Sunday, March 29, 2015

for pete's sake

In between commercials for reverse mortgages, suing for a wrongly-applied trans-vaginal mesh and Life Alert® (the good people who brought you the unforgettable "I've fallen and I can't get up!"), I started seeing announcements on my favorite nostalgic TV network for an appearance by Peter Max at an art gallery not too far from my home. So, on Saturday afternoon, with nothing else to do, Mrs. P and I ventured out to the Wentworth Gallery* in the tony King of Prussia Mall to maybe have a close encounter with the artist.

In the 1960s, Peter Max was a pretty big deal. Taking the pop art movement to a more commercial (read: money-making) level, Max's work appeared in advertisements for 7Up, while slyly remaining an icon for the burgeoning hippie counter-culture and a friendly face of the otherwise malevolent world of psychedelia. With his charming good looks and guest shots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show, he made himself even more accessible to Mr. and Mrs. Average American. And he got very, very rich. He remained popular into the early 70s, as the United States Postal Services commissioned his work for postage stamps. He was contracted to create a series of paintings featuring the Statue of Liberty in conjunction with nation's Bicentennial celebration. Although he remained active and viable, with commissions from Major League Baseball and the Grammy Awards, his popularity and relevance was at its height in the carefree and wild 1960s.

In 2012, Max designed the art for the hull of the Norwegian Cruise Line's massive ship Breakaway, just prior to its maiden voyage. Mrs. P and I sailed on the Breakaway in February 2014. So, before we drove out to the local Wentworth Gallery, I printed a photo that I had taken of the vessel docked in the ice-filled waters surrounding the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. Maybe we could get him to autograph it.

"I could buy this friggin' ship."
We arrived and parked in the multi-level garage at the mall. We found an entrance and began our search for the gallery. Just past the second-floor entrance to Bloomingdale's, a large crowd was converging on a small glass-fronted store, its windows displaying the unmistakable work of Peter Max. The tiny gallery was packed with all sorts of people — kids, older folks, peers close to my age — all craning their necks and standing on tip-toes for a glimpse of Peter Max. My wife asked a smiling gallery employee about the evening's policy for meeting the artist. He explained that original works were available for purchase, that would include a personal inscription on the piece, as well as a professional photo with Mr. Max. "If there is time later," he continued, "he may offer additional autographs." He also noted a strict protocol of no personal photography.

We stood in the midst of the crowd, catching an obscured peek at Mr. Max, as he wielded a Sharpie across the brown kraft-paper backing of a rather large farmed piece of one of his paintings. With an exaggerated flourish, he scribbled some lengthy sentiment, finishing it off with a large "MAX" and punctuating it with the year 2015. In his ill-fitting tweed blazer and ridiculously sparse comb-over, he was hardly recognizable as the one-time charismatic virtuoso of  kaleidoscopic artistry. 

The signed piece was suitably bubble-wrapped and handed off as another gallery worker called out a name from an official-looking log of buyers and waited for an acknowledgement. Mr Max turned and faced the immediate crowd with a cocked, if somewhat disinterested smile. Many people began shoving an assortment of books, posters and other ephemera in his direction. He dutifully swiped a signature across each one while the next paying art collector made themselves known. Mrs. P asked me for the Breakaway photo and I quickly slid it out of the manila envelope I held at my side. She took the picture and wormed her way up to the velvet rope barrier that separated the common gawkers from the artist and those willing to overpay for the privilege of getting really close to him. Mrs. P. caught his attention and offered the photo to him, saying with a grin, "My husband and I sailed on the Breakaway last year."

He looked at the picture and muttered atonally, "How do you spell your name?" She replied and he scribbled, obviously not interested in any further conversation.

The next buyers were located and ready for their little meet-and-greet and the gallery employee asserted, "Peter Peter? Peter?," trying to get the artist's attention. Max turned and sneered, "How many times are you planning to say my name?"

My wife stepped away from the still-clamoring group, holding the signed photo high above her head. "Well," she assessed, approaching me and handing over the picture to slip back into its protective envelope, "he certainly isn't as good looking as he used to be,"— adding, "And he's a bit of a jerk."

Artists. We can't get a break.

*The Wentworth Gallery is an East coast chain of art galleries located primarily in shopping malls that cater to the clueless affluent who are solely out to impress. They bring well-known contemporary artists to the upscale masses, actually presenting authentic works by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso alongside those by Paul Stanley... yes, that Paul Stanley. It's sort of the art equivalent of The Capital Grille.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

somebody's watching me

My wife likes to watch people. At times, I have caught her, sitting across from me in a restaurant, paying more attention to the conversation in the booth behind me than to the one going on at our table. In her defense, she has known me for thirty-three years, I'm not the most interesting conversationalist and I tend to repeat myself, but still.

I. however, like to watch other people watching people. Because I am a daily train commuter, I see a lot of people. And I see a lot of people watching other people. I see it a lot.

Just the other day, I saw a group of three or four people, possibly co-workers, gathered on the train platform. One member of the group was telling an anecdote about an earlier meeting or relating a funny story about something that happened over the weekend. About three feet away, a guy with nary a hair out of place, rimless glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, dressed in a tailored suit and holding an expensive-looking leather briefcase, stood and hung on to every word of the conversation. He chuckled aloud at the funny parts and cocked his head to one side during some of the lengthy backstory set-ups. He even shook his head in disbelief at the payoff.

I watched him, not paying close attention the actual story, despite the teller speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. I may have even been staring at the man. But, he didn't notice. He was busy concentrating on a conversation to which his participation and inclusion was not invited.

It was the second time in as many days that I witnessed such blatant eavesdropping. A young mother and her son were waiting for the train. The boy was babbling excitedly about all the things they saw during the day. The mother smiled and a woman, a foot or so away, began laughing and nodding her head as though she was another family member. It was very obvious that she was not travelling with the mother and son. She was just sticking her attention in where it was not asked to be stuck.

Wait a second! Am I just as guilty? I don't think so. I am just quietly observing. I am not participating.

But, I'll bet someone is blogging about me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

i got the music in me

I walk the same way to the train station almost every evening after work. I exit the rear of my building, turn right and head down 16th towards Market Street. At the corner, I cross and head down the steps that lead to the underground train station.

Beginning a month or so ago, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk adjacent to the entrance of the stairs. He held a battered paper cup in one hand and gripped a corrugated cardboard flap from a packing box in the other. Across the brown surface of the flap was written, in neat printed letters, a plea for monetary donations. Although I didn't stand there and read the message word-for-word, it did include the words "homeless," "help" and "God bless." The man sat on the ground, motionless, his hand with the cup extended. I, along with everyone else in the crowded evening rush, passed right by him. No one slowing down, just making haste to a train to take them home.

Let me interrupt my own story for a second. Not that I have to justify my actions to anyone, let me say, I am a charitable guy. I give regularly to my local volunteer fire department. I am a longtime supporter of  several Philadelphia-based charities. I give old clothing (when I remember) to those places that call and say that a collection truck will be on my street. And I have a tendency to over-tip in restaurants. (That's being charitable, isn't it? Well, I think it is.) But, people begging on the street? No, thank you! I don't trust them, Based on their appearance and method of asking for money, I suspect they are all full of shit. They concoct elaborate scenarios as to how they ended up in this predicament and write their tale of woe on a torn piece of cardboard for all to read. Or sometimes they cop an attitude like it's my fault that they have to beg and it's my obligation to just hand money over to them. 

First off, I would never, ever, ever give a cent to anyone who is smoking. Smoking is a luxury, not a necessity. If you have to beg for money for food, cigarettes should not come before eating. You need to get your priorities straight. Once you have secured a steady income, then, by all means, buy and consume all the tobacco you wish. But, until you get to that point, at least make an effort to help yourself — and that includes staying healthy and viable. 

Same goes for anyone begging with a pet. If you can't afford to feed yourself, then you have no right to deem yourself responsible for the well-being of an animal. I don't care how cute it is. 

Those are my personal rules of charity. Am I a jerk? Maybe, but, I work hard for my money and I will determine who shares in it and the first ones up for consideration are those who exhibit an effort to help themselves. I would sooner consider giving money to the guy who plays his off-key guitar and warbles out versions of pop songs he has obviously never heard before or to the old man who plays the same three tunes on his battered old accordion. At least they are doing something other than sitting on their asses and holding a cup. (I said I'd consider giving, but I know I probably won't.)

And now, back to our story....

So, one day last week, I saw the guy with the cup and the cardboard sign again. He was sitting in his usual spot, with his usual accessories. And, as usual, he was silent. But, there was something different about him. He was wearing sunglasses. Nice ones, too. Frameless, with a designer emblem on the temple piece. That's right, a designer emblem. As I got closer to him, I saw something else. He had earbuds jammed into his ears. Is that what he was collecting money for? And you know those earbuds were plugged into something. Something electronic that plays music, like an iPod or similar music-storage and playback device. Those devices require access to a computer to acquire songs and to load them onto said device. And, for the most part, those songs need to be purchased. (Sure, there are plenty of ways to get "free" music, but that would make this situation more infuriating — and you'd still need a computer) Now, remember what I said about smoking being a luxury? Guess what category an iPod falls into? Here's this guy — making an appeal for money from people who are working everyday while he sits on his ass on the sidewalk and listens to a selection of his favorite tunes. Not that I would have ever considered giving him any money,  but I certainly wouldn't give him anything now. And I better not see this guy smoking with his dog!

Personally, I have a pretty crappy set of ear buds, but I do have food at my house.

* * * * UPDATE * * * *
I just saw this guy talking on a cellphone. Still holding the sign.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

let's go out to a movie

Warning! This post may include some uncharacteristic gushing not normally found on this blog. - JPiC

My love of all things Disney is no secret. I visited Walt Disney World for the first time on the theme park's tenth anniversary. Three years later, I was there on my honeymoon. My family and I have gone on to many, many more trips to the central Florida tourist mecca and have even branched out to the original West Coast park, Disneyland. Plus, for goodness sake, this is in my house, covertly concealed behind an unassuming door on the third floor.

Even though, our son has grown and moved into his own house, my wife and I still look for excuses to see Disney movies. While the majority of them don't appeal to us (i.e. the recent Tinkerbell "female empowerment" series comes to mind, as well as throwaways like the Pixar self-ripoff Planes* and its sequel), there are a few that we'd still like to see on the big screen. It's kind of weird, though for two adults, over 50, to sit in the audience of a kids' movie, obviously unaccompanied by kids — especially in these times of overly-suspicious parents and child predators. Once, we went to an early mid-week, school-night showing of the Winnie the Pooh movie, where were assured the audience would be small and mostly child-free. (We were right.) Other times, we just unashamedly purchased tickets for a special 3-D release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, because — goddammit! — it's one of our favorite movies!

Just the other day, my wife's friend Pinta asked if we would like to join her and her family to see the new live-action version of Disney's classic princess tale Cinderella. Pinta was a student in one of my wife's classes way back in another lifetime when Mrs. P taught nursery school in the early 80s. Now, so many years later, Mrs. P reconnected (via the all-powerful Facebook) with Pinta, who is now an attorney and married with two children. Whether we like it or not Pinta is now our peer. We happily accepted the invitation, seeing Pinta's kids as the perfect cover to see a movie of which we were decidedly not the target audience.

We met Pinta at the theater. She and her children had already selected seats and were now munching popcorn and ignoring the pre-show advertisements, until, of course an ad for a new Nintendo game splashed colorfully across the massive screen. The audience filled and the air was thick with the high-pitched excited chatter of children ages 3 to 9. Mrs. P engaged Pinta's children in animated conversation until the film began. (Among her many talents, my wife is a real-life Pied Piper.)

Soon, the lights dimmed and screen came alive with a short animated film based on and starring the characters from Disney's wildly popular film Frozen. The audience paid full and close attention, a rarity for a film geared towards the younger population. Next was Cinderella, the feature presentation.

After the disappointment that was Maleficent (an over-hyped live-action retelling of the animated Sleeping Beauty), I really didn't have a whole lot of hope for Cinderella. However, as the movie progressed, I found myself really enjoying it. The film was beautifully and imaginatively shot, with unexpected and daring camera angles. The storytelling — the most important part of a children's movie — was right on the money. While it got a wee bit heady at times (expecting a young moviegoer to endure three parental deaths was asking a lot), but it did not dwell on any scenes longer than necessary. The film, while suitably grandiose and regal, moved its 112-minute runtime along at a pretty good clip. It was a satisfying spectacle and, based on the silence in the theater, it held the interest of the audience, both young and old.

At the helm.
Scene stealers.
I think Disney realized its errors with Maleficent and made a conscious effort to remedy them with Cinderella, First off, they secured veteran actor-director Kenneth Branagh to helm the project. After allowing first (and so far only) time director Robert Stromberg to direct Maleficent, they went with a seasoned and proven director, fresh from calling the shots on the blockbuster money-making super hero flick Thor. Then, the folks at Disney nabbed two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett for the role of Cinderella's evil stepmother. Branagh signed his one-time domestic partner, the always reliable and always quirky Helena Bonham Carter for the small, but pivotal role of the Fairy Godmother. Exhibiting a skewed take on the animated version of "Lady Tremaine," Blanchett commanded attention and devoured the scenery in every screen appearance, playing the part as an understated and restrained version of Al Pacino's "Big Boy Caprice" from Dick Tracy. Bonham Carter, outfitted with a set of exaggerated false teeth and an impossibly billowy gown, likewise stole the show in a screen appearance that lasted no more that ten minutes. The supporting players, including the youthful leads (Downton Abbey's Lily James and Game of Thrones' Richard Madden), were expertly cast and wonderfully entertaining. The film locked its young audience in a state of bewilderment, enchantment and — best of all — silence for a little over an hour and a half, a difficult feat in these times of constant distraction and short attention spans.

Disney has plans for several more live-action versions of selections from its vast library of animated features, including Beauty and the Beast and the recently-announced Dumbo under the direction of eccentric visionary Tim Burton. Disney has tapped a veritable gold mine, making, remaking and releasing films without paying a dime in additional licensing. They already own the rights to these films and need only market them, something at which Disney is a proven master. They are essentially printing their own money, something they technically already do.

If Disney learns from and improves with each subsequent release, they will undoubtedly be successful with this little motion picture endeavor. Inexplicably, it is something no other studio has attempted.

As a Disney stockholder, I have a lot of faith in the House that Mouse built.

*Planes was released under the Disney Studios banner. Although Pixar, the studio that created Cars, is owned by Disney, it is run as a separate entity. But, because Disney, the greatest marketer in the world, owns Pixar, they can do whatever they want with its characters. It's a pretty good benefit for being a multifaceted entertainment conglomerate.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

doctor, doctor, give me the news

I will share with you my medical expertise.

Well, that just about covers it. That's all I know based on the years I did not attend medical school. My vast knowledge that came from no long hours as an intern, working diligently in the emergency room. I also have the same amount of knowledge of the legal industry, the automotive industry, accounting, real estate, home repair and investment banking. Gosh, I don't know shit!

Actually, there is a field that I do know. I know design. That's right. I am a graphic designer. That's a fancy title for "artist" given to me by a bunch of corporate types who have to give fancy titles to everything, especially those things they don't understand.

I have been a professional graphic designer for over thirty years. ("Professional" in that someone has paid me for my work and services. Someone who isn't related to me.) I have had many jobs in those years, some full-time and some on a freelance basis. I have designed invitations, textbooks, window signage, menus, advertisements, concert posters, and even a character mascot costume. I have watched the tools of my trade go from ink-dipped pens, paint brushes and T-squares to multiple versions of computer programs (some long outdated).

Designing is no easy task. It is actual work. It's no different from the vocations mentioned above. I didn't say more important. I merely put it in the same category because it is, indeed, work. While I do enjoy my work, make no mistake — it is work. It brings me satisfaction as well as frustration and when I get home, I want to distance myself from it for a brief period of time, until I return to my job the next morning. Just like you. Well, most of you, anyway.

Contrary to what non-designers may think, graphic design requires a lot of experience, thought, talent and skill. Nothing — I repeat — nothing is done haphazardly. Conscious decisions are made as far as selection of typefaces, colors. color combinations, placement of elements, size relationships, focal points, presentation, visual impact. (Wow, Josh! Who knew there were so many separate considerations that go into a design? Are you kidding? Those are just off the top of my head!) Look, I don't pretend to know the difference between cephalalgia and corpus delicti and, I honestly don't want to know. There are experts for stuff like that. Just like there are experts in design whose opinions and experience should be trusted.

So why do so many of those who make their living in those occupations listed above feel they know my job better than I know my job? How can someone deem themselves knowledgeable in a field in which they have had no training and no work experience? Why would someone who went to medical school or law school or any school but art school feel qualified to claim graphic design expertise?

Beats me, but the artist doctor will see you now.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

everything that you're hankerin' for

If you didn't grow up in Philadelphia and you were born after 1970, you can't fully understand the significance and impact of meeting the subject of this story. While I hope I can describe the feeling, the actual emotion may be difficult to convey. So, at the risk of this sounding like the misty-eyed musings of a sentimental old man, please indulge me. You have been warned. — JPiC
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been presenting its annual Flower Show since 1829. After a century plus, it moved its elaborate displays to a permanent location in the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1966. As a youngster, my wife would visit the show with her troop of Girl Scouts, although, I never attended until we married. Actually, our first trip to the show as a couple included our son, who viewed the various arrangements from the convenient vantage point of his stroller. While Mrs. P pushed that stroller through subsequent Flower Shows, I, however, made my second appearance at a Flower Show one week after our son purchased a house.

What was it that prompted a return to the show? Was it a sudden interest in peyones and proteas? Was it a heretofore undiscovered love of lush greenery? Was it a new-found appreciation for all things flora? Nope. None of those. In addition to all of those things, this year's Philadelphia Flower Show offered a stroll down memory lane.

In the 1960s, entertainment wasn't nearly as abundant as it is now. In Philadelphia, like a lot of large metropolitan cities, television was limited to three network affiliates and a handful of independent local stations. No cable. No on-demand. No DVD or Blu Ray players. No Netflix. No YouTube. You get the idea.

Childrens' entertainment was relegated to after-school hours and weekend mornings. There was a group of local hosts, in the guise of various characters, who played to kids in the home audience as well as a small in-studio audience, offering games, skits and contests, interspersed with cartoons. Some of my favorites were (from left to right, starting at the top row)...
Wee Willie Webber, Captain Philadelphia (portrayed by sportscaster Stu Nahan, the ringside announcer in Rocky), Lorenzo the Clown, Dickory Doc and Adam Android (both portrayed by local TV producer/puppeteer Aldo Farnese), hokey horror movie host Dr. Shock, Sally Starr, the beloved TV cowgirl who just passed away in 2013, and friendly pixie Pixanne,  But my all-time favorite, as well as the favorite of everyone in the Delaware Valley, was Gene London.

Gene London was a soft-spoken, young man who enchanted every child in the Greater Philadelpha area for nearly twenty years. On a shoestring budget, Gene transformed a small studio at WCAU into a magical wonderland of stories filled with adventure, humor, thrills and even a little culture. Gene, an accomplished singer/actor/puppeteer, played a wide variety of characters and deftly adapted timeless works (like She Who Must Be Obeyed and tales from Greek mythology) to the delight and interest of his loyal young viewers. In some segments, he would sit at a large drawing board and spin a tale from the Disney canon, while expertly sketching characters from the story. His gentle nature and easy-going manner made Gene come across as a friend. Over the years, he gained a lot of life-long friends.

Gene's show premiered three years before I was born and was finally brought to a close just after I turned 16. Upon the show's cancellation, Gene moved to New York City and became very involved in the fashion industry, operating a clothing store in Manhattan and using his talents as a consultant for Hollywood and Broadway productions. With the exception of a few rare local connections, he disappeared from the Philadelphia area.

During Gene's fashion career, he amassed an impressive collection of costumes and accessories from some of Hollywood's most treasured movies and stars. Over the years, he has displayed a small portion of his 60,000-plus piece collection at venues across the country. This year, the Philadelphia Flower Show's theme is "Celebrate The Movies," and it features a part of what has come to be known as "Gene London's Hollywood Collection."

That was reason enough to get me to go.

I took a day off from work, Mrs P bought tickets and we hopped the train to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Flower Show's home since 1996. We followed the crowds through the train station, up a couple of escalators, through some winding hallways until we arrived at Room 203 and the banners that marked the entrance to Gene's collection.

The room was beautifully appointed with two dozen mannequins clad in original costumes worn by Bette Davis, Doris Day, Tallulah Bankhead, even Clara Bow. Marilyn Monroe's actual dress from The Seven Year Itch was perched on a high pedestal, the skirt dramatically billowing above a strategically-placed hidden fan. My wife and I both quivered when we spotted Gene London himself, looking dapper in a natty pinstriped suit, greeting fans just past a slinky number once worn by Lana Turner. He was a little older and a little slower than we remembered, but he was unmistakably Gene London, that cheerful soul from our youth. A modest knot of 50-plus year-olds gathered around the one-time local TV icon. There was conversing, reminiscing, laughing and a bit of hugging. Mrs. P and I inched our way towards Gene and, just as we were about to gush with praise and adoration, an official-looking woman whisked him away, announcing that he was scheduled for a radio interview. 

We were crushed — until a sweet young lady who had been assisting Gene smiled and told us that he'd be back in a half hour. We took the opportunity to take a closer look at the costumes. Soon, Gene was led back into the room. He was stopped a few times by grinning women, posing for cellphone pictures and offering cheek-kisses to their childhood darling. Finally, Gene approached us with outstretched hands, like an old friend. My wife, positively giddy, smiled broadly as she related some of her cherished "Gene London" memories. Gene smiled as well, as he clutched my wife's hand and hung on to every single word she said. I listened and marveled at his reaction to my wife's anecdotes. Then, I presented him with two printouts of his portrait that I had drawn the night before. He signed one for me and, when I told him he was an early inspiration for my illustration career, asked if I would sign one for him. He was exactly as we had expected him to be — gracious, charming, warm and engaging. He posed for pictures, talked a bit more and thanked us sincerely for coming. 

At 83, Gene has not lost any of his magic. We didn't even care if we saw any flowers.