Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Streep and Roberts: Leading Ladies
When Carla was paging through the Road Scholar catalog and came across the title “Leading Ladies: Streep and Roberts,” she exclaimed, “That looks interesting!” Wayne responded, “OK, let’s go.”
We paid little attention to the other two topics included in the package offered that week at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. — “Close Harmonies, from the Pied Pipers to Manhattan Transfer” and “Hollywood Hits to Broadway Musicals” — but we found them to be as interesting and delightful as the leading ladies section.
We had not realized at the time that Eckerd College is an old timer in the field of adult education and entertainment, having offered Road Scholar programs — formerly known as Elderhostel — since 1977. The Eckerd team is offering 36 programs through April 2016.
Joy Katzen-Guthrie, who graduated from Stephens College, was the lecturer for the leading ladies section. She selected film excerpts that helped us appreciate their genius as actresses.
We were especially impressed with Meryl Streep’s ability to become so many different characters convincingly. Streep often would study a language to get an accent right. As we watched, we were moved to laughter, tears and concern for others. We had avoided the film “Sophie’s Choice,” and the excerpt showing Streep having to choose between the life of her daughter and the life of her son brought us to tears.
It was almost difficult to believe that the various characters she played were all the same person behind the accents and makeup. How can Julia Childs, Margaret Thatcher and the witch from “Into the Woods” have anything to do with the characters in “Mama Mia” and “A Prairie Home Companion”? Amazing.
Streep has acted in 62 movies and received Oscar nominations for her first few films. She has received 15 nominations for best actress and four for best supporting actress. She is one of the first actresses to remain in demand for great roles after the age of 30.
Julia Roberts is younger and had had a difficult childhood, as she grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional and less supportive family. In her first film, she was recognized as an actress who could become a multitude of personalities. She has acted in 51 films and received many awards. One of the films, “August, Osage County,” includes both Streep and Roberts. Wayne had forgotten — or repressed — the fact he had seen it. He thought Streep’s character was so mean to her children, one of whom is Roberts, that he thoroughly disliked the movie.
The program “Close Harmonies” was taught by a music expert, Tom Lippert, who took us through the history of vocal jazz groups from the 1940s to today. Often, they made musical instrument sounds as part of their performances. We remembered many of the popular songs.
Groups covered were the Pied Pipers, Modernaires, the Four Freshmen and the Beach Boys. The Hi-Los, the Manhattan Transfers and Singer Unlimited always worked in a recording studio and often recorded the voices many times, making them sound like a major choir. Lippert played the piano well and had good video examples of all of their work.
The blacksmith shop at the McCormick Farm is where Cyrus McCormick and his brothers developed the first reaper, a tool that changed the face of agriculture.
When Carla and I were in Lexington, Va., earlier this year, I made a special trip to visit the McCormick Farm, which was home to Cyrus McCormick. In 1851, McCormick patented a much-improved mechanical reaper.
What, you ask, is a reaper? It’s a piece of farm equipment that looks like a large lawn mower. It first was pulled by horses and then by tractors.
Still, the simple reaper drastically changed agriculture and practically put the making of scythes out of business, relegating them to the same status of the buggy whip after the horseless carriage was invented.
Before McCormick patented a reaper in 1834, harvesting was a labor-intensive business done mostly with a scythe and the whole family working together, often with neighbors helping to get the crop in on time.
With a reaper, whole swaths of grain could be cut at one time. With later developments, the swaths could be bound into bundles and gathered into shocks to dry. The dried shocks then were pitched on a wagon and brought to another great invention, the threshing machine, for the wheat to be separated from the straw.
During the late 1940s, I ran a reaper using a tractor. I bundled the grain, shocked the grain, pitched bundles — and hated it. It was the main reason I went to college, where I was sure I would learn something that would prevent me from having to work for a living.
McCormick’s father had been mechanically inclined and had experimented with designs to mechanize agriculture. I suspect his son had a similar reason for inventing the reaper as a way to cut down on labor. His innovations did more than that — they revolutionized farming and markedly increased the size of crops that could be planted and harvested.
The main part of the museum at the farm consists of two old buildings: one was the family grist mill, which was powered by a local stream, and the other was a blacksmith shop. On the first floor is the shop where McCormick and his brothers made the first reaper.
The second floor has a model of the first reaper developed, which was pulled by one horse. Over time, the reapers got bigger. Growing up, I had never seen one that didn’t need two horses to pull it. Also in the museum is a series of small models of the reaper, which show its development over time. The reaper was so successful, and McCormick so good at convincing farmers they needed it, that he was able to move his operation to Chicago, where it became International Harvester and J.I. Case.
The reaper was one of the new inventions that changed agriculture by enabling fewer people to raise more food, thus freeing up a work force to run industries. This helped change us from a rural nation to an urban one. Later, the invention of the combine also helped in this way.
The museum is on the grounds of the 634-acre farm, historically called Walnut Grove, that now serves as a research station for Virginia Tech. The day we visited, a number of other visitors were having a picnic on the half-dozen tables overlooking a pond with geese and ducks on it — an idyllic setting for a major advance in the mechanization of agriculture.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Diorama dramatizes National Road
Hand-carved figures and equipment in a 136-foot diorama demonstrate the making the of the National Road.
More and more museums are going high tech, creating interactive educational programs that fit with the movement among our young people to be continually connected to their computers, iPhones and iPads. For example, we recently were impressed watching heart bypass surgery demonstrated in the chest of a mannequin.
But more old-fashioned exhibits also can be very effective. Recently, we were impressed by a hand-carved, 136-foot diorama depicting the construction of the National Road, which stretched from Baltimore, Md., to East St. Louis, Ill. Started in the 1800s, it was the first federally funded interstate highway and is credited with helping build the rest of the United States.
The diorama at the National Road & Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio, sits along the walls at just the right height for a fourth-grade boy or girl to study the details of miniature people inside it. As we stood marveling at the work of the artist, we also got a sense for how road-building was done back in the days of a low-tech world.
What is so amazing is the detail of the figures who are engaging in dozens of different actions representative of the time.
Our guide noted that the children who are properly prepared by their teachers before the visit are fascinated with what they see. The girls especially tune into what the dolls are doing, and the boys are very involved in the action scenes. The children eagerly point out what they find: “Look at the ducks marching in the mud.” “See that mom chasing the boy.” “That road was so muddy that boy fell off his bike.”
The visitor sees the hard work it took to build America’s first major road: The use of animals and basic tools, the huge Conestoga wagons bringing in rocks and other materials, the living quarters of workers and, later, the travelers who used the road.
Beverley Harris Moseley, a graphic designer who was known as “Mr. Ohio History” and a “walking encyclopedia,” made museum exhibits for the Ohio Historical Society. He carved the hundreds of figures in the National Road diorama in only two and a half years. He worked with a historian to make sure the stories were accurate and made a careful study of the costumes, tools and animals of the time.
His story starts with the crude methods of building roads at the beginning, with dirt and mud everywhere, to stones being hand broken to improve the road, and to logs being used for portions of the road. Later, he shows us how the new pavement replaced the stone, wood and gravel.
In another section of the museum, Moseley made three life-size displays placed in natural settings. One shows a blacksmith with a fierce look on his face, one shows a very pleasant-looking wheelwright, and the third has two men arguing over dinner while a waitress stands nearby.
Moseley based the first two men’s features on those of homeless men living under a bridge, where he paid them $20 each to pose. At the time, $20 was a significant amount of money. For the three-person piece, he used carnival workers as models. The two men arguing politics look so realistically angry, visitors would not have wanted to talk with either of them. Again, it was the sense that visitors were looking at real people doing real things that was so impressive.
The early roads were frequently muddy and difficult to ride on
People in the large dioramas were taken from real life