Saturday, April 18, 2015

San Francisco Earthquake: 109 Years Ago

San Francisco is my favorite West Coast city and, as cities go, the museums, restaurants, and parks make it one of the best anywhere. For me, what makes the city really special is its natural setting, a splendid combination of its bay, the coastal mountains, and mediterranean climate. But there is a more subtle nature to that setting and one that was completely unknown on the early morning of April 18, 1906 when a great earthquake shook the town. On that date earth science was a very young science. The idea that San Francisco sat astride two massive and drifting plates, one of which was moving toward Alaska, would have been laughable. Fifty years later, such thinking was widely accepted in the theory of plate tectonics. 

On that morning 109 years ago and in the days that followed, "theory" wasn't on the minds of San Franciscans. They wanted to survive. This is how the opening paragraphs of the National Archives entry describe the event:

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, California. Though the quake lasted less than a minute, its immediate impact was disastrous. The earthquake also ignited several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks.

Despite a quick response from San Francisco's large military population, the city was devastated. The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Aid poured in from around the country and the world, but those who survived faced weeks of difficulty and hardship.

The survivors slept in tents in city parks and the Presidio, stood in long lines for food, and were required to do their cooking in the street to minimize the threat of additional fires. The San Francisco earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

You can read the rest of the article and view scores of historic photographs and documents related to the event here.  The National Park Service has a fine resource newsletter on the quake. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle has a few commemorative articles as well as a new archive of photographs. Below are several stereoscope cards from the family archives showing the scene following the earthquake and fire.

If you want to see remnants of the earthquake first hand and learn a bit more about it, plate tectonics, and continental drift there's no better place in my opinion than the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. [Point Reyes is a spectacular resource in the National Park Service. Plan two or three days minimum to explore all of it.] The Seashore is accessible from Highway 1 at Olema about eighteen miles north of the Golden Gate.  The trail - an easy half-mile - is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.  The trail's focal point is the famous old fence displaced eighteen feet by the quake.

I have experienced just one earthquake - Alaska in 2000 - that really concerned me. It lasted about thirty seconds and was strong enough to keep me swaying in my seat in a dark theater while the sound of thunder and rock slides rumbled outside. Our guides told us not to worry - they happened all the time at the site. Easy for them to say. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: "A Day Without Laughter Is A Day Wasted."

In his 88 years, he graced the world of entertainment as a performer, director, producer, businessman, and composer. His concern for everyday people and their often difficult lives was a common theme in virtually all his films as well as his private life. Such humanitarian sympathies led him to ally with well-known leftist in the U.S. and eventually leave the country in the early 1950s. Through it all, his endearing, bumbling, yet refined tramp brought laughter and awareness to millions.

We are of course talking about the irrepressible Charlie Chaplin, born on this day in 1889 in London. On a tour of the United States in 1913 he caught the eye of film producer Max Sennett. In was in preparation for his second film that he stumbled upon his persona as the "Little Tramp" a role that would become his signature. Today, if you took a photograph of the "Little Tramp" to almost any corner of the world touched by Western culture, chances are someone would recognize it. That's a powerful statement given that the character hasn't appeared in a film for almost eighty years. We should be pleased that such greatness persists. 

Take some time today to visit Chaplin's official site. The biography page is especially useful, providing information about nine "masterpiece features" and a complete filmography. Chaplin has three films on the American Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time" list. They are: City Lights (1931) at #11, The Gold Rush (1925) at #58, and Modern Times (1936) at #78. It's important to keep in mind that Chaplin was the director, producer, writer, star, composer, and editor for all of these films except Modern Times which was edited by Willard Nico.

My personal favorite among all of his films is The Great Dictator (1940). Interestingly, this film was Chaplin's first "talkie." In it Chaplin portrays two characters, the "Little Tramp" variation of a Jewish veteran of World War I attempting to reestablish his life as a barber, and  Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia.   Any resemblance between Adenoid Hynkel and Adolph Hitler is completely intentional. The film is a masterful piece of political satire made as an appeal to Americans and their leadership to wake up to the threat of Nazi Germany. If you have not watched The Great Dictator (1940), add it to your queue today. You won't regret it.

Here is a 25 minute, French documentary on The Great Dictator produced in 2003. I normally do not link to long videos here but this one is exceptionally well-made. It's packed with important background information and features several scenes including the "globe scene" [19:26] rightfully described as "one of the most brilliant scenes in all of cinema." 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

American Composer Philip Glass Wins The Glenn Gould Prize

As loyal readers know, Philip Glass and Glenn Gould are favorite subjects on this blog. I certainly acknowledge their birthdays each year and often post their music and performances. It was a double treat this week when the Glenn Gould Foundation announced in Toronto that Glass was selected as the eleventh winner of The Glenn Gould Prize.  Leonard Cohen, Sir Andre Previn, Yo Yo Ma, and Oscar Peterson are among the previous winners. The prize, often described at the Nobel Prize of the arts,  is given every two years to "an individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts."

Here is an example of the enrichment brought to us by the genius that is Philip Glass:

I doubt that Canada will ever produce another legendary pianist like Glenn Gould. His eccentricities often left producers and recording engineers at the edge of madness. His technical perfection left the world astounded:


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago: Abraham Lincoln And Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre, 514 10th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Today marks the sesquicentennial of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He was taken across the street to the home of William and Anna Peterson where died shortly after 7:00 a.m. the following morning. The theatre remained closed for over a century. It reopened in 1968 as a performance venue and national historic site that included the Peterson House. Today it is owned by the National Park Service and operated through a partnership agreement with the Ford's Theatre Society. 

There will be much written and broadcast today about this tragic event but I think there is one program tonight at Ford's that will outweigh them the stories. It is Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration, a Society centerpiece of their commemoration programming. All of the tickets are long gone for this event but thanks to the Society's efforts you can watch it streaming live online at 9:00 p.m. tonight.  The program includes "readings of Lincoln’s words and stories, Civil War-era music, excerpts from Lincoln’s favorite theatre and operas, and more. The event seeks to remind us that we not only lost a president; we lost a man who treasured his family, his friends and his country with a love so strong it could hold the Union together."

Abraham Lincoln and son, Tad, February 5, 1865

Ford Theatre photographs, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
Lincoln photograph, Alexander Gardner. Abraham Lincon with his son Tad (Thomas), February 5, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (140) Digital ID # cph-3a05994

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eudora Welty: Life And Legend Amid The Honeysuckle

Today we celebrate the great Southern writer Euroda Welty on what would be her 106th birthday.

In memory of Eudora Welty, we celebrate her 106th birthday today. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author penned novels and short stories about the American South from her home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Welty lived and died in Jackson, Mississippi. Although she attended college in Wisconsin and New York, and traveled abroad, she always returned to the house on Pinehurst Street that she had called "home" since high school. Her skill as a writer enabled her to transform observations of life in Mississippi into a body of literature including novels, short stories, reviews, letters, and an autobiography. Over sixty years she received a host of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for her 1973 novel, The Optimist's Daughter.

Here is a short CSPAN BookTV production exploring Welty and her home in Jackson:

For four years toward the end of the Great Depression (1929-1939) Welty was employed by the Works Progress Administration to document everyday life in Mississippi. Her photography from that period has become well known as an expression of her powers of observation. Smithsonian Magazine produced this short documentary on her photography on the occasion of the centennial of her birth in 2009.

Our final video is a brief look at the story behind Welty's portrait - detailed above - on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Eurdora Welty readers should visit the outstanding website maintained by the Euroda Welty Foundation.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Happy National Sibling Day 2015

Today is the national day to honor our brothers and sisters. For most Americans I doubt it's much of an issue unless you happen to be known as the "only child." Biologically, I've been an only child for almost 69 years. Such a status has its advantages especially in childhood but over the years the scale of judgement seems to balance, then measure the experience as a disadvantage. Perhaps if one chooses to take vows of silence or live as a recluse being Mom and Dad's little darling works for a lifetime. But most of us will soon find ourselves with friends, spouses, and children all functioning in the greater and lesser circles of family community. That's where I find myself today and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm in such a state largely because my marriage not only bound me to my wife, it also bound me to nine brother and sisters. We're so close that the concept of "in-law" left our vocabulary years ago. Maybe it was that first Christmas together in Oklahoma in 1983 where 27 of us spent a week at the four-bedroom, one bath home of my wife's parents. It was an adventure for an only child of 34 who enjoyed his quiet and solitude.  Out of necessity adjustment came quickly and without regret. 

This photo was taken in Pensacola in 1981 at my wedding. Unfortunately one brother could not be with us but I do have this photo of him taken about ten years later. 

Happy Sibling Day to all my brothers and sisters. You enrich my life more than you will ever know.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Paul Robeson: American Natural

In this age of Auto-Tune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software, the concept of vocal talent continues to degrade toward mediocrity and worse. In its place we find the smoke and mirrors of
Paul Robeson in 1942
flashy, revealing costumes; seizure-inducing light shows; towers of flame; and deafening noise to take your mind off the lyrics. That's not to say the nation lacks extraordinary singers. It's just nearly impossible to find that purity in the entertainment industry today. Obviously the consumers are willing to buy what is pushed at them by the industry moguls. Perhaps the increasing diffusion of musical interests - the niche markets - will eventually improve the quality of what we hear. In the interim, musical talent remains a far cry from what it was in the last century.

One of the finest natural singing talents then was the American bass, Paul Robeson, born on this day in 1898.  Robeson was a scholar, athlete, actor and singer, a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Law School.  You can read more about his biography here.  In 1927 Robeson found near-instant fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the Broadway musical, Showboat. He achieved extraordinary international success over the next decade as a singer and actor but turned to political activism by the late '30's. His continued disillusionment with the treatment of Africa and Africans in the United States pushed him toward leftist and labor causes that ended in conflict with federal anti-Communist interests, namely the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late '40's. For most of the next decade he was essentially blacklisted but returned to performing in the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union by 1959. When his health failed in the early '60's he returned to the United States and lived a near-reclusive life until his death in 1976.

Here is natural talent at its finest:

Listening to his voice in classical performance we are left to imagine what scale his career could have reached in an era of equal rights for all Americans. In the same manner, we wonder about what can only be called his lost years, fired by the legacy of political sympathies that would move him to record this:


Regardless, Robeson's brief revival around 1960 brought to mind his great value as a gifted entertainer. Furthermore, it reinforced his place in history as a civil rights activist, one that I'm sure was an inspiration for many who would carry on in their own way in the struggle for equality that would shortly engulf the nation. 

We close with his signature song, the one that made him an international celebrity in 1927. I take heart in noting that this version has over 3 million hits on You Tube. It comes from the first all-sound version of the film produced in 1936.

I get weary and so sick of tryin'

I'm tired of livin', and afraid of dyin'
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin' along