Saturday, April 18, 2009

We spent Wednesday night in Chesapeake, VA with Fritz’s widowed sister-in-law in the new house she’s recently moved into, marking the final phase of establishing a new life for herself. Always attractive and vivacious, she also has terrific taste. The place is filled with serious art but is also comfortable and inviting, full of light and interesting spaces.

Thursday morning we took off for what was to be the longest single day drive of the trip—across Chesapeake Bay via the
bridge-tunnel complex, up the Delmarva Peninsula (brief stop to say hello to her son and his family), a stop in West Chester, PA, and a final run up the coast to north-central New Jersey to spend the night near the Thomas Alva Edison Tower, Museum and site of the invention of the light bulb, recorded sound, etc. etc. It was our first night alone together after six days immersed in various branches of our families, and it felt very nice indeed.

We put up for the night in a Howard Johnson’s Motel in New Brunswick, a vestige of the once mighty HoJo empire that spanned the continent and was, in a certain sense, the McDonald's of its day.
Howard Johnson’s was never fast food. It was a sit-down restaurant and the food could be slow to come out; Mad Magazine once ran a satirical comic spread when the chain was in decline in which three or four Johnson waitresses stand around arguing which of them is the slowest waitress of all while customers sit fuming at tables, waiting for their food.

But it was a major presence on the nation's highways and in lots of cities and towns. The distinctive orange roof and country cupola was an instantly recognizable symbol, along with the big Simple Simon and the Pieman signs out front. Fried clams were a signature menu item. Sharp eyes can detect former Johnson restaurants with painted-over roofs and different signs but the characteristic architecture tells the tale. There was even an imitator, Henry Johnson’s with an red roof, if I recall correctly, and Whistler and His Dog signs out front.

A few Howard Johnson Restaurants are left here and there, but nothing like the coverage they had at their height. The motels, a late addition to the company, are much more likely to be encountered. When I travel, I don’t need indoor pools and grand atriums. I get the coupon books at highway service areas that offer reduced rates, and look for basic, clean accommodations, working TV and plumbing, free WiFi, and some sort of breakfast if possible. The plumbing at these aging motels is sometimes chancy and the wallpaper not always in its first youth--but they’re affordable and perfectly adequate.

Friday morning we visited the Edison site in Menlo Park. To begin, nothing of the original complex of buildings—the big studio in which the inventions were planned and developed, the glass blowing house, the machine shop, and the tracks for the electric train he developed that went some distance through the surrounding community—survives. Fires claimed some and the rest fell into ruin. The property has reverted to woods.

There’s a terrific model of the studio building, made of wood salvaged from the building itself, housed in the museum, a utilitarian two-room concrete building. The
Memorial Tower, a pre-cast concrete art deco column topped by a giant light bulb made of corning glass slabs lights up at night. The tower, which stands in the studio’s original footprint, is closed to the public as water seepage with attendant freezing and thawing in winter has weakened part of the structure. There are ambitious plans for its restoration and the construction of a new, extensive and inter-active museum but funding is, as always, the big obstacle. Huge amounts of Edison material and inventions remain in storage in West Orange, where the house he inhabited in later life still stands.

But any sense of decay is instantly dispelled by Kathleen Carlucci, the museum’s Director of Interpretation. Energetic, friendly, extremely knowledgeable on matters biographical, historical, mechanical and cultural, she demonstrated for us (and encouraged us to try ourselves) Edison light bulbs and

The museum has originals or exact working replicas of an original metal foil recorder (above), wax cylinder recorder (left), a bizarre violin with its own attached metal horn amplifier, allowing it to make a powerful enough sound to register on the early recording devices, a hand-cranked magneto for firing up an early Edison light bulb (worked by Fritz, below), and many other devices as well as component parts, period advertising and supportive equipment.

Perhaps my favorite is this simple cardboard, paper and wood gramophone that kids can put together (below). An ordinary sewing pin acts as the needle, the “horn” is a paper cone—and the thing actually plays a shellac record. Nothing I have ever seen or read points up the utter directness and simplicity of Edison’s invention than this crude toy that could be made on a garage or basement workbench in minutes.

From there we got onto the interstate system and headed back north, via a lunch stop at the wonderful Katz’s Deli—“Just a little off-Broadway”—at one of the exits from the Merritt Parkway in New Haven, CT. We arrived home just before 5pm to an enthusiastic welcome from our cat.


More bad news on the performing arts scene; the stories are gathered by Dave Itzkoff for the Arts Briefly notes in the New York Times:

Economic Woes Hit Boston Symphony
Published: April 16, 2009

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has canceled a planned tour of Europe that would have commenced in 2010 and included performances in Paris and Vienna, The Boston Globe reported. In a statement the orchestra said the cancellation was a result of the economic downturn and added that it “will not resume international touring activity until a recovery is well under way,” according to The Globe. The orchestra said it would continue to focus on performances in Boston, Tanglewood and New York.

Brooklyn Philharmonic Cancels Concerts
By DANIEL J. WAKIN Published: April 17, 2009

The Brooklyn Philharmonic, running a deficit and facing declining revenue, has canceled its final program this season, on May 9, and all of next season’s subscription concerts, the orchestra said on Friday. The orchestra said it would continue its teaching projects and school concerts, which still have funding, mainly from government sources. The orchestra, which is led by Michael Christie, usually presents about four programs a year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. J. Barclay Collins II, the orchestra’s board chairman, said the group was in talks with the Brooklyn Academy about paying some concert costs for future seasons.
The high drama (and ever-more-likely death throes) of New York City Opera continue with this very bad news that the Board of Directors liquidated the majority of the endowment:

City Opera Taps Into Endowment
By DANIEL J. WAKIN; Published: April 17, 2009

The New York City Opera said on Friday that it had raided its endowment of a total of $23.5 million to pay off debts and right the troubled company’s finances, leaving little left in its coffers. The company took $17.5 million from the endowment in the fall, said George R. Steel, the artistic director and general manager, with the approval of the New York State attorney general’s office, which regulates nonprofit organizations. Court documents stated that $9.5 million of that sum had been used to repay a loan taken out to cover a “cash shortfall” from last season and that the rest had been used for operating costs this season, when the company suspended most operations while its home, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, was being renovated. Earlier this week, City Opera said, it received approval for another $6.6 million withdrawal from the endowment to meet payroll and other needs. The withdrawals are considered loans, and the opera has promised to restore the money. A spokesman for City Opera, Pascal Nadon, said the company’s endowment now stands at $10.4 million. City Opera’s budget next year is estimated at between $25 million and $30 million. The company recently announced a stripped-down season of five productions for 2009-10.

City Opera may be in its death throes--the result of continuing bad oversight by its Board of Directors, the disastrous abandonment of the company by a prestigious European General Manager who made ambitious plans and fled when the company couldn't begin to finance them, and now the virtual gutting of the endowment that will probably scare off any potential major donors--should any be left these days with sufficient capital to bail the company out. Should it close down operations, it will be the largest and most prominent company to fail in the current economic depression.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel photo from the site
Howard Johnson memorabilia from the blog, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space of Richard Layman in D.C.

Man oh man, that bridge is something else! I've never been across it but have read a lot about it. And, I find it a very sad commentary on our world when newspapers, operas, symphonys and the like are closing their doors. We are, indeed, a people at a loss.
the CBBT terrifies me!

i'm glad you're both home safe & sound. sounds like a great trip!!
My grandmother lived in Chesapeake for more than fifty years. My other grandmother lived in Virginia Beach, just a short drive down Indian River Road. I haven't been there in about ten years, since they died, within a year of each other, but I have a lot of very fond memories of the area. Very flat, and no basements.
I've been over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge once bck in the late 1970s. I wonder how much it has changed. HoJos brings back memories of being taken out by my grandparents. I remember enjoying their vanilla ice cream. It came in a metal dish, and the dish would get very cold as you ate your ice cream. I must have been about 8.
I recall HoJos as common as McDonald's - all that orange and blue, with fried clams!
Sounds like your all having a lovely time buddy. I love the photos too. :-)
Howard Johnson's!

Corn bread and bitter lettuce. Two things I loved as a kid, and my parents didn't have at home.

My mother told me that the bitter lettuce was endive, but she was wrong. I haven't been able to quite find the same thing as an adult, anywhere.

And no cormbread I've ever tasted since has been quite the same.
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