Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review


On this last day of 2011, I thought I'd list a few of my favorite memories of the past year (before I forget them)...

About twenty years ago, I played the role of Arvide Abernathy in a production of Guys and Dolls at a now-defunct dinner theatre in Niagara Falls, New York. Our Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown were both prima donnas, who were constantly sniping at each other. Our Benny Southstreet went to jail the day we opened, and the director had to go on in his place. The producers sank all of the profits into their next show, which was a flop, so nobody got paid. In spite of that unpleasant experience, I allowed Gabriel Vega to persuade me to reprise the role of Arvide in Comedy Tonight’s production of Guys and Dolls this past spring. I'm glad that I did. It was a much better experience this time around. There was no backstage drama, everyone was a joy to work with, and nobody went to jail. The only thing I didn’t particularly enjoy was hauling around that big bass drum.

The Cast of "Guys and Dolls" (minus the drum)

Some of the best friends we've made since coming to California have moved away. (Was it something I said?) About ten years ago, Ron and Judie Kewish moved to the central coast. Then, a couple of years ago, John and Roxanne Diesel bought an RV and hit the road so they could spend more time with their children and grandson. Once a year we all try to get together. This past June, we rented a house near the beach in Cambria. We visited Harmony (population 18), drove up the coast to see the elephant seals, stopped to do some wine tasting at Hearst Ranch Winery in San Simeon, and took a lot of walks on the beach. Here's a picture of Loretta, Roxanne, and Judie standing on a bluff overlooking the ocean. I don't know why Judie is sticking her tongue out at me. (It must have been something I said.)


Loretta, Roxanne, and Judie

I was honored to be asked by Marilyn Zaslow to write a script for, and perform in, her Fairy Tales in the Park production of Aladdin in July. It’s always fun doing Fairy Tales in the Park — the atmosphere is relaxed, you get to rehearse and perform outdoors in our beautiful southern California climate, and children are the absolute best audience. And what a talented and fun group of people I got to work with — if you can call this work!

The Cast of "Aladdin" (minus Marilyn, who took the picture)

In late August, we flew to Indianapolis, drove to Fort Wayne to pick up my Aunt Sheila, then drove to Virginia to visit my parents and my sister and brother-in-law. It’s been a pretty rough year for my folks. I’m so glad that they were both in fairly good health, and were even able to go out to dinner with us. And I'm so glad that Sheila was with us. She did a lot to boost my mother's spirits, and she kept Loretta and me entertained on the long drive from Indiana to Virginia and back.

Mom and Sheila at Macaroni Grill

After we returned to Indiana, we were able to catch up with Aunt Becky, whom we hadn't seen in years. The day before we left, she met us for lunch at the Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso, Indiana, which is about halfway between Fort Wayne and her home in Elgin, Illinois.

Me and Becky

In November, we attended the wedding of our nephew, Mark, in Hawaii. We shared a townhouse near the new Disney resort on Oahu with Loretta's brother, Rob, and his daughter, Jenny. Rob perfected his broccoli salad, Jenny learned to surf, and we all learned that, if you go swimming with an electronic ignition key in your pocket, your car won't start. It was a memorable trip—a reunion of Loretta's family, two Hawaiian-style Thanksgiving dinners, and a beautiful wedding by the sea. But one of my fondest memories of the year is of Loretta, Jenny, and me sitting on the beach, watching the sun go down over Ulua Lagoon.


All in all, it's been a pretty good year for me. I hope it's been a good one for you, too. Now, on to 2012!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Vonna June


Today would have been my Aunt Vonna June Shorter's 84th birthday. Because she was born on Christmas Eve, her birthday often got lost in the Christmas rush. I feel badly about that.

Virginia, Sheila, Vonna, and Richard Shorter
She and my mother were close in age and grew up during the Great Depression. In a picture of the two of them when they were little, my mother is smiling but Vonna is not. She always said that it was because she knew they were in a depression. I don't have a copy of that picture, but here is one of all of the Shorter kids, and everyone is smiling. It was taken in the early forties. My mother (left) and Vonna (right) were in high school, my Aunt Sheila was around five years old, and my Uncle Dick was about to leave home to serve in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II.

Vonna was an artist. She sketched newspaper ads for several department stores in Fort Wayne and for Spotlite on Fort Wayne magazine. Even when she could no longer find work as an artist, she never stopped drawing. She made her own greeting cards and illustrated the weekly letters she wrote to family members. Here is a sketch she did of me for a Spotlite ad in the 1960's. "Tiger," the dog in the picture, was Spotlite's mascot and appeared in this spot each week. He originally belonged to Pat and Dale Aldrich, the owners of the magazine. When they divorced, for some reason, Vonna got custody of Tiger. He was a pedigreed toy poodle, but not at all stuck up. He and I were great friends.

Neither of my aunts ever married. They lived with my grandparents, and after my grandparents passed away, the old house on Hoagland Avenue became their house. Because they never had children of their own, you can imagine how spoiled my cousins, my siblings, and I were. And I was probably the most spoiled, because I was older than my siblings and geographically closer than my cousins. There were lots of gifts, of course—from Vonna, usually children's books. Because she was an artist, she chose them for the illustrations. Two of my favorites were Camembert, the story of a French mouse who painted, and Kay Thompson's Eloise at Christmastime, with wonderfully witty illustrations by Hilary Knight.

Vonna read to us, of course—Eloise was one of her favorites. But she didn't need a book to entertain us. She was a natural-born storyteller. She told stories about her childhood, stories peopled with family members I had never met—Grandma and Grandpa Wells, Grandpa Shorter, beloved Aunt Troas and not-so-beloved Aunt Flo—people who had died before I was born. She made it seem as if they were still living. I could picture Grandma Wells' boarding house, Grandpa Wells' cigar store, and the old family home on East Dewald Street that was sometimes so filled with visiting family members that, according to Uncle Dick, he and his sisters had to sleep hanging from hooks on the wall.

When she wasn't entertaining us with family stories, she was telling us the stories of her favorite movies of the thirties and forties. She especially loved Gone with the Wind and the movies of Orson Welles. (I knew the stories of, and could quote from, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Caine, and The Magnificent Ambersons, long before I actually saw the movies.) Sometimes she would recite snatches of poetry from memory. Little Orphant Annie, by James Whitcomb Riley, was one of her favorites:
An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
Don't
Watch
Out!
Vonna died of lymphoma eight years ago. As is customary with members of my mother's family, she kept the seriousness of her illness to herself for as long as she could. I knew she had been in and out of the hospital several times that year, but it was a shock when a family friend called to tell me that she had left the hospital for the last time and had gone home to die.

Loretta was working late that night, and I was afraid to wait until she got home to make the call, for fear it would be too late. When someone answered the phone, I could hear talking and laughter in the background. Sheila and some friends had set up a hospital bed in the living room, and all of Vonna's friends had come over for a big farewell party. I talked to her for several minutes. She reminded me of the time, when I was very young, that I threw a tantrum in the checkout lane when she took me shopping.

"What a brat I was!" I said.

She chuckled and said, "You weren't always an angel." Her tone implied that, as far as she was concerned, most of the time I was.

"I love you so much," I said, my voice breaking.

"I love you, too," she said. "More than you'll ever know."

When Loretta got home and I told her the news, without hesitation she got on the Internet and booked us a flight leaving that night. "You need to be there," she said. Due to layovers, we didn't get to Fort Wayne until the following afternoon, by which time Vonna had slipped into a coma. A few close friends were still at the house with Aunt Sheila and Aunt Becky, Uncle Dick's widow. I was reminded of the trip that Vonna, Sheila, and I had made to Illinois fifteen years earlier, to see Uncle Dick just before he died. Becky had told us to talk to him—that, although in a coma, he could probably hear us.

I held Vonna's hand and talked to her. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I know I told her how much she meant to me. I kissed her and said goodbye. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I felt her squeeze my hand.

I could tell you more about my Aunt Vonna—and someday I will. But it's Christmas Eve, and, as Nanny said to Eloise...


Oh trinkles
my dear
Oh drinkles and sklinkles of fun
It's Christmas
Christmas
Christmas Eve
Oh my
there's a lot to be done!





Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Merry Lights


There's an old saying that it is "better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." It's even better to plug in a few yards of Christmas lights.

I don't much care for winter. When I lived in northern Indiana and western New York, I thought it was because of the ice and snow. However, since moving to southern California seventeen years ago, I can no longer blame the weather. I have come to realize that what I dislike most about winter is the dark. I hate getting up in the dark. I hate driving to work in the dark. I hate driving home from work in the dark.

I'm sure it's no accident that all winter festivals have something to do with light. There are the bonfires of Yule; the candles of Hanukkah, Candlemas, and Kwanzaa; and, of course, the strings of colored lights without which Christmas would be—well, a lot darker.

I love Christmas lights. If it were up to me, I would leave them up all winter. (A few years ago, when I left the lights up well into January, one of the neighbors politely pointed out that in this neighborhood it is customary to take them down immediately after January first.) Any light can illuminate the darkness. Christmas lights do much more. They laugh at the darkness. They merrily thumb their noses at winter.


My best Christmas memories are lit with merry lights: the giant wreath and Santa, sleigh, and reindeer on the sides of Wolf and Dessauer department store in Fort Wayne; the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls; Disneyland's Main Street at Christmas; walking through the neighborhood with Loretta and admiring (or criticizing) our neighbors' displays.

Then, of course, there are the lights that go on the tree. I'm just old enough to remember the earliest versions—the ones that blew Darren McGavin's fuse in A Christmas Story. They were wired in a series, so if one bulb went out, the whole string went out. Then you had to test each bulb in the string, substituting one that you knew was good, until you found the one that was bad. Good luck if more than one bulb went bad at the same time. And it might not be a bulb at all; it might be one of the little fuses inside the plug. You were always having to make another trip to the store for bulbs or fuses. It could take days to get the tree lit.


There were all kinds of novelty lights when I was a kid—snowballs, candles, icicles, blinking bulbs. Bubble lights were my favorite. I remember gazing in awe at the bubbles dancing in tubes of glowing, colored liquid on my friend Jim's tree. I begged my parents to get bubble lights for our tree, but my mother thought they were too dangerous. She was afraid that the liquid would leak out and cause a short circuit, and the house would burn down. In those days, parents were afraid that just about everything would burn the house down. (They were right to be afraid. One Christmas morning, one of my toys—Vac-U-Form™ by Mattel—short circuited and nearly did burn the house down.)


I felt sorry for my friend Bill. His parents had an aluminum tree. Those things really were dangerous. If you put a string of lights on one, not only was there a good chance your house would burn down, but you'd probably be electrocuted too. You had to light the tree using a floodlight with a rotating color filter, and even then it wasn't safe. There were still at least two ways it could burn your house down: the floodlight could overheat, or the tree could tip over on top of the floodlight, causing a short circuit. A few years ago, I was surprised to hear that aluminum trees were making a comeback. A big mistake, if you ask me. Those things are death traps.


I like the new LED lights. There are no bulbs to replace, and they seem to last forever. They also use less energy, and they don't get hot, so you don't have to worry about them burning your house down. However, I will admit that they took some getting used to. At first they seemed a little too bright, a little too garish. But Christmas lights should be bright, and garish, and, above all, merry. That's the point, isn't it?

I may leave them up until April.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A True Ghost Story


The other night we had some friends over for dinner. After dinner the conversation somehow turned to the topic of ghosts, and I told the story of Loretta's and my brush with the supernatural. One of the guests suggested it should be put down in writing. And so, without further ado, I give you the tale of...

The Haunted Bed and Breakfast

I am a devout skeptic, but I have an abiding interest in all things supernatural. Knowing this, several years ago Loretta surprised me with the birthday gift of a weekend at Bracken Fern Manor in Lake Arrowhead. This picturesque English Tudor inn was originally a brothel owned by Bugsy Siegel and is reputedly haunted by not one, but two, ghosts. When we checked in, our hostess told us that the inn had been featured on a Discovery Channel program about haunted hotels in California, and that there was a video of the program in the TV room should we wish to watch it.

We watched the video after we returned from dinner. Like most programs of its kind, it told the stories of the ghosts of Bracken Fern Manor with dramatic reenactments and eyewitness accounts. The first ghost was "Violet," a working girl who committed suicide when her lover was gunned down by the mob. The second was a little boy—the son of another girl—who was tragically trampled by a team of horses outside the inn. Some guests claim to have smelled Violet's perfume in the hall; others have heard the little boy playing on the stairs or seen his footprints in the snow.

Each room at Bracken Fern Manor is named after one of the ladies of the evening who once worked there. We were relieved to find that we would NOT be staying in Violet's room. Our room was on the third floor, and it's worth noting that we were the ONLY guests on that floor.

It was a dark and stormy night (no, really—it was!) when we went upstairs to our room and bed. However, in spite of the lightening flashing in the skylight overhead and the booms of thunder, I had no trouble getting to sleep. My sleep was undisturbed by ghosts or even bad dreams. Loretta was not so fortunate. When I opened my eyes she was wide awake, and she had clearly been awake for some time.

"How did you sleep?" she asked.

"Fine," I said.

"You slept okay?"

"Great," I said.

"Really?"

"Really," I said.

"You didn't hear anything?"

"No," I said.

"Or...feel anything?"

"No," I said.

I was beginning to think she was trying to tell me something.

"Well, aren't you going to ask about my night?" she asked.

"Okay," I said, "How did you sleep?"

"I didn't sleep at all!"

"Really? What happened?"

"First, I thought I heard a creak on the stairs, then footsteps outside our door..."

"But there's no one else on this floor! It must have been..."

"I know! Then I felt...a presence!"

"A presence?"

"Yes!"

"Why didn't you wake me?"

"I thought about it, but I didn't want to bother you."

"Well, I wish you had. I would LOVE to have felt a presence! What happened next?"

"I was terrified. I buried my head under the covers, held my breath, and listened. I didn't hear anything else. Then, after awhile, I felt a relief—as if the presence had departed."

"Then what?"

"Then nothing. But I couldn't get back to sleep. I kept thinking, 'Well, that was probably Violet. But what about the other one?' I was awake all night, waiting for the ghost of that kid to show up!"

"I wish you had wakened me!" What a wasted opportunity! I wouldn't have cowered under the covers. I would have welcomed a supernatural encounter with open arms. I would have thrown open the door to the hallway and said, "Hello!" to whoever—or whatever—was out there.

Grumbling about the general unfairness of life, I got out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. As I passed the door to the hallway, I noticed the Post-It which had been shoved underneath it. I picked it up and read the following note from our hostess: "Don't forget to set back your clocks."

By the way, it looks like Bracken Fern Manor is for sale (http://www.innshopper.com/gallery.aspx?ListingID=1042). Anyone interested in buying a haunted bed and breakfast?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Sticky Subject


The other day I was trying to fix a strand of LED Christmas lights using Krazy Glue. The trouble with Krazy Glue is that it sticks EVERYTHING to EVERYTHING, including sticking its own cap to its own tube. I couldn't open it, so I pierced the tube with a toothpick. Glue oozed out all over my fingers, and when I picked up the piece I was trying to glue, it insisted on attaching itself to me instead of to the thing I was attempting to attach it to.

I began to think maybe Krazy Glue wasn't the best adhesive for this job. The trouble is there are SO MANY different kinds of glue these days. Have you visited the adhesive aisle of your local hardware store lately? It's enough to make your head spin, without even sniffing the stuff.

When I was a kid, there were just three kinds of glue*: Elmer's, which worked on paper, wood, and cloth; Model Cement ("airplane glue"), which only worked on polystyrene model kits; and Duco Cement.

Good old Duco Cement! It was supposed to work on just about EVERYTHING. In reality, it didn't work on ANYTHING. I'm pretty sure this is the same stuff Darren McGavin used in "A Christmas Story" to try to glue his lamp together, and he got pretty much the same results I remember getting with it.

Guess what? I just checked the Internet, and they still make Duco Cement! It's described as follows: "Clear, flexible, waterproof cement. Holds permanently on china, glass, wood, leather, metal, paper, fabrics and nearly everything except rubber." HA! Well, maybe it's better than it used to be. In any case, it can't be worse than Krazy Glue.

* I don't count mucilage and paste, both of which only worked on paper (and not very well at that).