Sunday, June 11, 2017

At the Shore with Ken and Billy

It’s a great time of year to go to the Jersey shore--the weather is warm even if the ocean is REALLY cold. The summer-only places are open, but the crowds haven’t yet materialized, so it’s a great time to ride a bike, walk on the beach, or even work in the yard without an audience of passers-by. And, by going in June, you miss all the dreadful Memorial Day Weekend traffic. Sitting on the Garden State Parkway when it’s doing its famous impersonation of a parking lot isn’t much fun.

Because I like a good (and sometimes even bad) small town festival as much as the next festival manager, I did some research to see what was going on in Cape May County over the weekend. It’s good to have some adventures to recount over drinks at Fred’s Tavern.

There was the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church Greek Festival in Egg Harbor Twp. It offered Greek favorites like gyros, loukoumades—I had to look it up—they're fried Greek dough wads--and baklava as well as “non-edible treats like live music”.

I had a Greek roommate in college, and no, I do not mean that in an innuendo laden sort of way. George’s recently-off-the-boat family would come to visit and while the women cooked and cleaned, the men would watch the Washington Redskins on television, yelling at the TV in Greek.

The only thing I could understand was “Sonny Jergensen”, the name of the former Redskins QB. Because I was afraid of running into one of George’s relatives and still not knowing anything about the 1970s Redskins’ offense, the Greek Festival seemed like a bad idea.

Then there was Beardfest at the Paradise Lakes Campground in Hammonton.

Beardfest isn’t a convention of women who hang out with closeted gay men who are trying to make the world think that they know more about the Redskins’ offense than they do about window treatments. Instead, it’s “celebration of self-expression, music and art” with workshops in such hot topics as: "primitive arrow making", "basketry with invasive plants", and "reflective listening and conflict transformation" and if that doesn’t work, "close combat self-defense". With a graphic scheme that’s a cross between Peter Maxx and Beavis and Butthead, it was WAY too hippy trippy for me. And it was $60 for a day pass, fried Greek dough wads not included.  Uh, I’ll pass.

Then there was the Sea Isle City Beer Festival. This event featured eighty craft beers in the parking lot of Kix McNultly’s, a mega bar in Sea Isle City that claims to be the home of the “World's Best Parking Lot Bar”. I’m not exactly sure what a parking lot bar is, but apparently the one at Kix McNultly’s is top drawer.

In addition to unlimited beer tasting, the event featured a “jumbo outdoor game area” and “craft vendors”, the hallmark of a so-bad-it’s-good festival.  Fortunately, the bridge is out between Avalon and Sea Isle City, and this made a trip to check out the world’s best parking lot bar much less attractive. I hope I didn’t miss the World’s Best Parking Lot Greek dough wads! Oh well, my loss!

Then there was the first ever Rockabilly Uprising in Historic Smithville, NJ.

This hot time in the old town is a celebration of rockabilly music and “pinup culture”. Who knew that rockabillies were so downtrodden that an uprising was in the cards? I have no idea what “pinup culture” might be, but there was going to be a pinup contest.  I don’t know if that meant that contestants were to dress up like pinups, or bring pinups that they’d been storing for years and years between their mattresses and box springs. What’s your guess? The event featured music by Dr. Void and the Death Machine and Full Blown Cherry.  No word on the fried Greek dough wads. Who needs fried Greek dough wads when there is the possibility of even a partially blown cherry?

Nevertheless, the uprising did not make the cut.
Farther afield were the Mullica Hill Armadillo Extravaganza, The Millville Executive Airport Flight Attendant Jamboree, and the Exit 42 Road Kill Cook-Off Sponsored by Jersey Fresh!  Alas, maybe next year!

My friend Pam and I opted for the West Cape May Strawberry Festival.

Sponsored by the West Cape May Business Association, the Strawberry Festival has become an eagerly anticipated event each spring. Strawberries abound in both edible and non-edible form.

I wasn’t sure what to make of strawberries in non-edible form but I was eagerly anticipating them.

We were fortunate to find Pope-worthy parking by a wedding store. We walked a block or two to a root beer truck and turned left into the festival. The festival was arranged along two sides of a wide street lined on both sides with white EZ-Up tents. 

Some people looked as if they were selling antiques or having a garage sale, and there were artists selling non-juried crafts too. A few exhibitors had decorated their booths with strawberry stuff but that was the exception rather than the rule. There were plenty of people about—obviously it’s a popular festival.

There even was a scab show, with someone selling paintings on a fence behind the official show. 

When we arrived, someone with an amplified steel drum On the Way to Cape May, the national anthem of summer on the shore at the bottom of New Jersey.  The song is quite an ear worm.

The food vendors were going all in on the strawberry business. There were strawberry shortcakes and smoothies and crepes and even strawberry kabobs.

And, if you wanted your strawberries still on the hoof, there were two cute twentysomethings selling strawberry plants in pots and hanging baskets. The berry ranchers and I agreed that supermarket strawberries look great and have a shelf life measured in years, but don’t taste very much like strawberries. Presumably the variety of berries they were selling actually taste like something.

Pam asked me if I’d seen the booth where the woman was selling photos of Barbie. Ack! How did I miss that? It was on the other side of the street from me.  I made a dash for the booth faster than you can say Barbie’s Dream House.

That’s when I met artist (and art teacher) Lisa Varuolo.

Lisa and her husband were selling antique glassware, collectibles, some jewelry, vintage postcards, and other stuff that public sale registers refer to as “articles too numerous to mention”.  And there, in the midst of the this and the that, were her kick-ass Barbie photos.  As we might say at State College Presbyterian Church, she was hiding her light under a bushel basket.

Lisa is a Barbie aficionado. And since she was a kid, she’s been photographing her dolls. She told me her father used to admonish her to at least get the shots focused. Lisa listened to her father (at least about that, we didn’t go into full blown therapy mode) and takes great photos.

She dresses up mint condition Barbies in mint condition vintage Barbie couture and shoots them in shore situations. At the beach, and so on.  She’s even taken them to Asbury Park for shots outside the famous Stone Pony bar.

Lisa takes a sweet photo. And she has a flair for dressing Barbie. I don’t think one of her Barbies has ever even had to think about saying “Do these pants make my ass look fat?” As you would expect, Lisa knows ALL about Barbie. I mentioned Malibu Barbie and she was as familiar with her as she would have been with a sorority sister.

Did I mention that her photos are great?!

And she’s keen on Ken too. In fact, she’s even been to a Ken-vention. I’d never even heard of a Ken-vention, but apparently there have been one or two of these gatherings where Ken fans come together to sell stuff to each other, hang out, chew the fat, talk about Barbie and Ken’s relationship (or perhaps Ken and Allan's relationship), and delight in all things Ken.

Lisa told me that the original Ken came with flocked hair, which had a tendency to rub off.

Chemotherapy Ken!

I’m not sure how amused Lisa was, but I thought it was funny.

I bet these boys know Earring Magic Ken, one of Ken's more tragic incarnations.

But seriously, don't you think Ken looks like Jared Kushner?

I can only imagine what Lisa could have done with the huge pie of naked GI Joes I saw at that garage sale last year. Perhaps she’d have dressed them in some of Ken’s old Speedos and created a Pride Weekend flash mob in front of the Fudge Kitchen? Or perhaps it would have been a “there’s something about a man in uniform” themed tableau in front of Stone Harbor’s Stephen C. Ludlum Post 331 of the American Legion?

I mentioned to Lisa that one of the things I didn’t like about South Jersey was that it didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor about itself. Here, finally, was someone who provided more than her share of it.

If there was anything I didn’t like her work, it was that it was too small. They’d make great, poster sized works. Skip the snapshots and 8 by 10s, let’s see it in 24 by 36! It’s beach house art that I’d actually like.

Lisa isn’t retired yet from teaching school kids art (I'm sure she's great at it, btw), but when she is, I hope she goes all in on the Barbie photos, if just for a summer to see how they sell. Lisa’s work is available at several antique malls in the Cape May/Stone Harbor/Avalon non-metro area. Run—even in those Barbie high heels—to get some soon!

Pam and I visited at a booth where they were promoting Cape May Stage, an professional Equity theatre just around the block. I’d heard that they put on some great shows, but I’d never been. I know about Earring Magic Ken, but I didn’t get the theatre gene. (Truly!) The people behind the counter were super friendly, as the folks doing outreach at these events are supposed to be.

The show currently running was Billy Bishop Goes to War, about Billy Bishop, Canada’s leading Ace from WWI.  A musical. In a historic setting. About pilots in uniform. What’s not to like?! The poster noted that “The music is comprised of martial arts, barracks room ditties, Kiplingesque tunes of glory, Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter songs and a bitter brew of Brecht-Weill.

They had me at “barracks room ditties”.

I thought of the photo of my father and the other fly boys in his barracks. They looked like guys who knew some ditties.

We made a quick detour to the box office and bought tickets.

The third big hit of the Strawberry Festival was Lyle Turner and his player piano. Lyle restores pianos and also works on piano-mation, nickelodeons, and pump piano.  He had a seriously gorgeous mission/prairie style piano that he actually toted out to the festival. How crazy is that! The piano was fitted with an electronic player mechanism. In no time at all we were listening to the theme from Chariots of Fire.  Lyle was tickling the ivories with the √©lan of Van Cliburn, Liberace, and Ferrante and Teicher all piano-rolled into one. We had a player piano when I was a kid, and I have to admit, I think they’re pretty darned cool.

Today, the software isn’t on a roll of paper made by the QRS Corporation (formerly of Elkhart, Indiana) but is part of a web based system that can make your piano the life of the party even if you are a social leper. Lyle demonstrated a few tunes for us, and frankly, I’d buy one of his pianos if I ever hit the PowerBall jackpot.

After a quick post-Strawberry Festival lunch, we spent Saturday afternoon at the annual Stone Harbor Garden Club Home tour, a fundraiser for the Garden Club. It’s nice to know that there still are garden clubs—haven’t most been rebranded as Master Gardeners?  The Garden Club is responsible for lots of flowers around town, so its good works are easy to see.

There are typically six houses on the tour and they’re usually brand-new things that are the spiritual descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s cottage, The Breakers, in Newport Rhode, island. Less is not more if your house is on the Garden Club Home Tour.

While the homes have nothing to do with my taste or budget, props to the homeowners for making their places available for the fundraiser.

Most of the houses have been staged so they’re imitations of photo spreads in shelter magazines. It’s got to be a total pain in the ass to pick up the detritus of modern life and stash it somewhere for the afternoon. Phone charging cords, shampoo and toiletries, pet food and water dishes, and all that stuff that sits on kitchen counters—perhaps even at The Breakers—is gone.

The Garden Club requires you to wear surgical booties at each house, just like on the tour of Philadelphia’s new Mormon temple. Unlike the Mormons, the Garden Club has no army of smiling surgical bootie assistants to help you put the damned things on over your Nikes.  Given the age of most of the folks on the tour, an army of smiling Mormons surgical bootie assistants would be a sure-fire hit.

Like the missing phone charging cords, most of the owners seem to absent themselves for the afternoon, too.

It’s their way of insuring they don’t hear the litany of traipsing tourists saying “I could NEVER live here!” which in English means, “I’d move here in a heartbeat”, not to mention the occasional “My girlfriend has pillows just like those except in blue and got them on clearance at Home Goods” and my personal favorite, “It’s called a bid-day, Mildred.

Through there are exceptions, houses typically feature lots of boring sailboat art, guest rooms that are bright and matchy-matchy, and bathrooms worthy of a high-end plumbing showroom. Except for the occasional older home that’s been remodeled, many seem like small hotels, decorated in a way that makes any Kimpton Hotel, with its metallic this and that, and enough animal prints to cover the entire continent of Africa, seem minimalist.  We’ve come a long way from the days of a simple home at the beach; I’m not sure that it’s progress.

After the tour, we wolfed down a quick shrimp and grits dinner and headed out to the Cape May Stage’s production of Billy Bishop Goes to War.

I’d never been to Cape May Stage, but it’s in an old Presbyterian Church that’s been beautifully converted to a theatre. This is not some old barn held together with mucilage and bailing twine where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were going to put on a show.

It’s as nice as any small theatre I’ve ever been to, right down to the soap.

The play tells the story of Canada’s leading ace in WWI, Billy Bishop. Before the show, the producer told the audience that they chose the work as a way to mark the 100th anniversary of America’s entry in to the war. I did not raise my hand and say, but it’s a Canadian play and Canada, as part of the British Empire, went to war in 1914 rather than 1917.

You didn’t know I had that much willpower, did you?

Quibbling aside, the play was an excellent reminder that we're a hundred years out from the start of the war that was to make the world safe for democracy. (Yikes!)

There are just two actors in the production, Billy Bishop—played by the extremely easy on the eyes J. Max Baker—and the piano player, played by the handsome and talented Samuel Saint Ours. Both were dressed as Canadian soldiers. Though occasionally S.S.O. would sing with J. Max, the lion’s share of the production falls on J. Max’s shoulders.

Billy Bishop, more formally known as Air Marshal William Avery Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED, was a young man from Ontario, who through run of bad luck (injuries and illness mostly) that turned out to be good luck, didn’t die in the horrific trench warfare of the early part of the war. After enough of horrific trench warfare later in the war to realize that the mud and filth and pointlessness of it all wasn’t for him, he applied to, and was accepted by the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. During a post-injury hospitalization in London, he meets an English society woman and friend of Winston Churchill, Susan Elizabeth Mary Jeune, Baroness St Helier, DBE, who helps him get a place in flight school.

His journey from unlucky colonial schlub to famous ace and gallant icon, personally decorated by the King of England, is filled with fear, doubts, injuries, deaths of friends, and more than a little of what we now call post-traumatic stress. It’s a great story.

J. Max Baker not only plays Billy, but also his flight instructors, commanding officers, Lady St. Helier, and even the King--a total of eighteen other characters! It’s really is a remarkable performance. His Billy Bishop is the incarnation of a heroic—but doubt-filled—flyboy, and he makes a darned good flight instructor, commanding officer, Lady St. Helier, and even King. I looked at the actor's website and his resume and it says that he not only has barbershop quartet experience, but also that he’s a precision whip cracker AND can belch on command. It sounds as if he’s ready for the Bryant family dinner table!

Unfortunately, the songs in the show only rise to the level of “meh”, and that’s being generous. I kept waiting for the song I’d want to hear again, but the songs just weren’t very tuneful. Sure, they were well executed, but they guys didn’t have much to work with. The "bitter brew of Brecht-Weill" was front and center and while the tuneful "barracks room ditties" seemed to be MIA. The best song in the production was a snippet of the World War I standard, Mademoiselle from Armentieres a/k/a Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous. Oh well, you can’t have everything!

Meh songs in this production aside, it was an enjoyable evening. I’ll definitely go back to the Cape May Stage.

Before we drove back to Pennsylvania, we stopped at the Stone Harbor Farmers' Market on Sunday morning. It’s a bit early in the season for the corn and tomatoes that South Jersey is famous for, but there were plenty of other vegetables, flowers, and artisanal food products for sale. There was a hip coffee truck where you could get the kind of hip coffee drink that hip people don't make at home.

I considered going in for the hot-out-of-the- fryer mini donuts. Fortunately for my waistline, I had the willpower to resist them. Had they been fried Greek dough wads, I’m not sure I could have done it.
You can find the work of Lisa Varuolo at the Antiques Emporia, 405 W. Perry St, West Cape May, NJ She's in Booth 58. The shop is open daily.  

Billy Bishop Goes to War plays through June 23, 2017 at Cape May Stage, 405 Lafayette St., Cape May, NJ.