Monday, August 26, 2013

Mummer Struttin' with the String Bands: A Cape May Postcard

Cape May's Gazebo, sight of a recent String Band concert

The Gazebo on a summer evening is a postcard scene. There's a band presenting a concert, little kids dancing to the music, foot-tapping older folks on park benches and beach chairs, and a few in-between ages convinced the scene is too cute to be cool. I don't worry about 'cool' anymore. I show up at three or four of these free concerts each summer with my pink-and-yellow folding chair, ready to appreciate the music, the work that went into it, and the dedication of the musicians offering the experience. Bless them.

This night, it was the Cape May County String Band's turn to entertain us. I wondered if they would Mummer-strut around the Gazebo as the string bands do on New Year's Day on Philadelphia's Broad Street. These musicians did not. They sat still in red Hawaiian shirts playing Mummer favorites like "Baby Face," "Bill Bailey," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." Each tune followed the same model: the musicians played a couple of verses, then sang one over a basic rhythm section, and then played the last. This is how I was able to discover that the vaguely unfamiliar tune was "Margie." Wow--a string band playing "Margie" in Cape may's Gazebo was like a scene from the movie of my life.

I have been fond of string bands since college in Philadelphia. (Click here to read about the 2012 Mummers on my other blog.) Here's what I do: early on New Year's Day, I pick a spot on Broad Street near the intersection of locust or Spruce, and work my way through the crowd to the barriers to get a clear camera shot. (I try to ignore the beer-stink and the queasy stomach it inspires.) Here come the string bands, usually around noon at this intersection, in their feathers, sequins, and hats.

Saxophone-playing robots in Philadelphia
That distinctive sound is created by the saxophones, banjos, and glockenspiels. There are other instruments, but the per capita populations of saxophones and banjos is higher here than any other kind of band. This is one of the few places you're likely to spot the giant (and heavy) bass saxophone, ironically marching up Broad Street in January.

Look! That's a bass sax on the left! (On Philadelphia's Broad Street in January)
 There are also string basses and violins strutting up Broad Street.

String-bass-plucking bears on Broad Street
Here's what you'll see if you go: the bands are required to perform their show at various spots along Broad Street, the Locust/Spruce block being one of these performance locations. The show will have a theme like Candyland, the Wild West, or gangsters, and non-musician members will act out a story in their garish sequined and feathered costumes.

Banjos, accordions, fiddles, sequins, and feathers (Philadelphia)
The captain wears the fanciest costume of all, and will give the musicians, dancers, and actors signals and lead them up the parade route. It's all very exciting.

One of our Philadelphia captains

Ultimately, the performers arrive a Broad and Market Streets where their show will be judged. It used to end here and the string bands would head to Second Street in South Philadelphia  to celebrate, but now they perform one more show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for paying customers in the enormous, climate-controlled arena. Prizes for string bands and the other Mummer groups (Comics, Wench Brigades, Fancies, and Fancy Brigades) are announced later in the day.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for banjo-playing ice-cream! (in Philadelphia)

 That's the Mummer tradition, but there was no Mummer Parade in Cape May in August. The Hawaiian-shirt-clad musicians of the Cape May County String Band treated us to over an hour of that distinctive Mummer sound. The Mummer fans among us tapped into the memories we carry with us while novices heard old favorite tunes with a new flavor and style. There was some Mummer-strutting, a lone Mummer in red sequins and gold lame strutted around the assembled crowd with a Mummbrella, coaxing audience members to dance and strut. It was a postcard-worthy scene!

It's hard to get a clear picture of a strutting Mummer! (in Cape May)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Herman's Hermits! Live in Cape May!

I didn't expect Peter Noone/Herman to be so funny. He took the stage as front man for Herman's Hermits a little after 8:00pm on August 12 and owned that Cape May Convention Hall stage every minute until 9:30 with funny stories, impersonations, and of course those great British Invasion songs. A great performer is easy to recognize no matter what the genre.

"My mother is Elton John and my father is Mick Jagger!" This silly, unexpected statement propelled Noone/Herman into a spot-on impersonation of Jagger singing "Start Me Up," complete with Mick's moves. Moments before we had been treated to Noone/Herman channeling Johnny Cash for a brief rendition of "Ring of Fire." Wow.

The Inn of Cape May: Crank up that Amp!
 Noone/Herman shared some impressions of Cape May that were not just local names plugged into a rehearsed script to be used in every town listed on the back of their concert tour shirts available in red, white, and black. Some comments were scripted, I'm sure, but even still someone researched the local lingo. Villas, NJ, a section of Lower Township, is known as "The Villas" around these parts, and someone from Noone/Herman's team found this out. He liked staying at the old-fashioned rocking-chair-porched Inn of Cape May across the street because, "we could really turn our amps up" (referring to the hearing of the average guest's age).

We were having so much fun we didn't mind that it wasn't until the second half of the show that the band got around to playing the Herman's Hermits hits we had come to hear. There was a kind of hush over the sell-out crowd when he sang "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" with the familiar banjo-sounding accompaniment. Did you know that this song was written by the actor Trevor Peacock, who played the character Jim Trott who prefaced all of his sentences with "no, no, no, no" on The Vicar of Dibley TV show? (If you don't know The Vicar, proceed to Netflix, please.)

Another of their hits, especially big in the US, is "Henry the Eighth I Am." Did you know that this tune was written in 1910 and was featured in English music halls then? Herman couldn't remember more than the first verse, so it is just repeated. And yes, Noone/Herman does say "SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST!" in performance, too. (I'm so glad there is not a video of me watching these videos!!)

Peter Noone was poised in front of an audience from the start because he attended the Manchester School of Music and Drama and starred in a British show called "Coronation Street." His dream was to become a singer and he jumped at the chance to fill in for the singer of a local group. Someone thought he looked like the character Sherman from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. 'Sherman' became 'Herman,' and that group became the Hermits. I read somewhere that they had more hits in the U.S. than any other British Invasion band aside from the Beatles during the Hermit heyday (1964-1967), but then came the Monkees and less clean-cut styles of popular music. Herman's Hermits faded away and Peter Noone worked on his acting career. Check this out: most of Herman's Hermits' hits were recorded when Noone/Herman was still a teenager.

Those well-loved Herman's Hermits songs remain part of our culture and their happy simplicity makes for a delightful concert experience across the ages. A friend of mine said, "I felt like I was in high school again!" with a giant smile. Maybe it wasn't high school for me, but i thoroughly enjoyed the performance of this engaging Herman and his Hermits, and I loved meeting him after the show!
What a thrill!

He's holding my program in the top photo and it now looks like this!

Monday, August 12, 2013

At the Rotary Bandstand: The Original Hobo Band of Pitman plays John Philip Sousa

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), the "March King," has always been a favorite of mine. After years of playing his marches in bands, I can tell you that his clarinet parts are always challenging, but also interesting. I usually found myself playing second clarinet which means I was surrounded by clarinets as we played, the firsts playing the really high filigree parts and the thirds chugging away underneath. What I am used to hearing from the second clarinet section is quite different from the blend of instruments the audience hears. This is true for most music, but especially for Sousa's marches. There is a lot going on in there, and each player experiences a different sonic fabric during performance.

I got to experience the audience point of view/sound the other evening at Cape May's Rotary Park Bandstand (known as the Gazebo to most of us). As concert dress, I've been required to wear all black, black and white, band uniforms, school-issue crested green blazers, and evening gowns, but I've never gotten to dress like a hobo (on purpose). Musicians in The Original Hobo Band from Pitman, New Jersey, (since 1946), wear patches on their mismatched clothes and funny hats--what fun. The concert was fun, too, in the American wind-band tradition with an emphasis on military themes. Listeners there to hear the concert bring lawn chairs or sit on the park's benches. These concerts run all summer and turn Rotary Park into Cape May's living room for an hour or so. I watched as the cheerful music lured shoppers and others exploring the town into the park to listen. It's an impossibly cute situation in the 21st century: musicians dressed as hobos playing All-American music on real instruments in an old-fashioned gazebo bandstand in a historic Victorian town. It is not uncommon to see toddlers conducting and octogenarians dancing.

From my chair in Rotary Park
We heard some popular music, selections from "Grease" and a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein. I enjoyed those way more than I'd normally admit. What I really enjoyed were the marches, "El Capitan" and the "Congress Hall March" by John Philip Sousa, a non-Sousa march curiously titled "The Women Marines' March" and another by a composer billed as R.B. Hall. I know the Sousas very well, but they were like new to me listening to them from the audience. I bet you didn't know John Philip Sousa composed other kinds of music including fifteen operettas! One of these is titled El Capitan. The march "El Capitan" from 1896 is based on two themes from that operetta. The "Congress Hall" march was inspired by John Philip Sousa's visits to Cape May. The Original Hobo Band director did his homework: he explained that JPS used to lead his band in concerts on the lawn of the popular historic hotel a few blocks away and hundreds attended!

Cape May's Congress Hall: My best shots of it are from Christmas
Sousa composed a total of 136 marches and was a band director for 52 (fifty-two!) years. He conducted (and perfected!) the esteemed U.S. Marine Band in Washington, DC, for twelve (1880-1892), and then his own band from 1892 until his death (in Reading, PA--I have a few friends from Reading who would want you to know that) in 1932. He toured the world with his bands, especially the John Philip Sousa Band, and was known for saying his goal was to entertain his audiences rather than to educate them.

Here's a potpourri of other stuff you may not have known about JPS and marches:
  • He started his musical career as a violinist--bands are violin-less.
  • His father signed him up as an apprentice with the U.S. Marine Band so that he wouldn't join a circus band instead.
  • As its conductor, he standardized the instrumentation of the Marine Band: 26 woodwinds, 20 brass, three percussion.
  • Ironically, Sousa's band didn't march. They sat to play all of those marches.
  • He composed 15 operettas, 70 songs, and lots of other music intended for band, along with 136 marches.
  • His most famous march of all is "Stars and Stripes Forever." (You knew that.)
  • He believed that "canned music" (he made up that term for recorded music) was a menace to society.
  • With Victor Herbert, he started ASCAP, a performance licensing organization that still exists today to protects composers' interests when others perform their works. Spelled-out, it is the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
  • Marches are made up of melodic sections called strains which are usually 16 or 32 measures long, and each of these is repeated at least once. Strains played by fewer instruments and softer than the others, is called the trio. A contrasting break section is more dramatic and percussive. 
  • The form of "Stars and Stripes Forever":
    • first strain
    • first strain again
    • second strain
    • second strain again
    • trio (third strain)
    • break
    • trio (with prominent piccolo countermelody)
    • another break
    • trio (with prominent trombone/tuba countermelody)
Thanks, Hobo Band of Pitman, for inspiring me to think about John Philip Sousa!

Here's one last photo of the Gazebo, this time decked-out for Christmas.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Last Evening's Treat: A Silent Movie with Live Organ Accompaniment

Did you know that every county in New Jersey is classified as a metropolitan area? For those who know the state only through recent television shows and late-night comedians, this may not be a surprise. Those of us who live, or spend time, in the southern part of the state would probably stop and consider, though. We are sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia and we get to benefit from their radio and television stations, sports teams, and culture. Even when we think we're escaping New Jersey's bustling urban-suburban areas by secluding ourselves at a top-secret seashore location, we still benefit from nearby city culture.

This is not to say that there isn't culture in out top-secret seashore
destinations. My town is home to two professional theater groups, a film society, and a huge an powerful arts and humanities non-profit, among other organizations. These groups frequently collaborate on special projects such as last evening's silent movie with live organ accompaniment. This was a collaboration between The East Lynne Theater Company, The Cape May Film Society, and The First Presbyterian Church of Cape May on Hughes Street. (Oops! I let the cat out of the bag. It's not a top-secret destination anymore.)

The film was "The Thief of Bagdad" in which Douglas Fairbanks plays Ahmed, the thief, who falls in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Bagdad. By employing his gymnastic and swashbuckling talents plus special effects (flying carpet, flying horse, magic rope, invisible cloak, and magic apple), Ahmed eventually wins the girl's hand over her other (ridiculous) suitors.
This film is a treat to watch with its spectacular Arabian-style sets and costumes ($1.1 million is a big budget for 1924), but last night's live organ accompaniment was the real star of the show. (The trailer above uses an orchestral accompaniment, excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.)

Theater organist Wayne Zimmerman from West Chester, Pennsylvania, joined us in Cape May last night. He is president of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society and frequently performs on the instruments in Phoenixville and Glenside, PA, and other Delaware Valley locations. He plays from memory (last night over two hours!) which I suppose is necessary so he can keep an eye on the goings-on in the film.

I think it is the wide variety of sonic colors available with the flip of a switch, push of a button, or slide of a bar that attracts me to organ music. I can appreciate the coordination required to play even the simplest tune on the instrument. Each hand and foot has to act independently. Check out this organist, Jelani Eddington, playing this gigantic, five-manual instrument...

I took organ lessons for eight years as a kid and never did get the knack. Theater organists like Mr. Zimmerman last night have to play non-stop and match what they are playing to what is happening on the screen. Sometimes these organists improvise on the spot, but more likely they will prepare for the performance as Mr. Zimmerman did. Actual theater organs have many special sound effects and are enormous compared to a typical church organ. Theater organists are not able to take their instruments with them on tour. Nonetheless, they have tricks and effects to use on a typical organ to help their performance fit with a film. I noticed Mr. Zimmerman increased the tension and excitement in certain spots by rapidly repeating the left-hand chords. Generally, this happened when Mr. Fairbanks as Ahmed found himself in a tight spot. In order to create a Middle-Eastern feel, Mr. Zimmerman used the Phrygian mode (E to E on a keyboard's white keys) and he used a large cymbal mounted atop the organ.

"The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s, but budgets were not so large at the local level where the picture was to be shown. Rather than hire an expensive orchestra to accompany the film, movie palaces used theater organs. At the zenith of their popularity, there were a few thousand in the United States. The instruments were expensive, but once in place, only a good organist needed to be hired. The theater organ was made to imitate the instruments of the orchestra, plus supply more exotic timbres and sound effects. There are only a few hundred of these instruments left in the United States, and only a small number of these are used to accompany silent movies anymore. The American Theater Organ Society exists to promote this art and restore these instruments. The giant old-time movie palaces may be too costly to restore and maintain, but often the organs are rescued and given new homes. Check out the ATOS site to hear a demonstration of a theater organ and find out if there is a theater organ near you.

Coincidentally, speaking of giving theater organs a new home, this guy was featured on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday. He rescued an instrument from Detroit's Michigan Theater and he has surrounded it with treasures from movie palaces of the past in his basement. Busloads of people visit for a taste of movie nostalgia.