Sunday, January 29, 2023

Visiting the bar of the Huey Lewis and the News album “Sports”

After meeting the man himself, and some of his band, would it thrill to go to the bar featured in the photo on the cover of Sports, the breakthrough album for Huey Lewis and the News?

Indeed it would, and did.

On 1/27/23, I first stepped foot into a scene I’ve known since 1983—the 2 A.M. Club in Mill Valley, CA [near San Francisco]. Consistent with its devil-may-care dive bar ethos, the punctuation varies; on its home page, it’s also referred to as 2am Club and 2 AM Club. 

I was with my dad and two cousins, both of whom have lived in the area for decades and were familiar with the place. In fact, some years ago, one was in the joint when someone tried to steal his bike outside, and he and his friends chased away the would-be thief.

We arrived soon after opening, around 12:30 pm. Only a couple of guys at the bar. No bartender in sight. As I was clumsily trying to recreate the album cover pose, a voice behind me said “Just leave it here when you’re done.” I turned to see a copy of the album—signed by Huey—and the bartender already heading to the back again. It was heartening how trusting he was with something so meaningful. I guess Huey fans tend to be as clean-cut as Huey’s mid-‘80s image.



I’ve had the privilege of visiting world-famous, centuries-old masterpieces including the moai of Easter Island and the Taj Mahal. For a lifelong, hardcore HLATN fan, a certain corner of the 2 A.M. Club just about equals them.

with my dad

Sunday, January 22, 2023

“Songbook” launch party at the Kennedy Center

At 7 pm on Saturday, January 21, 2023, in my small pocket of airspace, two things of note happened:

  • season 1 of Songbook, a web series that I created, wrote, and directed, posted; it’s the culmination of nearly three years of development
  • we kicked off the world premiere screening/launch party at the place where the show was produced: the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC

It was so fun watching a show intended for home viewing on a big screen with a live audience!

Thank you yet again to Kwame Alexander, who introduced me to the Kennedy Center folks and executive produced; Mary Rand Hess, who co-executive produced; David Kilpatrick, Director of Education Programs and Productions; Jennifer Bowman (miss you!); the crew and multimedia team; and, of course, the cast: host Vaughn Ryan Midder, musician Randy Preston, authors Sue Fliess, Mary Amato, and NoNieqa Ramos, and 
three young poets turned lyrical legends:

the poets/lyricists: Isabel, Alexandra, Samaya

the authors: Mary Amato, NoNieqa Ramos, Sue Fliess

David Kilpatrick kicking off the evening

me thanking the room

the room

me, Mary Rand Hess, Kwame Alexander

the kids, authors, host, musician, executive producers, and me


the kids and their corresponding authors


me, David Kilpatrick, Vaughn Ryan Midder

Samaya with her writing and music teachers; the sweetest!

Samaya asking Kwame for an autograph

me with Samaya holding her Songbook swag bag


giving Kwame a thank-you gift

the gift

the cookies (shaped, of course, like musical notes and pencils)

Only bummer of the evening: we caught a chyron typo. In episode 1, “ukelele” should be “ukulele.”

Though hardly enough to put even the slightest dent in a golden night.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

“Songbook” has taken the stage

After more than two years of development *, Season 1 of Songbook, a scripted/reality hybrid show I created, wrote, and directed for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is now out in the world. 



As you will see, in each episode, a different middle schooler who wrote a poem based on a book comes to the Kennedy Center to set that poem to music with a professional musician. 

The books:

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato
Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara
Beatrice Blys Rules for Spies: The Missing Hamster by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Beth Mills

Then a surprise. (I won’t spell it out but the following three images are clues.)




Then a performance.



I’m so honored to have had the chance to bring to life a project like this, and so thrilled with every last person I got to work with on it. 

* The idea was born in 2020, after friend/fellow scribe Kwame Alexander graciously offered me the opportunity to brainstorm pandemic-driven online programming and pitch the Kennedy Center with him. Finessing and postponing (due to Omicron) took place throughout 2021. Casting, filming, and editing took place throughout 2022.


Guitar Notes mentions the Kennedy Center!

Taking bows...

The cast of episode 1, the leads mom, Director of Education Programs and Productions David Kilpatrick, 
and me in the toothpaste green shirt.

episode 2

episode 3

Saturday, January 7, 2023

"The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra" StoryWalk in Florida

In 2021, I was tickled to discover that a Michigan library had chosen The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra for their StoryWalk


At the same time I was tickled to discover the StoryWalk concept itselfan installation in which a picture book is presented page by page in a series of displays along an outdoor path so visitors can read as they walk. 

Thanks to Instagram, I've now learned that my little chupacabra is featured in another library StoryWalk, this one in Tampa Bay. Incidentally, Florida is closer than Michigan to the cryptid's natural habitat.



Photos courtesy of the library's Instagram.

Thank you, Safety Harbor Public Library, for sharing the adventure of goats Jayna, Pep, and Bumsie with your community! I recommend that those who take the stroll regularly check behind them...who knows if a chupacabra StoryWalk will attract the real deal?

Monday, December 19, 2022

JEWS NOT WELCOME scrawled on Maryland high school entrance sign

JEWS NOT WELCOME.

Late on 12/16/22 or early on 12/17/22, which was Shabbat, someone spray painted those words on the entrance sign of a high school in my Maryland town. The high school my daughter attended and son attends. Two days after the students had an antisemitism seminar.

credit: Montgomery County (MD) Councilmember Kate Stewart

This could be hate. This could be ignorance. Either way it's a sucker punch.

Over the years, I've tried to do my small part to support other marginalized groups and honestly did not think I would ever find myself posting so personally about my own minority tribe (less than 3% of the U.S. population, less than 1% of the world population).

Of the 289 kids in my own suburban Connecticut high school class, 15 or fewer were Jewish. I never directly experienced antisemitism there. Or, luckily, anywhere. At least not that I recall or was aware of.

On the first page of Bill the Boy Wonder, Milton Finger looks at a sign in a 1930s New York City store window. 


JEWS NEED NOT APPLY.

His response: change his name to Bill. Keep his Judaism under a mask.

Changing one’s name is not the answer now, though change is, of course, imperative.

The Jews I know do not need me or anyone to assure them we are just as welcome as anyone else. 

We JEWS are NOT WELCOME to accept intolerance.

Words wound. Words also work wonders. An aggression happened here. A miracle can, too.

The next night, hundreds—some of whom were not Jewishgathered at the freezing point at the sign (ugliness blacked out) for the start of the Festival of Lights.


Happy Chanukah for those who celebrate. Peace for those who identify as human.

my bar mitzvah and former hairline

Friday, November 11, 2022

Kevin Conroy, iconic voice of animated Batman, 1955-2022

The Bat-Signal is at half-mast.

Kevin Conroy, the actor who iconically voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne for decades, died yesterday at the terribly young age of 66.

Starting with the debut of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, I was a fan. Starting in 2014, we became friends…and I became an even bigger fan.

Like his Juilliard classmate Christopher Reeve, Kevin was a superhero not only for a living but also in real life. 

Before the Bill Finger credit change, I did all I could to bring about a Bill Finger credit change. That included pitching the Paley Center in New York a panel to celebrate Batman’s 75th anniversary. We booked four Batman notables and I inserted one Batman nobody—me, so I’d have a high-profile platform to spread word about Bill.


One of those notables was Kevin, who then became a fellow Finger advocate.


When the Bronx renamed a street for Bill in 2017, I invited Kevin to attend/speak. It was frigid, it was unpaid, it was far—but he came. 


When I asked Kevin if he would ask his colleague Mark Hamill (who voiced the Joker to Kevin’s Batman) if he would add his autograph to a thank-you gift for Derek Wolfford, who runs the Bill Finger Appreciation Group, Kevin (and then Mark) obliged—even though people like them are likely asked for favors like this far too often. Both agreed partly for Derek—and largely for Bill.


But these are not the heroic acts I’m referring to.

At the Paley event, the other Kevin on the panel (Smith) told the audience that Kevin Conroy had volunteered to do what he could after 9/11. Smith had not cleared this story in advance with Conroy, but Conroy was gracious. His role? Cooking for first responders in a makeshift kitchen near Ground Zero—for two weeks. And, appropriately for Batman, Kevin took the night shift.


I knew nothing of another aspect of Kevin’s heroism until this year when a story he wrote about his past was published in DC Comics anthology honoring Pride Month. (Kevin was the first openly gay actor to portray Batman.) 



Please read it

My last email exchange with Kevin was about that story, on June 8. I did not know he was sick. His last words to me: “stay safe and see you soon.”

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Introducing “Songbook,” a Kennedy Center web series starring nonprofessional kids

I’m thrilled that I can finally announce a project I’ve been working on for more than two years—and it’s unlike anything I’ve done before.

During the lockdown of the first COVID summer—2020, not that anyone could forget—my friend and fellow author and Newbery recipient Kwame Alexander asked if I would like to brainstorm virtual programming ideas for young people that he and I could pitch a beloved cultural institution 20 minutes from where I live—the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Of course I did.

So I prepared ten concepts to start, and more after the initial batch. All were an attempt to blend education and entertainment, and all prominently featured nonactor kids. 

We narrowed down the ideas to three. On 2/11/21, by Zoom, Kwame, fellow author Mary Rand Hess, and I presented the selected ideas to the Kennedy Center Director of Education David Kilpatrick and Director of Music Education Jennifer Bowman—truly stellar people. The idea they chose to produce:

logo designed by Piumi Perera

It’s unlike anything the Kennedy Center has done before.

Each episode, a middle schooler who wrote a poem inspired by a book of her choice works in person with a professional musician to set that poem to music—then performs it with the musician. And a surprise guest (different each time). 

In short, it’s a musical comedy reality show for kids. 

More precisely, it’s an unscripted/scripted hybrid. The child (and special guest) are just being themselves—no formal scripted lines. The host and musician are partially scripted but have the freedom to adlib throughout. 

We’re launching soon with three episodes, each running about 10 minutes. They will stream for no charge on the Kennedy Center site, YouTube, and Facebook.

The host is the indomitable Vaughn Ryan Midder. He and I had not met before. I liked him instantly and he is a collaborator’s dream—clever, reliable, quick-witted, great with children.

The professional musician is a perpetual mensch—Randy Preston, who often works with Kwame (and who has also worked with Vaughn Ryan). Randy is the full package—talented, warm, flexible, great with children. 


In addition to writing the scripts, I was honored and challenged to take on roles that I didn’t envision at the start—director and producer. (They even gave me a director’s chair on set…but I ended up standing the whole time.)


Throughout the rest of 2021, we developed Songbook remotely (and once, in August, in person). We originally planned to shoot all three episodes over one weekend in December, then moved it to January 2022, then to June, due in large part to Omicron. 

We did a full-court press to solicit submissions from kids in early 2022, primarily in March. I asked DC-area education leaders and literacy organizations including PEN/Faulkner Foundation, An Open Book, and Turning the Page to blast out to their networks and they kindly obliged. 

I also contacted teachers directly, asking them to “hand-deliver” the opportunity to the avid writers (and musicians) among their students. Occasions like this often require an adult to encourage a child one-on-one; sending a flyer home in a backpack often results in nothing more than a crumpled and forgotten flyer at the bottom of a backpack.

The submissions we got were pure gold. 

In May, we had the immense pleasure of notifying the young poets whose work we selected and clandestinely confirmed our special guests. 

Originally we planned to film episode 1 on June 11 and eps 2 and 3 on June 12. This would give us a full-day cushion for the learning curve of the first shoot. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we ended up having to do two eps on our first day and schedule the third for another week entirely.

Those circumstances included a Pride celebration and an anti-gun rally, both of which would take place nearby. I didn’t want our talent to get stuck in traffic or to have to get up extra early to avoid the crowds.

I was a bit nervous to commit to shooting two—in particular, the first two—eps back-to-back on the same day. 

Film dates were set for June 12 and July 11. Each episode took three hours to shoot (and additional time, of course, to set up and break down, then later edit). 


Our primary filming location was Studio K in the REACH, the gorgeous standalone extension of the Kennedy Center that opened in 2019. We also shot a key scene in front of and in the Grand Foyer of the original building. We filmed the outdoor scene at different times of day, which lent each show different light.

The songs Randy and his young partners crafted for Songbook are truly fantastic—catchy and distinct. What makes this even more impressive is that the duos met for the first time on camera and had to begin converting the poems to lyrics almost immediately after—plus had less than an hour to bang it out. The only other person I’ve seen create musical magic in such a short time (though, of course, I was not in the same room) is Paul McCartney...

The special guests have a role related to the song…but not as singers. 

Estimating how long it would take to shoot each ep was essentially a shot in the dark, but I was proud that we managed to stay on schedule.

THE SHOOTS

episode 1 (shot)/episode 3 (numbered): 6/12/22 morning

young poet: Alexandra from Virginia
special guest: ?

Snafus:

Due to light rain, we could not film the opening scene in front of the Kennedy Center as planned. Luckily, Plan B looks good, too!

The plan was to shoot in sequence, with one exception. Both the opening and closing scenes take place in the Grand Foyer so I intended to film both of those scenes at the start. But I forgot about the second scene so we went back and squeezed it in before lunch.





episode 2: 6/12/22 afternoon

young poet: Samaya from Washington DC
special guest: ?

Snafus:

For the first scene, we needed a copy of the book that inspired Samaya’s poem…but due to minor human error, we didn’t have it. I learned this 10 minutes before we were supposed to start filming. Because we had so many wheels in motion, we were able to get a copy only 30 minutes later. 







episode 3 (shot)/episode 1 (numbered): 7/11/22 evening

young poet: Isabel from Virginia
special guest: ?

Snafus:

Nothing! Learning curve navigated!






These last three photos are a sequence.

All three episodes shared certain highlights: the joy exuding from all the on-camera talent, Vaughn Ryan’s ace improvisation, the beauty of watching the creative process, the heartwarming look on each child’s face when the surprise guest showed up, the big finale... 

As you will see, a centerpiece scene in each episode involves an unexpected interruption—well, unexpected to one person. (No spoilers yet!) However, we filmed at least three takes of most scenes, just to be covered. That meant that this person did expect the interruption the second and third time…but by then we’d already captured the person’s genuine (and priceless) reaction the first time.

Speaking of surprise, the final form of the show almost exactly matches my original pitch. 

Comments from parents of the young stars:

  • (when I described the show) That sounds amazing! Such a wonderful opportunity for the kids. Any opportunity to get kids seeing all the ways that music can be part of their life and their career is always a win in my book.
  • This girl will have a ball! You guys are awesome. Thanks for creating this unique opportunity.
  • (after filming) Thanks for a truly special day. What an incredible experience. We are so grateful.

I can’t thank Kwame, Mary Rand Hess, the cast, the crew, and the KC staff enough for singing this song(book) with me. Special mention (again) to David Kilpatrick and Jennifer Bowman, both of whom greenlit and nurtured us, as well as Tony Donghyuk Yoon, Regis Vogt, Harry Oakes, and Rachel Hahn.

The nimble and patient crew.

A space transformed, approximately 10 minutes after we wrapped.

Fingers crossed for a season two!
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