Sunday, December 31, 2017

Let The Light Through--A Piece Of Charleston's French Heritage

French is considered to be "le langage de l'amour." So, one may ask: What is it about French that qualifies it to be called "the language of love?" One reason, French is very euphonious. The tone of the spoken words tend to be more delicate sounding to the ears. Also, vowels and consonants are well distributed resulting in more harmonious phrases. Finally, the need to conjugate verbs makes it ideal for writing poetry and music.

Take for example, the French phrase "claire-voie." Attempting to pronounce the phrase in English, a person may be inclined to say it as if it were pronounced "clairevoyee," when actually the correct pronunciation, as if it were spoken in English would sound like "claire-vua" in proper French. You would have to agree, it is more "poétique."

I first came across the phrase "claire-voie" while researching the history of Charleston's wrought iron legacy for a recent article. It was listed along with such items as nails, boot scrapers, horseshoes, balconies, locks, and latches, which were used by colonial Charlestonians. To me, it seemed to be out of place.

When I looked up the translation of the phrase, I discovered it to mean "let the light through" or more literally an "openwork." A "claire-voie" is typically achieved with hedging or it can be an ironwork screen, openwork fence, gate, or grille placed in a wall through which a vista can be enjoyed. One of the most famous examples of a claire-voie is a round opening in a hedge of the White Garden at Sissinghurst Garden Castle in England.

I have strolled the wrought iron rich streets south of Broadway many times and never realized the grated openings in residential walls allowing passersby a peek into the beautifully landscaped gardens beyond had a name. So, armed with my newly acquired information, I packed my camera and headed for the downtown peninsula of Charleston to search out examples of a claire-voie. I found them to be everywhere. This is a small collection I gathered on my excursion.

The French language is no stranger to Charleston. There has been a French influence in the city since its early colonial days. The Hugenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution and seeking religious freedom, came to Charleston in 1680 to start a community. The early congregation was made up of these Hugenot refugees sent by King Charles II to establish themselves as artisans and tradesmen. Within the original walled city, the district became known as the now famous French Quarter. Preceded by two other churches, the still standing Gothic Revival-style French Huguenot Church, located at 136 Church Street, was completed in 1845. It was the first building of this style constructed in Charleston. Wealthy French merchants established a business presence and built homes. Legare Street is named for goldsmith Solomom Legare "the Hugenot," who built the first house at 32 Legare Street.

Like a surging Atlantic tide, peoples of varying cultures spilled into a river fed inlet of a distant new world and washed unto the shores of an oyster laden peninsula where they established what would grow into a bustling international sea port called Charleston. In this shared space, their varying beliefs and distinct dialects converged. They exchanged ideas and architecture. The French claire-voie was one of those shared concepts that found its way into the beautifully fashioned gardens of the elegant estates of America's most celebrated historic landscapes.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Peek Into Charleston's Preeminent Wrought Iron Legacy

The top of St. Michael's Church
In the iron hands of a blacksmith, it can be bent, twisted, and welded into whatever shape the imagination can dream up. Despite easily yielding to the geometric manipulations of the skillful smithy, it is equally rugged and impervious to corrosion. This pliable yet resilient alloy is known the world over as wrought iron. It was the preferred material for the crafting of window grates, boot scrapers, balconies, fences, gates and claire-voies by the discerning Charlestonian. The forged ornamental ironworks gracing the downtown peninsula of Charleston, conceived in inspiration and born by fire, are the most impressive public collection in the country. Most often painted black and sometimes Charleston green, during the 19th-century it was also painted in bright, vivid colors.

Though centuries have past and Charleston's old buildings and walls bear the colors of age, its decorative ironworks remain resolute. They stand as a symbol of the City's unwavering steadfastness in the face of the most unspeakable upheavals and as a testimony to its matchless charm and elegance. For anyone exploring the old thoroughfares from the French Quarter to the Lower Peninsula, the black iron fences and scrolled gates are not only visually stunning, but they also offer an unobstructed peek into another one of Charleston's treasures, the beautifully landscaped gardens beyond.

In the early colonial days of Charleston, wrought iron served more humble uses as nails, horseshoes, hinges and latches. Decorative wrought iron was imported from across the pond. It was placed as window grates and balconies. At the beginning of the 19th century, as the city grew in wealth and prestige, the demand for ornate ironworks spiraled. Three masters of the anvil stepped into the limelight, J.A.W. Iusti (1817-1895), Christopher Werner (1805-1875), and Frederic Julius Ortmann (1839-1899). All were immigrants from Germany. They blended old world ways with new world ideas and fashioned designs that spoke to the heart of Charleston and its intersecting cultures. Of the three, Werner's name stands out the most.

Unfortunately, the 19th century was an era when Charleston suffered the most unspeakable upheavals. Devastating fires, the turbulent Civil War, and a foundation shaking earthquake destroyed some of their masterpieces. Nonetheless, many of Werner's works survived.

Today a relatively quiet corner just south of the Old City Market, in the late 1830's Christopher Werner worked his magic at his foundry located near the intersection of Cumberland and State Street. It was there he produced one of Charleston's most preeminent ornamental wrought iron gates.

In 1838, architect Charles F. Reichardt was commissioned to design a new Guard House for use by the City Guard. Werner was chosen to produce the ironwork for the project, which would include a set of gates and window grilles. This is where the facts of the story get a little sketchy. The story puts forward the idea Werner misunderstood the request of a quartermaster for a "pair of gates" as meaning two sets of gates, so he created two identical pairs featuring horizontal swords.

One account says the ordered pair of Werner's sword gates was never actually installed at the Guard House--the city refused to pay what it considered too high a price. In any case, the wrought iron grilles with the same sword design were installed in the buildings windows. In 1861, the Guard House was damaged by the great fire of that year. In 1886, it was severely damaged by the earthquake and demolished. Whatever the true facts are, one set of the sword gates was preserved and eventually installed at the main entrance of The Citadel near Hampton Park along with the window grilles from the demolished Guard House. The Citadel opened in 1843. Exactly when the gates were installed is unclear.

As for the other set of Werner's sword gates, British consul George Hopley bought the original Solomon Legare property at 32 Legare Street in 1849 and added a new wing to the existing house, which was Madame Talvande's French School for Young Ladies at the time. In that same year, Copley acquired one of the pair of sword gates and installed it in the property's high brick wall. The celebrated residence is now known as the Sword Gate House.

More of Werner's works:

The Nathaniel Russell House balcony with his initials on Meeting Street
The Harp Gate at the Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street
The John Rutledge House ironworks painted Charleston green on Broad Street
Other wrought iron masterpieces, fences and gates located throughout Charleston:

Many books and articles have been written about Charleston's famed wrought iron legacy. An age old legacy that is second to none. Walking the sidewalks along the oak draped, black fence-lined corridors South of Broadway bestows on you a sense of serenity and reverence. A proud history zealously guarded as elegantly as the City's wrought iron fences and gates guards its most cherished properties. I hope you enjoyed my telling and photographs.

Monday, December 4, 2017

An American Classic Comes To The Stage Of The James F. Dean Theatre--A Christmas Story

If you can say "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock" three times fast without shooting your eye out, then you need to pay attention to the following. A Christmas Story opened December 1st at the James F. Dean Theatre in Summerville and will be running three weekends to December 17th.

The play adaptation of A Christmas Story written in 2000 by Philip Grecian is not as well known as its movie counterpart of the same name, and the reason will shortly become obvious. Considered an American classic, the movie has been to Christmas day as to what Gone With The Wind has been to Thanksgiving day--tediously inseparable. Tedious in that for 24 hours it plays over and over and over continuously until you want to "wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan." Truth be told, I have never seen the movie all the way through. I have only caught bits and pieces of it while engaging in the remote control spectator sport known as channel surfing looking for something to capture my viewing interest or avoid being subjected to the endless barrage of commercials that run every five minutes on cable TV.

Since everyone with a TV knows the story, I'll skip the synopsis and share some facts about the movies author. Jean Parker Shepherd was born in Chicago in 1921 but raised in the Hessville area of Hammond, Indiana. He graduated from Hammond High School in 1939. He worked briefly as a mail carrier in a steel mill and earned his Amateur radio license at age 16. He attended IU Northwest and served in the Signal Corps during World War II. After service, he worked at WJOB radio in Hammond and later went on to broadcasting in Toledo, Cincinnati and New York.

Often compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, Shepherd had a flair for spinning stories that tapped into the American psyche. The 1983 movie, "A Christmas Story," is based off a collection of stories from Shepherd's published writings, "In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash" and "Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories." Shepherd mused, "Now here's an example of the kind of humor that's in your life, you see. It's always in your life all the time, all the time, all the time. It's here--it's absolutely inescapable. Every place you look. There's an old photographers' axiom that says, 'There's a prize winning photo within five feet of you.' This is true. There is all the humor in all of mankind, all the sadness, all the greatness, all the gladness, and all the idiocy--it's within five feet of you. Just look around." And that is what he did in creating the plot for A Christmas Story. Shepherd was the real Ralphie Parker and is the voice of the narrator in the movie.

The beautifully functional stage and props
Elissa Horrell, the plays director, is a fifteen year veteran of the theater. As a confident stage actor, her captivating vocals and broad, quirky smile served her well in her dynamic appearances in the Flowertown Player's productions of "The Little Shop of Horrors" and "Bye, Bye Birdie." Debuting as a director, she admitted to being somewhat nervous sitting out front in the audience as a concerned observer instead of onstage as an participant. Afterward, you could see the smile of relief and sense of accomplishment with the opening night under her belt. I am sure, like all good directors, the hard work and pursuit for excellence will continue for the next two weeks with the help of her capable crew.

The lighting for this production was a challenge. Initially, when the lights were flashing on and off, I thought there might have been a problem with the lights during some scene changes. In the story, Ralphie drifts back and forth between real life and numerous fantasies where his parents and teacher behave exactly to his liking, praising his heroism and reveling in his wisdom. Transporting the audience into Ralphie's fantasy sequences is more easily pulled-off in a movie through editing than live on stage, which is trickier. The lighting shifts were the technique used to denote those transitions into the fantasy sequences along with quick costume changes.

One of the most memorable scenes of the play incorporated this technique. After saying "The word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the "F-dash-dash-dash" word" which culminated into the soap-in-the-mouth punishment, Ralphie fantasizes his repentant parents groveling at his feet begging for forgiveness as he demonstrates the dangers of soap poisoning, going blind. The scene was one of Sam Daniels finer moments as the dreamer and schemer, Ralphie. A fan of the movie, playing Ralphie was a dream come true for Sam.

Ralpie's Mother, a patient parent with firm convictions, such as, the conviction that her son should not own an air rifle, is adeptly handled by Sarah Daniels--the real life mother of Sam Daniels. The mother-son duo has been seen on stage together a total of five times. The grumpy, good-hearted father, referred to as The Old Man, is played by Glen Orange who is no stranger to comedic roles. As a five year performer at Black Fedora Comedy Mystery Theatre in Charleston, it was totally obvious Glen poured his expletive peppered soul into his character.

The predominantly young cast is packed with new to the stage performers. In his first appearance in a play, 8 year old Liam Hjerling fills the role as "I got to go pee" Randy, Ralphie's cute little brother. Scapegoat Schwartz and guinea pig Flick, Ralphie's two friends, are played by third-timer Brayden Harbert and Jonah Streff. First-timer Michaela Maenche plays Helen Weathers and second-timer Shannon Freeman plays Esther Jane Alberry. Caleb O'Neal stands in as the schoolyard tormentor of Ralphie and his friends, Scut Farcas.

Rounding out the cast with impressive acting achievements to her credit, Ralpie's teacher, Miss Shields, is played by Samantha Elkins--in my opinion, the embodiment of a teacher.

Last but not least, honors go to Chase Priest for his near perfect plot delivery as Ralph Parker, the older version of Ralphie and visible narrator offering a continuous stream of satirical commentary. "Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us," so said Ralph.

Do not miss Ralphie's three-pronged campaign for the Christmas gift of his dreams--the official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. You will be amused at his attempts to persuade the adults around him that his cause is a righteous one despite their outcry he might shoot his eye out. The infamous frozen-flagpole-licking dare, the hideous fishnet leg lamp, the pink bunny suit, the visit to the department store Santa Claus, and "the most unthinkable" climatic ending are all there to give you the warm and fuzzies.

Purchase your tickets for A Christmas Story.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Once A Cornerstone Building And City Landmark--Now Just An Exclamation Point In Time

It's a typical six in the evening on Meeting Street between Market and Hassel Streets. Standing in the shadow of Charleston Place, out-of-towners and locals patiently wait for the street signals to change so they can continue on their way to the various eating establishments east, west, south, and north of the Market Street intersection. Just beyond Charleston Place, the usual growing crowd is beginning to gather just outside of Hyman's Seafood as potential dinner patrons check out the restaurant's menu and wait for open tables.

Across the way, on the other side of the street, the scene is quite different. There are no gathering crowds, just passersby making their way to their selected destinations. The Bank of America building occupies this stretch of real estate beginning at Pinkney and ending at Hayne Street.

This was not always the case. At one time, this now relatively quiet stretch of sacred real estate was a hub of activity, and if you were standing on Meeting Street looking across from the Hyman's building in 1890, you would be basking in the aura of Charleston's premier hotel of the day, the Charleston Hotel.

The Bank of America building was built on the property in 1991, and not without controversy. After a protracted public debate, the developers were permitted to reclaim the historic height and scale of the Charleston Hotel, but was not allowed to restore the original facade. The buildings concrete colonnade is a poor knockoff for the dramatic colonnade of the original hotel. "This new building says little about its famous predecessor, which became the precursor, if not the icon, for tall white columns in the American South," stated Henry de Saussure Copeland.

Although, the Bank of America building was not the only other occupant of 200 Meeting Street. Directly after the Charleston Hotel was ravaged by a wrecking ball in 1960, the Heart of Charleston Motor Hotel preceded the Bank of America structure from the 1960's to the 1990's. Nowhere near representing the architectural wonder that was the Charleston Hotel, it was said to be famous for it's restaurant and loyal breakfast customers.

The Charleston Hotel had been both a landmark and reference point for all commercial buildings that grew up around it. The most regrettable impact of the hotel's demolition was the loss of an important base line and reference point for how future buildings should be designed. When I look at the picture of the Heart of Charleston Motor Hotel, I wonder why the City planners were remiss in maintaining high standards in design and did not specify the money that built this architecturally inferior hotel to be used in a restoration of the iconic Charleston Hotel instead of allowing it to become an exclamation point in time?

The first Charleston Hotel stood for less than 2 years before it was destroyed shortly after it opened by the Great fire of 1838. It carried the distinction of being counted among the first major buildings to be constructed in the Greek revival style in America by the renowned German architect, Charles Friedrich Reichardt, known as the initiator and ultimately the most prolific builder of landmarks that would contribute to the character of the American South.

A second Charleston Hotel would rise from the ashes of the first. Charles Reichardt had moved on to other commissions. Nathaniel Potter, Reichardt's contemporary and understudy, was hired to oversee the design and construction of its replacement. As instructed, Potter gladly rebuilt the hotel exactly as it had been. The reconstruction made economic as well as historic sense. It reopened in 1839.

The 170-room Charleston Hotel proudly graced Meeting Street for over 120 years and was a cornerstone building near the Old Market area. Extending eastward 264 feet on Pinckney Street and 200 feet on Hayne Street, it was an imposing four stories high with 14 columns patterned after the columns of the Coragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens--the city's largest hotel. Made of stucco and brick, its architecture was antique with two large dining rooms and high ceilings throughout--one dining room was 96 by 36 feet. A 75 by 80 foot open courtyard surrounded on three sides by wooden balconies was at its center.

This Charleston Hotel would endure the winds the Great Carolina Hurricane of 1854 on September 7-9, the firestorm of the Great Fire of 1861, the merciless shelling of the City during the Civil War, the tumult of the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886, and the fury of the Great Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893 on August 27-28. It 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.

In June of 1894, a new company, Cart and Davids, took ownership. $100,000 was spent on a renovation. The entire first floor was re-arranged, including a complete change in its Meeting Street front entrance, office and parlor. The veranda on the first floor was converted into a vestibule enclosed in plate glass windows with three entrances. The rotunda was remodeled and enlarged. New elevators were added, a large number of rooms on the upper floors were fitted with toilets and attached bathrooms, and the entire interior was re-carpeted, refitted, and refurnished. Its rate was $4 per day and upwards. Special rates made by week and month.

The Charleston Hotel finally bowed to the most unrelenting and merciless of the natural forces, time. After serving 122 years as a defining landmark and anchor to its part of the city, the history making columns were pulverized by the mindless wrecking ball. The only thing preserved was the wrought iron railings that were part of the old hotel's colonnade, rumored to be displayed at an office building constructed in the 1980's located on Meeting Street three blocks south of the hotels original sight.

When given the chance to replace the Charleston Hotel a third time, those in charge skipped the historic record and instead of reestablishing the benchmark for other buildings the Charleston Hotel served, they opted for something else. This reportedly was done in spite of an offer put on the table by private developers with the option of reconstructing the hotel's famous façade, which was rejected by the city's preservation experts. Instead, what rose on the site was the Heart of Charleston Motor Hotel and eventually, the Bank of America building.

Next time you are in Charleston, take a walk up Meeting Street to the front of Hyman's. Once there, close your eyes and do a "Somewhere in Time." Maybe, if you concentrate hard enough, upon opening your eyes, you may find yourself in 1886 dressed in a hoop skirt or a gentleman's suit of the day sipping on a mint julep and standing before Charleston's premier hotel of the day. (It certainly would help the transition--the mint julep that is).

Pay attention to the date and the time. Locate a copy of the newspaper of the day, the News and Courier. If it is August 30th, check into the Charleston Hotel--soak in the antiquity and ambience. Make sure you register for only a one night stay. If you reserve August 31st, at 9:50 pm you will be running out of a pitch-black hotel with the rest of the guests seeking to escape the toppling furniture and falling plaster. You will have just experienced the famous Great Charleston Earthquake, which jolted the Lowcountry like an alligator rolling its quarry.

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.