Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Philadelphia, PA

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: THE LAST WEEK BEFORE OUR FIRST LAYOFF SINCE CHRISTMAS. Which undoubtedly sounds like less to you than it does to us. Or did. And which frankly probably sounded like less to me than it did to Angie, who actually has to work for a living. And at that rate, less to Angie than … oh this is silly…

Philly. Filly, filly, filly. Phillayyyy. Filet…


I don’t know why, I just like this town. A lot. Yes, the avowedly dog-friendliness of Philadelphia, from the poop bags in the park to the hotels that accept pets to the restaurants that don’t flinch if you ask to sit with your dog at the outside seating (listen and learn, New York City), doesn’t hurt. But it’s deeper, I’m sure of it. I felt this way the last time I was here. Let me tick off a few possible points worth mentioning, in no particular order:

  • outdoor art – tons of it.
  • A vital theater scene, in fact a vital arts scene all the way around.
  • Smart audiences, which suggests to me a smart population.
  • Lots of historical preservation (but then, oh home of the Declaration, you’d better…)
  • Enough ‘weird’ to offer lots of things-I-wish-I-had-done by the time I left.
  • Architecture which has managed to remain updated without losing a sense of its heritage.
  • Neighborhoods, lots of ‘em.
  • It’s flat – great for biking around.
  • It’s small – great for biking around.
  • Lots of people bike – so you don’t feel like a moron biking around.
  • It’s close enough to New York to make use of the city, but not so close you feel like you’re a bedroom community (I know several actors from Philly, some who stayed in Philly and would commute to NYC for the bigger auditions…)
  • A heartbeat which feels familiar – and this is harder to define, but I think it’s something about its being an East Coast town, with enough ties to New England, that the names sound familiar, people walk at a recognizable pace, stop at delis or flower shops at a familiar rate, go out with friends on the town, instead of visiting at each others’ homes, etc., so the downtown it vital all day long…in fact, and that’s its own thing:
  • Downtown ain’t dead.

Now sure, we were in a cool part of Philadelphia, probably pricier than where I’d find myself as often if I lived there. But I wonder how much pricier? Real estate offerings were pretty good, what I saw up on brokers’ windows. (‘Course, with the recent devaluation because of the economy, that may not be the best measuring stick…) And like a lot of bigger cities, you can live cheaply if you choose to. Eat in, shop on Craigslist, that kind of thing… Stuff we do in New York.

Philadelphia is a city that feels lived in without feeling rundown. Or at least, if it was rundown, it’s been given a very good facelift. Yeah… Philly’s cool.

We arrived and unloaded into our room at the Radisson Warwick Hotel. Very nice. We knew it was going to be a very busy week: we had a new male lead (Jake Epstein) being put in and there was a put-in rehearsal with him. We also had an understudy put-in which was going to eat up another afternoon. But even with a fair amount of rehearsal, we managed to get in some good walks around town.

Angie also went by the restaurant where she had planned to have her birthday dinner, Pumpkin. You see, the missus was due to turn … well, a big number … the Monday after our week in Philadelphia, the Monday of our layoff week, and the plan was to invite a bunch of friends in from New York and other places for dinner and have one very nice, very comfortable, and very personal dinner to celebrate. Some folks were able to make it, others had stuff going on, and some made their pilgrimage in other ways. But more on that to come in the next blog entry... The Layoff Week.

Rittenhouse Square was a frequent watering hole for Butley. Many fun concrete benches made for good practice on hopping up & down. And it’s kind of an anomaly as city parks go – smaller than the kind of park you get lost it, it’s definitely bigger than the kind of park where you can see one side from the other. Nicely carved up to give everyone a little plot of their own, but with more than enough benches and stoops for crowds to gather at lunchtime or such. You'll find your fair share of discoing rollerskaters, mobile-yoga-moms & prams, chess-playing seniors and pigeon-chasing juniors, as well as everything in between.

Parc was a restaurant just adjacent to Rittenhouse, and it’s a little piece of Paris in Philly. Kinda. OK, not really. But someone who built it obviously had at least been to Paris and liked it. The entire walls which open up onto streetside dining, the bamboo & red painted chairs, the predominance of the espresso machine… We had a good brunch there. Nothing toe-curling, but very pleasant.

The theater where we performed, the Academy of Music’s Kimmel Center, was be-yoo-tee-ful. It felt like an old, Austrian opera house. Tom Hulce could have shot his sequel to "Amadeus" there. “Mozart: the Farewell Concert.”

Angie went to a matinee to see her friend Joy Franz perform in a production of Grey Gardens at the Philadelphia Theater Company, on the one afternoon she had off. And me … well … I think I slept on my afternoon off.

And before the evening performance on Sunday, we had our traditional rendition of “Happy Trails” for Kyle Riabko, our Melchior, and Julie Danielson, our bassist, who were to be moving on to greener pastures from our little migrating gaggle. There were tears, Lord were there tears (this is a company of late teens and early twenty-something musical theater kids…), but I think a few of them may have even been mine. Foxholes make fast friends, and I’ll look forward to seeing them both anon. As I surely will. Because we all know how this business is.

But the real excitement of the week – at least for me anyway, having been planning it for a couple weeks prior – was a re-writing of the lyrics to one of our songs, “The Bitch of Living,” to be sung by all the boys in the cast (who sing “The Bitch of Living” in the show). We even rehearsed it a couple times, and Freddy Hall, one of our guitarists, and Marques Walls, our drummer, generously offered their talents. And so, before “Happy Trails,” (I’m no dummy), we rallied the company together and Angie rang in this latest milestone the best way I could think up – by having a group of cute young fellas singing, “The Bitch of 40.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baltimore, MD

After awhile, the refrain becomes a bit repetitive. Another town I’ve been to before. Another couple weeks with a lot of rehearsals. Another downtown. Another set of cute parts to find. Another downtown that’s suffering from urban flight.

Interestingly enough – one thing I’ve been noticing is how the depressed downtown areas are often on the East Coast. Why that is, I’m not sure. Because we only went to tourist destinations on the West Coast? Because the East Coast is just more densely populated, and thus the suburb rules? Because the East Coast is older? Because the West is moving from rural to cosmopolitan, while the East moves from cosmopolitan to rural? I dunno. You tell me.

Fells Point: A great place to spend a lazy afternoon. Wide open streets and restaurants & bars with tables outside. Fun stores. The harbor nearby. Bikers of all flavors park their hogs along the street and take in an afternoon brew while plaid-short tourists wander through the open market.

Federal Hill: I like this area a lot. (A wee bit less, now that the Thirsty Dog Tavern (now simply Pub Dog) no longer allows dogs.) Lots of little shops. Restaurants. And the quirky home of Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge,where Spencer Horsman, the young prodigy magician son of Ken Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. Circus clown, performs his act on the weekends. And frankly, how that twenty dollar bill made it into that orange, I have NO earthly idea… But if magic isn't your style, there is still plenty of recreation to be had in looking at the old school furnishings, the masterly bartending, the pool table and couches in the back, or the museum of clippings and memorabilia that Ken has amassed of his son's nascent career.

Hampden: I’ve never been there, sadly. I had wanted to go for “Honfest,” but I had some other commitments. The website describes it as “a local tradition. The Bawlmer term of endearment, Hon, short for Honey, embodies the warmth and affection bestowed upon our neighbors and visitors alike by historic working-women of Baltimore. HonFest is an annual celebration in honor of these women. Since 1994, HonFest has grown from a tiny Baltimore's Best Hon pageant behind Café Hon, to a nationally recognized festival that covers four city blocks on Hampden's very own 36th Street.” Basically, if you put Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade together with Greenwich Village’s Gay Pride Parade and grind them both through a John Waters blender… you’d get Honfest.

American Visionary Art Museum: Wow. So cool. A museum which, at every turn, would seem to evoke the response, "I didn't know you could make art like THAT. Or use a material like THAT." Junkyard genius and backyard brilliance. Whatever credentials among the artists you find here are like so much honorary degrees - only acknowledgment of otherwise innate talent and experience-based training. It's art that simultaneously makes you think you could go into your crafts box and make something brilliant yourself, while simultaneously shaming you into thinking you could ever have an ounce of these people's creativity. And of late, they've added exhibitions that cross all sorts of boundaries, looking at the artistic experience itself from psychological, economic, cultural, anthropological, and historical perspectives. If there's one thing you do in Baltimore, make this it.

I think, by now, you’re getting the idea. Another town chock full o’ nuts. As for other towns that have to wage a campaign to 'keep XXX weird', Baltimore seemingly never actually has to even put that idea forth. The weirdness brigade seems fully and permanently entrenched.
But here’s the thing: I have never been to a town with so much personality but so little character. What is the essence of Baltimore? I couldn’t really tell you. Something about the town eludes encapsulation. For instance, Angie and I met a guy in this stationery store (I think it was Le Petit Cochon) who’s British and had been all over the world. He’d wanted to move to the US and, in making a careful examination of all the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, this fellow – a more-than-part-time sailor – picked the harbor city of Baltimore. He talked non-stop, even though he was very charming and literate, and he thought Baltimore was the bee’s knees, which is fine, but he was the last person you would ever have expected to end up in Baltimore, let alone as the result of careful forethought and preparation.

A town with one of the highest historical murder and crime rates in the nation. (More than New York and between 2 & 3 times the national average.) A town that has been steadily losing its population for years (2.2% just last year). An economy that … well … that’s bad everywhere, isn’t it? Anyway – somehow, in spite of it all – Baltimore manages to earn from its residents an undying loyalty. But even if you ask them, they can’t really tell you what it is that draws them to stay. Yes, the crime there is terrible. Yes, the city has been trying to rebuild itself, but it’s largely failed. And yet, Baltimore is, by all resident reports, a great place to live.

Obviously, there’s something I’m not getting…

And I don’t disbelieve it either. Civic pride can only take you so far. I’m only saying that I think you have to really spend some time there, getting to know the town inside and out, before you can make a judgment. More time, and with more assiduousness, than I apparently had. But after ten months on the road, if my intrepid tourist skills have begun to flag, well … can you really blame me?

One last item worth mentioning: we had a lovely 5th anniversary dinner at Sascha's. It turns out that I had been to this restaurant 2 years before, when I was on my last tour - and it was, in fact, the first time Angie had come down to visit me on the road. But I didn't remember that until we arrived at the place. They actually held the kitchen open a bit late for us, as we came there right from the show. Afterwards, we went for drinks across the street at Ixia (for which I would gladly provide a link, but it's now apparently closed - too bad, it was a very nice place). And tottering home, I could say it was the romance of the evening that was so intoxicating, but ... the dirty vodka martinis probably didn't hurt. The rain that began softly falling helped to sober us up, though, and as we arrived back at the hotel, I think it was all in all a perfect anniversary. So let that be my own contradiction. Yes, it was Baltimore. And yes, we had a perfectly good time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Louisville, KY

The Promised Land. The End of the Drought. The Beginning of the Future.

The Return of Butley.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Tag’s great. Some day, if I ever have need of a service dog, I’d love to have a pal like Tag to actually get things for me that I couldn’t get on my own, to open doors for me, to go with me to work and to the movies … and to bowling alleys!

But in the meanwhile, able-bodied, late-sleeping, and bearded (read: hidden cost of shedding) as I am, bring me back my boy.

Nicole and Eric had it all planned out: drive to Louisville, swap the dogs that Monday night, and spend the rest of the week riding bikes. It … didn’t quite work out like that. They drove to Louisville, we swapped the dogs, and … well … that’s where the plan went awry.

But let me back up – I have no photos of our reunion with Butley because a) it was literally at midnight, b) we were in a poorly lit park just over the river in Indiana, c) I knew I wanted to spend the time getting slobbery kisses and wrestling. So you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that we were nearly BOWLED OVER by the gleefully rampaging ball of muscle that Butley had become! Other people, in a dark park, late at night, in a strange city, with a pit bull charging them down, open-mouthed and snorfling like a rutting moose, might be afraid. Understandably. We, however, were thrilled.

And as soon as Butley saw the big red Forester he’d spent so much time in already this last year, he hopped right up and in the back seat. “Right, OK – on with the show!” he seemed to be saying. And while we stayed out in the park and traded brief Butley and Tag tips, bags of food, toys, beds, leashes, and the like for awhile longer, after a long day of travel for everyone, we were all just as happy to cut it short for the promise of a lunch tomorrow and to have the proper catching up when and where it would be a little more comfortable.

So – Butley’s back. All hail the big-head.

Louisville was another one of those towns where Angie and I had both worked, had a pretty good sense of where we were and what the place was like, and with Butley back in our care, we were pretty happy to spend the time just wandering the new Waterfront Park they have. It’s a great new development that is new since either of us had worked at Actors Theater of Louisville. Before, it was just an abandoned, industrial area. Now, it’s a place for the whole town to enjoy, and it promises to give a good shot in the arm to the downtown economy and quality of life.

We always knew there were good restaurants there, and while we only went somewhere other than the Einstein’s Bagels in the hotel lobby a couple times, it was never disappointing. Proof is the newest noteworthy addition to the downtown dining scene. While a few local cognoscenti resent all the attention its gotten and consider it a bit out of place, we thought it was terrific. Kate Hampton, Angie’s understudy, was practically drooling at the thought of their burgers. And I gotta say, it’s some seriously good eats; married with an off-beat design that straddles quirky and trendy without sacrificing too much of the just-plain-weird on which Louisville’s arts scene prides itself.

“Keep Louisville Weird” reads a slogan you’ll see on bumper stickers or posters here and there. It’s not the only city to herald itself thusly. I’ve seen “Keep Austin Weird,” “Keep Portland Weird,” I think there may be a “Keep Seattle Weird,” although I think it’s a little late for that place. But all of these cities are cities that – if I had a job that kept me there – I have no doubt I could find a very happy life for myself. Angie as well. Funky coffee shops, atavistic LP record shops, art galleries for self-taught artists, and local dignitaries that could only happen there. So, if New York ever gets too much (if I ever actually live there for any length of time), I think one of my chief criteria may be, “Is it weird?”

The one decidedly NOT weird, and frankly kinda depressing, thing about the downtown Louisville scene is the 4th Street Live trainwreck of the kinds of bars they must scout out for those “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Loud, typical, anonymous, and full of so many flashing lights, television screens, and gimmicky restaurants that you KNOW it’s going to be a drag just as you walk up to it. If you’re going to Louisville, I suggest you avoid it.

We did enjoy the street musicians there. Maybe because it’s a new thing, I don’t know, but it was more than some guy with a plastic pail drumming brilliant but piercing rhythms that echo off the buildings. It was 5-piece bands, acoustic guitarists who actually had a good voice, and … outfits. It almost felt a little like New Orleans.

Which would be appropriate, since Louisville shares the same municipal logo – the fleur de Lis. You’ll see it all over – in reference to King Louis, I imagine, the town’s presumptive namesake.

That and the orange fire hydrants.

But we also spent time with Nicole and Eric, going over some of Butley’s training. And our little foursome somehow has the proclivity to talk. A lot. And so we did. Among the topics were a couple ideas Eric and I have been throwing around for fundraising for Paws & Effect, their canine service program. And Tag also had to go to the vet – it seems the meds he was taking for flea and tick prevention only work … on fleas. And after his romp in the woods, he came back with – a LOTTA ticks. We thought we had gotten all of them. But a couple had to be handled by a vet. So, that took up one day. And then we had a little remedial work we had to go back over with Butley, and that took up one day. And we had to meet to give them Tag’s food. And that took up an afternoon. And … well … unfortunately they didn’t get a lot of riding in, during the break.

But they had a true vacation from work, and hopefully they won’t resent us forever. (Right guys?)

Angie and I both did a little perusing the Bardstown Road area, a favorite for both of us. Walking along, I thought back to the bike I bought at Bardstown Bicycles, the days I spent flipping through the music at Ear-X-Tacy, and getting Coffee at the Metro Café, back when I was working at the Humana Festival.

And, this being the home of the LebowskiFest, I did have to look to see if I could find a rug. You know. Something to tie the room together.