, and sometimes in the trunks they use for tables and seats. They put the trunks together in a pile, a mountain to climb.

At times, when the scenes change, the scrim behind the bookshelves reveals the countryside, or the city. We feel their surroundings open up, even though they are still present for us, and for each other, in the narrow world of spoken letters.

Possibly the most whimsical element to the set design is the handwriting scrawl on the top of the paneled flats stage left and stage right when a new conversation or letter is to begin. The audience got a kick out of that and kept checking the dates and the location of the scene as noted in the handwriting. When Jervis typed a couple of notes, we see the typewritten letters stamped out, accompanied by the sound of an old typewriter, instead of the fluid scrawl. Chuckles from the audience.

The music, conducted by Laura Bergquist, is a flowing stream of both pop and folk-sounding tunes, mostly string instruments creating a breezy, soft sound. All elements of the story presentation blended perfectly -- the set, era-appropriate costumes, (including entertaining minor on-stage costume changes), the music, and the terrific performances of the two-person cast. The Merrimack audience opening night enthusiastically received the show and awarded a standing ovation.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre has a winner in “Daddy Long Legs”. It is a romance. It is a family-friendly show. It is an American classic. It is, like the Merrimack Rep, a New England classic. It runs now through March 4th at the Liberty Hall, adjacent to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts. See this website for more details.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wilson's Department Store - Greenfield, Massachusetts

Remember those family-owned department stores? The bastions of a more genteel commercial tradition in the downtown. The downtown wasn’t always in the big city. Greenfield, Massachusetts is a small town. That’s where you’ll find Wilson’s.

There are few family-owned department stores still existing in this country. Wilson’s has stood at the corner of Main and Davis Streets in Greenfield’s small downtown for over 128 years.

Founded in 1882 by the White Brothers, John Wilson took over in 1896. Then the Reid family from 1929. The store grew in size, upward and outward. There are three floors, and a basement level, parsed into the departments that carry a variety of items, some you won’t find in chain stores which perceive no great market for them.

Ladies’ and men’s clothing, kids’ toys in the basement level, housewares, luggage. Furniture on the top floor. You can walk the stairs, or take the elevator. The staff will point you in the right direction.

The staff are like you remember them: courteous, quiet, lending a dignity to the occasion of buying curtains.

Or, fudge at the candy counter.

You can’t go to Forbes & Wallace or Steiger’s in Springfield, anymore. You can’t go to G. Fox in Hartford, anymore. Boston? More ghosts of the grand old stores. (For a fun trip down memory lane, have a look at Shopping Days in Retro Boston here.)

Go to Greenfield, a small town in western Massachusetts, where Rte 91 and Rte 2 intersect.  Easy to find.  Go to Wilson’s, and remember how it was.

For more on Wilson’s, have a look at their website. Not too many of the old-time stores had those.