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Reflections On Another Memorable Chautauqua Experience + TCM Tips

There is nothing like time spent at the Chautauqua Institution to recharge one's batteries and affirm one's belief in life and culture.

 

During the first week of August, I taught again my Baseball and American Culture class on the venerable lovely campus in far southwestern New York State near Jamestown, the site of the National Comedy Center and the Lucy-Desi Museum. (Lucille Ball grew up in nearby Celeron and I am happy to report that since 2016 a new and far better statue of Lucy has been erected.) 

 

My Chautauqua students as always ran the gamut of backgrounds: Houston Astro and Cleveland Indian fans. Devoted lovers of college baseball. A fellow who grew up in the same building where Carl Furillo lived when he starred for Brooklyn's Boys of Summer. A woman whose grandfather played for Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's and whose mother as an infant was held in the arms of Ty Cobb. 

 

My theme this year was that despite the Black Sox scandal, baseball remained dominant through the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, World War II and the first Cold War Years. 

By the 1950s, westward expansion of the major leagues was long overdue, but an enormous wound was inflicted on New York when Walter O'Malley engineered the shift of the Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

 

I continue to be amazed that WESLEY Branch Rickey never spoke at Chautauqua which was founded after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teacher. I guess he was too busy building farm systems in three major league cities and doing volunteer work for his alma mater Ohio Wesleyan and his fraternity Delta Tau Delta.

 

I was able to do the next best thing - show my students "The Old Ball Game," a 45-minute documentary about baseball history narrated by Rickey in 1964 a year before his death. It's readily available on YouTube.

 

I was also pleased with the student response when I showed "Elmer the Great" (1933), the second of Joe E. Brown's baseball trilogy. Produced at the height of his fame in the 1930s,  

"Elmer" was Brown's favorite among the dozens of films he made in Hollywood.

 

No wonder. He gets to display his skills as a lefthanded-hitting second baseman that were good enough in his earlier days to attract pro scouts.

 

He brings a tenderness to Elmer Kane that is a needed balance to his other side, the egomaniacal athlete.  "Elmer" was based on Ring Lardner's "Hurry Kane" as was 1935's "Alibi Ike," the third of the baseball trilogy that had young Olivia deHavilland as Brown's love interest and Bill Frawley (the future Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy") as Brown's manager. ("Fireman, Save My Child," the first in the trilogy, is now also available on DVD.) 

 

As far as seeing live baseball in the Chautauqua area, I missed by one day seeing the Jamestown Tarp Skunks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League playoffs.  A huge crowd of 1400 saw the Skunks fall one run short of advancing to the final round but its first year of competition was a huge success. 

 

I didn't have easy access to television during my blissful week in Chautauqua, but I did follow at times on my computer the exploits of the plucky underdogs Team Israel and Team USA in the Olympics.  Though Team Israel won only one game in five, they fought valiantly and will savor the experience forever.  

 

It must be noted that the loss of their final game was excruciating.  International rules call for not one "ghost runner" in extra innings but TWO.  With runners on first and second in the bottom of the 10th against South Korea, a relief pitcher threw just two pitches, each one hitting a batter and thus ending Team israel's inspired run.

 

Team USA surprised the pundits by getting all the way to the final game against host Japan.  But in a score identical to the women's softball loss to the Japanese, 2-0, the Americans lost.  Again with nothing to be ashamed of.  

 

The Woerioles have plenty to be ashamed of but I won't go there. Too much to love about life in the dog days of August.  Wide-open race in NL East as Mets fall behind Braves and Phillies.  Second wild-card up for grabs as Padres falter and Reds fitfully make their move.

 

Yankees still very much alive despite gut-wrenching losses.  Games against the Red Sox starting Tu Aug 17 will be important. Oakland still with chance to catch Houston in AL West and holding second wild card at the moment. 

 

Can't stop talking about the Chautauqua experience so here's some more comments.  

The lecture and musical offerings were as always bountiful.

 

My favorite morning lecture was delivered by world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, a leader in his field, an entertaining lecturer, and the author of the current book, "Mama's Last Hug" and earlier "Chimpanzee Politics."

 

The Chautauqua Opera Company performed two memorable operas.  "Scalia and Ginsburg," Derrick Wang's witty and incisive one-hour creation, made its debut in 2013 when both late Supreme Court justices and opera lovers were able to attend.  

 

Mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra as RBG and Chauncey Parker as Scalia inhabited their roles with aplomb. As did the crucial third character, Michael Colman as the Commentator.  I think the role was conceived as a homage to the ominous Commandant in Mozart's "Don Giovanni".

  

"As the 'Cosi' Crumbles," the debut opera, is a humorous examination of what standard opera would look like if the voices were shifted. Although I was disappointed that the beautiful trio, "May the Winds Be Gentle," from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," was not part of the production, I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of singers getting the chance singing arias written for different voices.  

 

The selections from "Madame Butterfly" were particularly moving. Burly stentorian baritone Yazid Gray's rendition of "Cara Nome" from "Rigoletto" was memorable. A bluesy back beat in the final measures added to the fun and frolic.  

 

After singing Scalia, Chauncey Parker directed "Cosi Crumbles". Kelly Guerra and Michael Colman were again in the cast along with spectacular soprano Chasiti Lashay, tenor Jared Esquerra and baritone Yazid Gray.  

 

Overall director Cara Consilvio has put together an impressive staff. Steven Osgood conducted both operas and gave informative introductions. The original music for "Cosi Crumbles" was created by Jasmine Barnes, Sage Bond, and Frances Pollock.

 

Pollock's seven-minute piece, "God is Dead, Schoenberg Is Dead, But Love Will Come," was premiered with the excellent Chautauqua Orchestra conducted by Rossen Milanov on Thursday night August 5.  She mixes effectively mournful strains composed during the height of the pandemic with fragments of "Smile," the song created by Charlie Chaplin for his classic 1936 film "Modern Times."   

 

Before I close, here are some tips for TCM viewing in the weeks while Eddie Muller's Noir Alley is off for "Summer of Stars" programming. He returns on Sep 5 - see below. 

 

There are not many films with sports themes remaining in August but bearing mention are:

W Aug 18 530p "The Natural" (1984) based on the Bernard Malamud story with Robert Redford, Kim Basinger and Glenn Close.

 

Sa Aug 21 2p "Woman of the Year" (1942), the first Tracy-Hepburn collaboration with Spencer as a sportswriter and Katherine as world-traveling journalist (inspired by Dorothy Thompson)

 

For Noir devotees and esp. Gloria Grahame fans, catch this binge-fest!

Tu Aug 17 4p "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959, set on location in NYC and Hudson NY)

6p "Human Desire" (1954 with Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford, dir. by Fritz Lang)

8p "The Big Heat" (1953 with G.Ford, Jocelyn Brando - Marlon's sister -, dir. by Lang)

10p "In A Lonely Place" (1950, Bogart as temperamental writer, Frank Lovejoy/Jeff Donnell as his friends, Grahame in key substantial role as Bogie's girlfriend - dir. by Nicholas Ray).

 

Su Aug 22 1245p "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) twists galore in this classic based on Agatha Christie story and directed by Billy Wilder.  With Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, that suave sinister character actor Henry Daniell, and others. 

 

8p "Blood and Sand" (1941) T. Power returns and has to deal with Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth - it's a hard job but someone had to do it.  Dir. Reuben Mamoulian of NY stage.

 

M Aug 23 12:15a  Power again as a carnival performer in "Nightmare Alley" (1947)

945a "At The Circus" (1939) the Marx Brothers in not one of their best but Eve Arden is in it

 

W Aug 25  Jane Wyman Day has 4p Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" (1958)

8p "Johnny Belinda" (1948) Wyman's Oscar

 

Tu Aug 26 10p "The Mating Game" (1959) with Debbie Reynolds and Tony Randall.  Probably Paul Douglas's last film. He had signed for Wilder's "Apartment" but died and Fred MacMurray got the role as the louse. 

 

F Aug 27 215a  "Night Song" (1947) Dana Andrews as blind concert pianist, Merle Oberon pretends to be blind to get close to him.  Hoagy Carmichael/Artur Rubinstein perform.

 

Sa Aug 28  late 1960s shoot-em-ups for the Vietnam era starring Lee Marvin and others

8p "Point Blank" dir. John Boorman with Angie Dickinson and post-Bat Guano Keenan Wynn

10p "The Professionals" dir. Richard Brooks

 

Sun Aug 29  3:45p  Hitchcock's "Gaslight" with I. Bergman/G. Peck/Ch. Boyer

6p "Casblanca" (1943)

 

M Aug 30 James Cagney Day incl. 12N "Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935) with cast of

stars including Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia DeHavilland, and Joe E Brown stealing show as Flute

4p "White Heat" (1949) the post-World War II Cagney gangster.  In prison dining scene look for Jim Thorpe as an extra.

 

Tu Aug 31 8p "Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) - still hard not to cry and sigh at this one 

Th Sep 2 8p "The Comic" Carl Reiner directs Dick Van Dyke, Michele Lee, Mickey Rooney

 

Su Sep 5 12M, repeated at 10A - return of Noir Alley - Robert Preston in "Cloudburst" (1952)

 

That's all for now.  As always, take it easy but take it, and please: 

STAY POSITIVE, TEST NEGATIVE

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Still Aglow from My Third Chautauqua Experience

It's a wonderful feeling in life when one's expectations are exceeded.  Such was my experience last week when I taught for the third time a Baseball and American Culture class in the Special Studies department of the Chautauqua Institution.

 

Chautauqua is an adult education and vibrant cultural mecca in the southwestern corner of New York State near the Pennsylvania border. It was founded shortly after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers. (Am amazed that Branch Rickey evidently never came to Chautauqua though he was probably so busy with baseball and his Delta Tau Delta fraternal activities to come there.) 

 
There's nothing like teaching and talking about what you love in front of students who appreciate your interests and genuinely want to learn more.  I've long believed that a teacher always learns as much from students as they learn from him or her.

 

I felt good about talking about the rich if complicated history of baseball - from the late 19th century labor battles between John Montgomery Ward and Albert Spalding to the rise of the great management leaders Ban Johnson and his replacement as lord high commissioner Landis. And the pioneers Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the later labor wars surrounding Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig.

 

But the happiest moments for me in teaching are always the unique responses of the students.  Here are some examples:

 

**During the opening session everyone introduces themselves. One woman from western Michigan described how she fell in love with Sandy Koufax when he was a bonus baby starting out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was something about seeing him struggle on TV that made her a lifelong fan.

 
As an adult she made pilgrimages to LA to follow him live.  She framed a photo of him and his onetime Brooklyn teammate Sal Maglie and placed it on her bedroom wall. Her husband wasn't too impressed - soon he was an ex-husband. (I don't do justice to her timing in telling this story.)

 

**Another priceless moment was a student writing down from my typed notes the words on an Irish towel that one of my first undergraduate students gave me as a present over a half-century ago: 

 

"Baseball (as explained to a foreign visitor).

YOU HAVE TWO SIDES ONE OUT IN THE FIELD AND ONE IN.

 

EACH MAN THAT'S ON THE SIDE THAT'S IN GOES OUT AND WHEN HE' OUT HE COMES IN AND THE NEXT MAN GOES IN UNTIL HE'S OUT.

 

WHEN THREE MEN ARE OUT THE SIDE THAT'S OUT COMES IN AND THE SIDE THAT'S BEEN IN GOES OUT OAND TRIES TO GET THOSE COMING IN OUT.

 

SOMETIMES YOU GOT MEN STILL IN AND NOT OUT.

 

WHEN BOTH SIDES HAVE BEEN IN AND OUT NINE TIMES INCLUDING THE NOT OUTS

THAT'S THE END OF THE GAME (EMPHASIS ADDED)."

 

**Then there was the moving sight at my last class when 15 students stood up to watch on my little laptop with a weak sound system Buster Keaton's baseball pantomime from "The Cameraman," his last great silent film. Buster had hauled his equipment to Yankee Stadium looking for a story but had read the schedule wrong. NO GAME TODAY appears on the screen.

 
So Buster takes the opportunity to walk to the mound and imitate the pitcher and catcher and umpire and other players on the diamond.  It's a classic clip of just a little over three minutes before a policeman chases him away. 

 
I felt it was particularly appropriate to show some baseball comedy in my class because it was Comedy Week at Chautauqua. It was an event co-sponsored by the newly-established National Comedy Center in nearby Jamestown NY - the hometown of Lucille Ball who, by the way, has recently been honored with a more accurate and artful sculpture. 

 
One of the great highlights of Comedy Week was the Smothers Brothers coming out of retirement to commemorate their law suit against CBS for kicking them off the air nearly 50 years ago. "I'm still pissed" were Tommy's first words to the appreciative audience.

 

Both he and younger brother Dick looked in amazingly good shape for people in their early eighties. They contributed a witty opening skit before discussing their careers with moderator NPR's David Bianculli.  A good selection of skits from their heyday were shown. 

 

It was announced that the Smothers archives will be going to the Jamestown center. The organization already has the papers of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and several other comedians. (By the way, I had to share the classic Carlin skit on "Baseball and Football" with my class.)

 
A panel on Ernie Kovacs, the great comic creator of early TV, was very informative and included trenchant commentary by "The King of Rant" Lewis Black and masterful veteran comic writer Alan Zweibel.  Sirius radio host Ron Bennington and Bianculli also contributed very helpfully to the evening at the Jamestown center. 

 

Also very valuable was a discussion of the legacy of Robin Williams that featured Lew Black again and Williams' longtime manager David Steinberg (not the Canadian-born comedian). During the question period Steinberg confirmed that Jonathan Winters had been a big influence on Williams during their "Mork and Mindy" days.  (Yes, I did share with students a few YouTube selections of Winters' crusty baseball characters.) 

 

I planned my Chautauqua gig this year around two musical performances that didn't disappoint. The first was John Corigliano's 1991 opera "The Ghost of Versailles" with a libretto by William Hoffman. 

 

"Ghosts" is a free-wheeling time-traveling exploration of what would have happened if doomed Marie Antoinette had been saved by "The Marriage of Figaro" creator Beaumarchais.  Happily, the fit-looking 80-year-old Corigliano was on hand to take some deserved bows at the end from the cheering throng at Chautauqua's impressive outdoor Amphitheater.   

 
Last but not least, I saw the Chautauqua Symphony's performance of two pieces that promised to and indeed stirred my Russian-American blood, Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. 

 

Both pieces have melodies that are reminscent of pop songs - a "La Vie En Rose" descending melody in the first movement of the Prokofiev - and a haunting six-note melody in the adagio late in the Rachmaninoff that I am still humming as I conclude this blog. (I think Chet Baker may have recorded it at one time but I am not sure about that.)

 
Looks like there will be some great pennant race baseball building in the last weeks of the season.  More on that in the next blog.  For now, always remember:

Take it easy but take it!

 

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