David Carr was a terrific boss. His surprising death this week has shocked everyone who knew him and many who didn’t. Judd Apatow and Patton Oswalt tweeted condolences.
Here are photo galleries of David’s going-away party from City Paper:
David Carr was a terrific boss. His surprising death this week has shocked everyone who knew him and many who didn’t. Judd Apatow and Patton Oswalt tweeted condolences.
Here are photo galleries of David’s going-away party from City Paper:
Was going through my storage locker and found my datebook from 1995. I’m pretty sure I have datebooks from even farther back in history, all in boxes that I’ve been paying a monthly fee to keep safe and secure. Almost since 1995. Sigh.
Instead of doing the sensible thing and just tossing this relic out, I opened the pages to see what I was doing 20 years ago.
Rehearsals and gigs, mostly with my oldies band. Some visits to friends in New York City. I reviewed a lot of comedy shows for the Washington Post. And days and days — and a couple solid weeks worth — of video shoots for The Learning Channel show, Neat Stuff. Almost none of which was used. That’s another story.
Here are some highlights, as best I can tell from my horrible handwriting.
“7:30 Ken Cen.”
I think this was some kind of Latino multi-culti performance art thing I was reviewing for the Post. There were songs about how the word “Hispanic” was insulting. Other than being mostly confused, I enjoyed the show.
Friday, Jan 13.
Jake Johannsen Comedy Cafe.”
For some reason, the Post really liked Jake Johannsen. I was sent to review him three times. I like Jake, too. But it’s no reflection on him to say that finding something fresh to write for that third review was pretty tough.
“Film Pat Rehearse”
My friends Pat, Jeff, and Dick sold a TV show to The Learning Channel, back when that network was actually about learning. I was offered an equity share, which I declined because I thought nobody is gonna buy a show about crazy toy collectors. I was wrong, but they were kind enough to bring me in as one of the players in various skits about collecting, which is how I came to ride in the Weinermobile. So my bucket list is pretty much complete.
Wednesday, Feb 1
No idea who. Back then, there were several comedy clubs, the Improv being one of the newer spots. And now basically the only comedy club in town.
“Jeff Foxworthy Warner Theater”
I do not remember this.
“Kevin Meaney Comedy Cafe.”
I do remember this show. Very funny fellow, Mr. Meaney. Whatever happened to him? I do remember the Comedy Cafe, which I kinda liked, even though the layout was ridiculous. Tiny, long, thin room on the third floor of a rowhouse on K Street. The stage was in the middle of the room, facing a mirror on the opposite wall, so performers would be staring at themselves all night. And the ceiling was low enough that acts could reach up and touch the acoustic tiles. The place was much like the Grog & Tankard. But a lot of good comics played there. And after the show, you go down one flight to the strip club. Or so I heard.
Sat March 4
“Rich Hall Comedy Cafe.”
Another very funny fellow who dropped out of sight.
Friday March 24
“Steven Wright Lisner.”
And yet another singular voice we don’t hear from enough anymore.
Not sure what this was.
“MPAA film 10:30”
No idea what movie I was reviewing, but I will say that the Motion Picture Association of America screening room is a lousy place to watch motion pictures. Irony, eh? No popcorn, no ambiance. Plus, screenings are early in the morning. One reason critics hate so many movies is that they have to endure such crummy presentation.
Headliners was one of the other comedy clubs in the area. Was it at the Bethesda Holiday Inn? Greenbelt?
May 29 to April 7
Pat is Pat Carroll, the noted cineaste, Travesty Films founder, and co-creator of Neat Stuff. We shot hours of comedy material for Neat Stuff and almost none of it was used. As I said, that’s another story.
Interviewed the man who wrote the Flintstones theme song, the Jetsons theme song, the Johnny Quest theme song — all of the great Hanna-Barbera music. Lovely man. Shame on me because I never got around to publishing it. Still have the cassette tape. Must transcribe.
“Rosie 7pm KenCen.”
Rosie O’Donnell. I was reviewing for the Post and the pressure was on, as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were seated a few rows ahead of me.
The Post assigned me to interview Dave Chappelle as the once-local comic was starting to catch fire. Caught his show at the Comedy Cafe, the place where he first got onstage. His mother and grandmother were in the audience, which did not seem to impact his material. After the show, we had a rather rambling conversation in the stairwell. I’m not going to suggest that Mr. Chappelle was totally stoned, but, uh, yeah, Half-Baked.
The day after I turned my piece in, the Style section ran a full feature on the other black comic from D.C., Martin Lawrence, So my piece ran later in the week, trimmed extensively. A not uncommon occurrence when the paper was so large that one desk didn’t seem to know what the others were doing. Once I was assigned to review Lewis Black, another once-local funnyman. I spoke with him on the phone during the day, then found myself seated at the Improv next to a Post reporter who was doing a full profile of the man. As she was a staffer, I knew I was out-ranked. So I enjoyed the show — great seeing Black spew spittle at such close range — and gave her a ride home. My review never ran.
“Bill Maher Improv.”
I had recently read Maher’s funny book, True Story, which is a roman á clef about the comedy boom of the ’80s. After the show, I asked him if he was going to write another. He snorted, saying, “Too much work.”
Saturday, Nov. 4
This may have been my second Bill Cosby review, at the Kennedy Center. The first was his appearance at GW, just as the first Iraq war began. The second was shortly after his son was killed. Both times, Cosby allowed those elephants in the room to slumber until the very last moment, when he finally offered some of his typical professorial, paternal, Cosby-esque comforting words.
And now saying his name brings no comfort. On Twitter, Judd Apatow has been leading the charge to bring Cos to justice. (Marc Maron talks with Apatow on his latest WTF podcast and it is absolutely worth a listen.) My former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a brutal essay about Cosby. Coates and my former editor David Carr also chimed in. Along with every damn person on social media.
And I keep getting madder and sadder, at the same time.
I get mad at the people who seem so eager to attack Cosby because unlike them I grew up with the comedian. I don’t feel that they know him like I do. They don’t have the right to judge. It’s easy outrage.
But, uh, thirty-three women….
But I knew Cosby long before he both saved NBC and restored the sitcom format with The Cosby Show. Back when Cosby was merely a comedian, though he was never “merely” a comedian. I go back to elementary school with Bill Cosby. I spent many an afternoon as a kid, sitting on the floor at Scott Miller‘s house, or Mickey Hager‘s house or my own living room, listening and laughing to “Noah,” or “Why Is There Air?” or “Wonderfulness.” Then came I, Spy, which was almost as cool as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was not only one of the funniest people alive, but also the coolest. He hung around the Playboy Mansion, he dug jazz, he had style. He was a champion for the African-American cause, donating millions to Temple University and Spellman College. What’s not to love?
Cosby was a hero, a comedy hero, a role model. Watch him in Jerry Seinfeld‘s film Comedian. Toward the end of the film, Seinfeld makes a pilgrimage to the master and we see Cosby sitting, in very unflattering light, looking like both Buddha and Yoda. Which, in comedy circles, he was.
But apparently he was also a serial rapist of the worst sort. Not that there’s a best sort of rapist, but Cosby seems to have been particularly heinous.
And there is no excuse. Thirty-three women can’t all be wrong. And to admit that is to toss not only Cosby, but so many of my happy childhood memories under the bus. Deep under the bus. Is this how children of criminals feel? “I love you, dad, but you’re a horrible person so stay in jail?” Like I said, mad and sad, but mostly sad.
Anyway, let’s wrap up 1995.
Friday, Dec. 1
“Richard Lewis 10:30.”
The late show Friday is notorious among standups as being just the worst. I won’t say Lewis was phoning it in at this Improv show, but he did have lots of legal note pads and kept checking and reading from them. I’ve always enjoyed Lewis and his hyper-neurotic performing style. In 1978, I was in the audience at the Improv in Los Angeles for the taping of Lewis’ cruelly forgotten late-night TV movie, Diary of a Young Comic. (Featuring a terrific theme song by Loudon Wainwright III.) It’s only available as part of a Richard Lewis box set, but I wish it were available on its own.
Writing the standup reviews was a trying task. The shows were usually enjoyable, but the deadlines came quickly after the lights came up. In addition to the pressure of trying to find a couple hundred intelligent words to type, I had to send copy to the desk using ancient dial-up technology. Maybe not even a 14.4 baud modem. The DOS text had to be formatted in a particular way, with indents and double carets at the end: >>. Or maybe: < <. I had a bulky Toshiba laptop and I'd unplug the telephone and plug the line into the computer and call up a strange telecom program, type some codes, and whisk my words away into the aether. The next morning, there was my byline in a great metropolitan daily.
I get results!
Just one week after launching my Free for All Watch, dissecting the many gripes of the Washington Post‘s Grumpy Old Man page, the public has spoken. Or typed.
This week, Oct. 18, there were three — count them, three! — positive letters for the paper, an unheard of level of generosity in the two weeks I’ve been officially taking note. One letter saluting Michel Du Cille for his photograph, another lauding a front page map, and a third thanking writer Martin Weill for his light-hearted zoo story.
Now that’s three out of 13 letters, but this could be a trend. Or, to phrase it in current headline-writing fashion: Could this be a trend? (See also Twitter’s SavedYouAClick for a welcome antidote for such link-bait question-mark headlines.)
And speaking of Twitter, Post editorial page editor Scott Butterworth re-tweeted my inaugural Free for All Watch column, which I am taking as proof positive that my brave work is finally being heeded. While the editors did not choose to run any letter similar to the one I predicted would appear (and really, how could they?), I remain convinced that I am the power behind this week’s outpouring of love and good will for D.C.’s paper of record.
Above is a photo I took last week of one the last remaining Little Tavern buildings. Like most of the rest of the chain, it had been turned into something else, in this case a Chinese carryout, Golden House. (I have placed orders there on more than one occasion. Not bad.) My plan was to snap pictures of what few remaining LTs existed so that I could post them on the article I wrote about the fabled D.C. diners.
Below is a picture I took today. I have no explanation, other than the new X-Files movie just opened.
(Originally posted July 28, 2008.)
I’d been meaning to go to Laurel to see if its Little Tavern Shop was still standing and snap a pic if it was. The Laurel location was the last operating restaurant in the once-proud chain, and one that I had never been to. (Shame on me, I know.) I’ve posted my previous LT articles here and here, and planned to add fresh images.
So imagine my surprise to find that not only is the building still standing, but you can get a burger. All praise Harry Duncan!
So many of the old locations have become takeout spots, been repainted, expanded, and otherwise mashed into the landscape. The Maryland Historical Trust put this shop on its registry (“an excellent example of mid-twentieth century roadside commercial architecture”), an honor not accorded similar outlets in D.C. While it was initially alarming to see the big “DONUTS” marquee, kudos to the signmaker for reworking the original Little Tavern typography into the new Laurel Tavern.
Inside, the place seems even more crowded than the old shops were. The stools and counter have been replaced by a glass case filled with donuts. And the grill has been replaced with donut-making machines, looking as vintage as the building and coated with sugar. I should have asked if the new owner acquired the equipment from the old Krispee Kreme on Rt. 1 in Alexandria. That would be fitting.
A small hand-written piece of paper taped to the side window proclaims “We have Burgers!!” I dared not dream it was true, and so first ordered a glazed, which looked fresh and was. If a Little Tavern has to be replaced, fresh donuts is not a bad option.
When I asked if they actually made the old-style hamburgers, owner Jin Kwon said, “Small ones. Yes. I just make these,” and opened a heating tray. She pulled out a three-pack, a trio of tiny burgers stuck together. Apparently, there’s a deal if you buy ’em that way. Not quite the bygone bagful, but enough for breakfast today.
So…how do these 21st century models stack up to the Deathballs of yore? Well, they’re small (good), damp from the warming drawer (good), covered in greasy chopped onions (good). Asked if I wanted ketchup and mustard (of course!), Kwon applied same from separate yellow and red bottles. The single mutsup/catard concoction was a model of efficiency in the old days, but once it all mixed together the effect was the same.
The first bite was truly nostalgic nirvana. But — the beef is too spicy. Pepper, I think. Which is to say, there is spice where the old meat was just gray. Not unpleasant, but not what I was expecting.
Still, they warmed me up all the way back to Silver Spring. And, in that patented Little Tavern way, I can taste ’em still.
Ironically, the Laurel shop is across the street from the Laurel Tastee Diner, which is the only Tastee location I haven’t been to. Guess I gotta start spending more time in Laurel…
Novelty music is still silly, stoopid, and weird—which is exactly why the Top 40 could use more of it.
THE SMALL THINGS DISAPPEAR FIRST, and in their absence the future is revealed. You’re downloading yesterday’s My Name Is Earl onto your U2-branded iPod, say, when suddenly your digital reverie is interrupted by a realization: Something’s missing.
Where in this always-on, P2P, wirelessly instant-messaged existence is that great Harry Potter parody song? Or even a lousy one? Where, come to think of it, are the musical mockeries of Mariah, Fiddy, and Jeezy? Did we all forget to add “novelty tunes” to the RSS feed? That Chronic—WHUT?!—cles of Narnia video might do, if it had as much fun with Aslan as it does with the idea of white guys rapping. And you can’t exactly hear it on the radio.
The Eagles warned us of the dangers of “everything, all the time,” only to be castigated by Mojo Nixon in “Don Henley Must Die.” But the Eagles are back together, smugly raking in millions on the oldies circuit. And Nixon? Well, even Deborah Gibson wouldn’t bear the guy’s two-headed love child these days. Pop culture keeps coming at us at 52x speed, with only “Weird Al” Yankovic still tilting at its windmills. And if ever a culture deserved to feel the polyphonic sting of a fine-tuned accordion—or to share a gentle laugh with anthropomorphic chipmunks—it is America 2005 Inc.
Yet what should be a golden age of novelty songs is lackluster indeed. There was a golden age, roughly the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s chronicled in a book wisely titled The Golden Age of Novelty Songs. While charting the history of wacky records, author Steve Otfinoski posits that “In the last sixty years there have been only four masters of the form: Spike Jones in the ’40s, Stan Freberg in the ’50s, Allan Sherman in the ’60s, and Weird Al Yankovic in the ’80s.” The author notably dismisses the ’70s, snidely saying that the decade “was its own parody.” Tell that to Ray Stevens (“The Streak,” 1974), C.W. McCall (“Convoy,” 1975), and Steve Martin (“King Tut,” 1978).
Still, he has a point. Otfinoski’s claim that novelty’s heyday has passed is undeniable, regardless of when the genre first faltered. The fact that nobody approached for this article could agree on either when or what the last big novelty hit was is telling. And that was going by a pretty loose definition of “novelty hit”: an intentionally humorous and/or strange song that sells a boatload because it captures or critiques a moment in popular culture—or because, bizarrely, it becomes its own moment in popular culture. “Pac-Man Fever” (1982, No. 9 on the Billboard chart) is a good example; so is “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” (1966, No. 3). Jimmy Buffett’s parodying himself in a duet with Alan Jackson (on 2003’s country No. 1 “Five O’Clock Somewhere”) isn’t novelty; it’s clever cross-promotion.
Some cite Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” which reached No. 13 in 2000, as an example of a recent novelty hit, and it might be: Its tongue was at least somewhat in cheek, and its mind was in another dimension. But other candidates come up short. As Patrick Milligan , an executive with novelty purveyor Rhino Records, told Grammy magazine last year, “I don’t think…‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ was meant to be a novelty song, but it kind of became one because people thought it was funny or kooky.”
Next week, Rhino is releasing something called TBS Tunes: Fun Tracks Wisecracks, a compilation from television’s “very funny” network. Included are such not-quite-novelty hits as Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and Devo’s “Whip It.” Humorous, yes. Weird, sure. But earnest, too, and momentarily pop-cultural mostly by virtue of their videos. In other words: Where have all the purple people eaters gone?
The godfather of novelty tunes is unquestionably Dr. Demento, whose syndicated radio program of “mad music and crazy comedy” has aired for more than 30 years. Having written the introduction to Golden Age, the Lakewood, Calif., resident also known as Barry Hansen concurs with Otfinoski, suggesting that the novelty record’s disappearance may have started “back in the late ’60s, when rock started to get more serious and the emphasis came to be on albums instead of singles.”
Demento notes that morning radio shows now make up topical parody songs, but “there is generally little attempt to try to sell those things commercially. Somebody might make up a new song about Sylvester Stallone making another Rocky movie, to pick something out of the news, and maybe it will get played on Howard Stern and Bob & Tom a few times, but then it will be forgotten. Maybe deservedly. But in other times, that would have been a record that might have had a chance to sell some copies.”
“Most stations,” he adds, “seemed to come to the conclusion sometime around, oh, the mid-’80s, that novelty songs—even the real good ones—should only be played in the morning.” A representative of Billboard, who wished to remain anonymous, explains the ramifications: “In the ’80s, stations would have to tell us what their most played records were. There was no automatic tracking like there is now. So if a song was played as a one-off on a morning show even two or three times, the program director…wouldn’t count that their station was playing it.” According to another anonymous ratings-industry type, “If DJs take it upon themselves to do ‘Mr. Jaws Part 4,’ we’re not gonna know what that is unless they’ve sent that to us. Most of the time, those things are unique to the particular radio station.”
Since 1991, all commercially released songs have been “tagged” electronically by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. Its parent company, the Netherlands-based VNU, also owns Billboard. But better playlist tracking hasn’t helped novelty songs boost their numbers. Says the Billboard source: “Even if they were registered, counted up against songs that were being played five to 10 times a day, they wouldn’t amount to much anyway.”
Of course, people continue to make novelty music. Arlington a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook even managed to score what today might constitute a novelty “hit” with its rude 2002 anthem “Enormous Penis.” The song was picked up by the Bob & Tom Show, which broadcasts out of Indianapolis and is syndicated in the South and Midwest. Demento also took note. And then…that was it, though the group could count on even this small notoriety to get bookings.
“In its own way,” says “Penis” author Paul Sabourin, “it sustained the last two years of Da Vinci’s existence.” Sabourin and fellow Notebooker Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo now perform as the “satirical/comedy acoustic duo” Paul and Storm. They have continued their novelty success with Demento Funny Five hits such as “Epithets” and “Opening Band.”
But the world Paul and Storm find themselves touring offers fewer opportunities than Allan Sherman had in the ’60s, when the portly parodist could sing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” on a different television show each week for a month. Even in the ’80s, “Weird Al” had the national platform of MTV, which approximated “music television” most of the time.
Demento notes that when “The Chipmunk Song” was released, in 1958, “Bam! Seven million copies out the door. That got played everywhere on the radio, and the whole nation experienced that at once, for better or for worse.” By the late ’70s, he notes, “‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ took, oh, a decade. It took at least 10 years to make the impact that it did.” Today, “there’s so many more channels of input for people,” says Sabourin. “It’s tougher for anything to get traction. I mean, a successful television show isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago. Because instead of three networks, PBS, and some fuzzy UHF channels, we have 100 to 500 channels….And now radio has become so corporatized that it’s no longer about what would be cool or interesting, it’s all about the bottom line.
“And the novelty song,” he adds, “is not much about the bottom line. There’s certainly a very strong core of fan base for novelty songs, but it is very highly specialized. Or as Spin¬al Tap would say, its appeal has become more selective.”
Just how selective is exemplified by Meatus Murder, a one-man band from New York that recently released its first album, More Songs About Balling and Food. The band name references the Smiths, the album title Talking Heads. The cover art parodies Belle and Sebastian. The songs take on B&S as well as such music-nerd touchstones as Wire and Orange Juice. It was probably inevitable that Balling and Food found its way onto one of Pitchfork’s hipster-authored best-of-2005 lists, but that’s not exactly the Hot 100—or even the Hot 1,000.
It’s also probably inevitable that an indie geek would feel compelled to make fun of music only he and his friends care about—after all, that’s what fanboys do. The act reinforces one’s status as an insider, even among other insiders. Demento’s own show charts this impulse. Originally, in addition to legitimate novelty hits, its play list included old 78s and obscurities from Demento’s huge collection. After a college kid named Yankovic sent in a homemade tape in 1976, got it played, and repeated this process until he had a record contract, the show became increasingly fanboy-generated. Now, laptop jockeys such as Whimsical Will and the Great Luke Ski chop up their iTunes and TiVo downloads in their bedrooms and remix them into wacky raps along the lines of “Hey Phantom Menace!” and “Stealing Like a Hobbit.” Today, says Demento, his younger listeners “seem to love these generally hiphoppy parodies based on movies and TV shows.”
Of all the would-be “Weird Al”s, probably the most successful in terms of Demento airplay is Luke Sienkowski, aka the Great Luke Ski, who’s made it on the show 101 times since 2002. Sienkowski has also created an audio manifesto, the 15-minute MP3 “History of Dementia.” Sampling pretty much every significant novelty number since Spike Jones’ “Der Führer’s Face,” the piece ends with a cavalcade of dozens of novelty hits that might have been: “Bulbous Bouffant,” “Carrot Juice Is Murder,” “The Devil Went to Jamaica,” “Nobody Loves the Company Band,” “Viagra in the Water,” and, of course, “Enormous Penis.”
The professorial narrator intones, “With nowhere left to be heard, the comedians retreated, never to be heard among the mass populace again.” Then he reverses course and calls for an uprising: “Are you ready for the Dementia Revolution?”
Hmmm, lemme check with Clear Channel.
Yes, it’s easy to blame Clear Channel, to say that the conglomerate that claims title to our airwaves is in some part merely giving an uncurious public what it keeps on buying. But take a look at television, where the parodic Daily Show goes as deep inside as any inside-the-Beltway shoutfest. During the most recent presidential election, it drew more 18-to-34-year-old viewers than its non-fake-news counterparts.
In a culture that so willingly embraces pop-cultural comedy, why no love for Steve Goodie’s “Walk on the Wonka Side”? Again, look at television: Before he was booted off of American Idol, off-key warbler William Hung enjoyed almost 10 times as many viewers as Jon Stewart. And common to our attraction to both—and, indeed, to most of today’s nonfictional TV—is a love for irony-draped sneering. The “Curly Shuffle” was silly. Hung singing “Rocket Man” was just sad. But it’s the latter who got his sudden-death-overtime 15 minutes of fame on Fox while the Great Luke Ski has had to content himself with posting rants on his personal Web site.
The loss of the novelty song that everyone can simply, unironically love is but one more example of the vanishing common ground in our common culture. Even if much of that commonality was in fact illusory, it was still a worthy goal—e pluribus unum and all that. Today, separated into our various niches and special-interest groups, everybody’s laughing at; few are laughing with. An intentionally stupid novelty ditty could be a real uniter, even if we all agree to hate it passionately.
Of course, a united culture is something that would please the execs over at Clear Channel, too. And the soulless suits who run the declining music industry—not to mention the diversity-hating neocons The Daily Show sends up. But good comedy—the kind that’s about more than just laughing at—does a society the service of keeping it honest, of deflating its self-importance and revealing its hypocrisy. When it comes to e pluribus unum, comedy might even be essential. Nineteenth-century British novelist George Meredith called it “the ultimate civiliser,” a force for “correcting…the vestiges of rawness and grossness yet to be found among us.” If we can’t laugh at ourselves, he might suggest today, the terrorists, neocons, and fanboys have won.
But our fragmented, irony-infused culture is skeptical of any force that goes about correcting things on a large scale—no matter how gross the correctee. “If I can meta-analyze on why there hasn’t been a great novelty song on Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter,” DiCostanzo says, “it doesn’t feel like people would accept it. ‘Weird Al’ did a great parody when [the first sequel to] Star Wars came out, and it’s almost like, well, you know, people aren’t really celebrating these things. They’re acknowledging that they’re big. But [they don’t] reach everybody the same way.”
So we’re left with…bigness. If we don’t like it, we can always retreat to the smallnesses of our pigeonholes, unreachable even to “Weird Al.” “Really,” DiCostanzo says, “the only experience that Americans share anymore is Sept. 11—and we’re not ready to write a novelty song about that.”
From the January 6, 2006, issue of Washington City Paper< .em>
THE FALL THEATER SEASON IS getting started, playbills are coming back from the printers, and dozens of local playhouses are promoting their upcoming slate of “theatre.” This raises the question: Why can’t American thespians spell?
Search the American Theater Web, which should be some kind of authority on the subject, and the Anglicized style takes an almost 2-to-1 lead over the hometown kid. Sadly, the more local you get, the less American the theatrics. The roster of the League of Washington Theatres—which notes its allegiance in its name—offers a nearly 5-to-1 ratio of D.C. “theatres” to D.C. “theaters”: Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, Source Theatre, Round House Theatre, Actors Theatre of Washington, African Continuum Theatre Company, Charter Theatre, Little Theatre of Alexandria, Theatre Alliance, Theatre J, Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, Young Playwrights Theatre, and on and on.
Even Pennsylvania Avenue’s National Theatre, which trumpets itself as “the Theatre of the Presidents,” refuses to call itself the National Theater.
Erin McKean, senior editor of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press and editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, explains that Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, juggled the “-re” into “-er” to standardize the word “theater.” This was part of his longstanding quest to wrest control of the native language from the dictionary of notorious American-hater Samuel Johnson. Henceforth, Yankees were free of the time-wasting encumbrance of extra letters in “traveller,” “waggon,” and “jeweller,” blessed with streamlined forms of “color,” “jail,” and “ax.”
“British is often assumed to mean ‘better,'” McKean writes via e-mail, “especially when it comes to cultural products—such as plays. So it’s not so much ‘putting on airs’ as it is ‘knowing their customers,’ who probably respond more favorably, if unconsciously, to ‘theatre.'”
Donn B. Murphy, president of the National Theatre and a professor emeritus at Georgetown University—which offers degrees in “theater,” though Murphy lists his field as “theatre”—is unashamed of his playhouse’s spelling habits. The place, he points out, dates from 1835, a mere seven years after Webster published his dictionary.
“I guess Mr. Webster’s fiat hadn’t been sufficiently circulated and popularized,” Murphy says. “Or perhaps the organizers of the National—including Mr. Corcoran of latterly Gallery fame—wanted to continue to be a bit more cosmopolitan or international in tone.”
Either way, D.C. drama supporters have kept rejecting Webster through the years. In 1863, John T. Ford named his little place on 10th Street Ford’s New Theatre. Joyce Patterson, spokesperson for Ford’s, is delighted to check the historical record: “I’m looking at the playbill, a re-creation of the ticket from the night President Lincoln…” Her voice trails off over the phone, even though it’s been 138 years. “We are following in the footsteps of Mr. Ford,” she offers. “I’m sure during that day or time they would have used the British spelling.”
Gail Beach, producer for the Hartke Theatre at the famed drama department of the Catholic University of America, notes that the spelling “goes through phases, and a bunch of theater groups in town were founded by people who came out of this department. So maybe it’s what they were raised with.”
Many proponents of the “theatre” spelling deny that they’re rejecting American spelling. They argue that “-re” relates to plays and “-er” is for movies.
Or they share the view of Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, the industry association that publishes the New York-based American Theatre magazine. “Technically, ‘-er’ means the building and ‘-re’ means the process.” Hence his magazine spells the word with “-re” not only in its title, but in all uses of the word “theater” in its articles.
Says Oxford’s McKean, “This sounds like a distinction in search of a difference; people love to try to find logic behind word choices that are usually not logical at all. The only difference I am aware of is that ‘the process’ is often referred to as ‘the theater,’ as in ‘What made you want to go into the theater?'”
Cameron also points out that worrying about the spelling means that “half the theaters in America are un-American.” But he’s not bothered. “I think we look at it as classic American diversity.”
Others view it as classic theater-industry pretentiousness. Bruce Burk of the State Theatre in Falls Church says his venue’s owners “wanted to have more of the image of”—he lapses into an imitation of Jon Lovitz‘ Master Thespian character—”the thee-ahh-taaaah!”
Beach notes that when she began her theater career, “They wanted to make me the costumier. And I said, ‘No, costumer is fine. Forget all this effete stuff—that’s not a word we use in this country.’ It was a lot of extra letters that didn’t get me further in this job and didn’t pay me any more.”
The Anglicized spelling reflects “frontier insecurity about theatrical art,” says Jack Marshall, CEO and artistic director of the American Century Theater, which is “dedicated to great, important and neglected American plays and playwrights of the 20th century,” according to its red, white, and blue Web site.
Marshall thinks that the prevalence of “-re” is a recent phenomenon. “Back in the ’60s, when I was in college, I saw ‘-er’ more often. I guess somebody decided that ‘-re’ looked cooler on the page and gradually it became the more common standard. There are regions of the country where nobody uses the ‘-re’ form—the Midwest and the West.”
Perhaps there are, but searching an online database for Madison, Wis., theatrical venues finds 21 “theatres” to 15 “theaters,” including—Marshall may be sorry to learn—the “American Players Theatre.” In Nebraska there is Theatre West; Illinois has the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Indiana the Paramount Theatre. Then there are the Fargo Theatre in North Dakota, the State and Orpheum Historic Theatres in Minnesota, and the Ariel, Victoria, and Sandusky State Theatres in Ohio. Thank god for Wisconsin’s Pabst Theater.
Still, a few institutions reject the British spelling altogether. “The New York Times will only spell it ‘-er,'” says Cameron. After a recent story on the magazine, Cameron tried to shake the paper’s ironclad standard. “I went back to them and they said, ‘I’m sorry, our policy is to spell it “-er.”‘ I said, ‘You’re printing a typo of my organization in your paper,’ and they still wouldn’t do it.”
And some theaters have a right to their Anglophilia. It would be churlish to demand that the Shakespeare Theatre change its name. The Theater of the First Amendment, on the other hand, had no choice but to embrace Americanism. Or did it?
Managing Director Kevin Murray explains that when he and Artistic Director Rick Davis were hired at the end of the theater’s first season in 1991, “the previous theater director was using ‘-re.’ And the first thing Rick says was, ‘Theater’s spelled with an ‘-er’ in this country.’ And so, since we were still young, we went ahead and made that switch.”
“I grew up in this town surrounded by theaters that used ‘-re,'” Murray says. “But when you went to a theater, a venue, a room, it was often an ‘-er.’ Then a strange thing happened. I think movie theaters, drive-in theaters, everything started using ‘-re.’ It’s kinda like the ‘e’ on the end of ‘Olde Town.’ Some people think it adds class. I don’t think it necessarily does, but sometimes the sway is held by the vast majority out there.”
Also fighting against the vast sway is the American Century Theater. But that company, too, nearly used the 18th-century spelling, Marshall confesses. When Marshall and his partners originally set their mission to paper, they spelled the name with “-re.” “And my wife said, ‘That makes no sense whatsoever. Why would you ever use the British form of the word?'”
Marshall reveals that this all-American policy has had its costs.
“It’s opened the way to millions of misprints. On a regular basis, a printer will use the British form. We’ve had to throw out business cards.” Marshall even has to “harangue” board members for improper usage.
Marshall says that the order of the two little letters has “actually been something of a mission in and of itself, and a crusade. As often happens, you come by your passion accidentally, more by happenstance than intent.”
Compounding the difficulty of his crusade is the fact that the company performs in Theatre II at the Gunston Arts Center. “We’re carrying on our own rear-guard action here,” says Marshall.
But in the District, it seems to be a losing fight. Even among movie houses: PG Theatres, the new operator of the Avalon Theatre, opted to go Anglo when it reopened the facility. Why? PG owner Paul Sanchez is stumped by the question: “Why did we do that? I guess it was me. They let me do some of these major decisions.” The decision matches the company name, about which Sanchez passes the buck to his late business partner, who made the choice around 1970. “I said ‘OK, we’ll go with that. They both sound the same—what the hell.'”
Pondering, Sanchez comes up with another explanation: “One of the other reasons is my late partner liked to drink a lot. It might be one of those situations. Maybe he’d had a snoot-full. Maybe he picked up the dictionary and picked the wrong one.”
Reprinted from Washington City Paper
I was completely charmed by his paintings of the insides of various museums, many familiar but all having a sense of deja vu. I wanted to write about Stevens’ work because I felt it was the kind of serious-but-not-fashionable art that goes mostly unmentioned. For one thing, Stevens is a representational painter, a style that’s been losing credibility with critics since photography came along. But Stevens has been making his living with his brushes for a long time, and I felt that effort deserved some notice. I fully expected someone at the Post to pooh-pooh the idea. Perhaps the pooh-bahs weren’t looking.
There may be some unsold paintings from his “Museum Studies” series available at the charming Warm Springs Gallery in also-charming Charlottesville, Va. And, Brad has an upcoming show beginning April 10 at the Buchanan Partners Gallery, part of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. While that show features other Stevens works, some of the “Museum Studies” works will be on display as well.
First off, I never liked that they called these “commentaries.” Like I’m Daniel Frickin’ Schorr. (Who, I’m surprised to say, my sister-in-law has the hots for. Strange world.)
I prefer to think of these as humorous essays, if anything. But such is the power of All Things Considered, that based on hearing my snide voice on the radio a producer called me to do voiceover work — a task for which I was utterly miscast. I mean, I became the spokesman for the Washington Area Oldsmobile Dealers and I can’t even pronounce Oldsmobile correctly. Don’t believe me? Listen here:
“Big Deal — The Washington Area Oldsmobile Dealers”
Perhaps an insight into why the car is no longer manufactured.
I always offered to do character voices, but the ad geniuses kept demanding Lettermanesque snark or Tom Bodet “sincerity.” One of the directions I got was to sound more like one of the guys on Friends. I never watched Friends. Maybe I was supposed to sound like one of the women on Friends.
Anywhoo…these tracks are me being me. And a little bit Bob Edwards.
“NPR: Bond, James Bond:”
“NPR: Bad Vinyl:”
“NPR: Death of the Hardy Boys?”
“NPR: Hollywood Sequels:”
Following closely on my piece about 99-year-old chanteuse Marianne Arden, the Washington Post published two articles I wrote, one about local musician and entrepreneur Marcus Johnson and the other on the future, and past, of film processing business Colorlab.
Shortly after the Colorlab story ran, Landmark Theaters converted local E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas to all-digital. (Here’s a nice write-up in Washington City Paper by Ian Buckwalter.) As someone once said, the future sneaks up on you.
And as the current future allows any and everyone to comment on any and everything they see, hear, and read on the Internet, I must note some of the more amusing notions that Post readers felt necessary to scribble into the aether.
An insightful person going by the nom de net “remember1007” wrote:
“Too bad that, once again, the WashPost has assigned a writer who knows nothing about jazz to write a piece about jazz. Would they send someone to write about a Redskins game who has seen one or two NFL games in his/her life? It’s a great music with a long and distinguished history in DC (Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn, et al), but as usual the Post confines it to these types of uninformed pieces by neophyte writers. I could tell from the first line that, while perhaps well-intentioned, the author knows not of what he speaks.”
At first I thought remember1007 was mocking my obvious lack of knowledge of the jazz idiom. As just the night before the Post piece ran I had performed, for pay, with a jazz combo that featured a couple members of the august Navy Band the Commodores, and that I’ve been playing jazz and jazz-ish music since age 12, well, he may be on to something.
Then I thought perhaps remember1007 objects to my calling Marcus Johnson a jazz player. True, Johnson himself admits cheerfully to the “smooth jazz” label, a sound scorned by many as bogus and utterly unhip. But my definition of jazz is pretty broad and inclusive. The dictionary (and Wikipedia) definition is that jazz is improvisational, and if remember1007 had witnessed Johnson and his band wailing at Blues Alley, he might have held his typing fingers at bay.
Fortunately, “ReneldaMoorehead” came to my “defense,” writing:
“Dave Nuttycombe is not a jazz aficionado, granted. But he wrote an outstanding article as a profile of Marcus Johnson.”
On the Colorlab story, a pedantic former employee of the National Archives takes me to task for ignoring the nuts-and-bolts policies of the Archives and failing to mention Bono Labs, which in fact I mentioned in the first paragraph. And with which I have a personal history, as Joe Bono was the saint who processed and put up with most of Travesty Film‘s tragic film output — even letting us pay over time. Often a long period of time. But that wasn’t the story.
Colorlab’s Russ Suniewick lead me through a vigorous six-hour tour of the elaborate facilities and indeed did discuss Mr. Pedant’s cherished “vendor program” that requires producers to pay for making duplicates that future researchers may access. But there was no room to add all that. I even had to cut some great quotes by Russ’ wife Nancy. (Sorry!)
As with all newspaper articles, what is printed is nowhere near the full or final story.