Friday, June 28, 2013

Are you ignorant? Hollywood has a job for you: Fact-checker.

In the Gore Verbinski version of "The Lone Ranger," the final spike in the transcontinental railroad gets hammered into place in 1869 to the martial sounds of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" -- which John Philip Sousa wrote 27 years later.  

This doesn't put the movie in the same moronic class as "Django Unchained," where Quentin Tarantino had characters use dynamite before it was invented and put them in Civil War uniforms three years before that war was fought. (He also got the starting date of the war wrong.)

I know we're not supposed to learn our history from movies. But do storytellers have to be so willfully stupid or obviously careless? Or do they think most Americans won't know when the North and South fought each other? 

Sometimes a Baz Luhrmann or Sofia Coppola will intentionally throw us off guard: We all know rap and pop music weren't sung during the eras in which "The Great Gatsby" and "Marie Antoinette" are set. Those artistic decisions may or may not work, but they're choices worth weighing.

But most anachronisms in fashion, music or dialogue are just mistakes. Occasionally, when I grumble about these to a fellow moviegoer, I'm asked, "What difference does it make if it's right or not?" Well, if we extend that argument, what difference would it make if an airplane dive-bombed The Lone Ranger? (The Wright Brothers flew just seven years after Sousa wrote that march.) Hey, maybe Tonto could fight off a dinosaur!

Each of his us has his own tolerance for deviations from fact, and mine may be narrower than yours. But why don't filmmakers just get things right? The Internet makes chronological and cultural accuracy easier than ever to achieve. If Beethoven was born in December of 1770, don't show American patriots being inspired by his music during the Revolutionary War, however "effective" the scene may be. (That war was fought from 1776 to 1783, in case anyone didn't know.)

I remember interviewing Dale Dye, the much-decorated Marine, on the set of "The Last of the Mohicans" 21 years ago. He was its military technical advisor, a title he's held on movies from "Platoon" to "Tropic Thunder." I asked about a blunder that my dad (also a decorated veteran) had noticed in one of Dye's movies.

He laughed. "They pay me for advice," he said. "They don't have to take it. They'll tell me, 'It works better for the story if we change it.' Then they do whatever they want, and I grit my teeth."

I do too, Dale. I do, too.   

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sticking a gun in a critic's face

The Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical "Assassins" ends with the cast standing in a straight line at the apron of the stage, pointing guns at the audience. Because Carolina Actors Studio Theatre is small, I found myself three feet from the guy playing John Wilkes Booth (the estimable Samuel Crawford). He fixed me with an unswerving gaze before the lights went out, then pointed his firearm at the ceiling and let it off.

I've been on the other side of the footlights often enough to smile at the aptness of the metaphor. I've heard of one obnoxious critic being shoved by an unhappy actor and another getting a plate of pasta and sauce dumped on his head. If anyone has emptied a loaded pistol into a reviewer, I haven't heard. But that doesn't mean the temptation isn't there.

Critics and performers have had a contentious relationship since the first caveman made fun of somebody's narrative of a mastodon hunt. Occasionally, we may enlighten the subjects of our reviews; more often, we probably  inflate or deflate egos without changing anyone's opinion of his own work. I spend most of my time discussing choices that artists make, letting readers (and the people onstage) decide whether those choices make a desirable effect.

And I keep my distance from folks I cover. Charlotte may be the 20th largest city in America, but it remains a small town artistically. I write about people one weekend and see them in the supermarket the next. Actors and directors attend each other's shows -- we have a supportive theater community -- and I may be sitting behind someone I've recently praised, panned or overlooked. Perhaps that's true to a lesser degree even in New York or London, as I'd guess it must be.

Critics deal with this situation in different ways. I've known one who ate with, drank with and even dated performers, believing that closeness didn't necessarily compromise impartiality. Some maintain an absolute, even frosty distance. I usually smile, speak politely but briefly if I meet theater folk or musicians or dancers, then move on. (When I hosted a tribute to retired icon Gladys Lavitan last year, another veteran actor told me, 'I thought you didn't like us. But that's not true at all.")

In any other job, I'd hang out with performers in my spare time. But I don't know how any critic can be chummy with people he covers and judge their work accurately: Who can remain detached, however well-meaning he may be, when a friend's heart is on the line? So performers and I go separate ways, intersecting in the dark when their art is on the line instead.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My gourmet lunch at the Public Library

I was sitting in the Public Library's Map Room Cafe last week, eating homemade banana bread and yogurt parfait, and I realized every seat was taken. Maybe 30 people had dropped by to enjoy hand-crafted sandwiches or scones and fresh, hot soups. And I thought, "This is so cool: I'll bet people come to the library just for this reason and stick around to sample a book or a CD."

Of course, I was in the Boston Public Library at Copley Square. But I couldn't help thinking that Charlotte's main branch might increase foot traffic if it had a lunch spot like this one. I was in the part where you order from the counter; there's an adjacent area for more traditional restaurant seating and table service. And this was in a neighborhood where lunch options abounded.

Some years ago, I served on a public committee that assembled suggestions for a revamp of Charlotte's Main Branch. Everyone seemed to like the idea of adding an eatery: at best a cafe, at least a coffee shop. As I recall, that idea never went further than a small kiosk selling coffee and packaged snacks in the main lobby, and that kiosk eventually disappeared.

I'm not sure whether the Main Branch or another large branch, such as South County on Rea Road, could be adapted to serve hot food. Perhaps the restaurant would fail if it were out of sight (say, in a windowless room downstairs at Sixth and Tryon), and perhaps Charlotteans would have trouble accepting the library as a food destination. I am sure that, if this were done half-heartedly -- if it were a slightly improved version of the coffee kiosk -- it would swiftly become irrelevant.

But the Map Room Cafe remains a destination for my wife and me every time we go to Boston, and I saw some of the same people on Wednesday as I had seen two days before. I heard French and what sounded like a Scandinavian language spoken by the customers. A woman brought a book and read through her lunch hour; a man surfed on his laptop. Could a Charlotte branch achieve the same homey effect?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Love, war, death and the whole enchilada (and opera, too)

Every ill wind blows someone to a happier place, and the sweep of Nazism across Europe in World War II did the United States a peculiar kind of favor: We inherited a spate of actors, directors, writers, dancers and conductors (Jewish and otherwise) who heard the jackboots of Hitler's troops. Consider the classical composers we took in: Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Sergei Rachmaninov, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and many others.

But what of artistic emigres who suffered just as much, lost jobs and lived in even greater fear because they were too obscure to arouse public outcry on their behalf? Carol Jean Delmar has told the story of one of them -- her father, opera singer Franz Jung -- in a novelized kind of memoir titled "Serenade." (I say "novelized" because she has imagined conversations and assigned names to people who could never be tracked down.)

The book, available from Willow Lane Press for $27.99, works on four levels. It shows what life was like for people who lived comfortably in middle Europe, before their Jewishness made them outcasts in the mid 1930s. It gives a glimpse of the world an aspiring opera singer entered, back when opera was still entertainment for the average citizen. (Delmar, who has written about classical music through much of her life, provides synopses of the operas in which her dad sang.)

It shows the tortuous path fleeing families took to get to America, bouncing around Europe before traveling (in her parents' case) to Panama, then Cuba, then Miami. They didn't stop there: They moved to New York, then to Knoxville, Tenn. -- where Jung briefly gave voice lessons -- then ultimately to Los Angeles. Along the way, they were fleeced, lied to, led on with false hopes and confounded by bureaucracy, but they persevered.

And it's an inspirational story, not just because Franz and Franziska were devoted to each other for nearly seven decades but because he turned failure into success. When he lost his voice in Cuba for reasons he never really understood, his potential career at American opera houses collapsed. After teaching for a bit, he got a job at Western Costume Company in Hollywood, working for 75 cents an hour and keeping track of stock.

By this point, the couple had renamed themselves Frank and Frances Delmar and become American citizens. Over the next 25 years, he rose to become a costume supervisor or costumer on major movies or TV shows ("A Man Called Horse," Cloris Leachman's "Phyllis") and won the 1960 Motion Picture Costumers Award for creative artistry in television costuming for "The Untouchables." (The Emmys didn't give give costume prizes then.)

We're familiar with the stories of immigrants who brought huge talents to America. Many of us, myself included, had European ancestors who came over and worked in obscurity all their lives. But a story of a guy who lost his talent, worked in obscurity and found a creative, fulfilling niche for himself? That's another version of the American Dream.

Friday, June 14, 2013

WDAV doesn't sound the same these days

Which, from my point of view, is a great thing: The crackle is gone. Ever since a direct lightning strike whacked the station's primary broadcast antenna in August, the signal inside my house has carried static, no matter how much I fiddled with my internal antenna. That didn't prevent me from listening, especially when I was too lazy to dip into my CD collection, but it was like finding a few frozen crystals at the heart of the ice cream I'd waited for all day. But a new main antenna started broadcasting Tuesday, and I could hear the difference at once.

Until I travel, I don't always remember how lucky we are to have this station. I was in Charleston last month, enjoying opera and chamber music at Spoleto Festival USA. So I searched for a classical music station on the hotel's clock-radio, in order to wake up in the same mood. No luck: I had to jangle myself awake to rock 'n' roll.

Later, I went to ClassicalNet and found a list of classical music stations across the United States   ( It told me that 28 stations east of the Mississippi River carry mostly classical music and news, day and night. Only nine were in the South, two in the Carolinas: WDAV in Davidson and WCPE in Rolesville, outside Raleigh. (The site also listed WFDD in Winston-Salem, but its repertoire is much more mixed.)

WDAV has been breaking ground for as long as I've been listening, from recordings made live at Spoleto to "Concierto." The latter, billed as the nation's first bilingual classical music program (Spanish and English), can now be heard as far away as San Diego and Puerto Rico. Frank Dominguez, who's in his 20th season with the station, has just been named general manager and content director, so I expect even more innovations.

I seldom write about public radio or TV during fund drives, because it seems too bluntly like begging on their behalf. (The latest drive has just ended, though I don't think they'd reject further contributions.) But every so often, I have to give a shout-out to one of the organizations that adds a unique element to Charlotte culture. Check out the programming at, tune in that extra-clear signal, and see if you don't agree.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Big winner at the 2013 Tonys: South Carolina

If you watched the Tony Awards show Sunday, you may know that two natives of the Palmetto State went home with trophies.

Rock Hill's William Ivey Long was no surprise: He won his sixth Tony out of 13 nominations for designing the opulent costumes in the musical "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella." And Patina Miller of Pageland," who was nominated for "Sister Act" two years ago, nabbed her first Tony as best actress in a leading role in a musical.

Her emotion-charged speech included a shout-out to her father, who's currently in a hospital ("We almost lost him"), and the producers of "Pippin," who were willing to cast a woman as Leading Player in the revival of that Stephen Schwartz musical. (Ben Vereen won a Tony for the same role 40 years ago.) Speaking of South Carolina, one of the women Miller beat was Valisa LeKae, who stars as Diana Ross in "Motown: The Musical" -- a show directed by York County's Charles Randolph-Wright. More photos of Patina Miller.

"Pippin" and "Kinky Boots" dominated the musical categories. "Pippin" also won for best musical revival, director Diane Paulus and featured actress Andrea Martin. "Boots" took best musical, best lead actor in a musical (Billy Porter), best score for Cyndi Lauper's clever mix of traditional Broadway styles and pop anthems, and best orchestrations, choreography and sound design. (This means we should see it on tour in a couple of years. Based on the cast album, I'll want to. I want to see the new circus-style "Pippin," too.)

On the dramatic side, the big deal was...a 51-year-old play by the 85-year-old Edward Albee. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" won best revival of a play, best director for Pam McKinnon and best lead actor for Tracy Letts. (Yes, the guy who already had a Tony for writing "August: Osage County.") Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" won best play but nothing else.

Letts' victory reveals one of the four reasons the Tony Awards top the Oscars: Celebrity doesn't guarantee success here. Letts beat Hollywood icon Tom Hanks and Broadway icon Nathan Lane. MacKinnon trumped better-known directors Bartlett Sher and George C. Wolfe.

Another reason: The Tonys work well as an awards show. They're funnier and more daring than the Oscars, where the humor has an undercurrent of butt-kissing. (Movie actors usually make tepid fun of people who might give them huge contracts.) The musical numbers are better at the Tonys -- for one thing, they give a real flavor of the shows from which they come -- and thank-you speeches have more joy and astonishment. (The Tonys don't always anoint preordained winners, as the Oscars now mostly do.)

Yet another reason: Few sweeps. What was the last movie to win the best picture Oscar and not a single  award in any other category, as Durang's play did? (Answer: "Mutiny on the Bounty" in 1935.) "Pippin" and "Kinky Boots" had to make room not only for William Ivey Long but for "Matilda the Musical," which took best book, featured actor, scenic design and lighting.

Best reason of all: People at the Tonys look more like the general population. Four of the eight acting winners were black, although fewer than one-fifth of the performers on Broadway are African-American (according to the New York Times). Miller and Porter were joined by Courtney B. Vance ("Lucky Guy") and Cicely Tyson, who'll be 80 in December and became the oldest Tony-winning actor ever. She won best lead actress in a play for the revival of "The Trip to Bountiful," in the part that won white actress Geraldine Page an Oscar in the 1985 movie.

When the array of producers for "Kinky Boots" and "Pippin" tromped onto the stage, we saw folks of  various ages, races, genders and sexual preferences. (Tony host Neil Patrick Harris is openly gay, as were many presenters.) When I watch the Tony Awards, I see America.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Want the arts to stay alive? Then shout out.

You may have heard that a task force has been formed to study funding for the arts in Charlotte. Wait, don't let your eyes glaze over at the words "task force"! This matters.

The model we've sustained for about three decades, in which the Arts & Science Council made the rounds of private citizens, corporations and government and handed money over to arts groups, has been declining in effectiveness over the last decade. If you think the arts deserve financial support -- and if you don't, you're in the wrong blog -- then you already know we need a new model. But what?

Yes, people can always give directly to groups. (I do. I hope you do, too.) But centralized solicitation does work, partly because donors don't want a long line of potential recipients coming at them, hats in hand, for individual gifts. Companies such as mine prefer to have payroll deductions go to a central agency, too.

So nobody's going to recommend scrapping the ASC. But what role should it play in the future? What new funding sources or techniques can be found? It's the job of the 21-member task force, chaired by Valecia McDowell (an attorney with Moore & Van Allen) and Pat Riley (president of Allen Tate Company) to figure that out. (See for details.)

And it's your job, too. Public meetings will be held  to get your input throughout the year, before the task force makes recommendations. The first four are all on Mondays, from 3 to 5 p.m.. in the ASC boardroom at 227 W. Trade St., Suite 250. They're on June 10, June 24, July 15 and July 29.

If you've enjoyed a Summer Pops concert near SouthPark or taken your kid to "The Nutcracker" or seen a play by one of a dozen local theater companies, you know the value of the arts. But they can't depend entirely on ticket sales, however popular they are; they need private and public backing to keep the stage lights on and the tutus pressed. What that combination should be is, at least partly, up to you.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Watch out for flying art!

Make that FREE flying art, rolled up and delivered this Saturday at...well, I don't know. But that's Papergirl Charlotte for you.

The organization, which started here in autumn 2009, came out of an idea in Berlin three years earlier. Aisha Ronniger began Papergirl there as a response to tightened German graffiti laws, which equated putting up art posters in public places with spraying graffiti on walls.

The manifesto is simple: "Making art for the sake of art. Giving it away for the sake of giving." (To learn about the local group, see its Facebook page at

This must be the most egalitarian art project ever. The site explains that "there are no guidelines as to quantity or format: zines, prints, drawings, paintings, photos, textiles, stickers, writings, etc. are all welcome." The only criterion is that you must be able to roll your piece up, so it can be delivered like a newspaper.

Artists can make works alone or together, in private or at public art-making sessions. They can be handed to organizer Mark Doepker or mailed to him in Huntersville. (See "about" on the site.) The pieces get assembled in a public, non-curated show on one day, then handed out the next.

They'll be on view Friday at Pura Vida Worldly Art, 3202-A N. Davidson St., which is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. You can't buy them -- all of them must be given away on Saturday -- but you can contact an artist if you want a similar piece made.

On delivery day, bicyclists go out into the streets of Charlotte. They put bands around rolled-up artworks that explain the project and ride wherever they choose, handing pieces out to "catchers" chosen at random. There's a celebration afterward, and then the process starts all over for the following spring.

"The world needs more art and kindness," says the site, and who can argue with that sentiment? I hadn't  planned to leave the house Saturday afternoon, but now I'm wondering just where those bicycles might go....