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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Performing with...


Performing with...

Intelligence. Knowing what's going on around you

Heart. Feeling the song

Humor. as in ice cream

Empathy. Feeling the audience

Generosity. Play for tips

Courage. Run with it

Honesty. Find in the song

Grit. Wear yourself out

Performing with...

Dynamics. Contrast

Articulation. Variety

Repetition. Learn

Melody. Phrasing and expression

Effects. Visual

Expression. Suit the song

Range. use it or lose it

phrasing. Words.

vibrato. like singing.

note bending. judicious

duration. right length

smoothness. musical sounding

Holiday with sax

 Holiday with sax

It was just about the turn of THAT century, when all the computers would shut down because of a year 2000 problem.

The time wasn’t that important. And only some computers would shut down.

My brain was shutting down at a bad time. I can’t remember the girl’s name. I’m usually only in a bar on business.

This Friday night, the outdoor gig was rained out at the last minute. Playing music, if you want to call that a business. Writing and reviewing records and performances, if you want to call that… a business. The types of things which found me in bars and sometimes getting comped.

I was already 40 miles from home so when the bass player said, let’s go to a nice darts bar, I was meh but willing. Being in a bar as a customer would be good experience.

But there was no ability on my end, to join a conversation in the middle of two girls talking. Small talk doesn't come easy for some folks.

Mid-range hearing loss caused me to miss all but the punch line. There’s five pennies down on a table and the joke line  was, “It’s a pussy but you ain’t gonna get it for five cents.”

My sax from the rained-out gig was in the car, alongside my brain it seems. The girl grabs my hand, twists my wedding ring, reads my t-shirt. “Slim’s San Francisco.” Loud in my ear.

Barefoot Miller was on stage, I hadn’t seen him in a few years, since I gave up playing blues for Top 40 and jazz. Those blues chords turn up in all kinds of music, like me turning up in this darts bar in Oak Lawn.

I finally noticed the two girls are handcuffed together. An interesting detail, particularly since neither of them can find the key. Maybe it’s a joke between them. They do seem to separate somehow and one girl says, “I have a sax at home. I was taking lessons, but I lost my time slot to one of my teacher’s high school students.”

Being usually on stage with a sax, I’ve talked many times with people who used to play sax.

“It’s a Selmer Pro Model. I won it in a secret wish contest on K-LUV.”

Oh man K-LUV. Yes, that's what that radio station sounds like with a signal that blows away all the good radio stations. Her name comes to me—- Marilyn. A popular name probably when she was born.

“I entered the contest, where you tell them what you want. I told my mother, we’re listening to nothing but K-LUV from now on, because I’m going to win a saxophone.”

I guess it was the sax talk which got me to focus. She was real cute and used her free newly un-cuffed hand to move her fingers on me.

I told my bass player friend, “I don’t need the aggravation.”

Weighing the ingredients of this recipe for disaster.

“I think she really has a Selmer,” he said. “I just have this feeling.”

“I don’t live far from here. I really want to hear someone play my horn. Will you play it for me?”

Marilyn had finally caught my attention. I told her about lending out my sax once, even for one song.

“I would be careful who you let play your Selmer. You just met me. But since you met a person who wants to play it, let’s go to your house then.”

We all piled into my Oldsmobile station wagon, a relic whose transmission only shifted when it felt like it. The girls were talking about crotches and whatever. I told Marilyn basically my rules I had just made up on the spot. I get to play the sax. She doesn’t get to play me.

“That’s it,” she starts yelling to her friend. “I’m not having any part of this. Nobody talks to me like that. What’s this guy’s name again? Forget it.” She fumbled for her house keys.

The case looked like a case with a Selmer Super 80 in it. I wouldn’t go in the house and she wouldn’t open it in the driveway. A pretty girl full of sour notes carrying a sax that could turn them sweet. I knew as soon as I put that thing in my mouth she would forget my prude vibe. I’d get to play a sax I would probably never be able to afford. My own sax was in the back, a beat up Buescher 156 which had a nice sound alright. But it was no Selmer.

This Super 80 did purr like a cat and growled like a tiger. I took it inside the bar in case there was a chance to sit in with the band.

With the sax as a prop, I kind of waited politely to be asked up to join the band for a song or two. I figured one of the guys might recognize me.

“You gotta wait to be called up, that’s how it works,” I told Marilyn. Her patience wore thin. “I want to hear my sax,” she said as she stumbled onto the stage and tried to dance while the band was playing. Kinda drunk but still good looking. The singer, James Buck, helped her back to where I was.

I’m re-thinking her story about winning the sax on the radio. I tend to think to much and that's when my imagination goes wild. It’s a very cool story but I think the guys in the band know not just the girl but the sax. Which I am holding. They may even know the true owner of the sax. Whatever. All kinds of things go through the mind while holding someone else's sax. The same thing happened to me once when Pete Fountain let me hold his clarinet. I thought I was him for a minute.

“Tony broke my heart tonight,” she said out of nowhere. And, “they’re ignoring you, they don’t want you to go up and play.”

“Don’t sweat it,” “I said. You’re making too much out of this. It’s just another night.” I was 40 miles from home and in this big city there were sax players better than me playing on street corners.

“No it isn’t,” she mumbled. And louder, “You should have heard the things Tony was saying about you.”

“I doubt it.” Karen alert.

“I want to hear my horn.”

“Let’s go out in the lot, I’ll play you a private concert.”

“I’m leaving. Outta here. Where’s my keys. I can’t find my keys. I think I left them in your  car. Take me to get my keys. I can walk home. It’s not that far.”

Maybe the sax wasn’t hers. I drove her home the three blocks and the old song “I want to hear my horn” fell off the charts while the new #1 was “Tony broke my heart tonight.”

If she's drinking the night away maybe I better too. But that would make two of us.

Or maybe she and Tony will laugh about this tomorrow.

I followed her to her front door and waited while she fumbled for the keys, which seemed now to be always how she found her keys.

Rick Dees was playing on the TV. The sofa looked like somebody’s bed some of the time. The kitchen was piled with dirty dishes and smelled like dog food. Some negligee on a drying rack.

“You wanna beer,” as she gets us each one.

Marilyn had been thinking as she pointed out. “I’m really into friendship,” she said. “I do a lot for my friends, and I expect a lot from them to me. If you don’t have friends, you have nothing.”

Her voice trailed off on the word "nothing."

“Tony really, really, broke my heart tonight. We’re very good friends.”

She sat down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “Sit here. No commitments.”

“So, you said, or your friend said, Marilyn, you’re a nurse?”

“A baby nurse.”

“A pediatric nurse?”

“No, different. We decide if the babies are born with deformities and things. We’re very good at what we do.”

Marilyn has a very demanding job and Tony broke her heart tonight.

“I have a headache,” she says. I say let me get you an aspirin before you go to bed.

The nurse’s eyes droop and blink with the audacity of me trying to find an aspirin in this ash heap of humanity. Bathroom probably.

“I don’t think work is ever going to come tomorrow.”

A nurse can have Friday off sometimes.

“I gotta go,” I said to someone who was just about asleep on the sofa. It wouldn’t be the first time I talked a girl into dreamland. On the way out, I pull her keys out of the outside front door lock.

“Lock your door from the inside. Don’t forget the aspirin.”

I went back to the bar to see how my bass player pal was doing with Marilyn’s friend with the handcuffs.

Walking in and hearing a sax. “Honky Tonk ( Part II)” from 1956, just like Clifford Scott played it.

That Tony can play.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Fallen off her horse

So this is my American girlfriend here.

She brought me here from Tasmania and I don’t have a clue. Now she and her father want me to go back. Which I don’t mind actually. It’s just the way they’re going about it, blaming me for Gingham falling off her horse.

And of course for everything else. If she hadn’t run home to her parents (Oh, ok, her biologist father happened to be doing a study in Tasmania and he came to visit and told Gingham she was always welcome home back in the States.)

BUT, if she hadn’t gone along with that we would have had medical insurance down here. (And possibly she wouldn’t have fallen off a horse knowing I was close by.)

And so now it’s medical bills and though she’s still covered under her parents’ policy it’s outrageous the bills she’s getting! Her parents will have no end talking about it.

Her blind dog she picked up in Brisbane ended up with me and so did Gingham’s name for it, “Billie.”

I was surprised she could reach me when I’m out tending my herds, but the medical bills led to her calling me and she forgot about the time difference.

“The rehab was fine but I never heard of the people on the bills,” she told me. “You with your medical billing company, I thought you were being a wise guy and playing a game with me,” she said.

I’m just a Tasmanian shepherd, I reminded her, the same person she fell head over heels in love with right? (I wondered whether she had gone without oxygen at any point on the ride to the hospital after falling off her horse.) My company has nothing to do with it.

She did fall off her horse though. The EMT outfit which responded to the 911, to hear her tell it, seemed hapless from the get go. Which stretcher. Which paperwork. Oxygen or not. The old guy from the fire department was more helpful but only until they took off for the hospital. And then another hospital.

And then to one which accepts her parents insurance. In the country where they live, like where I live, I’m sure the ambulance will go anywhere a taxi goes and charge accordingly. Gingham had fainted part of the time on the trip, and the crew struggled to find a vein for IV. Meantime at the farm the horse was still panicked after everyone left. Mother rode with daughter in the back of the ambulance. Downhill skiers both, not the first time they’d been together in a medic van. Here’s Gingham trying to lay still and her mother is lecturing her about me.

“You dropped out right after you met him,” she accused. I used to enjoy visiting her long weekends at her family’s new farm and helping her father Brian with splitting logs or working on his old 1948 Buick Special. The whole family was world travelers who had gotten the recent idea they would like to settle down on a farm in the country.

“Why do you call him Shep,” her mother asked in the ambulance.

“It’s just a little joke between us.”

“Did he teach you to ride that way.”

“Mom, how many times have I said, Shep didn’t teach me to ride. I had an instructor, the best instructor in the country.”

“Remind me of the country again. Antarctica?”

Anyway, she still thought my company sent the bills out but that doesn’t really matter. They were real. It was real actual medical bills that she wasn’t telling her mother about. She thought she would quietly start paying the pesky unpredictable bills with her college money, $35 here, $60 here, $150 there. The cost of getting cured she figured. She should get on a horse sooner than later. She missed Shep and Tasmania. But the bills kept coming. Reading them didn’t help. She couldn’t tell if she was being charged for a pill or a test.

Dating locally was fine with her but now her new boyfriend who was also her English prof is in trouble because of it. And she couldn’t tell her previous boyfriend, the artist in residence at Bard; maybe about the horse, but not about me. Maybe older guys wasn’t her thing after all. Gingham’s sister Maureen has a boyfriend living with her on the Screen farm. Much more straight ahead situation, he teaches her how to work with rare woods. He has a source for some rare Brazilian rosewood. Besides Gingham and Maureen, the other sister Josiah apparently was born the wrong gender and is male now.

“You seem pre-occupied.” Mother said one day back at their farm.

“Yes, you need a vacation,” Gingham offered back weakly. She wanted her mother to think that the parents’ need for a vacation was pre-occupying her mind.

“I probably do need to do something other than ski on my vacations,” replied Mother. “My ankles and knees are beat to hell and my ski partner just broke her hip on a run in the Pyrenees.”

“Take a river cruise.”

Gingham had called a couple of the doctors. The offices all had some kind of code for the visit on the bill, mostly while she was in the hospital. While they were all curing her from her fall. Can’t wait to ride again. Maybe stay off the horse for awhile. She had picked up a decent job over at a plant nursery, got paid partly in plants and starting putting them in around the farm.  And starting to catch up on the school tuition bill. And wondering if school will start in person or on-line. Her profs were much less appealing online. But dropping out was a bad idea. Dropping back in is the thing to do.

Her mind fell into a reverie of making love with Shep in the mud out in the woods. She actually told him, “this reminds me of riding a horse.”

“Dodging sticks coming up out of the mud reminds you of riding a horse?”

“Not that. More like the feeling of two becoming one.”

They had been walking the perimeter of the property, checking their phones and marking compass points. It felt useful. The quiet brought a long wet kiss and the requisite fumbling with clothes.

“you got any bug spray?”

“I thought you did.”

The love was nice and so was the shower afterward at the big empty farmhouse. Her mother was off skiing in Switzerland, father on a research trip studying invasive plants, one sister in France visiting friends and Josiah was off playing boyfriend to his girlfriend’s parents.

“Sorry you’re going back.”

“Hope your parents don’t think you’re crazy for hitting on a Tasmanian shepherd. I’ll call you when I’m home safe.

“They've been wrong before. Maybe I should have told them you built up a medical billing company from scratch in the outback and the sheep thing is just a hobby.”

“No sense in re-thinking that,” I told her. “Part of what I do with the company involves keeping a good distance.”

“You seem to be a master of good distance.”

“Not so fast, sister.”

 So making love after a shower is just as much fun as before of course. It might be one of the last times anyway.

I had told her no sense in trying to reach me via cell because there was no service in the field where I’m cross-training my people to herd ducks as well as sheep. But I would call when I got home and settled.

Which is just what I did of course, waited ’til it was a nice bright mid morning her time, Gingham time. I let the phone ring and ring but before it went to voicemail she managed to pick up.

“Sorry, I had to fetch this thing out of my saddle bag under a bunch of stuff. Hang on a sec…..oh….holy crap….”

That was it. I heard a big pile of noise and found out about all this later.


Elvis on my Birthday


Thanks to my parents I got good coverage, but growing up in 2 places at once makes for a busy time on the bilocation side of things. Every summer around my birthday I had to go help out Elvis as some kind of a deal my parents had made with somebody.

It wasn’t the same as going to school the rest of the year or even just going to summer camp. For example the year I was born I had to convince Elvis not to fight with the other usher over the candy counter girl at Lowe’s State Theater. I learned that he only learned from experience. He kept me out the next summer going to all night gospel sings.

So it was not surprising the day he took off from the machine shop to record a song for his mother at Memphis Recording. That was around my birthday and we were there again the next year almost to the day.

It’s well known that Elvis had friends and hangers-on and a lot of people felt they knew him, they say they knew him, whatever. He didn’t know me though. I was invisible to Elvis like a guardian angel but I could steer him in the right direction if he was listening. Making movies and going on endless dates he kept me under the radar or I did him.

By 1958 I had spent about 7 summers shadowing this machinist from Tupelo and he was getting out of control, so he packed off to Fort Hood and the military.

Every July from then on, there was water skiing, album recording, late night movies to watch and others to be in like Viva Las Vegas, Tickle Me, Paradise Hawaiian Style. Then Las Vegas shows through the early 1970s, tour tour tour. On my 25th birthday Elvis finished his Oklahoma shows to take a vacation in Palm Springs.

I’m still around but he didn’t have long to live at the time. He never knew me but sure took a big bite of my summers.

What we need is a new bottled water

 The new hire from Pferrier Sparkling Waters looked around to the interview committee. He was introduced by the strongest advocate for quadrupling his salary from his former company.

The head of Feizer Farm said,

"You can't keep a good bottled water man down. In a world of too few plastic bottles, he created a world of too many plastic bottles. It's atrocious that his company, where he built his career, considered that work for hire no more or less compensated by raises and promotions.

 In all of history, plastic water bottles filled with something are second only to tobacco. But we are the beneficiaries of Pferrier's short sightedness. Our new Pfierre here will top his previous achievement. He will create something with a guaranteed demand for it. So many customers; we can keep putting new expiration dates on our batches from here to eternity. I personally will vouch for the board on his compensation plan."

No one could have guessed that the new man would have not just a new product--- but an old idea to go with it. He would change the name of the company while keeping the pfronunciation exactly the same as before.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Vamp 'Til Ready

Current draft:


The Artist

His paintings grew darker every year

The filled the walls, they filled the room;

eventually they filled his world -

all but the ravishment.

When voices faded, he would rush to hear

the scratched soul of Mozart

endlessly in gyre.

Back and forth, back and forth,

he paced the paint-smeared floor,

diminishing in size each time he turned,

trapped in his monumental void, 

ravings against his adversaries.

At last he took a knife in his hand

and slashed an exit for himself

between the frames of his tall scenery.

Through the holes of his tattered universe

the first innocence and the light

came pouring in.     —- by Stanley Kunitz


Turn off here. I should have given more notice. We’ll get back on in a bit but this just hit me. I’ve been down this road in every one of four seasons except this one. Always looking for speed traps and reading the names of the branch trails to places with old family cemeteries. And I mean old.

On that smooth mountain highway we were just on, it goes straight to the century of Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” Its congested two-lane allows all manner of inflated rubber insults not to mention jet-skis, tracked vehicles, and things higher than they are long.


Back behind its piney shoulders (of the state road), and then behind wild groves of maple and beech, down smaller roads, lay little towns, dotted with buildings on old streets. Sorta like an intracoastal waterway of time. They’re in various stages of repair, tucked along the valley’s drumlins and streams and gradually ascending shale, granite, hills and mountains. Cabins cozy and imposing homesteads, with tiger brick chimneys and fireplaces, plunked down in the mast length primeval forest, ready to secure its treasures to pay the cost of the French and Indian wars.

Fast forward to around 1922, paint peeling on the towns and their edifices. When local trains and streetcars had peaked their passenger growth, not counting the growth pangs brought by gently flowing rivers and rhythmic pounding industry replaced by a spurt of sisyphus-like government road building rackets. With all their construction gear and dollars to spread around, the new road stayed on the edges, flirted with the edge of this town, that town, in town after town. It pile-drove a business boom from its construction and development along its rights of way, destined to languish as the road was finished. The old revolutionary war villages had a short-lived respite as this new thunder road highway promoted a prosperous new angle on New England. Not just a place you go west from, but also come back to. 

With car, bus and train doors slamming, luggage noisily born, meals cooked and beds made, families of all income strata learned how to feel rich for a week or more every summer, so as to make working in factories and bunking down in balloon-construction tenement firetraps seem more tolerable the rest of the time. This former outdated history landscape lesson of rocky farms and zealous business and religion alike, New Hampshire now had on offer, a cog railway, mechanical ski lifts and tow ropes, decorous lakes and falls and luxury resorts for lodging and play time.

As the colonial charm wore down like bark peeling off an old tree, the family automobile gassed its way to the Mt. Washington Valley, disgorging passengers to ride the high wire up the side of the mountains and then ski down. The flivvers and Model A’s and new sedans never actually kicked dust directly at the 17th, 18th, and 19th century communities still standing, because the new road was hundreds of feet away from the ancient courthouses, farm houses, main drags with their smithies, ice houses, stables, glass making shops, traders in oxen and cattle. But the dust blew and settled on the by-pass roads like one memory layering itself like sediment on top of the other.

As that 1920’s vintage highway 16 approaches the Mt. Washington Valley, it carves Conway Village like a cake or pie in two, bypassing/leaving behind the old Main Street, to pave on the fat side a more direct route to the hiking and skiing and scene-making for folks escaping southern New England for a weekend or a month in the coasts and forests of Maine or the Lakes Country or the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts all had urban dwellers employed in factories getting unionized. We ourselves were a product of when our parents' pay included group health insurance. All the while drawn here on paid vacation time, drawn to northern New England’s Europe-type settings of hills, valleys, forests and coasts so beautiful in summer.

This village of Conway, with the construction dust settling on its original main street of old car repair places, junkyards, and government offices, took on its new road racket with model citizens jockeying in place to benefit from it. Conway Village’s new main street, was roughly parallel to the old one. A high school, restaurants, movie theater, medical offices, shops for hardware, car parts, a post office, all took up commercial reside. The tavern town is gone. 8 hours driving will get you far today, further tomorrow.  Having a hideaway close to ski trails in Kearsarge or Jackson attracted everyone from Argentine mob bosses and ranchers to chanteuses retired from Broadway long runs or the dinner theatre circuit.

The century about to have a year 2000 problem was used to looking in the rear view mirror, at least from here. Of the 1922 Conway Village downtown, some buildings remained but business shifted to the massive retail development just up the road in North Conway. At Main and Washington of Conway Village, a brick storefront stood as one of the few remnants of the old downtown. Center door, display windows both sides. As if it had escaped a meteor, or the wrecking ball, or a recent town inspector visit. Purchased by investors, its empty shell cried out for a retail tenant.

Harlan Wolfe was a service industry itinerant, arrived from Texas via Cape Cod, who saw the building and him in it. He had come from a  youth hostel in Orleans MA to this White Mountains Hostel, around the corner on Washington St., itself an old farmhouse now boarding (at hostel rates!) skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers, hobby hikers, many from Europe, eager to explore some of the northernmost Appalachian Trail around the corner hence. It was a straight-ahead operation like Harlan was used to running, almost always in a forlorn building struggling to keep up with 19th century building codes, let alone since then.

The empty storefront caught Harlan’s eye, maybe matched his temperament even. It had large glass shop windows facing the street, at high noon reflecting him clearly to himself.  The faded “for rent” sign was a universal symbol of age-ing out commercial center districts, long ago drained of customers by suburban strip centers, then malls. Tourists had long time ago discovered that all New England basically looks alike. Lots of English influence, or something. Climate, building materials. And for good reason the sameness—once you get 200 years old variety is no longer the spice of life.

Harlan in his 50s by now, had spent parts of his life in thrall to another past: vinyl records, the artifact which since its German invention by Emil Berliner in the late 1800s had brought music and speech, news and entertainment to where there were no performers.


Leaving home at 17, leaving behind endless "pay now or else" demands from the Columbia Record Club and the RCA Record Club,  Harlan’s first full time job was assistant manager at a chain outlet, Discount Records, in Burlington, Vt.   He next landed at independent record stores in two southern states, and then a vinyl record “one-stop” distributor. Then vinyl 33s and 45s gave way to tapes; tapes gave way to CDs; and CDs became dispensable, disposable, and a downright nuisance.  Harlan bought and sold records all these times. His Texas mentor was a first rank in-store DJ who sold records by play-testing promo copies for customers who dropped in to hear something new, and ordering straight out of the monthly Schwann catalog picks. Harlan could always needle-drop behind the counter and turn an album with one or two good tracks into a whole album sale.

The building which attracted Harlan had been subdivided in front and back. In front was an office space and a retail space; Harlan took the retail space, assuming, as with most dreamers, that it came supplied with customer traffic. An affordable anachronism from the start, an old fashioned record store, with mostly used records, a steady stream of which had followed Harlan around for decades at a time. Even with all this good luck, and the hostel owners’ forbearance, keeping the doors open was a daily struggle. 

All the traffic was headed past Conway Village to North Conway.

Outside the door, long lines of stalled-at-the-4-way-intersection-signal-light-traffic could peer from their cars into the windows of Harlan Wolfe’s Record Shop while waiting for the light to change. Always there was hope, that thousands of eyeballs of traffic count may spot the three southbound parallel parking spaces in front of Harlan’s, and drop into the record store for a look see.

They would have seen his plodding acceptance of shipping records around the planet, only to see no local interest at all. Except at the office supplies store around the corner, where he became a prized customer overpaying for shipping materials, tape, etc., until he figured out the best online suppliers.

A rotating display of vintage vinyl LPs, organized by genre and alpha by artist, took on the look of a shipping back room. Another backroom completed the look— a small bookstore, and t-shirts, instruments, audio equipment: it was a veritable museum of records and books from the 1960s to the present. “Too much past all at once,” one would-be customer winced. Everyone feels differently in a cemetery or museum.

So many walk-ins were luck-downed denizens of this poor county with only a seasonal tourist economy.  They rang through the door to sell their late parents’ stuff, implore for funds, or ask for something Harlan didn’t have. Harlan had to put on a happy face while thinking of what to do. Even advertising in the area newspaper and radio station did not help.

Foot traffic on the busy Main and Washington intersection, despite its legacy 1920s sidewalks, and friendly pedestrian cross walks, was light. Some buildings had been torn down for gas stations in the 1960s and now they were convenience stores for gas, beer, wine, cigarettes, and everything which gives you gas. If this pass-through town’s name had been False Hope, it would have better described its destiny.

Every day Harlan sprayed and washed his display windows, tweaked the window display, built up his online presence, and waited for customers. An occasional collector would get wind of the store, drive 50 miles or and spend a couple hundred dollars. It didn’t take long to tap out that market while more boxes of records from estates kept rolling in, many destined for the dumpster out back.

He finally gave up his lease and moved out, and I helped pack and shoulder the boxes and furniture. He paid me with a box of sheet music. “A lady left it here,” he said. She was looking for someplace to dump it other than recycling.

I can make a u-turn up here and we can go back to the boat I think I was telling you about when this exit creeped up on us so fast. That box of sheet music led me to the rest of this story.

Chapter 1

The opening day of “More Sinned Against Than Sinning: An Original Irish Drama. In a Prologue and Three Acts” was festive enough, on the last day of July 1974. From the early 19th century book of De Witt’s Acting Plays, it was meant to be produced by amateurs with little access to set materials and certainly no budget. Much enthusiasm was called for.

The show emeritus director, MaryAnn Dentler, was a bewitching actor director, adept at convincing anyone they could act. She started her career touring with ‘Peg o’ my heart’ across the South in 1915, starring once in a film, ‘The Clarion,’ in 1916, in demand for stock performances in San Francisco and Oklahoma City in fall 1917, and then somehow fading from the scene about age 26. She came back on the scene for the Federal Theater Project portion of FDR’s WPA, circa 1936, producing hat box theater productions on various local shoestrings buttressed with federal New Deal dollars. Dentler would spend the last fourteen years of her life living in a cabin of this Floating Theater, in the vein of so many performers left behind by radio and films and TV, now exchanging acting for room and board and a few dollars, re-branding their occupation from anyone-can-do-it to Equity pro.

She had a niece, a talent agent named Ruth Webb. At this moment, the first day of the first season here in Kingston, Ruth was up visiting and had agreed to work the ticket booth.

“This show is a proven draw from Seattle to Albany and there’s always somebody who knows the lines by heart,” MaryAnn said to no one in particular.

“‘Joe’s Garage’ on the tickets,” said Ruth, scrutinizing the roll of tickets she had just been handed. “Nothing like a high class sponsor printed on the tickets.”

“They already had the type set so I got a huge discount. And Joe’s agreed to put up a poster.”

“I might be able to get Richard Holbrook up here for a guest shot,” said Ruth. “Who would I talk to?”

There had been some advance ticket sales.  The Furbush kids were not keenly drawn to the family business. Most successful showboats were crewed by the captain’s family. Since the Furbush kids went on to their adult lives, Ed and Shirley and MaryAnn and Fred and Cap’n Tip had collected a ragtag group of local volunteers and part-time help. Ed had searched up and down the Hudson River, to encounter short-term moorings of dubious value to a Floating Theatre. Kingston? Remained to be seen.

Ed Furbush saw the past light to be cherished and remembered. Sometimes people call this "dreamy." Vision of a bygone era,  with determined enthusiasm for the last tugs of showboats. With their mirth, melody, minstrelsy, humorous readings, acrobatics, and short plays—- showboats were towed or pushed up America’s rivers from the 1830s onward, staging melodrama, vaudeville, and other divertissements up and down. Even during the Civil War, productions were staged on battle ships to keep soldiers engaged and amused between battles. All this water-bound brouhaha while the rail roads were still being connived into place across the continent, and hosting their own grand events aboard, such as whistle stop tours in luxury cabins.

Ed had a college friend in New York, Fred Hall. As the benefits director of the Boys’ Club, Fred Hall had become expert at sponsoring charity events with upper Eastside New York matrons, who were as eager to support the Boys’ Club as they were to be seen doing so. At the same time, Fred roomed with his sister in an apartment in St. Mark’s Place which became a haven for theater people employed and unemployed, backstage and front. In line with his earliest instincts, Fred had naturally befriended and mentored many theater people since his Federal Theater Project days, when he and Ed Furbush signed up for the subsidized work.


At the Boys’ Club he met the promising young Thomas P. McGuire, who would become Cap’n Tip McGuire of Floating Theater fame. The next generation of showboat entrepreneur, a kid of the 1960s was Tip. A dreamer as well, like Fred and Ed had been in the 1930s.  Tip could line up an audience by doing magic tricks on the curb. He conned the Hayden Planetarium into letting him give guest lectures, as the Boy Who Sees The Past Light of Stars. Upon being discovered by Fred, Tip became a natural for afternoon teas in Fred Hall’s high-rise fundraisers. His magic act for the ladies was so polished he brought it to his Navy duty in the Mediterranean, entertaining diplomatic corps from the Azores to Tripoli in the late 1960s. His skills were well applied to card tricks, juggling, and ventriloquy.

All three men, Ed, Fred and Tip knew wicked much about chopping old boats into barge boards. Oyster beds, land fill, scrap yard, one old ancient hull after another. Natural resources of Richmond S.I.

Dialing back the clock to 1936, Fred and Ed had met while singing in the Boston College Men’s Chorus. They saw the flyer on the bulletin board outside of the rehearsal hall. “Federal Theater Project.”  The government was recruiting performers for churches, tents, mission schools, old soldiers’ homes, hospitals, public parks, university halls–even showboats. Out-of-work vaudevillians would stage variety shows.  Circuses would set up in armories, and marionette plays would delight children and adults. (The FTP’s most successful project by far was the Swing Mikado, a jazzed-up version of the Gilbert and Sullivan warhorse which had premiered in Chicago in September 1938.) For a few short years, until it was shut down in June 1939, the Federal Theater Project brought arts to society, a unique government agency supporting the arts, during a period of economic tragedies. Propping up these performers led to the entertainment industry which dominated popular attention through the 20th century and into the next.

Showboats were just another vessel on then-busy waterways 100 years prior to that, ever since performers hitched rides on canal boats in the 1820s. Barge and passenger traffic kept New York harbor bustling and more polluting by the day. Steamboats had plied passengers up to Poughkeepsie or Providence or Boston or Montauk since the 1840s, and anything that could be hidden on a boat was, on the spectrum from stolen goods to freed slaves. Law enforcement or bounty hunters might clamber aboard at any stop looking for escaped slaves or contraband.


Fred saw the advertisement hanging drably on the bulletin board wall, but promising excitement from beyond.  Fred thought mythically.  Like a Queensland cowboy touring the outback looking for chance-takers, he would plunge himself into the performing world (and its paycheck!) with government backing.

Ed had had similar thoughts, matriculating up from Lewiston off the Androscoggin River, between there and Sabattus Pond, with several steamboat landings, plenty of river drives and logging activity. It was a town of smithies, a grist mill, blacksmiths, coopers, makers of snowshoes, axe handles and moccasins. An old world. The new world of 1936? Being lifted out of Depression and into a government paycheck and life in theater. It wasn’t the least preposterous that FDR would propel the arts into a new social status with funding to match.

“I’m reading the fine print…”

Fred’s words echoed down the voluminous hall where Ed had already trotted away, application in hand.

“It’s government supporting the arts. Show up, sign up. Just grab it and let’s go.”

Armed with purpose, the two young students sat drinking coffee in the cafeteria, filling out the applications, until it closed.

“My father always said, you can not only learn a trade right here at home, you can practice the trade too and probably get my job when i die.”

“Yeah, well,” he pointed to the destroyer models on the wall, “they never thought the USS Drayton or Lamson would ever be finished. Then what?”

“Yachts, more destroyers, whatever. I think his point was, a steady paycheck and a union contract is worth doing almost anything that’s available.”

“From the looks of this Federal Theater Project, that courtesy is about to be extended to singers, playwrights, actors, set designers, techs…”

“It’s just charity from the radio and film people for putting so many live performers out of work. Even the dance bands are scaling down. Dancers are being told they have to learn to sing too. Just like when actors had to suddenly learn to speak for movies. Vaudeville is on the skids. Magicians are learning how to do radio sound effects.”

The two students talked into the night about each other’s prospects, one a language major and the other political science. After four years of good Irish Catholic college education, Fred knew he was more the mentor than the teacher type, with a full plate of enthusiasm which would knock any syllabus to the ground in hand-to-hand combat. Education professional was a good game for a Boston College graduate but something else beckoned, what it was, Fred not sure.

Neither had Ed’s same four years pushed him into any certainty about the future beyond 1936. He liked working with his hands. He saw things in wood.

With the Federal Theatre Project, some 19th century fossils of showboating were revived, included ones on the Ohio River System and the Mississippi. Ed got a berth appropriately with his one-man dramatization of Moby Dick, which he had seen as a child on the Androscoggin. He met his wife Shirley doing Moby Dick on the Hollywood, where she tap-danced. And just like he found this job, he answered a bulletin on a wall calling for submarine builders at the Portsmouth Naval Yard in Kittery, Maine. And from there, down to New York Harbor, spanning a decade and a half of war and cold war.

As a tug hand around Port Richmond in the 1950s, Ed plunged into harbor life, buying an old retired Lackawanna Railroad coal barge for $350 from the lumber yard where it was scrapped, and doing the typical work of marine salvage in Mariners Harbor.  It became the 111-foot hull of his showboat dream.

“The timbers are going for practically nothing,” the husky 42-year old deck hand told Shirley, who wasn’t sure about tap dancing on a boat again. “We can get enough to build a deck on top of the barge storage deck.” Between 1954 and 1962, the hard work resulted in six staterooms, a galley, and the shell of a theater, even while Furbush worked part time as a deck hand on other boats. Every spare minute, Ed was heaving ponderous beams into place, sawing out gingerbread decorations for the railings, installing period lighting fixtures. He moved aboard into stern living quarters, leaving Shirley and their daughter Kristin in an apartment on shore. By fall 1961 they moved aboard with the new sibling Keith, to save on rent among other things. Called the boat Driftwood Floating Theatre.

By 1972 the Driftwood was funded for NYC Parks Day, towed from borough to borough, city piers and waterside parks. Tip McGuire came aboard one day having met Fred Hall at the Boys’ Club. His showboat repertoire fit the project well.

I’m going to give you a chance to buy some candy while you learn how to be a ventriloquist. Do I have any takers?

“This one throws his voice just fine” he hears from a ringer.

“Thank you but I need a real dummy,” says Tom.

The winner will receive a special scholarship made out of candy, for only a nickel. What do you kids think?

“How about you, Gladiator,” Tom asks his dummy, a chimpanzee puppet named Gladiator.

Hi Cap’n Tom. What is ventriloquism?

It’s the art of being able to talk without moving your lips.

The position of the mouth is important. Close your mouth, bring your teeth together and hold them together. Don’t clench them, just close them so they barely touch.

Now part your lips slightly, not like a big smile. Just slightly.

Now you have mouth closed, your lips together, and your teeth parted slightly. Now the jaw must be relaxed, the lips parted slightly, and the tongue must be free to move around in the mouth.

Now practice the alphabet in front of a mirror and pronounce each letter without moving your lips.

There has to be practice, practice, and more practice.

OK, kids? Now get your nickels out and the first one to see me move my lips gets to buy some candy.

Gladiator, where did you ever get a name like that. You couldn’t hurt a flea.

My mother gave me the name, she was glad to see me.

Oh, gladiator for glad to see you (Cap’n Tom rolls his eyes)

 Especially since my father disappeared the morning after she got pregnant.

Why did he disappear?

He saw my mother in the daylight.

That’s not very nice, gladiator. Why don’t we talk about my family?

Don’t get me started.

What do you know about my family?

I’m a chimp, ain’t I?

Aren’t I, gladiator. You come from a whole family of dummies?

Hey, you moved your lips.

OK kiddo, what’s your name, and what’s your nickel gonna get you? I got Sugar Babies, Charms, Paydays, even Tums for your mom over there. They’re a dime.

Hey, I saw you move your lips too!

I did too!

Me, too!

Chapter 2

I am my audience. A free brown people toiling in brown furrows, winter time on the plantation, where we work for money. Bales of cotton, sacks of sugar and corn, hogsheads of tobacco weigh down the steamboats headed down the river. Trees survive the winter down here. Winter red roses bloom. Inside the plantation house everybody’s cracking pecans for pralines. The wind seems to howl outside along the Mississippi coast.

Then there’s the boat freighted with mystery and entertainment. Inside and out, everyone throws down their work.

“Calliope! Calliope!”

The calliope is playing “Bicycle Built For Two” while everyone drops what they’re doing and scramble up the levee and over to the town wharf.

There it is. “Floating Theater.” Everybody knows and they can gasp it in unison “Floating Theater!” And “Big Show tonight, whole plantation’s coming!” In the next few hours, buggies and surreys come from as far away as ten miles and other plantations and freeman’s farms.

There was a play with a murder. Applause. Magic tricks, knife throwing act, song singing and candy selling. At the end of the night, we climbed the levee, turned around to look one more time at the Floating Theater, even if it meant turning into pillars of salt like Lot in the Old Testament. The joy on a cold night down by the riverside made for sound sleep and we couldn’t wait til morning to jump out of bed and climb up the levee and then down again to the town wharf to see the Floating Theater in the morning sun.

But the river lay quiet at dawn. The dock was empty and the boat long gone. Again and again, over and over, the dock was all excitement one night and empty at dawn. From the dawn of steam to World War II, ticking off the weeks, months, years. Depending on the river or the latitude, farm, hamlet, plantation…

Those brief Federal Theater Project days lingered in Ed Furbush’s memory, hard to push aside. As if he had lived history when it happened, a recurring dream under the silt of the day. Tugging barges ashore to be scrapped here in Mariners Harbor, the movie played over in his mind.

Thirteen railroads. 40,000 miles of tracks. Terminals at Port of New York. Canal barges loaded and unloaded. Since the sinking of the Andrea Doria, wood barges no longer fit for water hitting the scrap yard for salvage lumber.

1920s coal strike. Now the soft coal was loaded at Hampton Roads Virginia, tugged upriver, and craned at Hoboken onto open top railroad cars of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Inland via canal to heat upstate New York in the winter, to smoke-darken the skies all the way to Buffalo.

The war years working at Portsmouth Naval Yard had not dimmed Ed’s memory of his last showboat years. He remembered his Moby Dick reading like some actors can recite Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” faultlessly year after year.  In fact the job he took as a tugboat hand made him see, feel, hear and touch all the experiences when he learned to tow along the Androscoggin and then magnifying the setting into larger scale thoughts. The wood still looked good. The side job was creepy but secure. As the preacher would say of Jesus over at Mariner’s Temple on Oliver Street, “still fit to float.”

Oily old planks and beams which must explain why they are burning down there so much. Shirley doesn’t remember exactly how Ed would be spending more and more time in the scrap yard, and missing out on some plum tug assignments which might have paid better. It seemed to her they would never get out of buying store brands which indulged only the thrifty. It seemed to her that him heating a can of Ann Page stew on a camp lantern to spend extra hours in the scrap yard, was worth a thousand words at least. Of explanation… she knew he was building his dream, but didn’t know what else.

Was it a showboat planked together in a history dream? Was it a replica of a showboat destined to ride one of the world's great rivers? Was it a boondoggle which should have been scrapped or stayed scrapped? Just another thing barely noticed in the big passing of time. 


This story had improbably began from a box of junk gifted to me by Harlan Wolfe, a box of sheet music, and the program for a show called “Vamp ’Til Ready,” to be staged as a benefit for the Driftwood Floating Theatre. In return for helping him clean out that storage building.

So, we have covered 200 years preceding about 1956, bounced around talking about Ed, Harlan, the theatre, the boat, the record store, etc. forwarded (for one paragraph) about 50 years, and now here we are, back or forward, whichever way you look at it, in the late 1980s, on a creek down from the Hudson.

The town folks were having none of it, the city council was mortified after hearing from the building inspector. A 70-something woman was living in a condemned building. Or, a condemned boat. Actually barely a boat at all. A slowly sinking boat.

To some the whole thing smelled of rotting fish. Way upriver, one of the nation’s most revered industrial giants, General Electric, seemed to be polluting the river bottom from Schenectady on a timeline of years and unknown cost. Everybody got to know about it through Pete Seeger.

And this boat, incepted to recall a simpler time, was not an industrial giant. More like a haven, a refuge. Doing no one any particular harm. Locals could make fun of the shows they put on at the boat. TV had long ago surpassed this type of recreation.

The woman was its sole permanent resident.

Maryann Dentler berthed in an upper cabin of the Driftwood Floating Theater as it took on ice and water, very slowly we should add, near Eddyville on the Rondout Creek back in the late last century.

Maryann had an interesting skill which involved mind reading. Presumed to be blessed with enhanced hippocampus triggers, her pattern completion abilities extended to almost anyone within reach of her crystal ball. She could help you decide whether to get involved in the card game after the show tonight. War veterans came for hypnosis treatment therapy. She could lead a kid to puppy love or a husband to anger.

She’d used this ability since November 15, 1914, when she first starred in Peg O’ My Heart in Everett, Washington. She could simply turn anyone into an actor capable of performing in any number of DeWitt’s published plays.

All of this is not much when you’re 70-something stooping on a gangplank with your bags packed waiting for a ride.

Phones were ringing in New York.

“She has no savings?”

“Her pension goes to the boat maintenance.”

“You have to make an exception this time. Bend the rules.”

“The venue was reported by a member. The committee had to meet on it. Mrs. Dentler cannot participate in a non-Equity theater and keep her pension too.”

“You know as well as me that’s one committee, making a wrong decision which there is always a probability of making, not knowing Maryann’s history with the union. Besides, this ship doesn’t need your help to sink. The bucket had a hole in it already.”

“Ruth Ann, she’s your aunt, right?”

You can almost hear the nod.

“You’re a great agent for some of our members too. It’s the town, not us. They’re bearing down on the Driftwood because it’s sinking. They found out your fortune-teller aunt is homesteading there. Her bank closed her checking account so we have no one to send checks too. We can restore the pension when she has a new address.”

“Well, send it to me.”

“Next time the committee meets we’ll put that to them.”

Ruth Ann hung up. What a strange business. And she’s in it.

For an Army Corps of Engineers guy, he was uncomfortable on muddy shifting ground. You might think the opposite, but as the officer drove into the Driftwood Floating Theatre parking lot, he thought he might get stuck. Most of it was mud and weeds. There had been various fund-raising campaigns to pave it, and the local paving contractor sat on the theatre’s advisory board, but the weather and the Rondout Creek extension never seemed to co-operate. The property was once envisioned as an extension lot for the fish restaurant next door, but the maintenance cost proved uneconomical.

So he opened the driver door and pivoted his legs enough to get them into some galoshes, turned off his pager and headed gingerly for the hulk on the edge of the lot. A gas generator was running over in the bushes and a long cord seemed to lead into the boat. A light was on in an upper cabin.

Hello, it’s the Army Corps of Engineers, he shouted up. He tramped over the weeds to the stern and shouted again. Maryann Dentler heard him from inside.

“I’m not the owner,” she shouted through the window.

When will you see the owner, said the Army Corps of Engineers. We need to make sure this letter is delivered to the owner.

“I don’t know, I’m moving out today. The town condemned me for living.”

Yes I see the condemnation notice.

I’ll leave the letter with you because we don’t know who else will see the owner. We’re not sure of the ownership at all.

“It’s all spelled out in Captain Furbush’s will,” Maryann was coming down with her earthly possessions. Tip McGuire had promised he would find a safe place for her costume collection.

Mrs. Furbush sold it but the bill of sale is not notarized, said the Army Corps of Engineers. If we have to get the boat, we’ll have to send the owner a bill.

Maryann was sure her ride wouldn’t come until the Army Corps of Engineers person was gone. So she took the letter and said she’d send it where she sent her rent which was a post office box. It was only a little white lie.

Meanwhile Tip had been driving around several different blocks until he saw the government car gone. He probably made Maryann Dentler wait a little bit longer than she should have. She was sitting on a duffel bag holding what looked like a letter and, of course, reading minds.

What does a mind reader do with the memories of the past half century or so, not just hers but everyone else’s? She even knew everything Tip will say if he sees the letter.

It’s not sinking. Just a little bailing now and then. It’s not blocking anything. They’re just papering files that’s how they get paid. We have a season to cast and book. We’re not going anywhere. We have a couple who are actor/playwrights and they’re helping to fund the season.

Yes, “fund the season” rang a bell with Maryann. Most of her life had been whistle stop tours to start amateur theater troupes in various small towns from Washington to Maine. If a Barrymore or a Le Gallienne or Lunt-Fontaine or a jazz or vaudeville show were touring in a vicinity, she would elbow the press to announce a new local theater and begin fund raising for it by holding mind reading entertainments at potential patrons’ homes. The touring theater held out the promise that Maryann’s hatbox theater delivered — a way to roar in the 20s or dodge the depressing realities of the 30s.

Then the Federal Theatre Project came along, with the chance to go “pro” without going to Manhattan or Los Angeles. Whether entranced with the stage, backstage, lights, sound, romance, ego, drink, remorse or gambling, the local theatre was a gateway beyond the local fraternal, veteran or polite social society.

She heard him turn the corner into the old parking lot. She shoved the letter in one of her bags. Maybe the new couple might work out.

“Maryann! I got us an office with an apartment for you in it. It’s in Kingston. It’s a commercial district and when the landlord finds out you’re living there we may have to move again. But it will be fine for now.”

“Cap’n Tom, are you going down with the ship?” She meant this to sound jocular but Tom had a worried mind.