Perhaps I should explain.
I got to test drive a prototype magic time machine. I could choose any point in history that I wished to go, and I could quickly move anywhere I wished, but I only had enough fuel for 3 days!
......and I was strictly forbidden from interferring with History, so no smothering baby Hitler, or tripping John Wilkes Booth, or tugging on Bobby Richardson's leg so Willie McCovey's line drive is NOT caught and the Giants win the seventh game of the 1962 World Series.
Where would I go? What would I see?
- Stonehenge being completed?
- Roswell, New Mexico in 1947?
- The Sermon on the Mount?
- Dealey Plaza, November 22nd, 1963?
Naaaah. I chose the 3rd weekend in May in 1927!
Lots going on then:
- On Friday the 20th, England formally recognized Ibn Saud as the leader of what would become the land of progressive Civil Rights: Saudi Arabia. 8 years later England would later not use the lessons not learned here to mollify Hitler. Appeasing dictators - does it ever end well?
- On Saturday the 21st, Sacco and Vanzetti are awaiting their destiny in the electric chair, and penning incredibly eloquent letters of their (since proven) innocence.
- And over in central China that Sunday morning, an 8.0 earthquake erased 40,000 people and fractured the city of Xining into a series of sudden, inland islands.
Yeeeaahhh......well, see, I only had this magic time machine for a long weekend.....so, I chose some other destinations. Ones with a little more upbeatedness to them. K? K.
Friday, May 20th, 1927
Roosevelt Field, Long Island. Dawn.
(copyright the Library of Congress)
The Magic time machine is round, about 10 feet in diameter and has kind of a Jules-Verne-was-steampunk-before-any-of-you-millenial-hipsters vibe to it. Also, totally quiet, because it runs off of ------ insert cool-sounding multi-syllabic Star Trek words here ------- and invisible because it is coated in ------- you-total-dumb-ass-you-signed-the-affidavit-do-not-tell-anyone-about-the-secret-powers-of-Strawberry-Quik.
At a quiet spot I step out of the machine and reveal myself. I walk over to the crowd of 1,000 people shivering in the cold of sunrise.
A silver airplane rumbles down the airstrip with 1,400 gallons of fuel on board. The pilot, a young mail carrier named Charles Lindbergh, uses every foot of the runway, barely clearing the power lines at the end of the field. He will fly blind for hours and reckon his direction by the stars, exactly as a polynesian canoeist would have done 500,000 years ago. Lindbergh later would say that he designed the Spirit of St. Louis to be somewhat unstable, the better to keep him awake.
After watching the little silver airplane disappear East into the rising sun, I re-board the magic time machine and head west, across the Hudson river, to Essex County, New Jersey.
The nice thing about public sculpture is that it is never closed. So I used this early morning to hover around and gaze in wonder at Gutzon Borglum's colossal "Wars of America", which features a pile of 42 humans with a couple of horses in there somewhere (Reminds me of a few parties I've been to).
(I don't think I'd like to be the folks directly behind those spooked horses.)
This epic hunk of bronze was completed a year earlier (in 1926), and by now Gutzon was knee-deep in plans for his next epic work, which would feature the heads of four presidents, carved into a mountain in South Dakota.
North, magic time machine! I was in Manhattan at 10am (Stashing my transport in an alley around the corner), when the Rehs Galleries opens. Since Valentines Day this art gallery had been hosting the second solo show for Edward Hopper. Automat is a work completed just in time for this event, and as always I am intrigued as well as transported by Hopper's work, which is as enigmatic as it is gorgeous.
it's only a short stroll in New York City From the dour to the glitzy. I walked a mere 4 blocks to the newly opened Ziegfeld Theater to see a rehearsal of Show Boat, with Paul Robeson. From Hopper to Hoppin'! Show Boat would hit the road - or river, I guess - for the autumn for tune-ups, and finally open in December of 1927. But the show nevertheless would run for 572 performances, create the modern Musical, and it has been pretty much running - or paddling - ever since.
Lunchtime! Retreiving the time machine on 57th Street, I 'jetpacked' down to Washington DC. to an A&W Root Beer stand which opened this day on 14th Street. The owner quickly soured of the sweet stuff though, and decided to move into the hotel business, which J. Willard Marriott decided to name after himself.
Zooooommm back up to Harlem where I attended a public reading by Langston Hughes from his brand new book of poetry, "Fine Clothes to the Jew". (Note: I have no idea if Mr. Hughes ever gave readings in bookstores [or wherever] in real life, but he does here. Indulge me.)
Full of fine literature - and root beer! - I leave the time machine and walk over to 253 West 125th Street to Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater........to see a movie.
In 7 years this venue would change its name to the Apollo Theater, shortly after the birth of James Brown.
I am here to see a matinee of "It", starring Clara Bow. Her fun loving 'flapper' character here is liberated, making her own decisions on her future and finances and is very much in charge of her own body. Ms. Bow further explored these themes later that year in “Hula” where she is shown nude (shocking!), wearing pants (horrifying!) and expressing her sexual desires (It's the end of the world!).
(The 'It' Girl)
Retrieving the Time Machine I then glided down Central Park West 5 miles to the Century Theatre in NYC for the evening show of The Cocoanuts, starring the four Marx Brothers. This is two years before the film adaptation that would set them on the road to worldwide adulation, and let me tell you, the movie had to tone things down considerably! Seeing the Marx Brothers live was definitely one of the highlights of this epic weekend.
Ah, but I have one more thing to do tonight before pointing myself to the Old World.
Late on this Friday night the time machine quietly glided Northeast to Providence, Rhode Island, and through an open window I saw H.P. Lovecraft put the final touches on one of my favorite short stories, “The Colour Out of Space”. I then made eldritch noises and said 'Nyarlathotep' to him in Stygian whispers before silently escaping.
East! Across the stormy Atlantic, I slowed the time machine to watch a sleepy and terrified Charles Lindbergh cruise at his absolute ceiling of 10,000 feet to get over storm clouds, and then get his wheels wet trying to get under them. Say what you will about other aspects of the man's character, but you cannot deny his bravery.
Saturday, May 21st, 1927
I slept in the time machine as it hovered over Hyde Park in London. In the morning I wandered around central London, admiring all of the landmarks and neighborhoods that would be obliterated by Luftwaffe bombers and V1 & V2 rockets in 13 years. (*sigh)
At 10 am I was at the Regent Street Cinema, a building which has stood since 1848, and would mercifully survive the upcoming Blitz. On this dreary Saturday morning I saw an early matinee of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" his 3rd feature as a director, his first thriller, and the first to feature his trademark cameo!
Back in the time machine and warming up, I sped almost due East to the Weimar Republic of Germany to see an early matinee of Fritz Lang's Metropolis at a movie house in Berlin that almost assuredly will NOT still be standing 18 years later.
Let's see if I can find cheerier times in Russia! (a little 20th Century joke there.) Next me and the time machine descended into Leningrad (which 3 years earlier was Petrograd, and in 1991 would revert back to St. Petersburg), for an afternoon concert of the opera The Fiery Angel, conducted by Sergei Prokofiev himself.
Boring? Nyet. 20th century Classical music contains some of the wildest, most avant garde sounds ever conceived of. Go take a listen to
· Arnold Schoenberg's atonal string quartet #3 (completed at this time), a work without register or rhythm
· Shostakovich's Symphony #2 (also from 1927) a 20 minute quickie, which consists of "layers of sound in a manner akin to Abstract Expressionism, and much of the symphony consequently consists of sound effects rather than music." (Wikipedia)
· or the String Quartet No. 3 by Béla Bartók (yes, from the fall of 1927), which features a col legno, where the violinists are instructed to turn their bows over and play with the wooden back.
So if you think Classical is 'shopping music', then you need to start getting out more.
(I want to do my my livingroom like this. Photo from Paolo Monti)
Back to our afternoon concert of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. Here us how Wikipedia sums up the 5th act: "Renata is in the convent, where the leaders accuse her of demonic possession. As an attempt to heal Renata ensues, all Hell essentially breaks loose (both on stage and in the orchestra) as the other nuns are also possessed."
See? NOT BORING.
Okay. After a morning like that I needed a little balm for the soul. So I traveled instantly to Paris, where 4 days ago the Musée de l'Orangerie opened up two permanent rooms for eight of Claude Monet's water lily paintings. In accordance with Claude's wishes, these epic canvasses were glued directly to the walls, meaning that they could not be moved when the Nazis moved in. Luckily the blitzkrieg damage to the paintings was minor and the paintings are there to this day. But I saw them when the glue was still wet!
Outside, on the Place de la Concorde (site of many a royal head rolling less than 140 years earlier), I met a 17 year old busker with only 3 working fingers on his 'fretting' hand. Django Reinhardt would overcome this handicap to forge a new style of guitar soloing, one inspired by hearing the new 78rpm records of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven.
And what shall I do on a Saturday evening in Paris in 1927? I voted for seeing a final rehearsal of Igor Stravinsky's opera-oratorio Oedipus rex, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau. This would premeire a week later on May 30th at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, a building which survived the war in much better shape than Prokofiev's concert hall in Leningrad.
And from the building where the great Sarah Bernhardt gender-bended the hell out of the Fine Arts it was only 9 miles north to the Le Bourget Airport where an extremely weary Charles Lindbergh, after 33 hours of flying, landed at 10:22 pm, in front of a crowd of 150,000 - who would carry him around on their shoulders for half-an-hour. And I escaped the worst traffic jam in the history of Paris - invisible time machine, for the Win!
Sunday, May 22nd, 1927
I pointed the sphere East and slept my way across the world, only waking slightly as the central China shook and shimmied far beneath me.
(no doubt a few cards are hidden up those sleeves)
Dawn found me sitting on a bench on the estate of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, watching the sun rise over the Golden Gate, which is six years removed from getting its bridge. Lillie, a trouser-wearin', cigar smokin', poker playin', firetruck chasin' socialite, would bequeath her estate and fortune two years later to "beautify" her beloved city.
Lillie was apparenly used to strange men appearing in her garden. Always the consumate hostess She asked if I needed anything and after declining her offer of a cigar, I said I would like to listen to a radio, which she had brought to our bench.
The radio was playing the hits of the day:
· "Back Water Blues" by Bessie Smith
· "In A Mist" by Bix Beiderbecke
· "Black and tan fantasy" by Duke ellington
· "Strike up the band", by the Gershwin Bros
· and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River"
I sang along with Paul Robeson, and then told Lillie all about my adventures in the time machine. She laughed uproariously, then listened intently to a siren in the distance, and then asked how her bequest would be filled. I told her about the tower that would be built on this spot, bear her name, and be dedicated to the Fire Fighters of her city. She nodded solemnly and then shook my hand gratefully. She had a helluva grip for an 84 year old!
From Lillie's boisterous company it was only a 4 block walk to 202 Green Street where I hovered outside a window and quietly watched Philo Farnsworth perfect the first transmission of true electronic television.
(Photo from Adam Kliczek)
As always I am entranced by the moment that distills everything that came before and influences everything that came afterwards. There were several of these this weekend, but this quiet, earnest, farm boy from Beaver, Utah patiently working his way to his Breakthrough would be the most transformative to the world.
Next I headed down the coast, zooming past thousands of Model Ts on the brand new Highway 101. I headed straight for Winkler Pictures in Hollywood, where Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks have created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose cartoons would prove to be enormously popular.
Around this time Walt attempted to negotiate a larger fee from his boss, Charles Mintz, and was instead handed a reduction in payments, along with the reminder that Oswald (and everything else Walt created) is the property of Mr. Mintz, Winkler Pictures, Universal Studios, and so on.
So Walt and Ub Iwerks stormed off in a huff, determined to create their own animation studio, built around a new character, a mouse, who looked an AWFUL LOT like Oswald the lucky rabbit.....
Leaving young Walt to simmer and stew I then traveled 26 miles south from what would soon be the Walt Disney Studios, to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, which was only 4 years old and five years away from hosting the Olympics.
(Dude! He really was a gymnast.)
On this fine Sunday morning I watched Buster Keaton filming “College”, one of his most deeply silly features. In 4 months Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" would eclipse silent movies, just as Mickey's "Steamboat Willie" would make Oswald's "Trolley Troubles" instantly passe. But I still love me a good Buster Keaton film.
From the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime. The day is getting on, and our twin headliners are just ahead, but I had time to stop in at the LeVeque Tower in Columbus, Ohio. I hovered right outside This 47 story art-deco masterpiece and just took in every delirious geometric angle and moderne embellishment.
The LeVeque Tower was completed earlier that year and was cheekily designed to be six inches taller than the Washington Monument. Oh men and their competitive measurements!
I was running low on fuel by this point and some of the Strawberry Quik was flaking off, but it was only 144 miles north to Dunn Field in Cleveland Ohio, where I saw the 1927 New York Yankees trounce the Indians, 7 - 2.
(Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth)
Yes yes, I know, the completionist dream would be to see the Bronx Bombers play at the House that Ruth Built, but sadly they were on a (losing!) roadtrip this weekend. And I could move the Yankee date a lot easier than I could move the Spirit of St. Louis!
On this day the Yankees lived up to their reputation as (arguably [endlessly]) the best baseball team ever. Consider that Lou Gehrig was hitting .413 and had a .825 slugging percentage. By contrast Babe Ruth was only hitting .325, which was also the TEAM BATTING AVERAGE. Holy cow!
And the Yankee starting pitcher was named Urban Shocker. No, really! He was playing in front of his hometown of Cleveland that day, and he pitched a complete game, only allowing 2 runs in the 8th inning. Also, he was the last Yankee to (legally) throw a spitball!
The Sultan of Swat hit a 2-run home run on this Sunday though, and also walked twice. The first five Yankee batters had 9 hits between them, including three doubles. It is no wonder they went on to win the world series (again) that year.
(Men and their competitive measurements......)
I sat in a splintery wooden box seat, ate a lousy hot dog, coughed in the smoke-filled air, noted that everyone present was white, melted in the Midwest humidity, and was never happier.
And, it must be pointed out that this game, with 22 hits and 8 walks between the two teams, was over in 2 hours and 13 minutes. Wow.
After the game, grinning from ear-to-ear (Dude! I saw the Bambino hit a homerun!), I pointed the magic time machine due west, 350 miles. My final destination was Chicago Illinois, to the Aragon Ballroom, to see the headliner for this entirely epic weekend: Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven.
Here. Here was the moment when the Distillation became the Transformation. Start with a spectacular group of musicians, lead by Louis' wife, Lil, on piano. Yes, HE was playing in HER band then.
May 22nd was a week or so after they had recorded some of the wildest, most influential jazz of all time. They put the 'roar' in the Roaring Twenties!
Satchmo's cornet solo on "Twelfth Street Rag" is still studied, and his extended, stop-time solo on "Potato Head Blues" is still breathtaking, 90 years later. "Melancholy" is so beautiful and seminal that it is currently beyond our solar system and headed for Sirius aboard the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
This is the summer that Lil moved Pops away from New York City and encouraged Louis to develop his own sound. What he came up with was Dixieland with more solos and less ensemble playing, saxophones, guitars replacing banjos, and string bass replacing tubas.
And crucially, a more driving backbeat, with more of a '4' feel than the '2' feel of Dixieland (which took its rythmic cues from marches). This necessitated a different style of dancing and thus the Lindy Hop* was born.
And if that sounds like another type of music, know that both Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa were in attendance during this engagement, (sitting at my table in fact) and they were taking notes on what would eventually become Swing. Well, Benny was taking notes. Gene was just getting stoned.
And Louis and his Hot Seven played and played and played and I hoped that they never would stop.
So that's it; Arts, Music, Cinema, Sports, Literature and root beer. Artists, inventors, innovators and heroes changing the world, as we all do, with every decision we make.
23 stops in 3 days!
Well, 24, to be honest. Back on Friday in New York City I stopped in at the Stock Exchange and bought shares in Proctor & Gamble (which was about to expand overseas), and the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company which had just scored a big hit with masking tape and would soon change their name to 3M and introduce Scotch Tape.
So I'm totally rich now.
*The Lindy Hop was named after, you guessed it, Charles Lindbergh. And thus, my story comes full circle.
P.S. You have a magic time machine too! Where would YOU like to go, when, and what would you like to see??
Photo credits: All photos from wikipedia and tagged as Public Domain, except Metropolis which is from Redlist.com, Lucky Lindy which is from the Library of Congress, Fiery Angel is from Paolo Monti, the Farnsworth plaque is from Adam Kliczek, Walt and Ubbe is from pophistorydig.com