March 11th, 2015

Milwaukee Art Museum; “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”

February 26th, We went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the current exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” which is a fascinating selection of designer fashions shown at the Ebony Fashion Fair during its run from 1958 through 2009. Consisting of over one hundred pieces curated by the Chicago Museum of History, the exhibit is a showcase of fashions designed for—and, increasingly, by—African Americans.

Occupying the exhibit space in the Calatrava wing, the show begins, fittingly, with a handsome blue suit worn by Eunice W. Johnson, editor of Ebony magazine, and founder of the Fashion Fair. It then segues into the fashion collections, opening with a 1972 Emanuel Ungaro ensemble of a red, blue, green and purple suede coat over a crocheted bodysuit, and thigh-high stockings. This was followed by a 1988 Christian LaCroix cocktail outfit in black and white, accented with a bold red scarf. Then, there was a black and red Pierre Cardin “pop art” patterned dress from 1970, and a 1978 Yves Sant-Laurent “Picasso” dress with a skirt of multi-colored satin swirls.

Time and space prohibit me from describing in detail all of the amazing outfits we saw. Just about every major designer you can think of was represented: Givenchy, Bob Mackie, Courreges, Paco Rabanne, Valentino, Bill Blass, de la Renta, Thierry Mugler, Patou, and many others. Common elements in many of the pieces were bold use of color, extensive application of beading and sequins, daring cuts, and accents such as fur and feathers, although there were some more subtle designs as well. Borrowing from non-Western cultures such as Moroccan, Chinese, and Japanese, was also evident.

Of course, fashion, as Georgie says, is an “extreme sport,” and some of the designs fell into that category: Bob Mackie, Sarli, and Naeem Khan produced “evening gowns” that were variations on the theme of strategically placed lace or beading on sheer net. There were mostly backless gowns, and others with interesting cut-outs. Others were extreme in different ways: the entirely sequin-covered man’s evening suit in salmon and lavender plaid (Guy Laroche, 1972) is certainly striking, but where would you wear it?

Among all the wonderful designs, of course there had to be a few clunkers, and Vivienne Westwood came up with two of the worst: one being an assymetrical lumpy brown “evening gown” that appeared to have been made out of a furniture cover with parts of the furniture still inside. Another outfit, in black, blue, and gray from the Mount Mary collection, consisted of a coat with an angular pattern, plaid pants, and a checked top. The coordinated colors and fabrics make it an ensemble, but otherwise the effect is “I dressed in the dark.”

The exhibit is tastefully arrayed on attractive mannequins of varied complexions, which works well. The exhibition catalog is one of the better I have seen, with full page pictures of all the outfits you most want pictures of, posed on live models.

The exhibit runs through May 3rd before moving on to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. (For compete tour schedule visit If you can’t find a venue near you, the catalog can be ordered through the Milwaukee Art Museum store on line.

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Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa: “All in the Timing”

On Sunday, March 1st, I went to the Inspiration Studios performance space on S. 73rd Street, which has become the home base for Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, to see a set of six one-act plays by David Ives, under the collective title of “All in the Timing.”

These plays are all quite short, running as little as five minutes, but are wonderfully funny and clever, with much witty language and playful use of time. A case in point was the first piece, “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” The composer (Todd Herdt) enters a baker’s shop. One of the customers (Patricia Wikenhauser) present says words to the effect of “Isn’t that Philip Glass?” Another (Christina Schauer) replies, “I think it is.” The baker (Adeola Giwa) says, “May I help you, sir?” Glass replies, “Yes, I need a loaf of bread, please.” Baker: “Just one moment.” First woman: “It’s time now.” Second woman: “Yes, let’s go.” Baker: “Do you know that woman, sir?” Then, the cast begins to riff on the elements of the short exchange in the style of Glass’ music, with repetitions and reordering of the words: “ Isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that,” “Think it is, think it is, think it is,” reformulating the phrases to get declarations such as “Philip Glass is a loaf of bread.” The changes continue, accompanied by rhythmic movement, until a second set of themes is introduced, and the variations begin again.

“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” was equally surreal in a different way. The scene begins with Leon Trotsky (Paul Pfannenstiel) sitting at his desk writing. It isn’t immediately obvious that he apparently has a mountain climber’s ice axe embedded in the top of his head. Trotsky’s wife (Ms. Wikenhauser) enters reading an encyclopedia (or, in this production, Wikipedia on a tablet) dated the year of the performance (i.e., Trotsky’s future), and reads out the entry describing the attack on Trotsky on August 20, 1940, and his death the following day. Trotsky asks what day is it, and she tells him, August 21st. Trotsky replies that it must be a hoax, since he is not dead. She points out that he does, in fact, appear to have an axe in his head. Trotsky examines himself in the mirror, agrees, and falls over dead. At a bell, the scene resets, and plays through variations in which Trotsky discusses his murder, and even calls in the assassin and grills him as to his motives. This sounds more macabre than it is, and is also very funny.

“The Universal Language” was a very cute play, in which a shy young woman afflicted with a stutter (Ms. Schauer) tries learning the “Unamunda,” which she hopes will help her overcome her stuttering. The language is a parody, full of cultural references: The affirmative word is Ding! (with exclamation point). The word for “English” is “jonklees” (John Cleese), and so forth. A lot of this segment’s humor comes from these jokes and the fact that you can indeed (mostly) understand the instructor (Mr. Giwa).

“Words, Words, Words,” was a very clever play on the myth that an infinite number of monkeys, given infinite time and typewriters would eventually by chance produce the works of Shakespeare. In this case, we see the experiment from the viewpoint of three chimpanzees, Swift (Herdt), Milton (Rolando Kahn), and Kafka (Schauer), who engage in an existential debate about their lives, what is Shakespeare anyway, how will they know it if they see it, and does it matter to the experiment.

In “Sure Thing,” a man (John McGreal) and woman (Robyn Beckley) meet in a coffee shop, and, using the same “reset” device as in “Trotsky”, work through seemingly all the iterations of ways the encounter can go wrong before finally agreeing on a date at the movies.
The last play, “The Philadelphia,” reminds one of a “Twilight Zone” episode. Mark (Kahn) meets his friend Al (Pfannensteil) in a café, in a bad mood because he’s been thwarted at every turn this morning, not only did his newsstand not have the New York Times, the vendor denied it existed, and so forth. Al tells Mark he is stuck in a “Philadelphia,” a state in which it is impossible to get anything you ask for directly. Al, on the other hand, is blissful, because he is experiencing a “Los Angeles” in which life is beautiful no matter what happens. He coaches Mark on how to get along, but, when the waitress brings him the wrong order, Al realizes with horror he has caught “Philadelphia” from Mark and rushes out. Using Al’s guidelines, Mark manages to order a meal and to chat up the waitress (Ms. Beckley), who confides that she has been “stuck in a Cleveland” all her life.

The plays were done against a minimalist background cleverly decorated with a theme of clocks. All the actors did excellent work with the very difficult scripts, which require precise timing, and must have been hard to memorize, especially given that much of it isn’t in standard English, and that there are lots of variations on a similar theme that would be easy to get lost in. Director Mark Wyss did a really excellent job of putting this show together.

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Geneva Steam Convention Mid Winter Carnival report

The Geneva Steam Convention Mid Winter Carnival went on March 6-8 at the Grand Geneva Resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

This was a first convention, so attendance was very good,official attendance figure 266 including vendors, drawing mostly from the Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago triangle, and a bit lightly programmed, but very pleasant and showing promise for the future.

The drive from Milwaukee was a pleasant one given good driving weather, and took just under an hour. We were able to get registered with the hotel and the convention with no problems, and settled in. The Grand Geneva Resort is quite a posh complex in many ways, including a golf course, ski hill, and riding stable. It’s also rather odd in some ways. The architecture is based on Frank Lloyd Wright principles, so the major structure is built to follow the terrain, in this case a ridgeline overlooking a valley that contains the golf course and a decorative lake. This means that the lodge is very strung out, and getting from a room at the far end of “Building Two,” as ours was, could be quite a hike. Getting from one point to another is less linear than expected, also, since each building unit is on a different level, and there’s no standard interface at connecting points, making it possible to choose the wrong ramp or stair and get shunted off into a dead end.

Rooms were nice enough. We had a “Lakeside Double Double” on the ground floor with a walk-out terrace (not that we used it due to the temperature--). There were some—interesting amenities, such as the television built into the bathroom mirror. I was interested to see that the room desk included USB, VGA, and composite Video ports, apparently allowing one to use the main flatscreen TV as a monitor. All of the staff we encountered were cheerful, friendly, and helpful, although I gather that all was not sweetness and light between the con committee and the resort sales team during the convention, a likely indication that if there is a second Steam Convention it may well find another venue.

The first event we attended was the 2PM Friday panel on “What is Steampunk?” A good discussion was had, focusing on Steampunk as an aesthetic movement, involving literature, music, and style.
Next, we attended the “Golden Miracle Medicine Show,” by Dr. Brady Jebediah Peters and Miss Annabel Lee, which was an amusing satire on the classical medicine show spiel and associated entertainments.

At 4:00PM, “Haberdashery,” presented by Robyn Tisch Hollister was an interesting presentation on hat styles and types. (This one was mostly women’s hats, so “Millinery” would have been a more correct title--.)

5-8PM was a “Mixer” in the lobby bar, which was a pleasant low-keyed event. I had been asked to act as a host, so made a point of meeting and greeting the attendees on behalf of the convention committee.

The other major event of the evening was the “Victorian Pajama Party.” This was a very pleasant and convivial event with many of the attendees indeed showing up in period nightwear, ranging from red long johns to lace-bedecked but modest nightgowns.

Saturday morning there was a reprise of “What is Steampunk?” with some different panel members, followed by my presentation of “Melodrama and the Music Hall,” which was well received. Also a popular draw at that hour was the presentation on “Fast Upgrades to Your Costume,” by Tracy Benton.

“19th Century Weapons Beyond the Gatling Gun” at noon was a well attended and enthusiastic presentation that could have used a bit more organization and proofreading (example: both presenters referred to a famous World War I era artillery piece as a “French 76” when it was actually a 75mm gun:

1:00PM, “Corset Lacing for Others,” was a brief but useful lesson on how to assist someone else in getting into her (or his) corset, by Henry Osier.
At 2:00 was “Fact or Fraud: Victorian Mysticism,” by Robyn Tisch Hollister, which focused on the Spiritualist phenomenon, and mainly on the famous frauds. Well done and informative, but sometime I would like to see one of these presentations give equal time to the sincere believers.

After a tour through the well-stocked dealers’ area, we attended the 4PM panel, “Meet Your Steampunk Groups,” hosted by Bridget Sharon of the Milwaukee Steampunk Society and Sam Perkins-Harbin of the Chicago Steampunk Society, which was a very good networking opportunity. (I took the occasion to plug Steampunk Chronicle--.)

At 5PM, there was “Bellydance History and Movements”, presented by Julieann Hunter and members of the Stellamani dance troupe. Yes, belly dance falls into the Steampunk milieu, since it was largely introduced to the West during the Steam era, at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, and the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Stellamani has added Steampunk costume elements to their “fusion” style of dance, which were very interesting and effective.

We had dinner at the Resort’s Ristorante Brissago, which features modern northern Italian cuisine. We both started with the Insalata Casalinga alla Brissago, which was quite good. Georgie had the Salmone con Finnocio, with wild rice and a limoncello sauce for entrée, and I had the Vitello alla Grigia, veal tenderloin with root vegetables and orzo. For dessert, we split a chocolate-caramel confection. All the food was delicious, and the service pleasant and prompt. Considering the quality of the food, I didn’t have a problem with the prices, which compare with an urban fine dining restaurant. (Our bill, with two glasses of wine, topped $100.00.)

This may be one of the Resort’s biggest drawbacks for a hobbyist convention. The resort is a long way from anywhere else, and the food is mostly pretty pricey for the fan on a tight budget. Breakfast buffet at the Grand Café was $18.00 each. Granted, this includes made-to-order omelets and fresh waffles, tea or coffee, juice, fruit, pastry, etc., all of which was excellent, but it’s a good thing there was also the “Café Gelato,” which had a variety of “grab and go” sandwiches, muffins, croissants and other pastries. This is where we got part of our Friday dinner and Sunday breakfast, and I gather they did a good business this weekend.

At 7:00PM, the doors opened for the Grand Ball, which was the major event on the “Mid Winter Carnival” theme. Entertainment was provided by the music of Milwaukee group “Dead Man’s Carnival,” interspersed with sideshow and circus acts, including a juggler, magician, acrobat, and aerialist, as well as Sir Pinkerton’s notorious “blockhead” sideshow turn. The Stellamani dancers also performed some very entertaining numbers from their repertoire. There were also carnival games presented by various local charities as which one could win raffle tickets. Con attendees turned out in their finest and had a good time, with many dancing to the band’s eclectic music.

Sunday morning, we attended the presentation on “How to Thrift for Costumes” by Mary Prince. This involved finding and re-purposing both clothing and non-clothing textiles and other bits into Steampunk garb.

At noon, we rolled home, having enjoyed a very pleasant weekend. Congratulations to the Geneva Steam Convention committee for having staged a very nice convention with few detectable glitches.

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tuesday evening, March 10th, we went to see “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the cleverly named sequel to the popular film about a cadre of aged British expatriates taking residence in a ramshackle but charming old hotel in Jaipur, India.

Set eight or so months after the end of the first film, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is thriving under the joint management of Muriel (Maggie Smith) and Sonny (Dev Patel). In fact the hotel is mostly full, the ruinous parts are almost completely renovated, and the two have come to the United States seeking venture capital to acquire another property. Entrepreneur Ty Burley (David Strathairn) is interested and tells them he will send an anonymous inspector to examine the present operation.

While hyperactive Sonny, with his unerring ability to choose wrongly the first time in any situation, seems to be doing everything possible to screw up both the deal and his upcoming marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai), much of the rest of the interwoven plot deals with the evolving relationships of Evelyn (Judi Dench), Douglas (Bill Nighy), Madge (Celia Imrie), and Ronald (Norman Cousins), who all seem to have come to their feet and begun to deal with life again. How they work out their challenges and choices makes for a very sweet story with a mostly optimistic ending—and if not optimistic, at least contented—even for perennial wet sock Jean Ainsley (Penelope Wilton). There are some interesting twists in the plot, not least being an expanded role for Sonny’s formidable mother (Lillete Dubey), who hits the love interest jackpot when she attracts the attention of new character American Guy Chambers (Richard Gere).

Mostly, it’s an opportunity to see a lot of wonderful actors exhibit their decades of skill and experience, which is a joy to watch. (Once again, it’s also an opportunity to observe the difference between an American “star” and a British character actor. Good as he is, the smooth-faced and handsome Gere has essentially one expression of mild amusement. On the other hand, Nighy can run through more expression in five seconds than Gere does in the whole movie. Therefore, even though Nighy resembles a twitchy scarecrow next to Gere, his character is both more interesting and more charming--.)

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