Monthly Archives: April 2017

Galveston’s Enduring Grand Opera House

America was once a nation of imposing opera houses.  “Opera” is a misnomer because most of them did little actual grand opera.  They were mostly places where itinerant performers put on a show.  Some opera houses became vaudeville theaters and then oversized, downtown movie palaces or burlesque houses.  By the end of the 20th century most of them were gone.  The ones that were left often became restoration projects.   One of the few that are left that still performs real opera is in Central City, Colorado.  Built in 1878, it’s now the oldest theater in that state.   Ruth & I seek out these community treasures.  I’ve done blogs on a couple of them like Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, and we went to a performance in one in Cienfuegos, Cuba.   We recently visited another survivor with the same Grand name.

The Grand 1894 Opera House is in downtown Galveston on Postoffice Street. The list of performers who have been on its huge stage is long and impressive. Self-guided Grand tours are always possible.   Guided ones are available by appointment, but Ruth and I got lucky.  Executive Director Maureen Patton, who clearly loves this theater, was there and willing to show us around.  She even took us backstage.   She told us that there’s something on its stage 200 days each year between September and May, and she raved about her theater’s perfect acoustics.

There were once 1,600 seats in the Grand 1894 Opera House. Now there are 1,038.  Frank Cox’s original design resulted in great sound for everyone in the audience.  He insisted on curved surfaces and rounded walls to enhance sound.  He eliminated corners and flat walls and designed double curved balconies.   No one who attends one or more of its forty or so productions each season is farther than 70 feet from the stage.  They might be seeing a Broadway musical, a solo performer, or a children’s entertainment described by the oxymoron “serious fun”.

The Grand is unique in many ways.  It’s one of the few historic performance centers from the Greenwall Theatrical circuit still in its original building.  It has survived 4 hurricanes including 2 major ones that did lots of damage.  The 1900 storm that killed thousands caused the Grand’s roof to collapse. Hurricane Ike in 2008 meant extensive water and wind repairs.  It was almost demolished in the mid 1970s.  Despite the presence of other opera houses in the state of Texas like the fine one in Granbury, The Grand has been named the official Opera House of the State.

From country and western to intimate cabaret and one-on-one interviews, The Grand does it all.  This is truly a 5 Compass Galveston landmark.  Since seeing it Ruth and I are on a mission to experience, among others, Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Riley Center in Meridian, Mississippi, the Mabel Tainter Center in Menominee, Wisconsin, etc.  We have been in the restored Fox Theater in St. Louis many times but have yet to see The Fox in Hutchison, Kansas.

Hank

ps.  While in Galveston, also check out the new Bryan Museum.


Road Irritations

 

I was asked this morning if I plan to drive in Cornwall on our upcoming trip. “No,” I said.  “We’ll rely on public transportation.”  The reason why is that I’m not crazy about driving on the left in congested places, especially if there are lots of roundabouts. Add this to my list of driving fears and irritants.

Another is vehicles ahead that suddenly begin to slow down and move erratically for no apparent reason.  If I have a chance to pass them, 9 times out of 10 the drivers are on cell phones.

I hate it when I’m approaching an exit ramp and suddenly a car from two lanes over accelerates and the driver, who clearly decided at the last minute to leave the highway, speeds up, dangerously jumps over one or more lanes, and veers in front of me to take that exit.

I get irritated by drivers ahead of me loping along well under the speed limit, especially on 2-lane streets and roads.  Often I’m not the only one in a procession that quickly seems like a funeral cortége.   Again, if I get a chance to pass the car or camper and glare at the driver, he often seems completely unaware of the hold-up he is causing.  I say “he” because it’s almost always a HE at the wheel.

More than once, Ruth & I have been cut off by truck drivers who suddenly decide that they have to be in the lane we are in.  Usually they want to pass another huge truck. As if we aren’t there, they move in front of us without warning.   We were recently on the road in Illinois and saw two huge transport trucks blown over by heavy winds. THAT was a first!  Life as a truck driver can’t be getting easier.

Poor or supposedly clever signage drives me crazy as does lack of street signs in unfamiliar places, especially small towns.  GPS can often make these problems go away. However, GPS is not always tracking my destination and can be wrong.  I worry about the era of self-driving cars that’s rapidly approaching.

I get frustrated by inadequate parking near high-traffic destinations and attractions.  Last year we didn’t get to revisit Jerome, Arizona, because there simply was no place to put our rental car.  We went on.

And this last one is a relatively new phenomenon and irritant. I’m heading down a road and see warning lights in the distance.  I assume I’m about to encounter an ambulance on its way to a hospital or a sheriff pursuing  a speeder, but when I get nearer I realize it’s a utility truck or non-emergency vehicle flashing those lights.

Hank

 


Shot in LA

 

That movie starring Los Angeles, La La Land, ended its commercial, in-theater run with almost $151,000,000 earned.  That’s pretty impressive for a gentle musical with few CGI effects.   As of Tuesday, April 25th, it’s available to rent, so you can check out La La Land if you haven’t seen it. While you’re at it, also see Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s 1st major release.  I thought both were great and that he is on his way to becoming a major American director.

I also enjoyed seeing Jenna Chandler’s ‘La La Land:’  The ultimate filming location map. After providing it, Jenna listed and commented on 18 of the places where this film was shot.  I like the way she began #1, the movie’s opening scene that was filmed on a freeway on-ramp.   “No one has ever handled LA’s notorious traffic jams as gracefully as the characters in La La Land‘s opening musical number,” she concluded.  Amen.

I learned from Chandler that it took 2 days to film this scene and that it was done on the overpass in the middle of the LA area where Interstates 105 and 110 meet.  The last time Ruth & I were in LA, we sat in traffic A LOT, so I admire Chandler’s candor and Chazelle’s ability to make LA seem like a desirable destination again. Yes.  I now want to go back and revisit the Disney Concert Hall, The Getty, the Pacific Design Center, etc.   And now I wouldn’t mind seeing The Griffith Observatory where “City of Stars” caused the up-until-then rather combative couple in La LA Land to literally float through the air.

Emma Stone played a girl named Mia from Boulder City, Nevada.  She lived, I now know, in Rose Towers, a 20 unit Moorish-influenced, 20-unit Long Beach complex built in 1928.  In my opinion, Stone deserved her Oscar for Best Actress.  Mia’s romantic dance sequence with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) was filmed in Griffith Park where the planetarium is, as were other scenes.  Some people feel that knowing where movies were filmed spoils Hollywood magic. I don’t.  For me, ‘knowing where’ enhances a movie’s magic.

According to Hugo Martin, writing for the LA Times, tourism is a $20 billion plus industry in Los Angeles.   He also notes that 86% of 400 people interviewed after seeing La LA Land said they were more likely to visit LA after seeing this movie.    I wonder if the millions now seeing The Fate of the Furious will be heading for Cuba soon.

Many movies could have been shot anywhere, but I like it when the location becomes part of the story, which is what happens in both La La & Fate.

Hank


Nostalgic Fun at Superstition Mountain

 

The Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction is like a dated, miniature theme park. Even though its glory days have passed, it’s wildly popular.  I learned about it when I read a very brief article called “Elvis Lives” in the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.  The article began, “Graceland isn’t the only place that memorializes Elvis Presley.”  The Superstition Mountain Museum, which closes at 4 pm every day, is kitschy but fun.

The museum is packed with minerals, info about the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, aggressively posed stuffed animals, details about Native American ruin sites, etc.  The chapel is packed with movie memorabilia.   The gift shop is packed with attractive non-essentials and full of customers.  All 3 are fun to explore.

The Apacheland Barn is also stuffed with movie memorabilia.  Many westerns were filmed in it. Some of the actors listed as making appearances in this barn while making movies include Audie Murphy, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and James Garner. What do you notice about these actors?  Of course, they’re all dead.  And that’s a bit of the problem with this museum and its appeal.   If, say, Chris Pratt was among them, contemporary movie goers, most of whom would ask, “Audie who?”  would maybe be more engaged.  Even the outbuilding activities-a miniature railroad display, mining equipment including a 20-stamp ore mill, a nature trail–appeal mainly to nostalgic souls. But remember, all of this is still fun.   And soaring, jagged Superstition Mountain in the background is inarguably scenic.

In the chapel, Elvis stands under a trellis behind the communion rail in mannequin mode about to strum a guitar and break into song.   Its walls are lined with very old movie posters.  Elvis made just over 30 films.  None of them won Academy Awards.  He sang in all of them except for Charro!   He wore a beard and a thin tache in Charro!   Charro! was advertised with the phrase “on his hip he wore vengeance”.  Charro! was the only movie Elvis made at the Apacheland Movie Ranch below Superstition Mountain.

A lot of early TV westerns were made at the Apacheland Movie Ranch (AMR) too.  The 1st was Have Gun, Will Travel.  There were major fires here in 1969 and 2004. Today the Superstition Mountain Lost Dutchman Museum is owned and maintained by an enthusiastic, well-meaning historical society.  When we got home, Ruth and I tracked down The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a Sam Peckinpah movie made at AMR in 1970.  It was really dated.

Hank

 

 


Dubuque Shocks

Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest city.   I passed through it many times when I lived in St. Louis and always enjoyed seeing its classic courthouse that looks like an elaborate 19th century Lego project.   This time we were on our way from Galena to Madison and didn’t plan to stop in this place where 3 states meet. “We have time for one attraction,” I said to Ruth.   “Let’s see what the Dubuque Museum of Art is like.”  We were in for several shocks.

There was a school field trip in progress.  One of the teachers apologized unnecessarily for their presence and raved about the current show, “Shiny, Sticky, Smooth”.  “The boys especially like it,” she told me.  I must have looked puzzled.  “POW!” she said.   We went upstairs to see it and had our 1st 3 shocks.  The temporary exhibit was from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation (JSFF), it was a big city exhibit appearing in a small town, and I understood POW!   Schnitzer is a big name in Oregon’s Portland, and many arts endeavors across the river from where we live have the Schnitzer name on them.  As Getty is to California, Schnitzer is to Oregon.  There was a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon print upstairs among the Warhols and other recognizable names.   The exhibit, which closes May 14, contained more than 50 pop pieces from the family’s vast collection. I went down to the reception desk and the lady in charge that day gave me a brochure that listed all the museums that have recently shown JSFF stuff.   It informed me that this foundation has organized more than 100 exhibitions in over 75 American museums and that the exhibit we were enjoying along with the kids would travel to Grinnell College and be on display from July 1 to September 10, 2017.   If you plan to travel across Iowa this summer, “Shiny, Sticky, Smooth” is worth seeing.

I went back upstairs to find Ruth and had another shock.   She was in the room with the Dubuque Museum of Art’s  permanent collection.  This museum focuses on American art, has a personal collection of more than 2,200 works including an impressive Grant Wood assortment of paintings, lithographs, etc. If you’re wondering who Grant Wood is, I’m not surprised.  Most of what he produced in his short but prolific career has not left Iowa.   The major one that has left is in Chicago and is among the most admired and copied American paintings.  It’s “American Gothic”.

I went downstairs for 2 more shocks. The paintings in an exhibit now closed were exceptional.  John Anderson-Bricker has been painting the Mississippi River that flows past Dubuque in every season since 1997. Appropriately called “Fire and Ice”, 10 of his works were up.  After admiring them I went down to the basement and found a room with all walls featuring children’s art, and I suddenly understood the field trip’s enthusiasm and one of this museum’s main focuses.

Going in, I hadn’t planned to write about this museum, but it was such a series of delightful shocks that I changed my mind. On the way out, I stopped at the main desk to thank the lady again and received one final shock.  She handed me several sheets of paper about the museum that I hadn’t asked for and reminded me to check out its Edward Curtis’ North American Indian collection of early 20th century photographs before I left.  Local pride resides in Dubuque.

Hank