" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

BUNTPORT THEATER PROFILE

This profile appeared in 5280 magazine in March of 2007.

Bards of a feather
The indefinable suchness of Buntport Theater

They toil in a warehouse at 7th and Lipan, close to the hoot and rumble of the rail yards and I-25. They don’t do Shakespeare (unless you count “Titus Andronicus! The Musical”). They craft every show from scratch, reconfiguring their each time – from the labyrinths of “The Odyssey: A Walking Tour” to the floating lattices of “The 30th of Baydak” to the portable skating rink of “Kafka on Ice.”
After nearly a decade and almost 20 productions together, working without a substantial budget or a net, Buntport is the hottest thing going in Denver’s theatre.
“We want to be a cultural institution in Denver. I think we’re on the right track,” says Evan Weissman, the youngest company member (they range in age from 27 to 32). “We’re not just performers seeking stardom, we want to make stuff. And have heating and air conditioning. Ultimately, we want to be able to say that any night of the week, there’s something really cool going on at Buntport.”
The group began to take shape in 1998. Its seven members – Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan, Matt Petraglia, SamAnTha Schmitz, Brian Colonna and Weissman – were classmates at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. There they devised “Quixote,” a piece fueled on snatches from Cervantes’ novel. The troupe’s exuberant no-budget feat of legerdemain went over well, and they traveled widely with it. However, the rigors of the road were disenchanting.
“We decided two things,” says Colonna. “’We’re going to stick, and we’re going to get a space in Denver.’”
Buntport has not only made a virtue of necessity – they have crafted a credo from it. Determined, they settled down and got to work. It wasn’t until their twice-weekly “live sitcom” “Magnets on the Fridge” caught on with the local cognoscenti that they began to hit the cultural radar (“Magnets” ended its five-season run this summer with three on-stage weddings, joined spontaneously by two more from the audience).
All the members collaborate on every aspect of every show. Edborg, Rollman, Colonna, Duggan and Weissman form the on-stage contingent. The fruits of many small writing sessions are funneled to Rollman, who acts as the final editor of the scripts. “It just happened that way,” she says. “Someone has to make sure the voices stay the same … figure out the pace and the melody, the tone… plus, I’m anal retentive, and good with spelling.”
Petraglia is the technical guru, and Schmitz’s strengths lie in directing, design and financial matters – Colonna states, “While we’re all coming up with expensive ideas, she’s the one who says, ‘Hey, this is how much money we have!’”
Their disarmingly offhand, hand-hewn approach gives Buntport a refreshing vitality and directness. The group’s rowdy wit, mingled with surreal and serious undercurrents, makes it one of the region’s most unique and enjoyable nights out.
Currently, the group is in mid-season, ready to hatch a new production soon and running full-blast with its “Magnets” replacement, the enigmatically titled “Starship Troy.”
“What’s nice is, there are seven of us,” says Colonna. “At any given time, one of us is having a nervous breakdown, saying, ‘This is no good, what are we doing?’, but there are six others to keep us on track.”
“It’s usually Brian who’s saying that,” quips Petraglia.

"Hell's Hinges"

This analysis first appeared in Senses of Cinema in June of 2005.

Hell’s Hinges
(1916, 64 min.)
Directed by: Charles Swickard, (William S. Hart, Clifford Smith)
Written by: C. Gardner Sullivan
Produced by: Thomas H. Ince
Cinematography: Joseph H. August

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation (1).
However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.
“Hell’s Hinges” is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clich├ęs. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.
Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.
Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.
Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he made his name as the original Messala in the first theatrical version of “Ben-Hur”. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a production of “The Squaw Man.” From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”(2)
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.”(3) Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.
By the time “Hell’s Hinges” was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films, and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system (4).
Given his head (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.
Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through his incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably John Wayne.
Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In “Hell’s Hinges,” the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.
The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. “Hinges” opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”
His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)
Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him. (5)) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.
As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.
Hart is Miller’s confederate Blaze Tracey, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)
Tracey’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracey’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracey has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.
Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each others’ territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracey forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracey, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled shot that of Tracey marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)
The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracey’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.
A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.
The final sequence is undoubtedly what propelled the film to eventual inclusion on America’s prestigious National Film Registry in 1994. “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracey, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) returns to settle the score.
His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracey becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.
Rivetingly, Tracey backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracey then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s “Unforgiven.”
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” (6) as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.
No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, (7) but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as “The Informer,” Laughton’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Gunga Din.” (8) The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.
At film’s end, Tracey takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

-- Brad Weismann

Brad Weismann, a cinephile and former comedian, is a journalist, arts writer and playwright who lives with his wife and children in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

1. As cited in “Shooting Cowboys and Indians,” A.B. Smith, pg. 183

2 Smith, pg. 160

3. “My Life East and West,” Hart, pgs. 198-199

4. “The Complete Films of William S. Hart,” Diane Kaiser Koszarski, pg. xv

5. “William S. Hart: Projecting the American West,” Ronald L. Davis, passim.

6. “The Western,” Fenin and Everson, pg. 91

7. “The War, the West and the Wilderness,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 270

8. Arthur Edelson, www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/founding/page3.html

"Porky's Duck Hunt"

This analysis piece first appeared in Senses of Cinema in September of 2005.

Porky’s Duck Hunt
by Brad Weismann

Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937 USA 7 mins)
Source: NFVLS Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Leon Schlesinger Dir: Fred (Tex) Avery Anim: Virgil Ross, Robert Cannon, Robert Clampett (uncredited) Mus Dir: Carl W. Stalling Voice: Mel Blanc (Porky, Daffy), Billy Bletcher (Upstairs Neighbour, Bass Fish)
Cast: Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, “Rin-Tin-Tin”

Even icons have to start somewhere.

Just as film divas of flesh and blood began their careers with humble bit parts, so did that of that temperamental, greedy, cynical waterfowl, Daffy Duck. And the unassuming cartoon short in which he first appears, Porky’s Duck Hunt, is significant not only as his debut, but as the launching point for the snappy, smart-ass tone that would separate Warner Bros.’ cartoons from its competitors, and keep their work relevant and resonant today.

American animators in the 1930s were a scruffy, itinerant bunch. Most bounced around from studio to studio, serving apprenticeships in the cartoon production houses of such figures as Walt Disney, Walter Lantz (best known as the home of Woody Woodpecker), the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Koko the Clown), and Disney’s once and future partner, Ub Iwerks. Serendipitously, an irreverent and rowdy crew came together at Leon Schlesinger Productions, in a ramshackle, bug-infested back-lot bungalow that later earned the affectionate sobriquet of “Termite Terrace” (1).

For a time this group included such leading lights as Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimson, and Bob Clampett, all working under the loose supervision and raucous inspiration of Fred “Tex” Avery (who lost the vision in one eye during an office paper-clip fight!). The team enjoyed that most happy of fates to be found inside any corporate structure – they were largely ignored. Left to their own devices, they began gradually and collectively to shrug off the sickly-sweet sentimentality of the Disney studio’s approach, as well as the nominally logical, linear, kid-oriented whimsies that emerged from other rivals’ drawing boards.

In terms of structure, Porky’s Duck Hunt uses elements of both the “hunted-outsmarts-hunted” paradigm that dominated “Warner Bros. cartoons” (although that studio ultimately owned the characters, Schlesinger was, in essence, an independent contractor until Warners bought him out in 1944) until its demise, and the hodgepodge “riffing” technique that was in common use up to that point. This latter “attack” would take a generic subject (the city, hunting, hospitals) and wring all the gags the creators could out of it.

The opening of Porky’s Duck Hunt has a Pickwickian resonance to it. To the jaunty musical strains of “A-Hunting We Will Go”, the camera pans right across an assembly of objects – a manual on “How to Duck Hunt”, and several empty boxes labelled One Sure Fire Shotgun, One Wear-Well Hunting Suit, Assorted Duck Decoys, and 25 Shells. We then find our hero, Porky, admiring himself in a full-length mirror in his otherwise tumbledown apartment.

Porky would be the last of the studio’s harmlessly “cute” leading characters. His toddler-like appearance, clumsiness, and gentle disposition marks him as a figure geared to appeal to preliterates. Even his stutter contributes to the pity the audience may have felt for him. Joe Dougherty, Porky’s original voice, was genuinely afflicted with one, and in this film, Mel Blanc “plays” Porky for the first time, retaining the character’s distinctive speech impediment.

Poor Porky is all thumbs – he frightens his pet dog, and then accidentally blasts a hole in his ceiling. This prompts a knock at his door, and a punch in his face, from his upstairs neighbour, who displays the buckshot hole in his pants as he turns to go back upstairs.

The scene quickly shifts to the wild, as Porky cautions his dog to “be very, very quiet” – foreshadowing Elmer Fudd’s lisping catchphrase in his appearances with Bugs Bunny (and sometimes Daffy Duck). The gags, good, bad and indifferent, begin to flow. A single duck flies overhead, prompting a phalanx of hidden hunters to emerge, blasting away – and missing. A dog-headed, cross-eyed hunter (the soundtrack dredges up “I Only Have Eyes for You” – Carl Stalling’s nimble manipulation of pop tunes is displayed here) brings down a brace of airplanes.

Finally, Daffy enters the picture, landing amid a raft of decoys and quacking. Porky winks at the camera – not the first time the fourth wall will be broken here. He wades out under the surface of the lake and pops up, getting the drop on Daffy. The duck cringes but remains in place patiently, so that the joke will play out (the gun squirts a harmless stream of water). Already we are in new territory. This is vaudeville, not naturalism. Avery and company seem to have an unstoppable need to transcend the conventions of the still-new medium. To mockingly play to the audience is the most effective way to get that audience to subvert its expectations, a tendency that only grows as the years pass at Termite Terrace. Now we are complicit with the animators – and now there’s a reason for adults to keep an eye on the screen as well.

More tangential joking breaks up the flow of the narrative. Daffy alighting on an unlikely floating barrel of booze leads to its blasting, transitioning to a chorus of drunken fish crooning “On Moonlight Bay” in close harmony. Later, a hand holding a sign will point out “This is an electric eel, folks”, right before Daffy swallows it and lights up – a contemptuous deflation of a bad joke.

Daffy’s first speech erupts from another interruption. Porky downs Daffy, his dog makes like a retriever (“Go g-g-get him, R-R-R-Rin-Tin-Tin!” exclaims the ecstatic swine). When the two animals return, it is Daffy who has rescued the unconscious pooch. Quickly, he whips out a sheaf of paper and cries, “Hey, that wasn’t in the script!”

Daffy replies, “Don’t let it worry you, skipper – I’m just a crazy darn-fool duck! HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” And away he goes, strutting, flipping and bouncing away across the surface of the lake. Clearly, after this, anything goes. Although Daffy was destined to change from pure zany to disgruntled egotist, the foundation of the basic driving conflict in Warners animation shorts is here. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey – only the damned quarry won’t cooperate! The Elmer/Bugs, Tweety/Sylvester, Road Runner/Coyote dynamic is established. (In fact, a loose remake of this film made the following year, Porky’s Hare Hunt, gives us a rabbit that, two years later, will crystallise into the Bugs Bunny we know and love.)

Later in the film, Porky again draws a bead on Daffy. The gun won’t fire. Tsk-tsking, Daffy takes the gun from Porky, fixes it, and returns it. “It’s just me again!” Daffy announces. “HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” Even the target’s assistance can’t facilitate his demise.

The seeds of the transition of Porky from leading man to sidekick is in that exchange. Daffy’s relentless putdowns and humiliation of Porky, as well as his grandstanding, turns Porky into a comic foil – a role he would play to perfection in such outings as Chuck Jones’ Drip-Along Daffy (1951), Deduce, You Say (1956) and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century (1951). Only in his few appearances as the disgruntled owner of a nervous, mute Sylvester (Jones’ Scaredy Cat, 1948, Claws for Alarm, 1954, Jumpin’ Jupiter, 1955), or as the unwilling master of the little-remembered but strongly conceived Charlie Dog (Jones’ Little Orphan Airedale, 1947, The Awful Orphan, 1949) will he get to re-exercise any kind of dominance.

As Porky’s Duck Hunt plays out, the padding becomes more apparent. Porky’s shooting a hole in his boat prompts Joe Penner to rise from the water, delivering his then-familiar catchphrase “Wanna buy a duck?” (2) Porky jackhammers himself into the ground with the force of his firing. Finally, Porky’s dog swallows his duck call and begins to hiccup-quack, and the two flee for home, pursued by shot and shell.

Porky returns home. Continuity is completely abandoned – it bears no resemblance to the apartment Porky left at the beginning of the cartoon. Outside his window, a flock of ducks led by Daffy display themselves, in spite, as a shooting-gallery menagerie. Porky aims, but his final impotence is underscored when he discovers, “D-d-d-d-doggone it! No more bullets!” He throws the gun to the ground – and of course, we get a reprise of a blast through the ceiling, and the neighbour’s angry retaliation.

All in all, the introduction of Daffy, as well as the full debut of Blanc (the defining voice talent of his generation) and the intimations of the “license” to come, all make this short a groundbreaking effort.

© Brad Weismann, September 2005

Endnotes:
1. Camera Three: The Boys from Termite Terrace, CBS-TV documentary, 1975, passim.
2. Joe Penner (nee Josef Pinter), 1904-1941, was an American vaudeville and radio comic who enjoyed a brief but spectacularly large burst of fame during the years 1933 and 1934. His famous non sequiturs “Wanna buy a duck?” and “Oh, you NAS-ty man!”, as well as his nyuck-nyuck laugh, made him the first comedy star of the radio era. See entry on Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0672101/bio.

The Talented Mr. Christie

This profile of Colorado Music Festival Music Director Michael Christie first appeared in Muso magazine's summer 2005 issue.

A regular guy.
That’s the impression Michael Christie makes the first time you see him. In fact, that’s a fundamental truth about him. In a profession not exactly conducive to the cultivation of a laid-back personality, one strewn with divas and dictators, this youthful conductor is disarmingly relaxed. Congenial. Unpretentious. Dare we say, even, nondescript?
Yet underneath that lies an essential reserve, a piercing intelligence and a quiet authority that complements his aw-shucks, Jimmy Stewart demeanor. Matched with his keen musical sensibilities, the sum total of these qualities makes him one of America’s leading young possessors of the podium.
“I’m inspired by the challenge of not being the ‘know-it-all’ conductor,” he says with a grin.
We meet at a homey yet well-appointed restaurant in the heart of Boulder, Colorado. Clad in jeans, loafers, and a sweater, his dark head of hair neatly trimmed, he looks like just one of the hundreds of graduate students who pedal the streets of this picturesque, health-conscious university town, which sits nestled at the foot of the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.
Here Christie is busily preparing an intense six-week summer season of Colorado Music Festival concerts. Christie has served as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Festival since 2000, beating out a number of competitors for the position at the tender age of 25.
Burdened during his first few seasons at the CMF with the reputation of a wunderkind, his impeccable musicianship, mature manner, imaginative programming and ambitious out reach efforts have overcome all of his audience’s possible apprehensions. In 2001, he also assumed the role of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Queensland Orchestra, a position he relinquishes this fall as he takes over as the Music Director of the Phoenix (Arizona) Symphony.
Top this off with a continuing rush of guest-conductor appearances around the world that include forays into ballet and opera, including works as diverse as “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Adams’ “The Death of Klinghofer.” Isn’t it all too much at times?
“This trajectory doesn’t feel extreme,” he exclaims brightly before digging into a veggie burger. “It doesn’t feel unplanned, certainly. I have incredible support – family, friends, colleagues. They look after me.”
Christie’s first exposure to the world of classical music in his childhood home in Buffalo, New York, a town almost tragically far from the towers and concert halls of Manhattan, came from a hilariously lowbrow source.
“It was ‘Hooked on Classics,’ actually,” he admits with a laugh, referring to the famously cheesy and immensely popular classical compilation album of the mid-’80s. “That’s how I got to know anything, actually.”
Something about it grabbed his ear, and his parents supported his interest.
“My parents started taking us to Buffalo Philharmonic concerts once a month, and then I started going myself,” he says. Fortunately, the orchestra was helmed at that time by baton-wielders such as Julius Rudel, Semyon Bychkov and Maximiano Valdes. This fascination led to him dedicating his life to music, taking a degree in trumpet performance at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. All the while, though, conducting was in the back of his mind.
His principal conducting mentors were Franz Welser-Most and Robert Spano. The turning point for Christie came when he entered the First International Sibelius Conductor’s Competition in Helsinki in 1995. He was awarded a special prize for Outstanding Potential, and shortly after was invited to become an apprentice conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Even today, he bears a special fondness for Finland’s culture, landscape and musical contributions.
“There’s a respectful pride in their national character,” he says, “but beneath that there’s a fire in the belly. That’s apparent in their music – an understated grandeur that brings to my mind those beautiful stretches of pine and birch forest there… the society is tight-knit but diverse. I love their care for individuals, for education, for families.”
Under the tutelage of Daniel Barenboim, Christie’s expertise grew by leaps and bounds, and his directorates have taken him into yet another realm – the complex responsibility of shaping an ensemble, establishing an aesthetic regimen and direction, juggling a myriad of administrative tasks, and, of key interest for Christie, developing and satisfying the audience.
First and foremost, however, is the stick work, and in that the maestro is assured beyond his years. I have been fortunate to observe him for several seasons both in concert and rehearsal in Boulder. These take place in the cavernous confines of Chautauqua Auditorium, a barn-like wooden venue overlooking Boulder that was constructed in 1898, through which swallows swoop during performances. Christie throws open the orchestra’s rehearsals to the public, and sometimes upwards of 100 people can be found in the worn wooden seats on a weekday morning, soaking up the sound.
His primary asset is clarity – there is no ambiguity or hesitancy in his communication with his musicians, and they respond to this with precision and commitment (“an orchestra can be such a dry machine,” he says). Often, this deceptively simple ability to go straight to the essence of the task at hand seems to free the ensemble, giving it the time and space to find depths and emphases that it might not under a less certain leader. A revelatory performance of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony last year, for instance, overcame the composer’s lumbering, logy tendencies with ease.
“You don’t have too many chances to convince people to make this music a part of their lives,” Christie says of his warm and direct style. “They must be instantly engaged.”
The travels that are a necessary part of the life of an aspiring conductor don’t faze him; he speaks enthusiastically of the places and people they have brought into his purview. He gracefully sidesteps a question about what instrumental bodies might be more or less welcoming to the journeyman conductor.
“There is something of a conductors’ hotline,” he says, noting that experiences good and bad tend to get around in what he terms his fraternity. He bases his willingness to return to a given stage on what he calls “chemistry – would my next experience be a significant expansion of my abilities?”
Likewise, he rejects the idea of a cutthroat competitiveness in his chosen profession. “It’s true that sometimes people wonder, ‘Why didn’t I get that position,’ but there’s usually a good reason for it,” he says. “Also, in my work, the competitive criteria is not clear – it does not translate into anything quantitative.”
The nattily bow-tied restaurant owner stops by to check on us, and he and Christie exchange warm greetings. Christie’s easy likeability has much to do with his appeal, and it speaks well of his efforts that the CMF audience has steadily grown during his tenure.
The growth is due to many factors. First, his programming is an adroit combination of old, new, and genre-crossing musics. For instance, his CMF schedules have become notable for his well-received incorporation of visits by a number of world music ensembles, an evening a week dedicated to chamber music, forays into jazz, and cross-disciplinary collaborations with dance companies, actors, popular vocalists, and regional choruses.
Most remarkably this season is “Moving Pictures,” an evening that will pair short, original films crafted by members of the University of Colorado’s Film Studies Program and The Shootout 24-Hour Filmmaking Festival Boulder with original compositions by Mark Grey and Philip Rothman, culminating with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 thriller “The Lodger,” with the CMF Orchestra providing live accompaniment through a new score by British composer Joby Talbot.
Christie’s refusal to be crusty about high and low art is refreshing. He eloquently defends the sometimes-besmirched reputation of Boston Pops conductor and avid populist Arthur Fiedler, citing his pioneering use of free concerts and ticket packages to bring auditors into the concert hall.
However, if there is a conductor that Christie brings to mind, it is that other great popular communicator, Leonard Bernstein, whose “Young People’s Concert” telecasts from 1958 to 1972 influenced a generation. Unconsciously, he echoes Bernstein when he refers to his employ of up-and-coming soloists as “putting arms about the creative element” – witness Bernstein’s credo “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”
Christie’s openness to relative unknowns can be a burden. “I have an immense pile of scores in my garage,” he admits. “I will receive anywhere from six to 10 press packets a week from potential guest artists, and from composers, about half as many. I have such sympathy for them – it can just be overwhelming to go through them all. There are interesting discoveries to be made, though.”
Christie is proud of his commitment to audience-friendly innovations, ones that include such concert features as “Keeping Score,” programs with educational information about each composition that listeners can follow during performances, keyed to numbers that are projected above the orchestra as it plays; and “intermission insights” -- interviews and discussions among Christie, the audience and visiting soloists during concert breaks. Many times, I’ve seen him jump down into the audience on a warm summer night, microphone in hand, passing questions on to a soloist like a formally dressed talk-show host.
Christie describes these as “little things to help… the artist’s task is to break it down – to give preparation for the experience, not just the experience itself. Those who want that can have that … anybody who wants to be drawn into what we’re doing in the concert has more doors open to them than anywhere I’ve seen.”
He plans to utilize these techniques in his new position at the Phoenix Symphony as well. He looks forward to developing a relationship with his musicians over a 40-week season, and describes this opportunity as “a larger palette.”
He is confident in the abilities of its administrative staff, but he is the first to refer to the current classical scene as an industry, and makes choices and establishes priorities in line with this concept.
“To begin with, I will be conferencing with all the players, the whole orchestra,” he says, “which I don’t think many of them have ever done before. And I will ask them three things. What is your musical pedigree – your training and experience; in what way has the organization met or failed to meet your expectations; and, what can we do to support your personal and artistic growth?
“To date, orchestras have not been helping in cultivating professional development. Most of the time, you have years of intense technical training and then you are abandoned, basically. If we continue together – multi-tasking ,cross-training, doing outreach – I think we will see that this … leads to a better listening environment.”
I veer away mentally for a moment, thinking back to a conversation we had a year ago, when he spoke of his taste in non-classical music.
“Actually,” he said then, “I’ve spent some time kind of going back and trying to listen to groups that I really didn’t have a chance to listen to when I was really immersed in the development of classical music for myself ... groups I heard people talking about but never really got a chance to listen to.”
The memory prompts me to ask him if there is a style or period of music that he hasn’t fully explored yet, but wishes to. His eyes light up.
“Early music,” he exclaims. “From Byrd to earl Bach.”
He goes to say that he feels that many mainstream orchestras are reluctant to tackle late Renaissance/early Baroque works due to the intensive specialization of the genre, mastered by such groups as the Academy of Ancient Music.
“It’s not all religious in outlook, and composers such as Monteverdi are now popularly accepted. It’s music – why wouldn’t you play it?” he says.
Looking into the future, he sees what he is attempting – integrating audience participation into a traditional artistic format – as a unique contribution to the continued viability of classical music.
“Perhaps America’s contribution is to be the proving grounds of what we can do,” he says, “to open up a process we are all familiar with… This is an evolutionary process, and classical music is in a time of transition. We have to keep it creative and interesting. The shape of the orchestra may be different … who knows, we could have virtual reality, and you could put on a helmet and end up in the middle of the string section. I think that in some way each of us longs to be a part of that experience.”
Christie is banking on this basic human desire, constantly seeking ways to both stimulate and feed it, on and off the podium. His eagerness and energy shine through. Of those not yet seduced by the beauties of the music, he says:
“People are busy, not stupid. They can be sophisticated without having to be part of an elite.
And of his place in all this, he says, quietly and confidently:
“This is a good moment. I’m thankful to be around in our time.”

Rest in peace? Surveying Buffalo Bill’s unquiet grave

First published in 5280 magazine, June 2007


“Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death”

e.e. cummings

Ninety years after his burial on the top of Lookout Mountain, does the spirit of Buffalo Bill still rest unquietly?
William F. Cody lived many lives in one. He was a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, Civil War soldier, Army scout, Indian fighter and, of course, buffalo hunter. What distinguished him from his frontier contemporaries such as Will Bill Hickock was his flair for self-promotion.
“He was known as the most handsome man in America, and was the best-known American in the world,” says prominent Denver historian Thomas J. Noel.
Beginning in 1872 with stage appearances in adaptations of the dime novels that brought him national fame, Cody established himself as the archetype of the bold plainsman, complete with fringed buckskin jacket, flowing locks and signature goatee.
Remarkably, he also set in stone the popular vision of the American West. Having hatched the idea of an “Old Glory Blow-Out” in his home town of North Platte, Nebraska on July 4, 1882, which is often cited as the origin of the rodeo, Cody (with the able assistance of manager Nate Salsbury and pioneering press agent John M. Burke) created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
From 1883 to 1913, it traveled the world, crafting out of a collection of riding, roping and sharpshooting exhibitions and a band of cowboys, Native Americans, and vaqueros a “national entertainment” that appealed to all classes and ages alike, and delivered the legend of Manifest Destiny as a historical pageant. “Re-enactments” of the Pony Express, Indian attacks, stagecoach robberies, and even Custer’s Last Stand kept crowds that ranged from, literally, the crowned heads of Europe to throngs of orphans, enthralled. Packaged as living memories of a disappearing era, it taught two generations ways of thinking about the West that are still passed along in the media today. “Pahaska” (the Sioux name for Bill, meaning “Long Hair”) was one of the first international celebrities.
It’s ironic, then, that the frontier scout whose reputation as a pathfinder was justly unparalleled should find himself so far from home. In 1907, Cody’s will dictated that he be buried near his namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. However, as the years passed, so did Cody’s business acumen. The debt-ridden showman had placed himself in the power of the unscrupulous co-owner of the Denver Post, Henry Tammen, who auctioned off the assets of the Wild West show in Denver in 1913, and used Cody’s indebtedness to him to force him to act as master of ceremonies for his Sells-Floto Circus from 1914 on.
By the time the 70-year-old Cody died in the home of his sister at 2932 Lafayette St. on Jan. 9, 1917, of uremic poisoning brought on by kidney failure, his will was no longer his own.
It has long been rumored that Tammen, with the aid of a $10,000 bribe to Cody’s estranged widow Louisa, conspired to have him interred against his wishes in Colorado, the better to profit from the late scout’s corporeal presence. Both Cody and North Platte clamored for the right to bury him.
“Everybody realized that it would be great tourist attraction,” says Noel.
Cody’s funeral was held in Denver on a freezing Jan. 15, 1917, with thousands filing past his body in state at the capitol building. His body was then placed in the Olinger Mortuary at 2600 16th St., supposedly under armed guard, for six months, while the authorities waited for the dirt roads that led up the mountain west of Golden to become passable. (The body was re-embalmed six more times.)
On June 3, 1917, a motorcade ferried what was estimated as between 7,000 and 20,000 mourners to the summit of the peak to pay final homage to the “knight of the saddle,” as News correspondent Meredith Davis floridly referred to him. The widow ordered the casket opened, and poems, songs and trumpet fanfares stirred the summer air as attendees filed past the coffin for a final glimpse of their hero. At 3 p.m., the coffin was lowered into the concrete-lined vault; a photograph shows the words “BURGLAR PROOF GRAVE VAULT” embossed on its side.
Just to make sure, several tons of concrete, reinforced with iron rails, eventually topped the gravesite. The undertaker is said to have stated that grave robbers “would have to blow the top off Lookout Mountain” to get at the body. In fact, when his wife Louisa died in 1921, it proved impossible to dig down to his level – so they buried her on top of him, sealing them both in with more concrete.
Meanwhile, Cody’s adopted son and Wild West sharpshooter Johnny Baker proposed in 1920 that the city of Denver allow him to construct a building adjacent to the grave to house Buffalo Bill memorabilia, as well as “the sale of the Colonel’s books, postcards, photographic views, candies, and light refreshments.” The deal was struck, and the “Pahaska Tepee” was built.
Still, the controversy wasn’t over. Serious calls for the repatriation of Cody’s corpse continued as late as 1948, once prompting the National Guard to drive a tank up Lariat Trail Road to stand guard over Bill’s remains.
The museum/gift shop’s rag-tag assemblage was presided over by Baker until 1931, and by his widow until 1956. The city took over the site, and a freestanding museum building was finally completed nearby in 1979. Today, it is presided over by director Steve Friesen, who in 12 years has crafted a more interesting and even-handed display of Cody’s life and legacy than visitors have ever before enjoyed.
“Every once in a while somebody up in Wyoming gets a wild hair going,” he says of disgruntlement over Buffalo Bill’s final resting place. As recently as last year, he states, consultants in Cody recommended a renewed effort to disinter the pioneer.
“They said, ‘You need to get Buffalo Bill’s body here,’” he chuckles, and goes on to characterize the repositories of Buffalo Billiana as sharing “a good-natured rivalry.”
So Buffalo Bill still sleeps ‘neath Colorado skies, trapped under the wife he avoided in life, catching the pitched pennies tossed on his tomb for luck by travelers, still a moneymaker through the auspices of the nearby gift shop, still a showman in death.
“It’s pretty up there,” Louisa Cody reported her husband saying of Lookout Mountain shortly before his death.
Tom Noel chimes in with a wry quote from Voltaire -- “History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead.”

The Snob: Halloween column

First published in the Colorado Daily, 10/31/08

THE SNOB

I’m a Halloweenie

By Brad Weismann

Get off my porch, you stupid pirates!
It’s time for the most annoying holiday of the year. Halloween, how I despise you.
I blame Charles Schultz. Any sensitive, neurotic child who was exposed to “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” TV special was traumatized for life. Can you really come back from trick-or-treating with only a bag of rocks? Are Linus and his non-standard belief system doomed to suffer scorn year after year? And why is Lucy such a bitch?
OK, for a time it was fun. Running around all night, filling our pillowcases with candy, dumping them, going back for more. Developing diabetes.
Then some idiots had to go and start the urban legends about the razor blade in the apple and the needle in the candy bar. Boy, nothing makes a child feel better about Halloween than having his or her candy X-RAYED IN THE LOCAL EMERGENCY ROOM before it can be eaten. Thanks, thanks a lot.
(Of course, none of that protected us from treats containing psychoactive ingredients. By the way, if you have them, don’t waste them on the young – set them aside for me.)
As we grew older, though, we learned about the true purpose of Halloween – PARTY! It wouldn’t be Oct. 31 unless we are getting shitfaced drinking through a rubber mask while trying to nail the ballerina in the corner. Nothing says “I’m a loser” quite like waking up alone with that uniquely painful Jager hangover with eyeliner caked on your face. If you can’t score in disguise, when can you?
I know that most people will dress up as Sarah Palin this year, even the women. Some tips for costume safety: a) Bring flats in case you break a heel. b) Mummy garb and flaming vodka drinks don’t mix. c) Dress as something recognizable – I went as a private eye one year and everyone asked me which Blues Brother I was.
d) Don’t carry fake explosives. A friend of mine dressed up as a “mad bomber” (this was before 9/11, when such things were still deemed hilarious), and got so drunk he forgot his big brown-paper box, plainly labeled “Bomb,” in front of a downtown business. The next morning, a police squad detonated it. They would still like to chat with him.
The holiday has come back strong, if the big-box store aisles and yard-decoration company profits are anything to go by. Not that I grieve over the commercialization of the holiday – it had none to begin with, unless you celebrate Samhain. (There will now be a brief pause for Wiccans and other neo-pagans, who may angrily scrawl e-mails to me. Letters must be 400 runes or fewer.)
Enjoy your holiday however you choose, just leave me alone. Yes, I will have (non-toxic) candy. However, if you ring my doorbell, you better be too young to drive.
And be warned: I enjoy scaring Boulder children by dressing up – as meat.
And don’t try t.p.ing my yard – we xeriscaped. Nyah!

Welcome to the barbecue

As I was saying, we never get a chance to chat!

I will post some of my past work here and let you know more about myself here. Thanks for stopping by!