Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Herr Dismalmeyer

I have a very deep affinity for Christmas things.

As I've chronicled here in the past, I'm all about real-live Christmas trees, carols sung by a choir, and treasured cookie receipies.

What's more, I am an unapologetic fan of It's a Wonderful Life. Last year, I sought out a big screen showing, just to enjoy the pitfalls and redemption of George Bailey in its glorious 1946 aspect ratio of 1:37:1.

One Christmas tradition that passes me by, however, is The Nutcracker.

I've seen plenty of incarnations, from film to stage to animated adaptations to jazz and hip-hop versions.

Doesn't matter. Before the tree grows to gargantuan proportions in Act I (or does it???), I'm nodding off.

I should say, however, that I do enjoy the music. The Tchaikovsky score is lush and beautifully ornamental. The pieces that landed in Disney's Fantasia are among the high points of that film for me, which is deep praise because I consider the entire feature to be genius.

Eileen, let it be said, loves the ballet.

What sends her snoozing during the holidays is Handel's The Messiah.

Which I enjoy.

Early in our marriage, we agreed to cross-pollinate interests: I treated her to two tickets to sa professionally-mounted production of The Nutcracker; she treated me to two tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra's version of The Messiah.

Neither one of us came out of the opposite experience with any additional enthusiasm.

Maybe it's the lack of clear storytelling that bugs me. Clara -- or is it Marie? -- gets a Nutcracker as a present from her uncle -- or is it family friend? -- Herr Drosselmeyer. He's a magician -- or maybe he's the villain? -- who loves her dearly. Or maybe he's intent on scaring the tar out of her.

Then there are mice. And a giant tree. And a woman with kids scurrying out from under her skirt. And a sleighride into snowy-fairy land.

Cue curtain.

And wake me because it's over.

Well, the performance Eileen and I saw together wasn't a total bore. From our seats in the mezzanine, I had a clear view of the orchestra. So while the sugar plums sugared and the flowers waltzed, I was enjoying watching these fine musicians at work. 

I'm sure there is something amiss in my cultural DNA to not appreciate this seasonal gem.

Maybe it's that I spend the majority of the ballet waiting for those coolio Disney dancing mushrooms that never appear.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Thrilla with a Grilla

So yesterday, manual in hand and 2,593 parts laid out before me -- well, okay, considerably fewer in reality, but it felt like 2,593 -- I tackled a new "some-assembly-required" gas grill.

And won.

It is now fully operational (to the best of my knowledge) in the garage and awaiting transport to its spot on the side of the house, where, once fully loaded with a propane tank, it will provide culinary delights all summer long.

At least that's the intention.

I don't come to grilling with any kind of genetic disposition. Some families have long-standing traditions of meals outside. Not us. Dad's opinion on home-grown alfresco dining was this: "Why would I drag an entire dinner outside, eat it, and then drag everything back inside??" 

We didn't even have a proper grill growing up. We had a very small hibachi. Once a year, July 4 or thereabouts, Dad would get it from the shed, place it on two cinderblocks, dump in some clunky charcoal briquettes, douse with fluid and light 'er up.

This usually coincided with my mother's July 5 birthday. The extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would arrive, and Dad spent the afternoon in a smoky haze, vainly trying to grill half a cow's worth of burgers on a cooking surface the size of two ceramic floor tiles.

When I married, I married a grill-girl. Eileen's family had a cast-iron, kettle-style briquette burner, and apparently, her Dad loved to don a festive apron ("Kiss the cook!") and pad out to the lawn in his Hush Puppies and create some culinary magic each weekend.

Color me jealous. 

And hungry.

When it came time to address the grill question in my own home, it was an easy decision: gas!

We've had a series of gas grills over the years. When they're fresh out of the box and newly assembled, they're like a car right off the showroom. Everything gleams. Everything smells daisy-fresh. Everything works.

Eventually, though, wear and tear begin to take hold. In my experience, the starter is one of the first things to go. Before too long, I'm out there with a plate of raw meat, listening to the disappointing KLICK-KLICK-KLICK of a starter that won't light. All the while propane fumes waft about, making me dizzy.

Time for the long match and singed eyebrows.

Warming racks also crap out rather early. Then the burners. Then the grilling surfaces themselves, necessitating either replacement or creative meat positioning.

Our old grill now is an absolute fire-hazard nightmare, where the burners are so far gone that the fire basically shoots out of the holes in the cast iron shell.

Hence the new grill.

What is it about propane? Can anyone tell my why it runs out at the most inopportune time? 

One of the delights of my adult life was treating my Dad to a large Father's Day dinner, cooked outside. Year after year, just as I was going to light the grill, I'd find the gas petering out.



And a dozen uncooked meat patties staring back at me.

Can't tell you how many Father's Days I spent hauling myself out of the driveway in the car, running to the hardware store before it closed, desperately seeking a last-minute refill.

Someday... I know I'll end up at the home of one of my girls for Father's Day dinner.

And her husband will casually sidle up to his gas grill.

And when I hear that familiar sound of his car careening out of the driveway, I'll know exactly what it is...


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Take My Wife... Please

It was, for the most part, a blur.

I was told afterward that it lasted about six minutes -- which was idea, because we were told to prep for anywhere between five and ten minutes.

So I don't think I went on too long.

But I can't remember a lot of it... except that my mouth was extremely dry.

It was my debut as a stand-up comedian.

This past Friday, April 17, nine other knucklehead novices and I took the state of Act II Playhouse in Ambler to test out our skills as fledgling funnymen. And women.

The odyssey started in mid-March as a work assignment. The organization I work for, the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, covers many unique things to do in Montgomery County, Pa., and as the weekly blogger, it's my role to root out really cool adventures and write about them.

Often, that means participating in them.

Such was the case at Act II. I had learned that the staff runs a periodic workshop in stand-up comedy. I called and got permission to sit in.

My original intent was to attend the first class only and then show up for the "graduation," a night of performance. But the atmosphere was so inviting -- and, truth be told, the prospect of trying out my own material so interesting -- that, before I knew it, I was in for the entire experience.

One of the things that kept me coming back was the welcome of the instructor, Michael Donovan. From the very onset, he created an environment of openness and creativity that appealed to me. And he was all about the writing. Which plays to my strong suit.

The other hook were my fellow students. This was an eclectic bunch ranging from a 77-year-old retiree to a 17-year-old high-school kid. Various professions were represented, including a onetime traveling jewelry wholesaler and the host of a hyper-local AM radio talk show.

The class comprised a series of exercises that were designed to have us develop a comedic frame of reference. Michael told us that he couldn't necessarily make us funny but that he could sharpen our focus in finding humor in the things we face every day: The hellish commute. The ripped plastic grocery bag. The quest for love and romance.

By week three, we were starting to formulate routines. Classwork then consisted of a round-robin style of sharing what was in development.

I went the Ray Romano route, opening with my rather unique career and then veering into parenthood. Much fodder there, considering my girls are 21, 17 and 14.

Some things worked; some things didn't. I tried to contrast my career -- which appears very lightweight -- with that of my father's, highlighting his gravitas as a Naval Aeronautic Engineer. But it wasn't exactly working. Most of the set-ups were long and involved, and the payoffs just kinda died.

Week four we were onstage. A fresh face was brought into the audience, with stand-up experience himself, to comment. Most of my feedback was positive, but my material felt flat to me.

Other performers were honing their presentations. We had a dad who was rehearsing his speech for his daughter's wedding. It was interesting to watch him continually edit, weed, and tighten his commentary.

One of our high-schoolers used a rapid-fire delivery to comment on the social awkwardness of teenager-dom. It was insightful, but, at least to me, not very funny.

Our jewelry wholesaler was good, but his reliance on canned material bothered me. 

The 17 year-old launched into a five minute, profanity-laced dissertation of Prom Night. 

With one week to go, I really dug in and worked on not only my content but my delivery. This was unlike anything I had ever done: I've done traditional plays and musicals, memorizing lines and blocking and performing them. I've also done my share of public speaking, talking from notes or cards.

This was neither. This could be memorized but needed to come off as off-the-cuff and loose. And no notes.

On performance night, I was a little nervous but not out of control. We assembled in the Act II green room and readied ourselves. I calmed my nerves in the same way I do when performing a role: by pacing.

In the lineup, I was directly after the NC-17-rated teen. Oy vey. 

Michael introduced me. I stepped into the lights and.... don't recall much after that.

I'm told I did well. And that I was a welcome respite from the flying four-letter words of my predecessor and other comedians.

But I don't regret the performance choices I made: Michael told us early on to be ourselves, that we would have the best chance of success if we remained true to who we are.

After the curtain call, we agreed to try to keep in touch.

So if any of my fellow comedians ends up with an NBC sitcom, I'll be able to say I knew them when...

Monday, March 2, 2015

Detailed Gene-ology

Knocking off bucket-list items takes commitment.

That's exactly the thought I had while driving through a messy mix of snow, sleet and rain on the busy Schulykill Expressway, on my way to downtown Philadelphia.

The news radio was reciting a litany of accidents across the area, and the multiple live weather reports were unanimous: If you don't have to go out today, don't go out.

And yet, I continued on.

This was, you see, a quest. A chance to right a long-ago wrong.

Let me explain: I was on my way to the Philadelphia Flower Show. I had a work commitment carrying me there, true. But I also had a personal one as well. I was finally -- at last and for true -- going to meet former Philadelphia kid-vid host Gene London.

I loved Gene. He was one of many on the local landscape of my late-60s/early 70s TV watching, sharing the spotlight with Sally Starr, Wee Willie Weber, Chief Halftown and Captain Noah.

But Gene was different. During the course of Cartoon Corners General Store, he could be counted on to settle in and tell us a story from the Disney canon. And I was transfixed because as he spoke, he drew, so after a few easy pencil strokes, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty would emerge magically on the page.

London, I have read, was a great admirer of Walt Disney, which made him aces in my book because even as a youngster, I was, too.

Truth be told, I still am.

My fandom led me to look and listen for Gene everywhere. There he was! In the Thanksgiving Day parade on a papier mache nightmare of a float but smiling intrepidly.  

Late one afternoon when I was eight or so, I heard him being interviewed on WCAU radio. Wally Kennedy, I think, was host, as as the questions continued, Kennedy threw his phone lines open to kids.

I dashed to the kitchen phone and ratcheted in the numbers on the plastic dial.

I do not know how old I was. I only know that I didn't know the difference between a ringing line on the other end and a busy signal on the other end.

So I hung in there for the remainder of the show, assured that Gene was going to pick up my call at any minute.

Zzzt! Zzzt! Zzzt!

I waited... And waited. And to my horror, I heard Kennedy wrap up the show and toss to the news.


What about Gene?!?!

Sadly, it was not to be.

But that episode explains an awful lot of what I was doing on a major roadway during some truly nasty weather on a pilgrimage.

I forged on and got to the city. I tucked my car into a lot and walked to the show. Upon entering, it was a dizzying array of flowers and fragrances, but my focus was elsewhere.

I asked directions to London's display, which, in sticking to the Flower Show's theme, involved his collection of costumes from classic Hollywood.

I found the room, entered, surveyed the impressive display and...

...saw no sign of my hero.

I was crestfallen. Once again the victim of the hand of fate.

Various docents wandered the room, and I asked one: "Is Gene here?"

"He's out to lunch right at this second," she said. "But he's due back any minute."

I decided to wait.

Various conversations were struck with similarly minded fans. Everyone, it seems, had a story, including the woman who was almost on an episode but was bounced because of the color of the dress she wore.

"It was soon after Easter," she said, "and my mother made me wear my Easter dress, which was all white with a pale blue sash. The cameraman looked at me and said, 'I can't put you on the show. You'll bleed out the camera and look like nothing but a snowman.'"

A flurry of activity stirred the room. I turned around and... there he was!

A line formed, which I gladly joined and within moments, I was shaking his hand.

"I'm nervous," I said. "This is like meeting Santa!"

He grinned. His eyes still sparkle, and his voice was soft, warm, and gentle but still sounds like it could easily slide into the Wicked Queen from Snow White.

I told him of the radio incident, and he laughed, saying how much better it was that we were meeting 1:1.

I was babbling: "I can't even tell you what you meant to my childhood," I spouted. "You were tea and toast on days when I was sick at home and my mother would wheel the TV into my room and put your show on. You were sugar and cinnamon. You were a warm blanket when I wasn't feeling well. That's what I remember most: You were comfort food on television."

He smiled and thanked me. "Are you a writer?" he asked.

I was floored. "Yes. How did you know?"

He nodded. "I could tell just from the way you were telling me that."

I told him how much I loved his stories and his expertise with Walt Disney.

"Keep telling your stories," he told me. "Keep writing and sharing."

I nodded.

"Maybe that's how you recognized what I do," I said. "Storyteller to storyteller."

"Can you give me a hug?" he asked.

And I did.

Our moment came to an end, and I stepped aside for the other fans.

Thank you, Gene London. For what you did way back then. For what you do now. In both cases, you're making people happy. And what better calling can there be than that?

As for me?

Yeah. I'll keep right on writing.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Scientific Horizon

No secret here: I was a lousy athlete as a kid.

The only sport I really put any effort to was Little League, and that was a disaster. I was relegated to right field every game, where I would routinely collapse under the pressure of the one ball that would come my way, drop it, lose the game and walk home dejectedly.

I've written about it before, here.

As a result, I was severely lacking in the trophy department.

My older brothers distinguished themselves on the football team, the baseball team, the swim team. Their medals, certificates and trophies were proudly displayed in their rooms, gleaming pride on a daily basis.

My room had old movie posters and Disney sketches.

That all changed, however, thanks to Johnny Horizon.

Johnny Horizon was a late-1960s ad gambit designed to ride the crest of the anti-pollution movement. Square jawed and rugged, Johnny looked like Chuck Connors from The Rifleman, and no American worth his salt would dare cross him when he advised that their crumpled McDonald's bag was better off in a trash can than tossed on a sidewalk.

By the early 1970s, though, Johnny seemed to have moved on. Which is how he crossed paths with our family.

Johnny's marketers put together a kid-friendly kit that enabled Junior Conservationists the opportunity to monitor pollutants in their neighborhoods. I guess the point was for us to take the results to our businesses and get them to stop belching toxins into our air.


My ever-budget-conscious mother spotted one of these kits in the bargain bin at our local Hobbyland. With the price thrice reduced, it hit her sweet spot and she purchased it.

I'm not sure where the idea came to use it as Science Fair fodder, but use it we did. The kit had flasks and nozzles and pH strips and the like, all for determining the levels of icky things in the soil, water and air.

This gem was passed down from my siblings to me. And in what I believe was 4th Grade, I entered the school Science Fair with the intent of proving just how dirty our little burg of Havertown really was.

I worked through each experiment, followed the directions and captured the results. With mom's help, we "fudged" a few things, not wanting to make it look like the source of all our data was a store-bought kit, nor that our marching orders were coming from Johnny Horizon. Not that we believed anyone remembered him, but still...

Tri-paneled board fully decorated with charts and graphs -- and full of startling insights like, Hey! Darby Creek smells because there are bad things floating in it -- I submitted my entry.

And lo and behold, I walked away a winner.

Well, Johnny and I walked away winners. With help from mom.

The really interesting thing is that now, at age 52, that trophy still sits on the dresser in my bedroom.

While my brothers' trophies faded away in numerous yard sales past.

Maybe its singularity made it more a treasure.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015


My mother was a lousy cook, when it came to entrees.

But she could work magic with pie.

Her secret, learned under her mother's tutelage (so I was told), was in the crust. Mom never measured anything when she made crusts. Just some water, flour, salt and a gentle hand pushing everything together.

But what resulted was flaky and perfect.

Every time.

She never shared her secret. I'm not sure she could even capture on paper the technique. It relied an awful lot on "a pinch of this" and "a skootch of that." And the technology didn't exist at the time to shoot her on video and replicate the success.

Mom made pies for large family dinners like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter and, in addition to having delicious crusts, the fillings were equally as good.

No store-bought Comstock canned fruit here, nay! She made her own, coring and paring apples or cleaning summer berries. A little sugar, a little cornstarch and... Mmmm.

I do remember her deferring to canned pumpkin for Thanksgiving, but not the complete dump-and-bake variety. I also remember her making Mincemeat pie (with suet!), and only my grandfather (Dad's dad) would eat it, usually sprinkled with a shot of whiskey on the top.

I also remember her tackling a strawberry-rhubarb once a summer, and the results were out of this world.

As a result of her skill, I love pie. I lean toward somewhat exotic varieties (pecan is my favorite, I also love banana cream, coconut cream, lemon meringue, and chocolate mousse), but a slice of apple of blueberry is always welcome.

Today's commercially-baked pies are... hate to say it... lame. Tastykake used to make good fruit pies, but nowadays, the logistics of eating one have gotten too complex to be enjoyable. The packaging is hard to navigate (a pull-strip that merely shreds the box without releasing the pie), and then there's that whole tin plate thing.

Supermarket pies miss out on a key ingredient: Love.

Mom also made killer tapioca, and I miss that, too.

I learned many oddball skills from my mother, including the ability to make hospital corners when changing bed linens.

But I never picked up her talent for pie.

And desserts in our house are all the poorer for it.