Sunday, December 18, 2011

Last Voyages

Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly man, probably owing to a bronchial malady that confounded nineteenth-century doctors. But in spite of his illness he was a cheerful man, well liked by all who new him. And of course he was a skillful and hard-working writer, who had published Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped before his fortieth birthday,

Stevenson, a native of Scotland, thought his homeland’s cold, damp climate was partly to blame for his poor health, and he dreamed of finding relief in the islands of the South Pacific. And why not? Royalties from his writing were substantial, and the world was waiting. So, in mid-1888, he set sail from San Francisco on a chartered 93-foot sailboat, complete with hired captain and crew. He first destination: the Marquesas Islands, more than 3000 miles southwest. Remember, this was 1888, when there was no radio, radar, sonar, or GPS. The sailboat, named the Casco, eventually made it, and Stevenson spent some time on the islands before sailing farther southwest, to the Tuamotus and Tahiti. Then, after spending months at a Tahitian village, the party headed north to Hawaii.

If “the party” consisted of a wealthy author, captain, and crew, this would be just another story of the sea. But Stevenson took along his wife Fanny, his mother Maggie, and his stepson. (His wife was married before.) His mother was barely 10 years older than his wife, who was 10 years older than RLS. With such a cast of characters, you can well imagine the chemistry on board the Casco.

Eventually, and after chartering two more ships, Stevenson explored the western Pacific, finally settling in Samoa, where he built a fine house – and died, at age 44. So Stevenson’s expedition was in fact a last voyage.

The tale is told in an interesting book called Treasured Islands, written a few years ago by Lowell Holmes, a Professor of Anthropology and an accomplished sailor.

Another “last voyage” is a 1960 movie of the same name, starring Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. What makes this film notable is the fact that the producers, hearing that the famed liner Ile de France was headed for the scrap yard, decided to film the story of a sinking ocean liner aboard a sinking ocean liner. No mock-up, no computer graphics, no model ship in a Hollywood tank. This was the real deal. When the ocean bursts through the liner’s dining-room wall, it looks real because it is real. (Actually, fireboats were hired to shoot water through the walls.) Stack and Malone are a couple of vacationing passengers, George Sanders is the ship’s captain, and Edmond O’Brien is an engine- room chief. The movie is in color, which is only right, and among the shipboard extras you’ll see more than a few Asian faces, as the filming location was in the Sea of Japan.

The cast, by the way, really earned their pay on this shoot. O’Brien and Stack in particular had to slosh their way through sea water repeatedly, and the attractive Dorothy Malone was forced to play her role mostly submerged up to her chin. I doubt that these three ever had a more arduous assignment than The Last Voyage.

The Ile de France had achieved notoriety before, rescuing passengers of the Andrea Doria when she sank off Nantucket in 1956. But her movie debut was uncredited. The French Line understandably insisted that all references to the liner’s real name be deleted. The ship is called the Claridon in The Last Voyage.

The third "last voyage" I happened upon is that of the RMS Republic, which collided with the steamer SS Florida south of Nantucket in 1909. Most people associate the dawn of radio, or at least of its notoriety, with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but three years earlier, thanks to the use of the new Marconi radio on board the Republic, 1600 lives were saved. Exactly 100 years later, an amateur radio station in Britain (GB5CQD) celebrated the centennial by contacting other amateurs, among them this one. I received the postcard confirming the contact and bearing a beautiful photograph of the Republic in happier times.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Television Discovers the Fifties

The fifties are hot. They are far enough away to be covered in gauzy nostalgia, and few of us really remember that much about them. I do, and they were great years, maybe the best decade of the twentieth century, for folks in the United States. Yes, the Cold War was on, and houses were being built with bomb shelters, but most of Europe and Asia had been severely ravaged by the war, and it seemed as if nothing could stop the USA. We had a bonafide hero as president. On television, still a novelty, we had Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, and the Bell Telephone Hour. And everybody smoked.

At least that’s how it looks on Mad Men, and that’s how I remember it. I was working on the periphery of advertising in the fifties, and the look of the fifties on Mad Men is exactly as I remember it. The dress, the hairdos, the music, the expressions all ring true. Mad Men is a well crafted show, at its best in the agency-client meetings at Sterling Cooper, at its most hackneyed in the bedrooms of the ubiquitous philanderers. (But hey, they have to have something for the 18-to-35 crowd.)

Mad Men isn’t the only program to mine the fifties. The BBC recently gave us The Hour, which was lavishly praised in the press. The Hour takes place in and around the Beeb’s studios in the 50s, the time of the Suez crisis. Egypt seized the Canal, and Britain and France threatened war, but Eisenhower, wasn’t buying. (I remember it as Ike’s finest hour.) Against this backdrop, the BBC is featuring soft news about London society, infuriating a young journalist whose priorities are more serious. Throw in rumors of a Russian mole at the BBC and an affair between the producer and the anchor of a new current-affairs program (called The Hour), and you have the ingredients of a juicy miniseries. It’s good entertainment, so good that BBC is planning a second installment, but it doesn’t have the period as well nailed as Mad Men does.

In the fifties I graduated from college, went into the Army, got married, bought my first house, had my first child. It all came out well, so if they want to celebrate the period on television, I’m buying.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Give My Regards to Buxton

Buxton, Maine is a small town on the Saco River, about 20 miles northwest of here. There is nothing especially noteworthy about Buxton, if you don’t count the fact that Tim Robbins goes there after being released from prison in The Shawshank Redemption. And if you don’t count Jennifer Porter.

Jennifer is the principal actress, singer, writer, composer, jazz pianist, and all-round impresario at Buxton’s little theater, a century-old Grange Hall that sits precariously on the east bank of the often-raging Saco. The little theater group that holds forth at the Grange Hall is led by Jennifer and her husband, Dana Packard. Dana’s mother collects the tickets, and the whole enterprise is more or less a family affair. Jennifer and Dana are both the kind of talent that attracts other talent found in the towns around Buxton, and, surprisingly, there is a lot of talent to be found.

If this calls to mind Mickey Rooney saying, “Hey, why can’t us kids put on a show at the old Grange Hall?” that’s not far off. The old Grange Hall is a second cousin to the barns that Mickey and Judy played, with minimal facilities. But the talent is there, and the good burghers of Buxton are smart enough to know talent when they see it, and Porter, Packard and Company always play to a full house. (Surveying the Grange Hall audience is almost as much fun as watching the performers on stage.)

The theater group calls itself The Originals, and they stage two or three plays a year. These are supplemented by concerts by classical pianists, operatic singers, and country musicians. The other night I attended a concert by Jennifer Porter, backed by four instrumentalists. Jennifer has a good voice, but it comes out better than that because she uses it so wisely. She sang, pre-intermission, songs by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, etc. My kind of music. In the second act she broadened the program by adding country (Patsy Cline). Then it was on to a few operatic arias – the kind that she could handle, even with a cold lurking.

The quartet of instrumentalists were topnotch, especially Matt Langely on sax. Joe Arsenault. Jim Lyden and Dana Packard handled the keyboard, bass, and drums as if they have been playing together forever (which they may have been). Jennifer had her own keyboard, but a good piano would have given her more latitude to show off her skill.

As if the Grange Hall weren’t enough. Jennifer has just wrapped up a movie, a thriller called 40 West. It was written by Jennifer Porter, stars Jennifer Porter (and Wayne Newton), and it was directed by Dana Packard. It was filmed in (where else?) Buxton, Maine.