Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It's a Toddlin' Town

...from a photographer's notebook

1964 - Looking west on Randolph from State Street. Remember whose music was topping the charts?
[As originally posted August 2014]

I’ve always liked that line in “The Package,” where Tommy Lee Jones tells his nefarious associates he’s not going to hang around with them, but instead plans to head into town. It must be said, if anyone can make an assassin oddly “likeable,” it’s Mr. Jones. If you don’t believe me, just rent – or better yet – purchase the DVD of this Andrew Davis Chicago-set thriller from 1989. I’ve a hunch you’ll want to watch it more than once.

Of course, the most familiar iteration of “toddlin’ town” doesn’t have the “it’s a” in there.
Rather, as Frank Sinatra sings the Fred Fischer tune
Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town…
Chicago, Chicago, I will show you around, I love it...

Naturally, being a fan of both Chicago and vintage Sinatra, I found good use for the tune in one of the last “This Is America” programs I produced for VOA Learning English. There were only so many photos I could post in the web presentation of the story, and I wanted to stick with aspects of Chicago contained in my audio production. But I felt a bit remiss at not having space to illustrate what Frank is alluding to when he sings

On State Street, that great street...

Nonetheless, I did manage to dig up some slides from a couple of very early trips to the Windy City (and, of course, some from more recent visits). I thought I’d share a few…

State Street - Marina City, Marshall Field's iconic clock, and a couple I knew very well (1964)

The picture above is how “that great street” looked in March of 1964. Oh, yes, that classy looking couple on State Street crossing Randolph Street in the foreground would be my Mom and Dad, as the rookie kid photog aimed his…what would it be? … ah yes, the old Yashica J-3, my very first SLR…up State toward the Corn Cobs, Chicagoans’ apt name for the twin towers of (then new) Marina City.

Talk about a time warp…

The State Lake Theater is treating its patrons to Peter Sellers and David Niven in “The Pink Panther.” Remember Henry Mancini’s sly-catchy theme? Couldn’t miss it on the radio back then.  Let’s see, Gregory Peck is on the Chicago Theater’s big screen – not sure which film that would have been – Bergman’s “The Silence” is in the way.

And would you look at that big sign at upper right...

If you boarded a flight for London at O’Hare International Airport (or O’Hare Field, as Chicagoans of a sentimental leaning still call the sprawling complex today), your four-engined “Speedbird” would not say British Airways on its aluminium skin, but rather the stout and steaky livery of B-O-A-C – British Overseas Airways Corporation, don’t you know…

Oh, and that massive and iconic clock suspended over the “great street” belonged to the venerable Marshall Field’s Department Store. It’s now another Macy’s.

I’ve got to get back to Chicago real soon…and shoot from this same vantage point. It will no doubt look quite different, especially the area beyond the State-Lake L station. Like any big vibrant city, Chicago’s skyline and cityscape is in constant evolution.

But what fun to freeze time for a moment and view some slices of the “Windy City” through the eyes of my teen rookie photographer self!

But, oh my! After the elation in seeing that my Chicago slides from that 1964 visit had held up well in their long-neglected drawer of slide boxes, came the sudden realization – or was it shock? - Whoa, that was f-i-f-t-y years ago!

Well, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. As director Andrew Davis said in his commentary track for “The Fugitive,”

“Love you, Chicago.”
Yeah, me too. I’m Steve Ember

©2014 Steve Ember

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Franz Allers

...from a photographer's (and music lover's) notebook

August 6, 2015

Sometimes, there is a very special kind of serendipity when some long-procrastinated-over cleaning up reveals amidst the mostly disposable detritus…a color slide, long unseen, but fortunately protected in a sleeve, from years earlier…

During the years I was a fine arts/classical music broadcaster, especially from around 1980 to 1986, I probably had more fun than was legal. Certainly, more fun than would be possible now given the current state of radio.

I still sort of pinch myself at the recollection that I was actually getting paid to present the music I so loved and to meet and interview so many of my musical idols – composers, lyricists, performers, and conductors, many of whom were legends in their time. And, you know something else? Most of them were lovely individuals, genuinely nice to talk to. And talk at length we did, face-to-face with my trusty Sony TC-D5M capturing every word and nuance picked up by my pair of Beyer M-500 ribbon mics, as we’d sit across a table. No Skype back then, of course. And no sticking some handheld device in somebody’s face. I like to say I did it right and with the respect my guests deserved.

No, this is not going to be a recitation of all the famous figures in music and the arts that consented to spend time with me for in depth, on-location interviews whose purpose was never to merely generate “sound bites.”

Just one very special gentleman, who (and here's where that serendipity comes in) was born exactly one hundred ten years ago today.

The station I was working for during this period, WETA-FM in Washington, gave me  uncommon latitude in terms of programming. OK, it was only for two hours, every Sunday and a few times during the week; the rest of the time, our bread and butter in terms of music was purely classical. But that was fine – I love much classical music and actually built my “first career” as a classical music host/presenter.

But the thing was, I had an equal love and passion for some other forms of quality music that were “just outside” the often hidebound strictures that say classical is the only “serious” music. Areas like the Great American Popular Song Standards, Musical Theater, Symphonic Film Scores, Gilbert & Sullivan…and (great gemütlich sigh, here!) Viennese and German Operetta. All of it good music…just not quite “classical.”

The man I’m going to write about here once delighted me with a story, related in his wonderfully mittel-Europa raconteur-par-excellence style.

Said he: “…and you know, Steve, even Beethoven wrote some music that wasn’t so serious. A group of village musicians once came to him and said ‘Great Master, wouldn’t you write something for us [to perform]. He was working on one of his great serious masterpieces at the time, but he said “Ja, sure I’ll write something for you. And the result was the Dances from Mödling, which is a suburb of Vienna…”

His point in telling me the story was to relate his absolute disdain – as a classically trained musician – for the often arbitrary classifications and snobbery surrounding what can be called “classical” music.

This man made his career in ballet conducting, opera houses in Europe and elsewhere, the Broadway Theater, and in theaters, opera houses, and festivals presenting the operettas of Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehar, Carl Millöcker, and so many others in Viennese operetta’s gold and silver ages.

Of all my musical idols, my admiration for this man was the earliest to begin and, consequently, the longest running.

As a young teenager, in 1961, I had the great good fortune to attend a performance of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “Camelot” on Broadway. The original cast was still intact – that is to say Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere, and Robert Goulet making his Broadway debut as Lancelot…to say nothing of Robert Coote, John Cullum, and Roddy McDowell. Not only that, but my seat was dead center in the Orchestra, only three or four rows from the pit.

I’ll always remember the excitement transmitted by the opening notes of Frederick Loewe’s stunning overture and all of the soaring melodies contained in it, and being so immersed in it from being so close to the orchestra. But there was an added visual treat, as, from my magical seat, I had a clear view of the lively and distinguished looking gentleman conducting the orchestra and bringing forth such an engaging sound.

The program said his name was Franz Allers.

More to come...

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