Friday, July 21, 2017

When it’s Christmas Morning on the Night Before Summer...

...from a photographer's notebook
Empire State Building from Madison Avenue

No matter how many years are on the odometer, I am delighted to say that I never run out of “Kid on Christmas Morning” moments when I’m in New York with a camera or three.

And when one of those cameras happens to be my first full-frame D-SLR, the exquisite Canon EOS 5D MkIV – and so glad I waited – purchased especially for this trip and its planned twilight open helicopter flight (let’s call it an early Christmas present I’d no intention of waiting for Christmas Morning to open!)…

I suppose this image, taken on the night before summer, might serve as Exhibit-A. For at the end of my first day exploring new territory in the city, enjoying for the first time Madison Square Park, a few blocks south of my hotel on Madison Avenue, and a nice dinner at a sidewalk café along the north edge of the park, I’m walking back uptown and look up to see the iconic spire of the Empire State Building, lighted in some of my favorite colors against a crystal clear night sky.

Yes, Santa Claus is coming to town – Heck, he’s already landed that sleigh with a great big bundle of megapixels inside.

The ESB was captured here through my trusty quarter-century-young 28-80mm f/2.8-4 L-Series lens at its 80mm setting on the new 5D. The photograph (see it larger here) is available in archival gallery-quality prints in several sizes, and can be ordered on several stocks including metallic media. Please be in touch for specifics.

It was actually a fine afternoon and evening for viewing and shooting iconic spires in Manhattan, notably also the gold-domed roofs of both the New York Life Building and Met Life Tower along the east side of Madison Square Park, both against afternoon- and twilight-blue skies on this photo-perfect day... Let me share these with you soon.

©2017 Steve Ember

P.S: That 28-80L lens, incidentally, was purchased back when my EOS-1 film camera and its “junior partner,” the lovely little RT were new and has since meshed its shiny little gold electrical contacts with those on my EOS-3 and 1N RS (big brother to the RT). It was nice (but not surprising) to see it got along splendidly in NYC with the full-frame digital EOS.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Rachmaninoff at the Meyerhoff

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop salutes her orchestra after a stunning performance of the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 last night at the Meyerhoff

I journeyed up the road Baltimore last night (well, crawled might be a better word, as it was a Friday on the Capital Beltway and I-95 - better planning in order next time - but well worth the 2-1/2 hour slog!) to hear Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform one of my favorite works of Rachmaninoff, the Symphony No.2, which also happens to be one of my favorite symphonies, period.

When one loves a work as much as I do this symphony, it is difficult indeed to have just one favorite performance, conductor, orchestra, or recording. I’ve always thought Andre Previn and Eugene Ormandy have both made this expansive romantic symphony their own in definitive recordings, but there are so many others in my collection of CDs and vinyl, which I have enjoyed over the years. Oddly, for a work I so love, live performances have not numbered all that many, but I’d like to add Ms. Alsop to a list of conductors who I feel have made the symphony their own.

If this happens to be one of your favorite symphonies too, let me suggest – no, urge – that you go online at and reserve a seat at Strathmore this evening at 8 or at the Meyerhoff tomorrow afternoon at 3. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Especially when it's superbly played Rachmaninoff #2!
Rachmaninoff No. 2 is a long symphony, running close to an hour. Mere minutes into the first movement, as Ms. Alsop led her orchestra, I suspected we were in for one hell of a ride. As the movement transitioned from brooding to Allegro moderato, I knew I’d been right. And especially as the Allegro molto second movement began, well this Rachmaninoff lover must have been grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

As Cary Grant says in “North by Northwest” (if in an entirely different context!), “What a performance!”

As the last movement built to its magnificent and affirmative climax, I didn’t want it to end.

Brava Maestra Alsop! Bravo BSO!

This is a concert I’ll remember with unalloyed joy and appreciation.

I was not aware of this until reading the program notes of the concert I attended earlier this month, but Ms. Alsop is a protégé of Leonard Bernstein. It made perfect sense as I listened to her talk about Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” last time at the “Off the Cuff” concert, as well as the way she engages her audience in discussing a piece of music.

Like Bernstein, she is a kinetic and emotive conductor. And while I love many of Bernstein’s recordings, thankfully, unlike Bernstein, her facial expressions do not suggest excessive Sturm und Drang (or the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition!). Her love of – and respect for – the music she conducts is nothing less than genuine. Beyond that, a good descriptor would be “unassumingly eloquent.”

From my perch above the stage in a cozy three chair terrace box, I could really appreciate how Ms. Alsop communicates with her musicians in each section of the orchestra. It is nothing less than a warm and sincere love affair, both with her orchestra and the music she conducts.

Finding my sweet spot at the Meyerhoff…

I mentioned in a previous post that I planned to sample the acoustics and views from other locations in the invitingly modern concert hall of the Meyerhoff. Assuming good acoustics, I’ve always enjoyed a high and close-in view of the orchestra. It allows me to visually connect the sounds with the musicians in each section of the ensemble. This time, I think I struck gold – a front terrace box on the left side, way up front.

Experiencing the Rachmaninoff No.2 as conducted by Marin Alsop from this high and cozy spot in the Meyerhoff, and watching her interact with the musicians, was nothing less than sublime.

The program also includes two choral works in which the excellent University of Maryland Chorus, directed by Edward Maclary, joined the BSO. It opened with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Credo,” receiving its BSO premiere. It is described as a “merging of the worlds of love and hate to offer healing.” I’m not at all sure that, on first hearing, it did either for me. Like the 2-1/2 hour Interstate slog, though, it was to be endured, knowing the affirmative joys of Rach #2 lay ahead. Oh, yes, it is relatively … short.

More to my liking, the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, which gave the orchestra and this fine chorus the chance to shine together. I especially enjoyed Ms. Alsop’s conducting and the orchestra's taught ensemble playing in a particularly angular and athletic orchestral portion.

The BSO programs also have a way of offering patrons some nice after concert bonuses in the so-called BSO Late Night programs. Last night, it was an (additional) performance by the chorus, a capella, on a Meyerhoff stairway. Many of us audience members stayed around to enjoy their virtuosity. Just a note, this bonus performance was for Friday night’s concert only.

©2017 Steve Ember

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Monday, April 3, 2017

A thousand and one nights at the Meyerhoff...

Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Baltimore really loves its symphony orchestra. I mean, really-really! It was such an enjoyable experience catching up with the Baltimore Symphony Saturday night. It was my first time attending a concert conducted by BSO Music Director Marin Alsop, as well as my first concert at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Wow, did this Baltimore-bred music lover actually type that? Where is his loyalty, one might ask. Not even a trip across the Beltway to hear the BSO at Strathmore Performing Arts Center? (Well, I can at least say that I played a fair number of BSO recordings in my past life as classical music broadcaster.)

All of that changes after Saturday’s engaging evening of music (and more).

But I must blushingly admit that the last time I had previously attended a BSO concert was at the old Lyric Theater. I wish I could even say that the last time at the Lyric was shortly before the Meyerhoff opened in 1982…but, alas, it wasn’t.

Nope, last time I actually attended a BSO program was sometime in the distant ‘60s. Someone had the radical idea of busing a bunch of us rowdy high school hoodlums to a BSO concert. And to make it “worse,” a concert that was being recorded for broadcast.

I referred not long ago to the hyper-developed trivia lobe that sits somewhere behind my eyes and between my ears, so here is a bit of trivia guaranteed to register at least with Baltimore radio listeners of a certain age … or audio buffs (also of a certain age).

We rowdy hoodlums (OK, I wasn’t one of them – I happened to like classical music) were soundly and deservedly bawled out before the concert by Baltimore broadcaster Gil Kriegel of station WITH for “our” (Not Me, I reiterate!) lack of decorum. 

When AM carried the fiddles and FM the celli (or was it the other way around?)

Another bit of musical, broadcast, and audio trivia, again for those “seasoned” enough to appreciate it – Once upon a time, and for a mercifully short period until FM Multiplex Stereo broadcasting arrived, there were experimental stereo broadcasts of the BSO by WITH, which at the time, had both AM and FM stations. The programming was different, but on Sunday afternoons, they came together to thrill music lovers with concerts by the BSO. I believe the conductor at the time might have been Massimo Freccia.

Stereo was new and novel enough at the time that the (often) rather obvious difference in sound quality between the two channels did not seem to dim the experience, and the Symphonie Fantastique did indeed sound pretty fantastic…as did the Tchaikowsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, what have you.

A typical set-up might have been that the FM channel would blossom forth from, perhaps, a large mahogany “HiFi” console (in our case, it was a huge DuMont 19 inch TV that also incorporated an FM tuner of quite decent quality and a big coaxial speaker), and the poor-relation AM side squawked forth from a table radio (ours was a modest Emerson).

As this was something of an event for music lovers, one made sure that the AM table radio was carefully tuned to avoid any spurious “whistles.” Also, that any fluorescent lights or  vacuum cleaners were turned off to avoid any futzing with the fiddles or flutes.

Oh, my, I have just reminded myself of how Hannibal Lecter, another lover of fine music, rid the BSO of a faulty flautist who made the mistake of playing his flute miserably out of tune during the Mendelssohn Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opens “Red Dragon.” Ah, but that was a “deliciously” appropriate (if purely cinematic) matter of maintaining high standards of orchestral playing, and I hasten to add the flutes Saturday night sounded just fine. So no off-tune livers being dined upon with fava beans and a nice chianti…or served as an amuse-bouche to music supporting dilettantes in Bolton Hill.

But back to those noble early AM-FM attempts at stereophonic symphony broadcasts…They didn’t necessarily have to sound as cheesily off-balanced as I described above. The true audio hobbyist (in which I had by then only attained “sprout” status) might instead have listened on a full-fledged audio system with identical speakers left and right, with the broadcast entering via perhaps a McIntosh AM-FM tuner (with two tuning knobs) which allowed simultaneous tuning of both an AM and an FM station, sending them as separate left and right channels to the amplifying stages of one’s system. In such cases, the AM channel could at least be subjectively closer in sound to the FM channel…given no thunderstorms, fluorescent lights, or errant Hoovers.

Pillow talk...and staying alive (with oriental color)...

Ah, but I did I not begin this errant ramble with references to the treats enjoyed by your scribe Saturday night at the Meyerhoff, as Maestra Marin Alsop conducted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful orchestral showpiece “Scheherazade” with  Concertmaster Jonathan Carney playing the featured violin parts by which the fair Scheherazade convinced the bloodthirsty Sultan it was better (and much more entertaining) to keep her around as the spinner of exotic tales.

It had been too long since I’d heard this favorite piece in a live performance. Also, some recent photography around the old B&O Mount Royal Station, close by the Meyerhoff, reminded me that it might be fun to rediscover the BSO, experience the Meyerhoff, and enjoy more of Baltimore’s dining and other attractions nearby. And, as a visit to the BSO web site revealed some upcoming concerts featuring "Scheherazade," all fell into place nicely.

While the exterior of the Meyerhoff might be an acquired taste, the inside is pleasantly modern and airy. Even before one enters the auditorium, it is clear the public spaces have been designed with an eye to user-friendliness. Spread out on each level are alcoves with seats and tables for enjoying a pre-concert drink or snack from the multiple bars and food service kiosks or just socializing. And most of these areas have nice outside views, including to one of my favorite sights, beloved from childhood, the clock tower of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s proud Mount Royal Station, now productively occupied by the art school of the Maryland Institute. 
South end of Mount Royal Station faces the Meyerhoff

The auditorium is visually pleasing as well, as one looks up at boxes and other tiered seating areas with graciously curved forms, which were, in fact,  part of the acoustic design. While my computer-selected seat was quite close to the stage and rather far to the left, I do look forward to experiencing the sound balances and views of the orchestra from other parts, and levels, of the concert hall on future visits.

Off the Cuff...

This particular performance of “Scheherazade” was one of the so-called “Off the Cuff” series programs, where Marin Alsop talks to the audience about the work and conducts snippets to illustrate, before conducting the full work.

It is so satisfying to watch people who genuinely love what they do, and who so engagingly share that passion with their public. The big surprise, for me as a first time attendee of one of these programs, was that – after the performance (which was, I should add, most enthusiastically received by the large Meyerhoff audience) – Ms. Alsop returned to the stage with Mr. Carney to conduct an informal question and answer session with the audience, most of whom, I noticed, stayed on to enjoy or participate. There is one overwhelmingly accurate description of how she presides – gracious. The questions were posed by youngsters, seniors, and all ranges in between. And both Ms. Alsop and Mr. Carney were patient, enthusiastic, and engaging. In the case of many of the participants, Ms. Alsop asked them questions in return.

I think the session may have lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and never did I get the feeling that a questioner was rushed or given less than thoughtful replies from the stage. And when it came time to wrap up, it was done graciously.

Oh yes, there was another surprise. After the Q-and-A we were invited to adjourn to the lobby where tasty Afghan dishes were being provided at modest cost by one of midtown Baltimore’s finest restaurants, The Helmand. And, to wash it down, Stella Artois at four bucks a bottle. Oh, yes, and an ensemble providing music.

Can other orchestras learn from the BSO’s example of both gemütlich and user-friendly accessibility? Another “Oh, YES.”

A loyal fan was made that night at the Meyerhoff. Wish it had happened sooner.

Oh, one more thing to note…this one about…manners. How can I put this gently? I have attended concerts over many years at our alabaster cultural palace on the banks of the Potomac. Many a fine performance, whether by the National Symphony Orchestra or visiting world class orchestras. I have never learned to be less offended when, barely have the notes of the last piece faded away, one sees all too many “concertgoers” heading for the exits to be the first ones to depart the parking garage. Not all, but too damned many. I know the orchestra members are paid well, but to see this happening after they’ve played their you-know-whats off…I have to wonder how they feel seeing from the stage this consummate rudeness. And not just when the next day is a work day.

Did I see this at the Meyerhoff? No. Indeed, it looked as though most of the audience did in fact stay put for the Q-and-A.

If Saturday night is any kind of example, Baltimore really loves its symphony orchestra and it really-really shows.

I couldn’t resist a movie reference earlier.  Heah's anudduh. “I’ll be back.”

©2017 Steve Ember

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

American Airlines greets you with Mewer Till Dawn

Mewer tonight at the hospital. See him larger with narrative here.
If you'll pardon the possibly obscure reference, I'll try to explain it. Or you may just chalk it up to a significant lightening of spirit upon seeing how well my handsome little trooper was getting along tonight at SouthPaws ;-)

You'll notice - no more ga ga eyeballs, as he's requiring less happy juice after his surgery.

Anyhow, if you know me you're probably aware of the sometimes bizarrely arcane synapses that can start firing off when photos and music are brought within sparking distance.

Like fr'instance...
I'd planned to go to the Kennedy Center tonight to hear the NSO play my favorite Brahms Symphony (No. 2).

Of course that was before it became obvious from Mewer's last potassium emergency that surgery needed to happen sooner, not later.

So, after a happy visit with my little guy, I figured a good stout shot of Brahms No. 2 on the audio system while I edited my photos of Mewer, Dr. Keil, and Nurse Maka would be the next best thing.

And as Maestro Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra launched into the Academic Festival Overture (it precedes the Symphony on this favorite CD, such that I always think of it as THE prelude to the magnificence of good ol' Number Two), I flash back to American Airlines once-upon-a-time overnight program of classical music and light classics/lush orchestral selections. "Music Till Dawn" was hosted by a select group of the finest broadcasters to grace a microphone and it covered the country via CBS Radio owned-and-operated stations. It was on AM radio, but I suppose that added to the night-time mystique...who could mind the occasional fade when considering such magnificent music was covering boundless distances under starry skies...kind of like those silver 707 Flagships or the remarkable Electra-IIs, their powerful Allison 501 turboprop engines making their own unique music.

Back then, car makers actually cared about the quality of their AM radios, and I still vividly remember driving at night in my '63 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible and being able to tune in WBBM in Chicago, sounding almost local if the atmospherics were good, to hear Jay Andres hosting Music Till Dawn. He became my favorite of the high class stable of American Airlines hosts. Rich baritone with easy-going style (unlike some unnamed tyros who poison classical music with precious and effete affectations on certain other forms of radio).

I'd make sure that juicy sounding AM radio in the Galaxie was tuned to WBBM at 12:30 AM (11:30 PM Chicago time) and enjoy that splendid arrangement of "That's All," the program's signature,which would swell and fade under Jay's rich baritone...

"American Airlines greets you with Music Till Dawn." 

Whether Jay Andres was introducing the Academic Festival Overture or suggesting how your local travel agent could arrange for a jet powered magic carpet to whisk you off to delightful destinations...well, he just had you in a very special space while cruising past the lighted monuments along the Potomac with the Galaxie's top open to the stars.

I don't know if Jay was a cat person, but as I looked at this photo of Mewer...and Bruno Walter conducted Brahms No. 2...I had to think if he were to come back as a cat...he'd be Mewer. Maybe that has to do with Mewer's rich baritone purr-r-r-r.

No, I've not been imbibing...though I shall raise a glass shortly and maybe hit "repeat" on the CD player for another sublime shot of Brahms.

Oh, Mewer? If you haven't already guessed, my little boy's doing fine. Thank you, SouthPaws.

©2017 Steve Ember

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

On coal-smoke memories, a one, and three zeros

...from a photographer's notebook
'Mountain Thunder' on Helmstetter's Curve, Cumberland, Maryland ©Steve Ember

I just realized a few days ago that the next photograph I publish to my FotoCommunity pages will be the one-thousandth since joining the site back in 2009.

Perhaps not a huge amount in eight years, considering how long I’ve been shooting, but 1,000 is kind of a special number, no matter what one is counting.

So, I got to chasing my tail in ever widening circles on the topic of which of thousands of images, whether digital or film, should be my one thousandth on F-C.

Something from Tribeca or elsewhere in NYC? A not-yet-published scene from London or the Scottish Highlands? A favorite Alpine moment? Perhaps a portrait of a lovely woman? Or my handsome little gray and white furry side-kick and editing assistant, Mewer the WonderCat?

Then, it snuck up and grabbed me…an image that took me all the way back to childhood in Baltimore…even before my folks gave me my first camera which got the whole thing started – this looking through viewfinders, turning dials, pressing buttons, and light-painting upside down images of stuff I liked on sprocketed strips of celluloid and, much later, digital sensors.

Even before I fell in love with photography, I was into…trains! When I was very young, my parents’ furniture business, originally a furniture factory, was located on East Monument Street in an interesting (if not exactly "glamorous") part of east-central Baltimore. Its neighbors were the busy Fallsway, various warehouses, The Baltimore City Jail, the Maryland Penitentiary, and a funky little blue collar carryout that made great hotdogs called  AJ’s Dog House, with its Baltimore-direct slogan "If it ain't good, we don't sell it" emblazoned on the outside wall.

Ah, but I digress…

The “neighboring attraction” that applies here was the street-running tracks of the Western Maryland Railway that ran past “the factory,” across Monument Street, parallel to Fallsway. The tracks connected the WMR’s Hillen Street Station with Baltimore Pennsylvania Station to the north. These tracks saw shunting of freight cars among the warehouses as well (by diesel locomotives), but the real attraction was the afternoon passenger train to Hagerstown and Cumberland in distant western Maryland, pulled by a gleaming black huffing, chuffing…steam locomotive.

The train originated at Hillen Street, did the aforementioned street running, protected by a man in a little house next to Monument Street, who would come out with a Stop sign to ensure no motorists came out second best in an encounter with the huffing, chuffing black beast, and would continue (the train, not the man) up to Penn Station where it would pick up additional passengers. Then, after passing through the tunnel the PRR trains used in heading toward Washington and points south, it would veer off toward northwest Baltimore to begin its journey to the far-western reaches of Maryland.

There was something very special about viewing (and hearing and smelling) a steam train from above. Mom and Dad’s showroom was on the second floor of that old brick building, and that would be my after-school perch for watching the train. As the tracks were immediately next to the building, it was very “up close and personal,” including hearing the throaty “chuff-chuff-chuff,” seeing the exhaust belching from the locomotive’s stack, and smelling the sweet aroma of the coal-smoke.

It took probably less than a minute for the handsome beast to huff and chuff past, but the sight, sound, and smell imprinted me for life. Yes, I like the smell of diesel exhaust, too…and the aroma of warm electric traction motors, but that first impression of a steam-powered passenger train approaching, rumbling past, and disappearing to the north was seminal to a life-long love of trains.

Indeed, some of the first photos I took with that first box camera were, predictably, of trains, as my Dad would take me to some great spots to watch the activities of both the Pennsylvania  and the Baltimore and Ohio railroads. But, by this time, the old Western Maryland service to Cumberland, was pulled by an Alco RS-3 diesel road switcher locomotive.

So, no pictures to share of a smoke-belching Western Maryland Railway steam locomotive, its tender emblazoned with the big gold Western Maryland letters and the gold and red “Fireball” logo of the railroad (long ago absorbed into the CSX) chuffing its way past that old red brick “factory” in east Baltimore (It’s not there any more either)…

But a part of the experience…and a generous helping of coal-smoke…came back in a pleasant rush, about fifty years later on a sun-bathed early autumn afternoon in Cumberland, where I had journeyed to shoot the “Mountain Thunder” Steam Train of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, along its route from Cumberland to Frostburg.

The setting was along the famous Helmstetter’s Curve. As you look at the photo, you’ll just have to imagine the belching exhaust. Locomotive No. 734, a 2-8-0, built in 1916, was doing plenty of blastful chuffing in as it climbed out of the canyon of the Cumberland Narrows up to Helmstetter’s Farm, for which the curve is named, and it will resume its chuffing and blasting in a moment or two as it continues toward Brush Tunnel, but, for the moment, the engineer has eased off the throttle and the fireman is taking a breather from stoking coal into the firebox. Ah, but the coal-smoke fragrance was certainly there for the sniffing.

The photo was taken on Fujichrome-100 slide film – pushed to E.I. 400 – through an EF 100-300mm F/4.5-5.6 USM lens, wearing a polarizing filter on my Canon EOS-1.

You may view it in higher quality here.

I had just the other day posted to my new Photography bySteve Ember Facebook page, a photo of another steam locomotive, shot some years earlier at Cumberland’s majestic old station. That loco did not sport Western Maryland livery, as the tourist line from Cumberland to Frostburg was then called the Allegheny Central…but photographers know how a late night editing session can entail searches through the image bank of “related” motifs.

It was thus that I turned up this image, which I’d actually scanned from the slide, probably close to the time I became an F-C member, when I purchased my Nikon film scanner in 2009. It is making its first appearance now, after all those years in “hibernation,” both in slide box and computer hard drive.

And speaking of joining F-C, well that was at the repeated suggestions (I was a reluctant internet user in terms of photos at the time) from my German photographer friend Tom Reitzel around the time we were shooting steam trains in eastern Germany’s Erzgebirge region in winter 2008.

And, as Tom is a fellow steam train enthusiast (including of American steam) and photographer, and as I would probably not have discovered the Europe-based F-C without his recommending it, I raise a glass of Proseco to Tom as I finish writing this recollection and upload the image to Foto-Community…as my 1000th.

Cheers and Prosit!

©2017 Steve Ember

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

December and Electric Trains...

1950s Print Ad for Lionel Trains

As Christmas approaches, model trains are never far from my thoughts. No surprise, of course, as my birthday also falls in December. For me (up until I had to choose between it and component HiFi!) the magic of my Lionel O Gauge layout was year-round. And, yes, I still miss it. But the magic transformer throttle would get really notched up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for it always meant the trip downtown with my Mom, which always included three fondly-remembered stops, each of them rich in model railroad enchantment.

Well, actually four, but one was not so much tied to “electric trains” as it was to ladies in white gloves and, umm, Chicken a la King. To get the fourth one quickly out of the way, it was lunch in the Tea Room at Hochschild-Kohn’s, a venerable Baltimore department store, popularly known simply as Hochschild's (or "Hayshuls," in Balmerese, the local variant on the King's English).

You see, once lunch was dispensed with, Mom and I would be off to the department store next door, the equally venerable Hutzler Brothers, Hutzler’s for short -- Hutzler's and Hochschilds shared a block along Howard ("Harrid") Street in downtown Baltimore. That’s when the magic kicked in, for our destination there was Hutzler’s ToyTown, as announced by the uniformed elevator operator, as the doors slid open.

For my purposes and preferences, I never considered “ToyTown” an apt name, for my mission there was not a mere "toy" experience.  
Lionel's popular and iconic O -Gauge EMD Santa Fe F-3 diesel locomotive

For it was here that, every Christmas season, the Lionel-experts set up an elaborate O-Gauge layout with multiple trains negotiating steep grades (aided of course by Lionel’s much vaunted MagneTraction), disappearing into tunnels, blowing their whistles or horns for grade crossings, gliding into magnificent stations, or disgorging cattle into stock pens, or dumping logs into a sawmill’s conveyor.

Silhouetted passengers rode in style in the fluted silver streamlined “Lionel Lines” cars, pulled by growling Santa Fe F-3 diesels in sets of three…or iconic Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives. And, of course, imitation smoke puffing Hudson- or Berkshire-class steam locomotives would haul their “heavyweight” Pullman parlor cars between country towns and the big city. As I recall, it was all on auto-pilot, as speeds were carefully set to be as impressively fast as possible without risking model disasters. And the big Lionel ZW transformers powering the trains, as well as all the twinkling lights and crossing gates and other elements of enchantment, were safely out of the reach of young visitors who might take it upon themselves to cause quarter-inch-to-the-foot calamity.

Imagine that: Bringing the FAMILY together. What a radical concept...

This post-Thanksgiving pre-Birthday ritual visit was for the purpose of deciding which locomotive or passenger or freight car or accessory might  (well, hopefully) be presented following birthday dinner. And, damn, did I ever make it my mission to be a good boy at this particular time of year.

The trip downtown would also include a visit to Taubman Hardware’s flagship store on West Baltimore Street. Now, “hardware store” I could more willingly buy into than the more frivolous “ToyTown.” See, it was once a tradition for Lionel’s O and O-27 Gauge trains to be sold in hardware stores. Back when hardware stores were not Home Depots…

So, further scrutiny to Lionel’s offerings was applied there at Taubman’s, as Hutzler’s had the glamour layout but perhaps not everything that Taubman’s had on its utilitarian shelves.

And, finally, there was the visit to the lobby of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s office building at the corner of Baltimore and Charles to take in their elaborate display. This one was not Lionel, but the competing American Flyer S-Gauge trains, which actually ran on more authentic looking two-rail track (as opposed to Lionel’s middle power-rail) and were, as I recall, more toward scale in proportions. But, heck, back then, you were either a Lionel partisan or an American Flyer devotee. I do remember a very appealing American Flyer iteration of my favorite B&O train, the elegant Royal Blue. Of course, AF’s “Royal Blue” was pulled by Alco diesels instead of the sloped-nose EMDs of real-life, but such “poetic license” was OK as AF’s Alcos were quite attractive.

Screen Capture from Eisenbahn Romantik Ontraxs DVD

No matter the gauge…or whether one remembers them from earlier years as “electric trains” or “model trains” (the latter having the more “serious” connotation, as in devoted hobbyists who do everything in scale), this is the time of year to raise a hearty Glühwein (or libation of your own choosing) toast to electric trains, whether they simply chase their tails in a basic circle or oval under the Christmas tree…or recreate moments from a saner past, chuffing their way between German or French or Swiss villages, admired by tiny farmers with their cows, awaited by tiny – and properly dressed – travelers…admired by full sized adults and pint-sized kids….

If I may throw in a plug for a most enjoyable project I did a few years ago on a major European model train show, it was my honor to be the English language narrator for an “Eisenbahn Romantik” 2-DVD set on the Ontraxs show in Utrecht, Holland.

One of the reasons narrating this presentation was so much fun had to do with how well the script described the enchanting miniature worlds created by these dedicated modelers.

"A Diorama" - Screen Capture from Ontraxs DVD

I see the set is still available, so I thought I’d tell you about it, even though it’s going to be too late to order and view it with your loved ones by the Christmas tree (although, if you’re reading this in Europe, there just might just be that chance).

Here’s a link to an earlier blog story I did on the project. Embedded in it are two audio players with clips from a couple of favorite chapters (and that selection was, indeed, a hard choice!) as well as a link to the web site from which the DVD set can be ordered. Yank (and other non-European) readers may wish to lay it in for next Christmas.

©2016 Steve Ember

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sam...Black Satin...and Shearing

...from a photographer's notebook

I like Humphrey Bogart. And I like cats.
And if Bogart came back as a cat, I could see him in this photo saying "Awright, Shweetheart, this is the kiss-off."
Or “Play it again, Sam.”

But wait - this is Sam!

Sam crossed the rainbow bridge some years ago, after enriching the lives of my cousins for his long life with his gentle nature (even though he might appear a bit “sinister” here!). Sam always sought me out when I came to visit, and I must say he was my favorite of their cats of the time.

I’ve always felt one of the top precepts of Catdom (right up there alongside of “If it feels good, do it”) is “Any place I plant my furry little bummy is home.” And, in this instance, Sam had planted said furry bummy on the black lining of my parka, which I’d left on my cousins’ couch.

Now I just tonight happened to find this image in a file folder I’d imaginatively named (during a particularly hectic period of editing) “Everything Else.” While searching out a totally unrelated image, my search program told me it was lurking in that “Everything Else” folder. Which led me to serendipitously rediscover this photo of Sam, taken in 2011.

As these stream of consciousness journeys often lead, the splayed out black lining brought to mind a favorite album from the 1960s. Back then, jazz pianist George Shearing had a very popular run of Capitol LPs which combined the sound of the George Shearing Quintet with full orchestra. Capitol engineers made particularly good use of those stereo masters in these inviting recordings.

Each was adorned by some rather luscious album art featuring comely lasses in come-hither poses. While these sets, including two of my faves, “White Satin” and “Black Satin” later were released on CD, I must say the effect was more arresting when these high-fashion photos appeared in the classic twelve inch square format in the days of vinyl and record shops with bins of LPs.

If you flipped past one of these covers without stopping to gaze, perhaps just briefly flipping it over to check the tunes and scan the notes, before quickly returning your adoring gaze to the front and heading to the cashier with it, well, you were probably long overdue for a visit to your doctor.

I’m not saying ol’ Sam was as alluring on his “black satin” as the gal on the cover of Shearing's "Black Satin," but the pose certainly carried me back to my record shop perusing and subsequent listening.

Care to join me for a track?

George and his sidemen and arranger/band leader Billy May have also crossed the rainbow bridge. But that’s OK. Their spirit and art linger on and continue to delight. In his own sweet way, so does ol’ gentle Sam.

©2016 Steve Ember

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