Monthly Archives: December 2011

How Far is Off-Broadway?

In the immortal words of George M. Cohan, "Give my regards to Off-Broadway."

A musical called The Fantasticks ran for 42 consecutive years in the same theater, so I have no excuse for not having seen it.  It had 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, making it the longest-running show in history.  It is the classic Off-Broadway production.

For all I know, you may have been in the cast of your high school’s staging of The Fantasticks — it’s still a big favorite — but I’m sorry to say that your show in Burlingame or Bellingham or Bloomington doesn’t really count as “off-Broadway”, even though it was done a very long way from Broadway.

So what is Off-Broadway, exactly?  It has less to do with geography than economics, because… well, maybe it would make sense to back up a little and be sure we’re clear on what defines Broadway.

Besides being one of the major roads of Manhattan, it is also the name associated with the theater district in New York City.  There are only a few dozen theaters that are considered Broadway venues, and of those, only a handful are actually on Broadway (the road).  The rest are in a corridor between Sixth and Eighth Avenues that extends from Times Square on the south to roughly 54th Street on the north.  Times Square, by the way, is where Broadway angles across Seventh Avenue (between 42nd and 43rd Streets).

That’s their geographical location, but what really makes them Broadway theaters has to do with their contractual arrangement with Actors Equity, the labor union that represents stage actors.  Venues in New York City that have a seating capacity of over 500 are considered Broadway theaters, although most have well over 1,000 seats.  It’s worth mentioning that the rest rooms in Broadway theaters comfortably accomodate 6-8 people at a time.

OK, so let’s return now to Off-Broadway (and thank you for your patience).  Off-Broadway, according to the Equity contract with the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, are venues in New York City with 100-499 seats.  As it happens, there are some “Off-Broadway” theaters located within the geographical Broadway theater district I described above.  Most, however, tend to be in Greenwich Village or the Gramercy neighborhood.

Once in a while an Off-Broadway show does so well that one of the big theaters takes it on.  Among the success stories of Off-Broadway shows that had subsequent Broadway runs are A Chorus Line, Godspell and Avenue Q.  Because of Equity contracts, a move like that means a nice pay increase for an actor.  In fact, an actor in a relatively small role who is making the contract minimum would see his salary almost double with a move from “Off” to “On” Broadway.

It turns out that I still have a chance to see an Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks:  In 2006 a revival opened at a different theater and is still going.  The Sullivan Street Playhouse was not so fortunate.  After the show finally closed in 2002, the theater was turned into condominiums.  I’ll bet the building now has more toilets than it did when it was a theater.

Which Bread Plate is Mine?

Now all we need is food.

One of the jobs I don’t usually list on my résumé is “busboy”.  For some reason, it doesn’t seem to impress anyone that while I was in college, I spent a summer working in the dining room of a resort hotel.  Trust me, I’ve had worse jobs — “elf” at an amusement park, for instance — and being a busboy was very educational.

Because my job responsibilities included setting tables for banquets, I learned how utensils and glassware are supposed to be placed for formal dining.  That knowledge comes in handy every once in a while, like when I’m at a wedding reception or retirement party or — well, any event where a table that would comfortably seat six people is set for eight.

You’ve been in those situations, right?  There are so many plates and glasses on the table, it’s hard to know which are supposed to be yours.  So let me pass along some of my busboy wisdom…

If you look at the photo above, you can see that the soup bowl is on the dinner plate, the bread plate is to the left of the dinner plate, and the water glass is to the right of the dinner plate.  Some people use the mnemonic BMW to remember what goes where.  In this case, BMW doesn’t stand for Bavarian Motor Works; it stands for Bread-Meal-Water.  From left to right, that’s your place setting:  the Bread plate, then the Meal in the center, and the Water glass on the right.  Oh, and your wine glasses are over there on the water side, too.

So what’s the deal with all the silverware?  There’s a reason it’s placed as it is — basically you start on the outside and work your way in.  For instance, the soup spoon is outside right; after you have finished your soup, some extremely attentive young busboy will clear away that spoon along with the bowl.

The salad fork is usually on the outside left, but once in a while you’ll see it inboard of the dinner fork.  That probably means that the salad will be served after the main dish, European style.

The cutlery above your plate is for dessert.  Sometimes there will just be a dessert fork, and sometimes there will just be a spoon.  But when I see both, I’m thinking, “OK, dessert is gonna be big!”

Oh, here’s something worth knowing about your bread plate:  it’s not just for bread.  It can also be used as sort of the trash bin for your meal.  That’s where you discreetly put olive pits or stray fish bones or other inedible things, instead of spitting them on the floor.

My tenure as a busboy was brief; I was “promoted” to bellboy, providing room service to the hotel’s guests.  The things I learned in that job weren’t as useful in later life.  For one thing, I learned that occupants of the bridal suite — honeymooners, in other words — were terrible tippers.

And I learned that the best tippers were guys who called down for a bottle of champagne and two glasses — they were usually with someone they wanted to impress.  They weren’t on a family vacation, if you get my drift, and they were always in a hurry to get me out the door.  Their loss — I could have told them a thing or two about how to set a banquet table!

Changing the Subject

"Yes, we have to be dry-cleaned. We're wool, you know."

When you gather with friends and family for the holidays, you have a pretty good idea of what conversational pitfalls to avoid.  By now you know which family member believes aliens are real, or which friend thinks the solution to the current political situation is to nuke Massachusetts.

You know not to let Aunt Cynthia see you eating a cracker. (“Those things are laced with preservatives — you might as well eat poison.”)  You are careful to stay away from topics that ultimately make your loved ones storm out and slam doors.

When you’re at a social gathering of people with whom you are only slightly acquainted, though, it’s more challenging to avoid a) tension or b) boredom.  After you and the guest seated next to you have agreed that it certainly is unusual weather for this time of year, where do you risk going next?

Sometimes you don’t get a choice in the matter, because that stranger with whom you have been thrown together is a windbag.  Several years ago, Sally and I were at a banquet table; our dinner companions included a man who grew up in North Dakota.  He thought we would all be fascinated by stories from his youth, mostly concerning livestock.  He shared anecdotes about a calf that didn’t have a penis, about castrating cattle, about techniques of artificial insemination.  These were not stories, really, because they never went anywhere — it was just a jumble of ruminations involving things that shouldn’t be discussed at mealtime.

In circumstances like that, or when attempts at conversation have lapsed into awkward silence, obviously someone needs to change the subject —  but to what?  In the situation described above, it wouldn’t improve things much to talk instead about that fake doctor in Florida who was doing cosmetic surgery with cement, mineral oil, and flat-tire sealant.

The list of hot-button topics goes beyond the merely revolting to politics, religion, ethnicity, favorite sports teams, celebrity divorces, and the questionable military strategy of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

So here’s one approach to changing the subject that should be relatively safe:  bring up an Imponderable.  You may not know them by that name, but they have certainly popped into your head from time to time.  It’s stuff for which there seems to be no simple explanation. 

For example, why does “homely” have an unpleasant connotation?  I think of home as a good thing.  Or here’s another one:  When something is described as “foolproof”, who did they test it on?

There are lots of Imponderables floating around the internet, like “What does cheese say when it has its picture taken?”  There’s also “What was the best thing before sliced bread?”  Did you ever stop to wonder why sheep don’t shrink when it rains?  One that just occurred to me is why we call them Imponderables — we’re pondering them right now, aren’t we?

Anyway, when you find yourself in a situation that requires a change of subject, bringing up one or more of the Imponderables could do the trick.  Before you know it, you just might be standing at that punch bowl all by yourself!

Avert Your Eyes

If you enjoy watching college football, this year’s slate of bowl games just might cure you.

There are 35 games, which means that 70 teams will participate;  demand for good teams far exceeds supply.  Thirteen teams with break-even records — 6 wins, 6 losses — got bowl bids, and one (UCLA) actually had a losing record.  This will make for some ugly games, I’m afraid.

Florida and Ohio State faced each other in the 2007 BCS Championship game, but this year they both limp into the Gator Bowl with 6-6 records.  The Meineke Car Care Bowl matches Northwestern (6-6), a school that hasn’t won a bowl game since 1949, against Texas A&M (6-6), which fired coach Mike Sherman at the end of the season.

Mississippi State (6-6) and Wake Forest (6-6) square off in the Music City Bowl.  The Bulldogs are 73rd in the country in scoring; the Demon Deacons are 75th in total defense, so a resistible force struggles against a movable object.

Arizona State fired its coach, Dennis Erickson, and then accepted an invitation to get stomped in the MAACO Bowl.  Its opponent, Boise State, would be playing in a BCS bowl if their kicker hadn’t pushed the potential game winning field goal wide right against TCU.  The Broncos will take out their frustration on the Sun Devils, who are mainly known for amassing penalties.

The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl presents two schools that must be starved for attention — why else would they risk more public humiliation?  As noted above, UCLA had a losing record (6-7) but petitioned the NCAA for permission to play in Kraft’s cheesy bowl.  Illinois (6-6) does have one player who is quite good; the aptly named defensive end Whitney Mercilus led the nation in sacks.  He will probably  be merciless against the Bruins’ offensive line, which yielded 24 sacks.  This game has already set one record that will never be broken:  Both coaches (Ron Zook and Rick Neuheisel) have already been fired.

Now, here are a few thoughts about the games you’ll want to see:

•  Fiesta Bowl          Stanford (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State (11-1)

Both teams feature excellent QBs in Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden.  Both teams have shaky pass defenses.  The Cowboys have a slight edge because of All-American wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

•  Cotton Bowl          Arkansas (10-2) vs. Kansas State (10-2)

Eight of Kansas State’s wins were by 7 points or less.  They’ll have trouble staying close to high-scoring Arkansas.

•  Rose Bowl          Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (11-2)

The Ducks averaged 46.2 points per game, third best in the country.  Wisconsin was fourth with 44.6 ppg.  Wisconsin plays solid defense too, but they haven’t faced the kind of speed that Oregon possesses.

•  Sugar Bowl          Virginia Tech (11-2) vs. Michigan (10-2)

Both of Virginia Tech’s losses were to the same team — Clemson.  The Hokies’ defense is solid, but they’ll have to be spectacular against Michigan QB Denard Robinson.  He threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for over 1,000.  This will be close, but the edge goes to Michigan.

•  BCS National Championship Game        LSU (13-0) vs. Alabama (11-1)

Louisiana State allowed only 10.5 points per game, second best in the country.  You know who was best, right?  Yes, Alabama — 8.8 points per game.  I’m thinking the Crimson Tide won’t miss four field goals again as they did against LSU on November 5.  Alabama wins the rematch.

The Seven Wonders of the World

All that's left of the Temple of Zeus

The other day I saw some attraction characterized as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  It was a Las Vegas casino or a minature golf course or something, I can’t remember.  It occurred to me that either some people are easily impressed, or standards for the seven wonders that rank above it must have been lowered.

Long ago — two millennia ago — the original Seven Wonders were a sort of bucket list for travelers in the area of the Mediterranean.  They were man-made marvels extolled by poets and historians; the list was sort of the official version of your present-day acquaintance who says, “Oh, you’re going to England?  You MUST see Stonehenge.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how wonderful the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were, because all but one of them are gone.  The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza (Egypt) is still standing, and held the record of tallest structure for over 4,000 years.  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq) no longer exist, if they ever did.  Many modern scholars think they were just a legend, the invention of poets.

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Turkey) was a massive tomb built for a ruler named Mausolus, who died in 353 B.C.  It was a tribute from his wife and sister, who happened to be the same person.  Bits of it are now on display in London’s British Museum.  (When you’re in England, you MUST go there.)

Earthquakes destroyed The Lighthouse of Alexandria (Egypt), also known as the Pharos.  Standing near the mouth of the Nile, the lighthouse was about 380 feet tall, and its light was said to be visible from 30 or 40 miles away.

I have been to the sites of the other three ancient wonders, and can report that they aren’t much to look at anymore.  The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Turkey), once considered the most spectacular of all seven, is now some scatttered stones covered with weeds.  There is also a nearby museum that has artifacts found at the site.  One that I recall was a statue of Artemis that depicted her as having several dozen breasts.  (It would have been impossible for her to find a bra that fit comfortably.)

The Greek island of Rhodes is a fascinating destination because of all the layers of history there; for a brief time it was famous for The Colossus of Rhodes.  A statue representing the sun god Helios, the Colossus is sometimes pictured as straddling the entrance to the harbor — but it didn’t.  It was a, uh, colossal statue by ancient standards, standing a little over 100 feet high.  (To give you an idea, the Statue of Liberty in New York is about 150 feet, not counting the pedestal.)  Currently the entrance to Rhodes features two columns that are maybe 30 feet high.  Each has a statue of a deer on it, and let me anticipate your question:  I have no idea why.

Finally, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Greece) sat in a temple for 800 years or so, serving as a gathering place during the Olympic games.  The statue, made of ivory and gold-plated bronze, was destroyed by fire in A.D. 462.  What’s left of the temple looks a lot like the Temple of Artemis:  rubble and weeds.  The area is very scenic, though, with a couple of small rivers nearby and mountains in the distance.

So… if you were to compile a list of current wonders of the world, what would you include?  You don’t have to name seven, necessarily; I’m just wondering what you think are the wonders of our time.