Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two Early Charleston Theaters With Impressive Structures Hidden In The Shadows Of Time

The Time Machine has always been one of my favorite all-time movies--that is, the original version. Especially the scene where its inventor, George, enters his full-size machine, carefully inserts a masterfully crafted lever, excitedly yet slowly pushes it forward engaging its intricate mechanisms, and fully immersed in cautious wonderment, watches his surroundings and a store's mannequin across from his residence materially change in appearance season after season, year after year. I would have loved to place that same time machine on Church Street directly across from the building that became the Dock Street Theater so I could have watched the comings and goings through its many remarkable changing and passing years.

Today, standing on Church Street and looking directly towards the storied Dock Street Theater, the eye catching wrought iron balcony and sandstone columns gracing its facade immediately captures your imagination. The theater is by far Charleston's most remembered, not because it was the City's only theater, but simply because its appellation has survived Charleston's tumultuous history of confrontation, conflagration, and cataclysm. Its cycle of existence reminds me of the Bible passage at Revelation 17:8, which in part reads, "...and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder...when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is." The Dock Street Theater opened on February 12, 1736--"was", went out of existence in the Great Fire of 1740 and was replaced with the Planter's Hotel--"and is not", and finally returned as the Dock Street Theater on November 26, 1937--"and yet is."

During the time the Dock Street Theater was not, hidden in the shadows of time and lesser known by most people today, there existed two celebrated theaters housed in architecturally impressive structures. The Broad Street Theatre, also called Charleston Theatre, was built at the corner of Broad Street and Middleton Street (now New Street). The New Theater was constructed on Meeting Street.

The Broad Street Theatre was designed by James Hoban (best known as the architect of the White House in Washington). The masonry playhouse was built by contractor Capt. Anthony Toomer. As reported by the City Gazette on August 14, 1792, "the ground was laid off for the new theatre, on Savage's Green. …125 feet in length, the width 56 feet, the height 37 feet, with a handsome pediment, stone ornaments, a large flight of stone steps, and a palisaded courtyard. The front will be on Broad Street, and the pit entrance on Middleton Street. Owned by West and Bignall, the theater seated 1,200 people. It opened February 1793.

Soon after the Broad Street Theatre opened, Santo Domingan refugee John Sollée built a French-language theater on Church Street. Competition between the two theaters was fierce, and heightened by conflicting political alliances after France declared war on Great Britain in February 1793. While the wealthy elite patronized Shakespearean productions on Broad Street, supporters of the Jacobin revolutionaries flocked to the comedies, acrobatics, and light opera presented at the French Theater. After the 1795-96 season, it was effectively out of business.

While the Broad Street Theatre remained closed, the French and English theater companies merged during the spring of 1796 and through the summer of that year performed at a Church Street theater under the name of "City Theatre." Then, in the spring of 1800, the parties cooperated to open both playhouses. The re-opened Broad Street venue would present drama and the Church Street venue music, acrobatics, and ballet. Sollée then renovated his Church Street property as a music hall and ballroom, known for years as "Concert Hall." After 1800, the Broad Street theater was Charleston's only playhouse, and generally referred to as The Theatre.

The theater closed when the War of 1812 broke out, reopening in the autumn of 1815 under the management of English actor Joseph Holman. Junius Brutus Booth performed two engagements in the winter of 1821-22. On February 20, 1826, the City Gazette advised its readers that a "New Portico" would be erected at the expense of Mrs. Gilbert to induce attendance. Within a few years, the portico had been added to the Broad Street facade.

Broad Street Theatre became Medical College in 1833
By 1832, attendance had fallen off sharply. The decline was attributed to the steep price of tickets at a time when many had "circumscribed means." The tight wallets were a response to Charleston's weak economy, and the theater soon closed permanently. On July 25, 1833, the Broad Street Theatre was purchased by the faculty of the Medical College of the State of South Carolina for the sum of $12,000. The building was destroyed in the great fire of December 1861.

With the closing of the Broad Street theater, the city was without a proper theatrical venue. In early 1835, a group of businessmen led by Robert Witherspoon agreed to develop a new theater enterprise. They bought a lot on Meeting Street from the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, and organized "The Charleston New Theatre," as a joint-stock company.

New Theatre
Famous architect, Charles Reichardt (designer of the Charleston City Hall, original Charleston Hotel, Chisolm House, and Millford Plantation), designed the world-class auditorium. It was erected by a partnership of builders, Curtis, Fogartie and Sutton. While construction was underway, the theater was leased to an experienced actor-manager who brought a company of players to Charleston.

The Charleston Courier, December 18, 1837 described the 1200-seat New Theatre as being two full stories in height above a raised basement, the stuccoed brick building had a massive Ionic portico, with four columns, above an arcaded base. The portico was accessible only from within the building; entry from Meeting Street was through the arcade level. Three main doors opened to the lobby/vestibule, which had a ticket office at one side, ladies withdrawing room at the other, and a corridor leading to the boxes and seating floor. Above the richly ornamented auditorium was a large dome, at its center a forty-eight lamp chandelier eight feet across.

The New Theatre opened on December 15, 1837 to a large audience. After Mr. Latham delivered a "poetical address" written for the occasion by William Gilmore Simms, theater manager William Abbott took the lead role in the play, The Honey Moon, supported by Miss Melton and Mrs. Herbert, who also sang an "afterpiece."

In March of 1838, Junius Booth was booked to make his first appearance in Charleston in more than a decade at the theater. His characterization of Sir Giles Overreach was declared by the Southern Patriot as being on the whole "the most thrilling piece of acting we have ever seen…" In May, 1840, the celebrated German ballerina Fanny Elssler, whose appearances in Baltimore and New York had caused riots among her adoring fans, danced at Charleston's theater.

Although Abbott left Charleston in 1841, a series of managers were relatively successful in running the theater for the next twenty years. In 1858 and 1859, Edwin Booth (son of Junius Booth and brother of John Wilkes Booth) played several engagements. He reenacted his father's great roles as Richelieu, Hamlet, Giles Overreach, and Othello. The New Theatre was also destroyed in the great fire of December 1861.

The steps in the foreground was all that was left of the New Theatre after the 1861 fire and the Civil War.
The Broad Street Theatre and the New Theatre were not the only venues in Charleston back in their day just as the Dock Street Theatre is not the only one today, but they were prominent venues with impressive structures. What set the Dock Street Theatre apart from all others? It was America's first built exclusively to be used for theatrical performances and its name has prevailed over the ravages of time. It seats 475 people with state-of-the-art lighting and sound.

Not far from the Dock Street Theatre on Queen Street is the The Footlight Players. It was formally organized and incorporated in 1932. In 1934, the group purchased an old 1850 cotton warehouse that eventually became their permanent home. There are many other smaller venues located throughout Charleston--all producing quality entertainment.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Summerville--A Haunting Tale Amidst An Earth Shattering Cataclysm

"The day's overwhelming humidity continued to linger even at this late hour. Deep in thought, I reflected on some troubling peculiarities of the day. There has been a strange quiet, not in reference to the people I brushed shoulders with, but more so with regards to the animals. The usual chatter of the local birds has been eerily absent. Come to think of it, I don't even recall seeing any birds, and the carriage horses were a bit skittish, as was the dog in the train depot.

My thoughts were averted back to the moment from the blast of the train whistle. A billowing puff of hot steam filled the air and the locomotive jerked into motion. The train eased away from the loading platform. The final leg of my journal was underway. I looked at my pocket watch. The time was 8:50 pm. My destination is Charleston. The arrival time is estimated to be about 10:30 pm. I have been looking forward to my stay at the luxurious Charleston Hotel on Meeting Street with eager anticipation.

As a writer/publisher, I had certain advantages when it came to reading material. With a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's writings in my possession, I settled back into my seat as we steamed away from Branchville. In my research on Poe, I had learned he was stationed on a barrier island near Charleston called Sullivan's. I planned on visiting some of the places associated with the writer, which included Fort Moultrie and the war-damaged plantations on the oak-lined Ashley River Rd, Runnymede in particular--a favorite haunt of Poe.

I peered out the window and stared at the passing trees. The moonlight sifting through their branches cast a soft glow onto the lower growing bushes. The effect was as shadowy as the writings I was about to venture into. The rapidly increasing clickety clack of the heavy steel wheels rolling over the track informed me the train had reached full throttle. Some passengers had retired into a nap while others quietly read--much too late for conversation. I reached down and flipped open the cover to the dossier sitting on my lap. I began reading "The Gold-Bug" and for an unknown length of time, slipped into the reality that was Poe, until being abruptly disturbed by a thunderous explosion followed by an uncharacteristic feeling of weightlessness and the realization I was levitating above my seat only to come crashing down with a spine jarring thud. A scenario repeated countless more times.

The compartment filled with the deafening screams of helpless passengers being bounced around uncontrollably. An ungodly hissing sound accompanied the jolting up and down, back and forth turbulence. Outside my window, I caught a glimpse of water spewing from the ground skyward. The car's forward progress sputtered violently. I sensed the engineer was attempting to slow the train, but to no avail. There were no shortage of prayers. Then, as quickly as the upheaval started, it ended.

Despite the chaotic mayhem, the train miraculously remained on the tracks. The startled passengers took stock of their physical condition. Aside from bumps and bruises, it appeared everyone was okay. Again, the car jerked unnerving the already traumatized group of travelers. Only this time, the train was in the normal process of slowing and crept to a stop. I pulled out my pocket watch. The glass was shattered and the hands were fixed at 9:50. I gathered up the scattered pages of the dossier strewn about and stepped off the train.

An unearthly orange glow possessed the night sky. Fires were burning. Uprooted trees littered the ground. In front of the smoking engine, the surroundings were illuminated by brightly burning flares. We had stopped just short of what looked like a depot. I straightened my disheveled wardrobe and walked to the front of the engine where the engineer was conversing with a unfamiliar gentleman. Steadying my rattled composure, I introduced myself. I asked them what just happened and our present location. The gentleman introduced himself as the stationmaster. His name was Frank Doar and he went on to relate this most unusual story as we walked towards the depot.

Frank recounted, "It was 9:45 pm. The expected inbound train had just passed Jedburg. Awaiting its arrival, I was peacefully sitting in my chair drifting in and out of sleep, when I was suddenly startled by an elderly black man who appeared out of nowhere on the depot platform. He was filthy, sweaty, breathless, and agitated. The agitated old fellow excitedly told me he had just run several miles up the rail line from where the tracks were a twisted mess and I needed to immediately release warning flares to alert the incoming train of the impending danger.

I knew everybody who worked the line and thought I knew everybody in the community, but this man I never seen before tonight. The moonlight glistened off his sweaty hair, giving the top of his head a halo effect. I ordinarily would have been doubtfully apprehensive, but on this occasion I sensed the old man was being sincere. At the old man's urging, I quickly deployed the torpedoes, then turned to speak to the old man, but he was gone, as if he vanished into thin air.

I removed my pocket watch and glanced at it. The visit by the old black man, the warning, and the emergency preparations had taken five minutes. It was 9:50 pm. At that very moment, an eerie hissing sound enveloped the town followed by a massive explosion. The ground began to shake violently. I could hear the walls and chimneys of nearby buildings collapsing and swaying trees being ripped out of the ground by their roots. A massive earthquake had struck Summerville." I was beguiled by his accounting.

Everyone disembarked the train and walked to the station. We waited for further information on getting to our final destinations. We puzzled over the story Frank Doar told. In time, the stationmaster received a message. Further up the rail line from Summerville towards Charleston near Ten Mile Hill and the Woodstock Station, the tracks had become bent into a S curve by the violent upheaval. A train that left Summerville for Charleston moments before the violent upheaval struck derailed on the damaged tracks. The engineer on the train was critically injured, and another crew member was killed.

The flares Frank Doar deployed saved our commuter train from the same fate. But the mystery question remained: How did the elderly black man know of the impending danger before the earthquake even happened? He had vanished and was nowhere to be found. No one was ever able to thank the old man.

As for Frank Doar, even though he was the one who deployed the flares that saved the train, he refused to take any credit for being a hero. He faithfully believed the old man was an angel. At least, that is the way Frank told the story."

Although, this story is fictional, it is based on real occurrences and eye witness accounts. The haunting tale experienced by Frank Doar is as much a part of Summerville's history as the earthquake. It was made famous by writer Bruce Orr in his book "Haunted Summerville, South Carolina." Hey, it's October. I hope you enjoyed this retelling with my own added personal touch.

The Great Charleston Earthquake:

Charleston earthquake damage
The Charleston Earthquake of 1886 was the most damaging quake to hit the Southeastern United States. It occurred at 9:50 p.m. on August 31, 1886, and lasted just under a minute. The earthquake caused severe damage in Charleston, South Carolina, damaging 2,000 buildings and causing $6 million worth in damages. About 110 lives were lost.

Major damage occurred in Summerville and as far away as Tybee Island, Georgia (over 60 miles away) and structural damage was reported several hundred miles from Charleston (including central Alabama, central Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia). It was felt as far away as Boston to the north, Chicago and Milwaukee to the Northwest, as far west as New Orleans, as far south as Cuba, and as far east as Bermuda.

In Horse Creek, Aiken County, a train pulling stock cars plunged off the tracks into 40 feet of water. The fireman was killed and four horses drowned. Other animals kicked holes in the cars and swam to safety. In Ravenel, Charleston County, the ground broke open for 2.5 miles. A man trying to reach his grand-children was cut off by a jet of water. In Columbia, Richland County, the Congaree River rose with 10 foot waves.

The Charleston Hotel survived the Earthquake, but not unscathed. The center portion of the parapet of the hotel's block-long Corinthian colonnade had been hurdled to the sidewalk during the massive upheaval reportedly crushing two ornate gas lamps that flanked the entrance door.

Summerville house
Summerville train depot
Eye witness accounts:

"The first awareness I experienced was the noise that developed over my head and can only be described as sounding like a huge herd of rats was thundering across the overhead ceiling. In a panic I rushed outside and felt an awful and profound shaking of the house, and was frozen in fear that the earth was going to open and swallow us all up. All I could reason was that God had set his mind that the judgment day was at hand. I looked up and expected to see the heavens fall, and then the second shock came and I was just barely conscious that I was falling, and felt a tremendous pain in my back from falling debris. Shock wave after wave hit and I became nauseous and thought I was going to die."--Virginia Ingraham Burr

"The waves seemed to come from both the southwest and crossed the street at the intersection where they collided. This is where I was standing and they were lifting me up and down by at least two feet. I was paying very careful attention and being as observant as I could under these conditions, and noted that I was at the intersection of Tradd Street between Logan and Greenhill."--Hossein Hayati and Ronald Andrus

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Take A Journey Into The Obviously Not So Obvious "Accomplice"--Now Showing At The James F. Dean Theatre

"In South Carolina you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?" Obviously, this opening dialogue, by all appearance, is a silly way to start a play review, but then again, maybe not. As you will see, my not so obviously at-first-glance meaningful illustration has everything to do with the obvious. This is called a brain teaser. As with all brain teasers, the clue to the answer is so blatantly obvious, the obvious may escape you. The obviously not so obvious has everything to do with Rupert Holmes brain teasing murder mystery, Accomplice--presently being performed by the Flowertown Players. If you are not yet confused, just take a seat at the James F. Dean Theatre in Summerville from October 20-29 and you will be, but don't bring your wooden leg with you.

The setting is an English cottage in Dartmoor, England owned by Derek and Janet Taylor. Jon, Derek's business partner, is the first to arrive on the scene and begins a dialogue with the audience. It was at that moment I first sensed something odd was afoot. Janet enters shortly after and reveals a few unflattering revelations about her husband. He has not been fulfilling her sexual needs. It becomes obvious she is involved in an adulterous affair with Jon. The two of them plan on murdering her financially successful but decidedly boorish husband. Jon leaves and Janet makes a discovery that forces her to improvise the plan upon her husband's arrival. From that time on, nothing is as it seems. There was a couple of brief moments I puzzled over where Holmes was going with the material and its relevance, but write it off as part of British satire.

After the play's director, Susie Hallatt, quoted Alfred Hitchcock, she immediately peaked my curiosity--Hitchcock is a long time favorite. A well seasoned performer having acted on the Lowcountry stages of The Flowertown Players, The Footlight Players, and Dockstreet Theater, Accomplice is Susie's debut as a director and unquestionably a good fit to her personality; charmingly unconventional, delightfully twisted, and just enough acquired English influence to bring Holmes' British farce to life. With high praise, Susie stated, "Productions like this are never possible without the full and enthusiastic participation of cast and crew...I would certainly be swinging from the rafters without the amazing support of my stage manager, Hannah Weston."

Before the play began, it was announced Malcolm Powell suddenly had to take his leave and his understudy, Paul Del Gatto, would be taking over the role of Jon. I had an uneasy feeling about the disclosure. I wondered if it would affect the coherence of the play and whether Paul would be up to the task. As it turned out, with only a couple of detectable stumbles in his lines and one big one at the end, the understudy's performance was commendable.

Playing opposite Jon is the young and demure looking Melinda played by Hailey Selander, but here again, is the obvious the reality. Seemingly unsteady at times, Hailey is interlaced into the most sensitive and seedy scene of R rated Accomplice. She holds her own in her confrontation with Derek and come to think about it, navigating a complicated set in stilted heals would make anyone just a little unsteady.

Pat Cullinane was eye-catching as Janet Taylor. With legs rivaling Betty Grable's, Pat was wickedly charming and sexually tenacious as she slinked across the stage weaving her characters web of infidelity and trickery. Touting an impressive catalog of acting credentials and not to be upstaged, Rob Hazelip's commanding stage presence well suited his role as the domineering and emotionally detached character of Derek Taylor.

The complex set containing several levels with numerous entrance and exiting points was magnificently constructed by Ernie and Chrissy Eliason. The ingeniously designed cottage retreat included an operating mill wheel doubling as a wine rack. Nicole Harrison's costumes were 1970's appropriate and titillating, and the lighting design assured nothing would be missed. All contributed harmoniously to the evening's success.

Truth be told, I went into this one limping, if you get my click. I had never seen the play before opening night at the James F. Dean Theatre and purposely did not read up on any background information. As a fan of Hitchcock and Clue, I pride myself at being very good at solving murder mysteries, and usually early on. With this one, I was not quite sure about anything. Rupert Holmes beguiling tryst into the obviously not so obvious succeeded at playing me the fool. The play is a mixed bag of obvious scheming and tawdry shenanigans sprinkled with a lethal dose of laughs. While the intended murderer and the intended victim are quite obvious, the not so obvious blatantly remained throughout: Who is the Accomplice?

Purchase your tickets for Accomplice.

Do you know the answer to the brain teaser?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Summerville--One Of The Two Best On Earth

Summerville around 1880
Factually printed in an 1893 booklet by the Pine Forest Inn, Summerville was proclaimed one of the two best resorts on earth for the cure of throat and lung disorder by the Tuberculosis Congress at Paris. Just ponder the implication. Out of all the towns and cities in 19th century United States and the civilized world, Summerville, a quaint town 25 miles outside of one of the most beautiful cities in the United States with just a population of 3,000, awarded such an admirable accolade.

Who was Summerville’s competing counterparts? Actually, there were two other notable resort towns in the world known for their health benefits, Arcachon, France and Bournemouth, England. Rivals in one sense, yet so similar in another. Threads of the same color pattern were eerily woven throughout the tapestry of their histories leading to a common destiny.

In the beginning of the 19th century, Arcachon was just a sleepy little fishing village located on the south side of the tranquil Arcachon Bay in south-west France--a long-time oyster-harvesting area. As the years serenely unfolded, its idyllic location and soothing sea air quietly changed the character of the village. It began to procure a reputation as a place where sick people went to heal. The sea air was deemed to be a beneficial part of the recovery process. Ironically, it was fittingly referred to as the Ville d'été--summer village.

In 1860, improved transport train links to Bordeaux and Paris helped in the development of the land above the beach. Arcachon was topographically endowed with another natural asset. It was framed by lush pine forests--pineland air was believed to be beneficial in the curing of tuberculosis, as observed by Doctor Pereira. A group of business men, and in particular the Pereire brothers, and the owners of the railway line between Bordeaux and La Teste came up with the idea of extending the rail line to Arcachon and developing it as a winter resort for tuberculosis sufferers. This area above the beach was called Ville d'hiver--winter village.

In the beginning, the commercial project wasn't a huge success, but the Pereire brothers continued to develop the summer tourism and the thermal tourism of the famous les Abatilles spring. The town started to attract rich merchants from Bordeaux and the rest of France. By the end of the 19th century, those who were irresistibly lured to this part of town above the beach built magnificent villas both to extend the summer season and as an alternative to seeking cures in the high mountains of Switzerland for tuberculosis.

Napoleon III visited Arcachon and put his seal of approval upon it and there was no looking back. French writer Alexandre Dumas lived in Arcachon for a while and French painter Toulouse-Lautrec owned a house on the sea-front. Arcachon's fame spread while directly north in England a similar story was simultaneously unfolding.

In the beginning of the 19th century, an Englishman by the name of Lewis Tregonwell coveted a piece of deserted scrubland located on the south coast of England he had come to love through the years. As an officer in the army during the Napoleonic wars, he spent much of his time searching this scrubland along the coast for French invaders and smugglers. The only settlement of the area was by cows, gypsies, and a few fishermen living in rickety timber-framed cottages. Tregonwell had an idea for this land of the grand kind.

Tregonwell's house, Bourne Cliff, now is part of the Royal Exeter Hotel
In 1812, after retiring from the army and purchasing an eight-and-a-half acre parcel of land from Lord Tapps-Gervis, Tregonwell and his wife became the first official residents after completing the construction of their new home christened Bourne Cliff. Later, it would become known as the Exeter House. Between 1816 and 1820, he added a number of smaller homes on the grounds for his staff; one of these, called Portman Lodge. The first eight years saw several high society figures come to Bourne Cliff by invitation from Tregonwell including the Prince Regent and George lV.

Inspired by a popular Regency notion that the turpentine scent of pines had health-restoring powers good for lung ailments, and in particular tuberculosis, prompted Tregonwell and Tapps to plant hundreds of the stately conifers featuring a tree-lined walk to the beach that would become known as the Invalid's Walk. The cherished trees grew and so did his dream.

In 1820, Tregonwell bought up more land from Tapps-Gervis for building a number of cottages and stylish villas set along newly-laid streets for leasing to holiday-makers wishing to engage in the increasingly fashionable pastime of ‘sea bathing’, an activity with perceived health benefits. These holiday retreats of course would establish the core function of the developing health resort. By 1832, the year of his passing, Tregonwell’s dream was securely in place.

Highcliff Castle
It was at this time a distinguished diplomat, Lord Stuart de Rothesay, began the construction of a castle called Highcliff. Built mainly between 1831 and 1836, the Gothic Revival style castle incorporated medieval stonework and stained glass from around the world.

In 1835, after the death of Sir George Ivison Tapps, his son Sir George William Tapps-Gervis inherited his father's estate. Bournemouth started to grow at a faster rate as George William started developing the seaside village into a resort similar to those that had already grown up along the south coast such as Weymouth and Brighton.

In 1841, the town was visited by the physician and writer Augustus Granville. Granville was the author of The Spas of England, which described health resorts around the country. As a result of his visit, Dr. Granville included a chapter on Bournemouth in the second edition of his book. The publication of the book, as well as the growth of visitors to the seaside haven seeking the medicinal use of the seawater and the fresh air of the pines, helped establish the town as an early tourist destination.

With the arrival of the railway in 1870, there was a massive influx of seaside and summer visits to the town, especially by visitors from the Midlands and London. Bournemouth became a recognized town in that year. The Winter Gardens were finished in 1875 and the cast iron Bournemouth Pier was finished in 1880 when the town had a population of 17,000 people. By the late 1900's, when railway connections were at their most developed to Bournemouth, the town's population had risen to 60,000.
Bournemouth was now poised to be thrust into the world spotlight along with its seaside rival in Arcachon, France, and a second rival across the pond in the United States in South Carolina, Summerville.

It was 1891. Tuberculosis has been a scourge of the age. The International Congress of Physicians, also called the Tuberculosis Congress, assembled in Paris, France. The physicians then attending measured these three resort locations in their deliberations comparing climate, temperatures, and the presence of pine forests. The result of their findings was a ringing endorsement of Summerville.

Adding to the weight of this historical recommendation was a letter by Dr. Robert Harvey. Written after making a thorough examination of the climate and porous soil of Summerville, he stated it to be superior to both Arcachon and Bournemouth because it was dryer and had a more equable temperature. Also, unlike Arcachon, where its pineland forest borders the resort, and Bournemouth's resort is scattered around its one time hand-planted pine forest, Summerville's pineland is an inseparable part of the town, thickly scattered throughout its interweaving and winding roads.

Once an insignificant fishing village and a deserted seaside scrubland, Arcachon and Bournemouth had progressed into popular and attractive seaside destinations crowned with magnificent estates, lavish villas and opulent castles bordering on the Disneyesque. Rail lines connected them to the rest of their homelands and the people seeking what they had to offer. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had fulfilled their destiny for which they were conceived, to be world class health resorts.

In comparison, Summerville was once an uninhabited plateau near the Ashley River discovered by a wondering planter and soon after became a marooning refuge to escape the oppressive heat and yellow fever carrying mosquitoes of Charleston’s coastal lowlands.

Arcachon sand dune--one of the highest in the world
Unlike Arcachon and Bournemouth, it was not on the sandy shores of a vast ocean. It did not have villas or castles. If judged by those amenities, Summerville was quite humble. It did benefit from the introduction of the railroad. It did have beautiful summer homes built by rich planters, the Pine Forest Inn, and vast plantations close by. And if you wanted to enjoy the beach, neighboring Charleston was endowed with many barrier islands fringed with sandy beaches. Still, those were not the things that elevated Summerville to its pinnacle of greatness. Simply put, it was the town’s majestic, revitalizing pine trees--cherished and fiercely protected by law. Not many places can say they were regarded the best on earth. Summerville is one of those places.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bye Bye Birdie--A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On At The James F. Dean Theatre From August 4th To The 20th

If you plan on seeing the Flowertown Players latest stage presentation, you will need to put on a happy face. A little Conway Birdie told me that before I attended their opening of Bye Bye Birdie on Friday, August 4th. As it turned out, it was easy to do.

To be truthful, when I heard the lost-in-time Bye Bye Birdie musical would be revisited on the stage of the James F. Dean Theatre, the revelation immediately triggered only two recollections of the long ago original production; the song "Put on a Happy Face" and the name Dick Van Dyke. Other than that, the rest of it was just jailhouse rock. Understandably, I was only eleven when this glutinous play opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 4, 1960 and fourteen when MGM studios adapted Birdie into a movie musical in 1963. Interestingly, Dick Van Dyke starred in both.

Based on a book by Michael Stewart with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, after opening at the Martin Beck Theatre, it was moved to the 54th Street Theatre and finally the Shubert Theatre, where it closed after a total of 607 performances. Bye Bye Birdie garnered 7 Tony Nominations, ultimately winning 4 of them: Best Musical, Best Featured Actor (Dick Van Dyke) Best Choreography (Gower Champion), and Best Direction (Gower Champion).

Aside from Dick Van Dyke, the original Broadway cast included Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde, Susan Watson, Kay Medford, Charles Nelson Reilly (understudied as Albert Peterson for Van Dyke), Michael J. Pollard, and Dick Gautier as Conway Birdie and the film adaptation included Maureen Stapleton, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, Bobby Rydell, Ann-Margret, and Jesse Pearson as Conway Birdie.

Originally titled Let's Go Steady, the play was billed as a "happy teenage musical with a difference." Then, things got all shook up. Rock-and-roll idol Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army in 1957. Before leaving the States for an eighteen-month tour in Germany, Elvis was to give one special member of the Women's Army Corps one last kiss, and with a little less conversation, the real life drama became the premise for the refreshed musical play. With the plot set, the team had to come up with a name for the rock and roll heartthrob lead.

The original name of the Elvis-inspired character was Ellsworth, but who would take a rock and roll idol with a name like that seriously. So, it was changed to Conway Twitty. Unfortunately, there was already a real life Conway Twitty, who took exception to someone using his name and threatened to sue. With a little more deliberation, the team finally came up with Conrad Birdie and Bye Bye Birdie was born with the idea to have the drafted singer give one last kiss to a girl by the name of Kim MacAfee in a place called Sweet Apple, Ohio.

With David Mclaughlin pulling the guitar strings as the play's Director/Musical Director and based on past experience, I was confident going in our journey back to the rock and roll mayhem of the late 50's characterized by swooning teeny boppers and a society fighting to hold onto its fragile naiveté would be fancifully entertaining, and true to form, David did not disappoint. The brick walls enclosing the modest stage of the James F. Dean Theatre reverberated with the energy and enthusiasm belted out by the play's capable cast from opening to close.

Always passionate about the characters she portrays, Elissa Horrell as Rosie Alvarez shined in “What Did I Ever See In Him?” and sizzled in the piece called "Shriner's Ballet". A woman on a mission with a suitcase of 8 wasted years and a vendetta to serve for a recent snub from long-time boyfriend, Albert, Rosie invades Maude's Roadside Retreat and as the new Spanish Rose, proceeded to set the all-male clientele’s pilot lights on fire with her spitfire charm and impassioned dance moves.

Charleston native Matthew Walker sings and dances his way through an obstacle course of relationship challenges as the conflicted Albert Peterson, songwriter and agent of Birdie. He helped a sadden Birdie fan (Jessica Zhou Seymour) “Put On A Happy Smile” and tries to win Rosie back with “Baby, Talk to Me”, but despite an impressive fermata finale to the rendition, his pleadings fell short.

Rosie wants more. She wants Albert to standup to his mother, Mrs. Mae Peterson (Cynthia McLaughlin), who shamelessly tries to cultivate a guilt trip in Albert and is highly critical of Rosie, labeling her a Latin floozy from South of the Border. Cynthia portrayed the heavy-footed, woe is me mother from Hades masterfully and in the process stole away some of the funnier moments in the play.

A good measure of the side-splitting hilarity was turned out by Carlos Nieto, whose facial contortions and comic demeanor launched a thousand laughs as the excitable and flustered Mr. Harry MacAfee. Carlos, along with S.E. Coy as Mrs. Doris MacAfee, effervescent Sidney Tarrant as Kim MacAfee, and Olivia Gainey (a natural talent with a killer smile) as Rachel MacAfee effectively collaborated on my favorite number of the night, “Hymn for a Sunday Evening (Ed Sullivan)”. It was a powerful piece of combined vocals at its best supported by eye-catching visual effects.

Attempting to mimic the spasmodic gyrations and famous pouty smirk of Elvis Presley, let alone match his unusual voice described as a lyrical baritone, is a tall order, but Lucas Holt was up to the task. He filled Conrad Birdie’s black pompadour nicely and showed off his own rock-crooner pipes in “Honestly Sincere,” “One Last Kiss”, and “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do.”

Did I mention the other boyfriend, the one that is sweet on Kim? Hugo Peabody has just pinned his object of affection, but not long after, finds out his beloved has accepted an invitation to receive Birdie’s last kiss on public television, and no less on the Ed Sullivan Show. Needless to say, he is beside himself with insecurity and jealousy (the persona that became Caleb O’Neal). What happens next? Rosie knows.

The set was colorful and functional, the supporting props and costumes accurately dated, the lighting effects were dazzling, the choreography explosive, and the sound was top notch, as were the timing and placement of the constantly changing backdrops handled by the play’s stage crew.

Bye Bye Birdie is fun, lighthearted entertainment. It is a total team effort of varying talents jam packed with oohs and aahs. Simply stated, there will be a whole lotta shakin’ goin on at the James F. Dean Theatre from August 4th to the 20th.

Purchase your tickets for Bye Bye Birdie.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour Hosted By Coastal Expeditions And The Sewee Center--Merging Historic Charisma With Beauty And Splendor

On Sunday, the adage "good things come to those who wait" was confirmed. For two years, I have been wanting to do the Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour, but for various reasons ranging from conflicting schedules to being sold out, the highly coveted opportunity had been as elusive as the red wolf. There are only four tours scheduled through the year and timing is everything. The next tour is scheduled for October. I almost did not make this one. It too was sold out. I had my name put on the waiting list in case there was a cancelation and as fate would have it, lightning struck. I am thinking the threat of thunderstorms forecasted for the day of the tour, which was July 16, may have presented me the necessary thunder. Thank you Mother Nature.

Lighthouse Island is located in Cape Romain, a National Wilderness Area. Coastal Expeditions suggests participants wear appropriate footwear for water and pluff mud, preferably something water proof and attached to your feet. Anyone experienced with stepping into the dark-brown viscous material knows losing your footwear is always a possibility. Since I do not own boots, and highly unlikely to wear them if they were available, my choice was between flip flops and tennis shoes. So, I put on the later option, grabbed my camera and a banana for a snack, hopped into my truck and headed to the Sewee Center on Highway 17 in Awendaw for a pre-tour presentation.

Upon arrival, I checked in along with about forty other people for the hour long slide presentation outlining the history of the two lighthouses on the island. It was delivered by Tom Graham, a College of Charleston grad with a degree in Biology. He has dedicated his time and energy for the past 20 years to the preservation and restoration of the lighthouses. The shorter conical lighthouse, standing 65 feet, was built in 1847 and the octagonal lighthouse, standing at 150 feet, was built in 1857. At the age of three, Tom was present when the 1857 light was taken out of service in 1947. The two lighthouses are the only structures left on the island, the light keepers residences are just a pile of bricks and rubble.

From the Sewee Center, we headed for McClellanville and its boat landing on Pinckney Street where Coastal Expedition's Caretta Ferry awaited. Storm clouds were looming in the near distance to the south as forecasted.

Lighthouse Island is approximately a winding 6 miles through the Cape Romain estuary from the boat landing. A smiling Captain William Christenson welcomed us aboard, gave us some necessary safety reminders, and the location of the life preservers. Then, he delivered his first of many humorous witticisms, "If you should happen to fall off the ferry, we will toss you the life ring, but truthfully, all you need to do is stand up. The water in the estuary is only about 3 to 5 feet deep at the most." For the next hour, Captain William talked about life in the estuary. He instructed, "Take a deep breath," paused and then added, "You are breathing the cleanest air in the world."

Cape Romain Refuge is a Class 1 Wilderness Area. It is a place where humans haven't developed roads, pipelines, or other industrial infrastructures. What we see today is pretty much what the Indians saw hundreds of years ago as they canoed through its winding waters. Besides supporting the cleanest air, it is home of the cleanest water in the world, and that is the result of the estuary's four necessary components: water, spartina grass, pluff mud, and oysters. Spartina grass is the only plant that can grow in the estuary's salty water due to its ability to filter the salt out of the water and secret the excess out through special glands.

The most thought-provoking part of Captain Will's narrative was when he talked about the estuary's most distinguished amphibious sojourner, the loggerhead turtle. Born on the sandy beaches of the estuary's barrier islands, the tiny hatchlings who survive their demanding and dangerous scamper to the water enter the ocean and spend the next thirty years in the Atlantic currents swimming the Gulf Stream to the North Atlantic Drift to the Canary Current to the North Equatorial Current and back to the Gulf Stream. Reaching maturity at age thirty, it returns to the beach it was born on and lays its eggs to continue the cycle of life and then returns to the currents. The odds of reaching maturity are 1 in 1000.

At the start, just a small siloughette in the distance, the white and black octagonal lighthouse was now a colossus rising high above the island's trees. The captain eased the Caretta into the spartina grass and the ramp was deployed. We waded through the ankle deep water and traversed the bush-lined path to the lighthouses. For the next 45 minutes, I took pictures and walked among the brick strewn ruins of the keeper's houses. I touched one of the huge iron treads of the circular staircase now callous from rust and imagined ascending the 150 feet to the light room at the top--a task the light keeper performed daily. At present, imagine is all you can do, the light room at the top where the Fresnel lens was housed is off limits to the public for safety reasons. Possibly, within two years, you will be able enjoy a 360 degree panorama of the stunning surrounding vistas.

Lighthouses of old are remarkable relics of ingenuity and for many of us today, fascinating pieces of history and highly sought after subjects of photography. They were outwardly, geometrically simple in design, inwardly, an amalgamation of ingenuity all wrapped in a mystique as beguiling as an old grandfather clock. The Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour by Charleston Expeditions merges that historic charisma with the beauty and splendor of the Cape Romain estuary. The tour is both informative and entertaining thanks to the knowledgeable hosts. If you like boat rides, water, wildlife, and lighthouses, I highly recommend the Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour.

Departure Points:
Sewee Center
5821 Highway 17 North
Awendaw, SC

McClellanville Boat Landing(Boat)
Pinckney Street
McClellanville, SC