A Moment in Time Preserved 163 Years, Newly Accessible


A cityscape of the Cincinnati waterfront was photographed by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter in 1848. Newly restored, it is back on public view, with touch screens that allow zooming in. 
Credit: Cincinnati Library

CINCINNATI — “I cannot imagine someone hanging out their underwear and having it immortalized.”

Katrina Marshall, the digital services team leader of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, was awestruck by the sight of a pair of 163-year-old bloomers on a balcony clothesline, a detail in the library’s newly conserved daguerreotype of two miles of Cincinnati riverfront. The cityscape was photographed by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter on a Sunday in September 1848.

At a ceremony on Saturday, after the daguerreotype spent decades in storage, the library returned its jewel to public view, where it will be permanently displayed alongside new touch-screen computer displays that can zoom in on its details.

In its day and now, “The Cincinnati Panorama” has been considered one of the finest examples of North American cityscapes from photography’s earliest decades. It is also thought to be the oldest surviving example of such a work.

“An iconic American treasure” is how Ralph Wiegandt, a senior project conservator at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, described the panorama in a recent interview.

The library had the original eight polished silver plates, each 6 ½ inches by 8 ¼ inches, in storage for over 60 years. Now it has raised about $150,000 to preserve and safely display the irreplaceable plates in special housing at its main building downtown.

As part of the project, the library has also installed two giant touch screens that use digital microscopy to zoom in on high-resolution images from the entire two-mile stretch of riverfront. The Eastman House, with the aid of a Getty Foundation grant, bought equipment to magnify the panorama’s imagery by 16 times. A few individual zooms can be magnified 32 times.

As a result, objects never before easily seen — even by the two photographers, who were across the Ohio River in Newport, Ky. — are becoming clear to the human eye: like those bloomers, or the time on a church clock tower. And searching for them is like entering a kind of time-machine version of Google Earth. (The library will also put a zoomable version on its Web site.)

Patricia Van Skaik, the library’s manager of the genealogy and local history collection, says the panorama, and its enhancements, will be especially valuable for genealogical research. “People now can actually see where ancestors lived or worshiped or worked,” she said. “So it adds rich details to their lives.”

The library has already allowed Robert Brodbeck, a local genealogist who knew he had family living on the rough-and-tumble riverfront back in 1848, to test out the new digital magnifications. Mr. Brodbeck went looking for visual evidence of where they had been. And on Plate 3, just up an embankment from a docked side-wheeler steamboat called the Brooklyn, he found it.

There, on a building selling groceries and liquor, he saw the ornately painted name “Fred Schierberg.”

“When I saw that, I almost jumped out of my pants,” Mr. Brodbeck said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s my great-great-granduncle’s name right on that building.’ It still blows my mind.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com


DISPATCH FROM L.A. | Boutique Landmark Theater Complex Eyes Wider West L.A. Audiences


If Los Angeles could become stronger, many indie distributors believe, it could help their films get bookings and publicity in the rest of the nation. It could also help the films stay longer in L.A. and thus make more money in America’s second-most populous metropolitan region.

“Los Angeles with this theater becomes a lot stronger art market,” declares Ted Mundorff, Landmark’s chief operating officer and head film buyer.

Landmark’s new $20 million complex is located in the heart of the city’s busy, film-savvy Westside at Westwood and Pico boulevards, strategically placed between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and across from two quintessentially colorful L.A. restaurants — the tiny, counter-seat-only Apple Pan hamburger joint and Junior’s deli. But it’s also part of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall, replacing an open-air section of the otherwise-indoor mall that failed to take hold with shoppers. It is next to a remodeled Barnes & Noble and a Nordstrom’s.

The theater presents itself to the street with a modernist, demure wall of glass — set off by a tan frame — revealing escalators inside. There will be a blade-shaped marquee announcing the theater but no outdoor flashing neon, garish billboards or wall scrims promoting specific films. “We certainly aren’t going to have anything like Times Square,” Mundorff says. “We’re trying to have what we think will be a boutique hotel – when you walk into the lobby we’ll have a concierge and a feeling of complete public service.”

Inside the theater, three of the auditoriums will be small “living rooms” with relaxed seating. There will be a wine bar and customers can take drinks into screenings. The concession stand will sell fresh pizza from a local restaurant as well as Korean-style frozen yogurt. The theater will also have a store. Auditoriums will have digital sound; some will have digital projectors. 9 of the 12 theatres will be stadium seating and will take reservations (the 3 “living rooms” won’t take reservations).

A rendering of the new Landmark West Los Angeles in California. Image courtesy Landmark Theaters.

“I’d be comfortable saying it has the potential of being one of the big arthouses in America,” says Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight Pictures as well as a co-founder and president of Landmark from 1974-1998. “The impact depends on how Landmark books it.”

He remembers working on plans for this theater in various configurations in the 1990s, but that was put on hold when Landmark was sold in the 1990s. After Dallas entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner purchased Landmark in 2003, they gave the go-ahead on the long-gestating project.

“L.A. is not as responsive to smaller art films as New York is, but there are fewer theaters receptive to these films in L.A. than Manhattan,” Gilula said. “But the Westside has been severely undercooked. With traffic becoming worse, location becomes more and more important. It’s hard for people to go across town to see a movie.”

Metropolitan L.A. has theaters dedicated to indie/specialty fare — Landmark currently has three screens exclusively on the West devoted to such films and used to have four rather dated screens in the indoor-mall section of Westside Pavilion. And Laemmle Theatres, the region’s premier art-house chain, has nine theaters throughout the area, including a single-screen house on the Westside and older multiplexes in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. It has a new five-plex opening in July in the college town of Claremont, south of L.A.

There are those who say L.A.’s car culture, which renders it more suburban than urban, is the key reason indie/specialty films can disappoint here. Ideally, most such films open in one or two theaters and depend upon word-of-mouth to justify holdovers and expansion. In New York, especially in the Village, it’s easy for film buffs to get to the theaters via subway for a well-reviewed art film. But in L.A., driving and parking can be such a problem and expense that it takes a lot of motivation for dedicated buffs to get quickly motivated to see such films, however highly praised. As a result, the films don’t last.

Here, the new theater has a big plus – 3,000 free parking spaces in an underground garage originally built for the shopping mall. “Someone asked me the other day what I was most excited about in the theater and I said, ‘unlimited free parking,’” Mundorff says. “If you’re arriving by car, there are so many parking spots you can actually take two.”

Landmark especially seems to be looking at the chic, state-of-the-art, adult-oriented Pacific ArcLight multiplex in Hollywood as a model. Since opening in 2002 with 14 auditoriums, including the renovated Cinerama Dome, it has become an attraction in its own right by mixing Hollywood fare with higher-profile specialty films, festivals and special presentations. Currently, for instance, “Away from Her” and “Once” are screening alongside “Shrek the Third” and “Spiderman 3.” It also has a cafe, bar, gift shop, reserved seats and parking garage. Not so much an art-house as a luxury theater, its grosses have been impressive.

“I do think L.A. has traditionally over the years not been as strong a market as people’s expectations,” says Mundorff, who used to work for Pacific before joining Landmark in 2004. “I think ArcLight has given people a reason to think that is changing. It offered an alternative — going to a new facility and seeing specialty films in a modern facility built after 2000. Adding an additional theater to the Westside, that will offer upscale amenities and a unique atmosphere, will increase business. Having 12 screens will increase the business.”

The extent to which Landmark’s flagship will emulate the ArcLight remains to be seen. “We certainly welcome playing major studios’ product that is offered,” Mundorff says. “People are inclined to want to see everything from ‘Spiderman’ to ‘Paprika.’ But there’s a certain niche audience who doesn’t want to go to a theater than has video machines and emphasizes the ‘popcorn’ type of movie. So what we’re going to offer is an atmosphere where you can see many kinds of movies. While the independent films and specialty films will be our primary focus, we’ll also offer certain studio films as long as studios want us.”

That could be tricky because Landmark West Los Angeles is in the same exhibition zone as the new and glitzy AMC Century City 15, which is more mainstream than the ArcLight but does show higher-profile releases from studio “classics” divisions, like “Babel,” “The Namesake” or “Waitress.” It’s highly unlikely both theaters will be able to open such films simultaneously, as that could divide the gross when such titles needs high per-screen average in New York and L.A. to create buzz and establish a platform for national release.

Many of the films that will open at the new complex on Friday are exactly the kind that traditionally need a boost in L.A. – “Golden Door,” “Bamako,” “Paprika,” and “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway.” (Others opening include “Mr. Brooks,” “Gracie” and “Day Watch.”)

For Dori Berinstein, director of “ShowBusiness” — a documentary about Tony Award-nominated musicals in the 2003-2004 season — this new showcase is exciting. “What a thrill to have this film screened in such a state-of-the-art theater,” she says. “When I heard the possibility, my reaction was, “This exists? They’re building something like this?’ Hopefully, this is the beginning of rolling out theaters like this across the nation.”

[Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post. CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com]



With the kind of laconic detail and precision normally reserved for a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright, the young songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen serves up a classic.

BY STEVEN ROSEN / BLURT / FEB. 19, 2016 /blurtonline.com

If nothing else, Walter Martin deserves accolades – and maybe a Grammy nomination – for rhyming “Philippe de Montebello,” former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with “unsuspecting fellow” in his new solo album’s opening song, “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous.”

A key track on the recently released Arts + Leisure, it’s a wry, autobiographical song that paints the young Martin – now a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen – as a merry prankster in his youth, working at the Met’s switchboard and transferring calls to its director to his sleepy roommate at home.

Yet the song is more sweet – bittersweet, actually – than funny. Martin’s reflective, straining and understated voice, which sometimes leaps up an octave at a line’s end as if still changing or breaks into a whistle, carries a sense of melancholy. That touch of sadness or loneliness gives this quirkily sincere album with its likably subdued songs a deceptive depth.

It’s primarily about Martin’s memories of how he became interested in visual art, but it’s also an examination of his youth.

To continue with “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous” a minute, it’s a marvelous song that keeps unassumingly peeling off insights. Martin recalls working at the information desk of The Cloisters museum when Billy Joel walks in:

I take a long long look at him.

A dignified old music man.

And that’s when I devised my plan.”

 That’s a striking image – you can see Joel visiting a New York museum in a free moment, perhaps seeking commanding artistic inspiration, and commanding respect not by demanding it but because of what he’s accomplished. You don’t even have to like Joel’s work to be moved by line.

The “plan” Martin refers to was to become a New York rocker like Joel. He closes the song by describing that as his current job.

“Where the spotlight shines and the people all cheer.

And the pretty girls flock from far and near.

To touch my hand and hear my song.

And buy my t-shirts and sing along.”

Maybe that’s true, but maybe there’s also some self-deprecating irony there, as well in the song’s title. But not in the final line, where he refers to another job he once had: “Goddam this sure beats mowing lawns.” No doubt.

Much of the rest of the album is almost as good, as the well-traveled Martin reflects on first seeing such artworks as “Calder’s Circus,” the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow (“Charles Rennie Mackintosh”), the David in Florence and Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (“Michelangelo”), and visiting “Amsterdam” with his father.

He’s nicely in touch, without being sentimental, about how art was experienced by him as a youth whose parents take him to a museum. In “Watson and the Shark,” about how as a kid he loved John Singleton Copley’s thrilling, terrifying 1778 painting of a shark attack near Havana, he can precisely, analytically (and wittily) recall – in a mid-song spoken-word passage – why other art at the National Gallery bored him:

“Portraits of old people, blurry water lilies, landscapes of places that looked boring, and interior scenes that said nothing.”

 (A child’s view of art history, however, does have its limits. One hopes by now his thoughts on Monet have changed.)

The arrangements provided throughout the record by his accompanists vary – there’s a touch of country (“Old as Hell”), reggae (“The Tourist”) and polite singer-song rock. A couple do veer into a thin slightness, however, like “Down by the Singing Sea.”

Because Martin earlier released a children’s album, We’re All Young Together, with a childlike point of view and a musical simplicity, it’s tempting to compare him to Jonathan Richman in his “Ice Cream Man” period.

But Martin isn’t trying to be an adult naïf or an outsider musician. His writing has the kind of laconic detail and precision of a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright. He might be on his way to someday becoming a “dignified old music man.”


Photo Credit: Sebastian Kim

Rediscovered Springsteen tape takes us back to ‘rock & roll future’

A young Bruce Springsteen (shown here in 1975) rocketed to fame after a 1974 Harvard Square gig that can now be heard in a recording.
A young Bruce Springsteen (shown here in 1975) rocketed to fame after a 1974 Harvard Square gig that can now be heard in a recording. (Tom Hill/Wireimage)


The evening of May 9, 1974, is legendary in the annals of rock ’n’ roll. It was the night the little-known Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band opened for Bonnie Raitt at Harvard Square Theater, dazzling the critic Jon Landau into writing “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’’ in the local alternative weekly The Real Paper. Now a tape from that night — one of the most revered in rock history — has emerged as a museum object 36 years after the storied event.

The tape, never available for public hearing, is included in the Springsteen exhibit “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land’’ at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, on display through summer. It has been digitalized and streams to a single listening station, where two people at a time can listen to it on headphones. It is not available on the museum’s website, nor can a copy be purchased in the museum store.

The sound has some rough patches, and there are no seats for relaxing.

But the radical effect of the music on the audience then (this writer was there and can attest to that) can still be felt. The band aims for the mystically transcendent one minute and party-hearty, sax-fueled retro-rock raucousness the next, keeping everyone off guard. Springsteen was in Cambridge to promote his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.’’

The idea for an exhibit centering on Springsteen’s career came about because the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies were going to be in Cleveland last year and chief curator Jim Henke wanted a big show to accompany it. He approached Springsteen, who had been inducted in 1999. Springsteen agreed and provided items ranging from his “Born to Run’’ Fender Esquire guitar to his favorite songwriting table.


The exhibit drew so well in 2009 — 423,000 visitors — that it has been extended into this summer, with newer artifacts added, including the jacket he wore to President Obama’s inauguration, his 2009 Kennedy Center award, and the Golden Globe he won for “The Wrestler.’’ But it is the Harvard Square tape that remains one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit, just as that night itself remains an enduring, pivotal moment in the Boss’s career.


“It was my idea to include it, because that show is so famous because of Landau’s review,’’ Henke says. “So we contacted [Springsteen’s organization], and they had a tape of the songs played there. He and the E Street Band were a great live band, and that does come through in those tracks.’’

Springsteen’s band at the time of the Harvard Square booking featured a pianist with strong jazz and classical leanings, David Sancious. (He left in August 1974.) It is Sancious who makes the band’s first impression so strong, opening with a long, melancholy, and ruminative solo on “New York City Serenade.’’ It slowly leads into Springsteen’s yearningly searching vocal, with the impressionistic, romanticized lyrics that seem part Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row’’ and part Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.’’ The song was aiming for theatrical grandeur and also reverent intimacy, and the effect it has on hushing an audience can still be felt today.

But then he moves away from that territory on “Spirit in the Night,’’ a song that still has its cryptically spooky Dylanesque lyrics but also builds into a more traditional soul shout-out, thanks to Clarence Clemons’s saxophone solo. The band then goes into soul-oldies heaven with a cover of “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,’’ which had been a 1962 girl-group hit. On these three songs and five others, it’s evident that Springsteen and his tightly rehearsed ensemble were trying simultaneously to draw from the music’s past and to create a future. This is the night they came to be forever recognized for it.

It took luck for Springsteen’s audio engineer, Toby Scott, to find the tape. He lives in northwest Montana and met a Boston emigre, musician/retired music teacher Michael Atherton, at an open-mike night at a bar in the town of Whitefish. Atherton, a resident of Trego, said he had a tape for him — Springsteen at Harvard Square Theatre, 1974. He had made it himself, lugging in a professional-model cassette recorder with external microphone and taping the show from a seat in the back.

At the time, Atherton was a natural-foods baker (with his wife) as well as a musician. “I saw every concert we could afford to — of course, we were broke most of the time,’’ Atherton recalls. “I don’t even know how I knew who Bruce Springsteen was. When we baked, we listened to WBCN all the time and even took doughnuts over to them because we thought they were so cool. So maybe that was it.’’

Smuggling the bulky recorder into the show turned out to be easy, because he was prepared. “My father was a news photographer for 40 years and instilled in me a rule to always look like you know what you’re doing when confronted with any possible security situation,’’ he says. “So I put it under my peacoat, where it probably looked like I was pregnant. Then I put it in my lap and held the microphone up in the air.’’ He also recorded a bit of Raitt’s headlining act, before the batteries gave out.

Over the years — as Atherton and his wife moved to first New Hampshire and then Montana, he has made a few copies for friends — which may have something to do with the bootleg copies that some Internet sites say exist. But he has only played it once for himself. “It was every bit as good as I remembered it,’’ he says. “It was the greatest band concert I’ve ever seen — completely together, completely refined, the dramatic intent clear from beginning to end.’’

Actually, Landau — who went on to become Springsteen’s manager — didn’t see the performance that can now be heard at the hall of fame. He went to the second show that night, when the set list not only was somewhat changed — Springsteen opened with “The E Street Shuffle’’ — but showcased a new song, “Born to Run.’’ Landau had seen Springsteen at a Cambridge club called Charlie’s Place just a month earlier.

Landau declined comment for this story, but the music writer Dave Marsh — Landau’s editor at the time — recalls The Real Paper review well. “It was playing off ‘A Christmas Carol’ — it was Dickensian in the way he talks about rock ’n’ roll’s past, present, and future. It always gets quoted as being in a prophetic voice, but it wasn’t.’’

Marsh went on to write two Springsteen biographies and “Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2005.’’ While he and Landau had seen Springsteen earlier in a small Cambridge club, Marsh didn’t make the Harvard Square show. “This is a horrible thing to say,’’ he says. “I had a ticket but was sick.’’

Silent Films Make a Comeback — With Live Music

jeffrapsis (Jeff Rapsis)

One national arts trend which Cincinnati lags behind is the rediscovery of silent movies — especially the public screening of them to live musical accompaniment.

MAY 1, 2013
 One national arts trend which Cincinnati lags behind is the rediscovery of silent movies — especially the public screening of them to live musical accompaniment.

“I would say there’s more interest in it than ever before,” says Clark Wilson, a past recipient of American Theatre Organ Society’s Organist of the Year Award, who creates period-accurate scores that he plays at silent-film screenings. Wilson is based in East Liverpool, Ohio, and performs around the country. 

“I find myself playing music for films for every conceivable kind of arts group, where 20 years ago you wouldn’t see that,” he says.

But as fate would have it, considering the relative paucity of such presentations here, two separate ones are occurring on two consecutive Thursdays, May 2 and 9. Both are presenting films by one of the silent era’s great comic geniuses, Buster Keaton. 

At 7:30 p.m. May 2, The Carnegie in Covington presents his 1926 masterpiece, The General, with Jeff Rapsis improvising his accompaniment on digital synthesizer. And on May 9, the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, which installed the restored 1927 Albee Theatre Mighty Wurlitzer Organ in the building’s ballroom in 1999, will offer Wilson playing his period-accurate score to Keaton’s 1928 Steamboat Bill, Jr. Performances are at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. This is the first time the Society will match the organ with a silent film for an event. 

“The silent film/live music thing is not done often (here),” said Joshua Steele, Carnegie’s theater and facilities manager. “It’s a coincidence that Music Hall is (also) mounting their production, which I wasn’t even aware of until a couple weeks ago.” 

“We wanted to try this — it’s one more variety to what we’re doing,” explained Don Siekmann, president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. “It might be fun to imagine this very organ was being played to this very movie in 1928, when it was new.”

 Silent movies, whose era lasted from film’s beginning to the late 1920s, when the talkies arrived, were shown in theaters to live musical accompaniment, usually by theater organists but sometimes by orchestras. According to Wilson, some had printed scores, but more often film distributors sent cue sheets to let the organist know what to expect in the way of action. Few of those scores/cue sheets have survived.

One reason for the growing interest in silent films has been the success of the 2011 film The Artist, a contemporary silent film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But a bigger one has been the growth of digital projection and Blu-Ray DVDs. They have created a market for the restoration of old silent films and a way to show them in places that aren’t traditional movie theaters.

They’ve also created a cottage industry for all sorts of musicians — not just traditional theater organists and symphonic composers but also chamber groups, Jazz and Rock bands, DJs and avant-garde experimentalists — to play new scores during screenings.

Last year, for its first venture with a silent film, the Carnegie presented Seattleite Leslie McMichael, playing her original harp score to the 1924 version of Peter Pan. This year, Steele has gone to the opposite side of the country, New Hampshire, to bring in Rapsis. 

Like a theater organ, Rapsis is able to get a whole range of orchestral sounds and effects from his 10-year-old Korg Triton. “I actually do improvise in real time,” said Rapsis, who also publishes a regional arts weekly. “The General is one of the all-time classics and I’ve done it probably a dozen times, so it’s not unfamiliar to me. But I try to not prepare a lot.” 

Rapsis does draw upon classic songs of the Civil War era in which the film is set.

At the Music Hall ballroom, Wilson will be prepared to play the fabled theater organ the way it was back when Cincinnati still had downtown movie palaces. Not only can it sound like orchestral instruments — brass, woodwind and strings — but it can also recreate percussion sounds and has what Wilson calls a “toy counter” to make noises from crashing surf to barnyard animals.

“So it’s a great big sound machine besides being a proper pipe organ,” Wilson says.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com


Sparking Urban Renewal by Reviving a City’s Historic Brands

King Records symposium helps revive another Cincinnati brand

Cincinnati is a city of fascinating legacies – unusual companies, traditions and neighborhoods that, in their heyday, helped the city develop and attract international attention. As interest in urban revival grows, there are ongoing efforts to not let them become part of a dead and forgotten past.
In recent times, such legacies as the city’s old breweries and beer gardens, Rookwood Pottery, streetcars, even historic Over-the-Rhine itself, have been targets for preservation and/or revival. Now, some music lovers are trying to call attention to King Records, a local post-World War II rhythm-and-blues and hard-edged country label that once flourished nationally and was a precursor to rock ‘n’ roll and its attendant pop culture.
Established in 1943 and reaching its peak with label artist James Brown’s mainstream-pop breakthrough in the 1960s, it lasted until the Evanston-based studio officially shuttered in 1971, after owner Sydney Nathan’s 1968 death and the company’s subsequent sale to out-of-town interests.
For other cities lucky enough to have once had record companies crucial to the birth of rock – like Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Nashville – that legacy has come alive in recent years through new museums, festivals, nightclubs and music-oriented tourism.
King enthusiasts’ efforts to do something similar here get a boost from a Saturday afternoon symposium, “King Records: A Cincinnati Legacy,” in the Main Library’s Garden Lounge, 800 Vine St. At 1 p.m., a panel with special guests will discuss “The Early Years: Country and Bluegrass.” At 3 p.m., “The Later Years: R&B and the Blues” will be the topic. There also will be an accompanying display of some 65 photos.
The library event is in honor of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the feisty record company, whose first release was by country singer (and, later, “Hee Haw” star) Grandpa Jones. The photo display will stay up in the library’s Cincinnati Room, along with old album jackets and sheet music, through the summer.
“King really says something about this city,” says Brian Powers, the librarian who organized the event. “In its studio, everybody from the (bluegrass) Stanley Brothers to James Brown recorded. King did everything; it was versatile and eclectic. To me, King is a great part of music history. But I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”
Urban legacies in general are important to the new influx of urban dwellers – young people and empty nesters looking for openness in arts and culture coupled with a colorful history and a pedestrian-oriented lifestyle. Wanting authenticity as well as quality, they seek apartments in rehabbed office and factory buildings and historic neighborhoods. They want a distinctive metropolitan experience – not stodgy or frozen in time, but with strong roots and a sense of place.
And they want to reverse the damage done to cities by the post-World War II urban renewal movement, which tried to make them all look the same – temples to modernism built around high-rises, freeways and parking. In short, they want warmth – which a good city, like a great song, needs to exude.
“For a city to understand its authenticity is of great value,” says Tom Murphy, a senior resident fellow for Urban Land Institute and mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994-2005. “As mayor, I felt like my task was to tear down everything from the 1950s and 1960s, when the underlying theory of cities was that they were built around the automobile. That’s the antithesis of what people now look for in cities.”
Along with a renewed civic investment in the city core is a more grass-roots effort to revive interest in some of the city’s forgotten “brands.” Cincinnati recently has seen renewed interest in the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, an important part of its once-flourishing German brewing industry, which operated from 1853 to Prohibition. Moerlein had a national and even international following, being the first American beer to pass Germany’s 1516 Purity Law.
Though originally revived as a brand in 1981 by then-active Hudepohl Brewing Co., Moerlein has had stops and starts until local entrepreneur Greg Hardman bought it in 2004 and started marketing the label as a craft beer. (He has plans to brew it here, eventually.) He has since acquired the names of such old Cincinnati breweries as Burger, Hudepohl, Windish-Mulhauser and John Hauck.
“You can take the old and bring it into the present in a way that makes it relevant to today,” Hardman says. “Christian Moerlein is an iconic name.”
In another revival of a Cincinnati legacy, Christopher Rose in 2006 acquired the assets and trademark rights for Rookwood Pottery Co., which was established in 1880 and won international awards for its art and architectural ceramics. It went bankrupt in 1941. He has started up the kilns again and plans to locate near Findlay Market.
Jim Tarbell, the former city councilman long active in preservation efforts, sees all of what’s happening as a way for the city to brand itself by saving what’s extraordinary from its past. “The reclaiming of our heritage as an instrument for our future growth is so appropriate,” he says. “And it’s happening here.”
King Records has increasingly been making it into discussions of roots-music lovers and record collectors, especially since its founder Nathan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a non-performer) in 1997. It was home not only to the late Brown – the Godfather of Soul – but also many other earlier African-American artists and their now classic blues and rhythm-and-blues songs. Wynonie Harris, Bull Moose Jackson, Billy Ward & His Dominoes, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters all often get cited as key precursors of rock ‘n’ roll. Ballard also recorded the original version of “The Twist.”
In addition, King’s early country artists included Moon Mullican, a Rockabilly Hall of Fame member known as King of the Hillbilly Piano Players, as well as Charlie Feathers, Reno and Smiley, and honky tonk singer Cowboy Copas.
The extent to which King’s legacy can be revived and celebrated by Cincinnatians –is difficult to ascertain. One reason is that it had a slightly disreputable, underground reputation in its time. But it also never created a recognizable King Sound or Cincinnati Sound the way other celebrated labels did. King historians say label owner Nathan was more businessman than music visionary. He wanted to sell hit singles, however and whatever. He originally owned a downtown record store and – like a record store – was a generalist in his tastes.
“He would throw it against the wall and see what happened,” explains Darren Blase, co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records and a King historian, about Nathan’s aesthetic.
But Nathan had great strengths nevertheless. Unlike most other independent labels, King was an all-in-one operation – artists could record at an on-site studio; their records could be pressed and shipped from an on-site record plant. That gave King a leg up in sales and served as a model for the record industry.
Blase recalls: “I talked with musician Bill Doggett (1956’s instrumental “Honky Tonk,” King’s first major pop hit) once, and he told of recording a single at King on Friday and going into a record store in Chicago on Monday and finding it there. Nobody else could do that – nobody could beat King business-wise. Syd Nathan was a revolutionary.”
Blase compares King to another Cincinnati legacy – one that has never gone out of style. “It should be right up there in respect with Procter & Gamble,” he says.
Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat‘s Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety, IndieWire.com, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

Still Trippin’

Original Merry Prankster Ken Babbs stops at Miami University

OCT 5, 2011 8 

What a long strange trip from Miami University and back it’s been for 1958 graduate Ken Babbs. 

He returns to Miami, where he graduated in 1958, at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday for two Sixties Extravaganza free public events at the school’s Leonard Theatre in Peabody Hall. On Monday, there’s a screening of the new documentary featuring him — director Alex Gibney’s Magic Trip, about the fabled 1964 cross-country bus journey by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters that virtually created the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, especially after Tom Wolfe chronicled their adventures in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Babbs and the late Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, were best friends and early devotees of the mind-expanding qualities of LSD.) 

And on Tuesday, Babbs will read from his long-gestating novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo? Now 76, he finally this year published the raucously ribald work inspired by his experiences in Vietnam as a Marine helicopter pilot. It is his first solo novel — he wrote it in the early 1960s, set it aside and in recent years rediscovered and revised it. He lost his original version in all the tumult of the 1960s; a Marine buddy who had a second copy sent him a replacement.

“My model for this book was MASH (published in 1968) or Catch-22 (1961), in which I would use the setting to write a good adventure story about these guys and what they’re going through,” Babbs says from his Oregon farm. “My job was to make it as interesting and exciting and readable and good as I could. As a reader myself, and as a fiction guy, I know what I really like and that is what I tried to do in the book.”

When the Mentor, Ohio-born Babbs arrived at Miami in 1957 he loved basketball and was interested in writing and literature. 

“I was really glad I did,” he says. “I not only played on a great basketball team, but I also had great teachers in the English department.”

He played on two conference champion teams — one of which, led by future-NBA great Wayne Embry, was eliminated from the NCAA Finals by the subsequent victor, University of Kentucky. And, studying with the highly regarded Prof. Walter Havighurst, he became so interested in creative writing he enrolled for post-graduate studies at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner. 

There, in 1958, he met fellow writing student Kesey. A bond ensued and lasted even when, in 1959, Babbs joined the Marines to fulfill the requirements of his ROTC scholarship. After training, he went to South Vietnam in 1962-1963 as one of the first soldiers deployed by President Kennedy to help the government fight the Viet Cong. Once there, he started writing an early version of Water Buffalo via letters back to Kesey. 

By then, Kesey was enjoying the celebrity of publishing his first novel. He had also “liberated” LSD from the local Veteran’s Hospital, where it had been used in government-sponsored experiments that he participated in, and was beginning to turn on an ever-widening group of others.

Kesey shared Babbs’ letters with those in his writing circle, since he still lived in the area. One was Ed McClanahan, a Brooksville, Kentucky native who also had graduated from Miami, revered Havighurst and gone on to Stanford’s writing program in 1962-1963. “Kesey would read them to us,” says McClanahan, during a phone interview. “They were hilarious, and much of that stuff has made it into the novel. I didn’t think anything about Vietnam at the time.” 

McClanahan, an accomplished fiction and non-fiction writer, currently teaches at UK. His best-known novel is 1983’s The Natural Man. He will be at Miami with Babbs — on Tuesday evening, he will read from his latest collection, I Just Hitched in From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader. It was at his suggestion that Miami invited Babbs, since he’s been following Water Buffalo’s progress over the decades. “It’s really good,” McClanahan says.

For more information about the

SIXTIES EXTRAVAGANZA events, visit www.units.muohio.edu/creativewriting.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com