Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Girl in the Zigzag Dress

Part One: A Decisive Moment

When choosing topics to write about for this blog, my ideas come from various sources.  Sometimes there’s an idea that’s interested me for a long time and I think about it for months before I write about it.  Sometimes I find an idea and write the post quickly.  I choose the topics, they don’t choose me.  That was not the case for this post, however.   One unexpected image, found at a time I was not expecting it, catapulted me into months of research and discovery that now culminate here.   To begin, some background is in order.

My own artwork requires me to research art history quite frequently, so that’s where this post begins.  I was at my campus library, researching a topic completely unrelated to what I’m discussing here.  Specifically, I was researching the infamous Terracotta Warriors that were once believed to be stellar examples of ancient Etruscan art.  It turned out they were forgeries, though, and the case gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art (who bought them believing them to be authentic) a curatorial black eye.  I was hunting through old books looking for color photos of the sculptures, focusing on books about the Metropolitan Museum’s collection.  I was having no luck when I saw Thomas Hoving’s Making the Mummies Dance on the library shelf.

Hoving was the Met’s outspoken director for many years, and he also wrote an excellent book on art forgery called False Impressions, so I knew he was well versed in the Etruscan warrior case.  Even though Mummies is more about his time running the Met in the 60s and 70s (the sculptures had been exposed as forgeries years earlier) I figured it was worth a shot.  I quickly flipped through the photos included in the middle of the text and saw a picture that literally stopped me in my tracks.  All thoughts of forged antiquities evaporated as I glimpsed a shockingly familiar face in a grainy photo.  My immediate reaction was “I know that woman”.  The photo in question (reproduced below) was taken by Leonard Freed:

I was not able to find a clear reproduction, but even at this resolution the dress in pretty distinct.
The reproduction was of low quality but there was no mistaking that I had seen her (and her zigzag dress) before.  Not in a vague, half-remembered sort of way, either.  I could remember exactly where and when I had first seen her.  Namely, here:

 This photo is by Garry Winogrand and clearly shows the same woman wearing the same dress (the same man is next to her in both photos too, by the way). It was taken during the Centennial Ball held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (it’s one of several photos from that event that Winogrand made).  The photo has gone by different titles (from the descriptive Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to simply Untitled), but almost every source I found, both in print and on-line, date the picture to 1969 (something I take issue with, but more on that later in the post).

Keep reading after the jump

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of My Youth: Update

Thanks to everyone who read my previous two post on the playground equipment designed by Creative Playthings in the 1950s and 60s.  A comment on the last post about the "Fantastic Village" pointed my in the direction of Blair Hills Park in Culver City, California.  The concrete play sculpture there is not the full Fantastic Village but definitely may be a modified or later version of it.  

Considering the fact that a Creative Playthings turtle stands right next to the "Swiss Cheese", I can be fairly confident in saying that the yellow piece is also by Creative Playthings.  It's so amazing that some of these old structures still exist.  If any other readers are aware any other structures like this that are still around (specifically whole or partial Fantastic Villages) send the info my way.  I'm not always able to respond right away but I do read the comments left by my readers.  Thanks so much.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of my Youth, Part 2

In my previous post (it’s been a while, I know) I started discussing the design of playground equipment of the past.  Specifically, I was thinking about the large concrete turtle that was a fixture in many playgrounds across the U.S. throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Manufactured by a company called Creative Playthings, the turtle was just one of several playground elements I remember from my childhood.  All of these things, I discovered while researching this article, were made by the same company.

The playground I specifically reference here was the Hilery Park playground in South Buffalo, New York, but I suspect there were dozens, if not hundreds, of playgrounds across the country stocked with Creative Playthings items.  Since they were all made of concrete (seen as unsafe nowadays) many of these amazing mid-century designs have been torn down and replaced with presumably safer (but definitely blander) playground equipment.  Finding evidence of its existence is hard, and that’s probably most evident with the playground construction known as the Fantastic Village.

Before delving into the Fantastic Village, however, a short history of Creative Playthings will help to establish their artistic pedigree.  It was a company invested in art and design as much as childhood development.  (I must start by giving credit where credit is due.  Much of the info I was able to find on the company came from the article entitled “Creative Playthings: Educational Toys and Postwar American Culture” by Amy F. Ogata.  Read the original here).  The company was started by Frank and Theresa Caplan.  Frank Caplan was an educator who truly believed that toys could stimulate childhood development and imagination.  Creative Playthings creations were intentionally stark and non-specific.  This helped spark creativity in a child’s developing mind.  One of the company’s first mass-produced products were a set of simple hollow wooden blocks.  These could be stacked and arranged any way the child chose.  They were fort, dollhouse, and bookcase all in one.  Really, they could be anything the child wanted them to be.  They also epitomized the simple and elegant designs of the company.  Just maple boxes open on one end, they were simple constructions that could become complex in the mind of the child playing with them. 

Virginia Dortch Dorazio
Caplan later started working with Victor D’Amico, who was in charge of educational programming at the Museum of Modern Art.  This partnership eventually led to the creation of the Fantastic Village.  In 1953, Creative Playthings, MoMA, and Parent’s Magazine co-sponsored a competition to find designs that met the company’s standards of inventive design paired with childhood stimulation and exercise.  The winner was a 28 year old painter named Virginia Dortch Dorazio (sometimes written D’Orazio).  Her design consisted of concrete-walled rooms punctuated with holes of varying sizes that could be used as windows, doorways, or climbing grips.  The structures were held together with metal bars that could also be used for climbing.  This was the Fantastic Village.  After winning the competition, Dorazio’s design was put into full production by Creative Playthings and featured in their catalogue.  Below are some photos I was able to find of the design.

What’s interesting looking at these photos is that the configuration of the rooms is different in every photo.  Like Caplan’s maple boxes that could be arranged in many different combinations, it seems that the Fantastic Village had no set plan or scheme for the pieces.  I was unable to discover whether Creative Playthings sent multiple installation ideas with the set, or whether it was up to the purchaser to set it up how they chose.  Regardless, it perfectly fit the company’s ideas on open-ended play.  The Fantastic Village could be a playhouse, fortress, or castle.  Unfortunately, I was only able to find black and white photos of the piece, and the Fantastic Village was definitely colored.  I remember the concrete was yellow, blue, red, and green.  Also unfortunate was that all of the photos I could find seem to be promotional photos sent out by the company to promote the product.  I couldn’t find any pictures of a Fantastic Village in situ.  I was certainly not able to find any contemporary photos of one.  I have no idea of how many were sold.  That’s sad because it leads me to believe that every one of the Fantastic Villages sold in the 50s and 60s has by now been torn down.   It’s possible that they now exist only in the memories of children (now adults) who played on them many years ago. 

Of course, when I was a child I had no idea I was playing on a piece of cutting edge mid-century modern design endorsed by one of the most famous museums in the world.  I didn’t know the name “Fantastic Village” either.  We called it the “Swiss Cheese”.  Design concerns and child psychology and development didn’t interest us.  It was just fun.  Perhaps it also helped me become a more creative person.  As is turn out, I was being influenced by artists even before I truly know what art was. 

Next time, a new topic.  It may be something you've never heard of.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of My Youth, Part 1

As the upcoming holiday weekend approaches and the weather gets hot, I’m spending more time outside.  Now I’m mostly working around my house, but when I was younger the warmer summer months meant playing outside.  Playgrounds and play areas for kids are different from when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, and I wanted to take some time to examine those differences by investigating one of the playgrounds I frequented as a child.  My research into the topic yielded more information than I expected, and I realized that as a child I was playing on important modernist designs (now lost, in more ways than one).

I’ll begin with a short explanation of how I got to this topic in the first place.   I started by trying to remember details of a playground I went to as a child.  The Hilery Park Playground in South Buffalo is not one of Buffalo’s most well-known parks (Frederick Law Olmstead’s much more respected Cazenovia Park is just a few blocks away).  It’s really just a glorified school playground, attached to the Hilery Park Academy (known as Public School 27 when I was a kid).  Thinking back, it really epitomizes the differences in children’s play spaces then and now.  Today safety is rightly a major concern.  Playgrounds are built on grass or mulch, and plastic is used for much of the construction.  The Hilery Park playground in the 70s was very different.  All of the play sculptures there were concrete, and everything was built over asphalt.  There weren’t many trees for shade.  This may seem strange to parents today, but I never felt at risk there.  Even though everything was made of rough concrete that got constantly blasted by the sun, I have only good memories of the place.  The hardness of the playground must not have concerned my mother much either, since she took me and my siblings there all the time.  I think safety concerns have trumped originality as of late, and all playgrounds today really look the same.  Spiral slides, a rock climbing wall, maybe some elevated walkways and passages are the norm.  Hilery Park stood out to me (even as a child) because it was different and special.  My research revealed to my how special it once was.

Sadly, the turtle I played on as a child was not built over sand.

What really started me down this path was researching one of the playground’s features.  I remembered that there were large concrete turtles that once stood there.  These turtles (there were two of them I think) could be climbed on or crawled under.  Doing a little digging on-line revealed that these turtles were popular across the country, and many are still left.  Those that are still in existence have at times been the focus of preservation efforts, so I’m not the only one who fondly remembers these rounded green beasts.  I won’t go into their history too much here, since they are much loved and there are several websites that track their history and locations throughout the US (including this map, which documents many existing and lost turtles.  It’s incomplete, though- Hilery Park isn’t on the list). 

Page from 1956 catalog
I soon discovered that the turtles were designed and produced by a company called Creative Playthings, and they first appeared in the 1950s.  The website Mondo Blogo posted an entire catalog of the company’s products (view it here) dating from 1956.  The turtle play sculpture is featured prominently in the section on play sculptures, indicating that it was popular even then, while it was still in production.  As I scrolled through the pages of the catalog, I noticed not only the turtles, but other features of the Hilery Park playground were apparently sold by Creative Playthings as well.  Triangular ramps that I remember running on as a child were featured, as was a large fort-like construction called The Fantastic Village.   These were a part of my childhood memories as well, and I wasn’t expecting to find them.  (more on those play sculptures in my next post).

Reading through the catalog, I realized one of the things that truly makes writing this blog enjoyable.  It’s really a form on time travel.  Seeing all these play sculptures in the same catalog, and knowing that they once all graced the same playground, puts this catalog in the hands of a Buffalo city planner over 50 years ago.  I can start to understand the decisions that were made that would impact generations of children in South Buffalo.  The catalog I found record of was from 1956 (according to the poster) and I am guessing that the Hilery Park playground must have been supplied with the Creative Plaything products at or around that date.  I played on them as a child in the late 70s and early 80s, so for at least 30 years these objects were a part of the neighborhood’s fabric.  Will the generic metal and plastic playgrounds of today hold up for another 30 years?  Possibly, but they certainly won’t be remembered for their unique designs.

For my next post, I’ll explore the Fantastic Village; kid tested, MoMA approved.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Picasso's Hidden Pictures

I'm pretty sure this was one of the analyzed photos.
Picasso is on the right.
When I started this blog over a year ago, Pablo Picasso was not someone I thought I’d find myself writing about.  I try to bring attention to things that are forgotten or little-known, and Picasso doesn't even come close to fitting that description.  I can’t think of a 20th century artist who is written about or discussed more than him (Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol may come close, but Picasso’s got them beat by a long shot). Google “Picasso” and you’ll get millions of hits.   Literature (both books and magazines) have seemingly covered all aspects of Picasso’s life and art, and these explorations can get incredibly specific at times.  For example, I was looking through an old Art in America a number of years ago and found a very curious article about photos that had been taken of Picasso and some of his friends in Paris.  The author had looked at the series of pictures and figured out exactly where each picture had been taken as well as the exact timing of each one (I remember there were in-depth explorations of the angles of the shadows, which had helped determine time of day).  It was fascinating in a way, but also interesting because it was such an in-depth exploration of something so seemingly minor.  The article didn’t offer any insight into Picasso’s artwork, but really highlighted the cult of personality that still surrounds Picasso today.  Every aspect of his life is studied with almost scientific precision.

 [As a complete side note that highlights Picasso’s impact, I just forgot to capitalize his name a second ago and Word corrected it for me.  Even computers know Picasso is important!]

So why Picasso this week?  Is Cultural Ghosts turning into the Superstar Artist Worship Site?  Hardly.  I’ve chosen him (specifically, one painting of his) to discuss this week because there’s an aspect of Picasso’s work that seems to be marginalized (or ignored completely) by art historians.  Picasso hid pictures in his paintings, and I have the evidence to prove it!
Before I get to that, Introducing a painting by Salvador Dali might help establish my point here.   Look at this painting and ask yourself what you see:

 The painting is called Apparition of Face and Vase on a Beach, and was painted in 1938.  You probably see a landscape, but you most likely see other things as well.  A face?  A bowl of fruit?  A dog?  They’re all there, and Dali really doesn’t work too hard at hiding them.  He wants you to see something besides the landscape.  There are multiple interpretations and multiple hidden images and everyone who looks at the painting may focus on different areas.  Dali was extremely influenced by psychoanalysis, and the painting is sort of a Rorschach test.  What you see or focus on says something about you.  Surrealist paintings often create a sense of mystery or at least the sense that there’s something else there, just under the surface.  Creating paintings that could be two (or three, or four) things all at the same time was a common theme for Dali.  It was kind of his thing, as evidence by these other Dali paintings that do the same thing as Apparition:

Context is what I’m getting at here.  Picasso and Dali were living in Paris at the same time, and Surrealism and Cubism were happening concurrently.  The two artists certainly knew each other (at least informally) and Dali at one time admired Picasso greatly. There is precedent for surrealists being influenced by cubism (take a look at the Magritte painting on the right), so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that relationship to be a two way street.  Considering that both of these movements existed at the same time in the same place, is it any wonder that Picasso created a painting like this:

The painting is called Mandolin and Guitar and was painted by Picasso in 1924.  It is currently in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  On the surface it’s a still life featuring two instruments, but do you see something else too? 

Red lines drawn by the author.  Sort of creepy skull-like face provided by Picasso.

It’s a face, right?  I know I’m not the only one seeing this.  Not only is it a face, but it’s a highly detailed face.  The eye on the left even has an eyelid.  I knew of this painting before but saw it again recently and the hidden face jumped out at me almost immediately.  Now I can’t un-see it.  It almost functions better as a portrait than as a still life.  Is this a cubist painting, a surrealist painting, or both?  Picasso is often discussed and revered as an innovator (which he certainly was) but also was open to influences just like everyone else.  Is this painting evidence of that?  I wanted to find out if this aspect of Picasso’s work had been studied by scholars, as well as see if there were any other hidden objects to be found in his work.  What I found out surprised me a little.

Simply put, art historians haven’t discussed it much.  The official description of the painting on the Guggenheim's website (read it here) doesn't mention it, nor could I find something written by an art historian on line that mentioned this aspect of his work.  I did find a few blogs that mentioned it (read one here) but that was about it.  Art historian T.J. Clark, who has written extensively about this painting in depth, seems reluctant to talk about this aspect of the work and actually marginalizes the importance of the face (he chooses to focus more on formal properties of Picasso's work).  Why is this?

Before I go any further, I should state that I merely scratched the surface as I researched information for this topic.  There are literally thousands of articles (perhaps tens of thousands) that have been written about Picasso over the last hundred years or so, and it makes researching him a pretty daunting task.  Even just beginning to try to find information in old books and journals would be a full time job (if anyone thinks the majority of scholarly research on Picasso can be found online, they’re wrong).  Perhaps there is a whole corner of the Internet I missed in my search, and I know there’s probably written material out there, I just haven’t been able to find much.  If any readers know of anything specific, please kindly point me in the right direction.  I will gladly post a correction or update a post.

But, I digress.  Why isn't there any information out there concerning this aspect of Picasso’s work, and why do even scholarly explorations of the painting omit it?  After doing a little digging, it’s seems that Mandolin and Guitar is kind on a one-off.  There aren't many other Picasso paintings that contain hidden images.  So perhaps it’s not seen as an important aspect of his development.  The hidden image thing really didn't go anywhere, so why dwell on it?  I would counter that argument by asking, then, why it’s there in the first place.  If Picasso didn't want it looked at, why did he make the face so obvious.  And if you still aren't convinced of its obvious-ness, have another look:
Hello again.  Did you notice that I have cheekbones and teeth?
But, art historians can be a pretty stubborn lot sometimes.  They can stake whole careers on a theory about someone’s work, and then they will defend that theory.  Bringing in competing ideas can be seen as threatening an entire career of research.  The restoration of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is a great example.  When the frescoes were cleaned 30 years ago, bright, vibrant colors that had been hidden under dirt for centuries were revealed.  Some scholars were shocked.  Historians had spent hundreds of years talking about how Michelangelo didn't know how to use color, and now they were being proven wrong. 

Maybe seeing the face in the painting forces us to reconsider Picasso a little.  Was he the serious innovator who created completely new styles of seeing, or could he be influenced by others?  Is the piece meant to be funny?   Is Picasso trying to out-surreal the surrealists?  Regardless of why Picasso hid the face in the painting, it’s there all the same.  It might not be an important aspect of all of Picasso’s work, but it’s certainly a big part of this one.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of (or seen).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Still Bobbin' Along- Wonderfalls turns 10

What creates a cult phenomenon?  Cult television shows or movies certainly have to meet certain criteria.  They must have a devoted (sometimes almost slavishly devoted) fan base.  They are usually quirky or at least a little different.  Sometimes they have tragic endings, such as being cancelled too soon or being unappreciated in their time.  Perhaps no television series in the last decade epitomizes the qualities of a cult TV show more than Wonderfalls, the off-beat and thoroughly engaging program created by Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland.  This week (April 1, to be exact) marks the tenth anniversary of its untimely cancellation by the Fox network.
The series title card
To the uninitiated, perhaps a short introduction is necessary.  Wonderfalls centers on Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas, who now stars on Fuller’s Hannibal), a disaffected twenty-something who works at a tacky souvenir store in her hometown of Niagara Falls, New York.  She’s over-educated (she has a philosophy degree) and completely unmotivated.  When the series begins, she’s living in a trailer park and has just been passed over for a promotion at work.  Even though her house has wheels on it, her life doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere (at least not anywhere interesting).  She has a strained relationship with her family, who in contrast are all more successful.  Father Darren (WilliamSadler) is a doctor at the local hospital.  Her mother Karen (Diana Scarwid) is a well-known travel guide author.  Sister Sharon (Katie Finneran) is an immigration attorney (and closeted lesbian), and her brother Aaron (LeePace) is a theologian (and atheist) pursuing his Ph.D.

Her life has settled into a groove that she seems resigned to.  She hates her job, but can vent about it with her best friend Mahandra (Tracie Thoms), who works as a waitress at the local bar.  Things are pretty mundane, that is until she starts hearing voices.  After almost choking to death during her lunch break, she returns to work and is understandably disturbed when one of the souvenir tchotchkes speaks up (lack of a larynx aside) and tells her to not give a customer their refund.  Eventually, any animal-shaped object (it has to have a face, according to Jaye) starts communicating with her.  Sometimes they repeat cryptic statements; sometimes they give her advice or orders.  When she listens to them, she sets in motion events that end up affecting the lives of not only her family and friends, but also strangers she’s now forced to interact with.  Complicating things even further (as if believing you’re losing your mind isn’t complicated enough) is Eric (Tyron Leitso), the new bartender she has an immediate attraction to.  But, nothing is simple in Jaye’s life.  Eric is a New Jersey resident who came to Niagara Falls on his honeymoon, only to find new bride Heidi in a compromising position with a hotel employee shortly after checking into their hotel.  

As I’m writing this, I’m finding that summarizing Wonderfalls in a few paragraphs isn’t easy.  It combined philosophical ideas of fate and faith, while also presenting a complicated and multi-layered view of Jaye’s family (all of her family members play important roles in various episodes).  It was ultimately a comedy, but different episodes had varied themes and looks, and from episode to episode the show could take on the tropes of the crime thriller (“Crime Dog”), a noir mystery (“Cocktail Bunny”) or 1980’s high school comedy (“Pink Flamingos”).  It carried numerous story arcs through multiple episodes and certainly wasn’t a “drop-in” show that could be watched casually.  After the airing of the pilot episode on Friday, March 12, 2004, the show immediately started to receive positive critical attention.  Over the next three weeks, the show built a small but very dedicated fan base.  At the time, reality shows seemed to be taking over television and Wonderfalls seemed like a breath of fresh air.  There really wasn’t anything else like it on TV.  Of course, Fox cancelled it after only airing four episodes.

That Fox never had much faith in the show was pretty evident from day one.  It was originally scheduled to air on Friday nights at 9pm.  This time is affectionately referred to in the TV industry as the “Friday night death spot”.  Since people typically go out on Friday nights, it’s very difficult for a show to gain an audience at this time (probably the most well-known show that aired at this time successfully was The X-Files, and even that was eventually moved to a different night).  Complicating things further was that Wonderfalls had a terrible lead-in.  In the 8pm spot was the wretched reality show Playing itStraight.  This show had an absolutely horrible premise: a solitary woman on a ranch is surrounded by attractive men, the only catch is that some of them are gay and it’s her job to identify and eliminate the gay ones (one a week, in typical reality show fashion) so the man she ends up with is straight.  It was like if The Bachelorette had gay people on it and everything was awful.  What was so offensive about Playing it Straight was how it pandered to the worst gay stereotypes: gay men are effeminate and can be identified by their mannerisms; women have “gay-dar” and can pick out who is gay and who is straight.  It was pretty bad and really represented how low reality TV had sunk.  The pandering and stereotypical representation of homosexuality on Playing it Straight was in stark contrast to the way the same topic was dealt with in Wonderfalls.  In the pilot episode, Jaye discovers that her sister is gay.  Karen’s homosexuality, as well as her insecurity and inability to come out to her conservative parents, is treated humorously at times, but it’s also dealt with compassionately (realistic representations of gay people weren’t as common on TV only a decade ago).

After airing for three weeks with a crappy reality show for a lead-in, Fox unexpectedly moved the show to Thursday night.  They gave little notice of the change, airing only a few spots advertising a new night.  The sudden move caused many fans to miss the airing of the fourth episode (“Pink Flamingos”) on April 1, 2004, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was now competing with Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, at the time in its first season and very successful.  Within a few days, Wonderfalls fans (and there were already a lot of them) were finding out the show had been cancelled.  Fans were understandably outraged, and did something that wasn’t very common back in 2004- they took to the internet and demanded action.

Wonderfalls was probably never that exciting from a television executive’s standpoint.  Reality TV was very big at the time, and those shows were cheap to produce and could at times produce big ratings.  Wonderfalls was more expensive to make.  It had a big cast (seven major characters, not including recurring roles and guest stars), required occasional location shooting in Niagara Falls (although the show was primarily filmed in Toronto), and needed extensive post production (all of the animal animations were created through CGI).  Add to this the current TV culture that must be able to declare a show a “hit” after only airing one episode, and it was pretty clear (in hindsight, at least) that the writing was on the wall.  Wonderfalls had devoted fans almost immediately but didn’t post huge ratings numbers.  But when the show started airing in March of 2004, all 13 episodes that Fox had ordered were basically finished and paid for.  Fox made it very clear that they weren’t planning to air the remaining episodes at any time in the future.  This seemed illogical to the show’s fans since a network will often “burn off” episodes of a cancelled TV show, usually during the summer months (even the recently cancelled Rake, a Fox show that garnered little to no critical or fan attention, is getting it’s episodes burned off this month).  Fans wanted answers, and shortly after the cancellation a website called “Save Wonderfalls” was created.  It quickly became a hub for fans to discuss the show, share rumors, and speculate on the future.

One of the reasons I chose to write about the Wonderfalls cancellation this week (aside from the fact that I love the show) was to highlight how much the Internet and TV have changed in a very short amount of time.  Fans seem to have more power today, and some recent efforts to re-start fan-favorite TV shows (namely Arrested Development and Veronica Mars) have succeeded thanks to basic technological infrastructure that wasn’t there a decade ago.  A new Veronica Mars movie was crowdfunded by fans through Kickstarter, and Netflix picked up Arrested Development.  Both of these revivals would have been impossible in 2004 because TV just worked differently back then.  It’s weird to say “back then” in reference to 2004, but this is one of those times where great changes in the way we receive entertainment are very noticeable.

Early conversations on the “Save Wonderfalls” message boards dealt with discussions of the episodes that had aired, rumors and plot lines from episodes that hadn’t aired, as well as instructions on how people could write to Fox and complain.  There was a lot of anger being vented.  People who hated reality TV lamented the fact that a smart and funny show like Wonderfalls wasn’t given a chance.  There were hopes that a different network might pick up and air the unseen shows or perhaps even begin production on a new season.  This also highlights another major difference between TV then and now; there just weren’t many places for Wonderfalls to go, since fewer networks produced their own series.  Back then, the majority of original programming was coming from basically five sources: NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and HBO.  Other networks produced shows (Bryan Fuller’s pre-Wonderfalls show Dead Like Me had aired on Showtime, after all) but these shows often flew under the radar or weren’t seen by large audiences.  Today it seems that every network on television is producing only its own content, and even non-TV outlets like Netflix and Amazon produce original, incredibly successful programs. It’s very possible to speculate that had Wonderfalls been cancelled today, it might have found a new home on a different network.  But alas, it was not to be.  As months passed, it became clear that Fox had no intention of reviving the show or airing the rest of it.  “Save Wonderfalls” shifted its focus, and started encouraging fans to contact Fox and ask them to release the series on DVD.  Through the diligent action of the shows fan base, who would not let the memory of the show fade, their efforts were eventually successful.  The entire series was released on DVD in 2005.

Ultimately, what carried the show through cancellation and into cult TV history is the quality of the program itself.  Wonderfalls is at turns touching and philosophical, but it’s also funny as hell.  If you’ve read this far but haven’t seen the show, I don’t want to spoil anything for you in my conclusion.  Stop reading this blog and go binge watch it (another term that didn’t exist 10 years ago).  The DVD is available on Amazon.  You can probably stream it on Netflix.  Go watch it.  I’ll wait.

Good, you’re back.  Funny, isn’t it?  “Lick the light switch”, am I right?  Oh wait, you didn’t get that reference?  That means you didn’t watch it and you’re just a big liar.  Go watch it for real.

After Wonderfalls ended, fans felt deprived of a great show.  Questions of “what if” abounded on the Internet and people speculated on what would have happened on the show had it stayed on the air.  On the audio commentaries on the DVD (which I totally recommend listening to- they’re actually informative and funny, unlike some audio commentaries), Fuller and Holland talk quite a bit about what future storylines would have been explored.  Jaye was going to be committed to a mental institution.  Karen was going to get mysteriously pregnant.  Maybe these story lines would have worked, maybe not.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that would have probably irked die-hard fans ten years ago: Wonderfalls is fine (and almost perfect) the way it is. 

Whenever a popular show gets cancelled, it seems that the first thing people do nowadays is take to the internet and demand that someone make new episodes.  Sometimes fans are willing to finance these comebacks out of their own pockets, and that’s fine if it can lead to more quality programming, but I really think these instances are rare and not always the best for the legacy of the show. (Does anyone really think Family Guy has benefitted from the addition of countless new seasons?)  Two other Bryan Fuller-penned shows, in my opinion, illustrate this.

Dead Like Me is a show that shares a lot of similarities with Wonderfalls (both shows have similar protagonists, both include supernatural elements).  Fuller created the premise and tone of the show and left after just working on a few episodes, so the way the show wrapped up isn’t his fault, but the program had a dedicated fan base who wanted more after the show was cancelled after two seasons.   What resulted was the full-length movie Life After Death, and it isn’t very good.  It suffers most from the absence of series star Mandy Patinkin, who couldn’t be in it due to contract obligations on Criminal Minds.  Without him, the heart of the show was missing.  Dead Like Me is a good show too.  If you haven’t seen it but wish to, do yourself a favor and skip Life After Death.  It adds nothing to an otherwise solid run.

Pushing Daisies is the show that Bryan Fuller is perhaps most known for.  Like Wonderfalls, it was suddenly cancelled (it too was critically acclaimed but was crippled by a writer’s strike that cut the first season short and caused the show to lose momentum).  Repeated attempts to revive the show as a graphic novel, feature film, or even a Broadway musical have all seemed to stall.  As more time passes, the task of reuniting the whole cast becomes harder and seems less likely (never say never, though- who thought anyone would ever be able to reunite the entire Arrested Development cast?)

No, Wonderfalls is fine just the way it is.  It tells a story that mostly wraps up by the final episode.  Eric frees himself from Heidi and returns to Niagara Falls to be with Jaye.  Jaye seems to have at least come to grudgingly accept her abilities and realize that she has a part to play in the universe.  There’s no unresolved cliffhanger, and few loose ends.  The ending is satisfying.  It makes the viewer feel as if we’ve been on a journey with these characters and learned something about them in the process.  Jaye and Eric get their happy ending, and isn’t that what we should want for characters we like?  I don’t see how more episodes could have made it any better.

On a personal note, Wonderfalls introduced me to the television shows of Bryan Fuller, and I’ve since gone on to watch and thoroughly enjoy Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies (I’m just starting on Hannibal- better late than never).  As fans know, he has a unique writing style and vision that I completely relate to.  It also introduced me to the power that a show’s fans can have when united behind a common cause.  Following the aftermath of the show’s cancellation, I found myself part of a larger community, one that was like-minded and dedicated.  When the DVD was finally released, I felt as if I had helped to make it happen.  In the days before social media (at least as we know it today), it was heartening to see how something like a television show could bring people together and generate such strong feelings of loyalty.  Fans of the show remain loyal, and as one of them I should know.  In 2006 I had just started dating my girlfriend, and she noticed the Wonderfalls DVD on the shelf in my apartment.  “I loved that show!” she proclaimed.  Is it any wonder I married her? 

 Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Tragic Day on Genesee Street

As I probably mentioned on this blog before, I’m a native of Buffalo, New York.  I still live there and I find the history of the city fascinating.  I love finding old photos of Buffalo, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find an old picture of Buffalo in a mainstream publication.  While looking through a book on photographic history not long ago I came across this photograph taken by I. Russell Sorgi.  Taken on May 7, 1942 and called Suicide (also referred to as Genesee Hotel Suicide or The Despondant Divorcee), it is a disturbing photo that captures an event that no one would voluntarily choose to witness:

A little background information might be useful before I go on.  The photo was taken in front of the Genesee Hotel that stood on the corner of Genesee and Pearl Streets in downtown Buffalo (more on the building a little later on).  It shows a woman named Mary Miller falling to her death after jumping from an eighth story window.  Captured just a fraction of a second before Miller’s violent end, the photo made headlines and became well-known nationally after it was reprinted in Life magazine a few weeks after the incident.  The photographer was I(gnatius) Russell Sorgi, a staff photographer for Buffalo’s Courier Express newspaper.  Sorgi happened to be close by when the events at the Genesee Hotel were unfolding, and he explained the origins of the photo afterwards:

“I snatched my camera from the car and took two quick shots as she seemed to hesitate…As quickly as possible I shoved the exposed film into the case and reached for a fresh holder.  I no sooner had pulled the slide out and got set for another shot than she waved to the crowd below and pushed herself into space.  Screams and shouts burst from the horrified onlookers as her body plummeted toward the street.  I took a firm grip on myself, waited until the woman passed the second or third story, and then shot.”

Reading the quote over 70 years after the fact, Sorgi’s account can seem a little callous.  His description of the event seems indifferent to the plight of Mary Miller, but his words really underscore the difference between photography then and now.  People in the 1940s owned cameras, but they were used for special occasions.  They would take their cameras on vacations or to birthday parties, but didn’t take them to work with them.  There were other witnesses to this particular event (a woman in uniform, believed by some to be a meter maid, is rushing into the building, and the waiter in the coffee shop seems aware of a commotion outside) but none of them would have had cameras with them.  Sorgi was perhaps the only person in the immediate area with a camera at the ready, and he realized that the picture he took was different than other crime photos of the day.  Since photography was a more complicated process back then (through Sorgi’s description you can tell that his camera was definitely not point-and-shoot) and most photos of crimes or tragedies were taken after the event had already occurred.  This photo is a great example:

That photo, taken after a train accident at Montparnasse Station in Parisin 1895, really illustrates how documentary photos worked back then.  Photo could be a time-consuming process and cameras were bulky, so they were often brought in to document the aftermath of an event.  In the above photo, the event had already happened.  This makes it no less disturbing, for sure, but by the time the photo was taken the train was essentially debris waiting to be cleaned up.  Sorgi captured Murray’s tragic suicide while it was happening.  Catching something like this (however gruesome) was extremely rare and Sorgi was literally in the right place at the right time. He knew capturing this moment in this way was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   We tend to take photography for granted and treat it as something that everyone has access to.  A recent tragedy that really illustrates the difference between then and now is the Boston Marathon bombing.  Literally hundreds of people were recording the finish line before and after the attack, creating an almost continuous record of the bombing and its aftermath.  Sorgi’s words may seem seem a little harsh, but perhaps we can forgive him a little for realizing that he was both witness to, and sole recorder of, a tragic event.

After discovering the photo, I was interested in finding out where it had taken place.  The sign for the Genesee Hotel is clearly visible in the photo, and Genesee Street is a major street in downtown Buffalo (although it’s been altered quite a bit since the photo was taken).  There’s a major hotel there today (the Hyatt) and I assumed that this is where the event had taken place.  But after studying the architecture of the Hyatt (originally called the Genesee Building) I know that wasn’t the place.  The first floors of the Hyatt are glass and bronze, not the brick and concrete visible in the Sorgi photo.  After doing a little digging I found this postcard reproduced on the Buffalo Police Department website:

Arrow added by the Buffalo Police Department

That image shows a building attached to the Buffalo YMCA building (on the left) that matches the lower floors of the building visible in the Sorgi photo.  There’s a ledge at the eighth floor (Miller was described as jumping from an eighth story ledge) and a different photo taken after Sorgi’s clearly shows the YMCA in the background.

I was able to find another old photo that shows where the building stood in relation to the surrounding buildings, some of which are still there.

This photo shows the Genesee Building (now the Buffalo Hyatt) on the right, the white Victor and Co. building in the center (since demolished) and the Genesee Hotel to the left (outlined in red).

The building doesn’t exist anymore.  The most recent photo I was able to find of the old Genesee Hotel (that was later used as the YMCA Men’s Hotel) was from 1978.  It looks as if the building is in the early stages of demolition here:

The low building blocking the YMCA is the Buffalo Convention Center.  The entrance to the Genesee Hotel (at this point the YMCA Men's Hotel) seems partially boarded up.

I visited the site recently and it’s changed quite a bit.  The YMCA is still there, but the grand entrance that once faced Genesee Street is now found crammed into an alley.  Genesee Street was removed during the construction of the much-maligned Buffalo Convention Center, and the north entrances to the convention center now sit where Genesee Street once did.  The spot where the Genesee Hotel stood it now occupied by a modern office building and courtyard, and it’s hard to get a sense of where exactly the tragedy took place.  The sidewalk has been widened, and the removal of Genesee Street (which ran diagonally across Pearl Street) makes it hard to get a sense of how the building sat in relation to the street. 

The once grand entrance to the YMCA is now banished to a narrow alley
The entrance to the Genesee Hotel visible in Sorgi's photo stood roughly where this courtyard is now.

The Genesee Hotel stood to the right from this viewpoint.  The elevated walkway to the left connects the Convention Center to the Hyatt across the street
This isn't and exact side-by-side comparison, but it really shows how much the street has changed since 1942.

We tend to take photos of every moment of our lives now.  New technology is being developed that will actually take photos of our surroundings constantly, so we never have to miss anything.  The problem with that is that most of our lives are pretty ordinary.  It’s the rare and special moments in our lives that we want to remember, and that’s what photo used to be saved for.  You brought out the camera to commemorate those special times.  Sorgi’s photo functions in that way too, but on a much darker scale.  Tragic moments in life occur as well, and sometimes these moments are over in an instant.  When captured at just the right time, they can serve as horrifying reminders of tragedy and loss.

Next time, a new (and hopefully happier) topic.  It might be something you've never heard of.