Tag Archive | "John Steinbeck"

Dog Walks and Cocktails: Second Annual Steinbeck Festival at the Bay Street Theatre

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Artists recreate the "Grapes of Wrath" cover on their way to the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California last year. Image courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center.

Artists recreate the “Grapes of Wrath” cover on their way to the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California last year. Photo courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center.

By Tessa Raebeck

In 1960, John Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley left their home in Sag Harbor to drive across America, meeting with strangers and staying at campgrounds in an effort to reconnect with the country the 58-year-old Steinbeck had been writing about for decades.

As part of the 2nd Annual Steinbeck Festival at Bay Street Theatre May 1 to 4, the “Travels with Charley” Dog Walk will honor Mr. Steinbeck’s account of the journey, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” which became a bestseller.

Author John Steinbeck.

Author John Steinbeck.

In conjunction with the annual festival hosted by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, the author’s birthplace, Bay Street is hosting eight film screenings and other celebratory events across four days. The festival begins Thursday, May 1 with a screening of “Tortilla Flat,” the 1942 film adaptation of Mr. Steinbeck’s 1935 novel and first commercial success. The 1992 version of “Of Mice and Men” with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise and “Grapes of Wrath” starring Henry Fonda will screen on Saturday, May 3.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, “Grapes of Wrath” will be further honored at a cocktail reception at a private waterfront estate sponsored in part by Wölffer Estate Vineyard Saturday evening. While sipping on the namesake vintage of Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth, “The Grapes of Roth,” guests can view Mr. Steinbeck’s home and writing studio by boat from Upper Sag Harbor Cove.

At the “Travels with Charley” Dog Walk Sunday morning, dogs and their owners will walk a loop from Bay Street to Haven’s Beach and back, finishing the festival with a “Bones and Bagels” reception at the theatre.

For $150, the VIP Pass for the festival includes the cocktail reception, film festival and dog walk. The dog walk alone is $35, film festival passes are $30 and individual film tickets are $10 each. For tickets and information, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

The American Dream Deferred: “Of Mice and Men”

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Mice & men 3 for web

By Annette Hinkle

Novelist John Steinbeck, author of some of the greatest American literature of our time, set most of his greatest works in the depths of the depression. From the darkest days of 20th century America, Steinbeck created intimate stories that offered insight into the values, compassion and humility that reflected the very best this country had to offer.

But in his writing, Steinbeck, who spent his final years in Sag Harbor, also delivered the other side of humanity — the brutality and the hatred that was regularly unleashed on those who were marginalized and considered lesser members of society.

This evening, Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center will open a new production of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The drama, which is directed by Michael Disher, tells the story of two migrant workers, Lennie Smalls and George Milton, who, although they are not brothers, are nonetheless family in the sense that all people lost in America are. Lennie, who is physically imposing but possesses limited mental capacity, and the wily George make an unlikely team. They settle into life at the ranch while dreaming of one day having their own farm. But there are others whose motives are not so sincere. The tension between the notion of dreams and the hard reality of hatred — and the uncertainty of which will ultimately prevail — is what makes Steinbeck’s play so potent.

“It’s not easy. It’s dangerous, tight rope theater,” says Disher. “You can’t just memorize the lines — it’s what’s buried in the pages. That’s where good writing becomes a good play.”

“We have the responsibility of taking what people generally read and give a visual representation of it,” he adds. “One of the nice about ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that it’s dialogue driven. It’s one of the few Steinbeck plays that is.”

There is also a simplicity to the language that belies the complexity. Joe Pallister, who plays George, has found there is far more to Steinbeck’s writing than meets the eye.

“This is really difficult,” says Pallister. “Not only because there’s so much dialogue, but what’s underneath it. It’s exhausting to learn, and you have to understand what you’re saying and why. We got the script it May, but I didn’t sink into it early. I would’ve been shot by now if I had poured that much energy into it.”

“If you delve too deeply into it during the discovery process you can begin to dwell,” agrees Disher.

“And if you dwell, you begin to Titanic,” he adds, using the name of the infamous ship as a verb.

While most of this cast recalls reading Steinbeck’s novella in high school, as is true of much literature taken in during the teenage years, they concede that the meaning behind the story didn’t stick. Now that they’re adults, the cast is looking at Steinbeck’s words with a new sense of understanding, particularly in light of the current economic situation that has millions of Americans losing their jobs and their homes.

“The way the economy is looking, people can sell apples and carry bindles,” says actor Eugene Hamilton, referring to the stick and cloth rigs that hobos of the era used to tote their meager possessions on the road. “The times do look pretty tenuous.”

“History does indeed repeat itself,” adds Disher. “And we’re getting close to repeating it again.”

One thing that always feels contemporary in Steinbeck’s writing, however, is the way in which people relate to one another.

“The human element is always current and relationships have not changed since the beginning of time,” says Pallister. “There are those who are kind and take care of each other, and those who don’t. There’s all of that in the piece. The economic and social situation might not be exactly like today, but how everyone relates to each other hasn’t changed.”

Though the play’s overarching theme deals with pursuit of the American dream in the midst of setbacks, for Disher one of the most potent underlying currents is the way is the notion of handicaps. In this case, not just the literally disabled, but the figuratively disabled as well.

“One of the things I used to really drive home when I taught this book to students were the observations Steinbeck made on the social and physically handicapped,” said Disher. “ There were many discussions with this cast about how we were going to attack the word that is heavily used in the book and the play — and that is the ‘N’ word.”

The book was, of course, written in a time when the term didn’t carry the same weight it does now. But it was still a pejorative, and to keep the tenor of Steinbeck’s meaning without offending modern day sensibilities, Hamilton, who plays Crooks, the only African-American in the bunkhouse, explains how it was handled on stage.

“There was a way of saying ‘negro’ that was used in the west and that was ‘negra,’” he says. “So that’s how we handled it. Therefore, you get the point they’re talking about someone who’s black, but we didn’t have to go there.”

It’s not just the racially “handicapped” who show up in the play. Other acts of prejudice are carried out against those who are socially less powerful in the play — including spousal abuse directed toward the play’s only female character and the manipulation of the mentally challenged Lennie.

“It’s women being second class, the handicapped being seocnd class and blacks being second class,” adds Hamilton.

But in his treatment of the topic, Steinbeck keeps the abuse private and hidden behind closed doors, as much abuse still is to this day.

“Outside the bunkhouse you don’t have it,” notes Disher. “Inside, it gets very tight. That’s where the anger, resentment and the judgments come into play. That’s where many of the handicaps are pointed out.”

With this show Bonnie Grice, who is better known locally as a radio personality on WPPB 88.3 FM, is making her stage debut. She plays the overly flirtatious, yet unnamed wife of Curley, the boss’s son. Though she has taken acting workshops with Disher, this is new territory for her.

“It’s been a real learning curve. Very challenging,” says Grice. “Michael is the director and he is pushing the buttons that make you go there.”

Given what ultimately happens between Grice’s character and Lennie (Seth Henricks) in the play’s pivotal scene, there’s also a huge amount of trust that must be shared between the actors.

“ I like that Seth and I were in a class and did a play together for that,” says Grice.” I felt comfortable with him. It’s real choreography. One night, particularly, we worked on it for three hours.”

For Hendricks, playing Lennie, the gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength, is a line that must be walked with great care as an actor.

“To convey that strength and juxtapose the overflowing emotion he has at times, it’s a contradiction,” says Hendricks. “But I had to do it. I have a built in relationship with Bonnie and having a scene partner with whom you have total trust helps.”

At one point in his career, Disher taught “Of Mice and Men” to middle school students. So as part of the run at SCC, two weekday performances have been added to the schedule (September 26 and 27) so that local schools can bring students to see and talk about it. Disher hopes that although it’s set in a time period now relegated to history, “Of Mice and Men” will still ring true to audiences of all ages.

“I always have that in the back of my mind, ‘How can I do something edgy, relevant, unsafe and something literally for the schools that maybe other people won’t tackle?’” he asks. “I’m a great fan of taking on the unsafe projects.”

“Of Mice and Men” also features Vincent Carbone, Robert Florio, Richard Gardini, Charles Parshley, Billy Paterson and Christopher Tyrkko. Shows are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through September 25, 2011 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $10 to $22. Call 287-4377 to reserve.

Above: The Cast of Center Stage at SCC’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

Whaleboats, Fake Whales and a Real Town

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John Steinbeck once told Bob Freidah when they were planning the Old Whalers Festival that what the event needed was some good competition. Steinbeck imagined a race of some kind, a manly sort of sport that would recall the days when whalers haunted the local gin mills before heading out to sea for years at a time, chasing sperm whales and right whales across the open ocean. It was that spirit of adventure, of pitting man against the sea, or against a whale, or against his fellow man that he apparently believed would bring yet more life to the fledgling annual gathering. (Or maybe he was looking for a good laugh, since he also proposed sending stout-hearted men 30-feet out on to a greased pole dangling perilously above the waters off Long Wharf to capture a flag. They then, presumably, would shimmy their way back without taking a dunking in the cold harbor. In New Bedford  — one of Sag Harbor’s rival whaling towns — it continues to be a popular “sport”, if one can call it that, and the one who returns with the flag apparently also wins the heart of a local gal. In any event, organizers demurred because they thought it too dangerous. Or the insurance bill too high.)

The gang that first conjured up the Old Whalers Festival, arguably the most famous bacchanal of its kind, which attracted thousands to the village in the days when Sag Harbor was hoping to reinvent itself in the face of certain economic reversals, had planned a weekend of great festivities in late June to jumpstart the summer season. There would be fireworks and exhibitions where some of the finest trained retrievers anywhere would show their stuff off the beach near Long Wharf. They had beauty contests for women (Sag Harbor had apparently not yet evolved to the point where it could practicably have beauty contests for men), and even welcomed the women from Miss Rheingold.

There was a parade with floats and bands and the notorious North Sea Fire Department.

There was a “town crier” who symbolically lit the lamps on Main Street to start the festival off, an evening where the Whalers Chorus would sing.

And there was a beard growing contest. Competitors would begin in early spring with ceremonial shavings on the same day, and over the months leading up to the festival would kid each other about how successful or unsuccessful each other was in growing facial hair. The contest would culminate on the opening night of the festival when each of the contestants appeared before a crowd in the auditorium of what is now Stella Maris Catholic School. Each dressed as if they were to head out to sea the following morning to chase whales: striped shirts, bandanas, oil skins with suspenders, pork pie hats and some with pipes clenched in their teeth. The beard and the costume were actually two parts of a three-part presentation, the third testing their ability to bring their crew’s attention to the matter at hand. Each was required to bellow out a “Whale–hooooooooo!”, which apparently either drew cheers or laughter from the audience.

The winner was named Old Whaler of the Year, and assumed the exalted role of the festival’s grand marshal.

But it was arguably the racing of whaleboats, which Sag Harbor’s Nobel laureate had proposed to Bob Freidah and other organizers, that wound up drawing the most attention about 40 years ago when the festival first was born.

There are many pictures that hang on my office wall, but one in particular seems apropos. It is of some guy standing in a whaleboat about to plunge a harpoon into the back of a black whale. The whale is a fabrication, built atop a skiff with a small outboard for moving the whale around. As one story goes, there was actually a man in the belly of the whale one morning, having, unbeknownst to all, snuck out there the night before for a quiet spot to sleep after an evening enjoying the fruits of local watering holes. As morning welcomed the competitors to the water the harpoonist on the lead boat thrust his lance through the leviathan’s canvas skin and barely missed skewering the poor gent who was awakened by the roar of the crowd. Among all the dangers of the whaling industry, I don’t think the earliest practitioners ever imagined this particular risk. Truth be told, I cannot verify that any of this is true, — although I have heard the story in several versions, and feel it is so wonderful and helps me imagine a time in Sag Harbor I was unfortunate not to have experienced that I felt obliged to perpetuate it here.

It’s unclear in the retelling of all the stories about the Old Whalers Festival what killed the actual real-life fake-harpooning of an artificial whale: the near death experience of the sleepy Jonah, or the celebrated threat of Greenpeace to come and protest the event. But in subsequent years the event became more a rowing race; perhaps a portent of calmer times ahead.

In his now famous “Manifesto,” the preamble to the Old Whalers Festival’s second annual journal, Steinbeck promised that they had learned from their mistakes of the previous year, and now would be able to make them sooner.

At the same time, echoing that kind of rough and tumble justice that must have been the norm in the old whaling days, he vowed that any differences of opinion would be settled out by Otter Pond, or, he predicted, in it.

In the spring of 1991 I was asked to help organize some events around the launch of “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” a history of this remarkable community by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski. The Sag Harbor Historical Society was publishing the book and thought a parade and some other events on a Saturday afternoon would be a good way to bring attention to the book. I went to Bob Freidah for advice, and for the past 18 years there has been a festival where dozens of local organizations come together every fall to commemorate the maritime and cultural history of Sag Harbor.

And one of the most popular events is the whaleboat racing where teams of four grab tiller and oars to race around a whale floating in the harbor. (Greenpeace hasn’t threatened to come back and we haven’t threatened to harpoon the fake whale).

By many accounts, we live in a more genteel time here in Sag Harbor. There are giant mega yachts tied to Long Wharf, with luxury salons, and the restaurants and bars that provided lunch and refreshments for the men and women who worked in the local factories have all been gentrified. When the Old Whalers Festival was in its flower Rowe Industries, Grumman and Bulova were still active, and Steinbeck’s promise that justice would be carried out in Otter Pond might not have been too far from being true.

Today’s festival is a decidedly quieter affair, and there doesn’t appear to be the need for the frontier justice Steinbeck evoked. Although there was the time Dirk popped Howie for grabbing his oar illegally as they were rounding the second mark in the 2003 whaleboat races.

Sag Harbor ARB Nix Steinbeck Motion

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While the Sag Harbor Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board (ARB) will move forward with its request that the village board of trustees designate the Sag Harbor Cinema as a historic landmark, it will not request that same designation for structures on the parcel where John and Elaine Steinbeck once lived.

On Thursday, September 11 the board unanimously voted in favor of rescinding a previous resolution asking the board of trustees do just that.

“This is something that needs to be looked at a little more in depth before we start reaching outside of the historic district,” explained ARB chairman Cee Scott Brown.

Like the Sag Harbor Cinema, if the board had not rescinded its motion to the trustees regarding the Steinbeck parcel, the trustees would likely schedule a public hearing at next month’s meeting and, by law, would notify the owners of the hearing date.

According to Sag Harbor Mayor Greg Ferraris, any comments made by the owner about their property being designated a historic landmark would be taken into consideration by the board of trustees as they make their decision on whether to designate the structures or not.

The Sag Harbor Cinema is already in the historic district of Sag Harbor, and therefore subject to virtually the same restrictions a historic designation would trigger, however, had the Steinbeck property been designated it would have had to comply with a host of rules it currently is not subject to. Without ARB approval, persons are prohibited from altering any façade of a historic building, or any building in the historic district for that matter, and must also seek board approval for any construction, reconstruction, demolition, or to move the structure.

While the board did rescind the resolution on the Steinbeck property, it is still discussing creating a catalogue of properties in the village, with a focus on the historic district, in a goal to provide future boards and residents with information on important historic structures in Sag Harbor.

According to Sag Harbor Village Attorney Anthony Tohill, the end result could serve as a style manual, used when an application on an important residence or building comes before the board and would also inform anyone purchasing a historic home the responsibility that comes with that purchase. Tohill said it is his belief that this very document already exists and urged the board to reach out to the historic society and the village in an attempt to track it down.

After much debate over whether electronic entryways are appropriate for Sag Harbor’s historic district, the board approved John Evan’s application for just that at 68 Bay Street, on the condition that there is no keypad station outside of the gate, no metal arm operating the gate that is visible from the street and that the gates open towards the residence, not out into the street. While board member Robert Tortora expressed concerns over the precedent this would set, he ultimately agreed with the rest of the board once the caveats were in place.

 A new sign for a new jewelry store on Main Street, Adornments, was also approved by the ARB, as was the demolition of a one-story retail structure on Long Island Avenue for the National Grid remediation set to commence on September 22.

In other news, Aidan and Louise Corish were approved for a fence on Howard Street, Claire and Peter Rocker were approved for an addition, porch and deck on Lighthouse Lane, Cindy Sherman was approved for new paint on Madison Street, Steven Reiner was approved to paint an existing fence and erect temporary shutters for a photo shoot on Montauk Avenue, Robert and Judith Henriques-Adams were approved for an addition on Wildwood Drive and John and Amy Wickersham were approved for a renovation and addition on Franklin Avenue.