Friday, December 27, 2013

Tails From The Road

or How to Move from California to New York in Six Months

I'm a New Yorker by birth, a Californian by choice. Six months back I was sitting in my sunny home in the Silicon Valley, looking out its big picture window traversed by an Asian pear tree and wondering how I could take everything I need and plop it in the middle of Manhattan Island. For almost thirty years, I'd tasted a great deal of what the Golden State had to offer but now I was dreaming of New York City.

My sunny home in the Silicon Valley, California

Dozens of curb appeal renovations, Craigslist offerings and garage sales later, the house was sold and my remaining possessions were in a pod traveling across the United States. On August 10, clutching our one-way tickets, Max and I took a town car to San Francisco International Airport, plopped our butts in first class seats and left California for the bright lights of Broadway. Thirty years ago, I moved to Los Angeles because I couldn't afford to live in New York City and now I was returning ... A STAR!

Within days of arriving, I had my first appointment to see my first apartment in my first building. When I walked into the second floor Upper East Side studio with an alcove, I was faced with a wall of windows traversed by a sidewalk tree in front of the studio's outdoor balcony which opened onto 1st Avenue. There were no pears but Apartment 2D addressed every item on my Apartment Wants list and threw in a 24 hour doorman to boot! I saw options but kept going back to 2D so I made an offer the seller couldn't refuse and soon found myself under contract to become an officer for a corporation in which I own the number of shares that is equal to the square footage of an actual co-op apartment in New York City.

Then the shit hit the fan!

When you get back to your blue-blooded sisters would you tell them that
the Ricardo/Mertz investigating committee looked you over and
we have no desire to join your phony baloney club!

Buying property in New York City is akin to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz trying to get into the Society Matrons League; you must be approved before you can proceed. (See I Love Lucy S01E25 Pioneer Women.) In life, the judgment process includes approval of your financials by the building's board of directors (submitted in a board package), and a board interview in which you meet board members for a two (or more) on one. I signed the contract for Apartment 2D on September 12, my board package was approved November 6, the board interview was on December 5 and I took possession of the apartment on December 20. That's 99 days with nothing but a computer, a suitcase, a rental car and a Jack Russell Terrier in the back seat wanting a treat.


I worked every weekday but, for all intents and purposes, I was homeless. So like a good Jew, I wandered ... and worried that the deal would fall through.
  • Rented three cars, two of which were Hyundais, and one of which was sideswiped by my best friend. I feigned ignorance and have yet to receive a bill.
  • Drove up and down the East Coast, going over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, visiting Savannah, and enjoying quality time with family in Florida.
  • Learned to fly on my bicycle.
  • Experienced the horror of life in the hamlet of Holbrook - including an eviction, along with my brother, from his marriage home of 12 years (where I'd been bunking) by his (soon to be ex) wife. My brother's happier than I've seen him in years!
  • Lived off the breakfast buffets of any number of hotels.
  • Yelped (almost) every cemetery up and down the East Coast. Good places to walk Max and see ghosts but no peeing on the headstones. Bad karma.
  • Spent $1200 for two nights in a very chic hotel off Central Park for Max's first trip to New York City. This was on November 25 for a board interview scheduled the next day but postponed five hours before the allotted time because of a fire that lead to the building's evacuation.
A week and a half after the postponed board interview, on December 5, I received a phone call that the new board interview was scheduled for that night at 7:00 PM. It was 2:00 PM and I was in Albany, bunking with friends in their reconverted 19th century tavern (where I learned the fine art of making log fires in the kitchen's wood stove). I showered, changed, grabbed the suitcase and computer, threw Max in the car, drove 138 miles to New York City, and got there with time to spare. The board interview was about 20 minutes long, and conducted by two gentlemen. We discussed my work, courteousness, California, neighbors, the building, respect, New York City, and Max - who was quietly lying under the conference table. I was notified the following day that the sale was approved. Exactly two weeks later I had the keys to my light and airy new studio with an alcove on the Upper East Side of Manhattan...and a home.

OK, maybe it was just a parody of homelessness but it felt weird.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Anna Lucasta Redefines Race in Hollywood

This racial history started innocently enough when a still from the 1949 movie Anna Lucasta was posted to a Facebook thread about character actress Mary Wickes (who co-stars). Philip Yordan, a white playwright and screenwriter (Johnny Guitar), wrote Anna Lukaska in 1936. The story of this Anna (a Polish American prostitute seeking redemption from her family) takes important plot points and characterizations from a play about another literary Anna who turned to prostitution some twenty years before: Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill. Possibly because of its similarities, Anna Lukaska never made it to Broadway in the 30s but almost ten years later, it was discovered by Abram Hill, one of the founders of the American Negro Theatre Company.

Rumored to have hired an out-of-work black dramatist to provide
Negro dialect Philip Yordan is Anna Lucasta's sole author

In 1944, Hill reconceived the play to reflect African American life, renamed it Anna Lucasta and produced this new version in the basement of the New York Public Library on 135th Street. Its success in Harlem culminated in a quick move to Broadway where the play ran for over two years; a hugely successful American tour and engagements in Chicago and on London's West End followed. (Perennial Hollywood couple Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis met and fell in love while performing in the tour of Anna Lucasta.) Despite its sexual themes and an all-black cast, this theatrical success brought attention from Hollywood.

The Mansfield Theater was renamed The Brooks Atkinson
Click the pic to see the 1944 Playbill

Anna Lucasta was booted from studio to studio because the material was thoroughly and completely unacceptable. Yordan was desperate to see his play on the screen so he blamed Hill for the smut and cheap hokum and promised to eliminate these unwholesome elements from the screenplay. He fashioned a screenplay (with help from writer Arthur Laurents) in which the characters were (once again) white Polish Americans and the smut was implied. It was then that Anna Lucasta was filmed (via Security Pictures and producer Yordan) with (r-l) Paulette Goddard as Anna, William Bishop as Rudolf, Mary Wickes as Stella, Lisa Golm as Theresa and Broderick Crawford (not pictured) as Frank.

White Anna Lucasta is banal, stagebound and unrealistic. Goddard (a little long in the tooth) resembles Mildred Pierce and one thinks she had hoped for the same career resucitation from this film that Joan Crawford had gotten from the former. Unfortunately, her performance is more camp than credible with facial tics akimbo. Broderick Crawford as the villian acts every bit the sleazy Harry character soon to be immortalized in Born Yesterday and Mary Wickes is the perfect foil in an atypical role. Most interesting though was the casting of Dennie Moore as Blanche, Anna's compadre on the streets; I had previously seen Ms. Moore only in her rousing turn as the manicurist in the classic 1939 film The Women (also with Goddard although the two never appear on screen together). But the 1949 movie was only the first filmed version.

Watch Anna Lucasta with Paulette Goddard

In 1958, Anna Lucasta was filmed again - this time the racial switch was flipped back to African Americans. Again produced and written by Yordan, the film starred Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis Jr., Rex Ingram and Claire Leyba. Black Anna Lucasta is a much more cohesive film despite the many similarities in the text, and the acting is much better so the characters feel more defined. Kitt especially brought tears to my eyes in any number of scenes and looked sensational while doing it. Leyba (in the great role of Blanche this go-round) proves a wonderful actress and screen personality while Davis, playing a cab driver in his first non-musical role, is still given a gratuitous hallucinatory dance sequence (with costume changes, MTV-style editing and a great Elmer Bernstein score that apes the beatnik jazz of the era).

Although Anna Lucasta has the reputation of having been inspired by (or copied structurally and plot-wise from) O'Neill's classic play, lesser known is the fact that Anna Lucasta inspired a classic play as well. Written by Alice Childress (who played Blanche on Broadway), Trouble in Mind is about a black actress appearing in an anti-lynching play directed by one white man and written by another. Seen as a dramatization of Childress' experiences in Anna Lucasta, the play was first produced Off-Broadway in 1955 and Childress became the first African American woman to be honored with an Obie Award when Trouble In Mind was selected as the Best Original Off-Broadway Production in 1956.

Alice Childress wrote A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich
Trouble in Mind has been revived as recently as 2011

Anna Lucasta is still performed but does it, as one reviewer wrote last year, provide substantial evidence to support the notion that we’re all the same beneath the skin or is it just a broadly written play with little characterization and stereotypes? Although a (translated) Greek television movie was made in 1977, most recent productions (including this 2012 stage production in Los Angeles) retain the second generation African American cast. But might we see a revival with a white cast and the sexual themes toned down now again? Would that be racist? Or an attempt at capitalism - like the African-American version of Steel Magnolias? The Jewish Yordan has an Academy Award, and a reputation as a front during the Hollywood blacklists of the 50s. All of this belies an interesting little peccadillo.

Some quotes and data in this article have been taken from:
  • AFI Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the Unted States Volume 1
  • Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960
  • The Regal Theater and Black Culture by Clovis E Semmes
  • Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s edited by Patrick McGilligan
  • The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bobbie Gentry's Courtyard And Mine

Bobbie Gentry's beautiful song Courtyard (from her 1968 LP, The Delta Sweete) provides the audio for this video of my lovely home in the Silicon Valley, California - with its courtyard. I bought the home on August 28, 2001, sold it on July 26, 2013 and left it forever on August 10, 2013.

It is still a beautiful home and Ms. Gentry sings one beautiful song.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Difference Between a $600 and a $100 Hotel Room

For $600*, you spend $500 more and experience:

  • Kate Moss when you enter the lobby

  • A bellman's ten minute tour of the room's features including 400 count bedsheets that are laundered until they feel like this

  • A room heating unit with a push button thermostat that has more arrows and numbers than the TV remote
  • Drowsiness from the lack of free coffee in the room and lobby
  • $15 for 24 hours of wifi - 6 of which you will never use because of check out time
  • Lots of channels on TV but no guide
  • A room card that also serves as an elevator key to keep non guests from entering the upper floors
  • Dog dishes in the room when you enter and a sink big enough for a bath - Max-approved

  • A bed that is too soft with pillows that are too hard
  • No swimming pool
  • A $7 fee to order room service on top of the cost of the food (which is also higher when you order room service)
  • Doormen that open the door for you - if they see you leaving - and hand you an umbrella if they see it's raining
  • Doormen that remember your name and your dog's name

And that, as they say, is that.

* Prices for the Surrey Hotel NYC versus the Grand Plaza Hotel Kingston include all applicable taxes and fees.