The Old South
Grits, Gravy and 8-Count!
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Our trip to the South began on Friday morning and we arrived at Staunton, Virginia at about lunchtime. Since I am a UVA type, Staunton was no stranger. In 1972, I attended a sneak preview of The Godfather at the Dixie Theater on Beverley Street. I remember the Dixie as a grand movie palace, so it was our first target. Alas, in the intervening years, the grand marquee has been torn down and the theater has been cut up into a cineplex. This was a great loss. We saw the Wal Mart on the outskirts of town, so we knew that Staunton's downtown area would probably have a bunch of antique stores. We were not disappointed:
We enjoyed a very nice lunch at the Beverley Restaurant (12 E. Beverley St, 703-886-4317). This restaurant is in a building which was "restored" nearly 20 years ago. They have photos of the 1930s art deco-like facade being removed and a replica of the original being installed. Try the grilled pimento cheese sandwich---you can't get anything like that north of Charlottesville.
On the way out, our attention was drawn to the Stonewall Jackson Hotel (28 South Market St., 703-885-1581). The hotel was built in 1923, the first fireproof building in Virginia. At the time, it was described as the "most modern hotel in the South". Today, it appears to be delightfully seedy. There haven't been many changes to it, but it still looks serviceable. You can rent the penthouse suite for $60 a night. If you have to be down this way, this looks like a winner if you can have a good sense of humor about it.
All in all, Staunton looks like a place that could use more investigation, possibly in conjunction with swing events in Charlottesville or Roanoke.
Sylva, North Carolina
Our stay in the Asheville area involved visiting my partner's daughter at Western Carolina University, which is actually about 40 miles west of Asheville, located in the Smoky Mountains. This area gets its name because there is a thick fog every morning, and we mean THICK. On the other hand, the mountains are just beautiful. We did not particularly care for the strip development at their base, but once outside this thin band of late 20th century "civilization"---Guess what? a Wal Mart --- the ambiance is delightful. In order to be close to the college, we stayed in Sylva, N.C., a small hamlet earmarked by a paper mill. I am not making the following up... I have before me a tourist brochure for Sylva in which the town motto is printed: "Home of the Most Photographed County Courthouse in North Carolina." And you thought that the Chrysler Building was something... We actually liked the town and found two very noteworthy establishment:
Our visit to Western Carolina University was interesting. It was the cleanest campus that I have ever seen. The walls were totally devoid of graffiti or xeroxed ads for alternative bands. Strangely, the ads I did see were for an appearance by the Count Basie Band at Homecoming on October 28, 1997. I am still not clear about why they have their Homecoming dance on a Wednesday night... Students express their opinions using pastel chalk on the sidewalks. We had arrived in the middle of something called Coming Out Week in which people were being encouraged (tastefully) to declare their gender preference. The student union was clean and served excellent coffee. My partner's showed us her dormitory and it was sparkling clean as well. Many of the residents had tastefully decorated their doors. Of all things, Haley's ROOM was so clean it could pass a white gloves inspection. In all my days as either student or faculty, I have never seen a college that was so well-maintained. For some time, I had doubts that this was the real campus, envisioning some sort of "Potemkin Campus" to show parents. It sure was clean.
One other thing--- we had breakfast at the school cafeteria and the food was very good. Since it was the South, I ordered biscuits and gravy. If you do not know this delicacy, you will think we are crazy. You simply make a rudimentary white sauce (white roux, cream, butter) and then add a whole lot of pepper and sausage bits. Pour this liberally over biscuits split in half and watch your cholesterol count skyrocket. My partner thought that I was crazy. She tasted one and became a biscuits and gravy nut for the rest of the trip.
We bade farewell to Sylva by taking a photograph of the Jackson County Court House. It should be noted that the clock was working and that the obligatory Confederate memorial was in good taste.
Asheville, North Carolina
Our principal reason for visiting Asheville was Biltmore the turn of the century show palace built by George Washington Vanderbilt. This one is impressive---the driveway is measured in miles and the floor plan is measured in acres. The house was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Loire Valley chateau style, except that it is bigger - 250 rooms bigger. It took an army of stone cutters and artisans six years to construct Biltmore House, the largest private home ever built in America. It once sat in an estate of 8,000 acres. The house is done in impeccable taste. I really liked it and it is comfortable enough that you can almost imagine that it is a house, not a movie set. I found it a far contrast to Hearst's jigsaw puzzle at San Simeon. My partner seems to prefer the latter for its fairy tale quality. Well, both are monuments to money. The reality of just how much money came to me as I was standing on a terrace, looking into the mountains. This was not the main terrace, just a side terrace. Gradually, it dawned on me that I was leaning on a granite masonry wall that was 40 feet high, encrusted with little carvings--and that it was just a side-terrace retaining wall.
The landscaping was done by Frederick Law Olmstead, the fellow that gave you Central Park, the Fenway, and even Meridian Hill Park (now Malcolm X park) here in DC. The fellow that he trained to manage the estate was Gifford Pinchot who went on to almost singlehandedly spearhead the national Forest program. The landscaping has all of Olmstead's master touches -- little scenic vistas everywhere with an outcropping boulder or an isolated clump of trees. All totally designed, but with a keen sense of what nature ought to look like. Only God can make a tree, but Olmstead sure could arrange them.
The best part about Biltmore is that it has never been dumped on the taxpayers as a bequest. The Vanderbilts sort of still own it and pay taxes on it. They just let you look at it for $27.95 per person. The guide told me that they get about 3,000 visitors a day, rain or shine. Actually, the ownership of Biltmore will intrigue the divorce lawyers out there. In 1920, Consuela Vanderbilt, grand daughter of George W., married John Cecil, a British socialite and the Earl of something or other. They had three boys, but around 1930, she got bored with the life of a Southern aristocrat and moved to Paris to kick in with the Jazz age. Mr. Cecil got Biltmore as part of the settlement, and it is now the Cecils who run the show.
After Biltmore everything else looks small. But, we found that Asheville has a whole lot to offer. First of all, there IS swing dancing in Asheville. We suggest that you check things out in advance by checking in on the website of the Mountain Express, the local entertainment throwaway or sending them an e-mail. It looks like Tressas (25 Broadway, 704-254-7072) is the center of the local Martini Nation colony. The Encore Lounge at the Best Western Motel (704-253-1851) has a dance floor and offers Shag on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Be Here Now (5 Biltmore Ave, 704-258-2071) alternates swing and contra instruction on Tuesday nights. The Blue Rooster (48 Biltmore Ave, 704-281-4500) has a small dance floor and books blues acts. The chances are that if you are going to be in Asheville, you can find someplace to get in a few dances. Throw a few aerials, and they'll probably try to put you up at Biltmore.
We also found two good places to eat:
There is also some good vintage and antique hunting in Asheville.
We ended our trip to Asheville by accident. We had parked the car in front of the Fine Arts Theatre (36 Biltmore Ave, 704-232-1536) earlier that afternoon. On the way back to the car, My partner's daughter and her boyfriend wanted to see the Full Monty which was playing there. We were ready to go along when we noticed that the theater was also showing Thunder Road. While in line, we were chatting with a couple who run the Hill House Bed and Breakfast (120 Hillside St, 800-379-0002). We found out that Thunder Road was actually filmed in Asheville. Hence, we went one way and the kids went another. A cult favorite, Thunder Road (1958, dir: Arthur Riley) is a murky drama about a group of sincere, upright Kentucky moonshiners who battle gangsters and the Law. Keely Smith (Louis Prima's first wife) has a small part and sings a few numbers. There is one scene which features "jitterbugging" and it is SO LAME that we broke out in great laughter. However, Mitchum's sleepy eyed performance and the souped up Fords made up for some of the production difficulties. Gene Barry has a great part as the ATF agent with a heart. After the show, we visited some of the actual locations from the film. I really need one of those 53 Fords with a 250 gallon tank in the trunk. I also need his mechanic---he got two new fenders and a wind wing for $175.
So, Asheville was a lot of fun, and we recommend it to all.
We spent our Sunday afternoon driving along the back roads from Asheville to Atlanta. We saw a lot that looked like Rockville and precious little that looked like Erskine Caldwell. I am afraid that the South of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is either gone or exists only in some yuppie-restored theme village. One of my first remarks to my partner was "Don't you think that there is an awful lot of traffic here?" And that became one of the themes of our vacation---the South is not a slow, sleepy place --- in fact, it is one big traffic jam, and people are moving at blinding speeds.
Atlanta is a lot more like Los Angeles than Gone With the Wind. This is a big, fast, hip town that nods toward its origins, but is running fast toward the twenty first century. The changes since I was last there in the 1970s are profound. The city is now defined by the freeway. Peachtree Street is a location, but I-85 rules --- the city has become linear along the freeway and a grid mentality gets you nowhere. To find anything, you must have the exit number.
With great thanks to the folks at Swingtown , Atlanta's web resource for swing music, dancing and culture, we knew exactly what we would be doing. We hit town at about 7:00 and the gig did not start until 9:00, so we did the tourist thing --- we went to the Hard Rock Cafe (215 Peachtree St, NE). Don't get me wrong now --- the food at these places is usually very good and the stuff displayed on the walls is most interesting. The only problem is that the Hard Rock Cafe is as much about Rock and Roll as Lawrence Welk is about Big Band. Don't ask me what it is, but this is not Rock and Roll. Guys painted up in death masks are not Rock and Roll. Elton John is not Rock and Roll. Bands with names like "Nose Cheese" are not Rock and Roll. This may be some sort of theatrical diversion, but it is not Rock and Roll.
Having said that, we ate a nice meal directly beneath one of Madonna's exterior undergarments from the giant conical bosom phase. The crotch thing was only inches from my head. It was in glass and, presumably, they clean these things before they put them up, but.... I did enjoy the extensive collection of psychedelic posters from the Bay Area Acid Phase. I liked a very early one (done by Stanley Mouse) which featured Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia as the opening act for Blue Cheer. Ah, they were all blues bands then, and they had a human scale. The Matrix was a lot like the Sunset Grille. Well that was San Francisco 35 years ago, and my partner reminded me that we were getting late for the show here in Atlanta.
The evening's dance featured the Blacktop Rockets at The Masquerade (695 North Ave., 404-577-8178). We found the place with little trouble ("I-85 to exit 100"). As we parked, a street hustler offered to "watch our car" for $1.00. I told him to talk to the Avis people about it because I wasn't the owner. I think he was a bit miffed because he then said, "What's and old grandpa like you doing at a kids place like this." I kicked my leg up and set it on top of the car and said "Dancing." He gave me a high five. Hmph. Grandpa indeed. On the way to the club, we were joined by a group of college age kids wearing black and white shoes. We knew that we were in the right place.
The establishment is an old cotton mill and has three huge floors, each about the size of Glen Echo. The floor is wood, but is a bit more coarse than the normal dance floor, although it was smooth and slick. They have built a glass divider that separates each floor into two zones: the dancing zone and the drinking/smoking zone. You have to wear a wristband and the colors identify those who can go into the over-21 drinking zone. In this fashion, they can admit persons of all ages. We paid our nominal $3 cover and were stunned to find about 300 crazy kids dancing up a storm. It was a virtual sea of black and white shoes. Lots of vintage was in evidence and I kicked myself repeatedly for not wearing the Zoot Suit. The band was the Blacktop Rockets and they are superb. They play in DC regularly and we greatly encourage you to see them.
The dancers had the rudiments of basic swing, but we were the only folks doing full blown Lindy Hop. We got a Charleston Line going that had about 75 kids in it. They pick things up real fast. Then we moved to Artie Shaw kicks which were also well received. However, the most requested move was the Driveshaft. We had to do that about 20 times. We finally agreed to teach it to a couple who looked like they knew what they were doing AND claimed to have gymnastics training. They got it on the third try --- by the end of the evening, they could even get enough height on the pull-out that the girl could grab the guy's waist with her legs. Kids learn FAST. In total, I think that six couples wound up with the Driveshaft. We gave out a zillion website cards.
On the way back home, I introduced my partner to another old Southern tradition --- the Krispy Kreme, those distinctive art deco chrome/ green and white tile 24Hr donut shops (this one was at 295 Ponce de Leon Ave, 404-876-7307) that decorate the south. You can find these donuts in the supermarket, but they do not travel well. They make them FRESH and HOT at their restaurants and that is where you want to get them. They explode with sugar and fat and all sorts of other politically incorrect substances. They are addictive. My partner, the dieter, ate four of them. I am partial to the simple glazed variety, while my partner likes the cream-filled kind.
We began our Monday with a look at Atlanta Underground. It seems that a "civic betterment" project in the 1920s removed a hill along Alabama Avenue by building a viaduct. This raised the street level 20 feet. The storefronts below the viaduct were abandoned and new ones built at the next level. Slowly, people just forgot about what was below, since there was no way of getting at this level. Then, in the 1970s, someone went down there and saw 1920 completely encapsulated---it was a preservationist's dream. Soon an entrance tunnel was devised and Atlanta Underground was born. Unfortunately, this is also in the middle of a high crime neighborhood, and soon the place became a danger zone and was boarded up again. The 1996 Olympics brought about a second restoration and now the place seems fairly prosperous, although the tenants are the same as in "festival marketplaces" the world over --- the Gap, the Limited, and Victoria's Secret. However, one notable exception is the Cafe Du Monde, a fir replica of the original in New Orleans. If you don't know, their specialty is coffee laced with chicory and beignets. They do a very good job of approximating these delicacies.
We then went full blown tourist and visited The World of Coca Cola. (55 Martin Luther King Dr., 404-676-5151) Normally, things like this leave me cold, but I was very impressed. I believe that it is very much worth the $6.00 admission. The show began with a well-produced IMAX film on the global nature of Coca Cola, featuring attractive folks swilling Coke next to monuments all over the world. Regardless of nationality, they were all good looking young people with great teeth, unsullied by the vast quantities of sugar contained in this product. The Chairman of the Coca Cola Company assured us that all of this was being done for the sake of international good will and harmony, possibly with subliminal messages that said "You have nothing to fear from multinational conglomerates --- they only want to spread goodwill and export your job to a far-off land where people work for fish-heads..."
The display was refreshingly candid. The original formulation of Coca Cola was sold as a "nerve tonic" that was good for relieving stress and tension. It should have -- each glass contained enough cocaine to get you 3-5 years under today's Federal Minimum Sentencing Act. Later, of course, the cocaine was replaced by megadoses of caffeine. However, even this has been removed to create the wholesome and refreshing beverage that all those youthful folks with great teeth enjoy today. It should be noted that the National Coca Cola company only supplies the basic syrup for the beverages --- all bottling and distribution is done by locally owned companies. Thus, in all the countries where Coke is sold, most of the jobs and profits remain in those countries. The boys in Atlanta only take a small cut, say five percent, with no fixed investment other than a syrup plant. No wonder they have an incentive to sell Coke everywhere --- gambling casinos only work on a 1-2 percent margin...
We were impressed with the VAST collection of advertising memorabilia on display. The materials from the 20s through the 40s are a veritable library of fashionable vintage clothing and style. And they should -- many of the ads were painted by artists like N.C. Wyeth and Illustrators like Norman Rockwell. The best part of the display is the depiction of Santa Claus by airbrush virtuoso Harold Samuelson. This fellow single-handedly shaped our visualization of old Saint Nick.
After marveling at three huge floors of exhibits and a large number of clever interactive displays, we arrived at the tasting room and a real mind-blower. They allow you to sample all the varieties of soft drinks that are distributed by Coca Cola. In japan, they drink a rather salty apricot-flavored beverage, while in Italy, a bitter drink reminiscent of Campari is popular. However, the fountain which dispenses these treats is a marvel. You place a small cup on a laser-activated target; a lot of neon tubes light up, strobes flash, and a giant spout of liquid is shot through the air in a parabolic arc about twenty feet high. The liquid hits a funnel and it is served into your glass. This is sort of the high-tech version of when the soda jerk used to flip ice cream scoops into a soda glass. This is impressive, especially since the machine has 20 stations. My partner and I , the inveterate trouble makers got them all going at once... Not a drop was spilled!
After this, we did our antique and vintage odyssey. The first was quite unusual. My partner had a contact for doll house furniture who lives in a development where it is forbidden to do business at your home. Thus, we had arranged to meet in the parking lot of a suburban mall. My partner got some nice furniture, but I had the nagging feeling that we were dealing in controlled substances rather than doll house furniture. It was very odd. We had good luck in the more traditional shops as well. In general, most of the stores that cater to the "Alternative" crowd are slowly pushing their stocks of leather things with safety pins in them to the back and are adding vintage racks. We found some good stuff:
The rest of the stores we visited were in the "Little Five Points" section which appears to house Atlanta's "Alternative" scene.
After all this shopping, we dined at one of Atlanta's most curious restaurants --- The Varsity.(61 North Ave, 404-881-1706) "What'll ya have?" they ask continuously. What they have is big cheeseburgers, footlong hot dogs and french fries made in red-hot tallow instead of some politically correct oil. This is not a safe place for cholesterol counters --- but you will get lots of change back from a $10 bill when two of you eat here. Order the onion rings. The Varsity is an oddball ---an actual drive-in restaurant in the center of town with curb service. Just the thing for quick eats after the sock hop. Throw all caution to the wind and get a fried peach pie for dessert. Be sure to take home a souvenir paper hat.
We were invited to the Northside Tavern (1058 Howell Mill Road, 404-874-8745) by Johnny Knox, the guitarist for the Blacktop Rockets (you may also recognize him from Mitch Woods' group). He runs a "blues jam" there, but on this particular night, he invited some horn players to show up so that we could show Lindy Hop to the crowd. He had arranged a number for us called The D.C. Swing and it was right out of the Louis Jordan tradition. He says that he is going to record it. We had a really great time and the crowd kept begging for Flips, Driveshafts, A-Jumps, and other assorted aerials. Atlanta is just a great town for swing and we needed to dance to work off the calories from the Varsity. It took very strenuous effort to keep my partner away from the Krispy Kreme after dancing.
We began the Tuesday with breakfast at The Atlanta Diner (2071 N. Druid Hills Rd, 404-633-0024). My partner insisted on biscuits and gravy. This is a very nice retro diner and does things much better than the Silver Diner chain here. We had to hurry through breakfast because this was our CNN day.
I keep CNN on all the time while working at home just to get the breaking news, so I feel that I have some sort of kinship with the folks on-air (I probably spend more time with them than anyone else...) Thus, I thought it would be interesting to take the CNN Studio Tour ( One CNN Center, 404--827-1500) For $7.00 apiece, we got an opportunity to see a film starring Ted Turner in which he catalogued his rise in the world of broadcasting from a 60 watt UHF station to the point where he could donate $1 Billion in pocket change to the United Nations. Ted could use to spend some dough on a tailor, because his suit looked positively dumpy and it looked like Tom Hayden had tied his tie.
The tour of the news facility was very interesting. This is a major operation and I was very impressed with the news room because it was all electronic. You simply did not see paper on anyone's desk. I was equally impressed with a demonstration of the Chroma Key system which explains how the weather people are able to do those forecasts with the maps in the background. Once again, carole got to play weather lady. At the end of the tour, we were invited to be in the live audience for the Talk Back Live! show. We accepted and found ourselves with about three hours to kill.
When we came out of the studio, it was drizzling, so we ducked into the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (thanks to my partner's intimate relationship with the weather gods, this was the only rain that we saw in 10 days...) I would LIKE to write that Alan Greenspan is a Lindy Hopper and he wanted us to come by and do some fish flips and count some stacks of hundred dollar bills. This would not be true. We don't normally just drop into the Fed --- they had a sign that invited us to visit the Museum of Money (104 Marietta St, 404-521-8500). My partner was very warm to this idea, so we went in. I was not quite prepared for the level of security they have at the Fed -- there were lots of big, mean guys with shotguns everywhere. Do not, repeat, DO NOT try a smash and grab at the Fed. I found the exhibits to be very informative; my partner was most taken with the specimen plates for $10,000 bills. (No denominations higher than $100 have been in circulation since 1963). There is also an interesting display of a gold ingot -- every day, the current value is posted on a chalk board. Today it was worth $43,609 and change. They are also willing to give you a small plastic baggie filled with shredded currency. Not only is the place free, but you can actually come out with more cash than you started with.
Strangely, although security was heavy on the first floor, we seemed to be able to wander the halls at will. We stopped at the office of the assistant director for something, asking for the rest rooms and he invited us to have a cup of coffee in the lounge. These guys live in some opulence compared to the normal Federal surroundings. While drinking coffee in china poured from a silver urn, we had a nice talk about interest rates and the National League playoff series.
The rain stopped and we made our way to the unusual post-modern memorial to the death of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. She was struck and killed by a streetcar just outside the Loew's theater where GWTW had premiered. From there, we went to the Fox Theater (660 Peachtree St, 404-767-0594) in hopes of catching a tour. Alas, we had missed the last tour, but the helpful lady at the box office suggested that the evening's performance was not sold out AND that if we mentioned that we shopped at A&P, the tickets would be half price. t turned out that the Atlanta premiere of the musical BIG was this night. So, before you could say "Jane Parker" we had two seats in the upper stratosphere for $14.50 (attendance was off due to the National League playoff game).
We had lunch at Reggie's (100 Techwood Dr, 404-525-1437) at CNN Center, not wanting to be late for our national TV appearance. Reggie Mitchell is something of a living legend --- and he is willing to tell you all about it at the drop of a hat...well, bowler. He traveled through Thailand, Burma and India with the Royal Marines and the Indian Army. He is distantly related to the Earl of Ponsonby or something. The restaurant is covered with memorabilia from these interesting exploits. I was very interested in his collection of World War II airplane photographs, particularly of a B-17 in a hangar overlooking the Glenn Miller 8th Air Force band. I described the Frederick hangar dance, and it turns out that Reggie was once a Lindy Hopper in England, some time ago, of course...
We made our way onto the set of Talk Back Live. The guest for the day was Hanan Ashrawi, the western-style mouthpiece for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Accordingly, security was tight. The whole show was devoted to a discussion of ethnic group conflicts. I did my best to keep my mouth shut--even when they ran a tape of Louis Farrakhan, the calypso singer turned mass leader. To all of you guys with car bombs out there --- we have no political opinions, O.K.? I had a feeling that the questions were screened for political correctness. This is more of a soap opera than a true debate. I was less than thrilled with the show and I think that Susan Rook, the host, is wasting her considerable talents here.
We had a fantastic dinner of chicken wings and gumbo at the Three Dollar Cafe (3002 Peachtree Rd, 404-266-8667) These were about the best wings that I have ever had. When I had eaten two of them, I asked the waitress if I had gotten the special "thermonuclear" hot sauce. She checked her order pad and rectified the mistake by bringing me another complete order. The sauce is hot. And GOOD! This is an excellent place to eat. I am only sorry that we had to rush through dinner to get downtown for the theater.
Briefly, BIG was so-so, and suffers from trying to copy the film of the same name. However, there is one number (Make My Coffee Black) that has considerable power and coincidentally uses a few Lindy steps.
Now, how can we condense the Fabulous Fox into a few words. It was built in 1929 by a group of Shriners (actually the Yaarab Temple of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) who needed a theater that could hold 5,000 people, projecting that Masonry would continue its exponential growth. As we will see in other edifices built in the South during this period, they wanted something spectacular. They got it. The theme of the theater is "A Night in Baghdad". The main auditorium appears to be a desert camp under an enormous tent. The ceiling serves as a screen for something called a Brennograph which allows stars and clouds to be projected so that you actually have the feeling that you are out in the desert. Everything is decorated in the most opulent style imaginable. All of the Arabian Nights fantasies have been recaptured at the Fox. No expense was apparently spared. The lobby is studded with blue tile fountains that once held goldfish. The concession area is called the Spanish Room and is about as large as the floor at Glen Echo. The exquisite details of this building are difficult to describe in a small space---let us just say that the theater is 64,000 square feet of Moorish "Gee Whiz."
Did we mention the Moller Organ with 3, 610 pipes, (376 stops and 42 ranks) that rises majestically from the orchestra pit for a "sing-along" before the performances begin? The thing is so big that the organist appears is completely dwarfed by it. The organist becomes a magician who can elicit an entire orchestra from the instrument. He can make exotic bird whistles and animal sounds, fire whistles and more than two dozen percussion instruments. Bathed in spotlights, the "Mighty Mo" rises from beneath the stage, booming out a happy medley of popular songs and light classical numbers.
After the show, we asked a fellow to take a picture of us doing a lockup in front of a particularly ornate fountain. It turns out that he is Brian Dufries, the house manager. He gave us a special tour -- especially of the Egyptian Ballroom. This has to be the most amazing art deco interior ever designed---it was truly breathtaking. This might be the all-time best dance venue in the US. Heavily influenced by the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1927, the Egyptian Ballroom has a long history as a dance venue in Atlanta. It is truly a marvelous space.
After our tour, we drove to Athens Georgia and the Forty Watt Club (285 W. Washington St, Athens, GA, 706-549-7871), the swing hangout for the University of Georgia. This place is somewhat smaller and has a high percentage of Lounge Lizards to dancers. On the other hand, our Lindy was well received and, again, lots of folks joined the Charleston lesson. We were intrigued to learn that the band REM had gotten its start here. We were less taken with the concrete floor; a generation of Georgia Bulldogs is going to need arch supports.
We ended our stay in Atlanta with breakfast at the O.K. Cafe (1284 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-2888) This is my idea of how to take a traditional 24 hr. Diner and run it with a little class and style without totally destroying the mood. Tropical forest print drapes, hand painted glazed plates, wooden cut-out partitions between booths and little lamps made in the shape of the letter "O" with a "K" inside it are some touches that make you feel like you might be in someone's (very busy) kitchen sometime around 1955. Breakfast is served all day, the true sign of a great all- night diner. Food is not cheap, but there was plenty of it and it was first class.
As we headed west from Atlanta on I-20, we noted a curious phenomenon. The road was full of big trucks hauling prefabricated housing --- the celebrated "double-wides." I made a mental note to locate the source of these abominations down to the exact longitude and latitude. The next time I meet a Russian spy, I will reluctantly divulge these coordinates as a "Vital American Military Strongpoint" in the hope that several hundred megatons will come raining down on it. I would like to do the same to the factory where Recreational Vehicles are made... and the place where they print those supermarket tabloids. In fact, we ought to have a contest about this: write us with your ideas for retargeting all the missiles owned by the folks who used to be the Soviet Union. Include approximate coordinates We'll see that it is delivered to the appropriate embassy.
We encountered another interesting phenomenon -- the Welcome Pavilion. As the Interstate crosses state lines, there is invariably a Welcome Center. We were impressed with the one in Tennessee and Alabama's proved to be even grander. best of all, this is the last place in the world where you can get FREE MAPS - not only a good state map, but also city maps and brochures about all kinds of tourist attractions, tailored to meet every taste. We were particularly impressed with a guide to antique stores for Birmingham that saved us a lot of time.
The doublewides were too much -- we counted ten of them in a five minute period. Accordingly, we left the Interstate at Anniston, Alabama, home of both the world's largest soil-pipe foundry and the National Soil Pipe Museum. We were also very pleased to step into the middle of a barbecue feud. What actually happened was: the Grand Am that I rented came without an owners' manual. Since I had no idea of how to operate half the gadgets, we stopped at a Pontiac dealership to get some help. Actually, two salesmen were very glad to help my partner with the car. They gave us the lowdown on the "ETS" and the fact that the lights aren't supposed to go off during the day no matter how hard you try to turn them off... We asked about barbecue and found ourselves in the middle of a rather heated debate, which was joined by several OTHER salesmen and patrons of the dealership. There are two barbecue joints in town: Betty's (401 S. Quintard Ave., 205-237-1411) and the Old Original Smokehouse (631 S. Quintard Ave., 205-237-5200) They are within shouting distance of each other, and each had its vocal proponents. We actually ate at both. It is our judgement that the Original wins on meat (great ribs with a lot of red smoke penetration) but Betty's wins on the sides, especially the fried okra.
My partner managed to find a Goodwill and Salvation Army store in Anniston. They were well stocked, but we didn't find anything in the correct sizes. I did find a black tie to go with my Navy uniform. We had a nice chat with the proprietor of the local Rexall Drug Store where we stopped for a Dr. Pepper and a Moon Pie. (You get Southernized real quick...) Like all small shopkeepers, he lamented the effect of the Wal Mart on the downtown area.
We continued on the back roads for about an hour and a half, and never saw anything like we might have expected. It seems that Rockville is everywhere.
Birmingham is a lot like Pittsburgh. That is, it is built on hills and has a lot of what used to be steel mills. It also has lots of people who used to be steelworkers until their jobs all went to some picturesque far-away place where the leaders all make big political contributions and the people work for fish-heads. This is really sad. I think that it all happened when the entire leadership of the United Steelworkers Union was away at a spa; the mills moved while they were all getting a fitting for new tuxedos.
Well, the good news is that there is swing dancing in Birmingham. You will need to get hold of the local entertainment throwaway called The Birmingham City Scene, and, alas, they have no website. Here are some contacts:
More about this later. We headed into the city for the Tutwiler Hotel (Park Place at 21st St, 205-322-2100) I got a real kick out of this place -- it was built at the turn of the century and it has been restored to very graceful elegance. It is owned by the Grand Heritage group, the same folks who did great things with the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.
There was still daylight, so we headed out for some antique hunting along First Avenue, Birmingham's "Antique Row". Among the store we visited were:
They had a fair to middling selection, but we were not thrilled by anything. The car was getting filled, so we had to be quite careful about purchases. Our contact had directed us to a dance club called Jitterbuggs (Holiday Inn, at exit 256A off I-65, 265 Oxmore Rd., 205-942-5283). We were told that vintage is worn there, so I put on my zoot suit. We had dinner at Christian's (in the Tutwiler, 205-323-9822), and a few heads turned.
Jitterbuggs is an unusual scene. From about 8:00 until 10:00 they play swing and then the club reverts to Industrial Music. However, our Lindy demo caught the eye of a lot of the alternative crowd that had milled in about 9:45 and we gave another Charleston lesson. There were a substantial number of African-American swing dancers in the crowd and we felt that Birmingham had the most integrated dance scene that we have attended.
As we drove around Birmingham, we kept noticing a large statue on the hill overlooking the city. We finally got a chance to look at a guidebook and we found out that this is a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the Underworld depicted as standing by his forge fashioning all sorts of wondrous devices for the gods. The Vulcan statue is in (of all things) Vulcan Park, US 31 and Valley Avenue (205-328-6198.
I have always been partial to Vulcan (or Hephaestes, his Greek name). This was an ugly lame little guy who got everything by skill and intelligence. He made the Talia, the winged sandals of Mercury and the brass shoes of the horses that drew the chariot of the Sun. He made all sorts of "artificial beings" (i.e. robots) to serve the needs of the gods. His forges were under Mount Aetna. He was smith, architect, armorer, chariot builder and artist of all work in Olympus. He even wound up with Venus as his bride.
Vulcan had a hand in giving birth to Athena. It seems that one day Jupiter (Zeus) had a major headache; Vulcan (Hephaestes) got sick of hearing him complain and hit him on the head with his hammer. The skull cracked and out popped Athena, fully grown and fully armed. Well, Vulcan is my kind of Roman god. I don't, however, think that he ever said anything like "Live long and prosper."
It seems that at the turn of the century, a group of businessmen hired the renowned Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti to create a statue of Vulcan as the City of Birmingham's exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904. The statue symbolized the city's history as an iron-working center. Vulcan is portrayed at the moment that he has finished the magical spear which Hercules used to slay the Hydra. This is the largest iron figure ever cast and required all the skill that the various Birmingham foundries could muster. It weighs in at 120,000 pounds and was cast in several sections. The feet are seven feet long and three feet wide, size 147EEE.
Although Vulcan got rave reviews in St. Louis, he had a hard time of it at home. For a while, he was used as an advertising gimmick, and the spear was even replaced with an ice cream cone. For some time, he was dis-assembled, and his parts slowly rusted by a railroad siding. In 1934, the Federal WPA provided funds for a pedestal for the statue, located on top of Red Mountain, the city's previous source of iron ore. Today, he holds an electric beacon. The color is green unless there has been an automotive fatality within the past 24 hours, when the color is changed to red.
When Moretti designed the sculpture, he portrayed Vulcan in his traditional costume --- just an apron. Of course, there is nothing covering his posterior. We were hard-pressed to pass up a tee shirt depicting Vulcan's backside with the legend "Moon Over Alabama". There was another shirt bearing the words "Buns of Steel". This is the second monumental referent to classical antiquity that we encountered in our journey.
On the way back down the hill from Vulcan, we stopped for a minute in the Five Points neighborhood, which is the home of the "youth scene" in Birmingham. We visited the only vintage store that we could find in the phone book, the Five Points Exchange (1907 Eleventh Ave, S, 205-939-0361) I found a couple of very nice ties that were reasonably priced at $3.
Our next stop was even more monumental --- the Alabama Theater, the "Showplace of the South". designed by the famous movie palace architecture firm of Graven and Mayger, the Alabama theater was intended to turn heads. The heavy gold-plated doors open into the vestibule, known as the "Hall of Mirrors". Patrons would then proceed into the Grand Lobby, adorned by large velvet chairs and settees. Magnificent paintings in ornate gold leaf frames and impressive marble busts and statuaries abound throughout the Moorish style hallways, lounges, and alcoves. The 2,500 seat, five-story, three-tier main auditorium has four large gold-leafed domes. There are faux box seat alcoves that are elegantly concealed chambers for the 22 sets of 81 pipes of the four-manual 20 rank Wurlitzer organ, affectionately named "Big Bertha". Like it's counterpart at the Fox, the organ can be hydraulically raised for sing-alongs.
Also like the Fox, the Alabama Theater has been saved from the wrecker's ball due to a concentrated effort by local preservationists. The Alabama is still being restored and they have quite a way to go. We saw signs of deterioration in many places. However, in our chat with the manager, they have a strong financial base and eventually things will be returned to the original condition when the theater opened on December 26, 1927. [The featured film was Spotlight, starring Ester Ralston and Neil Hamilton]
Just around the corner from the Alabama is Fine Traditions (309 N. 18th St, 205-251-9519). This store actually had Zoot Suits in the window. Alas, they were made of polyester and not suitable for dancing. However, the store stocked a very large inventory of Stacy Adams shoes, including some of the hard to get colors such as blue and green. Later, we actually saw kids wearing zoot suits on the street. As the old saying goes, " When you see it in the 'hood, it's soon to be in the boardroom.". I look forward to doing my first work-type presentation in the purple zoot.
After this, we made our way to the Civil Rights District which commemorates the incidents in Kelly Ingram Park which shocked America when the Birmingham police turned dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1966. We stopped at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in the restored Carver Theater (Fourth Avenue at 17th St, 205-254-2731) The museum honors great jazz artists with ties to the state of Alabama. Exhibits convey the accomplishments of Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. There is a considerable amount of material on the Savoy Ballroom, including a souvenir program that we had never seen before.
On our way out of town, we stopped at the Salvation Army Thrift Store and I found a very nice 1940s hounds tooth check sports coat for $5 and a '78 copy of The Ballad of Davy Crockett for a quarter. Our last stop in Birmingham was 1728 20th Street in Ensley, just outside Tuxedo Park, and the intersection (long ago) of two streetcar lines. Tuxedo Junction came to national fame through the 1939 hit song of the same name by Birmingham composer Erskine Hawkins.
We bid a fond farewell to Birmingham, which turned out to be the biggest surprise of the whole tour. There is a lot going on in Birmingham. If you are in the South, spend a day or two there. Pick Monday through Wednesday for the most dance opportunities.
About an hour west of Birmingham on I-78 is the Alabama Thrift Shop (Jasper, Alabama). This is a very large place with a fairly large selection. My partner found a 1940s WAC uniform for $10 and I found a few ties.
The Mississippi Welcome Center was the grandest of the lot. It was a miniature version of a plantation house and it was furnished with antiques. There was a very nice grandmotherly type lady who offered us free coffee and soda. She was very pleased to show us exactly how to get to Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo.
Thus began our in-depth indoctrination into the world of Elvis Presley. To be candid, I never really liked Elvis much after he went into the army. I always hated haircuts, so I thought that long hair and sideburns were just great. But, on balance, during the 1950s, I always liked the black groups and Elvis was more a novelty. I did think that it was fantastic when he appeared on Ed Sullivan, just so that I could tell my dad that Rock and Roll was now officially "Entertainment" and not just "Noise". Ed Sullivan was the litmus test for entertainment back then.
We visited the sacred Birthplace, a two room shack that Vernon Presley built before he went to jail for kiting a check. This was meager existence at best. Strangely, there must be twenty other shacks on the same row that are identical to this that have people living in them now. They sit on their porches and gape at the rich yuppies who drive by in fancy cars to pay homage to Elvis. We hear that the tourists come at all times of the day every day.
On the way out of town, I noticed that the gas tank was nearly bone dry. I pulled in to the only station that I could see, and there was an unusual hand-lettered sign on the pump. It read:
Pay Cashier Before Pumping
Thank You, Management"
I looked to my left and saw a big red-faced guy with a shotgun sitting on the porch. I waved a twenty dollar bill as fast as I could. The fellow broke out into a big laugh and said that he had just been hunting --- the manager was inside. Actually, the manager saw the whole thing and was also laughing hysterically. He treated us to a cup of coffee and we sampled some of the fine cheddar cheese that is made nearby.
With that humorous end, we bade farewell to Tupelo.
We were very impressed with Nashville. There seems to be a whole lot going on, and there is a lot of dancing. We suggest that your first order of business should be to get a copy of The Nashville Scene, the local "City Happenings" throwaway (or check out their website). Next, you can use the phone (remember that?) to contact the three dance clubs in the area (we have no websites for them...)
It took us about four hours to drive from Memphis to Nashville, and the road was thick with trucks and traffic. Accordingly, our first task was to make our way to the Uni on Station Hotel which is a first-class restoration of the old Nashville train station, a classic Richardson Romanesque building that has a lot of character and substance. The restoration even kept the massive train shed which is now used as a covered parking lot.
Our first tourist-type activity was a visit to the Parthenon (in Centennial Park, West End Ave & 25th St, 615-862-8431), yet another Southern monument to classical antiquity. In 1896, the City of Nashville constructed a full-scale replica of the Parthenon to house the international; art exhibition for the 1897 centennial Exposition. The pavilion was constructed of brick, wooden lath and plaster and was intended to reflect the city's reputation as "the Athens of the South". Due to intense popular interest, the city let the building stand where it deteriorated until 1921, when the structure was redone in concrete and steel and was made even more historically accurate. The Elgin Marbles were actually brought to Nashville so that they could be cast as components of the friezes on the East and West pediments. In 1982, Nashville sought to complete fully its replica of the Parthenon, and recreated the statue of Athena, originally sculpted by Phidias in the fifth century, BC. The original was made of gold and ivory, while (alas) the replica is made of plaster. Athena stands almost 42 feet high, taking her place as the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the world. She is so big that the statue of Nike (about six feet tall) stands in her outstretched right palm. her left hand and arm support a 17 foot shield and a 36 foot spear. This is quite impressive. It appears that the folks in Nashville are continuing the restoration of the friezes and the roof of the building. You really ought to see this. It will give you a much greater appreciation of classical antiquity. By the way, the original Parthenon served as a shrine to Athena and the Treasury for the Republic of Athens. It stood relatively undisturbed until the 17th century when it was used as a powder magazine by the Turks and exploded.
From here, we made our way to the Second Avenue Music District and hopped on to the very last tour of the day for Ryman Auditorium (115 5th Ave, 615-254-1445), the former home of the Grand Ole' Opry. We even got to stand on the famous stage where we posed for yet another of our lockup pictures. My partner belted a little Janis Joplin at the empty seats to the enjoyment of the folks who were in our tour.
As we walked along Broadway, peering into the various bars that offer Merle Haggard/Tammy Wynette wannabes, our attention was struck by a small building -- it was Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway, 615-256-2805). I have always marveled at the quality of their work --- they print the ubiquitous 14 x 22 "window posters" for shows that are hot collectors items. What was even more amazing was the fact that the manager, Jim Sherraden recognized us from our photo on the website. He explained that a lot of the new "Retro-Swing" bands like Indigo Swing, VooDoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers were having posters done at Hatch. He got interested in the Swing phenomenon and began to check out websites. He gave us the grand tour.
Hatch, the oldest working letterpress in the nation was started in 1879 by two brothers, C.R. and H.H. Hatch. Later, the business was continued by descendants of the Hatch family. They only print from wood blocks, and the ancient building is filled to capacity with ceiling-high shelves full of carved wooden plates and wood-block letters. Jim showed us the fundamentals of how posters are printed. He gave us a copy ( a restrike, not an original) of a Cab Calloway poster that had originally been printed in the 1940s. This makes a grand addition to our "Wall of Fame".
From there, we made our way along Fifth Avenue and noted a number of menswear stores that featured Stacy Adams shoes. These were:
Our dance event for the evening was a meeting of the Nashville Bebop Association at Chugger's (I-65, Exit 87, Trinity Ln, W). We were very pleased to see that this group has adopted saddle shoes as their logo. We got a very warm reception before we did any Lindy. After our first song, one lady grabbed me and said, "I want to go back to D.C. with you!" Of course, she was exaggerating. We had a wonderful time and we are grateful to the folks for showing us so much hospitality. We gave the (now) obligatory lesson in Charleston and Artie Shaw kicks, and I even had one lady (Rita Goldman) doing a noteworthy tandem Charleston. Of course, we hope that our new-found friends in Nashville will visit us here in D.C.
We left Chugger's at about midnight and my partner was hungry for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. As we discussed the relative impossibility of finding such a place without a phone directory, I took the wrong exit. As I turned to re-enter the interstate, what should be shining before us -- you guessed it -- the only Krispy Kreme in Nashville! I still don't know how she does it...
We left Nashville early the next morning and our final task was to sample the food at the ubiquitous Waffle Houses that we had seen sprouting like weeds along the interstate. We were very surprised to find that this chain of restaurants actually has very good diner style food at very good prices. The waffles are excellent, but the real treat is the hash browns -- you can order them mixed with all sorts of goodies like cheese, onions, tomatoes, etc. So, this is a good bet if you are stuck without options on the interstate.
Vintage in Richmond:
In a nutshell, Richmond oozes with charm. My partner's intimate connections with the weather gods yielded another perfect day, sunny, warm with low humidity. Absolutely perfect conditions for wandering the streets of The Fan and Carytown, Richmond's equivalent of Georgetown.
Although we started early on Friday, we soon found ourselves stalled in traffic on I-95, the vast parking lot that stretches from the District to Fredricksburg. Fearing that we would miss dancing in Richmond, I devised a plan---we put my baseball cap on a neck pillow and created a "third occupant". Then we got into the HOV-3 lane and blasted around the traffic. We had some nervous moments when a law enforcement officer in an unmarked car moved by us. I engaged my hat in animated conversation as if it was a small child. We proceeded to Richmond without further ado.
We stayed at the historic Jefferson Hotel, one of the most beautiful inns in the country. The hotel (Franklin & Adams St, 804-788-8000 or 800-424-8014) has been through several incarnations. The original building was built in the 1890s and was widely thought to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the South. The original structure burned in 1910 and was replaced with an even grander structure featuring two Florentine bell towers. After WWII, the hotel fell into decline but was restored in the late 1980s. The place abounds in history. The major attraction is the Rotunda, a marvelous room with a stained glass ceiling and the famous grand staircase which may (or may not) have been the inspiration for the famous set in Gone With the Wind where Rhett Butler "will not be denied" and carries Scarlett O'Hara up a staircase carpeted in blood red. You can get all sorts of opinions about this from Richmonders, especially since the hotel is home to the annual "Gone With the Wind Ball".
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was once a waiter at the hotel, and it is said that he got his start in Hollywood there. It seems that a famous producer was dining there and Robinson faked spilling some hot soup on himself,and then tap danced back to the kitchen in mock pain. Elvis Presley was apparently a fan of the cheeseburgers in the coffee shop. The hotel also has a life size statue of Thomas Jefferson in the lobby and that work is the establishment's trade mark. The renovation removed the "garden court" with its bubbling pool. During the Florida Boom of the 1920s, permanent guests began to bring back live alligators, several of whom took up residence in the pool in the garden court. These alligators also added to the fame of the hotel, much in the same way as the ducks at Memphis' Peabody Hotel. Alas, there are no more alligators.
Due to our lengthy stay in traffic, we were starved when we checked in. The hotel restaurant, La Maire, is noteworthy for both its food and decor including both marble floors and faux finishes on the walls.
On the other hand, coat and tie are required, and the only such thing that I had packed was the yellow zoot suit. Figuring "What the Heck", we went to Richmond's most conservative restaurant in Vintage. When we walked through the lobby, one of the hotel's night clerks, a fellow named Barry, approached us and eagerly sought out the source of the zoot. ( It is, of course, El Pachuco, 801 S. Harbor Fwy, Fullerton Ca, 714-526-3743) The headwaiter was a bit nonplussed and I put him at ease with "Get many yellow zoot suits here?" Of all things, they have a piano/guitar combo playing at dinner. Thus, it was only natural to ask "Do you guys play Shiny Stockings?" They did, and we gave the guests a little display of some genteel Lindy---no aerials. This was very well received by the guests. One of the older waiters dropped his fake French accent and whispered to me "You were in the groove, Jackson." The food was actually very good. Things don't change very fast in Richmond and this cuisine was back in the "Constructed" form of a couple of years ago. Everything seemed to have been sculpted with wings or antennae. Beautiful, yes, but one does not know whether to eat the dish or put it on a pedestal. We did some more exhibition dancing and the headwaiter comped us a dessert. This generosity has not influenced our review one bit. The Jefferson is a great hotel and a bargain to boot.
After dinner, we made our way to The Tobacco Company (1201 E. Cary St, 804-782-9555). This is a great venue in an old tobacco warehouse that has marvelous exposed wooden beams. The band was The Rhythm Kings who we had confused with Eric Sheridan's group. They were not a swing band and played more Motown and beach music than anything else. On the other hand, they liked our six count stuff and offered to try to play some 8-count music. In fact, they did a great job on two Chuck Berry numbers. Following our maxim of "Do Aerials Early and Often", we quickly had the house in our hands. The band liked it because it put some life in the crowd. They continued to "feed" us music for the rest of the night. Again, we gave out a large number of website cards and met a lot of nice new people. Richmond is not now a Lindy town, but it could very easily be--- the crowd showed a lot of interest and the town is full of vintage clothes outlets
After we closed up The Tobacco Company, we went out for a late night bite at the Third Street Diner (corner of 3rd and Main). This place has lots of atmosphere---the crowd cuts across class lines. The specialty is the "fried doughnut", prepared by placing a day-old glazed doughnut on the grill in a pool of butter. The pastry is cooked on both sides until the sugar in the glaze caramelizes. It is put on a plate with several scoops of vanilla and rushed to your table. An interesting confection that tastes better than it sounds.
We started Saturday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2800 Grove Avenue, 804-367-8844, $4.00 admission) They have a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture. There are three whole rooms of furniture by Hector Guimard, the French designer whose plant-like furniture is the essence of Art Nouveau. There is more Guimard here than I have ever seen in one place. The Art Deco collection is equally impressive, including works by Donald Deskey (who did the interiors for Radio City).
The heart stopper was a carved macassar ebony cabinet by Louis Sue and Andre Mare, encrusted with a floral pattern in mother of pearl and abalone marquetry. There are also important works by Emile Jacques Ruhlmann including a desk in Amboynia wood, inlaid with ivory and a cabinet entirely covered in tortoiseshell. All of these objects are so breathtakingly beautiful that it is hard to imagine that once they served a utilitarian function. A man kept his shirts in the Sue & Mare cabinet; someone paid grocery bills at the Ruhlmann desk; the tortoiseshell cabinet held a cocktail bar.
The chuckle of the Art Deco room is a Russian Suprematist tea service. [Suprematism was a brief attempt at deriving art from general Marxist principles that had a vogue in the 1920s.] In the Arts & Crafts section, there are important works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but these were overshadowed by four (yes four) outstanding pieces by Harvey Ellis for Gustav Stickley. The chair, two cabinets and a table show Ellis at his most lyric mixing the spare forms of Stickley with his own luxurious inlays of silver, mother of pearl, ebony, jade and abalone. We were treated to a display of almost all the floral Tiffany glass lamp shades including the incredibly rare "Squash Blossom". After this, we were absolutely stunned to find out that there also were three Faberge eggs on display in a small room. This museum is worth the trip in itself!
There is good vintage shopping in Richmond. The Fan and Carytown have an abundance of Thrift and Vintage stores. It seems to be the custom to offer goods with sizes and approximate dates clearly marked. We found prices to be reasonable and larger sizes in men's clothing were available. Here is a sampling of stores that we visited and we would recommend them all:
We had lunch at a very nice restaurant in Carytown, the Cafe du Soleil, which has excellent salads at very modest prices. I had a very good version of panzanella (see the recipes section on the website) and my partner had a super oriental chicken salad. The decor of the restaurant features a wide variety of faux finishes.
No trip to Richmond is complete without a stroll down Monument Avenue. Each intersection has a traffic circle in the middle of which is a truly heroic equestrian statue of a Civil War general. Those who died in battle face north, while those who came home face south. The last statue is that of Arthur Ashe. We thought that it was a particularly impressive display.
Finally, we stopped at Bradley's Antiques (101 E. Main St, 804-644-7305). This is a place for "just Looking"---the inventory includes 18th century paintings valued at $300K and above. We were hard-pressed to turn down a wonderful Curling Stone at $75. We had a good time chatting with the owner and meeting his enormous Great Dane. Richmond is a great place---you should make the trip and be sure to stay at the Jefferson Hotel.
Roanoke, VirginiaWe spent the day driving from Nashville to DC. The only place that we stopped for an appreciable amount of time was Roanoke, Virginia. It looks like a considerable amount of preservation activity has gone into the City Market area. We had a great meal at the Star City Diner (corner Jefferson and Campbell). The entire place is decorated in a variety of themes from the 1950s. I was very partial to the "Vargas Room" featuring the gorgeous airbrush cuties that used to adorn the pages of Esquire magazines. There is also a room devoted entirely to the I Love Lucy Program. We know that Indigo Swing recently played Roanoke, so there must be some sort of scene. Perhaps Chrissy Hall (a Roanoke native) can fill us in. We are going to look into more of Roanoke in the future.
If you want to get the latest on what is happening in Memphis, you need to get hold of the local entertainment throwaway, the Memphis Flyer, or check out their website. There are two dance clubs in Memphis, and both seem to lack a website. The snail mail addresses are:
Please select from these topics about Memphis:
Report from Memphis
It's nice to find someone who does the Jitterbug. Here in Memphis and most of the Midwest (I'm from VA. BEACH originally) they only do the BOP. This is another 6 step dance but the rock step is on the right foot on the forth beat instead of the left foot on the fifth beat. Also the steps are not placed at each musical beat. A lot of cheating with the rhythm goes on to let the guy or gal catch up after or during turns.
Enough of the Bop. What I want are new turns and throws. I recently got a D.J. friend of mine to copy the "Southside Swing Club" dance finals. I believe these were held in England. There is no vocal on the tape. Since it was a copy of a copy of a copy, somehow the music and vocals were lost. However, it has lots of advanced moves. Do you guys know of any clubs close to Memphis (close means a 3.5 hour drive--i.e. Nashville, St. Louis ) so my partner and I may learn more? Also I have several VCR tapes of the Memphis Bob Club instructors in action. I'll trade tapes of the bop for tapes of the jitterbug.
On Tuesday between 7-9 pm the Memphis Bop Club meets at "Cactus Rose" located in the Holiday Inn at 2490 Mt. Moriah Rd. They also meet there on Fridays and Saturdays from 7pm til ? However on Saturday it is a splinter group.
On Lindy: I think I'll start with that lady's [Margaret Batichuok] thesis you mentioned, even though I would rather do the step instead of knowing the history. At present, I know about 25 jitterbug steps and turns out of hundreds that are available. It's funny that if you ask two people which is which, half will say that the Lindy, East Coast Swing, Triple Swing, and Jitterbug, are the same, while the other half will say they are all different. Who really knows. It does seem that the taught versions are different from the ones learned when the music was new and our parents were in their twenties. At any rate, my favorite is the Jitterbug. It's a six step or an eight step with the "rock-step" on the left foot fifth beat seventh beat. It's best done to songs like In the Mood, At the Hop, Great Balls of Fire, Tutti Frutti etc. or any old time rock and roll with a very fast tempo. The longest my partner and I have been able to Jitterbug with various moves including the tunnel, the dip, man's turn to the handshake with ladies inside turn with behind the back hand change, and other stuff is about 7.5 minutes.
The "Bop" on the other hand is a dance which doesn't matter if every footfall lands on the beat of the music and best lends itself to slower tempo tunes. To be honest, most of the now popular bop tunes which are played at the club and lessons are songs I never heard before joining the Bop Club. I grew up in a Beach Resort Town and the fast paced Rock 'n' Roll songs were popular. My original intention of learning the Bop was to steal as many turns as I could and adapt them to Jitterbug style.
By the way, are there any Newsgroups that discuss
Mississippi has some very fine roads. I-78 was about the nicest Interstate that we drove on. The scenery was very nice and there was hardly any traffic --- especially 18 wheelers hauling doublewides. The map showed that Memphis runs all the way to the Mississippi state line, and we marveled that suburban sprawl had not spread into this fine country. About 8 miles before the Tennessee line, we pulled off at Byhalia, a small hamlet with a feed store and a Rexall Drug. We had a "CoCola" and talked to some of the folks who were sitting around the store. They had some choice words for us to take back to Washington.
As we crossed the state line, we were rudely dumped onto a city street with stoplights. You have no idea of what a traffic jam this causes. It took forty five minutes to move three miles to the freeway that took us into downtown Memphis. We heartily suggest that you enter Memphis from some route other than I-78.
Our destination was the celebrated Peabody Hotel . Not only is this a great hotel, but it also has the Ducks. It seems that in the 1930s, Frank Schutt, General Manager of the Peabody returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. He had probably had a bit too much Tennessee sippin' whiskey, and thought that it would be a great idea to place some of his live decoys in the carved marble fountain in the lobby. (Back then, it was legal to use live decoys...) Three small English call ducks became the first residents of the fountain, and the guests loved them.
Thus began a tradition that has endured for nearly sixty years. The ducks live in a "Duck Palace" on the roof. Every day at 11:00 am, a trumpet sounds. Two attendants roll out a red carpet from the elevator lobby to the fountain. The elevator descends, the door opens and the ducks march out across the carpet and hop into the fountain where they swim until 5:00 pm when the process is reversed. The ducks are Mallards and are raised by a farmer. The ducks live in the fountain until they are full grown and, on retirement from Peabody duties, are returned to the wild.
There are a zillion stories about the ducks at the Peabody; read about Michael and Tina who agreed to get married at the Duck Fountain, for one. The other thing about the Peabody is the concierge. They get all sorts of unusual requests [see below] and handle everything with aplomb. The concierge had absolutely no trouble finding us places on Beale Street that had dancing and were likely to have at least a little swing music. She mentioned these Australians who had been there the week before. More about the folks from down under later.
We were starved from our trip and we headed straight for the Rendezvous (52 S 2nd St, in Gen. Washburn Alley, 901-523-2746) which, fortunately is just across the street from the hotel. This place serves ribs--delicious, heavenly, thoroughly smoked ribs that melt in your mouth. And do they have a sauce! What a sauce! The service is thoroughly professional and they feed a lot of people every day. The Rendezvous is a must-do if you are in Memphis. Dinner for two was about $20, so you won't bust your budget either.
We began the evening at the Rum Boogie Club (182 Beale St, 901-528-0150)and I was surprised to see a substantial dance floor. When we put on our black and white shoes, the leader of the house band (James Govan and the Boogie Blues Band) asked us if we wanted a swing tune. It turns out that some of the "Memphis Sound" R&B bands have been adding Louis Jordan type swing material. Some Australian Lindy Hoppers had been through the week before, so they recognized the shoes. The crowd loved our Lindy routine and the band "fed" us three more numbers. A crowd gathered outside the window. The manager of the King Palace Cafe up the street saw us dancing and, at the break, asked us to come up and dance at his club. We took him up on his offer. All told, we wound up dancing in four clubs that evening. We will offer a prize to anyone who puts us in contact with these Australian people.
We began our next day by poking around Memphis' city center, waiting for the Sun Studio to open. We had a very good breakfast of (what else?) biscuits and gravy at the Yellow Rose (Courthouse Square). We were in the first tour at Sun Studios (706 Union Street, 1-800-441-6249). This was certainly worth doing. Almost all the legendary blues and Rock giants cut their first sides here, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and (of course) Elvis Presley. The tour includes listening to the out-takes from several recording sessions. The culmination is when you are allowed to USE some of the equipment that was actually used in these recordings. I got to play my small boogie riff on the same piano that Jerry Lee Lewis used to record Great Balls of Fire. My partner got to do Janis Joplin using the same microphone that Elvis used to record Hound Dog. We were so excited that we got the tour guide to take a picture of us doing a lockup. I took my glasses off and we did several poses. After the last one, I put my partner down and heard a "CRUNCH". I had put her down on my only pair of glasses.
The concierge at the Peabody was very helpful. She located an optometrist close by who could duplicate the broken lens, even though I wear rimless wire frame glasses. I had new lenses in less than two hours thanks to the concierge at the Peabody and Dr. Brenta G. Medley (2760 N. Germantown Parkway, 901-381-1519). Thank you very much, Dr. Medley. By the way, guys, she is single, likes to dance, and not hard on the eyes, either!
Better yet, Dr. Medley was located only a hop, skip, and a jump from Graceland, the next attraction on our schedule in fact, we arrived just in time for the very last tour. After having seen Elvis' roots in Tupelo, I can sort of understand why he might want something like Graceland. And, it is hard to argue with his taste, since someone who has sold 500,000,000 records commands a lot of respect. On the other hand, Graceland is probably the tackiest, most tasteless thing that I have ever seen. It was hard to maintain proper respect for "The King" and keep from laughing out loud. The only thing that I might remotely want in the whole place is the art-deco streamlined adding machine in Vernon Presley's office. For the rest, well -- we could have duplicated most of the furniture at any one of the thrift stores that we stopped in. Elvis must have been very impressed with Las Vegas, because he seems to have been trying to turn Graceland into the lobby of the Desert Inn. The only thing missing are the sand-filled cigarette urns. We paused for a moment in the "Meditation Garden" where the King and his family rest. It looks like a miniature golf course. My partner would not pose for a lockup in front of The Final Resting Place, but we did do one in front of the house. It is rumored that Elvis' last words from the bathroom where he passed on (to an even higher Throne) were, "I'm not done yet." This was truly prophetic, because the sales of his records and memorabilia are growing exponentially with no end in sight.
I have one (sort of) contemporary connection with Elvis Presley. Read my essay "Nighthawks at the Gridiron", if you are interested.
The confusion about my glasses ate up that portion of the afternoon which we had planned to devote to thrift shops and vintage stores. We did not seem to miss this that much, since the back of the car was filling up rapidly, anyway. However, in the confusion, we had neglected to eat lunch and we were starved as we finished our tour of Graceland.Our choice for dinner was Memphis' OTHER barbecue place, Corky's (5259 Poplar St, 901-685-9380). As far as I can tell, there is a long-running feud as to which place is better, Corky's or the Rendezvous. My feeling is that if you can, just eat at both places---they are both fantastic. One drawback is that Corky's is quite a bit smaller than the Rendezvous, so plan on waiting for some time. We brought a newspaper, and the wait gave us an opportunity to catch up with things in the non-dancing world. This was sort of "Line Dining". However, the time passed quickly and we were soon seated at our table. Corky's was the model for the Red Hot and Blue chain here in the DC Metro area, so we had a rough idea of what to expect. We ordered an onion loaf and a double rack of ribs. We enjoyed them thoroughly.
Thanks to our contact, Michael Elliott, we made our way to the Friday meeting of the Memphis Bop Club at The Cactus Rose (Holiday Inn on Mt. Moriah Rd, directly after Exit 17 on I-240E, 901-362-8010) Once again, Lindy was very well received and we left behind some folks who could do a bit of Charleston and Artie Shaw kicks. The folks were great and very friendly. We would like to thank all the club members who extended a very gracious welcome, especially "Big Jerry" Holt, who gave us a few contacts in Nashville for dancing the next night.
We got up very early and spent some time prowling around the Pyramid Arena. This is a 32-story 22,500 seat stainless steel and concrete replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. We thought that it might be the tomb of the Pharaoh Ok-Ra, but it turns out that it is a music, sports and entertainment complex. Yet another of the monuments to classical antiquity that we saw in the South. It is located on the Wolf River at the Auction St Bridge. There are Tours daily (901-521-9675)
We caught the first monorail tram to Mud Island (901-576-7241), a fifty acre park designed to showcase the character of the Mississippi river. Our primary interest was the Memphis Belle, a B-17 World War II era bomber. This was the first aircraft to complete 25 missions over Nazi targets. Named for the pilot's wartime sweetheart, the Memphis Belle was featured in a documentary of the same name by director William Wyler.
Later, we met Michael Elliott for brunch at the Kings Palace Cafe (162 Beale St, 901-521-1851). When we entered, the place seemed deserted -- however, they offered one of the best breakfasts that we had encountered --- perhaps the very best biscuits and gravy of all time. (Thanks to Michael for buying breakfast!) The manager was into vintage and put us on to Flashbacks (2304 Central Ave, 901-272-2304) which turned out to be a very high end retro store. I found the dream of my life, a 1930s double-breasted shawl-collar white dinner jacket in linen that was a dead ringer for the one worn by Bogart in Casablanca. We also found a very nice pinstripe double breasted jacket, all at very reasonable prices. This is a very nice store with lots of selection. Alas, this was our last stop in Memphis, because we had to hit the road for Nashville.
NIGHTHAWKS AT THE GRIDIRON
Part 1: Intellectual Window Dressing
Teenagers of the 1950s---drag races, drive-ins, and disposable culture---were the leading edge of postwar America. The emphasis was on informality and fun in the midst of a consumerist frenzy. Fantasy, energy, and boundless faith in the future were the design themes of products, the boxes they came in, and the stores that sold the boxes. Drive-in hamburger stands looked like spaceships, cars resembled airplanes, and the old wooden jukebox with bubbling lights was replaced by the streamlined chrome "mini" one to each booth in a diner.
In 1950s design, the frankly fake was favored over the real. In 1950s food, manufactured simulations replaced traditional ingredients whenever possible. Any artificial snack made from a prepackaged mix was considered more modern than an elaborate sit-down meal made from ingredients found in nature. This was the era of Mock Apple Pie made with Ritz Crackers instead of apples. Best of all, the directions were right there on the package. Indeed, the "back of the box" provided the noteworthy recipes of the decade.
If most 1950s food in the kitchen looked unnatural, the food in drive-ins and diners looked positively radioactive. Hinting of exposure to "the bomb", oversized burgers sprouted out from under their buns; luridly colored cakes wore shocking pink icing; root beer floats frothed strangely. Atomic imagery was popular in the restaurants themselves. Lamp fixtures were shaped like rockets, while tables and curtains were decorated with satellites and atoms.
The design critic Thomas Hine coined the term "populuxe" to describe the general look and attitude of the postwar era. He calls it a time of "optimism and opulence", of "innocent hedonism". For Hine, "populuxe era began with Elvis Presley---sexy, energetic, and American." Elvis was even in tune with the nuclear themes of the era. He was initially billed as "the nation's first atomic-powered singer."
Wasn't that nice, just like Public Radio?
Part 2: The Memory Box
Once again, it is late at night. I can't sleep. I am rummaging through an old box that has followed me like a faithful dog throughout my travels. I suppose that there is a story in every item, even the Pez dispensers. There is a tin-bound photo of me in a Panama hat and sunglasses, taken by a machine in the Baltimore train station. A matching photo of a young lady reminds me that these things were two for a quarter. The metal edges are corroding and the rust is eating away at the photos. Time won't even let images of my youth alone. A business card from James Vincent Hart Jr., the creative director of Straight Time Productions, remains the surviving evidence of the band's one-and-only brush with recorded immortality. A "Boycott Grapes" button is stuck into a picture of Al Rojas, the East Coast organizer of the Farm Worker's Union. I see a button from the November 15, 1969, "Vietnam Moratorium" demonstration. "March on Washington," it says,"to bring all the troops home now." In its company is a turquoise plastic package of flints for a Zippo lighter. I see a Gulf Oil credit card bearing a picture of a car with fins, a cabin-cruiser, and a Piper Apache that reminds me it was good for "Land, Sea, and Air." With it is another button that says, "Gulf Kills." I think the latter has something to do with the civil war in Angola, but both have been mooted by time and the demise of the Gulf Oil Company. There is a photograph of my Dad with a bizarre kidney-shaped table that he made for a zillionaire; it was hidden in a ceiling and descended at the touch of a button. There is "populuxe" for you. At the bottom of my memory box is a paper napkin that is imprinted The Gridiron. I acquired it on one of my "Find America" trips.
Part 3: The Gridiron
In June 1968, I purchased a brand new red Dodge D-100 pickup truck. In but a trice, I headed it south to experience American culture in the raw, stripped of the varnish of creeping homogenization. This meant spending a lot of time in diners, barbecue joints, and roadside stands. During the day, food was the attraction, especially breakfast. Between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., the focus was on conversation as the nighthawks came in to roost at the counter. Over bottomless cups of coffee and Camels lit end to end, the American mythology was spun by the yard, precious cloth available only for the price of listening.
On just such an evening, I was in Memphis on my way to New Orleans lubricating my soul with liberal doses of barbecue and music ("Ribs and R'n'B," I would tell the curious.) I had faith that somewhere down the next dirt road I would find either a sauce or a sax riff that was hotter than the last. I was rarely disappointed. Following a sumptuous breakfast of cloud-light, big-as-a-cat's-head buttermilk biscuits, I was privileged to attend the "Duck Ceremony" at the Peabody Hotel. This ritual originated with the whim of an eccentric manager. A flock of tame mallards is kept in luxury on the roof. Each morning, they are herded onto an elevator and brought to the lobby. A red carpet is unrolled. Amidst trumpet flourishes, the ducks are escorted to a large indoor fountain where they swim and frolic to the delight of the guests. That evening, I feasted on dry-rub ribs smoked to perfection by Charlie Vergos at the Rendezvous, a hole in the wall behind the Peabody.
After this Olympian repast, I went to the Eagle's Nest and saw Albert King and his legendary band that included Booker T. Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), Al Jackson (drums), and the "Memphis Horns", Wayne Jackson (trumpet) and Andrew Love (sax/trombone). All of their timeless hits were brand new, including Crosscut Saw, Laundromat Blues, Personal Manager, and Born under a Bad Sign. These songs have since been covered by the whole spectrum of rock bands, from Cream and the Allman Brothers to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr. Dre.
A brief digression about Albert King
Albert King was one of the first generation of electric bluesmen. His stage act always began with a rap about how he taught himself to play the blues on a wire unwound from the neck of a whisk broom; it was secured at one end to a peg in the ground and on the other to a nail in the wall. It was tuned with a turnbuckle. By sliding a pen-knife or bottleneck along the wire, he developed the marrow-penetrating sound that eventually became part of the "psychedelic" music movement. When Albert got his first guitar, it came from a fellow who was left handed and thus was strung in reverse order. But, of course, Albert is right handed. This accounts for the preponderance of high-note riffs in his solos. He had a very pure style---he used no pick and with very few notes (a concept known as "space" in the blues) made a statement with every phrase.
Back to Memphis, 1968
I stayed at the Eagle's Nest until the last set was over at about 3:00 a.m. I volunteered to give a young lady a lift home, a long way down Route 51. On this thoroughfare, shining like a diamond in a lump of coal, was the Gridiron. The exterior walls were chrome with diamond patterns. Glass block was used liberally in the design. Everything was illuminated by high-powered spot lights. It could not be passed. Fortunately, my new companion had a taste for coffee, so we stopped. As we entered through the plate glass door set in riveted stainless steel, we beheld the winged clock, the polished grill, a long lunch counter with small round stools, and a few chrome and Formica tables. Further observation revealed oversized booths upholstered in rolled and pleated red vinyl. It was a classic example of spotlessly clean 1950s restaurant architecture.
Only a few patrons were in evidence. One was obviously inebriated and was carrying on a mostly one-sided conversation with the grill man, who, in turn, was patiently cleaning his work surface with a tool that took both of his hands and most of his attention. Three waitresses in pink uniforms were seated at a booth in the back, smoking Pall Malls and poring over a newspaper. Two men in coveralls belonged to the Bekins moving van in the parking lot. A group of college kids were continuing to revel after a black-tie party. The young men had loosened their collars, and the elaborate coifs of the ladies were beginning to come apart. A furtive little man in a fedora dangled a cigarette from his lips and chattered nonstop on the pay phone, making an occasional scribble on his cuff with a pencil wet by his lips. The Drunk, the Swells, the Proles, and the Bookie needed only Proto-Hippies to complete the literary ideal set of late-night diner patrons. We played our part in this drama by taking a table by the window. Scanning the menu, I found that the food at the Gridiron matched its fabulous fifties interior. There were the classic malt shop items: fries, pies, floats and burgers---something for every hungry teenager.
Our waitress wore a little cardboard cap on hair teased into a beehive. Under her pink uniform bearing the name tag "Connie Konnicki", she was probably tougher than her truck driver customers. Almost noiselessly she approached and broke the ice with, "Ail-vis allus sits there." I was somewhat at a loss, since I do not speak or hear Southern very well. My companion helped out. "You mean Elvis Presley eats here?" she said with awe. "Yaipe," or something like that, was the answer. By 1968, Elvis was sort of a national joke among serious rock fans, since he was deep in the Blue Hawaii phase. Although I was not impressed, the reaction of my new friend and the waitress indicated that the King's flame burned as bright as ever, so I kept my mouth shut tight. The banter between the ladies went on for some time. The gist of their extended conversation was that Mr. Presley would have little or no trouble getting either (or both) of them to engage in any of a rather lengthy list of sexual acts. Of note, Ms. Konnicki reported that the King had a special interest in employing whipped cream (her exact words were "ray-dee wip") as part of foreplay. She also mentioned that in more mundane gustatory pursuits, Elvis was somewhat partial to the Palm Beach Burger, the specialite du maison of the Gridiron.
As described on the Gridiron's menu, Elvis' favorite burger is:
I persuaded Ms. Konnicki to give me the recipe. I can recount this in some detail because I wrote it on the back of the napkin. So if you want to eat like the King, hie thee to a supermarket and assemble the following:
Put the hamburger patty and the bun on the grill. When you are ready to turn the hamburger, take the top of the bun off the grill and spread it with a level teaspoon of pimento cheese. Then set it on the hamburger and let the pimento cheese melt over the meat while it finishes cooking. Meanwhile, take the bottom of the bun and spread it with mayonnaise, add a thin layer of lettuce, and several slices of pickles. When the hamburger is done and the cheese is melted, put the two halves together and serve on a small plate.
If you really want to eat like the King, make ten of these as "well-done" as possible; consume rapidly with two or three vanilla milk shakes; follow with one whole apple pie and a box of Milk Duds. Smoke a cigar, preferably a "Hava Tampa", wood tip de rigeur. Repeat often.
My lady companion decided that she was tired of preparing to be a teacher and followed me, but only as far as Baton Rouge. She left me for a fellow who was going to set up a candle-making business. Elvis ate himself to death in 1977. Albert King died in the summer of 1992. I still have the truck, and it has 300,000 miles on it. Route 51 is now Elvis Presley Boulevard. The original Gridiron has been torn down and replaced with a shopping center. There is a small corner building which bears the Gridiron name. It is seedy and flyblown.
Myrtle Beach, South CarolinaFrom: Dan Shaw
Hello fellow hepcats, Just wanted to add another area to your list of lindy travel areas. I just returned from North Myrtle Beach and they have some great dancing going on. The House Of Blues-Barefoot Landing, has a three bar setup with one being a techno type of music, a rock-n-roll band, and a swing/blues band with plenty of room to dance and plenty of people to dance with. Thet also have a special "swingshift" party every sunday from 10pm-6am at the bar. The atmosphere was great with people in black-n-whites and zoot suits.House of Blues- Barefoot Landing 4640 Highway 17 south Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (803)272-3000 Website: http://www.hob.com, then go to Barefoot Landing location
Little Rock, Arkansas
That Swing Thing
You're tuned to the guitar-hearty alternative radio station. Dave Matthews is warbling about the miserable state of the water, then Billy Corgan takes over, hissing about the miserable state of everything else. Suddenly is that a horn? Cymbals?! Wait, do your ears deceive, or is this singer guy actually crooning (crooning? Who does ---that--- anymore?) about a gin and tonic? - --It's you and me and the bottle makes three toniiiiiiight.--- It's almost as if your radio just spontaneously surrendered itself over to Grandpa's favorite station. Just what the Lindy Hop is happening here? Swing is making a comeback, daddy-o. That's what. You saw it coming. When MTV gave a post-dated nod to Tony Bennett, you started thinking that maybe that lounge thing wasn't so stale after all. Then you saw ---Swingers--- -- a 1996 film chronicling the lives of Hollywood's young, hip clubsters who could do a mean jitterbug -- and thought it was really quite cool, even if you found it a tad tiresome that they couldn't go a sentence without calling someone "baby." Then something about that Gap commercial with the dancing kids made you think your wardrobe was really crying for another pair of khakis.
Now swing is officially here and jiving. Mingling on the airwaves and charts with the likes of Beastie Boys, Natalie Imbruglia and Madonna, swing is enjoying an upswing in popularity. Not the swing bands of old, like the ones led by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but contemporary bands with feisty names like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Cherry Poppin' Daddies' ---Zoot Suit Riot--- and -- -Dirty Boogie--- by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, another swing band, are enjoying ---Billboard--- album chart success, both hanging out around the No. 20 position. And Arkansas is beginning to catch up with this movement, which originated in California a few years ago. The songs are on the radio constantly. Just in the past few months, swing bands like the aforementioned Cherry Poppin' Daddies, The Royal Crown Revue and The New Morty Show all have made touring stops in the Natural State.
And while there are no publicized swing clubs to speak of here -- as there are from New York and Chicago to Dallas -- a couple local dance instructors are starting to give private lessons, so expect such a club eventually. Looks like modern rock is making a not-so-modern turn. JUMP, JIVE 'N' WAIL Swing music can be hard to define, maybe because it was never meant to be called "swing." Swing once was an action word, referring to how music sounded. "It swings." Then it evolved into a category to describe the jazz-based dance music with a strong back beat favored from the mid-1930s to the late '40s. The newly popularized swing takes a lot of cues from its predecessors; it's got the toe-tapping, horn-happy, upbeat, sometimes humorous qualities of original swing. Even the subject matter -- liquor with twists of romance and dancing stirred in -- is similar. At modern swing clubs, you can find people dressed in vintage garb like dresses, zoot suits, skinny ties and fedoras, doing the same dances that the young and stylish did 60 years ago.
But that is not to say that the new swing is the same. It's not exactly. You could call this Small Band music as opposed to Big Band music. The modern bands typically have an average of about six to eight members -- tiny (not to mention more logistically sound for heavy touring) compared to the 20-some-member bands of the past. And modern swing definitely has a modern edge to it. So long to songs called "Little Brown Jug" and make way for "Big Tattoo."
So why swing and why now? There are several theories.
Theory No. 1: Swing is mildly mutinous, says Steve Knopper, editor of ---Music Hound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening.--- "Music is very cyclical," Knopper says. "People are always going back to old-fashioned music. I also think that perhaps there is a bit of rebellion in it. Baby boomers kind of blew off all that stuff -- swing music, elevator music, easy-listening -- so it makes sense why the kids of baby boomers would revisit their grandparents' music instead of their parents'. And this newer swing has a definite punk element to it. Take the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. Just their name. "It'd be very difficult to get your grandparents to go to a ballroom dancing night featuring the Cherry Poppin' Daddies." C'MON GET HAPPY Swing also rebels against rebellion. Think about it. When grunge-tinged gloom grasps the mainstream, what do you do to be different? You get some clothes from a secondhand clothing store, you take a dance lesson or two and you get happy.
Theory No. 2: The dance thing. In the early years of rock, dances had names and people did them as part of a couple. By the mid-to-late 1960s (if you weren't around then, go rent --- Woodstock---), dancing had evolved more into the singular, freeform wiggling you'd see at Grateful Dead shows. The 1970s-style disco dancing had a bit more form, but was still something people could do without partners. By the 1980s, people didn't dance together anymore and there were no specific styles besides break dancing (no, the "Safety Dance" doesn't really count) that were popular. In the 1990s, we've seen examples of people trying to recapture form -- from the macarena and the electric slide to country line-dancing and ballroom dancing. So couple dancing, which has been almost nonexistent for several decades, was ripe for being back on the rise.
David Stricklin, an assistant professor of history (at Lyon College in Batesville) who specializes in music and is working on a public radio program on Southern music with colleague Gene Hyde, attributes this modern rise of swing to a deep desire people have to participate in the music they are hearing -- something our pack-'em-in-and-make-the-bucks amphitheater culture doesn't permit. "Music is not a spectator sport; it wants you to move," says Stricklin, whose father was a swing musician. "I think partly it's an expression of the frustration that people are feeling. They want to dance and do something besides jumping up and down and bumping into one another. There is a lot of grace involved in [swing] music. It gives people who don't think of themselves as graceful an opportunity to be graceful. People with difficult, stressful jobs where they use heavy tools and break things all day long can go to a dance floor and glide across it with ease and beauty and grace. I think that's appealing to a lot of people." And we all love a good climactic dance scene, like the one in --- Swingers---. "You've got this nerdy guy a loser who gets dumped by his girlfriend, who becomes a hero instantly because he [knows] how to do the jitterbug," Knopper says. "That just makes the movie for me. Dance can be a powerful thing, but we lost track of it for a long time."
CALLING ALL HEP CATS
Students of the original swing movement will tell you it's not that swing has made a comeback, but rather it never really left. "Swing was the music I grew up with, and it was always in our house," Stricklin says. "When I started listening to rock 'n' roll, I could hear the connections to swing. The first thing is that basic guitar and bass format of rock 'n' roll that in many ways is rooted in the eight-beats-to-the-bar 'boogie woogie' rhythm. "A lot of people think rock 'n' roll invented that, but Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters were doing that kind of music in the '40s. When I listened to Buddy Holly and some of the rockabilly pioneers, Carl Perkins and Elvis, I thought wow, this is a small version of swing. Swing has never really disappeared; it's always lurking in the background." Even where you might not expect it, says Knopper, who says he can pinpoint swing roots in music by rap artists Public Enemy and punk's Sex Pistols. How long will the renewed interest in swing last? "It's definitely a fad -- it's a fad with some staying power," Knopper says. "I think it could be around another year or so. But my official answer is that swing music itself will go on forever."
Here are the weekly swing nights according to Swingews.com.
Our scene is still growing!!!!! Get Out and Dance!
Raleigh, North Carolina
September 25, 1998 Friday
Places to perform fakeouts and fancy footwork are growing faster than you can say Lindy Hop. For up-to-date information, call the Triangle Dance Hotline at 382-8377. Swing dancing has its own extension (300).
And on the second Saturday of each month (the next one is Oct. 10), Mad About Dance Academy sponsors a Swingin' Saturday Night Dance Party from 7 to 11:30 p.m. at Triangle Dance Studio at 2603 S. Miami Blvd. in Durham. $ 8 nonmembers.(919) 494-2300.
Charleston, South Carolina
Getting into the Swing
Maybe you don't pay attention to popular radio or commercial television.
Maybe you didn't know that the latest craze to explode in American culture has teen-agers and twenty-somethings hoppin' to some of the same tunes that their grandparents grew up on - before rock 'n' roll had a name.
Maybe you didn't realize that the dance that everyone wants to learn these days is the Lindy. That's right. Get off the floor and back in your La-Z-Boy. The Lindy, as in the Lindy Hop, the acrobatic dance named for Charles Lindbergh, who captivated the country by flying across the Atlantic Ocean.
Swing is back.
Call it retro-swing, neo-swing, a swing revolution.
Just call it big.
The movement has been building for nearly a decade since young bands on the West Coast rediscovered the magic of swing music and started dressing in zoot suits. Other large cities, including Charlotte, have opened clubs that cater to the swing set, fueled in part by the surprise hit movie "Swingers," which gave national exposure to the L.A. scene two years ago.
Now the rest of the country, including Charleston, is catching on. Bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies busted up the charts this year while the revival of Louis Prima's hit, "Jump, Jive an' Wail" in a toe-tapping ad for The Gap kicked off a wave of swing-themed TV commercials.
To be sure, many of the new bands put their own spin on swing, drawing on their days of playing punk rock, rockabilly and jazz. But they've also sparked new interest in classic musicians from the '30s and '40s such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
"They were geniuses, and everybody recognizes that now," says Doc Reynolds, host of the local radio show "Swing Time." He also teaches a course in American jazz culture at the College of Charleston.
The swing renaissance also reminds us what a blast it can be to dance holding hands.
Several colleges in the Lowcountry started offering Lindy lessons to their students this year - which seems only fitting since the dance usually incorporates The Charleston.
At Charleston Southern University students can sign up for six weeks of swing lessons leading up to their April formal. Organizers are thinking about the theme "Party Like It's 1949." "If you look back in time at swing, that was really a unified time for America," says Charleston Southern junior Phillip McCart, who grew up listening to his grandparents' old records. McCart, 20, thinks his generation wants to hold on to that spirit. "It's really deep, but I think that has a lot to do with it," he says. "Plus, it's just fun."
LOCAL SWING SPOTS:
Charlotte, North Carolina
Friday June 11, 1999
We visited Charlotte to check out the Swing Scene there. We were very fortunate to meet Lou, the manager of Swing 1000 (1000 Central Avenue , 343-4443) He is operating a very high class club in a building converted from an art-deco laundry. It has a stage, large dance floor and quite a few elegant banquettes. The dance floor is sprung maple and is about 60' by 15'. Very nice. Swing 1000 is completely devoted to Swing --- there are events five nights a week, closed Sunday and Monday. Lou tells us that East Coast is the predominate style. The house band is
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