Saturday, August 11, 2012

Coming of Age

There is something magical about an independent bookstore. The frayed and soiled carpets, the musty scent of yellowing pages, the pungency of rarely cleaned litter boxes, the wonder of discovering mouse dropping within the folds of the very book one came to purchase. I have modeled my post college living arrangements in much the same way.

Aside from fast food joints, most of my waking hours at Wisconsin, when not running up and down Bascom Hill in my attempt to stop the war in Vietnam, were spent at Paul's Book Store on State Street. There was, of course the requisite thousands upon thousands of new and used books, both hard cover and paperback  (first editions that I could have purchased for pennies now worth a fortune!) which I sometimes took notice of. I remember the dirty carpet and the musty smell. I used to see a one eyed cat walking around like a character out of a Kipling story, but I never stumbled over its litter box. And yes, I did page through a book one time and discovered mouse droppings within.

My main attention, however, was always drawn to an ever present establishment of eccentric Cirque du Soleil characters that would gain their intellectual nourishment at Paul’s before trekking down to the Mifflin Street Co-op for other forms of nutrition. Spontaneity being the source of all light, these itinerant actors would select randomly a book off the shelves and begin to perform excerpts from it. Geology or astronomy, numismatics or children's lit, the subject made no difference. The performances would range from full blown recitations to mime presentations. I watched them in awe. For the first time I became aware of the simple fact: one did not have to be stoned to feel stoned.

One performance artist in particular fascinated me. She was a tall frizzy haired brunette who wore Trotskyite glasses slipped low across the bridge of her nose. Her clothing was upscale Salvation Army. Her jeans were torn around the pockets and knees, a fashion statement made decades before this particular look became a symbol of conspicuous consumption among the young. She wore no makeup, not that she needed any. I presume she neither shaved under her arms or her legs because at that time, shaving was a form of oppression by the Man. I never got far enough with her to find out.

I once asked her her name. She smiled and said to simply call her Ishmael. I found that a very strange but mesmerizing name for a girl. Only with the advent of Google and an extension class at UCLA in 19th Century American Literature did I come to realize she was hinting I should take my own personal hike. I often wonder what became of her. She and her company of thespians disappeared one cold Wisconsin winter never to be seen again. Either the group disbanded or found a bookstore elsewhere in a community  where the weather was less inclement and the atmosphere did not sting from tear gas.

So those memories were the basis of what follows. Why not a series that takes place in a bookstore, a children's book store.Those working in such an environment are not only well equipped to discuss the intricacies of the arcane world of children's literature but tend to be more patient than a convent of Carmelite nuns. I'm not sure whether any idea that involves books and singing and dancing would have a chance today. This was written the same year that Google came online. I've added some new hip references though I still say "groovy" and store all my Grateful Dead paraphernalia next to my walker so as not forgetting where I put them.

When not tearing up the artistic landscape at James Buchanan High for the Performing Arts, sixteen year old HOLLY HOBBS can be found singing and dancing her time away at a very special place called JABBERWOCKY. Jabberwocky is one of the last of its kind—a free standing independent children’s book store in Seattle, Washington and Holly is its hardest working non coffee drinking employee. Which is a lot to say coming from Seattle.

The store survives because of its personal service, customer loyalty, and a convivial after hours atmosphere of folk singing, poetry reading, and whatever else is out there that is both clean and free. The format is mutually attractive to those who have children and those who find them the ultimate nuisance. The two story red brick store known for its imaginative window displays and its crooked book shelves has been a landmark in the Seattle area for two generations. And no one knows more about how to service the needs of both parent and child than the owner CECELIA PENDRAGON.

Maybe other children’s book stores are quiet and staid environments where a parent can rush in, grab the au currant book and then flee to a safer haven for adults. But Jabberwocky is different. Most days a shoe horn is necessary to pry people away from the soft couches and cozy corners filled with goose down pillows. The store is a constant swirl of confused parents, unctuous sales reps, crawling toddlers, and testy authors waiting to autograph their books and carve their initials into the ancient mahogany signing table.

But Jabberwocky is much more than what one sees. Rusty pipes clang throughout the day. While there is never a water leak, the noise sounds like the last throes of the Titanic. The basement has something living amongst the walls or so local legend says. Whoever walks down its rickety steps suspects something is watching them. Whether this micro Sasquatch actually exists or not is anyone’s guess. So far the only voracious readers residing in the basement are spiders, dust mites and silver fish.

There are two buildings which book end Jabberwocky that add additional flavor to the selling of its books. The building to the left is a co-op unit which has been under constant construction for the last 10 years (the owners are fussy). The construction workers tend to make a lot of noise especially when singing sea shanties and pirate songs (no one knows why). They never enter the store and speak a language no one recognizes.

The other building is the HAPPY SINGING KENNEL FOR ALL ANIMALS GREAT AND SMALL. The lungs of many of the clients of Happy Singing wail out their love songs throughout the day making conversation within the store somewhat difficult. Some stroll on in with their owners after a day of confinement and instinctively head straight for the animal stories. Most of their owners need the leash rather than their pets..

So this is how it all began. Holly Hobbs just wandered in one afternoon looking for a book for her younger brother. A part time job was available and she has worked there ever since. Holly is the store's Jackie of all Trades. With grandiose enthusiasm she stocks the shelves with books, cards, toys, and sentimental ephemera. She points confused parents to their lost children and whinny kids to the bathroom. She deftly handles those toddlers still too young for a chain gang but far too old to sit still in a stroller. She soothes the panicked young students looking for that last minute quick read to complete the next day’s book report. Expectant mothers wishing to give an intellectual edge to their unborn bundle know exactly who to approach for that easy listening Mozart musical tape. And after many a rather rambunctious birthday party for a five year old or wonky author signing, she can be found afterwards mopping the floor like a sailor swabbing the deck.

Surprisingly the above list of chores is secondary to what she is was first hired to do: to be the afternoon assigned reader of picture books. Being the consummate showgirl, Holly's ego took a beating every time someone in her audience fell asleep during her interpretations of steam shovels, flower loving bulls and tigers that speak. So she began to change her act to what it is today. Holly is the singer-dancer-storyteller-raconteur and maestro of her own variety show, “Telling Tales Outside of School”. What started as a one girl recital now is a full blown Buchanan High School for the Performing Arts production number.

And why not? Jabberwocky has a stage and the high sachoolers have their own clothes. Why not put on a musical show? The school is a chock a block of singers and dancers and musicians all waiting to perform…anytime and anywhere. Why wait for Buchanan High to set up another auditorium concert just for  adoring parents? Jabberwocky gives them an opportunity to branch out and play to the public even if much of the public are young enough to be their kid brothers and sisters (sometimes they are).

No one will ever confuse this setting with American Idol, but then there are also no wonky judges telling the participants they look like bugs either. The performances are part Ringling Brothers, part Broadway, a little bit of Ed Sullivan (spinning plates and ventriloquists) and all kitsch. The shows draw in a massive number of neighborhood regulars who would otherwise have a reflexive gag sensation at the mere mention of the word “children”.

To lend more chaos than constructiveness are several of Holly’s friends from school. There is MACK her erstwhile boyfriend, shy beyond comprehension except when he’s singing on stage. Then watch out because this kid has a set of pipes on him. Nothing like belting out Kipling’s Just So Stories in a Frankie Valli falsetto. He has butterflies in his stomach when HE IS NOT performing. Otherwise he spends most of his time in the corner reading picture books since that’s what he wants to write one day. Little kids are always asking him where the bathroom is. He does not know why.

There is FIONA whose father manages the large chain bookstore several blocs away. She hangs out with Holly because the book selection at Jabberwocky is far greater and the store is much friendlier. Her father refuses to allow any form of entertainment at his store. He says it scares customers away. Actually the parents and kids that frequent her father’s store scare her. Fiona adds a whole new dimension to the word “overacting” especially when she dances to her own choreographed version of “Good Night Moon”.

There is EDNA, goofy class clown of her school by day but stone cold intellectual whenever she sets foot in the store. No one understands how she can go from Lucy Ricardo at Buchanan High to imperial, haughty, and rude performance artist LUCRETIA. At Jabberwocky her character has the bedside manner of a bag of rusty nails. Her act is part Norma Desmond, Diageliev, Cruella DeVille, and Cher. She does not understand why the kids love her performance because it is so French salon. She also spends boatloads of money at Jabberwocky trying to complete her Maisey collection.

Let’s not forget Cecilia Pendragon, owner of Jabberwocky. A former student of Buchanan High, she now runs Jabberwocky as if it were the Julliard of the West Coast. It a comedy club but without the comedy, the liquor license, or the hecklers, but everyone gets a shot at performing. While she has been known to walk around the store strumming a banjo, her talent remains keeping the doors open and the talent flowing from Buchanan High and other schools.

Sure there are youngsters crying in the audience and parents in search of wayward children. Sure there is that constant clatter of next door construction and next door barking and meowing and rusty pipes that come in whenever someone needs a bass in the background. But this unintended wall of sound does not disturb any of the performers, customers, authors or salesmen. In fact it offers a respite from the wailing of two year olds using board books as teething tools.

In creating a series around the chaotic environment of a children’s book store and the assorted eccentric characters frequenting it, we fall directly in line with those closed surroundings already on the air: Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Hanna Montana, That’s so Raven, I Carly, Naked Brothers Band. With Coming of Age we have the ability to highlight different musical performances in each episode while the winning personalities and talents of Holly and her main friends act as the energetic backbone for it all. It’s an odd way to sneak in the idea of a weekly variety show with singers and dancers and pets and rusty pipes, but it is worth a shot. Oh yes, there is something downstairs in the basement!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Broadcast 101

Twenty years ago I wrote BROADCAST 101 after an evening of watching nothing but VHS recorded public access programming. I don't remember why my life had come to such a screeching halt for me to sit on the floor playing around with dozens of half inch tapes; whatever the reason is now lost in time like my hair and eyesight. I thought that perhaps what was missing at that moment in kids programming was a show that went from all singing and dancing and squealing to all screaming, all crying and all tripping--the sort of action found in wartime films featuring Abbott and Costello.

For all but one hour a week, public access programming in Squires Corners is not too dissimilar to what can be found anywhere else in the country: an interminable stream of harshly lit and poorly shot cheap as spit programming. This is a great country where hapless individuals can pontificate on topics as far ranging as secret government surveillance, conspiracy theories, men in black sightings, women’s water polo, rhythmic gymnastics, alien abduction stories, comic book valuations, and wine tasting, and all done within the same show.

Yet once a week for 60 minutes, public access television in Squires Corners morphs from bug eyed lecturers musing about anal probes into a high school gong show. Broadcast 101 is broadcast from the sweaty confines of the JOSEPH CONRAD HIGH SCHOOL gym and the driving force behind each program is the ever lovely Miss Ilene Fendrich, first year teacher extraordinaire. 

With the gusto that only teens can muster, the program is all talking and singing and dancing and crying and bitching and moaning and wheezing and carping and mulling. It's about dating and homework and parents. It's about peer pressure, life in the not so fast lane of Squires Corners, and how to survive being totally disappointed in your closest friends. There are cooking segments, garage band tryouts, hot waxing car demonstrations, and the best way to pickle pickles.

The overall production is a total mess. Students stumble over floor cables and into cameras. Klieg lights crash down. Scofflaws race through camera shots one step ahead of stern detention hall monitors. Backgrounds topple. Audience members spill sodas on hot electrical equipment. Babies cry. The on camera guests yell insults at each other. Food fights break out among the crew, temper tantrums spill over from lunch time arguments. Cheer leading practice and basketball drills take place along the far wall. Murphy's Law would hide itself in shame.

Attempting to keep cast and crew from spinning off into worlds only Rod Serling would be familiar with are  16 year old OSCAR CLOVIS and fifteen year old SYDNEY KANVIK, dual hosts of Broadcast 101. Smart, funny, quick on the up take, Oscar and Sydney would be the perfect leads in any Disney movie were it not for the fact they are first cousins.

Skulking around the edges are the nefarious Iagoesque twins, MARKHAM AND FIONA BISSELL, top jerks from a competing school, who get air time on just about whatever subject they want because their father supplies the necessary food and electrical equipment to keep the show afloat. There is SPIT RICHARDSON and his gang of multi cultural delinquents who supply the on key musical interludes. His entire band get their weekly hall pass to leave their permanent seats in the principle’s office?

We can't forget MIRANDA CORTEZ, investigative reporter, weather girl, and all around cheerleader who has yet to achieve accuracy either in news, weather forecasts, or in spinning and jumping. She doesn’t have the brains to come in out of the rain because a youngster with an  I.Q. of 160 plus looks at getting wet a little different than everyone else. Her father is also the mayor but that has nothing to do with her on camera time.

 Broadcast live before a bleacher crowd full of adoring parents and worried teachers and from the spacious but run down school gymnasium (where the Badgers play their home basketball games every Friday and Saturday nights), the show is a weekly must see. The idea was so simple and naive at first. Ilene would take her class in broadcasting and turn it into the real thing. Instead of the usual classroom lectures and broken down visual aids handcrafted from the fifties, she would use the public access channel and produce a hands on experience. Her students could create their their own version of a morning program in the late afternoon: rotating hosts, local school reporting, cooking and fashion segments, and an occasional song and dance number from the theater department. In the process of putting together a weekly show, the students would learn something about themselves as well.

However, Ilene should have heeded the wise words of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” What started out as a class assignment for her students soon devolves into an entire school project where everyone wants in. By 3:50PM on the Thursday of the broadcast, the gym looks like a major staging area gearing up for a ground assault and in the middle of it all is 24 year old Ilene Fendrich.

Hired straight out of a Los Angeles graduate program in education, Ilene immediately takes the school and its teacher hierarchy by storm...again. She was a student once herself at Joseph Conrad High, the school’s head cheer leader, its valedictorian, and bemused editor of the school paper. Now back at her old stomping grounds, her idea of broadcasting from the new gym is now almost back in full bloom.

But things have changed since the old days of six years ago when Ilene could run roughshod over everyone.
Life was so much easier when Ilene was in high school. She was the ultimate Big Girl on Campus and the leader of the most exclusive clique in school. She was the school’s ultimate mover and shaker; she made every social event happen at Joseph Conrad regardless of odds. She finagled major rock groups to come and play for their proms; for three years running she enticed or blackmailed the best chefs in a five state area to send their best desserts for Grad Night free of charge. She was also student council president, editor of the newspaper, and straight A student.

 Most of her old teachers have migrated to the competing and newer school, FRANKLYN PIERCE HIGH. The new principle, MR. COLIC, is a no nonsense disciplinarian who doesn't care about Ilene's student time at Conrad High. He is focused on the present. His biggest worry other than the idiots on the school board are the liability concerns facing the school now that Conrad High is back using its once condemned old gym. Used as a large storage room during the years that Ilene attended Joseph Conrad, it has been somewhat refurbished. It is now the main location for all after school activity whether it is gym practice, the Latin club, cheer leading, or drama practice. An unfortunate chemistry experiment totaled the new gym but construction should be completed within the next 18 months once the school bond issue is settled.

But Irene has stumbled into a few changes since her days in high school. A new capitalist reality has set in where strings are attached to just about everything. For example, the owner of her favorite campus hang out, Big Gus of BIG GUS’S ELECTRONIC EMPORIUM AND PIZZA JOINT has turned from being a wild and wacky guy to a steel cold businessman in six short years. Big Gus loves that Ilene has returned home and is more than happy to supply food and equipment free of charge for her broadcasting class but with two provisos: free advertisement several times during the program and more importantly, screen time for his two bratty twins. Big Gus’s kids go the evil Franklin Pierce High where a rabid competition exists on every level with Joseph Conrad High. Ilene is very familiar with these two little creeps as she baby sat them in high school. MARKHAM and FIONA were twin monsters before they became teenagers. Now Lady Macbeth and Iago have simply grown worse.

Disciplinarian Principle Colic has attached a few strings of his own. He now has one day a week where he can dump all of his troublemakers outside of his office. Rather than have them sit in detention class and take up his time, these reprobates can work floor crew with Ilene’s students.Principal Colic enjoys walking across the set during broadcast to personally inspect whether his wayward students are crewing and not actually studying for the next day's police line up exams. Ilene discovers a number of them can sing and dance better than they can spell.

Broadcasting sixty minutes a week takes seven days to complete. The lead up to the broadcast makes for marvelous tear jerker programming as well. Writing copy and gags, blocking skits, booking guests, whitening teeth is 24/7 work. So is backstage stabbing, power grabs, forgotten commitments and broken promises. The lowly Badgers continue to practice their lay ups and free throws at the other end of the gym while the show broadcasts live. COACH HARRIS, the 6’9” gym teacher who is there at the ready with his electric guitar just in case anyone wants to hear him sing power ballads from the 1970’s.  Did I mention the cheer leaders practicing in the background as well?

Pity poor Oscar and Sydney in their new found role of celebrity hosts! Every student, teacher, stranger, and tourist now desires the coveted air time that they apparently control. It’s a real slow day when someone isn’t auditioning in front of them with their latest juggling routines, projectile vomiting tricks, impossible yoga positions, original songs, Oprah like tales of woe, ancient cooking recipes, wacky home movies, and human pet tricks. How Oscar and Sydney handle the chaos of broadcasting live and still keep their sense of humor becomes the backbone of each episode? They realize that viewers tune in for the flubbed lines, the idiotic guests, the tech problems galore, the continuing soap opera that is Big Gus’s twins, audience rudeness, and everything else which has nothing whatsoever to do with the show itself?

They walk the halls accosted by students ready to perform for them. Notes aren’t so much passed to them as flung at them. They receive mysterious phone calls late at night and e mails from schools all over the country begging for a chance to be on their show. Principle Colic has even noticed an up tick in the number of students showing up for detention whether they have been assigned to it or not. It has recently been noted that students from other schools have sneaked in to detention classes as well for a shot at working crew. For a program about life in a high school, little if any time is actually spent in a classroom. Action takes place in the Big Old Gym, Principle’s Colic’s office, bathrooms, or the backstage of the auditorium where many of our key players end up cooking up evil plans or combating power grabs. While it is not quite Shakespeare in the round, BROADCAST 101 offers that first stepping stone to American Idol, network news, or Washington politics.