Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the night before...

As a kid, I strongly remember the joy of the holiday season. It was obliquely obvious that things were different at this time of year. For starters people started treating each other nicely. Perhaps mindful that "Santa" would not reward bad behavior, even the bullies started acting right. I dare say I received very few beatings in the days leading up to the Christmas break. Trust me: with my big mouth and obnoxious attitude, there was always a chance I would be beaten for no other reason than I was small, smart or a smart ass. These holidays were a big deal, definitely surpassing importance than any other including Easter. Before we were let out from public school for the holidays we were always encouraged to sing Christmas songs prior to the big day. I remember fixating on the image of the jolly, fat Santa Claus riding his sleigh full of toys and other gifts with the flying reindeer led by the red-nosed Rudolf himself. It was all such an awe-filled time in my life. I was happy. Then one Christmas my parents dropped the J-bomb. "You're Jewish," they explained. What? Santa wasn't going to visit me and reward me for being a good child? Hmmmm...this was definitely not right. Who do I see about this? Who will fix it so that Santa would continue to include me on his list for future rides? As it turned out, there was no one to see and Santa never did make it back over to the Smason homestead. Yet, there were gifts. Knowing that withholding toys from boys and girls at that particular part of the calendar year could have a deleterious effect on a fragile child's developing mind, my parents were insightful. They always provided gifts for my sister and me, but they didn't make a big deal about it. They went through the motions of providing gifts, but rarely did they ever have me ask for anything in particular. Since I wasn't technically asking Santa for gifts, it was deemed okay. In any event it was tough being Jewish and trying to understand why Jews were being excluded from the busy end of the holiday. Thank goodness that most years Chanukah and Christmas are in close proximity, unlike this year. When I pressed my folks for an explanation, they told me about recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but it still didn't make any sense to me as to how and why this would manifest in not having a connection to Santa Claus or his reindeer with the famous crimson muzzle. Although we never had a tree or, as some Reform Jews call it, a "Chanukah bush," one of my great aunts did. Oftentimes family members would gather at my great uncle and aunt's home, thereby allowing her to host Christmas for us as a family. I also remember my favorite Christmas character was Mister Bingle, whose TV show was broadcast every year during the days leading up to the big day. Mister Bingle was created by Maison Blanche in the late 1940s as a way of spurring sales in their department store. The character was purported to be a tiny snowman with a red cherry button for a nose, an ice cream cone for a hat and holly leaves for wings. He had mittens made out of candy cane stripes and carried a candy cane. Though it was never fully explained, he was animated through the magic of the holiday by Santa Claus, whom he served as a helper along with the elves. He was very funny, always got into trouble and was the perfect foil for Christmas comedy to a kid. I always imagined meeting Mister Bingle and years later I did...or at least the chain-smoking, baldheaded store employee who did his character's impossibly high voice improvisations. If anything completely dashed my Christmas memories, that was probably it. Maybe that's why I always feel the need to connect to those simpler times when the joy of being rewarded for being a kid was not caught up in any religious rhetoric or significance. I watch Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" broadcast for 24 hours straight every year over TBS at least once or twice to recall in me of the importance of the holiday to impressionable and wide-eyed kids. Plus, looking at the father in that story going gaga over the "major award" leg lamp reminds me that one doesn't have to outgrow that incredible sense of wonder.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Two grand ladies pass

Bryan's loving memoir to his mother Gayle

The news before Christmas is not very good for a city that is so closely connected. Yesterday, the city lost two grand dames, the first a gracious, charming and vivacious ambassador for the Crescent City and the other a 95-year-old institution that local actors and the theatre public have referred to as "the old girl." Gayle Batt, a true New Orleanian from the top of her perfectly coiffed hair to the soles on her exquisite shoes, lost her courageous, long-running battle with cancer yesterday at the age of 79. Batt, the mother of actor Bryan and local politician and former city councilman Jay, was a cancer survivor at least thrice before. She worked for a large number of local charities and non-profits including the New Orleans Museum of Art, WRBH Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped, the Friends of City Park, Save Our Cemeteries, the Louisiana chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and various garden societies. She was the subject of her son Bryan's loving memoir "She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother" released this year by Harmony Books (Crown Publishing Group). A redoubtable figure who always was impeccably attired and never without a smile, Batt worked tirelessly for many causes, but her most special attachment might have been her work as a member of the board of governors of Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carré, the other victim who fell yesterday. After weeks of speculation, Cassie Worley, the president of the Le Petit board of governors, announced with regret the cancellation of the remainder of the season including the upcoming productions of "Frost/Nixon," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Evita" and "Disney's High School Musical." The theatre's production of "White Christmas," slated to have run during the first three weeks of December had previously been canceled. According to several sources, this action was necessary due to runaway costs for the maintenance of the building and other debts that are reported to top at about $1 million. Close friends of the theatre were shocked to hear that were "White Christmas" to have been mounted and had sellouts for each performance, it still would lose money. Money problems have threatened the small theatre, which boasts it is the oldest continuously running community theatre company in the United States. A few years back artistic director Sonny Borey and his entire staff were sacked. The Solomon Group was then brought in to rein in the the finances and Gary Solomon, the 20-something wunderkind was credited with keeping the company from the brink of financial doom. An article in the Times-Picayune earlier in the year gave Solomon the nod as the savior of the theatre most New Orleanians consider the best in the city. He did so by comping the services of the Solomon Group for three months, but then charging the theatre $10,000 per month for their services. Solomon brought about a number of incredible changes for Little Theatre, but the mounting debt still lingered despite the theatre making a turn towards financial stability.When Solomon was discharged by the board two months ago, speculation ran rampant about who would take over the day-to-day operations of the theatre. A recent run of shows "We Need a Little Christmas" with headliner Bryan Batt raised several tens of thousands of dollars for the theatre, but it was, apparently, too little, too late. It is sad, but out of this disaster, the seeds of redemption may be planted. Plans are afoot to see what can be done to make Le Petit more financially viable. Some sections of the building, which fronts near Jackson Square, may be sold off and the money applied towards servicing the theatre company's debt. The board remains very tight-lipped, but no one has suggested the theatre will be forced to close its doors permanently...yet. Meanwhile, the funeral for Gayle Batt will be held at Rayne Memorial United Methodist, 3900 St. Charles Avenue, tomorrow and the burial will be private. In addition to her two sons and their partners, she is survived by two grandchildren. My condolences to all the members of the family and to all those who were blessed to know her.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Right Hall, Long Time

Dr. John, middle right, at the 2003 Big Easy Awards
For those of us lucky to be residents of New Orleans or for those who long to be, there are many reasons to be smiling today. One is that the weather here has steadily risen into the 50s with highs expected in the low 60s over the course of the next days. But more important than the temperate skies and pleasing temperatures is the fact that Mac Rebennack, also known as "Dr. John, the Night Tripper" has been announced as one of the latest inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even though the actual hall is located in Cleveland, most years that new inductees are announced, the ceremonies take place in New York, the site of where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is located. Dr. John will be the third artist from New Orleans to be inducted who is strictly a performer. He follows Antoine "Fats" Domino and Lloyd Price in that category. Others like producer-arranger-composer Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew were admitted for their work in other capacities. This is a very big deal and, indeed, the good "doctor" will be singing his own version of "Such a Night" when the ceremonies are held on March 14, 2011 at the Waldorf Astoria. The fortunes of Dr. John have definitely improved since his early years as a youth, when he learned to play piano and guitar from the likes of the fabled A. J. Guma at Werlein's for Music on busy Canal Street in the early 1950s. Rebennack's early work with guitar was cut short when his left ring finger was injured by a gunshot while he defended a friend and fellow musician. After a short stint with bass guitar, Rebennack opted to make piano his main performing instrument. His work in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s as a studio musician made him a mainstay for session work with big name stars like Sonny and Cher, Canned Heat and other acts. Around the same time Rebennack began a long spiral into drugs that ended up getting him hooked on heroin for decades. Yet, during this time he produced some of his most impressive work, work that clearly established him as one of the brightest of New Orleans stars. His early start with "Gris Gris" on Atco Records developed the Dr. John Creaux persona with such classic psychedlic-tinged anthems as "Walk on Guilded Splinters." His "Gumbo" album was a retrospective of rhythm and blues songs from the Crescent City that still remains one of the most important collections ever released. Through the years his work produced other classics. His "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Such a Night" with the Meters as background musicians and Allen Toussaint as producer garnered him two of his top 40 hits during a time when radio play was essential to make a star successful. In 1986 he released "Goin' Back to New Orleans," a homage to New Orleans musical culture that included the Mardi Gras Indians. Through the years he has worked with the biggest of stars - the Rolling Stones, the Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones - and his definitive piano style has ensured his legacy as one of the country's most respected of musicians. In recent years he has worked tirelessly to highlight the plight of New Orleans following the devastation that occurred after Hurricane Katrina as well as to point to the continuing crisis this past summer from the BP oil spill. His cover of Randy Newman's "Down in New Orleans" for Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" garnered him an Academy Award nomination in 2009. Free from the cruel addiction with heroin for over two decades now, Dr. John has improved his quality of life and his musical output continues to captivate his many fans both in and out of the city of his birth.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Decisions in the Henry Glover case

Edna Glover with a picture of her late son Henry

A jury of five men and seven women returned convictions for three out of the five New Orleans police officers who had been accused by federal prosecutors on charges of murder and a cover up scheme in the tragic case of Henry Glover. Glover's badly burned body was found in an abandoned burned automobile in the days following Hurricane Katrina and the resulting breakdown of society in the aftermath of the flooding here. Glover's celebrated case is the first to be handled by federal prosecutors who sought to punish out of control police officers who decided to take the law into their own hands. At first declared heroes by some, many of the same indicted and now convicted officers will have much to think about from their federal jail cells. The upcoming case involving the shootings at the Danziger Bridge will determine how soon other officers will be brought to justice. The true stories about all of these crimes were covered up until last year, when federal prosecutors started bringing witnesses before grand juries. In the end no one wins from a decision like this. Two officers were exonerated and the public has decried that as a travesty. But in the end we are a society governed by law, not men. When the law is applied by men who interpret it, there is always a chance that it will be applied unevenly, that justice will not be served. Yet, as imperfect a system as it may be, the capacity to punish the guilty and free the innocent remains the only thing we have in place that assures that government truly serves the will of the people. No verdict tendered by a jury will ever fully satisfy either side of the clamoring crowd. The grieving family members have some solace, but they will not have their full measure of flesh. The jurors have executed their duty to the best of their abilities and we must accept it as having been decided by dedication to their duty and due diligence. As a city, we need to move on but remember the hard lessons of Katrina lest this sad story be repeated. If such a disaster ever strikes my beloved hometown again, I hope the professionals in charge of protecting my fellow citizens will keep the law in mind and take steps to make certain that these kinds of tragic mistakes and the attempts to cover them up will never occur again.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Imagine all the possiblities

Recently, I took up the challenge of listening to all of the three-volume set of live Beatles recordings and outtakes titled "The Beatles Anthology." Included in this set were the "final" Beatles recordings of "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love," crude tapes of John Lennon that were used as background for the remaining three Beatles to play and sing against. Tragically, it was only a few years later that George Harrison fell too as a victim of cancer. Nonetheless, listening to these early and late recordings made me appreciate all the more how incredibly talented all of the Beatles were and how mournful I am at the loss of John Lennon today on what is the exact 30th anniversary of his assassination. I remember thinking three decades ago that his murderer probably wouldn't last in prison very long, that someone inside would probably kill him, too, for a chance of also becoming infamous. But that never happened and perhaps that's because of Lennon's lasting legacy of promoting peace and love throughout the world. It may seem corny, but it's still true: "all you need is love." For those born after Lennon's death the significance of his life may pale, but for those of us who grew up in the turbulent era of the Sixties and Seventies, his implacable voice of reason was somehow reassuring that bad things would work out, if only we believed. Although I have gotten older, I still do believe in the power of love, but I also know that we must not let down our guard or rush blindly into the world without looking out for danger or obstacles along the way. I trust in love, but I look both ways when crossing the street and always check intersections when proceeding on a green light. I am amazed that so many of the younger generation have discovered the Beatles and have much of their music on their iPods. With the recent announcement that the Beatles' music would now be available for sale on iTunes, a whole new generation of Lennon lovers awaits their discovery of his music. I miss John Lennon, but I thank God for the fact he was here and that the music he left behind will be with us for our progeny.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Godspeed, Mrs. Edwards

©People Magazine and

With the death of Elizabeth Edwards at 61 comes the end of what had once been one of the most romanticized political couples in Washington. None of John Edwards' bad acts can undo what was a lifetime of service and commitment to her family and, until recently, especial dedication to John. She would have made a magnificent First Lady, but the question remains what kind of president would her spouse have made? The charming, charismatic figure of Southern gentility that John Edwards oozed was enhanced by the gracious and beautiful woman whose intelligence and maternal instincts were always spot on. It is a shame that the love of her life ended up being such a tremendous disappointment with his trysts and love child exposed to the world. Yet, since the scandal broke, she was a pillar of strength, never letting the public know the true depth of her hurt, answering reporters' questions, but still keeping just a measure of dignity to herself. She had endured the unthinkable before when she lost her teenage son Wade in a traffic accident. It was only after that tragedy that Elizabeth Anania, the professional name she used in her work as a successful North Carolina lawyer, was transformed into Elizabeth Edwards, a strong woman whose wagon was hitched to the political star that was her husband. Following Wade's death, Elizabeth also became a homemaker and mother to Cate, her surviving child, and, at 48 and 50 years of age, a mother to another daughter, Emma Claire, and another son, Jack, respectively. Her dedication to her children was never in question and her resilience to all she went through was, perhaps, one of her greatest strengths. There is an irony in that the man upon whom she depended and turned out to be such a disappointment will now be responsible for the upbringing and care of those youngest family members. In her absence I expect he will be resolute. I am certain he has more than his share of regrets, but there are no excuses for his past peccadillos ($400 haircuts) and more egregious acts of sexual betrayal. Yet, throughout her brave battle with cancer, Elizabeth credited him as her greatest source of strength during those moments of greatest struggle. After 33 years of marriage, the highs obviously outweighed the lows. Now that she is gone, John needs to keep in mind that how he carries on his life as a single parent will be the greatest legacy he can leave to his children. That is probably the thing that will make Elizabeth smile from her celestial resting place.