saying good-bye to Pat

The Binghamton NY area lost one of its stars. Literally. Patricia Donohue, an actor and activist, who has a star on the Binghamton Walk of Fame, died in September. Pat had a long career on the stage, as a young woman with Tri-Cities Opera and then many decades as an actor in our local area and beyond.

The first time I saw Pat perform was as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, but I will remember her most fondly playing Jeannette Picard in Solo Flight, a one-woman play about the balloonist and wife/mother who was ordained an Episcopal priest before it was officially approved.

I knew Pat because we were both members of Sarah’s Circle, a small group of (mostly) women grounded in the Catholic faith tradition who supported women’s ordination and full participation in the life of the church. A number of members felt called to ordination themselves. We met for prayer, discussion, and mutual support but sometimes did public events, such as prayer services.

For the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of Jeannette Picard and the rest of the Philadelphia Eleven, Sarah’s Circle sponsored Pat performing Solo Flight in Columbus Circle in Syracuse, in front of the Catholic cathedral.  We were met by a raucous group of counter-protesters. Pat, the consummate professional, performed spectacularly, despite protesters marching within arm’s length, at times. Toward the end of the performance, we were finally able to get the police to clear the public area in the Circle for which we had a permit and the protesters did not. Instead, they shouted the Rosary from the Cathedral steps, which is a misuse of a lovely, contemplative prayer. It was a shame that they never bothered to listen to Pat recreating the remarkable life of Jeannette Picard.

Although I marveled at Pat’s abilities as an actor, it was her passion for people that shone most brightly. She was often seen, sporting one of her favorite hats and leopard print scarves, at rallies with Citizen Action for a variety of progressive causes, such as civil rights, access to affordable health care, and environmental protection. She performed with and wrote songs for the Citizen Action “Raging Grannies” – although she preferred the moniker “Swinging Seniors.” She also performed with the Mental Health Players, bringing attention and support to those with mental health issues.

She was always ready to share her time and support with others. Because both my daughters were interested in theater, Pat would attend their performances. She even let T borrow from her beloved hat collection for her role in Damn Yankees. Many of Pat’s hats were lost when the storage room of her senior apartment building flooded, but T was happy to see that the hats she had borrowed had survived and were part of a display at Pat’s memorial.

I was also touched that, draped over the end of Pat’s casket, were an Irish-themed quilt – Pat was proud of her Irish ancestry – and the stole she had worn when performing Solo Flight, which featured hot-air balloons, because Rev. Jeanette Picard had, in her younger years, been a stratospheric balloonist.

I’m sure that Pat would have approved of the memorial. The friends and family members who spoke all had wonderful stories to tell recalling her flair, passions, and wit. Our Sarah’s Circle friend Pat Raube sang a hymn that she had sung as a prelude to Pat’s performances of Solo Flight; I admit it was hard not to cry at that point. Another friend, Father Tim, was the presider for the service.

While we will all miss Pat, I am grateful that she was granted so many years among us and that she was active into all but her final days. We will each need to give a bit more of our energies to causes she cared about, although no one can truly replace her in our personal and community lives.

I’m sure her spirit will live on.

Star Wars history

aka a way to write about my spouse and me going to see Star Wars without there being spoilers in the post…

When we were in our mid-teens, B and I saw the first Star Wars movie at the Mohawk in North Adams, the last remaining downtown theater surviving from the age of weekend double features with newsreels.  We both loved the characters, the story, the larger-than-life look with the special effects, the music, and the humor mixed in with the old-style good-versus-evil dichotomy.

It was puzzling that the opening sequence announced it as Episode Four, but it was understood as a nod to the serials that would use that technique to update viewers who may have missed an episode on the backstory of what they were about to see.

We never imagined that, forty years later, we would be seeing Episode Eight with some of those same actors reprising their roles.

Earlier this week, we saw the latest Star Wars movie at the Regal multiplex in Binghamton, New York, although our showing was delayed for a few minutes due to technical difficulties. All the things we loved about the original are still there, albeit with more advanced sound and effects than in 1977. It was poignant to see Carrie Fisher in her last performance as Leia, especially knowing that Episode Nine had been planned to center on her.

B and I still tend to call each movie “Star Wars” with an episode number if needed for clarity, but, technically, I should refer to this film as The Last Jedi. 

The Last Jedi was not shown at the Mohawk. The building is still there on Main Street with a restored marquee. The building has been stabilized and is under the ownership of the City of North Adams, but plans for a full restoration have yet to be realized.

Maybe sometime in the 2020s…

 

The Big Sick

Back when it was in theaters this summer, B and I went to see The Big Sick. It was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, based on their real-life courtship – which involved Emily being in a coma. This is not a spoiler; it was well known before the movie came out, so I thought I would be able to handle it.

I was looking forward to going to the theater with B because we hadn’t gotten out much on our own, as we are in a major sandwich generation phase. It seemed like a good choice because the movie is a romantic comedy. Not only do we know that the couple get together in the end but it is also about a comedian (Nanjiani plays himself in the film) with lots of jokes in the show.

I did like the movie and think that it was well done. It was hard for me to write about it at that time, but it is now coming out on DVD, so this seemed a good time to revisit it and put out a post.

As I said, I knew the basic storyline, but there were things that were jarring to me. The first time we saw Emily on a ventilator reminded me of the last time I saw a family member with a tube.

Seeing Emily’s parents dealing with the doctors and trying to find the best care for their daughter brought back memories of dealing with past medical problems with my daughters. Emily’s parents are told that the doctors know what is going on and the treatment will work – and then it doesn’t. I know what that feels like. I know how desperately you want to protect your child and find the right person to help them get better. I know how little power you have in that situation.

Although the details are very different, I could also relate to the themes of family tensions around the experience of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, religious differences between generations and spouses, and bi/multiracial families.

Erma Bombeck wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” The Big Sick walks that line in a very human and meaningful way.

 

Star Wars – no spoilers

B and I with daughter T went to a Monday morning showing of the new Star Wars movie in the renovated Regal Theaters near us. Yay for new reclining seats – especially because my legs aren’t long enough to touch the floor! Not quite as posh as our Loew’s Cinema recliner loveseats, but still nice.

We went to a showing that was 2D, as all three of us have issues with vision, motion sickness, or both. And at the bargain price of $5 a ticket, what could possible go wrong?

Short answer – nothing went wrong. We all loved the movie and had a great time.

B and I saw the original Star Wars movie when we were in high school – and already a couple. A long time ago in this galaxy…  The original Star Wars was a great good guys vs bad guys story with young, engaging characters, older sages, technology, robots, and space travel. So much fun!

In Episode VII: The Force Awakens, we all loved the classic familiarity of the opening credits, location shooting, strong characters, action sequences with spacecraft and light sabers, and state of the art effects. State of the art now is more advanced than it was then, of course, but the “wow” feeling is the same.

We also loved that John Williams was back to do the music, which adds so much to the film. We were glad to see that he brought on a collaborator to help with orchestration and conducting. Given that he is 83, it seems a very sensible thing to do.

Our daughter E and her spouse L arrive tomorrow. They saw the movie over the weekend in Honolulu, where they live. We are all hoping to catch another showing together while they are here. I’m sure we’ll  enjoy it as much the second time around!

theater organ

I just saw a piece on the Today Show about the only remaining theater organ in Seattle, which in the 1920s had fifty in silent film and stage theaters. The organ in the piece was a Wurlitzer, which was one of the most common manufacturers of the day.

It reminded me of the Roberson Museum in Binghamton, New York, which housed a Link theater organ, built by the firm of a local family. Edwin Link went on to found Link Flight Simulation, which used the technology of the organ business to craft the first mass-produced flight simulators, the Blue Boxes that trained many pilots in World War II.

When we moved here in the 1980s, I studied organ with M. Searle Wright, who was an enormously talented classical organist, teacher, and composer, and, at an age when most people are retired, then the Link Organ Professor at the State University of New York-Binghamton. He also was one of the few remaining masters of theater organ, able to sit at the console and accompany silent films, bringing to life the sounds of the world and the moods of the characters.  It was an amazing experience to hear him accompany a film!  Talented younger organists would travel up from New York CIty to study theater organ techniques from him.

We more often heard Searle’s theater organ talents when he played a 45 minute prelude of classic American songbook and Broadway tunes before each Binghamton Pops concert on the Morton theater organ at the Forum. On the music stand, he would have only a list of the pieces (perhaps with the key structure, he planned to include that day and would weave those songs together, showing off the fun aspects of theater organs, the literal bells and whistles.

A magical art, which is, thankfully, still being kept alive by those to whom an older generation of organist like Searle Wright passed on to them.

Into the Woods

Last night, we went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at our local professional theater.  “We” equals me, my spouse, and my parents.  My mother-in-law was to have joined us, but she is having difficulties with her back and couldn’t sit for such a long performance.

Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals.  I find the interwoven fairy tale adaptation fascinating and love Sondheim’s ability to pack both wit and depth of feeling into the lyrics, which move the plot along even more than the spoken dialogue.  I also have a longstanding relationship with the musical because it was a favorite of my daughters when they were young.  We watched it many times through a recording of the original (1988) Broadway cast.  For quite a while, I only let our younger daughter see the first act, which ends with the somewhat expected “happy ever after” vibe, shielding her from the much darker second act, until her four-years-older sister told her what happened and my shielding tactic became moot.

I enjoyed last night’s performance because the brilliance of Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book, shines through.  I especially enjoyed the performances of CInderella, the Baker’s Wife, and Little Red Ridinghood and the singing voices of the two Princes.  Some of the other performers were occasionally flummoxed by Sondheim’s complex melodies, although those in the audience who have not heard the music over and over might not have realized it.

My major disappointments were with the technical aspects.  The lighting was often too dark – and, yes, I get the whole being-in-the-woods thing, but it would have been better to use dappled lighting to give the illusion of moonlight through trees, rather than just not having enough light to see the actors.  There was also a gaping hole in the back wall of the set, which was only used in one scene in the second act.  It was very distracting to look at it for two and half hours when it was so little used.  The stage could also have used some pitch, as quite a few songs took place sitting on the stage; alternatively, the actors could have been placed more upstage to make them more visible to those in the back rows.  (The seating is cabaret style, so there aren’t many rows, but each row is deep.)

I was also disappointed with the costuming.  Many of the costumes were too drab.  A number of them were ill-fitting, especially too tight.

The theater company is in the midst of a change in leadership.  I wonder if some of the technical problems are the loss of a long-time team experienced with this theater, which was once a storehouse for apples.  It is a tricky space in which to work and the new team may be groping a bit as they adjust to its idiosyncracies.

One of the surprises last night was of a more personal nature.  I found that the second act’s deaths of a number of mothers of varying ages hit me hard.  As I have said, I know the play well, so I knew what was coming, but I found myself tearing up as the losses mounted.  Sitting beside my mother, who had a heart attack on July 31st, missing my mother-in-law who is suffering from osteoporosis, having spoken earlier this week with a friend who recently lost her mother, and anticipating the upcoming birthday of a friend who died much too young nine years ago, my heart was aching more than usual in reacting to the losses in the play.

The loss of a mother – at whatever age – represents its own brand of pain and even fictional losses on stage can echo or foreshadow that pain in our own lives.