An Utley Situation at 2nd Base

I love baseball but sometimes it brings out the stupid in the guys who play the game and later comment on it for television. Fresh example is Los Angeles Dodger-come-lately Chase Utley’s vicious “slide” into 2nd base in the NLDS playoff game that broke the leg of New York Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, followed by the knuckle-headed remarks from MLB vets absolving the former Philly star of culpability. I have never understood why the baseball rule that states a runner is out if he strays outside the baseline or deliberately interferes with a defensive player fielding a ball is not enforced around 2nd base when double-plays are in progress. Sure, the runner coming down the line is entitled to slide legs high and spikes up, making it harder for the shortstop or 2nd baseman to execute an accurate throw to 1st, but umpires routinely allow runners to go well beyond that, targeting infielders for punishment who’ve already moved off the bag and even hurtling into them like a blocker in football. You hardly ever see a runner called out for this (and the double play made automatic) as the rule stipulates. It’s one of those mysteries that make you wonder if major league baseball is governed secretly by Skull and Bones or the Tri-Lateral Commission, whose grand wizards keep the unofficial rule book and definition of the strike zone in an underground missile silo in North Dakota.

The day after Utley flew over 2nd base and crashed into Tejada, the MLB jockocracy was at the mic debating whether his bone-breaking take-out of the defenseless shortstop was a dirty play or not. Really. This was a spectacle akin to U.S. military leaders trying to defend a drone strike that somehow killed the members of a wedding party or blew up a hospital. “It’s just baseball,” said former slugger Frank Thomas on Fox, upset that MLB ethicist Joe Torre meted out a 2-game suspension to Utley. “The rules have been there for 100 years.” Rather than try to locate the logic in that statement, I chose to see Thomas merely toeing the party line while upholding the hoary code of baseball machismo.

Amazingly, it occurred to no one, at least not on the Fox panel, to say, at least that, well, from the evidence, the rules have been ignored for 100 years. No, Eric Karros, the former Dodger whom I once respected, echoed big Frank’s analysis and affirmed there was nothing illegal or inappropriate about Utley’s violent maneuver, especially since it helped the Dodgers win! Oh, well, then. Fired them up! Next to Karros sat that paragon of virtue and finesse, Pete Rose, who famously dented Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse’s career by running over him in the 1970 all-star game. Pete seconded the motion that the game can be rough and what’s the problem? This was one for the time capsule, which will one day reveal these three geniuses to have a lot in common with the players of yore who greeted the introduction of batting helmets as something for sissies.

Over on the MLB Network, broadcaster Brian Kenny, tried to inject some actual thought into the discussion by digging out the rule about interference and concluding (logically) that Utley was in violation and should have been called out — and the batter Howie Kendrick as well. Which would have ended the Dodger threat with the Mets still ahead. Instead, Utley was called safe, and the boys in blue went on to score the tying and winning runs after Tejada was carted off the field.

But Kenny’s probing, sensible comments seemed to infuriate former Reds slugger Sean Casey, who vigorously defended Utley and repeated those same cliches about the tradition of the game and being sure Utley didn’t want to hurt anybody (right) and that you never wanted to be the guy going back to the dugout with your teammates asking you, “Why didn’t you break up the double play?” In other words, forget fair, it’s all about cojones and your band of brothers.

Kenny held up a piece of paper containing the interference rule, and said, “But Sean, he was out.”

“No, he wasn’t!” Casey shouted.

Possibly Casey was not on the debating team in college. He did hit 130 home runs in his 12-year MLB career, but I wonder if it’s possible his strong sentiments in this matter might be influenced by the fact that he grounded into 27 double plays in 2005, tying for the NL lead in that category?

When all-star Giants catcher Buster Posey was severely injured in 2011 after a violent collision at the plate, MLB decided to change the rules to prevent runners trying to score from flattening the often vulnerable catcher waiting for the throw home. Everyone, except maybe Pete Rose, agrees this has been a positive step for the game. Because of the Utley-Tejada incident, this winter the dons of baseball are likely to address the unnecessary carnage at 2nd base now as well. Really all they should have to do is ask the umpires to enforce the rule that’s been in effect for, like, a century. But that would suggest major league baseball has pretended not to know what’s in the official rule book for all this time. Inconvenient that. No, they’ll have to spin-doctor a new protocol, but however they do it, the long overdue protection of infielders from the malevolence of players like Chase Utley will be too late for Tejada and the Mets.


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Swooshed in Providence

I know I am in the minority in lamenting the commercialization of college athletics and for years have defended the far-from-the-big-time Ivy League idea of sports as a valuable extracurricular activity not to be confused with the main purpose of a university. The Ivy League, like Division III in the NCAA, does not even offer athletic scholarships (at least not officially). So I was less than thrilled to get a recent announcement that Brown, my alma mater and the nation’s eighth oldest college, founded in 1764, is joining forces at last with the billion dollar brand Nike. To wit, athletes from Brown’s 38 undergraduate teams will henceforth be wearing uniforms bearing that ubiquitous corporate logo that says, without words, “this jersey was provided in exchange for promoting a multinational corporation that has colonized American collegiate athletics for profit and market share.” The e-blast also informed me that, as a member of the Brown family I would soon be able to buy my very own Brown sports apparel with “the iconic Nike swoosh” through online stores that are Nike subsidiaries. I guess I was supposed to think, “Wow, cool.”

Instead, I was thinking it might be a good time to click the link at the bottom of the page to “unsubscribe” from future news about Brown Athletics, providing the simple explanation alluded to above. I copied my explanation to the office of Christina Paxson, Brown’s president. The next day I heard back from Davies Bisset, executive director of the Brown Sports Foundation (see below), who declined to address the issue I raised about the quid pro quo involved in corporate sponsorship of college athletes but volunteered that if I had “specific questions” about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship I should contact the deputy director of athletics. I am not going to do that, but if I were to contact the deputy director of athletics, I would ask him the same question I subsequently posed to Mr. Bisset: What part of quid pro quo don’t you understand?

Here is my response to Mr. Bisset, followed by his earlier email:

Thank you, Davies Bisset, for acknowledging my email, but I wonder whether you or others associated with Brown Athletics see the problem here? Doing a little research online, I found an article from Harvard Magazine titled “The Professionalization of Ivy League Sports” in which former Harvard athletic director Bill Cleary stated: “Now, all the buzzwords are about sponsorship. I think it takes away from the whole spirit of athletics. Everywhere you see the Nike ‘swoosh’ — in my opinion, that means, ‘I own you.’ ”

Precisely. The article went on to say, “Sports apparel has evolved into a type of sandwich board, with vendors like Nike and Adidas eager to dress high-profile college teams in their clothing in exchange for promotional considerations. But Harvard adheres to another quaint idea: on the field, the athletes represent their school, not a corporate sponsor.” (Italics mine.)

Quaint indeed. That article is from 1997. I see that Harvard has since dispensed with such high-mindedness and welcomed the Nike branding of its athletes even before Brown could join the queue. Which made me realize Brown Athletics had a chance to be different, for a good reason, and stand apart from the herd. Instead we just went along with the herd. Not the way I want to think of my distinguished alma mater, but not much I can do about it. I am reminded of another article, in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, “How College Sold Its Soul and Surrendered to the Market,” by the former Yale professor William Deresciewicz. If you haven’ read it, I recommend it. Quite relevant.

Since graduation, I have regularly kept up with Brown teams — especially men’s soccer — more than most of the alumni I am touch with from my era. I have traveled to games and watched on television, checked the sports pages and website. I will probably continue to do so, but it won’t be quite the same, spotting that proprietary swoosh next to the word “Brown.” That will never look right, at least not to me.


Sean Mitchell ’70


On Aug 28, 2015, at 2:15 PM, Bisset, Davies wrote:

Dear Sean:
I received a copy of your email message regarding the Athletic Department announcement of their new partnership with Nike Sportswear. Please know that the Athletic Director and the President’s office also received your message. I am writing to you from the Brown Sports Foundation, which is part of the Brown Advancement Office. The BUSF is the engagement and fundraising organization for Brown alumni, parents, faculty, students and friends who are interested in Brown Athletics.

I wanted to suggest that if you have specific questions about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship that you contact the Deputy Director of Athletics directly. His name is Colin Sullivan and I have copied him on this message.

Per your request, we will remove your name from future messages from Brown Athletics. As a representative of the Brown Sports Foundation, I certainly hope that you will decide at some point to receive Brown Athletic messages again. There are many positive things happening with our student-athletes on campus, and President Paxson has been an active supporter of athletics and recreation at the University since her arrival. We like to keep our alumni informed and connected, especially when our teams travel to other parts of the country. (Our men’s basketball team will be in Dallas in late November, for instance.)

Please know that we appreciated you taking the time to contact us with your comments and that your message has been sent on to the appropriate contacts in Athletics. Do not hesitate to contact us again for any reason.

Best regards and Go Brown,

Davies Bisset ’85

Todd Andrews ’83, VP, Alumni Relations; Jack Hayes and Colin Sullivan, Athletics; Kim Roskiewicz, Office of the President

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Rain Barrel with Wood Slats

I attended the Texas A&M Agrilife extension class in Rainwater Harvesting on July 30 and came away enlightened and eager to build some rain barrels. The class cost $50, but for that you get a 55-gallon plastic drum to take home after listening to an informative lecture on the history and use of cisterns by Patrick Dickinson, the coordinator of the Urban Water program. As Dickinson showed slides of rain water collection systems from around the world going back to the Romans, I wondered why the great Southwest had come so late to this conservation method. He said it was because of the underground aquifers that long provided ample fresh water from wells. But those aquifers are now depleted and won’t be restored by normal rainfall for another 100 years.

Red Cedar Rain Barrel
Red Cedar Rain Barrel

What to do, other than move to Portland? One thing you can do, with the cost of water rising, is collect the water that comes off your roof when it rains. The volume is much greater than you might think. To figure how great, multiply the square footage of your house by .6 gallons for each inch of rainfall and then consider the result: a 1,500 sq. ft. home will generate 900 gallons of rain water for every official inch of precipitation. You would need 16 of these A&M rain barrels to collect all that. I decided to start with one, then I made two more. Ideally you need at least one barrel for every downspout coming from your roof gutter.

The benefits are at least threefold: 1) you collect free water to be saved and used on your landscape (through hoses) when it’s not raining; 2) you can prevent uneven drainage that plagues a lot of house foundations (ours, for instance) in North Texas; 3) you can help mitigate the massive storm runoff of chemicals and fertilizers washed from our lawns and driveways into rivers and streams.

It must be said that most rain barrels are not going to look as good on the outside of your house as a BMW parked in the driveway. You can purchase commercially produced barrels at Lowe’s or other home improvement centers, but if you get one of these basic drums from A&M (you have to take the class first) you can paint them pretty colors, put an image of Che Guevara on the side or sheathe them in wood to look more like a wine barrel or keg. The A&M-issue barrels are white plastic, and Dickinson said that a dark coating is essential (and black is best) to prevent sunlight from creating algae that can clog up the works.

Your Basic Black Drum
Your Basic Black Drum

After Dickinson’s hour-long talk, the class of 15 or 20 future rainwater harvesters moved outside, where all of us could pick out a barrel to take home, first making two basic additions — screwing into place the brass on-off spigots and pasting the nylon mesh filter over the 7-inch intake hole with silicone. We were given a handout with further instructions how to prep the barrels for use, including how to attach wooden staves, if desired. I suspect most people choose just to paint them, but what follows is my own variation on the wood option, using Western Red Cedar I bought at Cedar Supply in Carrollton.

You start with the challenge that the plastic 38-inch-high barrel is a rounded and tapered form while the wood slats are, yes, straight as a board. So, right away you know this is not going to be a real wood barrel where the staves (or slats) are steamed and bent at each end. Instead, we will glue the staves at a 90-degree angle to the two raised ribs that circle the midsection of the plastic drum, ignoring and hiding the underlying curvature. That’s a faux barrel, you say? Point taken.

Step 1. Spray-Paint the Drum with Rustoleum Primer and Paint black gloss ($5) in case the attached cedar slats do not all join seamlessly, forming a perfectly opaque surface.

Step 2. Cut the Staves to Size. Using a miter saw, I cut the staves to 39″, which will just hide the top rim of the plastic. The narrower the width of the stave , the better conformity to the lateral curvature of the barrel, but I decided to go with nominal cedar 1x4s, which at most lumber yards are actually 3/4″ x 3.5″ (at Home Depot they’re even more nominal — meaning less wood).

Table Saw Trimming
Table Saw Trimming

With true nominal (how else to put it?) lumber, the circumference of the barrel should require 21 staves, or a fraction less. You will likely have to “rip” or trim the last stave by less than an inch to fit tightly. This is best done on a table saw. You will also need to cut 1 stave 6″ shorter to accommodate the spigot.

To minimize waste, go to a lumber yard where you can buy 1x4s in 10′ lengths. You will get three staves from each 10-footer, so you need 7 of them. At Cedar Supply that comes to $38.

Rolling on the stain
Rolling on the stain

Step 3. Stain the Wood. I applied a Behr transparent cedar stain ($32/gal., used about 1/3). Grouping half the slats together at each end of a work table, I rolled the stain on — 2 coats for the exterior side and one for the rougher, hidden back side. To finish the ends and sides of the staves, I used a small brush.

Step 4. Attach the Staves. When the stain is dry, place the barrel upright on a flat surface and stretch 3 bungee cords around it, spaced evenly top to bottom. These elastic bands will hold the staves in place while the glue is drying.

Begin with the shorter stave that needs to be centered in place just above the spigot. Apply a gob of Gorilla Glue on both ribs at the spots where the stave will cross it, then slip the stave under each bungee cord and over the glue. You will square this “spigot stave” with the tops of the two adjoining staves once they are slipped into place on each side, which should be done next, pushing each full-length stave all the way to the floor or flat surface and making sure their contact with the spigot stave does not move it off center.

Also, this is the one stave that will not be held in register, so to speak, by contact with the floor, and it will possibly slip during the drying process from gravity. Just keep an eye on it as you’re inserting the other staves and pull it back up into line at the top as necessary. (By the time, you’ve got the other staves in, it should be fixed.)

Twins on the carport wall
Twins on the carport wall

Now, insert the rest of the staves beneath the bungee cords, progressing around the barrel, dabbing the glue on the ribs for each one. Gently press each new stave flush with the previous one so that it remains straight up and down. You can use a level to help with this, though the bungee cords get in the way of a precise reading. I didn’t find it to be much of a problem keeping the staves square as they went in. Make sure the smooth side of all the staves are showing.

When you arrive at the last space, measure its width, top and bottom, which you hope are the same — if the staves are in register. If not, you should be able to adjust them slightly, as the glue won’t be dry yet. My gap was 3.25 inches, which required trimming the last stave by 1/4 inch on the table saw to make it fit neatly in place, completing the circle.

Tips working with Gorilla Glue: It’s not only expensive ($16 for 8 oz.) but messy, and despite its apparent viscosity will drip down to the bottom of your staves and fuse them to the surface below unless you’re careful to keep jostling the barrel while the glue is drying. Most of the mess will be on the backs of the staves and not visible.

Step 5. Attach the “Decorative” Metal Bands

The curing time for Gorilla Glue is 30-45 minutes, but I waited at least an hour before removing the bungee cords for the project’s final step: attaching the steel hanger straps to further enhance the barrel’s resemblance to the real thing. I read somewhere that the metal straps are only for looks, but I would submit they are necessary to guarantee none of the staves will come loose and drop off, which, I assure you, can happen because bonding wood to plastic, even with this NASA-strength adhesive, is problematic.

Screwing on the straps
Screwing on the straps
Wrapping with a roll of steel hanger straps
Wrapping with a roll of steel hanger straps

Just to be safe, I would even leave the middle bungee cord in place while I attached the galvanized hanger straps, roughly binding the circle of staves together. You’ll need short (3/8 inch) wood screws and an electric drill. Hanger straps may not be the most photogenic component, but they have lots of holes for screws and come in a 25′ roll ($10.50) that should provide 2 bands for 2 barrels.

Finished product: Not a BMW but not bad
Finished product: Not a BMW but not bad

You want the band to be level all the way around, and one way to achieve that is to measure a distance (12″ for example) from the top on each stave and mark it with a crayon for reference as you circle barrel. You can also use a T-square, resting it on the top of each stave and pulling the metal band into place at the bottom of the measure as you go around. The straps are a bit unwieldy, and it’s good to cut a sufficient length off the roll and work only with that, rather than managing the whole roll (shown hanging in the photo).

Pull the strap as tight as possible and secure it with a screw, then another and keep moving. When you get all the way around, you might get lucky and be able to overlap the strap with itself, matching up a hole at the end with the one that held the first screw. If so, remove the original screw and re-screw it through the 2 overlapping holes, neatly completing the circle. If not, pull the band as close as possible to its beginning and simply screw it into place.

I used about 2 screws per stave — that’s almost 90 screws per barrel. They come in boxes of 100, about $3.

Rain! Downspout repositioned over intake hole, with filter
Rain! Downspout repositioned over intake hole, with filter

The barrel is now ready for deployment and only needs to be perched on a platform 12-18 inches high (4 cinder blocks will do), positioned so that its intake hole is under the downspout. The elevation will provide the water pressure necessary to disperse the contents.

Total cost of finished barrel, pro-rating the materials, was about $118.



























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Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Logic

IN A SCENE from the ongoing unmaking of a counterculture, Michael Martin Murphey, at his 70th birthday concert Saturday night in Oak Cliff, saluted the NRA and quoted Bible verses. The audience for the second show at the Kessler Theater stood and cheered the flag-waving patriotic sentiments he offered up in tribute to America’s ranchers, cowboys, military, police and others who were not such heroes to young musicians and their fans when Murphey first hit the stage in Texas in the 1960s and early 70s. Some might remember he was there at the birth of the Progressive Country movement when long-haired southwestern troubadours with both Woodstock and Lone Star in their veins were reinventing country music for younger, dope-smoking Texans who had never heard of Ernest Tubb. Many of them were Democrats and some even liberals.

Murphey’s 1972 album Geronimo’s Cadillac, its title song a rousing anthem lamenting the poor treatment of Native Americans, was new-found gold on the plains, evidence that Texas had smart songpoets and pickers as good as Neil Young and Roger McGuinn or whoever. It was Bob Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, who found Murphey and made the album for A&M. That album was on my record shelf with Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages and B.W. Stevenson’s eponymous debut as the choice cuts of a soulful new sound that jumped the gap between folk and honky tonk.

With cover boy looks and a gospel church voice, Murphey had come back to Texas to do his own thing after writing songs for hire in Los Angeles. He got to Austin about the time Willie Nelson was arriving back from Nashville and both became chapters in Jan Reid’s genre-defining book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. But Murphey soon decamped to the high country of New Mexico and Colorado, leaving the urban and cosmic cowboys behind for various residencies in the rural West. His biggest hit, “Wildfire” (co-written with Larry Cansler) was about a ghost horse galloping through the Nebraska night.

I reviewed and interviewed him in the 1970s when I was a music critic at the Dallas Times Herald, but I did not keep up with him after moving away from Texas myself and had not heard him perform in decades. I knew that after “Wildfire” he had reached the charts with the Adult Contemporary love ballads “What’s Forever For” and “Long Line of Love,” and that at some point he turned his career toward the Western archive, rediscovering and recording authentic cowboy songs, like those once collected by scholars and shared at the annual meeting of the Texas Folklore Society.

SATURDAY NIGHT he came dressed for a John Ford Western — long coat, silk scarf, vest and watch chain, a black Stetson capping his golden locks. I was prepared to hear a new set list tailored to his outfit, but in fact he featured the old hits —  “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac” among them — in fine voice and backed by a virtuosic family band on mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle. He did perform sterling versions of “Streets of Laredo” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and closed with a rhapsodic “Wildfire” in which his lightening fast sideman Shaun Richardson keenly mimicked the late Jac Murphy’s signature piano intro on the guitar, note for note.

Murphey was raised Southern Baptist and was always inclined to preaching, but back in the day it was often about the evils of the record business (And the music gets sold by the lawyers…) Playing to the hometown crowd, he traced his ancestry here back to the War for Independence and got a crowd-pleasing whoop by referring to the Texas Republic as “the greatest beacon of freedom the world has ever known.” And you had to wonder if the slaves would have agreed. An astonishing statement really.

What is that about anyway? Some say he is simply preaching to a different choir now, the ranchers, cattlemen and cowboy wannabes who make up his target audience. And they are a politically conservative and staunchly Christian bunch. He had a lot to say onstage about the need to restock our ranges with cattle for the sake of the soil — an issue I don’t fully understand. But a knowledgeable friend in Colorado who remembers “Geronimo’s Cadillac” rolls his eyes and tells me Murphey’s got his facts wrong. One thing I do understand is that guns are a scourge to this society, and whether in the hands of criminals, wackos or clueless kids, they continue to take the lives of thousands of innocent people. And the National Rifle Association, through intimidation and campaign contributions, abets this carnage daily by blocking all legislative efforts at gun control.

IN A SHOW-STOPPING MOMENT, Murphey leaned into the microphone and cheerfully promoted an upcoming NRA event for “the ladies,” one where women will be taught how to shoot properly and “be safe.” I thought, holy shit, he’s right there with Ted Nugent! Hard not to recall the lyric from “Cosmic Cowboy” that “Up is not the way I want to shoot.” A whimsical song maybe, but at the time it suggested a newly skeptical view of the reckless gunfighters that Hollywood romanticized and celebrated.

That was then, and this is now. When Murphey was first singing and playing at the Inside Llewen Davis era club The Rubaiyat on McKinney in Dallas, folk music advocated peace, love and understanding and was politically distinct from the knee-jerk, fightin’ side of me patriotism of C&W. And while Willie and Waylon and the boys later made it safe for hippies to enjoy the steel guitar, the mindless red-white-and-blue Bible-totin’ chauvinism of Nashville country stormed back even before 9/11 and then provided a soundtrack for the U.S. military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lyle Lovett and Gary P. Nunn, the former Murphey keyboardist and “I wanna go home with the Armadillo” author, performed at George W. Bush’s 2nd inaugural ball. Enough said.

I was so rattled by Murphey’s rhetoric at his birthday concert that I went back to Jan Reid’s book to confirm that he wasn’t always like this. Sure enough, he referred to himself then as a hippie and had nothing good to say about “the life-denying generals in the U.S. Army” or Baptists, for that matter. But he was 28 years old. People change, and I can only conclude that time and the river — and guns — have come between me and Michael Murphey since then. Somewhere back there he did caution against placing too much faith in rock stars or expecting them to have all the answers. And given his unexamined pronouncements Saturday night, I couldn’t agree with him more. Why should anyone look to a musician for wisdom about anything beyond music? But I have to add that I will never be able to listen to any of his songs in quite the same way again.


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To: Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director, Dallas Theater Center

I take no pleasure in sending this note, but since I’ve seen only reflexive cheerleading in the local media for “Stagger Lee,” I thought you should hear from someone who loves the theatre but also remembers the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I recently returned to Dallas after years away and was eager to see how much DTC has progressed. I missed “Fortress of Solitude.” I was determined not to miss “Stagger Lee.”

The cast was excellent, I’ll say that, and I sympathized with their game attempts to slog through the incoherent narrative and un-singable songs. The ending was welcome in a way, but I also thought, “That’s it?” This is going to New York?

I was staggered much less by the show than by the top ticket price of $140, which we paid reluctantly to secure good seats. And this is really my complaint: That DTC is charging Broadway prices for a musical that is workshop level at best. I just checked the websites of the Mark Taper Forum, the Arena Stage, The Goodman and The Guthrie, and saw only one top ticket price over $100 and none close to $140. How can you justify this? I guess if people in Dallas are willing to pay it, there’s your case, but I wonder if they get out much and if they’ll be willing to pay it again?

The playwright and director have talked a lot in the press and the program about archetypes and myths and the black experience in America. That’s fine, but you must know better than I, that noble intention and academic knowledge mean little compared to what’s on the stage.

I applaud and support new play programs like the one at the O’Neill Center that helped launch August Wilson. Great that SMU and DTC are working together (in a way they never did in the old days). But in my opinion it raises false expectations for all concerned to hype something as a world premiere that is not ready to earn such notice — and to charge world-class prices for it.

Sean Mitchell

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Lu Mitchell’s 90th Birthday Tribute

Thanks to all the musicians and to everyone who who came out to Poor David’s Pub on Sunday and made Lu Mitchell’s 90th Birthday Tribute such a memorable event. Wonderful to hear so much good acoustic music and history recollected — the stories from all the musicians whose lives she has touched in her long career onstage in North Texas…with the Dallas Folk Music Society, SMU, the clubs, the festivals, the private parties and the First Unitarian Church, to which she pledged her share of the proceeds.

48095_738618516168876_845378190_nHow many people remember that she opened NorthPark in 1965 on a bill with Mance Lipscomb and Carolyn Hester? If you missed it, it was quite a show: Bob and Sally Ackerman, Bill Johnston & Dollars Taxes, Wayne Greene, Martin Delabano and Duck Creek Station, Ann Armstrong & Steve Hughes (wow, if I might say so), James Michael Taylor, David Searcy, Drake Rogers, Bill Sanner, Gabrielle West, Peggy Davis Fleming and Jigsaw and yes, Lu Mitchell & Catch 23, plus Poor David himself! Lu is beside herself with joy and gratitude.

The circle is indeed unbroken. Gracias.

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THE HISTORY OF THE THEATRE, unlike film, is preserved largely through the memories of those who made it and witnessed it, so we are grateful for the occasional book that manages to gather up those memories and shape them into a compelling narrative worthy of the medium itself. Such a book is Wynn Place Show, Jeremy Gerard’s history of The American Place Theatre and its iconoclastic impresario, Wynn Handman. (Smith and Kraus, 227 pp.) Here is the account, in chapter and verse, of Handman’s determination to uncover new forms and new talent in a contemporary theatre removed from the commercial pressures of Broadway beginning in 1963 and continuing for more than 40 years. My god, the work he unleashed! Sam Shepard, Eric Bogosian, Bill Irwin, Maria Irene Fornes, Joel Grey, Olympia Dukakis and Richard Gere are just a few of the hundreds of notable artists who found their voices here in ground-breaking productions made possible by Handman’s nurturing personality and unrelenting spirit of adventure. A gifted acting teacher and director, as well as producer, he got plays from poets and novelists, monologues, adaptations, pieces that could not be readily described.

A distinguished critic and reporter, Gerard explains how this all happened, recreating the period with stories of individual shows and remembrances of Handman supplied by the illustrious APT alumni, as well as through his own recollections as a first-nighter. For anyone who recalls that time in New York and elsewhere when theatre suddenly could be anything and everything and was up for grabs, this is a very good read indeed, even as it leaves you wondering along with Sam Shepard where all that passion went. A keen observer of the press, Gerard also keeps one eye peeled on New York’s most influential critics and how they met the challenge of sifting and interpreting ATP’s unconventional fare. A subplot but one that supplies its own bonus material.

For a variety of reasons, including his “tacking against the mainstream winds,” as Gerard puts it, Handman and his theatre never got the full measure of recognition they deserved for the careers they helped launch and the lively intelligence they cultivated. It seems they have now.

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IT IS HARD TO explain to friends who are not Dodger fans or maybe not Dodger fans from Texas who attended St. Mark’s School of Texas in the late 1960s, the emotional whipsaw of learning recently that Chris Kershaw, class of `67, had died — and then learning that, yes, he was the father of current Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw.

You’d think I would have known this. All those years ago when I was carrying Bob Dylan albums to school to share with other teenage troubadours, I formed a folk group at St. Mark’s with Chris, David Laney, Louis Blumberg and Richard Wincorn. We called ourselves The Bountymen, and our public performances probably could be counted on one hand. Chris, a class behind me, was the most talented, played multiple instruments and had a strong voice. Like Blumberg, who later played drums with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Chris became a professional musician after college and made a living for a time in Dallas as a composer of jingles.

I ended up in Los Angeles, eventually shed my allegiance to the Texas Rangers (see previous post) and became a fan of the local National League team so that I happened to notice when in 2008 a young left-hander from Highland Park High in Dallas, a first round draft pick, made his debut at the age of 20 with the Dodgers. His name was Clayton Kershaw. He had a phenomenal curve ball, was immediately compared to Sandy Koufax, the most famous Dodger hurler ever, and within three seasons won 21 games and the Cy Young Award.

The last time I saw Chris was at some point in the 70s when he was writing and recording commercials. He told me he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, trying hard. He seemed driven, and I figured it might happen because he was so good. I lost touch with him after moving to California. Although I don’t remember Chris as an athlete at St. Mark’s, I think he might have tried out for the baseball team one year. Which is why when Clayton Kershaw came up with the Dodgers out of Highland Park, it did occur to me that Chris could be his father, given the facial resemblance. I asked my friends in Dallas who followed baseball if this could be the case, and no one knew. I tried to research it online and found nothing about Clayton’s father or family. I figured the name and face must be a coincidence or somebody at St. Mark’s surely would have known, even though Chris had gone missing from the alumni directory.

As I attended games at Dodger Stadium with my own son and watched Clayton Kershaw become the Dodgers’ ace and All-Star, I took some satisfaction in knowing he was from Dallas but left it at that, dispensing with the notion that he was the son of one of the Bountymen. Then, a few months after moving back to Dallas this spring, late in April, I got an email from the St. Mark’s Alumni Office informing me that Chris had died. No cause of death was given. I looked in the Morning News and found a paid obit framed in strong religious language that mentioned Chris was survived by a wife and two daughters. In small print it also said he was survived by his only son, Clayton Edward Kershaw.

FIRST I WAS shocked and saddened, then stunned to realize he was the father of Clayton Kershaw after all. Good lord. How did this happen? All of it. I ran into a member of the Class of `67 a week later who confirmed that Chris was his father but knew very little about the trajectory of Chris’s life or his relationship with Clayton, except to say that Chris had been through some hard times. Details were sketchy. He said Chris had not been in touch with many of his classmates for a long time, had disappeared from the radar. The obit in the Morning News also did not mention the cause of death.

Clayton did take bereavement leave from the Dodgers to return to Dallas for Chris’s funeral.

I regret that I was unable to attend the service, but I am beset now by questions about what happened to Chris. If anyone who knew him at St. Mark’s or later in his life can share any thoughts or recollections about him, I would love to hear from them.

R.I.P. Chris.

The BountymenLarge
The Bountymen: Richard Wincorn, the author, Louis Blumberg, Chris Kershaw, David Laney. 1966.










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IN THE INAUGURAL season of the Harlequin Players, in the summer of 1965, I drove to the St. Mark’s campus every day in a white, stick-shift (unsafe at any speed) Corvair, with Sonny & Cher on the radio singing “I Got You Babe.” The counterculture was underway, along with the war in Vietnam. Boys were letting their hair grow out over their foreheads, like Sonny and the Beatles. But whatever the length of your hair, you did not want to be late to 10600 Preston Road because the Oxbridge-accented director of the Harlequin Players, an intense young man of unquestioned authority and sophistication, had made it absolutely clear that military punctuality was Rule #1 in the theatre, inviolate. And you didn’t want to displease him or offer a shred of evidence that you were unworthy of his company and respect.

I found myself recalling Mr. Vintcent’s demanding regimen all too vividly on a recent Saturday morning as I drove to the St. Mark’s campus for a rehearsal almost five decades later, worried that I was going to be late for the nine o’clock call. I told myself to relax, it was a reunion weekend after all, and this was merely a staged reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, the play for voices (and a large cast) that Harlequins did twice in the eight seasons Vintcent presided over his youth corps. Nine a.m. on a Saturday. Could it really matter if we were a little late?

Mr. V.

No sooner had I walked into Decherd Performance Hall, than I heard that voice. “Where is _________? And where is _________? Surely she’s coming?” The tone was not quite accusatory yet carried a familiar, stern impatience. The sound of Anthony Vintcent had not changed appreciably in 47 years. Except for the new setting of a modern proscenium theater with a big hardwood stage that loomed behind him, all was as before. Harlequin alumni, now in their 50s and 60s, many returning from the east and west coasts for the weekend, palmed bagels and cups of coffee as they turned in deference toward the director who was about to tell them how they were going to prepare in one rehearsal for the 2 p.m. public performance of Under Milkwood.

“Consonants,” he said. “Please remember the consonants. They’re important.” He crisply enunciated an example with an emphasis suggesting we were rehearsing for a national broadcast of some kind instead of for a small audience of family and friends. No doubt Vintcent would have said, “Why should there be a difference?” That was the mark of Harlequin Players, looking back – that Vintcent treated us like young professionals.

For the 70 some-odd Harlequins assembled here and especially for the 16 onstage, the past was undeniably present. Sure, our bodies had aged and people looked different. The boys’ long hair was either missing altogether or in some cases even longer but a different color. Vintcent himself, now 75, was bald on top, with a healthy white beard. Yet we, all of us, were easily swept back in a matter of minutes to distant summers when we had learned so much from this man and from each other. How, exactly, did this happen?

It seemed improbable that such fuss was being made over a high school drama group decades after its last curtain call. Who would believe it? At the packed luncheon in Vintcent’s honor on Friday at St. Mark’s, current faculty and staff must have wondered what it was this wandering Canadian could have done to inspire the loyalty evident at this grand homecoming. Since theatre – unlike film, painting and recorded music – is evanescent, leaving nothing behind but programs, photos, reviews and memories, the experience of the Harlequin Players is measured today through the fond recollection of those who lived it, becoming the stuff of folklore.

The energy powering many of the finest theatre companies expends itself as if by natural law, which is what makes the heyday of any theatre group, even a high school one, something to relish and celebrate. I doubt any of us, when we were 16 and 17, had a clue about this, but the size of the gathering here offered proof that many of us understood it now: that we took part in something that was special in a particular time and place, and we are grateful to Vintcent, to St. Mark’s and to the moon and stars.

IN AN ARTICLE I wrote for the Dallas Times Herald when Tony returned to Dallas to direct a single production of The Happy Time in the late 1970s, I recalled how he had once projected the sort of charisma normally associated in Texas with a winning high school football coach and unthinkable for a stage director. At St. Mark’s, where he also ran the Fine Arts Department and directed plays during the school year, he cast All-Metro-Dallas linebacker Tommy Lee Jones as the narrator (or First Voice) in the first production of Under Milkwood, which proved a revelation – maybe to Jones but certainly to many at the school. Dylan Thomas? Welsh poetry? That kid from West Texas? How was this possible? Legend tells us it happened. Some of us remember.

Janet and Tony at Blue Mesa Grill

Jones was not in the summer group (where Tony himself read the First Voice, as he did at the reunion performance), but Jones’ eventual celebrity reflected back favorably on the milieu Tony created, spanning the St. Mark’s drama club and Harlequins. Perhaps because Tony cultivated a professional attitude in us, it’s no surprise that a fair number of Harlequins later did find their way to grownup stages in theatre, film and other creative pursuits. Mark Capri, back to read the Reverend Eli Jenkins so damned beautifully onstage at the reunion, at one point toured with the Royal Shakespeare Co.; Pat Richardson became a TV star on Home Improvement, Gary Pearle directed plays at Washington’s Arena Stage and on Broadway. The late and much lamented Bill Hootkins made a career for himself in the London theatre and appeared in films with Ned Beatty, John Malkovich, Warren Beatty and Brando. Ann Armstrong achieved acclaim as a top-drawer blues singer and guitarist; Frances Aronson became a lighting designer on and off Broadway, Jenny Burgess a leading actress at Dallas’ plucky Stage #1, Kimberly Webb a fixture at Berkeley Rep, Jerry Carlson and Ronald Wilson professors of film studies, Fran Burst a documentary filmmaker. I drop these names reluctantly, knowing that I’m leaving out many more who achieved distinction in the arts and elsewhere, but even this short list might suggest that something was happening here all those years ago, something ignited by Mr. V., as some called him.

There were more than 200 Harlequins in all, and some have now left us, as we were soberly reminded by Mr. V. at the dinner Saturday night at Blue Mesa Grill. Those of us still on the planet were asked by the reunion organizers to write personal letters to Tony, to be collected in a binder and given to him, each letter spelling out what he and his summer theatre meant to us.

I wrote that I doubted he could have given much thought to the possibility he was educating a future drama critic that first Harlequins season but that is the career path I took at one point. And without question, my own sense of what theatre could be or not be was influenced by him, his mind and intuitive method, his belief in the quasi-religious purpose of what we were up to. I remember how tireless he was in what must have been a daunting task, coaxing mumbling teenagers (me) beyond our limitations into a realm of believability as demanded by the text. You wanted to be good enough not to let him down. I think that was a big part of it. And he didn’t do it through fear or intimidation. Instead, he insisted that you climb up to the place where he was standing so you could get the same view.

I told him he showed me a side of myself I did not know existed. At 17, I was more interested in sports than putting on costumes and pretending to be someone else; I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this at all. But my parents urged me to try it, and how can I thank them enough for that? Once I was in the room, I had no desire to leave. It was way too interesting. And I got to play a tender-hearted prize-fighter in the first production.

The St. Mark’s campus today is nearly unrecognizable from the one where we spent that first summer. Architecturally more distinguished it is, to be sure, and the Decherd Performance Hall seeming as Lincoln Center compared to the tiny black box where Under Milkwood, The Cave Dwellers, The Happy Time, The Cherry Orchard, The Lion in Winter, Oh! What a Lovely War!, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Uncle Vanya and so many more were produced.

Yet sitting onstage at the Decherd during the Under Milkwood rehearsal, the air-conditioning so effective we needed long sleeves, I suspect some of us missed the old space, where we might have communed more easily with the ghosts and spirits that plays leave behind. The Harlequins theater was air-conditioned, sort of. Outside, the nights were so hot and muggy you could have walked down Preston Road naked at 2 a.m. and still felt warm.

The author, right, in The Cave Dwellers, with Kimberly Webb

That image in fact occurred to me late one night after a show, a sign of imminent debauchery or merely a symptom of the sensory expansion released by the whole experience, evidence that theatre was not something you only saw with your eyes and processed with your mind but felt on your skin. Tony talked about ritual and ceremony, and on that night, alert and sleepless, I felt I understood for the first time what he meant and how our little group was connected to some larger, eternal human need to act out stories in order to claim our place on earth, as primitive peoples had done, maybe even here in the jungle heat of north Texas summer.

When she introduced Tony at the luncheon Friday, Janet Spencer Shaw, the former Hockaday teacher, Harlequins’ managing director and “queen,” looked out from the podium and asked why all of us were here. Then she speculated that we must be members of the same tribe who had found one another long ago.

Her words hurled me right back to the epiphany of that steamy night in 1965, and they felt oh so true. Saturday we were onstage again, the tribe gathered around the warmth of Dylan Thomas’ rhythmic poetry and our leader, who reminded us how lovely it could sound, how lovely he could sound reading the First Voice, describing all manner of timeless creatures inhabiting a Welsh coastal town, indeed taking us there. Tony told me once that acting frightened him, and that’s why he became a director. It remains a statement I must take on faith, for with his voice, intuition and talent, of course he could have been a successful actor – at Stratford, in New York or Hollywood. Instead, he gave himself to us, and all these years later I think we are still trying to prove ourselves worthy of his devotion.

The rehearsal ran four hours with a short break. Unlike Mark Capri, Jenny Burgess and others who were pros, I had to be reminded I was not projecting (oh, that). At 2 p.m. the lights went to black and a remembered anticipatory silence filled the hall. At last, a spot came up, stage right on Tony, at one end of our readers’ semi-circle. “To begin at the beginning,” he said. “It is spring, moonless night in the small town…” The ritual had started one more time, and who among us wished for it to end?


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After watching Obama underachieve in his debate with Mitt Romney, I knew I would wake up to the instant analysis by “liberal” reporters in the LA Times and elsewhere that Romney had “won” the debate and made the contest for the White House much more “interesting.” Really? what was interesting and so telling about the LAT, NYT and the MSM in general was how saying that Romney “looked presidential” indicates that “looks” are what count in our shallow and debased political discourse as narrated by such focus group hucksters as Wolf Blitzer.

The truth of the matter is that Governor Forehead steamrolled over the anemic PBS host Jim Lehrer and disarmed Obama with the audacious force of a psychopathic liar, unabashed in his cynical mendacity, knowing that fact-checking is for college nerds. There, that’s my lede. No wonder I’m not writing for The New York Times.

Yes, I was disappointed that Obama, like so many in his party, seemed oddly afraid of reminding Americans not traveling by limousine or private jet that it’s the Democrats who have lobbied and legislated for a more equitable society, with justice and health care for all. Where is the downside to speaking up about this? And when Mitt shamelessly tossed out that slur about Obama being incapable of reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans, why didn’t the President hit that one out of the park like a hanging curve ball:

Maybe Governor Romney has some advice on how I could have reached across the aisle more effectively to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced in 2009 that the single most important thing the Republicans in Congress wanted to achieve was for President Obama to be a one-term president — not create jobs or improve our schools, end poverty, address climate change, make America energy independent, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and help the middle class from disappearing…NO, instead, with utter disregard for the welfare of his fellow Americans, the leader of your party in the Senate told the whole world that he was going to devote all his energy to what I would call extreme and unpatriotic partisanship. What would you call it, Governor?

But the fact that Obama did not take the fight to Romney and was all too polite in parrying his fusillade of lies remains  less significant than the media’s treatment of the debate as sheer theatrical performance, as if that has anything to do with the qualities required of a president. The Dallas Morning News (but of course) actually said the debate made evident a clear choice in the contrasting policies of the two men. (!) That’s like saying you have a choice between rooting for the Dallas Cowboys or a fantasy football team — although even fantasy football teams are graded by real numbers and statistics, unlike the purely imaginary playbook Romney held up in Denver.
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