Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rocking Out on the Streets of Skokie -- A Celebration of My Hometown

Fastball shows "The Way" at Skokie's Backlot Bash
Today marks the fourth anniversary of moving into my Skokie condo. Although it is now worth about half of what I paid, I still really like it.

While I had enjoyed living in the Western 'burbs of Chicago--Glen Ellyn to be exact--for the previous 12 years, spent 3 years out in L.A. in the early '90s and have traveled far & wide, I genuinely relish being back in my hometown of Skokie.

Sure, it's where I grew up, and as my Mom still lives in the same house, I've never been too detached.

So certainly, much of my fondness for Skokie has to do with familiarity, but it also isn't a case of not knowing anywhere else. Between my time living in DuPage County, long having relatives & friends in the south suburbs, many years of working in the far north suburbs and spending substantial stretches in northwest suburban areas, I feel I am fairly well acquainted with a wide swath of the greater Chicagoland area.

And though it would be rather presumptuous and clearly centric for me to call Skokie "the best Chicago suburb"--our neighbor, Evanston, offers much more in the way of history and cosmopolitanism, as does Oak Park, Naperville and elsewhere--the village offers sufficient reason for me to feel proud to live here.

No, Skokie isn't going to be the epicenter of excitement on a typical Saturday night--which is actually one of the reasons I like it--but last weekend's Backlot Bash, which I'll expound upon below, is an example of how the community can come together for a fun yet not intimidatingly overwhelming celebration.

I went to the Bash on all three of its days and am happy to highlight what I feel is a very well put together event. Skokie also has its annual "Festival of Cultures" each May, a fireworks event--often with live music--on Independence Day and at least a couple sizable art fairs each year, but the Backlot Bash--so named because what is now downtown Skokie was once used as a filming location for early movies, back in the Essanay Studios days--is my favorite festival in town. And it's not just a matter of location and (lack of) cost that brought me to Oakton Street for 3 days of live music in a year when I consciously skipped much larger fests like Lollapalooza, Pitchfork and even more sprawling suburban festivals.

More on the Bash in a moment, but it isn't just the fest or the 4th anniversary of my local homeownership that has put a salute to Skokie on the docket.

The "You Know You're From Skokie If..." Facebook Group page
Digging Up Memories,
Sharing Them Online

In just the past month, I caught wind of--and joined--a Facebook group called "You Know You're From Skokie If...". Though I had to opt out of getting an email everytime any of the 234 members posted (or someone commented), it has been fun following threads having to do with the schools, camps, stores and restaurants I grew up with.

I posted that Skokians of a certain age would remember restaurants like the Candle Wick--which was Acres and Zwieg's before I came to know it--Chandelier, Sam 'N Hy's, Tower Garden and LaRosa Pizzeria (the one on Golf is still there). 

Undoubtedly, similar Facebook groups exist for myriad other cities and towns, with their own native nostalgia, but this one has been fun for me to tinker around with.

Now, beyond an occasional fest and a new Facebook page, Skokie really has a whole going for it. Although I rarely go there despite living across the street, in Old Orchard we have one of the best shopping malls in the Midwest. The wonderful Skokie Public Library doesn't have to take a back page to any I've visited. The District 219 high schools, Niles North (my alma mater) and Niles West, were selected in 2007 as having the best arts programs in the country. The Northlight Theater delivers many fabulous productions (including this year's fantastic The Outgoing Tide, which just earned many Jeff nominations). After years of being a haven for Holocaust survivors--who famously battled to keep neo-Nazis off the village streets in the late '70s--in 2009, Skokie became home to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. And while I wouldn't describe Skokie as a fine dining mecca--despite some decent restaurants in Old Orchard and elsewhere--it does boast two of the best hot dog stands you'll find anywhere: Poochie's and Herm's Palace, located within blocks of each other on east Dempster St.

A Local Celebrity That's Making Us Look Good

While there was a 1981 TV movie named Skokie (starring Danny Kaye) about the planned Nazi march and large Jewish community, today the village is notable for its vastly multi-ethnic population. Hence, The Festival of Cultures. And although the Skokie Wikipedia page doesn't list any famous Skokie residents or natives--for a long time, Robert Reed (a.k.a. Mike Brady) being buried in Memorial Park Cemetery was the closest we came to having a celebrity in town--we now can claim a bona fide football star: the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall, a Niles West grad.

Erin Heatherton, the Skokie supermodel
And as I learned through a number of articles noting her recent visit to launch a new line of Victoria's Secret athletic apparel, there is even a supermodel named Erin Heatherton (formerly Erin Heather Bubley) who hails from Skokie.

Not only, as you can see at left, is Heather one of most attractive human beings on the planet--a nice Skokie counterbalance to yours truly--but I really liked the answer she gave in an interview with Trib Local's Brian L. Cox about growing up in Skokie:
"I think Skokie’s one of the best places anyone could grow up. It’s a very multicultural town. In my high school you’re exposed to every single culture and race. I think that’s very important when growing up because you’re really not shocked by moving to New York, where it’s kind of a melting pot."
Perhaps she isn't all that famous yet--she's been a Victoria's Secret model since 2006, when as a Niles North student & basketball player she was discovered on a trip to Miami, but I  just learned of her last week--but in adding to Skokie's Q rating, we could do worse.

And yes, I am hoping to interview her one day for a profile piece for Seth Saith. Unless she gets an injunction precluding it.

Anyway, Facebook pages, supermodels, football stars, festivals...things are really happening in Skokie.

"Tramps" like us...
Which brings me back to the Backlot Bash. 

It certainly wasn't the highest profile festival of the summer--as kind of a double-edged sword, it's not all that massively attended--but the music I saw & heard over August 26-28 was as personally satisfying as much I imaginably could have heard at Lollapalooza or elsewhere.

On Friday night, I saw Tributosauras become the Who. Tributosauras is a group of skilled musicians who "cover" a different artist at each performance, employing any additional players needed to get the sound exactly right. I had recently seen them for the first time at Martyrs'--a Chicago club where they play every month--when they "became" Bruce Springsteen. That show cost me $20, but their Backlot Bash performance was every bit as good--actually, a bit better--for free. 100 minutes of great Who songs without "Baba O'Riley," "My Generation" or anything from Tommy. My only tip to the guys is to learn an extra song in case you earn an encore; they were forced to repeat "The Seeker." But on my @@@@@ scale, I give this Tributosauras gig a solid @@@@.

Before Tributosauras, there was a band of likely teenagers called Riddum Secure. I guess they had won a local Battle of the Bands, and deservingly so, as they rocked through a couple Stones songs, a few other covers and at least one original that sounded pretty good. It was really a pleasure to see.

Saturday, upon arriving at the fest around 4:00pm, I went into the venerable, recently refurbished Skokie Theater, where in keeping with the Fest's cinematic theme--which was otherwise largely underenunciated except for some Charlie Chaplin standups--they had silent films running with a live piano accompaniment. The three short films starring Buster Keaton--two with Fatty Arbuckle--were quite fun and pianist David Drazin was excellent. 

On the mainstage at 6:30pm were Smoking Popes, a band I would see anywhere. Hailing from the far northwest suburbs, they were one of my favorite bands of the '90s. In the coming weeks, I'll be seeing some of my others--Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins--and while the Popes weren't quite at that level, their ultra-catchy punk pop sound was also a great throwback that came across as good as ever on Oakton St.

I was sorry the crowd was more sparse than it should have been for such a great band, but I think Smoking Popes made some new fans with their energetic set and affable demeanor. This was a @@@@1/2 performance. A clip of "I Need You Around" is below:

Smoking Popes would have been a more than suitable headliner--and were my favorite act at the Backlot Bash--but following them on Saturday night was Fastball. Yes, on August 27, 2011, the answer to the "Where Are They Now?" question about the Austin, Texas band that had one of the most ubiquitous hits of 1998 with "The Way," was literally: "Skokie, Illinois."

Although they had had a couple more minor radio hits back then, I can't say I'd heard of them since or knew much of their music, but they played an entirely enjoyable set. "The Way" is still Fastball's best pitch, but "Fire Escape," "Out of My Head," "Little White Lies" and the rest of the show sounded good, including nice covers of The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" and a crowd-pleasing "Sweet Home Chicago." With a very impressive comeback gig, at least in terms of my awareness, Fastball delivered a @@@@ performance.

Here's a bit of "The Way":

I really don't know how the organizers of the Backlot Bash dug up or decided upon Fastball--I've been to and/or seen listings for many local festivals over the years and never noticed them around town--but I have to commend them. Especially piggybacking on Smoking Popes, this was a much more unique bill than trotting out American English, as much as I enjoy the area's best Beatles' cover band. And even Tributosauras noted that the Backlot Bash is the only outdoor festival they play.

In addition to a suggestion that festival organizers attempt to increase the audience's diversity--despite a wide range of ages, those attending seemed much more homogeneous than Skokie's varied population--hopefully they can entice more actual Skokie restaurants to operate food booths. Festival purveyors of funnel cakes and corn dogs were more prevalent than actual restaurants, though Lincolnwood's erstwhile Myron & Phil's did a nice job. From them, I enjoyed a generous portion of BBQ ribs for just $7, along with a great ear of corn. I can't recall who served the Falafel sandwiches, but I had a good one of those as well.

Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
Although I hadn't initially planned on going to the Bash all three days, given the great price and comfort level, there was no reason not to catch some blues on Sunday night. A fine 2-hour set from Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials was warmly received by the crowd and brought the Backlot Bash to an end on a high note. This too was a solid @@@@ performance, and my friend Ken actually bestowed an extra 1/2@.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable weekend in Skokie, even if I didn't play bingo, ride the Tilt-A-Whirl or lose money on any carnival games. With plenty of great music, decent food and lots of space to sit down, I couldn't really ask for more. Thank you to all who helped deliver another first-rate festival in Skokie.

I think I just may stick around.

(Over time, I hope to write some more profiles of Skokie people and places. Here are links to a few on Shalom Klein, Bob Katzman and a Skokie Park District production of Rent.) 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

For Your Reading and Listening Pleasure: The 11 Most Essential Rock 'n' Roll Albums -- Now on Booth Reviews

After a bit of a hiatus from posting Top 11 lists on the Booth Reviews blog on, I have put up a new post positing the 11 rock albums I consider most essential in starting a music collection (and I even cited the next 11). Click here or on the image to access it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Great Four Days in the Big Apple and Considerably Longer to Write About It -- Travelogue: New York City

(This story is long and I apologize for, I assume, many typos, as I haven't had time to do much editing. If you just want to see some photos, click here.)

I <3 NY.

Or so it says, with a proper heart, on millions of t-shirts I've never seen anyone wear. Although on my trip there from Thursday, August 11 through Sunday the 14th, I did see a group of tourists congruently clad in blue shirts adorned with "We <3 NY."

While I am a longtime Chicago area resident and a proud champion of all the Windy City has to offer in many different arenas, there is nowhere in the world that makes me feel like I do when I'm in New York City.

Mind you, I wouldn't want to live there, at least not given the likely reality of struggling to find a job that would allow me to share a walk-up apartment in the outer reaches of an outer borough.

But when I go for 4 days every year or two, I enjoy the delusion of staying in Midtown (almost always near Times Square) and going to several Broadway shows, a few museums, concerts and/or ballgames and dining (usually lunching) at one highfallutin' restaurant.

Although my financial outlay for this isn't cheap--despite relative non-opulence in my choice of lodging--four packed days in the Big Apple costs considerably less than what most Manhattan apartment dwellers pay in monthly rent.

I've been to New York 14 times now, all for pleasure, with 13 of those trips coming in the last 15 years. So although I always find something new to do, I long ago hit most of the major tourist highlights. But whereas several of my excursions to NYC have centered around Bruce Springsteen shows--often at Giants Stadium--or other concerts, this time I went primarily just because I hadn't been to New York for a couple of years.  And I acutely missed it.

Certainly, going to the new Yankee Stadium was a big pull, as it's one of just 3 current major league parks at which I'd yet to see a game, but in my head at least, thematically this trip was a celebration of New York and Broadway. Although I didn't go by Ground Zero except by boat--I don't think there's anything the public can see of the memorial until the 11th--it also wasn't lost on me that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is just weeks away.

Anyway, I know more time has lapsed than I spent there, but here's what I did and saw over a great four days in New York City.

Thursday, August 11

Although there really weren't any major fiascos on the whole trip, things got off to a bit of a harried start, at least mentally. I got to O'Hare 80 minutes before my outbound flight having already checked-in online, printed a boarding pass and with only a carry-on bag. But I found that JetBlue--which I was flying for the first time--doesn't utilize the main security checkpoint in Terminal 3 but rather shares a 2-lane checkpoint with other smaller airlines. At 6:00am the line was snaked through and beyond all the guide stantions so it took nearly an hour to get through security--after stopping to be X-Rayed to someone's undoubted delight. By the time I got to the gate the plane was already well-boarded, but I never worried much as I knew there must be passengers who'd arrived later than me, still stuck in the queue.

The flight itself was fine and Jet Blue features nice video screens on the back of each seat, though I mostly just slept.

I arrived at JFK and took an Air Train to the subway, then the A train into Manhattan; the $7.25 expense sure beats a $50 cab ride, even if it's a bit slower. Upon arrival the Hotel Pennsylvania about 12:30pm, I waited in a long line only to be told that check-in wasn't  until 3pm. Usually I've found hotels let you check in early, but the Hotel Penn wouldn't and didn't even waive the $4.00 fee to hold my bag.

These buildings on 28th St. once formed the heart of
Tin Pan Alley, but that legacy isn't noted in any fashion
So on Thursday afternoon I set out on my own walking tour, heading south from 33rd Street. My first stop was on 28th St., between 5th and 6th Avenues, but there was really nothing to see. I mean, I saw some buildings that once housed the world's foremost music publishers and legendary songwriters like George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, but there really is nothing to connote that this stretch was once "Tin Pan Alley." Supposedly there is a small plaque on the ground somewhere, but I looked and couldn't find it.

Continuing down Broadway, I saw one of Chicago's greatest contributions to New York: the beautiful Flatiron Building designed by Daniel Burnham.

Then I went to Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, which has existed since 1929. It's at 174 5th Avenue, just west of the Flatiron. I try to hit a different deli on each NY visit and while Eisenberg's wasn't the best, it was a coolly quaint blast from the past. Finding the counter help to be entirely pleasant rather than reflexively gruff, I got a Corned Beef and Pastrami Reuben along with a Potato Knish.

The cold cuts seemed a bit fatty for my tastes, but the sandwich was quite delish nonetheless.

Although I was adequately full, I made another guidebook-inspired visit to City Bakery, at 3 W. 18th. I got a "pretzel croissant," which was quite tasty, and a great chocolate chip cookie that I didn't eat until later.

I then strolled throughout Greenwich Village, aided by Rock Junket New York City,  a book by a guy who gives tours I didn't care quite enough to take.

I stopped in front of Electric Ladyland studios, built by and for Jimi Hendrix shortly before his death in 1970--I asked a couple employees who came outside if I could get an inside glimpse, but was told no, as there were recording sessions taking place in the still active studio.

Other Village landmarks I saw included Washington Square Park, Cafe Wha?--an early Dylan haunt--The Bitter End and Kenny's Castaways.

I took a walk down Bleeker Street to the Bowery, which at 2nd Street has a sign declaring it "Joey Ramone Place." The legendary punk club CBGB's had been at 315 Bowery and though it ceased operations in 2006--I went there once, but never saw a show--the John Varvatos store in its place has retained the clubs old walls, as is, except with new photos hanging.

Next door, in what was the CBGB Annex and store, where once spoke with owner Hilly Kristal, there is a high-end rock photo gallery called Morrison Hotel. One of its founders is a photographer name Henry Diltz, who had shot the cover of the Doors' album of the same name.

Although I was pretty worn out by then, I shlepped up to 96-98 St. Mark's Place, which only a few loons like me would know--or care--are the two buildings which were once famously depicted on Led Zeppelin's album cover for Physical Graffiti (they cropped out a floor for the 1975 cover).

Getting back to my hotel, I had to wait in about an hour-long check-in line, but still pretty full from my Reuben, knish, pretzel croissant and chocolate chip cookie, I didn't feel much need to seek out dinner before heading to the theater.

Theater Review

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark
Foxwoods Theater, New York
Open Run

Much plagued and maligned throughout its long gestation period and longer-than-ever preview run, and supposedly considerably altered since its initial incarnation, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a show that succeeds in spite of itself.

With music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge, it isn’t as enjoyable as a U2 concert—nor a classic musical—but there are more readily likable songs than were on either of the last two U2 albums. Originally co-conceived and directed by Julie Taymor, who was eventually pushed aside, it’s nowhere near as good a stage creation as her Lion King. With its story now largely similar to the first Spiderman movie, it’s not quite as gratifying as watching that film or Spiderman 2.

At times it’s hokey, at times its narrative is a bit stilted and not all its songs can be termed sensational. Yet it has enough going for it that I couldn’t help but like it.

Although rehearsal and preview accidents supposedly curtailed some of Spidey’s flying, there’s still plenty of him swinging around the Foxwoods Theater. Although no tunes hit the highs of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "Where the Streets Have No Name," songs like "Bouncing Off The Walls," "Rise Above" and "Boy Falls From The Sky" rock pretty resoundingly. And for U2 devotees, it’s fun to hear recorded snippets of or references to a number a the band’s songs. Reeve Carney, in the title role, sings and acts suitably well and Patrick Page makes for an enjoyable Green Goblin, especially in leading the song “A Freak Like Me Needs Company." Though I got an understudy Mary Jane, Kristen Martin was more than pretty and well-sung enough for me not to care. 


Having woken up that morning at 4:30am in Chicago, flown, walked a great deal around Manhattan and seen an evening performance, I was pretty pooped, so I didn’t make it to the 11pm show at Birdland, one of my favorite NYC jazz clubs. I also like the Village Vanguard, Blue Note and Iridium, but didn’t get to any of them on this trip.

Friday, August 12

Although checking-in was a pain in the tuchas, the Hotel Pennsylvania proved to be perfectly fine in terms of the room itself, noise level, location, etc. I’ve stayed there before as it offers great convenience to getting to shows at Madison Square Garden or taking a train out of Penn Station across the street. More recently, I’ve typically stayed closer to Times Square, but the Hotel Penn is only 9 short blocks or 1 subway stop away.

I didn’t have anywhere to be on Friday until an 11:45am lunch reservation so it was nice to sleep in. Leaving my room at about 10am, I was still somewhat legworn, but it was too beautiful a day to jump on the subway.

So first I walked up 8th Avenue to the new New York Times building, where there is a Dean & Deluca coffee shop and bakery that sells among other pastries, donuts from the Doughnut Plant. The Doughnut Plant itself is on the Lower East Side—I discovered it on my last NY visit in 2009—and has the best doughnuts I’ve ever tasted. I had thought about trying to get to the actual location on Thursday, but ate too much elsewhere and ran out of time. But having noted where else in NYC their donuts are carried, Dean & Deluca fit the bill—even if their Doughnut Plant selection seemed kind of sparse—and I got a Blackout (mega chocolate) cake donut and a Peanut Butter &amp; Jelly square donut. Yum. Yum. And some milk, since even in New York, I don’t drink coffee.

I then had a real nice walk toward my lunch destination near 58th & 3rd, passing the Central Library, Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building (probably still the world’s most beautiful skyscraper), which I even went into for some lobby photos. I also made a point of walking past 53rd & 3rd, the title and subject of a Ramones song though I imagine the reputation Dee Dee once wrote about (and supposedly partook in) has long since dissolved.

Now before I get to lunch, let me explain that one of the things I try to do on each trip to New York is dine at one really high-end restaurant. Typically this means lunch, where you can often find relative bargains at places rated among the world’s best or otherwise renowned. Past NYC visits brought me to Tavern on the Green, Nobu, Le Bernardin, The Four Seasons, Auereole and a few steakhouses. This time, I had initially thought about Jean-Georges, but I couldn’t even get a reservation for the more economical Terrace at Jean-Georges. So I chose Le Cirque.

Now in its third Manhattan location, Le Cirque has long been one of New York’s most acclaimed restaurants. It’s not on Restaurant magazine’s list of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants—perhaps it was in years past—but is among Gayot’s list of the Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S. For a kid from Skokie, that’s elite enough for me, and fellow Howard Stern fans might be interested to note that the current location is where Howard & Beth got married.

A jacket is required for men in the dining room, even for lunch, but they graciously offered to let me borrow one so I didn’t have to pack one nor wear a jacket around Manhattan—and to the Yankees game that night—in 88 degree heat. Yet for all the elegance, and what turned out to be great food, they offered a real bargain. Honoring “Restaurant Week” prices from July 11 through September 2, a three-course (appetizer, entrée and dessert) lunch at Le Cirquewas only $24.07. Of course, a few choices required $10 supplements and I was convinced that two of these—the Marinated Big Eye Tuna appetizer and Flounder “Le Cirque” entrée—were among their famed specialties and worth the extra cost. Obviously, I can’t know comparatively, but I had no complaints. Both were delicious, especially the tuna, which came raw accompanied by guacamole. It was awesome. The flounder was also great though it didn’t seem quite as gourmet in preparation as other exquisite meals. And for dessert, my first taste of Crème Brulee was fantastic.

I was done with lunch around 1pm, and although I was thinking I might hit two art museums that afternoon, on such a beautiful day I couldn’t skip a walk through Central Park, especially as the area around the Bethesda Fountain is probably my favorite place in New York, if not the world. And in the beautiful terrace passage next to it, I not only took a few more “archway photos,” I got to hear a three-piece combo (guitar/singer, violin, cello) perform a pleasant set of classical and pop songs.

As I’ve mentioned, this is my 13th trip to New York in the past 15 years, and on every one I’ve gone to at least one art museum if not more. So I’ve been, perhaps multiple times, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, Whitney, Frick, Brooklyn Museum of Art, American Craft Museum and the Jewish Museum, at which I’d seen a great Modigliani exhibit.

I wouldn’t mind going to any of these again, but with admission fees of $25 I’m not going to run into the Met or MOMA with limited time. The two museums I was eyeballing—along with the AIA Center in the Village, which I didn’t make it to on Thursday, and the International Center of Photography, which I got to on Sunday—were The Jewish Museum (like before, the one on 5th Ave. & 92nd St.), which was having an exhibition centered around the Cone sisters, early 20th century collectors and patrons of Matisse, Picasso, etc., whose collection was donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and a new museum, the Neue Galerie, a collection of German and Austrian art housed in an old 5th Avenue mansion.

I stopped by the Neue Galerie first, but found that the exhibition halls were closed until August 19th, so after admiring a copy of their famous Klimt in the gift shop, I walked up to the Jewish Museum. The exhibit on the Cone sisters, both for what I learned about the women themselves--one of the sisters, Claribel, was a practicing physician at a time when very few women were doctors--and the art they collected, typically ahead of their time. Claribel and Etta were on a first name basis with Picasso and Matisse paid Etta a personal visit in Baltimore after Claribel's death in 1929.

Matisse's drawings of Claribel and Etta Cone bookend two other highlights from the collection and exhibit, one by Matisse, the other by Picasso (below). There was also an impressive Van Gogh. 

Although I didn't have much time to spend with it, I also found this exhibit by Maya Zack to be quite compelling. 

Theoretically, getting to Yankee Stadium—the new one is right next to where the old one stood—should've been a breeze as the 4 subway train up Lexington Ave. takes you right to the ballpark. And from the Jewish Museum at 92nd and 5th, I was just blocks from the closest station at 86th and Lexington. But first I discovered that the 4 doesn’t stop at 86th street so I had to take the 6 to 125th and switch. No big deal, except the 4 didn’t seem to be coming all that frequently, the first one that did was too packed to get on and so was the second one, but I got on anyway, spending a lovely 15 minutes smooshed together with sweaty New Yorkers with at least one arm up to hold onto a pole. 

I enjoy subways and have ridden them around the world, but this ride was one of the worst. Fortunately, it wasn’t that long and I arrived at the Yankee Stadium stop feeling like a sardine, but none too worse for wear.

Having made it an aim to attend every major league ballpark that exists, I typically spend a good while exploring the stadium, first taking a loop around the outside and then strolling through the interior—even to the point of missing a good portion of game action. Although I did go mostly around the park and took a number of photos, there wasn’t much differentiation in terms of exterior angles. And inside the park, with a great pitching matchup between the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia and Tampa Bay Rays’ David Price, I actually spent a full 7 innings in my seat, and even watched most of the final 2. There’s a Hard Rock Café inside the stadium, but I only went in it after the game for a few photos. The stadium’s famed Monument Park—which was relocated from the old stadium—beyond the center field wall closes 45 minutes before gametime, so I didn’t get there (although I’ve seen it before) and whatever may exist in the Yankees Museum within the stadium will have to remain a mystery as I also didn’t make it there.

The new park was certainly impressive and enjoyable, but didn’t, for me, a non-Yankee fan, hold the historic luster of the old Yankee Stadium. Although I wasn’t seeking much food after my Le Cirque lunch, I also didn’t notice much in the way of anything unusual. (At the Mets’ new stadium, Citi Field, they have Lobster Rolls.)  There is a $15 steak sandwich, but I didn’t seek it out, settling for a run-of-the-mill hot dog. It was a bit unique to see C.C., one of the game’s best pitchers, give up 5 solo homers, and Price pitched a great game. A-Rod was out of the lineup so I couldn’t boo him, even internally. At least not with any relevance.

I understand why the Yankees had to build this new park, but tickets are crazily expensive (though I got mine on StubHub for just $19) and it just doesn’t feel as special as “The House That Ruth Built.” It’s a nice baseball stadium, but at this point, that’s all it is.

I again toyed with the idea of going to Birdland, but didn’t, instead heading back to the Hotel Penn and turning in for the night.

Saturday, August 13

On Saturday, I awoke to another absolutely gorgeous day in New York City. Which was a good thing, as prior to a doubleheader of Broadway shows, I was intending to take a 3-hr. Circle Line cruise around Manhattan (literally). 

I took my one cab ride of the trip—it seemed it should be part of the whole NY experience—to the Pier 83 at 42nd Street in plenty of time to get a ticket for the 10am departure, although the boat wound up being completely full. I’ve taken such cruises a couple times previously and they’re a really nice and relaxing way to see and photograph many of the city’s highlights. 

The tour guide was an old guide who delivered a really informative narration as we went past the Statue of Liberty, numerous bridges and famed buildings. I vividly remembered taking a Circle Line tour in July 2001 and 10 years later it still seems strange not to see the Twin Towers. They are making solid progress on one building at Ground Zero, as you can see at left.

After the cruise, I had to get to a 2pm show at the Marquis Theater at 46th and Broadway, but near the dock noticed an outpost of H&H Bagels, the best bagel purveyor in NY, as far as I’ve tasted (although honestly no better than New York Bagel &amp;amp;amp; Bialy in Skokie, IL). It was fun to get and eat an “Everything” bagel as I strolled to my show.

Theater Review

Marquis Theatre, New York
(officially in previews until Sept. 12)

I am a huge fan of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Follies is one of his most acclaimed musicals. It is also one of his with which I am less familiar, having seen is just once in a community theater production. 

So a new Broadway production that transferred from Washington DC’s Kennedy Center caught my eye, especially with a cast of theatrical luminaries including Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Mary Beth Peil (Jackie from TV's The Good Wife) and others. 

Originally on Broadway in 1971, the show centers around a reunion of old performers from a Ziegfield Follies-type revue. There is a bit of a narrative involving romantic entanglements and regrets, but much of Follies includes “Folliesesque” numbers, with each of the old stars taking a turn singing one of their old standards. These include some of Sondheim’s best songs, like "I’m Still Here," "Losing My Mind" and "Broadway Baby." 

All the stars were as good as I could have hoped and each tune was exquisite. But there is something not perfectly engaging about the storyline and the "Loveland" series of songs in Act 2. I'm looking forward to seeing Follies again, in a more intimate setting, when it's done in October at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (where I've never seen Shakespeare but have thoroughly enjoyed four Sondheim shows). But for now, it seemed like a musical whose parts were a bit better than it's sum. 


After Follies, I wandered up and down 8th St. looking for somewhere to eat. I almost went to Playwright Tavern but didn't see much on the menu that appealed to me, so wound up at Charley O's at 49th & 8th. Though it has a chain-type feel, there are only 2 locations, both in NYC, where the restaurant has existed for over 50 years. The food was decent--I got some Prime Rib that was kind of thin, but to be expected for the price--but I found the wait staff to be particularly nice. I'm not sure how to express what this means, but they seemed like "real New Yorkers" and made the meal pleasurable. 

Then it was on to the hottest show in town, perhaps in many a year...

Theater Review

The Book of Mormon
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York

With nine Tony Awards won in June—out of 14 nominations—The Book of Mormon is one of the most acclaimed musicals of recent vintage. And as a huge commercial success, it is the only show of 43 I’ve seen on Broadway that has required me to purchase an aftermarket, above-face-value ticket (in this case, from StubHub).

It is an exceptionally good show, one that is tremendously funny—I imagine even Mormons should find it so—and much more thought-provoking than mean-spirited. It essentially asks the spiritually-inclined to think about what they believe and why, but is not in any way a wholesale condemnation of religion, Mormon or otherwise.

While in shorthand reference, this is a musical by the creators of South Park—Matt Stone and Trey Parker—it’s certainly worth noting that Robert Lopez is co-credited (along with those two) for writing the music, lyrics and book. Lopez, along with Jeff Marx, was the creative mastermind behind Avenue Q, and the humor here—both lyrically and in dialogue—is somewhat reminiscent of that Tony winner.

While I highly recommend it to anyone who can get a ticket at any affordable price, I can’t at this point call The Book of Mormon the best musical I’ve ever seen, or anything quite that hyperbolic. It holds up quite well amongst the best Broadway musicals of the past decade—The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Wicked, Spring Awakening, Billy Elliot, In the Heights, Jersey Boys—rather than clearly elevates above any or all of them. But that’s pretty select company and whether it quite lives up to all the hype, TBOM is, at worst, sensational.


A few years back, I was told of a place called Marie’s Crisis (sorry, no website). I was never completely clear on what it was, and having been there am still not certain. It seems to be a combination of gay bar, piano bar and cabaret, frequented by those who love or even work in theater. It is at 59 Grove St. in the West Village, and just steps from a subway stop at Christopher St./Sheridan Sq. 

After getting out to the subway, I was delighted to instantly see a pushcart selling waffles. I realize waffles might sound strange as a finger food, but I became enchanted by this on a visit to Belgium. The waffle I got was quite tasty, though a bit softer than I expected, making it not all that easy to eat as I walked. But it was just a short jaunt to Marie’s Crisis, so named because, well I'm not sure who Marie was, but you can read this about the Crisis part

And in terms of what goes on at Marie's Crisis, well, take a look below. It wasn't quite what I was expecting and I only needed to be there for about an hour, but I can't deny it was quite loverly (there were two pianists, who wound up performing most of the My Fair Lady score).

Sunday, August 14

Sunday morning it rained in Manhattan. This may not seem all that newsworthy, but over at least the past dozen years, when I’ve traveled substantially throughout the U.S. and abroad, I think I’ve had just 1-2 days of vacation rain, and none which significantly impacted my plans. And other than prompting me to take the Subway to Times Square rather than to walk, Sunday’s rain did little to dampen my enjoyment as my intended agenda called for a visit to the International Center of Photography followed by a musical matinee at a theater basically across the street from the museum.

In fact, the rain proved to be a bit fortuitous, for rather than pick up a pastry for breakfast while walking up Broadway, having taken the subway and not opting to wander around too much, I stumbled into the Brooklyn Diner on 43rd east of 7th Ave. I was originally planning to just get a muffin, but the wait staff at the counter was really nice and I decided to get eggs and bacon, which were darn good and came with some of the best noodle kugel I’ve ever had and two pieces of challah toast. I also ordered a piece of their self-acclaimed “best ruggelah in the city” and was given one on the house. So good food and a great experience where I really had no expectations of either.

Copyright Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
I then walked through the raindrops to the ICP, where the main exhibit—if the permanent collection was accessible, I didn’t find it—was on Elliott Erwitt. I didn’t recognize his name, but some of his work—Jackie O. at JFK’s funeral, a pensive Marilyn Monroe, Nixon and Krutschev in the “Kitchen Cabinet”—was so iconic as to be familiar and the rest was tremendously eye-opening. Erwitt’s sly humor reminded me a bit of William Eggleston, the subject of a fine exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. But almost all of Erwitt’s work shown was in black & white and while many photos featured dogs, his subject matter was quite diverse. The exhibit closes at month’s end, but is definitely worth a visit for anyone who can get there. Or check out Erwitt’s website.

Also tremendously worthwhile were two smaller exhibits, one of photos taken of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb—to document the damage for the U.S. government—and the other on a pioneering photojournalist named Ruth Gruber. Gruber, the youngest woman ever—at least at the time—to earn a Ph.D., was originally sent—by the U.S. government—to the Soviet Arctic and subsequently to document post-War conditions for Holocaust refugees, including those on the Exodus, a boat that British navy blockaded from entering Palestine. Winding up on another boat, Runnymeade Park, the refugees painted a swastika on the Union Jack, which Gruber caught on film. Still living at 99, the remarkable Gruber is the subject of a documentary called fadlf adre, which I hope to see sometime soon.

When I left the museum, it was still raining, but lightly, and I encountered a Dominican parade up 6th Avenue. Fortunately, I only had to cross 43rd to get to the theater, the newly renamed Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Formerly Henry Miller’s Theatre, it has been completely gutted and refurbished, with the entire forum underground.

Theater Review

Anything Goes
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York

Originally staged in 1934, Anything Goes is a silly seaside farce featuring a lovely Cole Porter score and a newly revamped book by frequent Sondheim-collaborator John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, son of one of the original authors. Starring Broadway’s best young leading lady—Sutton Foster, who still would go unrecognized on most street corners despite having won her second Tony for the role—the legendary Joel Grey and other theatrical legends, Anything Goes was tremendous fun. Foster was wonderful and it was a treat to see Grey, John McMartin, Kelly Bishop—I know her from TV's Gilmore Girls but she was an original Chorus Line Tony Winner—and the rest of the cast, including Colin Donnell, Laura Osnes, Adam Godley and Jessica Stone, was also terrific.


I can't imagine anyone's still reading, as you're better off just going to New York yourself, but the last thing I'll mention is that I figured out how to get to LaGuardia Airport--where my outbound flight was on American--without needing a cab or shuttle (as even a 2pm matinee ending near 5pm didn't provide enough lead time for the shuttle to get me to the airport for an 8pm flight).

I just took the #1 subway line north to 116th and Broadway (at the heart of Columbia University) and caught the M60 bus to LaGuardia. It was fast, cheap, uncrowded and exceptionally easy. My total outlay for transportation from and to the New York airports this trip was less than $10, which was good given all else that I did. (If you need the New York transit website, it's

Saturday, August 20, 2011

While I Continue To Write My New York Trip Recap, How About Some Photos

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Finally, Some Well-Placed Hits at Wrigley -- Concert Review: Paul McCartney

Photo Credit: Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune
Concert Review

Paul McCartney
Wrigley Field, Chicago
July 31 & August 1, 2011
@@@@@ (both shows)

I apologize for not writing and posting this review sooner, but it was a busy week, including spending roughly 6 hours with Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field.

Given that even my headline is a bit outdated with the Cubs having won 7 straight games--including the last 2 at home--until their streak was ended today, I realize by now this piece might be moot.

For either you were at one (or both) of Sir Paul's fab shows and know how great they were, have already read a stellar review elsewhere or really don't care.

So I won't belabor this, least of all for myself. But anyone who showed up at Wrigley expecting simply a golden oldies night of sentimental singalongs--or stayed away for fear of such--had their expectations solidly rocked for close to 3 hours each night. With a touring band that he's played with longer than the Beatles, and close to the 10 years he fronted Wings, the 69-year-old legend didn't let stifling heat keep him from delivering a pair of outstanding rock concerts of which nearly any artist of any age would be proud.

Until now, the best concerts I'd seen in 2011 were by Arcade Fire and U2. If Macca's two gigs weren't better, they surely weren't any worse. And I'm not just referencing the quality of the material--heavy not just on Beatles, but Wings chestnuts as well--but the quality and fire with which it was delivered. No, Paul's not a Liverpool lad anymore, but his voice sounded good, his bass playing was excellent and his band was wonderful.

You can click to see the setlists from Sunday and Monday; they weren't too different, but actually varied more than I had expected. Spontaneity is not among McCartney's mainstays, but after realizing the silliness of setlist quibbling years ago (not that it's stopped me), I've taken to just enjoying what the greatest living rock musician wants to play for me. So it was quite nice to have "Hello, Goodbye" swapped with "Magical Mystery Tour," "I've Just Seen A Face" give way to "I'm Looking Through You" and four other nightly variants.

And while the accolade I just cited is based on his Beatles' legacy, McCartney has put out much excellent music over the last 15 years, to the point that I could've happily heard a few more "new songs."

Perhaps it wasn't necessary to go both nights, but how many times in my life will I have the chance to see Paul McCartney--or even any winner--at Wrigley Field? Especially as both shows cost me less than 70% of attendees paid for just one concert, I was thrilled to treat myself to two hard day's nights.