Thursday, May 30, 2013

At ConCarolinas: The man of 202 faces (and counting)

We are speaking about Bill Blair, an actor in his late 50s whose claim to fame is that he has played more than 200 roles in special-effects makeup and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the person with the most appearances in that category. He was at 202 a couple of years ago and has worked regularly since then, notably in the Oscar-winning "Argo" (as "Humanoid Robot") and the hit TV series "Community" (as Morbidor in the episode "Conventions of Space and Time"). He looks like this in his everyday clothes:

This is the kind of chap you're likely to meet this weekend at ConCarolinas, which runs May 31-June 2 at the Charlotte Hilton University Place. Other guests include writer Timothy Zahn (a Hugo-winner for "Cascade Point" and author of The Thrawn Trilogy of "Star Wars" novels), actress Kandyse McClure (Dualla on TV's "Battlestar Galactica") and game designer Wolfgang Baur, currently kobold-in-chief (what a great title!) for Open Design LLC.

If this sounds like ancient Assyrian to you, you don't dwell in the science fiction-fantasy world (with a touch of horror) that provides the audience for ConCarolinas, which officially started in 2002. (It actually began in 2000-2001 as Southeast Convention Fandom Inc., which sprang out of a failed effort to get the massive WorldCon to come to Charlotte. You'll find out more at

The primary focus remains a literary one, because the initial impetus sprang from the world of speculative fiction. But there's a strong gaming element, along with the traditional speeches, workshops, film festival (devoted to short science fiction movies), costume competition and dealers' tables. If your inner kobold is curious -- that's a sprite from German mythology, by the way -- get over to University Place and indulge it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bard, the birds and the bees

Charlotte Shakespeare begins its summer season -- one comedy, one tragedy, as usual -- under the sure-to-be-blue skies uptown Thursday. Its first show, "The Taming of the Shrew," will run through June 16 at The Green, that wedge of park space bounded by Tryon and College streets near First. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. (See

"Shrew," one of the Bard's most problematic comedies because of its sexism, gets a Wild West theme this time. The picture of J.R. Adduci and Meghan Lowther says all:

The company, founded seven years ago as Collaborative Arts, also does contemporary comedy and drama. But most of its fans in Charlotte know it for summer Shakespeare, so it changed its name last year and adopted the slogan "The Bard and beyond." The second play this year, "Macbeth," will put it in the Booth Playhouse at Founders Hall Aug. 15-25.

Both shows cost nothing to attend, though the company passes the hat at each and suggests a donation of $5. (Who'd be cheap enough to deny that? If you get away for a fin, you're buying the highest ratio of skill-to-expenditure among the city's theaters.) The company also imports musicians, poets, performance artists and storytellers to entertain audiences 45 minutes before each show.

But Charlotte Shakespeare doesn't merely hope you'll laugh or weep: They want you to love Shakespeare as much as they do. So actor-director Christian Casper will lead free workshops every Sunday at 5 p.m.; those offer energetic, interactive games and exercises that provide insights into the text of the play, and they require no prior experience or training. Workshops are open to ages 8 and up, as well as adults; families are invited to attend together, but attendance is limited to 20 participants on a first-come, first-served basis.

If you take one and get in touch with your inner Petruchio or Kate, there's an auditions link at the website for budding Shakespeareans. The company (and I) always welcome new talent.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The severed leg, the huckster and the documentary

Folks with long memories, strong stomachs and a penchant for the bizarre will remember an incident six years ago in Maiden, where the purchaser of a grill found a severed human leg in it. A custody battle ensued, with the buyer charging people to view the cut-off limb and the, owner demanding it be sent back to him so he could be buried "a whole man."

"Finders Keepers" is a possible response, if a bit of a heartless one, to this dispute. It's also the title of a feature-length documentary now in production and asking for $80,000 in finishing funds at Kickstarter. The filmmakers have to raise all the money or accept none of the donations. (See

I seldom mention movies on that site, because there may be countless locally-themed entries at any time, and many will never be made. But this comes with a pedigree: Producer Ed Cunningham did the Oscar-winning feature "Undefeated," about an underdog football team trying to reverse its losing trend, and "The King of Kong," about two guys locked in a mad war to prove themselves the greatest Donkey Kong players alive.

He and director Bryan Carberry met on the 2010 documentary "Make Believe," about six magicians competing for the title of Teen World Champion. (Carberry didn't direct that one but held various production jobs.) They decided the story of amputee John Wood and purchaser Shannon Whisnant needed to be told. They've already shot thousands of feet of footage and are now keen to finish the project.

Naturally, they focused on the confrontation between the two, which led to a lawsuit and an appearance in front of TV judge Greg Mathis. (No spoilers here, folks.) But they learned about the stories behind the publicized battles, including Wood's desire to keep the leg as a memorial to his late father and Whisnant's attempts to use this bizarre windfall to escape a difficult life.

If you want to back this effort, you can spend as little as $10 (which earns you a thanks on their website) or as much as $10,000 or more. That buys you an executive producer credit, two tickets to the world premiere and after-party, and the right to view two rough cuts of the film along the way and offer advice to the filmmakers about how to improve it.

As I say, I don't recommend contributions to Kickstarter projects or any others in this space. But I enjoyed "King of Kong" and have a powerful curiosity about "Finders Keepers," now that I've heard more about it. I'll get to see the end product if enough donors give Carberry and Cunningham a leg up.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Happy birthday, James Bond!

Forget all the publicity last fall about James Bond turning 50. That was hype for the movies, the first of which came out in 1962. Bond's REAL birthday -- his initial appearance in Ian Fleming's debut novel, "Casino Royale" -- came in spring 1953, which makes him 60.

The book reads a lot more like a precursor to John LeCarre's novels about weary, self-doubting spies than the macho adventures Fleming would later write. Bond sleeps with just one woman, whom he intends to marry. He's in one fistfight, which he loses. He cries. He's described as looking like American pop composer Hoagy Carmichael, pictured here.

His big triumph comes at the gambling table, where he breaks the porcine Le Chiffre with money lent to him by the American CIA, after he has lost the 20 million francs supplied by British intelligence. Later, he falls into Le Chiffre's trap and screams through a torture session. At the moment he's about to be executed, an agent from SMERSH saves his life by putting a bullet between his torturer's eyes. He spares Bond only because he hasn't been told to shoot anyone else. Yes, SMERSH, the Soviet Secret Service that Bond will try to destroy in subsequent books! (The name abbreviates Smyert Shpionam, or "smash spies.")

Bond talks this way: "It's not difficult to get a Double-O number, if you're prepared to kill people. That's all the meaning it has. It's nothing to be particularly proud of...It's a confusing business, but if it's one's profession, one does what one's told." By the end of the book, he's disgusted with his life and contemplates quitting the world of espionage, which he describes as "playing Red Indians." He doesn't harden until the last two pages, when something happens to stiffen his resolve.

Eventually, Fleming turned him into a car-smashing, bed-hopping manhunter, a slightly calmer version of the  guy we've come to know through the most popular franchise in movie history. But he began as a recognizable human being who acknowledged pain and fear and loneliness. Movies made about THAT guy wouldn't have grossed one-fiftieth of the total Bond has earned producers around the world, but I'd like to have seen them.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The wrong of spring

The last time I saw Paris, I visited the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées -- which, for reasons I don't get, isn't on the Champs-Élysées. (It's on Avenue Montaigne, down near the Seine.) Nothing about this dignified Art Deco building screams "I am the site of one of the most famous riots in the history of the performing arts." But it is.

The hall was closed when I approached the ticket window and said in broken French, "Is it possible to enter? I have come from the United States and would like to look for a moment." The woman eyed me as if I were a spy who had forgotten the code word for a proper contact.

"Le Sacre?" she asked with a sigh.

"Oui," I said, smiling. "Le Sacre."

She waited a moment, beckoned some kind of security person/custodian over, and he unlocked a door. I peeped in, thanked her and him, then left. The pilgrimage was over. But I'd seen the place where the "The Rite of Spring" debuted in May 1913, during the opening season of the venue.

Reports about that night differ. They mention fisticuffs, obscene catcalls, derisive laughter and  objects thrown at the orchestra, which was trying to keep up with Igor Stravinsky's ever-changing tempo markings. (If you're curious, you can read more at But all agree that Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes became the talk of the dance world and created a discussion about what modern art ought to be.

Le Sacre du Printemps (to use the original title) has long since joined the established repertoire in dance and concert versions. It still has the power to shock, as I realized when excerpts of Pina Bausch's version showed up in the 2011 documentary "Pina." But we've absorbed the music's ever-changing forms into our bones.

So I'm sad that Charlotte's performing groups did nothing to mark the 100th anniversary, as far as I know. Nobody played it. Nobody danced it. (N.C. Dance Theater used to perform a frighteningly fresh version choreographed by Sal Aiello, but the company rarely does work by its former artistic director now.) 

Carolina Performing Arts and the University of North Carolina put together a multi-faceted celebration of the piece, with performances and critical analysis that lasted throughout recent months. I didn't need that level of commitment, but I was surprised that nobody in Mecklenburg County awakened to the possibility at all. Is "Rite" still too tough for Charlotte audiences to take, 100 years later? 

Friday, May 10, 2013

The most annoying musicians in Charlotte

If you've been to an event at the Belk or Knight theaters in the last couple of years, you may be able to guess the group I mean: That gaggle of brass players who squawk and bleat as soon as the first patron hits the sidewalk after a show.

You may just have had your spirit lifted by "Les Miserables" or your soul plumbed by a Mahler symphony. You may be lost in your thoughts or in conversation with a friend. They couldn't care less. As soon as they see anyone who might give them a dollar, they split the air with tuneless roaring.

I love jazz: My collection stretches from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, with a hundred stops in between. But this bunch doesn't play jazz: They simply make sounds. Their repertoire includes nothing that's quiet, nothing that's slow, nothing that sounds like variations on any kind of theme, nothing that has a tinge of melody. They simply smash away at drums and blast us with brass.

I asked someone familiar with city busking rules how this could go on night after night, and she told me the group doesn't need to apply for a noise permit, as long as they don't amplify their instruments. (Someone making half as much noise with an amp would have to get a permit. Go figure.) As long as they don't stand on private property -- which they're careful not to do -- nothing but a formal complaint with the police would dispel them, and even then they'd probably show up the next day.

Patrons are used to them by now, the way one gets used to an ingrown toenail that occasionally flares up. Most people simply pass them by, collars shrugged up over their ears to avoid the rain of sound. (Though you can't avoid them by leaving the Belk via a side door; they're audible through every part of the lobby.)

I'll be at the season-ending Charlotte Symphony concert tonight, listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I already dread the moment I'll walk away from this sublime music, trying to absorb the last echoes, and be confronted by the brassy screeching. I'll try to remember the sentiment expressed in the final Ode to Joy: "Alle menschen werden bruder," or "All men will be brothers." But I'm likelier to be thinking about its opening line: "O freunde, nicht diese tone." Oh, friends, not THESE sounds!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Beethoven drained my wallet

When I was a kid, I needed only one recording of a great piece of music. I didn't want to hear anybody but The Beatles play "A Day in the Life." Only Patsy Cline could really sing "Walkin' After Midnight."  Who but Frank Sinatra should croon "Strangers in the Night"?

But as a teenager, I experimented with classical music. (I know that verb suggests a drug. It became a drug, and my addiction continues today.) I happened to buy a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the piece with which the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will conclude its classics season this weekend. It was by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and it sounded just right to my innocent ears: vigorous, clean, precise, sung with fervor.

Now, a lot of people would call this the most memorable symphony ever written. It's so popular that the CSO has scheduled a rare third performance, a Sunday matinee where moms attend free. (Details: So soon enough, I bought a second recording, this one conducted by a long-dead guy named Wilhelm Furtwangler whom a music teacher recommended. It was slow, powerful, a huge block of musical granite at which he and the orchestra slowly chipped away. And it sounded right, too.

How could this be? I picked up Leonard Bernstein's hyper-emotional version -- also, in its own way, an experience that did justice to Beethoven. Uh-oh. This meant that all of Beethoven's symphonies, indeed all of Beethoven and therefore most of the classical music written over 350 years could be interpreted in different ways, many of them valid.

Thus began a lifetime of exploration and expenditure. I don't want to guess at the extent of the latter, except to reassure myself that I'd have spent more if I'd smoked a pack a day. And the public library can always use the non-keepers.

This explains the half-dozen Beethoven Ninths and Fifths and Sevenths on my shelves, the multiple Mozart "Don Giovannis" (hate to be without that live Pinza recording from the Old Met), the supplementary Shostakovich and repeated Ravel and extra Elgar.

I made a deal with my wife that we'd buy no more furniture to hold this stuff, so I'll have to get rid of music whenever I run out of room. I haven't come to the fatal full-up day, but that reckoning awaits. In the meantime, I wonder what Charles Munch made of the Ninth....

Friday, May 3, 2013

Arturo Sandoval is WHAT?

He's coming to Charlotte to play Wednesday, May 15, from 7 to 9 p.m. In the courtyard of Phillips Place. For free. You don't even need to RSVP to an invitation.

I'm not going to speculate on why the great Cuban trumpeter, who has won nine Grammys and an Emmy, would be playing a free outdoor concert at a shopping center. (An upscale shopping center, in a gig sponsored by Windsor Jewellers, but still....) Who cares? I just expect to hear at least a little of it, weather permitting.

I've been a fan since I saw the 2000 TV movie "For Love Or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story," in which Andy Garcia played the title role. (I commend the soundtrack to you, if you want a sampler of his music.) Sandoval's 63 now, but he still records: Last year, he cut a tribute to his idol, Dizzy Gillespie, titled "Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You)."

I draw two conclusions from finding out about this event in a haphazard way. First, I have to read the paper more closely. I haven't seen a single poster for the show, read a promotional e-mail or heard word-of-mouth about this gig; I found out only because it was printed on the back side of an advertisement for Windsor that had been shoved into the ads inserted loosely in my Observer Thursday morning. I saw it when it fell on my porch floor, as I was putting the paper in the recycling bin.

Second, culture must be happening all over Charlotte all of the time, and the average person hears about only a fraction of it. (Even I, who am paid to keep up with many branches of it, can't begin to fathom it all.) The Arts & Science Council has a slogan that says something like "Hundreds of things to do, zero excuses not to do them." That has never been truer in Charlotte.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Goodbye, George Jones

You can well believe a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s took heat for listening to George Jones. "She Thinks I Still Care" came out when I was about to turn eight, and that twangy, soulful voice grabbed me at once. (Might have been the song, too. I've never heard a bad version, and I especially like the ones by Leon Russell and Patti Loveless.)

I followed Mr. Jones through "The Race Is On", "Love Bug" and song after song. By high school, he occupied space on my (alphabetical) shelves next to the Joplins, Janis and Scott. I've always been a sucker for sincerity in any art form, and he had plenty.

That was his defining quality, I think. No matter how corny a song may have been -- say, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which belongs on any collection of great country recordings -- George Jones sang it so intently that you can't laugh at the sentimentality of it. I believed he was the son of a moonshine-maker in "White Lightning" and the heartbroken husband of a departed wife in "The Grand Tour."

I went to see him in concert in the mid '80s, shortly after "She's My Rock" hit the charts. He didn't have a lot of stage presence; he spoke quietly, sang the music the way it had been written and didn't encourage his band to jam. I can't say I was disappointed -- what else would I have expected him to do? -- but I realized he'd already made the songs as good as they could ever be in the studio, where engineers could mix his pining voice with instruments in exactly the right blend.

Though he's not my favorite country singer (that'd be Hank Williams), I'd say he encompasses a wide variety of moods better than anybody since Hank: giddy, mournful, rueful, cheery, even self-mocking. How many singers would have performed a song such as "No-Show Jones," written about his well-publicized failure to turn up at concert venues?

The country music stations that mourned his passing last week don't play his music now, any more than pop stations play Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. (I caught flak for listening to them, too. My friends couldn't see beyond the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.) So I don't know that anybody under 40 will get a chance to share my passion for Mr. Jones, unless they stumble on their parents' CDs in a closet. I hope they do.