Friday, October 25, 2013

Ah Luv Looavul

I visited Louisville (aka Looavul) a few years for a performing arts conference. The conference followed the standard format. There were performer showcases--good, bad, and ugly--and there was an an exhibit hall filled with agents and folks from related businesses. Software vendors, publishers, and talent agencies were there flogging all sorts of products that I didn’t want. Oh, there also were some educational sessions---I was invited to be on a panel at a breakout session. All in all, a worthwhile venture.

However, the trip's highlights weren't really at the convention center. During the time that I wasn’t in a session with a lanyard around my neck, I saw the cops shoot someone on the sidewalk with a taser. Wow! The perp fell to the ground in an instant! I also stumbled into a Smart Car marketing event just after they'd come out. As a result, I got to take a test drive in one. It was no surprise that the taser had more power than the Smart Car.
Last month, I had the chance to go to Louisville again, this time for a big arts festival and a meeting of festival directors. My friend/colleague Pam went along. While I thought it would be hard to top a tasering and a Smart Car, I had a feeling Louisville would be up to the challenge.

I’m not a big weather guy—my favorite weather app is walking outside and looking around—so I was a tad surprised when we landed in Louisville and it was raining cats and dogs. It was sunny when we took off in Baltimore. Imagine that! The rain was coming down in buckets. Pam and I agreed that it would be a dreadful time to be an artist at a festival in this weather.

After a call to our hotel, its black Mercedes van came to pick us up. The driver was an attractive 30-something product-using metrosexual-to-gay guy; closer to gay if I had to guess. We commiserated for a moment or two about the weather, and before too long we were chatting about bourbon, one of Kentucky’s best known products along with thoroughbred race horses, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the Hatfields and the McCoys. Our driver said that he didn’t really like bourbon but then gave us the tasting notes on his six favorite kinds including the low down on which distillery tours to take and which tours to skip. I can’t imagine how much he would have known about bourbon if he’d really liked the stuff.  My guess is that he’s using the brain cells where he’d store info on bourbon to keep up on Ryan Gosling, Marc Nelson Cone Mills selvage denim blue jeans, and the career of Kristin Chenoweth.

As soon as we checked into the Seelbach Hilton, Louisville’s grand old hotel, I got a text that the festival for which we’d driven from State College to Baltimore, parked in long term parking, gone through security, flown from Baltimore to Louisville, and taken that black Mercedes van in the rain into the city to see had just closed early due to bad weather. And it was not going to open at all the next day. This was the first time in 47 years that the show closed early. I couldn’t imagine how the festival staff, artists, food vendors, and customers, were feeling at that point. Other than wet, I mean. It truly did suck to be them. And not in a good way.

Fortunately for Pam and me, before we could say “Well this is a fine kettle of fish!” our friends Barbara and Keith pulled up in their Toyota in front of the hotel. They live near Cincinnati and had driven down to hang out with us. We hadn’t seen them in some time, so that made the visit especially nice.

Since B. and K. had done their share of  "bourbon tourism", they had a good idea of what we should do instead of the now-closed festival. Without passing Go or Collecting Two Hundred Dollars, we drove to the nearest distillery—Jim Beam.

We got there too late for a tour but not too late to check out the various incarnations of photo ops and gift shops, and fortunately, not too late for the tasting room.

After the Jim Beam worker bees made sure we were of legal age, we got a card that we could shove into a machine that would give us two drams of bourbon. Bourbon is very fashionable now and accordingly comes in all sorts of price points and horrible flavors for people who aren’t manly enough to drink the real stuff.  So, if you’re lacking even one ounce of Good Ole Boy-ness, you can get bourbon that tastes like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Hershey’s Chocolate, or for the real hair shirt types, Tuscan Kale.

After our drams and some photo ops, we stopped for dinner at a quaint inn next to a supermarket in Bardstown. I had the Hot Brown, which is sort of a croque-monsieur Kentucky style. Tasty; but it’s the kind of dish that helps cardiologists pay for their condos at Hilton Head. After dinner, B. and K. dropped Pam and me off at the Seelbach and headed back to northern Kentucky.

The hotel bar advertised 44 premium bourbons so of course Pam and I had to stop in. It wasn’t nearly as grand as the rest of the hotel, no doubt the victim of an unfortunate remodeling or three. But it did have more bourbons than you could shake a stick at, most of which were aimed at the non-parsimonious tippler. In other words, I wasn’t their target market.

Partly through my first drink, a friendly brunette of about my age but somewhat higher mileage (the hairstyle was a couple of model years out of date) sat down next to me. She ordered the house special: bourbon and champagne. With a pleasant Kentucky lilt in her voice, she told me that she was in town at some sort of singles event. (She was definitely gonna stay single sitting by me!) She lived on sixteen acres near Bardstown and was an auditor of large insurance claims at Humana, the big hospital chain. Before her bourbon and champagne ran out I learned that she was looking for a man, a farm hand, a new horse, and a dog, too. Holy crap!, I thought to myself. It's practically Loretta Lynn!

The next day, when we would have been going to the now cancelled festival, Pam and I were left with nothing to do, and no car in which to do it in.

We walked over to a great breakfast restaurant that not only had breakfast buffet, but also a “watch him cook” omelet station. I learned all about President Truman’s breakfast—that info is not in the membership packet sent out by the Truman Library. (Yes, I am a member in good standing.) What about that daily rubdown? Was Bess Truman involved in that? Yowza!

After breakfast, the hotel doorman called us a cab and we headed out to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Fortunately, I was wearing my extremely festive Murray’s Toggery belt adorned with racing silks. Without prompting, the ticket woman commented on how appropriate it was.

After paying the entrance fee, we entered the galleries through a Churchill Downs starting gate. (Clever, no?) After passing a giant video screen of horses breaking from the gate—they’re way more colorful on that screen than they are on my 15 year old Sony, visitors are faced with a great variety of exhibits.

The museum covers the owners, the horses, the jockeys, the mint juleps, the hats, and did I mention the mint juleps? that come together to make the Derby the fastest two minutes in sports. In addition to the standard static displays that people my age expect to see in museums, visitors can have fun with video screens too. For example, after a few punches at a touch screen, you can watch a replay of any Derby from the age of film and television. In no time you’ll find yourself waxing nostalgic for the glorious years of the Jimmy Carter presidency as you watch Affirmed coming in at a pretty darned fast time of 2:01.1/5 in the 1978 race.

There are lots of participatory stations too, a strategy they should consider at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. In one of the interactive exhibits, you can go into a booth (not the same sort as in the "History of the Peep Show" exhibition at the E.H.M.) and watch a video of a raced with closed captioning and call the Derby yourself. It’s harder to say “Savoy Cabbage has the lead by a head” than you might think.

Looking remarkably fresh, Q.M. Queen Elizabeth took in the Derby in 2007.
If you like trophies and saddles and all sorts of other equine stuff this is definitely the place to be. The memorabilia includes Secretariat’s elementary school report card; a Hawaiian shirt worn by Nashua when he appeared in an episode of Gilligan's Island; and home movies of 1964 winner Northern Dancer hanging out in his Dupont Circle bachelor pad with his “roommate” Mr. Ed, and so on. All kidding aside, the museum has the best visitors' center movie I’ve seen since Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, the longest running movie in history.

The only part of the museum that’s lame (pun intended) is the gallery about the infield, which is where the hoi polloi hang out and have a helluva lot more fun than the swells in the good seats. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there are no scratch ‘n’ sniff panels that smell like mint julep laced barf, or oats after they’ve been repurposed into thoroughbred tracks. And if you’re looking for a beer bong the size of a Budweiser Clydesdale, you’ll have to look elsewhere. 
The good news is that you still can enjoy a somewhat sanitized infield port-a-john. Fortunately there was a nice young woman there who agreed to pose coming out of the can for me. I’m pretty sure I was the only person who’s ever asked her to pose in a port-a-john. But hey, supermodels have to start someplace, right? Had the role of a patron exiting the port-a-john been played by our shuttle bus driver, the morning line was 7 to 5 that he would have gone completely Norma Desmond, opening the door and proclaiming, with eyes the size of saucers, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

After the Kentucky Derby museum the rain let up for a bit and so Pam and I decided to walk from the hotel over to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. I don't know what you think, but nothing says fun to me like a trip to a baseball bat factory.

On the way we stopped and said hello to Col. Harlan Sanders.

They preserved his body using 11 secret herbs and spices at the Louisville Visitors' Center and you can have your photo taken with him. Seriously.

Our plan was to pop into a Starbucks en route, but it was overrun by hordes, and I do mean hordes, and of girls age fifteen and under in cheerleading uniforms, accompanied by a smattering of non-MILF moms and a few dads who were either pussywhipped or crazy or probably both.

Yes, we were in the midst of an enormous “cheer” competition. I didn’t know that people did this but apparently it’s a big deal. A big wackadoodle deal, actually.  Since I’m not one to shy away from blog material and I sort of knew my way around the convention center, I said “Come on Pam, let’s check this out.”

So there are one billion girls. And the occasional boy. And all the little girls all have eye makeup that looks as if it were applied by a drag queen in training. A drag queen in training with a twitch, actually. And they’re all wearing uniforms, advertising not their school, but their cheer team, usually a one word name like the Flash or Max or Zip. But the one girl who was not in uniform was wearing a tee shirt that said—no joke! “Glitter is my favorite color”.

The convention hall was sort of dark and there was deafening dance music, so in a way, it was like Tracks, the late and lamented D.C. night club where I once danced on a platform wearing not much more than polka dotted navy J. Crew boxers. Instead of loud dance music and 8 million gay men and a few large women running around, it was loud dance music and 8 million teenage girls and a few large women running around. 

Oh, and unlike Tracks, which smelled of smoke, beer, Polo, and Binaca, the Louisville Convention Center reeked of the cloying smell of German roasted nuts. No doubt they are made with Chancellor Angela Merkel's secret recipe known only to her and the folks at the NSA who have been tapping her phone.

Cheer teams seemed to consist of about 20 screaming girls and the occasional unlucky boy. And they do a routine that involves “dance” and tumbling and gymnastics but as far as I could tell no actual cheering. Each team has a gaggle of parents dressed in the team’s colors that follows the team around the way pilot fish swim swarm around sharks. Unlike the pilot fish, the parents film everything with their cell phone cameras.  Pam and I watched a few of the precisely 2 minute 30 second routines—that’s 7 minutes and 30 seconds that we’ll never get back.  

When we couldn’t take it any longer, we left the Convention Center and finally got our coffee. I think we were the only people in that Starbucks line who didn’t ask for a whipped frozen frothy foamy thingy with extra sugar and heavy on the caffeine.  On exiting the coffee shop, we ran into a guy on the street who was dressed in a bright blue hat that looked as if he bought it at the Queen Mother’s estate sale. It really complemented his blue Spiderman costume. He graciously allowed me to take a photo. Unfortunately when he posed, he put held his cigarette—which made his whole outfit--behind his back.

We finally did make it to the Louisville Slugger Museum. The museum itself seems as if  it’s the holding pen to give you something to look at while you’re “on deck” waiting for the factory tour to start.

But you can hang out with mannequins of Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter, and even swing Derek’s bat if you buy him a couple of drinks, I mean, hang out in a different part of the museum. It’s not super complicated to make a baseball bat—stick a piece of wood in a computer operated lathe, brand it with a hot iron, add some lacquer and you’re good to go. The hard part is using the bat to hit the baseball.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Louisville Slugger’s movie. Well, it was completely unremarkable and wasn’t even in the same league as the movie at Churchill Downs. However, the hallway leading from the theater to the gift shop was decorated with murals that are alone worth the price of admission.

Sure, no one is tasered, or drinking a mint julep, they’re not scratch and sniff. (OK, I didn't actually check.)  But oh my. Of all the one zillion baseball-related mural topics out there, did someone really say "Hey! I've got an idea!! How about a few players cruising each other in the locker room?"

Sooner or later these murals are destined for a new home at the Erotic Heritage Museum. In the meantime, adjust yourself, kick the dirt out of your cleats, and make plans to visit Louisville. And when it's time to order a bourbon, you'd better make it a double.

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