Saturday, July 30, 2011

One Fine Day...and Night

That's all the Great Plains Ragtime Society needed (as things turned out) to stage the 2011 version of the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area's Ragtime to Riches Festival.

It took place on 7-10-2011, and would've also taken in the previous day if it hadn't been for a double whammy: First of all, the festival's 2007-10 venue, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, raised its rental fee for the use of the Strauss Performing Arts Center's Room 105 (the center's choral rehearsal room). Second, the Nebraska Board of Regents stepped in with a new rule for 2010-11...and it involves insurance policies.

The regents now want any outside organizations seeking to stage events at any spot at any of the schools in the U of Nebraska system to take out two insurance policies- a $1 million policy per occurrence and a $3 million one against UNK, UNL, UNMC, or UNO...depending on what campus is used.

Going back to a church (the first two R to R Festivals were held in a church) seemed more economical, so that's what happened.

Ragtime to Riches is patterned after a January event called the Eau Claire Ragtime Festival, which is held at that Wisconsin city's First Congregational United Church of Christ. During a mid-January weekend, proceeds from that event (the first one took place in 2000) go to help a different nonprofit effort in the western part of the Badger State.

Holding such an event here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area seemed like a great idea. (When I initially looked into trying to get a festival started around here, we were going to use a playhouse that was then located in a strip mall- the Grande Olde Players Theater. But the GOPT board of directors shot that down...and the first two R to R Fests- 2005 and 2006- happened at a Council Bluffs church, Broadway United Methodist. When the staff at Broadway said "yes," I decided to say "yes" to handling the proceeds the Eau Claire way, too.)

Now that R to R had dropped out of college, it sounded like a great idea to pitch the idea of hosting the event to a local United Church of Christ, First Central Congregational.

The 2011 version still could've been a two-day event if (1) Broadway UMC hadn't installed a new senior pastor in time for the very weekend of this year's festivities and (2) First Central UCC hadn't scheduled a wedding for 7-9-2011. (So that makes it a triple whammy!)

But this new, slimmed-down R to R worked out fine.

Okay, we didn't get the sizable crowd we were able to have in 2010, and half as many performers played this time around...but the ten people who listened to this year's two performers still had plenty of fun.

It all got started at 1:00 PM (Central time) with an open-piano session; at 2:00 PM, I had a chance to give a workshop about one of the three men who came up with "Sweet Georgia Brown," Maceo Pinkard.

Maceo lived from 1897 to 1962; he was born in, raised in, and educated in Bluefield, WV. (He graduated in 1913 from what's now called Bluefield State College; it went under a different name during its early years...okay, it was called the Bluefield Colored Institute.) Within a year of graduation, Pinkard wrote his first song, "I'm Goin' Back Home." He formed his own orchestra and was able to tour the United States.

That's how he got here to Omaha and started a theatrical agency.

By 1915 or so, he'd outgrown the Big O and headed for the Big Apple, where he launched Pinkard Publications. Two years later, MP founded Maceo Pinkard Music, where he sold compositions to bigger publishing companies (like New York City's Leo Feist, Inc. and Chicago's Frank K. Root firm).

But Maceo's best contributions were in the field of songwriting, and that's how he got hired by Shapiro, Bernstein, and Co. in 1918; his first big efforts were that year's "Don't Cry, Little Girl, Don't Cry" and the next year's "Mammy O'Mine."

During the 1921-31 period, Pinkard hit his stride, penning hits like "Sugar," "Don't Be Like That," "There Must Be Somebody Else," "At Twilight," "Congratulations," "That Wonderful Boyfriend of Mine," "Them There Eyes," and, of course, "Sweet Georgia Brown..." as well as "Is That Religion?" and "Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh?"

Maceo also came up with his own Broadway musical, "Liza," a production (Irvin C. Miller did the book) that officially ran from 11-27-1922 to 4-21-1923...after a trial run during the summer of 1922.

"Liza" was one of five 1922 shows trying to cash in on the success of Eubie Blake's and Noble Sissle's landmark "Shuffle Along," the musical that gave us "I'm So Wild about Harry."  "Liza's" still got a place at the table was the first place where the Charleston (that's right, THAT Charleston) was done on any stage in the New York City area. (The honor went to Maude Russell and the Dancing Honey Girls.)

Another thing you can chalk up to Maceo Pinkard was his having introduced Duke Ellington (that's right, THAT Duke Ellington) to the business end of the music business.

It all started when Pinkard met Ellington at a New York City nitery, Barron's. After that, MP took DE downtown and introduced him to Fun City's music publishing district (also known, of course, as Tin Pan Alley, the area between 40th and 55th on Broadway).

Duke met Irving Mills at Mills Music...and that resulted in the "Mood Indigo" man gaining a manager.

On top of that, Edward Kennedy Ellington got a chance to record some Maceo Pinkard numbers, such as "Is That Religion?" as well as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Them There Eyes."

When I come back, I'm going to talk about the festival's two concerts. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Watching "A.N.T. Farm"

You read it right. It's not a typo.

You're probably asking yourself: "What's a grown man- one in his fifties, at that- doing watching a show meant for two-to-fourteen year-olds?"

Well, I'll tell you: I find A.N.T. Farm to be a truly funny show.

What's more, I think it's got something to say to the adults in the lives of those two-to-fourteen year-olds the show's network, Disney Channel, aims its series at.

It comes on Friday nights (8:30 PM Eastern/Pacific, 7:30 PM Central/Mountain) and has been on since 5-6-2011, when Disney Channel aired the show's pilot. A.N.T. Farm became a weekly series a month ago (6-17-2011, to be exact).

The show revolves around three of the students in a gifted program (the "Advanced Natural Talents," or "A.N.T." program) at a San Francisco high school, Webster.

A.N.T. Farm's lead character is Chyna Parks (China Anne McClain, formerly of House of Payne, one of Tyler Perry's TBS shows), an eleven-year-old who's been admitted into the Webster program because of her immense musical talents. Chyna's ambitious, witty, sometimes helpful, sometimes vengeful, and- of course- talented. One of the things she likes to do is solve problems by writing songs about them (which happened in the show's third episode; Chyna had a crush on an older student, so she broke out her flute and came up with a ditty about her crush; last week, she used her guitar playing to get votes when she ran for the A.N.T. representative spot on the WHS student council).

By the way...Chyna's eleven other instruments are violin, piano, trumpet, saxophone, cello, harp, bagpipes, French horn, drums, harmonica, and spoons. (And to top it all off, she sings!) can't convince me that twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old China Anne is faking the funk, not after she cowrote (with four other composers- two of them her sisters) and sang the series' theme song, "Exceptional."

Sierra McCormick plays Olive Doyle, a talkative, rather insecure girl who's got an eidetic memory. (When you've go an eidetic memory, that means you remember everything you've ever heard, read, or seen.) Olive not only is the show's science wiz...she's also its goof-off. (I liked the payoff scene in the 7-1-2011 episode; in it, Chyna and Olive wrestled with the remote control to the zeppelin Olive had built for Webster's Science Fair. And when the zep crashed into the power line of another science project, Olive quoted 1930s news reporter Herb Morrison, the man who was on the scene when the Hindenburg crashed in 1937: "Oh, the humanity!") 

I've got the feeling Olive's going to grow up to make a great, great voter.

Another thing about Olive: She's afraid of all kinds of things, from ghosts to disorganization all the way to...curly fries (so you'll never catch Olive eating at an Arby's).

Fletcher Quimby (Jake Short as an artistic genius) built the project that used those power lines. But the power lines he'd like to use are the verbal kind...and he'd like to use them on Chyna. (In the premiere episode, Fletcher told Chyna: "You're beautiful." But then, he ended up backing up and referring to her music as beautiful.)

When Fletcher isn't trying to paint portraits or erecting wax versions of himself and of his fellow ANTs, he's doing magic tricks.

Sometimes, you'll get to see Aedin Mincks on the show. On A.N.T. Farm, he's Angus Chestnut, the show's computer genius. Angus likes to run illegal programs, and, as a matter of fact, he's rigged the A.N.T. Room to drop a disco ball and switch the stereo to smooth jazz or soft rock whenever the would-be object of his affections- Olive- pays the least bit of attention to him.

Now to the older students:

Lexi Reed (Stefanie Scott) is a WHS cheerleader, the student body president, the perennial lead in the school's musicals, and...the school bully.

Lexi feels so threatened by Chyna's presence that, the night the show's viewers saw Chyna and Olive try out for the school's cheer squad, Lexi and Co. roughed Chyna up so badly that our multiinstrumentalist couldn't sing worth a hang when it came time to try out for this year's school musical. (But then, Lexi didn't get the lead this time, either!)

In other episodes, Lexi had bullied Angus (stuffing him into a cannon) and Cameron (forcing him to crawl into a trash barrel to find her sunglasses...that were in Lexi's purse all along).

If Ann Coulter ever gets a chance to watch this show, she'd truly like Lexi Reed.

Carlon Jeffery portrays Cameron Parks (that's right, Chyna's big brother). When the Parkses are in school, he tries to stay away from her and her A.N.T. buddies (they embarrass him, as was the case at the party Lexi threw the night we first met the A.N.T. Farm gang). He likes girls and money (but of course!), and that makes Cameron a successor to Hannah Montana's Jackson Stewart. (For that matter, Chyna and Olive are A.N.T. Farm's version of Miley Stewart and Lilly Truscott.)

Cameron's decision to start the school's "End Hunger Today Club" sounded Jacksonish in that it consists of its members stuffing their faces with buffalo wings...but Cameron sticking up for Chyna when it really counts lifts him above the character Jason Earles just got through playing.

I guess a show like this one has got to have someone who's clueless, and on this newest Disney Channel sitcom, that someone is Lexi's buddy Paisley Houndstooth (played by Allie DeBerry, who, I can assure you, is anything BUT clueless in Real Life).

I watch Paisley and wonder about today's American educational system...and I wonder about all those Real Life Paisleys out there (people who are going to end up voting for the first time later on in this decade of the 2010s!).

Geez...who else could refer to a violin as a "chin guitar?" And who else could, later, turn to that same "chin guitarist" and turn down a chance to elect that "chin guitarist" to the A.N.T. spot on the student council...on the grounds of being too young to vote? 

By the way...Cameron ended up winning the A.N.T. seat. (Okay...he isn't really an A.N.T. student. But he was tabbed to replace Angus in that seat because Cameron's in the same height range as the show's three leads. Matter of fact, Carlon stands 5-1...and I found that out by going to

The Parks parents are played by Finesse Mitchell (he's a cop in the SFPD) and Elise Neal (she's a children's party organizer).

Well, there you have it...a show that right now is averaging 3.9 million viewers a week (after grabbing 4.4 million of them for the premiere episode).

It makes me laugh out loud, and that's why I'm staying with this Farm. In fact, I'm putting every episode on DVD.

And I've tried to tape or DVD each first-run episode of just one other sitcom in my life.

And that series happened to be...Roseanne.