Thursday, December 10, 2009

Armistead Interviewed in New James Broughton Documentary

Big Joy Fundraising Trailer from Eric on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Should Serial Novels Be Continued?

Out of sync with print-based reading habits, this form is nonetheless perfectly in tune with the web

The Guardian
Stephen Emms
Tuesday 24 November 2009 

Ever since a suburban adolescence that was organised around a daily race home from school to devour a self-rationed chapter or two of Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City, I have been intrigued by the serial novel. So in September this year, I started to write one. Called Happiness Is An Option, after a 1999 Pet Shop Boys album track, it was inspired by George Bernard Shaw's line, "A lifetime of happiness! No man could bear it; it would be hell on earth". So far, the writing process has brimmed with discoveries: the format's restrictions (character and plot can't be reworked) are balanced by its fluidity: storylines can ebb and flow, feedback from readers can be incorporated (in my case, this led to protagonist Archie's estranged girlfriend Rose arriving two chapters early). And there's the responsibility to the growing readership (the first six episodes were published on Time Out) which is now in its hundreds.

The potted history of the serial novel is well-documented, dating back to The Thousand and One Nights, with its frame of vizier's daughter Scheherazade narrating hook-laden stories to avoid execution by King Shahryar. Its heyday was the 19th century, with the Charles Dickens-founded periodical, All the Year Round, publishing novels of his, including Great Expectations, and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, at the same time as Sherlock Holmes was taking his first cases in The Strand magazine (which had a circulation of 500,000). Nowadays newspapers and journals rarely serialise novels, but the format lives on in Japanese manga, as well as the dank online caves of the horror, SF and occult genres, pioneered by Stephen King's "e-novel", The Plant, published in 2000 (which remains unfinished).

So does the serial novel in 2009 feel anachronistic, or thoroughly modern – a way of reading literature facilitated by technology? Jenny Parrott, editorial director of Little, Brown and Abacus thinks it's problematic. "I wonder whether the biggest challenge facing us all lies in trying to capture and keep people's attention. Investing time in reading (and remembering) fiction metered out to us in regular doses might now seem a bigger ask than many of us are prepared to give. And while I'm sure many writers would love to have a go at writing in a serial form, I'm just not convinced that they would be matched by as many readers."

Chinese-Australian author Lynda Ng, who wrote the successful 12-part serial Sydney Shards, took these parameters as a challenge. "While the online medium is full of potential for fiction writers and readers, I wasn't sure if it was the place people go to read fiction. So from the start I wanted to experiment with its potential to engage the reader with greater visual and interactive techniques than traditional print. We designed a website with a distinctive style, and links to show readers the relationship between the fictional story and real-life events."

There are signs, too, that in mainstream media the tide is turning. Last year Alexander McCall Smith – apparently "put up to it" at a party by Armistead Maupin – invited Telegraph readers to sign up for a free, 100-day online serialisation of his Corduroy Mansions novel (published by Little, Brown) which has now spawned a daily sequel, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold. Wannabe authors can, at least, be encouraged by the fact that literary agents aren't against the format. Patrick Walsh of Conville And Walsh believes that serial fiction has a unique place today: "The episodic novel is the perfect form for pleasurably delayed gratification. With the internet replacing so many newspapers and magazines, serial fiction should find a natural home on the web."

So people: let's bring back the quality serial novel. What are your favourites, both on and offline?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Twilight of the American newspaper

The cover story by Richard Rodriguez in the November issue of Harper's Magazine contains a fascinating account of the history of the San Francisco Chronicle -- and the role that Tales of the City played in it.

Final edition:
Twilight of the American newspaper
by Richard Rodriguez

A scholar I know, a woman who is ninety-six years old, grew up in a tin shack on the American prairie, near the Canadian border. She learned to read from the pages of the Chicago Tribune in a one-room schoolhouse. Her teacher, who had no more than an eighth-grade education, had once been to Chicago—had been to the opera! Women in Chicago went to the opera with bare shoulders and long gloves, the teacher imparted to her pupils. Because the teacher had once been to Chicago, she subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, which came on the train by Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest.

Several generations of children learned to read from that text. The schoolroom had a wind-up phonograph, its bell shaped like a morning glory, and one record, from which a distant female voice sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

Is it better to have or to want? My friend says her teacher knew one great thing: There was something out there. She told her class she did not expect to see even a fraction of what the world had to offer. But she hoped they might.

I became a reader of the San Francisco Chronicle when I was in high school and lived ninety miles inland, in Sacramento. On my way home from school, twenty-five cents bought me a connection with a gray maritime city at odds with the postwar California suburbs. Herb Caen, whose column I read immediately—second section, corner left—invited me into the provincial cosmopolitanism that characterized the city’s outward regard: “Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?”

Newspapers have become deadweight commodities linked to other media commodities in chains that are coupled or uncoupled by accountants and lawyers and executive vice presidents and boards of directors in offices thousands of miles from where the man bit the dog and drew ink. The San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, once the Chronicle’s archrival. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters in New York City. According to Hearst, the Chronicle has been losing a million dollars a week. In San Francisco there have been buyouts and firings of truck drivers, printers, reporters, artists, editors, critics. With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.

When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death—and why else would the editors celebrate its 144th anniversary? and why else would the editors devote a week to feature articles on fog?—it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.

Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post–Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.

Nineteenth-century newspapers draped bunting about their mastheads and brandished an inflated diction and a Gothic type to name themselves the Herald, the Eagle, the Tribune, the Mercury, the Globe, the Sun. With the passage of time, the name of the city was commonly attached to the name of the newspaper, not only to distinguish the Alexandria Gazette from the New York Gazette but because the paper described the city and the city described the paper.

The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, precursor to the San Francisco Chronicle, was founded in 1865 by two teenage brothers on a borrowed twenty-dollar gold piece. Charles and Michael de Young (a third brother, Gustavus, was initially a partner in the publishing venture) had come west with their widowed mother from St. Louis. In California, the brothers invented themselves as descendants of French aristocracy. They were adolescents of extraordinary gumption at a time when San Francisco was a city of gumption and of stranded young men.

Karl Marx wrote that Gold Rush California was “thickly populated by men of all races, from the Yankee to the Chinese, from the Negro to the Indian and Malay, from the Creole and Mestizo to the European.” Oscar Wilde seconded Karl Marx: “It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.” What must Gold Rush San Francisco have been like? Melville’s Nantucket? Burning Man? An arms bazaar in Yemen? There were Russians, Chileans, Frenchmen, Welshmen, and Mexicans. There were Australian toughs, the worst of the lot by most accounts—“Sydney Ducks”—prowling the waterfront. There were Chinese opium dens beneath the streets and Chinese opera houses above them. Historians relish the old young city’s foggy wharves and alleyways, its frigates, fleas, mud, and hazard. Two words attached to the lawless city the de Young brothers moved about in. One was “vigilante,” from the Spanish. The other was “hoodlum”—a word coined in San Francisco to name the young men loitering about corners, threatening especially to the Chinese.

The de Young brothers named their newspaper the Daily Dramatic Chronicle because stranded young men seek entertainment. The city very early developed a taste for limelight that was as urgent as its taste for red light. In 1865, there were competing opera houses in the city; there were six or seven or twelve theaters. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was a theatrical sheet delivered free of charge to the city’s saloons and cafés and reading rooms. San Francisco desperately appreciated minstrel shows and circuses and melodeons and Shakespeare. Stages were set up in gambling halls and saloons where Shakespearean actors, their velvets much the worse for wear, pointed to a ghost rising at the back of the house: Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.

An Italian who came to San Francisco to study medicine in 2003 swears he saw the ghost of a forty-niner, in early light, when he slept and then woke in an old house out by the ocean. The forty-niner was very young, my friend said, with a power of sadness about him. He did not speak. He had red hair and wore a dark shirt.

We can imagine marooned opera singers, not of the second, perhaps not even of the third rank, enunciating elaborate prayers and curses from the Italian repertoire as they stumbled among the pebbles and stones of cold running creeks on their way to perform in Gold Rush towns along the American River. It was as though the grandiose nineteenth-century musical form sought its natural echo in the canyons of the Sierra Nevada. The miners loved opera. (Puccini reversed the circuit and took David Belasco’s melodrama of the Gold Rush back to Europe as La Fanciulla del West.)

In 1860, San Francisco had a population of 57,000. By 1870, the population had almost tripled, to 149,000. Within three years of its founding, by 1868, the Daily Dramatic Chronicle would evolve with its hormonal city to become the Daily Morning Chronicle. The de Young brothers were in their early twenties. Along with theatrical and operatic listings, the Chronicle then published news of ships sailing into and out of the bay and the dollar equivalents of treasure in their holds, and bank robberies, and saloon shootings, and gold strikes and drownings, an extraordinary number of suicides, likewise fires, for San Francisco was a wooden city, as it still is in many of its districts.

It is still possible, very occasionally, to visit the Gold Rush city when one attends a crowded theater. Audiences here, more than in any city I know, possess a wit in common and can react as one—in pleasure, but also in derision. I often think our impulse toward hoot and holler might be related to our founding sense of isolation, to our being “an oasis of civilization in the California desert,” in the phrase of Addison DeWitt (in All About Eve), who, though a Hollywood figment, is about as good a rendition as I can summon of the sensibility (“New York critics”) we have courted here for one hundred and fifty years. And deplored.

The nineteenth-century city felt itself surrounded by vacancy—to the west, the gray court of the Pacific; to the east, the Livermore Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra Nevada range. Shipping and mining were crucial to the wealth of the city, but they were never the consolations the city sought. The city looked, rather, to Addison DeWitt—to the eastern United States, to Europe, for approbation. If there was a pathetic sense of insecurity in living at the edge of the continent—San Francisco proclaiming itself “the Paris of the Pacific”!—the city also raised men of visionary self-interest who squinted into the distance and conceived of opening trade to Asia or cutting down redwood forests or laying track across a sea of yellow grass.

Readers in other parts of the country were fascinated by any scrap of detail about the Gold Rush city. Here is a fragment (July 9, 1866) from Bret Harte’s dispatch to readers of the Springfield Republican (from a collection of such dispatches edited by Gary Scharnhorst). The description remains accurate:

Midsummer! . . . To dwellers in Atlantic cities, what visions of heated pavements, of staring bricks, of grateful shade trees, of straw hats and white muslin, are conjured up in this word. . . . In San Francisco it means equal proportions of fog and wind. On the evening of the Fourth of July it was a pleasant and instructive sight to observe the population, in great-coats and thick shawls, warming themselves by bonfires, watching the sky-rockets lose themselves in the thick fog, and returning soberly home to their firesides and warm blankets.

From its inception, the San Francisco Chronicle borrowed a tone of merriment and swagger from the city it daily invented—on one occasion with fatal consequences: in 1879, the Chronicle ran an exposé of the Reverend Isaac Smith Kalloch, a recent arrival to the city (“driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper”) who had put himself up as a candidate for mayor. The Chronicle recounted Kalloch’s trial for adultery in Massachusetts (“his escapade with one of the Tremont Temple choristers”). Kalloch responded by denouncing the “bawdy house breeding” of the de Young boys, implying that Charles and Michael’s mother kept a whorehouse in St. Louis. Charles rose immediately to his mother’s defense; he shot Kalloch, who recovered and won City Hall. De Young never served jail time. A year later, in 1880, Kalloch’s son shot and killed Charles de Young in the offices of the Chronicle.

“Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman,” Ambrose Bierce later remarked of Michael, the surviving brother. However just or unjust Bierce’s estimation, the de Young brothers lived and died according to their notion of a newspaper’s purpose—that it should entertain and incite the population.

In 1884, Michael was shot by Adolph Spreckels, the brother of a rival newspaper publisher and the son of the sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, after the Chronicle accused the Spreckels Sugar Company of labor practices in Hawaii amounting to slavery. De Young was not mortally wounded and Spreckels was acquitted on a claim of reasonable cause.

When he died in 1925, Michael de Young bequeathed the ownership of the Chronicle to his four daughters with the stipulation that it could not be sold out of the family until the death of the last surviving daughter.

San Francisco gentility has roots as shallow and as belligerent as those of the Australian blue gum trees that were planted heedlessly throughout the city and now configure and scent our Sunday walks. In 1961, Holiday magazine came to town to devote an entire issue to San Francisco. The three living daughters of Michael de Young were photographed seated on an antique high-backed causeuse in the gallery of the old M. H. de Young Memorial Museum their father had donated to the city to house his collection of paintings and curiosities (including a scabrous old mummy beloved of generations of schoolchildren—now considered too gauche to be displayed). For the same issue, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, widow of Adolph, was photographed taking tea in her Pacific Heights mansion in what looks to be a fur-trimmed, floor-length velvet gown. The Spreckels family donated to the city a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris to house a collection of European paintings and rooms and furniture. One Spreckels and three de Youngs make four Margaret Dumonts—a San Francisco royal flush.

In 1972, the museum donated by Michael de Young merged with the museum created by the family of the man who tried to murder Michael de Young to become the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Men, usually men, who assumed the sole proprietorships of newspapers in the nineteenth century were the sort of men to be attracted by the way a newspaper could magnify an already fatted ego. Newspaper publishers were accustomed to lord over cities.

William Randolph Hearst was given the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a mining millionaire and U.S. senator, who may or may not have won it in a poker game in 1880. As it happened, young Hearst was born to run a newspaper. He turned the Examiner into the largest-circulation paper in San Francisco before he moved on to New York, where, in 1895, he acquired the New York Journal. Hearst quickly engaged in a yellow-journalism rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Both Hearst and Pulitzer assumed political careers. Hearst served in the Congress of the United States—served is not quite the word—as did Pulitzer, briefly.

We remember Joseph Pulitzer not as a sensationalist journalist but as the philanthropist who endowed an award for excellence in journalism and the arts. We remember William Randolph Hearst because his castle overlooking the Pacific—fifty miles of ocean frontage—is as forthright a temple to grandiosity as this nation can boast. And we remember Hearst as the original for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Welles portrayed Charles Foster Kane with the mix of populism and egomania audiences of the time easily recognized as Hearst. Kane the champion of the common man becomes Kane the autocrat. Kane builds an opera house for his paramour. Kane invents a war.

The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner were both losing money when, in 1965, Charles Thieriot, grandson of Michael de Young, met with William Randolph Hearst Jr. to collaborate on what they called the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. The Agency was a third entity designed to share production and administrative costs. The papers were to maintain editorial discretion and separate staffs. In addition, an incoherent Sunday edition shuffled together sections from both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The terms of the publishers’ agreement eventually favored the afternoon Hearst newspaper, for it was soon to fall behind, to become the lesser newspaper in a two-paper town. The Examiner nevertheless continued to collect half the profits of both.

In January 1988, Phyllis Tucker, the last surviving daughter of Michael de Young, died in San Francisco. Tucker’s daughter, Nan Tucker McEvoy, managed to forestall the sale of the paper for several years. But in 1999, the founding publisher’s posthumous grip was pried loose by a majority vote of family members to sell. At that time, the Hearst Corporation was desirous of reclaiming the San Francisco market. Hearst paid $660 million to the de Young heirs for the San Francisco Chronicle.

To satisfy antitrust concerns of the Justice Department, the Hearst Corporation sold the still-extant San Francisco Examiner to the politically connected Fang family, owners of Asianweek, the oldest and largest English-language Asian-American newspaper. The Hearst Corporation paid the Fangs a subsidy of $66 million to run the Examiner. Florence Fang placed her son, Ted Fang, in the editor’s chair. Within a year, Florence Fang fired her son; Ted Fang threatened to sue his mother. In 2004, the Fang family sold the Examiner to Philip Anschutz, a scattershot entrepreneur from Colorado who deflated William Randolph Hearst’s “Monarch of the Dailies” to a freebie tabloid that gets delivered to houses up and down the street twice a week, willy-nilly, and litters the floors of San Francisco municipal buses.

The day after I was born in San Francisco, my tiny existential fact was noted in several of the papers that were barked through the downtown streets. In truth, the noun “newspaper” is something of a misnomer. More than purveyors only of news, American newspapers were entrusted to be keepers of public record—papers were daily or weekly cumulative almanacs of tabular information. A newspaper’s morgue was scrutable evidence of the existence of a city. Newspapers published obituaries and they published birth announcements. They published wedding announcements and bankruptcy notices. They published weather forecasts (even in San Francisco, where on most days the weather is optimistic and unremarkable—fog clearing by noon). They published the fire department’s log and high school basketball scores. In a port city like San Francisco, there were listings of the arrivals and departures of ships. None of this constituted news exactly; it was a record of a city’s mundane progress. News was old as soon as it was dry—“fishwrap,” as Herb Caen often called it.

Unwilling to forfeit any fraction of my quarter, I even studied the classifieds—-unrelieved columns laid out like city blocks: Room for rent. Marina. No pets. File clerk position. Heavy phones. Ticket agent for busy downtown box office. Must be bonded. Norman, we’re still here. Only once did I find the titillation I was looking for, a listing worthy of a barbershop magazine, an Argosy, or a Mickey Spillane: “Ex-Green Beret will do anything legal for cash.” Newspapers were sustained by classifieds, as well as by department-store ads and automobile ads. I admired the urbanity of the drawings of newspaper ads in those years, and I took from them a conception of the posture of downtown San Francisco. Despite glimpses into the classified life of the city, despite the hauteur of ad-art mannerism, the Chronicle offered some assurance (to an adolescent such as I was) it would have been difficult for me to describe. I will call it now an implied continuity. There was continuity in the comics and on the sports page, but nowhere more than in the columns.

During Scott Newhall’s tenure as executive editor, from 1952 to 1971, the Chronicle achieved something of a golden age. Newhall was flamboyant in ways that were congenial to the city. At a time when the Los Angeles Times was attracting admiration from the East Coast for its fleet of foreign bureaus, Newhall reverted to an eighteenth-century model of a newspaper as first-person observer.

For nearly two decades the city that prized its singularity was entertained by idiosyncratic voices. At the shallow end of the Chronicle’s roster (under the cipher of a coronet) appeared Count Marco, a Liberace of the typewriter who concerned himself with fashion and beauty and l’amour. At the deep end—a snug corner at Gino and Carlo’s bar in North Beach—sat “Charles McCabe, Esq.,” an erudite connoisseur of books, spirits, and failed marriages. Terrence O’Flaherty watched television. Stanton Delaplane, to my mind the best writer among them, wrote “Postcard”—a travel series with charm and humor. Art Hoppe concocted political satire. Harold Gilliam expounded on wind and tide and fog. Alfred Frankenstein was an art critic of international reputation. There was a book column by William Hogan and a society column by Frances Moffat. Allan Temko wrote architectural criticism against the grain of the city’s sensibility, a sensibility he sometimes characterized as a liberal spirit at odds with a timorous aesthetic. All the Chronicle columnists and critics had constituents, but the name above the banner was Herb Caen.

Herb Caen began writing a column for the Chronicle before the Second World War. At that time, Caen was in his twenties and probably resembled the fresh, fast-talking smarty-pants he pitched his voice to portray in print. Item. . .item. . .who’s gotta item? In 1950, he was lured over to the Examiner at a considerable hike in salary, and circulation followed at his heels. He knew all the places; he knew the maître d’s, the bartenders, the bouncers, the flower-sellers, the cops, the madams, the shopkeepers—knew them in the sense that they all knew him and knew he could be dangerous. In 1958, Caen returned to the Chronicle, and, again, circulation tilted.

Each day except Saturday, for forty years, Caen set the conversation for San Francisco. Who was in town. Who was in the hospital and would appreciate a card. Who was seen drinking champagne out of a rent boy’s tennis shoe. His last column began: “And how was your Christmas?” He persuaded hundreds of thousands of readers (crowded on buses, on the way to work) that his was the city we lived in. Monday through Friday, Caen was an omniscient table-hopping bitch. On Sunday, he dropped all that; he reverted to an ingenue—a sailor on leave, a sentimental flaneur infatuated with his dream “Baghdad-by-the-Bay.” The point of the Sunday perambulation was simple relish—fog clearing by noon; evidence that the mystical, witty, sourdough city had survived one more week.

After a time, Caen stopped writing Sunday panegyrics; he said it was not the same city anymore, and it wasn’t. He wasn’t. Los Angeles, even San Jose—two cities created by suburbanization—had become more influential in the world than the “cool grey city of love,” a George Sterling line Caen favored. The Chinese city did not figure in Caen’s novel, except atmospherically—lanterns and dragons, chorus girls at the Forbidden City, Danny Kaye taking over the kitchen at Kan’s, that sort of thing. The growing Filipino, Latin-American city did not figure at all.

In Caen’s heyday, the San Francisco Chronicle reflected the self-infatuated city. But it was not the city entire that drew the world’s attention. In the 1950s, the version of San Francisco that interested the world was Jack Kerouac’s parish—a few North Beach coffeehouses habituated by beatniks (a word Caen coined) and City Lights Bookstore. By the time I was a teenager, the path to City Lights was electrified by the marquees of topless clubs and bad wolves with flashlights beckoning passersby toward red velvet curtains. Anyway, the scene had moved by that time to the fog-shrouded Grateful Dead concerts in Golden Gate Park and to the Haight Ashbury. A decade later, the most famous neighborhood in the city was the homosexual Castro District. San Francisco never seemed to grow old the way other cities grow old.

In 1967, the Chronicle’s rock and jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason, teamed up with a renegade cherub named Jann Wenner to publish Rolling Stone magazine. What this disparate twosome intuited was that by chronicling the rising influence of rock music, they were effectively covering a revolution. In New York, writers were cultivating, in the manner of Thackeray, a self-referential point of view and calling it the “New Journalism.” In San Francisco, Rolling Stone was publishing a gospel “I” that found itself in a world without precedent: Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, Patti Smith, Timothy Ferris, Hunter S. Thompson. I remember sitting in an Indian tea shop in South London in 1970 (in the manner of the New Journalism) and being gripped by envy potent enough to be called homesickness as I read John Burks’s account of the Stones concert at Altamont. It was like reading a dispatch from the Gold Rush city.

One morning in the 1970s, the Chronicle began to publish Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—adding sex and drugs and local branding to the nineteenth-century gimmick of serial fiction. At a time when American families were trending to the suburbs, Maupin’s novel insisted that San Francisco was still magnetic for single lives. In those same years, Cyra McFadden was writing satirically about the sexual eccentricities of suburban Marin County in a series (“The Serial”) for an alternative newspaper called the Pacific Sun.

In those same years, Joan Didion wrote, in The White Album, that for many people in Los Angeles “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the (Manson family) murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” To borrow for a moment the oracular deadpan: In San Francisco, the Sixties came to an end for many people in 1977, when Jann Wenner packed up and moved Rolling Stone to New York. As he departed, the moss-covered wunderkind griped to a young reporter standing by that San Francisco was a “provincial backwater.”

What no one could have imagined in 1977, not even Jann Wenner, was that a suburban industrial region thirty miles to the south of the city contained an epic lode. Silicon Valley would, within twenty years, become the capital of Nowhere. What no one could have imagined in 1977 was that San Francisco would become a bedroom community for a suburban industrial region that lay thirty miles to the south.

Don’t kid a kidder. Herb Caen died in 1997. With the loss of that daily hectoring voice, the Chronicle seemed to lose its narrative thread, as did the city. The Chronicle began to reprint Caen columns, to the bewilderment of anyone younger than thirty.

If you die in San Francisco, unless you are judged notable by our know-nothing newspaper (it is unlikely you will be judged notable unless your obituary has already appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times), your death will be noted in a paid obituary submitted to the Chronicle by your mourners. More likely, there will be no public notice taken at all. As much as any vacancy in the Chronicle I can point to, the dearth of obituaries measures its decline.

In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.

A few months ago there was an item in the paper about a young woman so plugged into her personal sounds and her texting apparatus that she stepped off the curb and was mowed down by a honking bus.

In this morning’s paper there is a quote from an interview San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, gave to The Economist concerning the likelihood that San Francisco will soon be a city without a newspaper: “People under thirty won’t even notice.”

The other day I came upon a coffeehouse that resembled, as I judged from its nineteenth-century exterior, the sort of café where the de Young brothers might have distributed their paper. The café was only a couple of blocks from the lively gay ambience of upper Market Street yet far removed from the clamorous San Francisco of the nineteenth century. Several men and women sat alone at separate tables. No one spoke. The café advertised free wi-fi; all but one of the customers had laptops open before them. (The exception was playing solitaire with a real deck of cards.) The only sounds were the hissing of an espresso machine and the clattering of a few saucers. A man in his forties, sitting by the door, stared at a screen upon which a cartoon animal, perhaps a dog, loped silently.

I should mention that the café, like every coffeehouse in the city, had stacks of the Bay Guardian, S.F. Weekly, the Bay Area Reporter—free and roughly equivalent to the Daily Dramatic Chronicle of yore. I should mention that San Francisco has always been a city of stranded youth, and the city apparently continues to provide entertainments for youth:

Gosta Berling, Kid Mud, Skeletal System El Rio. 8pm, $5. Davis Jones, Eric Andersen and Tyler Stafford, Melissa McClelland Hotel Utah. 8pm, $7. Ben Kweller, Jones Street Station, Princeton Slim’s. 8:30pm, $19. Harvey Mandel and the Snake Crew Biscuits and Blues. 8pm, $16. Queers, Mansfields, Hot Toddies, Atom Age Bottom of the Hill. 8:30pm, $12.

The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)

Another friend, a journalist born in India, who has heard me connect newspapers with place once too often, does not dispute my argument, but neither is he troubled by it: “If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”

So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies. In Chicago, women go to the opera with bare shoulders.

Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (add to shopping cart), they will do it.

We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction”—Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

National newspapers may try to impersonate regional newspapers that are dying or dead. (There have been reports that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will soon publish San Francisco Bay Area editions.) We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

An obituary does not propose a solution.

Techno-puritanism that wars with the body must also resist the weight of paper. I remember that weight. It was the weight of the world, carried by boys.

Late in grammar school and into high school, I delivered the Sacramento Bee, a newspaper that was, in those years, published in the afternoon, Monday through Saturday, and in the morning on Sundays. My route comprised one hundred and forty subscribers—nearly every house in three square blocks.

The papers were barely dry when I got them, warm to the touch and clean—if you were caught short, you could deliver a baby on newspaper. The smell of newspapers was a slick petroleum smell of ink. I would fold each paper in triptych, then snap on a rubber band. On Thursdays, the Bee plumped with a cooking section and with supermarket ads. On Sundays, there was added the weight of comics, of real estate and automobile sections, and supplements like Parade and the television guide.

I stuffed half my load of newspapers into the canvas bag I tied onto my bicycle’s handlebars; the rest went into saddlebags on the back. I never learned to throw a baseball with confidence, but I knew how to aim a newspaper well enough. I could make my mark from the sidewalk—one hand on the handlebar—with dead-eye nonchalance. The paper flew over my shoulder; it twirled over hedges and open sprinklers to land with a fine plop only inches from the door.

In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from the wet steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. I remark their thinness as I climb the stairs. The three together equal what I remember.

Tales of the City named one of the "great family novels" by readers of the Chicago Tribune. Others included Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

November 22, 2009

Over the river and through the woods and across cyberspace they came, the many e-mails responding to my request for suggestions about great family novels. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it was an excellent time to reflect upon which books are best at exploring families -- good families, bad families, families that inspire and encourage or those that thwart and nitpick, families that run the gamut from the Marches (made famous in "Little Women") to the Mansons (ditto in "Helter Skelter").

Many people suggested "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960) by Harper Lee. Other family-themed classics that remain bright in readers' minds include "To the Lighthouse" (1927) by Virginia Woolf: "At this time of year, when families are gathering for Thanksgiving dinners, you can't find a better family dinner party scene than the one that lasted 20 entire pages," writes Margie White of Glen Ellyn.

Christine Uliassi of Park Ridge makes the case that even long-beloved family novels such as the series "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew" (1881-1916) by Margaret Sidney can resonate anew. "I read this sweet story more than 50 years ago, and the sense of love and commitment that the Pepper family shared has stayed with me. ... The two oldest children, Polly and Ben, decide to give Christmas to their younger siblings by making presents for them -- not a bad idea in difficult times, past or present."

For Rita Krider of Streamwood, you can't beat "Little Women" (1868) by Louisa May Alcott. "My daughters and I love this book. ... As the March sisters grow and give each other advice, this book shows the unbreakable bond of women in the family. So put on the pj's and slippers, and enjoy a warm and fuzzy read!"

Marion Horwath of Berwyn recommends "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943) by Betty Smith, while Frank Barr of Glen Ellyn says the Conrad Richter trilogy "The Trees" (1940), "The Fields" (1946) and "The Town" (1950) is not to be missed. Jan Panek of Westchester believes that "The Camerons" (1972) by Robert Crichton is well worth the search to find it.

Daniel J. Treier of Wheaton offered a suggestion of more recent vintage: "The Brothers K" (1992) by David James Duncan, "an updated 'Brothers Karamazov' of sorts." Kimberly McGuire of River Forest said that for a powerful family saga, try "Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album" (1975) by Larry Woiwode: "This book weaves the stories of various family members and multiple generations of the Midwestern Neumiller family. ... Read just the first chapter titled 'Burial,' and you will contemplate the deep ties that connect families across miles and experience. There are many quiet moments here, but the big questions of life and death and faith are here too, in very subdued tones."

Anne Tyler's "A Patchwork Planet" (1998) is the choice of Zahava S. Davidson of Skokie, while Joyce Carol Oates' "We Were the Mulvaneys" (1996) is the family novel that most moved Audrey Beauvais of Arlington Heights. Three more family novels that have entranced readers include "What We Keep" (1998) by Elizabeth Berg, "Tales of the City" (1978) by Armistead Maupin and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, recommended respectively by Beverly Waxler of Morton Grove, Brian Treglown of Chicago and Cindy Antene of Brookfield.

Thomas Mahoney of Buffalo Grove and Donna Ruggles of Flossmoor eschewed e-mail and penned impassioned notes. "This is a slam dunk," Mahoney wrote of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1916). For Ruggles, the choice is the Truman Capote yarn "A Christmas Memory" (1956), a "wonderful story and memory that always triggers one of my own.",0,1480017.column

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In Praise of Amy Tan and San Francisco's Literary Life

Published: October 17, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The event to honor the novelist Amy Tan at the Herbst Theater here on Wednesday night was supposed to be in the spirit of a roast. But the organizers couldn’t quite call it that — “a braising,” they suggested instead — and the speakers had a hard time saying anything terribly mean, even in jest. The running joke concerned Ms. Tan’s ordinarily placid demeanor, which was attributed to her husband’s sexual prowess.

Maybe the occasion could have been spiced up by a little of Don Rickles at the Friars Club, but this is San Francisco literary life in a nutshell — not the sex part, necessarily, but a willingness to honor and an unwillingness to undermine. You could probably find mean-spirited, competitive writers here, the kind who make literature a blood sport and the literary life a conniving enterprise and a purely mercenary pursuit. But not without a serious hunt, and certainly not this past week, as the city’s writers — and, notably, its readers — celebrated the 10th anniversary of the book lovers’ festival known as Litquake with dozens of readings, panel discussions and other events (including the braising of Ms. Tan). It all culminated in Saturday’s edition of Lit Crawl, the annually overcrowded word-and-drink fest in city bars.

It was, over all, a pep rally, an emblem really of the school spirit that San Francisco literary life has established in the last decade or so. And though the city has a venerable history in letters, the community of writers has never been as, well, communitylike as it is today. Like the thriving theater culture in Chicago, which coalesced around a few key companies and created an important center for the art form without becoming a rival to New York City as a center for theater commerce, so San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.

A few recent landmarks: Fifteen years ago Po Bronson, Ethan Watters and Ethan Canin founded the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a collective that now provides work space for 33 fiction and nonfiction writers who not only support one another but give well-attended writing classes and readings all over the city.

Eleven years ago Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that has grown into what is perhaps the city’s signature publishing house, producing books and a monthly magazine, The Believer. And in 2002 Porchlight, a series of storytelling evenings based on the model of the Moth in New York City, took root and became a staple of the literary scene.

Further, the writerly population of the Bay Area is continuously replenished by the Stanford University creative writing program, whose annual Wallace Stegner Fellowships provide health insurance, tuition and a living stipend of $26,000 per year for two years to 10 emerging writers. And all of this is actively supported by the city’s fine bookstores, where hundreds of readings, classes and other events are offered every year and where readers return the enthusiasm. Remarkably, more than half of the city’s book sales are recorded by independent stores. The national figure is around 10 percent.

“It’s not like New York, where you have a lot of publishers, editors and agents around,” said Stephen Elliott, the author of the memoir “The Adderall Diaries.” “You go to a writer event there, and that’s who you see. Here you go, and it’s all writers.”

This, perhaps more than anything, contributes to the collective attitude that the tide raises all boats, and indeed, as a couple of hundred writers honored Ms. Tan on Wednesday, there seemed enough honor to go around.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ms. Tan, 57, is of course the author of five novels, including “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” that reveal her as a surgeon of mother-daughter relations. A former business writer, she’s also a faux dominatrix, playing that role as a backup singer in the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-writer band that includes Stephen King, Dave Barry and Scott Turow, whose occasional gigs raise money for literacy programs.

She was teased for all these things, gently, probably too gently, by the writers Ben Fong-Torres, who has known Ms. Tan since her business writing days and was the evening’s master of ceremonies — “I’ve known Amy since before she became Chinese again” — Armistead Maupin, Rabih Alameddine and others.

And the writer Andrew Sean Greer gave her credit for his first homosexual experience, which he said occurred in college after a dorm-room study partner pulled out “The Joy Luck Club.” He then stripped off his coat and shirt to reveal a silver-sequined vest and, accompanied by an onstage band, sang an original composition: “Amy Tan,” he snarled musically, “made me a gay man!”

The high points of the evening focused on arts other than literature. It opened with a stunning demonstration of Chinese lion dancing and ended with several classic rock songs performed by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, giving everyone of a certain age in the audience a thrilling nostalgic frisson. A friend, Barry Humphries, in the garb of the perpetually self-involved Dame Edna, checked in via video, declaring she’d recently discovered that she was half Chinese and had begun eating Chinese food with one chopstick and a fork.

Ms. Tan, clutching Bombo, one of her Yorkies, acknowledged her accolades with the flustered gratitude of an Oscar winner. She was introduced by Mr. Maupin, who said to the roomful of writers, “She embodies what’s most important about this city, what we love about it.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Amy Tan Tribute/Roast October 14

Litquake’s third annual Barbary Coast Award for contribution to the Bay Area literary community is presented to Amy Tan, international bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and member of the all-author band Rock Bottom Remainders. Join us for this highly entertaining tribute-roast with special guests Rabih Alameddine, Sam Barry, mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, Ben Fong-Torres, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Andrew Sean Greer, Michael Krasny, Armistead Maupin, Roger McGuinn, Elaine Petrocelli and of course, Amy Tan. Music by Los Train Wreck. Book sales and signing to follow.

Wednesday, October 14, 8 pm
Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue at McAllister Street, San Francisco
(415) 392-4400
Admission: $25 general, $75 includes post-event reception

Tickets available at City Box Office.

Here’s a quote we love from a 2005 interview with Amy in the Guardian.

“I accept that probably for the rest of my life I will be identified with The Joy Luck Club — I will always be introduced as the author of the Joy Luck Club. On my tombstone — if I wanted a tombstone, which I don’t — it would say ‘Author of The Joy Luck Club.‘ That’s fine. I hope that I continue to write my best book with each book that I write. I am very lucky that that happened to me.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Preserving Our Queer History

Alan Poul
Posted: October 6, 2009 04:15 PM

The remarks below were delivered by Alan Poul upon receiving the Legacy Award at Wednesday night's (9/30) benefit for the Outfest Legacy Project at the Directors Guild of America. Outfest is Los Angeles' Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Legacy Project is dedicated to the preservation and archiving of LGBT material. Poul was introduced by Laura Linney, with whom he worked on the three miniseries based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books.

Laura Linney and I first worked together on the original "Tales of the City" miniseries in 1993. It was a magical experience -- we were a close knit group, creating a labor of love on a limited budget, and never imagining that anyone would greet our affectionate adaptation of Armistead Maupin's beloved novel with anything other than open arms and bonhomie. Boy, were we wrong.

It's impossible to watch "Tales of the City" today without finding it as generous and life-affirming as we intended it. So it's hard to imagine the firestorm of controversy that greeted our airing on PBS in January, 1994. 1994--not that long ago. Before we even aired, we were officially denounced on the floor of the state legislatures of Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A bomb threat in Chattanooga Tennessee emptied the local PBS affiliate so there was no one left to run the show. Donald Wildmon (remember him?) and his American Family Association sent a 12-minute VHS (remember VHS?) to every member of Congress that was a mash-up of all the supposedly-offensive moments in the show, including every snippet of same-sex affection, every mention of the words "tits," "bitch," and "ass," and Mona's famous "crotch crotch crotch" tirade at her ad agency. Actually, I wish I could find it and post it on YouTube; it's pretty hilarious.

This would all be a sweet introductory anecdote, except that in the ensuing months, PBS cravenly withdrew from financing the sequel, "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City," to which they had already publicly committed. It took three years of tireless effort to resuscitate "More Tales," which was finally rescued by Showtime. The point: corporations and the media are big cowards, and a handful of noisy reactionaries can cause real damage. Sound familiar? This is not news, but it's always applicable. Progress is ephemeral and subject to setbacks, but an archive is forever.

That's why we're here tonight. And we don't even have that long a history of LGBT imagery to protect. So what we have, we need to protect ferociously.

I was struck by the cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In it, Benoit Denizet-Lewis chronicles the coming-out stories of middle school children in middle-America -- 14 and 15-year-olds in Oklahoma and Michigan -- and their fearlessness in announcing their sexual identity to parents and peers, even when many of them are not yet sexually active. Of course the Internet is the key component here: think you're a total misfit? Search and click on a link, and whoa! there's another person just like you. (I could have used that.)

But let's not underestimate the potency of complex narrative images, of LGBT lives portrayed with depth, with artistry, and with authenticity, in empowering and legitimizing young people to accept themselves.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing. My generation remembers desperately searching for images that would speak to the desires we were aware of from such an early age, and coming up with nothing -- at least, nothing that didn't end with Shirley MacLaine hanging herself. On television, we had to apply our own private decoder rings to relationships that hinted at something more than mere friendship -- to Felix and Oscar, to Laverne and Shirley, to the Skipper and Gilligan, with the Professor as an occasional third. It wasn't until I hit my teens in the seventies that genuine homoerotic images began to surface, and the first ones I saw were burned into my eyelids -- the Peter Finch/Murray Head kiss in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," at which my suburban Philadelphia audience recoiled in disgust; the careful, sweet embrace of two English boarding school students in Lindsay Anderson's "If....", the mutual groping of Barbara Hershey that Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison so enjoyed in "Last Summer."

These images were an inspiration and a life raft for me, and I want to protect them forever, even if they won't mean anything to most 13-year-olds today. There is a connection between the bravery it takes to come out, at any age, and our responsibility to preserve and restore LGBT imagery wherever we find it. It might not be direct -- it's unlikely that a self-doubting, tortured 13-year-old is going to find the strength to come out by watching "Sunday Bloody Sunday," or even "Parting Glances." But there's a link, and as we know, links are how we get our information these days. Link to link to link, we are creating a context for our visual and narrative history where until recently there was none. Somewhere there's a 13-year-old who'll appreciate these films, and I want him or her to have that access. That's why we archive.

My history with Outfest is long and happy. I joined the board in 1996, during a period when the festival was beginning its transition from a smaller, activist-oriented gathering to the huge, inclusive, industry-friendly celebration it has become. During my tenure, we saw the first great flowering of gay independent cinema, here and abroad, and Outfest films from those years include such landmarks as Lukas Moodysson's "Show Me Love," Tommy O'Haver's "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," David Moreton's "Edge of Seventeen," Douglas Keeve's "Unzipped," John Greyson's "Lilies," Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's "Party Monster," Jeff Dupre's "Out of the Past," Michael Cuesta's "L.I.E.," Sandi Dubowski's "Trembling Before G-d," Cheryl Dunye's "The Watermelon Woman," and many others that have gone on to become classics -- and not just gay classics at that. I'm so proud of that list.

Our board helped shape Outfest, but even more, Outfest shaped my consciousness of what Los Angeles can be. More than any prior event, Outfest brought together the very diverse and often segregated LGBT communities of L.A. under one roof and gave us a chance to look at each other, to enjoy the same entertainment, to laugh and cry together, and to realize our combined strength. In a city that seems custom-designed for isolation and cliquishness, that was no mean feat.

I am currently developing a pilot for HBO, together with Carolyn Strauss, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, John Hoffman, and Peggy Healey, based on the famous Ann Bannon novels of the 1950's. These were lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks, surprisingly popular in their day, with titles like "Odd Girl Out" and "Women in the Shadows." In doing research for the period, we are constantly hampered by the paucity of filmed material. Every frame of what exists must be preserved, and it's part of the mission of the Legacy Project, in managing the fabled One Foundation archives and other private archives which comprise home movies and other personal materials, that is so crucial in this area. Once this stuff decomposes, it's gone, and so is our history.

The word "legacy" is fraught with self-importance, but let's consider what it really means. A legacy is, simply, that which is handed down. Our own legacy, 50 years from now, is likely to consist largely of the narrative content that we are creating now, in our time. Yes, reality TV is full of fully-drawn gay characters, but, as everyone knows, reality doesn't repeat well. 50 years from now it's unlikely people will be watching the exploits of Christian Siriano. For better or worse, narrative fiction has the edge on shelf life. It's the record of the context of our times which we consciously create. "Milk" will last forever. "Brokeback" will last forever. Richard Hatch will not.

About ten years ago there was an optimistic feeling among many of us that mainstream Hollywood was going to take on the mantle of telling LGBT stories, so there seemed more resistance among young LGBT filmmakers to be so relentlessly banging pots and pans about being queer. Why can't we just make fun films, they'd say, or genre films, or scary films like every straight white male successful filmmaker? It's an honorable impulse, and even a sign of progress I suppose, but the truth is things aren't turning out that way. LGBT characters of genuine texture and depth are on the decline in features and television, and unless we stir things up, our "legacy" of this new century will be that we went back to being the best friends and fastidious bosses of more important characters. So to all the aspiring filmmakers here, I say, yeah, you do have to bang some pots and pans. Go be queer. Nobody else will do it for you.

I make images for a living, images that are part of stories. So of course I have a vested interest in the concept that these images might stick around a while. I want to thank Outfest, and the Legacy Project, for taking on that concept, for linking the past to the present to the future, and for believing in our continuity.

Read more at:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Psychologist headed to prison

South Bend Tribune - South Bend, Ind.
Date:     Oct 3, 2009

A Plymouth child psychologist has received a 13-month federal prison sentence for health care fraud.

Marc Allen Zackheim pleaded guilty to defrauding Indiana Medicaid of $137,000 over three years by fabricating diagnoses and attaching those diagnoses to the medical records of his juvenile patients.

The U.S. attorney for northern Indiana had asked Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. for a 21-month sentence, while Zackheim's attorney, Martin Kus, asked the judge to consider home detention.

Miller fined Zackheim $4,000, and ordered him and his business, Associates in Clinical Psychology P.C., to repay the state the $137,000.

Zackheim must report for prison Dec. 1.

Webmaster's note:  Marc Allen Zackheim is the husband of Victoria Fraginals Zackheim, the woman whose fraudulent invention of an ailing child inspired Armistead's novel, The Night Listener.

click here for a related article

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Laura Linney talks to Greg In Hollywood about her breakthrough role on “Tales of the City”

By Greg Hernandez on Oct 1, 2009

Before she was a three-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee for You Can Count on Me, Kinsey and The Savages, Laura Linney was Mary Ann Singleton in the classic Tales of the City miniseries and its two sequels.

Mary Ann really was the anchor of these productions based on the novels by Armistead Maupin. Tales was a ratings sensation when it aired on PBS in January 1994 but also hugely controversial because of its gay themes, nudity, and illicit drug use.

I just loved it!

So what a thrill it was to meet Miss Linney at last night’s Outfest Legacy Awards honoring her Tales producer Alan Poul. When he convinced her to take on the role of Mary Ann, Linney was already an established New York theater actress but had only a few small previous screen credits.

“Thank God I wasn’t aware of what a beloved character that was or I would have been completely intimidated,” she said. “I was really lucky to fall into job and the people were wonderful and they are people who I have remained friends with for 20 years now.”

After Tales of the City aired, Linney began landing big roles in such movies as Primal Fear, The Truman Show and Congo.

But she returned to the role of Mary Ann in 1998’s More Tales of the City which was done by Showtime after PBS backed out due to the controversy over the first miniseries. Then in 2001, the year after her first Oscar nod for You Can Count on Me, Linney starred as Mary Ann again in Showtime’s Further Tales of the City.

“It was just fantastic writing about fantastic people, people who loved each other and I adored it,” she said. “I knew when I was making it that it would be very special.”

Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Billy Campbell and Barbara Garrick were in all three miniseries but some key roles were recast after the original production for various reasons including the key role of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. Marcus D’Amico originated the role before it was taken over by Paul Hopkins.

Since Mouse was such good friends with Mary Ann, I actually asked Laura which Michael she preferred!

“I loved them both,” she said diplomatically. “They were both different.”

With all of the roles she’s had on television (she won every award in sight for the John Adams miniseries), in feature films and in her Tony Award-nominated stage career, I wondered where the role of Mary Ann Singleton ranked among it all.

Linney did not hesitate: “It’s my favorite job, hands down. It was the first time I was on something from beginning to end, I had a lot of responsibility, I met people who I still feel so privileged to know. It was a great, great magical job.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009's Brief Encounter With Jeff Whitty's Brief Encounter With Jeff Whitty

By Robert Simonson
26 Aug 2009

Six years ago, few theatregoers had ever heard of playwright Jeff Whitty.

Or composers Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, for that matter. Or director Jason Moore, and actors Stephanie D'Abruzzo and John Tartaglia. Now, the show that put all those artists on the Broadway map, and won them Tony Award nominations, Avenue Q, is closing. It will end a lengthy stay no theatre prognosticator would have predicted — more than six years — on Sept. 13. Whitty, who, along with Marx and Lopez, won the 2004 Tony he was nominated for, talked to about his musical past and musical future. What was your honest response when you heard Avenue Q was finally closing?
Jeff Whitty: It's hard to complain about something that's run for six years. It's a little wistful, sure, but it's run so much longer than any of us would have imagined. When it first opened on Broadway, how long did you imagine it would run.
JW: Well, I had no experience having a Broadway show. About one year, I thought. And when the show won the Tony Award for Best Musical, did you adjust that estimate?
JW: Maybe two years. (Laughs) Do you think you'll change that final line — "George Bush is only for now!" — for the last show?
JW: There might be one last adjustment of that line. It's kind of funny. The producers went through all that bother to hold a contest for a new last line, to be installed after Bush left office. And then, in the end, you ended up leaving the line in.
JW: One thing you find out is, the people in the audience don't lie. We tried all sorts of ways. But the audience doesn't lie. And the lines are ultimately there to serve the audience. And nothing's as funny as George W. Bush, I guess.
JW: Apparently, yeah. Since Avenue Q debuted, we haven't seen any new shows by your composing partners, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez, or heard of any new shows coming up. My impression is, we shouldn't expect a new work from then anytime soon. Is that your impression?
JW: I know Bobby has some projects coming down. I don't know what will happen with the Marx-Lopez partnership. I'm not sure. But they haven't reached out to you about any project they'd like to work on with you.
JW: No, but I'd love to work with either one of one in the future. We had our problems when creating the show, but, oh my God, that was eight years ago. You recently had a workshop of your new musical Tales of the City at the O'Neill Center.
JW: It went wonderfully. It was so great. I compare writing a musical to sculpting in the dark. You do the best you can while working in the dark, and doing any kind of workshop lets you turn on the light and see where you are. We've been working on it for three years and never had any real rehearsed reading. It was a terrific chance for us to finally get the thing out there and see it in its entirety. It changed pretty radically over the course of the two weeks, and there's still a lot of work to do. I feel, by the last performance, we got a really strong foundation and a structure to build on. Is there a production on the horizon?
JW: There is. It's so hard. I was asking my agent what I can talk about. There's nothing to formally announce. We haven't crossed the t's and dotted the i's. Gosh, how do I put it? In the upcoming year, it's found its home and it's the right place for it to begin its journey. Given the setting of the material, that would seem to sound like San Francisco to me.
JW: (Laughs) We're all excited. Are you working on any other projects?
JW: I'm working on a couple musicals, and a couple screen projects. Can you say what the musicals are?
JW: One is a version of "Bring It On," that series of movies. For me, doing a musical about cheerleaders has always been a no-brainer. I've got a really terrific creative team that I can't announce yet, but they're really talented.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Filmmakers aim to put AIDS grove on the map

by Matthew S. Bajko
Published 07/23/2009

The National AIDS Memorial Grove's 7.5 acres of green space has a long history of being forgotten, abandoned, and overlooked.

Nestled into a gulch on the eastern side of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the grove is easy to miss. It came into being in 1989 when volunteers seeking to honor those who had succumbed to AIDS landed on the idea of turning the park's historic deLaveaga Dell into a sanctuary where they could share their grief and remember loved ones.

City parks officials had long ignored upkeep of the dell, which was overrun by blackberry bushes. A team of landscapers, architects, gardeners, and citizens spent countless hours weeding the area and replanting the land.

But over the last two decades it has remained off most tourists' itineraries.

"It is kind of hidden physically; it is down in this valley. It is also in between two major traffic streets and people are often on their way to the park's museums or Conservatory of Flowers or botanical garden. I can't tell you how many people stumble through here on to somewhere else and say, I never knew this was here," said Ray Goodenough, a gay man who has been the grove's designated gardener for the last two years. "It keeps it intimate and not overrun with people, like a lot of places in the park are. It is like a sanctuary."

In 1996 the grove did gain some prominence when Congress and then-President Bill Clinton designated it a national memorial, one of only two in California. Yet Clinton never visited, nor has any president ever stepped foot in the grove while in office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has visited the grove and was instrumental in seeing it designated a national memorial.

Over time the grove receded once again from the public's view. Except for the yearly World AIDS Day ceremony held at the space each December 1, many people either do not remember the grove exists or have no idea it is meant to be used by the general public.

"There are only 44 national memorials. It is pretty noteworthy," to have one in the Bay Area, said Michael Weiss, a 10-year member of the grove's board of directors. "But the only people who know about it, visit it, and support it are people who are local. In my experience, when people think of a national memorial they think Washington, D.C."

Yet that may soon change. Several years ago Weiss approached Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, about bringing the grove's story to the big screen. Wilson is the founder of Sausalito-based Open Eye Pictures, a nonprofit production company that specializes in educational films.

"It is striking to us how not well known the AIDS grove is outside the Bay Area," said Weiss, who has lost partners and countless friends to the epidemic. "How can a national memorial not be well known? This film will increase tourism to the grove. We can't rely on locals only."

Weiss had seen Wilson's Emmy-nominated HBO special Bubbeh Lee & Me, about a Jewish grandmother and her gay grandson, and five years ago pitched the idea of a grove film to the openly gay movie producer and director. When he first heard from Weiss, Wilson admitted that he, too, was unfamiliar with the memorial.

"I thought the grove was a totem pole, with some incense and eggs, and then I visited it," he recalled. "AIDS was a horror with no respite for the weary. The chaos and carnage were everywhere. It felt like a sacred cathedral; the ghosts were palpable. Our grief grows those wild plants and flowers."

Since then Wilson has been filming in the grove, interviewing its founders, overseers and those people who have spread the ashes of their loved ones inside the dell for the hour-long documentary.

"I sometimes call it a post-AIDS AIDS film. Now that we have gone through the shock and horror of the AIDS epidemic, not that it is over, but how do we deal with our loss? How do we grieve and remember our loss? The AIDS grove allows us to do that. It is a model for how to turn loss into life and grieving into growth," said Wilson.

Wilson recently screened a portion of the film, tentatively titled Forget Me Not, at a fundraiser in San Francisco that raised $20,000 to help finish the project, which is estimated to need another $100,000 in order to complete production. He said part of why the AIDS grove gets overlooked is that many people have "ghettoized" the epidemic as something only akin to the LGBT community.

But as the movie makes clear through interviews with non-LGBT people, the epidemic has impacted countless individuals, both gay and straight alike, who have lost loved ones to AIDS.

"Grief and death is universal. It helps us make connections with others," explained Wilson, who lived in San Francisco in the early 1990s and lost many friends to the epidemic. "It is not just a metaphor of nature but the essence of nature, which includes everything that is true about the AIDS epidemic. The film is trying to bring to the public's consciousness and a greater audience the grove and what the grove stands for."

Out author Armistead Maupin, who often goes to the grove's Circle of Friends, where three people he lost to AIDS have their names inscribed into the flagstone, is using his celebrity to help raise the money needed to complete the film. He spoke at the recent fundraiser about how the grove has impacted his life over the years.

"I have never gotten my hands dirty in that beautiful place," said Maupin, who in 1999 accompanied gay English actor Stephen Fry to the grove for a television segment he was filming to be screened in Britain. "What is lovely about the grove is it is such a communal project. It really is the closest thing I have to a chapel in my life."

He urged people to think of the grove as more than just a place for quiet remembrances or solemn memorials.

"Anything you do in there that brings joy to that place is appropriate. It is beautiful; you want to go picnic there," said Maupin. "It allows us to remember those people in a beautiful way that is not morbid."

Wilson, who hopes to have the film finished within a year, called the grove a perfect subject for a documentary.

"The grove really is a repository for stories. Film is one of the best media to tell those stories," he said.

For more information about the film and how to donate funds to the project, visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

O'Neill Center Adds Performance of Tales of the City Musical

By Adam Hetrick
08 Jul 2009

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Musical Theater Conference has added an additional staged reading of the new musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

Public readings of the developing musical based on the Maupin series began July 4 and are scheduled for July 8 and 11 at 8 PM. In order to accommodate ticket demand, the O'Neill Center has added a performance at 2 PM on July 11.

Tony nominee Jason Moore (Shrek, Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias) directs the musical that features a score by Scissor Sisters band members Jason Sellards (lyrics) and John Garden (music), a book by Tony winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and musical direction by Stephen Oremus (Wicked, 9 to 5).

The cast includes Candy Buckley, Mary Birdsong, Jeffrey Carlson, Diane Davis, Christopher J. Hanke, John Jellison, Steve Kazee, Jose Llana, Matt McGrath, Betsy Wolfe and Kristine Zbornik.

Tales of the City, according to press notes, "follows a community of friends, lovers, and others who reside at the mythical address of 28 Barbary Lane in 1976 San Francisco. Mary Ann Singleton, a fresh arrival from Ohio, falls into a diverse band of Bohemians and blue-bloods, as families are created and rediscovered under the watchful eye of mystical landlady Anna Madrigal."

Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," has also been adapted into several television miniseries featuring performances by Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Chloe Webb, Marcus D'Amico, Donald Moffat, Thomas Gibson, Barbara Garrick, Nina Foch, Paul Gross, Stanley DeSantis and Philip Moon.

Tickets for the O'Neill Conference readings are available by phoning (860) 443-1238 or visit

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fancy Flock

"Language of Birds," a floating installation of 23 illuminated polycarbonate books at the corner of Broadway and Columbus avenues, has just been dubbed one of the best public artworks in America.

It was chosen from among 300 entries at the Americans for the Arts convention in Seattle last June.

Since it was installed last fall by San Francisco artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn, the street corner has become focal point for art lovers and tourists.

The flock of twenty-three white translucent books are suspended from a web of stainless steel aircraft cables, and resemble birds in flight. The books are opened in various positions, which give the books the appearance of flying.

At night LED lights embedded within the books create visual patterns.

Goggin and Keehn worked with scientist David Shearer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore to provide solar power. The solar panels are mounted on top of the iconic bookstore, located half a block away.

The artists embedded words on the ground under the flock, to create the sensation that words had fallen from the pages. Working with shop owners and residents, the artists chose words from books that reflect the area's literary history, including works by Armistead Maupin, Gary Snyder, William T. Vollman, and Jade Snow Wong.

Goggin has been creating public artworks since 1991. He attracted national attention in 1997 with Defenestration, which features furniture falling from the windows and crawling down the sides of a 5-story South of Market tenement building. Goggin has created sculptures for the Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, the Sacramento International Airport, the Seattle Arts Commission, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Keehn hosts her own online arts and culture talk show, KEEHN ON ART. She is a sculptor, writer, photographer and the Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker OF CIVIL WRONGS AND RIGHTS: The Fred Korematsu Story.

Posted By: Meredith May (Email) | July 07 2009 at 09:01 AM

Friday, July 3, 2009

'Tales Of The City' A New Musical From 'Avenue Q' Creators

By FRANK RIZZO The Hartford Couran
July 3, 2009

WATERFORD - The last time librettist Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore were at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Music Theater Conference, they were working on a little musical with puppets called "Avenue Q," a show that eventually went on to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award for best musical and will end its 6-year-plus run in September.

Their new project is making a musical from Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," the collective name for the series of books based on the era of the colorful, comic and culturally significant San Francisco life in the 1970s and beyond.

"Avenue Q" producers Kevin McCollum, Robyn Goodman and Jeffrey Seller are positioned to take the show to the next step after the O'Neill staged readings Saturday, July 4, Sunday, July 5, Wednesday, July 8, and Saturday, July 11, in Waterford.

Moore says "Tales" translates well to the musical stage because "most musicals are essentially about two things: people searching for love and community."

That's certainly the case with "Tales of the City," which concerns the socio-sexual climate of the era as seen through the friends and lovers who live on Barbary Lane.

But what makes "Tales of the City" sing?

Whitty says he was inspired to turn the material into a musical while watching the 1994 TV mini-series on a plane trip to London three years ago. He says the '70s are "such an incredible decade for music and that music is such an essential part of the stories themselves. It just seemed natural. The first thing [leading character] Mary Ann does is tell her mother that she is not going back to Ohio and that she is staying in San Francisco. I thought, 'Oh, that's how musicals start.'"

When he got off the plane he contacted one of the "Avenue Q" producers, inquired about the rights, and when he found they were available, "snapped them up."

He then turned to an East Village pal, Jason Sellards, also known as "Jake Shears" from the band Scissor Sisters, which draws on disco, glam rock and pop.

"I always wanted to do a musical," says Sellards. "Then Jeff wrote me another e-mail and said it was 'Tales of the City' and when I read that my heart started racing. For so many teenagers the books are a right of passage, and I so identify the 'Tales' with my youth. I immediately wrote back: 'Absolutely!'"

He asked bandmate John Garden to join him in the project.

"Jason just came up to me one day," says Garden, "and said, 'Grab a keyboard. ... We're writing a musical.' ... And that was my introduction to the project."

Director Moore says the Scissor Sisters musicians were a great match.

"There's a theatricality to their music,' says Moore, "and the lyrics are quite funny and smart, and some of their songs have characters and tell stories. There's also a theatrical awareness to their shows as well. They are showmen."

Garden wrote the music to the show; Sellards is the lyricist. Sellards is inspired by the rock musicals he grew up on.

"Since I was a kid I was obsessed with 'Rocky Horror,' 'Tommy' and 'Hair.' They've really been a part of why Scissor music sounds the way it does and has that kind of story-telling function."

All About Story
Storytelling is the challenge for Whitty, who has color-coded and tab-indexed his dog-eared edition of "Tales of the City" and its sequel, "More Tales of the City."

The question, is how do you include the characters and stories into a 2-hour-and-40 minute musical?

"A big inspiration, weirdly enough, is 'Les Miz' and the way [its creators] were able to take that huge book and condense the material. One of things that I love about that show, which I think is terrific, is that it feels so pulpy and rich in storytelling, and in a way, it's the musical version of the page-turner. That's what my goal is," says Whitty.

"I've sort of restructured it. For a musical we need to have a clear ending. Armistead is totally on board and has been delightful to work with. He is just really happy with how much we've been able to keep in."

Whitty and Moore are happy to be at the O'Neill.

"The band tours a lot and all of us are in different cities so for us to be focused for two weeks is great," says Whitty. "The show won't be perfect when we end here, though. 'Avenue Q' sure wasn't. We made so many changes after the O'Neill, but you learn so much."

And the future track for the show?

"I am working toward this Saturday," says Whitty. "If I think about it any further I will freeze up. If someone told me last time we were here that the show would go on to Broadway and run for six years we would have never been able to finish it. The pressure would have been too great."

But there are no puppets in "Tales of the City" — right?

"Well," says Whitty, laughing. "Mrs. Madrigal..." .

TALES OF THE CITY will perform as a staged reading Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. and July 11 at 8 p.m. at the Rose Barn theater at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck, Waterford. Tickets are $20. Tickets and information: 860-443-5378 and

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant,0,4910987.story

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Scissor Sisters Cut Loose with "Tales of the City"

Frank Rizzo
on July 2, 2009

Jason Sellards (aka "Jake Shears") and John Garden of Scissor Sisters are writing the music for a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books.

The show is being developed at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, its National Music Theater Conference.readings of the show will be held Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 8 p.m. and next Saturday (July 11) at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22.

I talked with the two -- as well as director Jason Moore and librettist Jeff Whitty -- for an article that runs in Friday's Courant.

In my conversation with the band members (above, photo by Patrick Raycraft), the two talked about the project at length. For Scissor Sisters/Tales of the City fans a few more details about the project:

"Jeff sent me an e-mail not being specific what the show was," says Sellards.

"I always wanted to do a musical," says Sellards. "I've always been a big fan of them and it was always something I thought I would end up doing some day. So I wrote back and said, 'Yeah, it sounds really cool.'

Their first song they wrote for the show was "Me Plus One," a song in the second act. A more thematic song in the show is one called "Atlantis," about Mrs. Madrigal's belief that San Francisco is a re-incarnated version of Atlantis. "I think that song really sums up the connections between everyone in the city," says Sellard.

'They also talked about going to San Franciso when the band was on a break, meeting Maupin and soaking up the vibe of the city.

"The music [of the era -- the books are mostly set in the '70s] is automatically part of our musical vocabulary so it's automatically going to be there,' says Sellards. "Even though the era is very important, it takes a back seat to these characters."

"It's about the struggle they have in the time they are living,' says Garden. "It just happens to be the '70s."

"The characters are so strong it makes it so much easier to write songs for them," says Sellards.

Both composers have some familiarity with musicals. Garden played a Nazi youth who sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in a student production of "Cabaret," and Sellards was Little John in "West Side Story" and Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls" when he was in high school.

"That's where I figured out I could sing,' Sellards says. "It was the first time anyone came up to me and told me I was a singer."

Christopher J. Hanke Is "Mouse" in "Tales of the City"

Frank Rizzo
on July 2, 2009

Here the who's who in the cast of the reading of the new musical version of "Tales of the City" starting this weekend as part of the National Music Theater Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

Christopher J. Hanke plays Michael "Mouse" Tolliver. Hanke was the lead in Broadway's "In the Life" and "Cry-Baby."

Candy Buckley plays Mrs. Anna.Madrigal. Buckey was in TheatreWorks' production of "The Little Dog Laughed," Broadway's "After the Fall" and "Ring Round the Moon."

Betsy Wolfe plays Mary Ann Singleton Wolfe was in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of "110 in the Shade."

Mary Birdsong plays Mona Ramsey. Ramsety is in TV's "Reno 911" and Broadway's "Hairspray" and "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me."

Steve Kazee plays Brian Hawkins. Kazee was also in "110 in the Shade" as Starbuck and Broadway's "To Be or Not to Be."

Jeffrey Carlson plays Beauchamp Day; John Jellison is Edgar Halcyon; Diane Davis is DeDe Halcyon Day and Connie; Matt McGrath is Norman Neal Williams; Josh Breckenridge is Jon Fielding; Kristine Zbornik is Mother Mucca and others; Jose Llama is Lionel, others.

Readings are Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., next Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Saturday, July 11 at 8 p.m.

The show has libretto by Jeff Whitty and direction by Jason Moore, both of "Avenue Q." Music is by Jason Sellards and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters. Music director is Stephen Oremus.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Avenue Q" To Close; Began at Waterford's O'Neill Center

Frank Rizzo
on July 1, 2009 1:26 PM

"We never dreamed it would go to Broadway, much less run for six years," says Jeff Whitty reacting to the news that the musical in which he was the librettist, "Avenue Q," will be ending its Broadway run in September.

Whitty was speaking yesterday at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford where he is working on a staged reading of a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books. "Avenue Q" director Jason Moore is also directing the new project which features music by Jason Sellards and John Garden of the band Scissor Sisters.

"There is definitely a wistful feeling," says Moore. "We knew it was coming and when the call came last week, it was like, OK."

"You want to end it with a bang and with a great cast and a full house. Now the show can go on to other things like amateur productions."

Staged readings of "Tales of the City" are Saturday, Sunday, and next Wednesday and Saturday at the O'Neill, where "Avenue Q" had its start when it, too, was part of the National Music Theater Conferece.

Variety reports that Broadway's "Avenue Q" grossed almost $120 million so far, and, according to reps for the show, returned $23.5 million to its investors.

Pictured above: Jason Sellards and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters and Jeff Whitty. Picture by Patrick Raycraftt of The Hartford Courant.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

At Play in Waterford

The O'Neill Center camps out once more

By Christopher Arnott
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ational Music Theater and National Playwrights Conferences
Through July 26 at the O'Neill Theater Center. $20. 305 Great Neck Rd., Waterford. (860) 443-1238,

Arriving at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, I had a bit of a Private Benjamin moment. This place is not a theater, it's like summer camp, and I've never been a big camper. ... The kitchen served nothing but carbs. There was nothing but a narrow bed with a small desk in the room. Bathrooms were shared. The first night, I spent a few hours slapping at bugs, then went and slept in my car. I woke up cold and cranky, thinking 'What am I doing here? Forty-eight hours ago I was on Broadway.'"

That's Kristin Chenoweth (of Broadway's Wicked, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and The Apple Tree, not to mention TV's "The West Wing," "Pushing Daisies" and her own sitcom "Kristin") in her autobiography A Little Bit Wicked. It's perhaps the fullest description you'll find in print of the culture shock that can greet city-folk performers when they venture out to the grassy expanse of Waterford, Conn., for one of the Center's distinguished, down-to-earth new-works laboratories.

There's some dramatic license here of course. The O'Neill is a stone's ocean-skip from New London and a reasonable drive from much bigger cities. Its staff and audiences are assuredly theater-savvy. Chenoweth is setting a bleak scene so she can emphasize the thrill when she connects with Andrew Lippa, who became her fast friend and musical director of her concert tours, at that 1997 O'Neill workshop of The Wild Party.

I remember strolling the grounds of the O'Neill in 2002 and chatting with a couple of bleary-eyed New Yorkers who'd been up all night rewriting virtually every page of their unusual new musical following its revelatory first public presentation there. The show was Avenue Q, and you may find it ironic that such an urban-inflected social satire, reliant on the rarefied art of puppetry, could find its voice in the few-frills complex of lawns and barns of Waterford.

Avenue Q returns to Connecticut this October when the Tony-winning Broadway hit's national tour hits both New Haven and Hartford. Meanwhile, one of the show's co-creators, Jeff Whitty, is back at the O'Neill this summer launching another city-soaked, risk-taking musical project, an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's sweet and soapy yet sexually charged 1970s serial novel Tales of the City. Whitty is working with two composers, Jason Sellards (who also did the lyrics) and John Garden. Tales of the City plays the countryside of the O'Neill July 4, 5 and 11 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee July 5.

Tales joins an even further-out new sociosexual musical, Picnic at Hanging Rock (July 1 & 3 at 8 p.m.), adapted by Daniel Zaitchik from the same Joan Lindsay novel about vanishing Victorian schoolgirls which also informed Peter Weir's late-'70s arthouse flick.

Then there's the hallowed O'Neill Playwrights Conference, which has jump-started the professional careers of countless writers and on whose business model Robert Redford based his Sundance Film Institute. This year the Playwrights Conference overlaps with the Music Theater Conference.

(The stand-alone Cabaret Conference ends the O'Neill summer sweat-and-entertain festivities July 29–Aug. 8.)

Playwright highlights include The Language Archive (July 4 at 8:15 p.m., July 5 at 5:15 p.m.) by Julia Cho, whose BFE and Durango were done at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II in 2005 and 2006. Fire Work (July 9 at 8:15 p.m., July 10 at 7:15 p.m.) is by Laurie Gunderson, whose plays frequently have scientific and/or historical underpinnings. And you can add Nilo Cruz to a club that includes August Wilson and Lee Blessing: Pulitzer Prize winners who continue to choose the O'Neill as a summer retreat. Cruz's The Color of Desire (July 11 at 8:15 p.m., July 12 at 3:15 p.m.) is a culture clash/romance between an American businessman and a Cuban actress in 1960 Havana.