Christmas Past – Part I

Long past?
No. Your past.


Pax Mr Dickens it wasn’t a child-like figure with long white hair, a branch of holly in it’s hand and a blindingly light streaming from the crown of its head that brought up a memory of a Christmastide that is, to contradict the Ghost, long past.  It was a NYTimes advertisement for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular from a December 1961 Arts and Leisure section post in a FB group to which I belong.

My father had died in the August of that year and Christmas promised to be a joyless event in our household.  I’m sure we went to my brother’s on Christmas Day but I can’t imagine that the day was much fun for any of us.  My father was a major and loving presence in our lives and the ache of loss was still raw.  It was going to be a difficult and melancholy holiday season.

A few days before the holiday my cousin Diane in New Jersey called with an invitation to visit them in the days between Christmas and the New Year.  With it came the promise of my first visit to New York  City.   The season had become a bit brighter at the thought of spending time with Diane, Jack and the girls plus a few treats they had lined up for us.

So Boxing Day my mother and I boarded an overnight bus at the Greyhound station at Bay and Dundas and made the 12 hour trip to New York City.   They lived in Nutley a pleasant town only an hour from Manhattan; and the treats involved making that trip to town twice.

This ad from the New York Time in December 1961 sent me down memory lane.

The first trip was an early morning one to catch the first show of the day at Radio City Music Hall.  As a sidebar someone noticed that back in 1961 admission for the show was 99¢ if you went before noon – I’m not sure if that was for children or just a general price.  (A quick check of 2017 prices range between $225.00 to $70.00). For that 99¢ we got The Nativity, or at least a damned good facsimile with camels, horses, sheep, a donkey, flying angels and the baby Jesus; a flower ballet – no doubt to Tchaikovsky music; a “musical dramatization of Dicken’s ‘Christmas Carol’ “; a “Poinsettia Fantasy”(???); several variety artists; and, of course the Rockettes.  All that plus Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland – all for 99¢!!!  I had been looking forward to the film as the Victor Herbert musical was one of my favourites but it was that stage show and the theatre that fascinated me most.   The size and splendor of that deco auditorium, the grand staircases, the elevator stage with the spectacular effects, and those Rockettes high-stepping through their routines.  Though the movie had its toy soldiers marching off to battle it had nothing on the time honoured toy soldier routine that has been the highlight of every show since 1933.  The Russell Markert choreography and the costumes have changed little since then.

The precision work is incredible but the highlight is always that domino fall:

And here’s a little insight into how that fall is done:

After Radio City Music Hall we went to Schrafft’s at 51st in the Rockefeller Center.  Schrafft’s restaurants were ubiquitous back then – slightly upscale, good solid American food, beloved by matrons from Scarsdale and tourists, like us, from New Jersey.

Schrafft’s on 51st in the Rockefeller Center in 1948 – it had changed little when we went for a holiday lunch in December 1961.

Now my mother was, god rest her soul, the sort of person who believed that meat should be well-cooked.  She was the sort that could take a five pound roast and reduce it till it was three and a nice even gray colour all the way through.  You then slathered lots of mustard or, if you were really adventuresome, horseradish on it to give it flavour.  Her horror when the waitress – in her black dress, white starched apron and peter pan collar – presented my hamburger platter and the patty was a slight pink in the centre can only be imagined.  This person was attempting to kill her pride and joy (me!) with “uncooked” meat.  The dudgeon was high and the order to return the offending burger and have it cooked properly was issued in that “Mrs Hobbs” voice that made grown men cringe.  I don’t recall but I’m sure Diane and I were the only ones cringing in embarrassment.  The waitress probably spit on it when she returned it to the kitchen.  Knowing Isa the way I did I’m sure the indignation was communicated to Jack at the dinner table that night.

There was to be another trip into the Big City on New Year’s Day – a trip that I had been anticipating since I first listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio.  I was to go to the old Met on Broadway at 39th.  I wasn’t going to just hear Milton Cross tell me about the great gold curtain parting – I was going to see it for real.

On this day in 1919: Lincoln’s Inn in London, England, UK admits its first female bar student.

The Colours of Music – II

Chagall’s Murals at the Metropolitan

The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center with Chagall’s two monumental tributes to the power of music.

In a comment on Thursday’s post my ether friend Walter at Inquietudes spoke of the Chagall murals that greet you as enter the Metropolitan Opera from the Josie Robertson Plaza.  During the intermission on his visits to the MET he said “I’d stare at the colors and swirls and lose myself in them.”  And he has not been alone in that – for over fifty years they have drawn people in from the Plaza and invited them to celebrate the Source and Triumph of Music.

Chagall painting the “To Russian Music” figures on The Triumph of Music mural.

Chagall painted the two allegories in his Paris studio and had them shipped to New York.  Each canvas is 9.15 metres by 11 metres (30 by 36 feet) and is ripe with figures and symbols familiar from many of his previous works amidst those swirls of colours that captivate Walter and so many of the rest of us.  Chagall was often criticized for overusing many of those fantastical floating figures and beasts.  His defence was simple:  A poet always uses the same vocabulary but he still writes new poems.  And they are indeed poems to music, the arts and artists it has and continues to inspire; to the music of the city of New York and to the city itself.  And Chagall wasn’t shy about including tributes to his good friend Rudolf Bing as well as portraits of himself and his beloved wife Vava.

The Source of Music – with the central King David/Orpheus figure surrounded by figures representing Beethoven, Fidelio, Bach and Sacred Music, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, an Homage to Verdi, New York and the Angel of Mozart bearing figures from the Magic Flute.

Chagall had consulted with architect Wallace Harrison and the design committee and they had decided that yellow would be the dominant colour for the south panel and red for the north.  The artist felt that “Source” should then lead to “Triumph” with eye travelling from left to right – the source of music would flow into the opera house and the triumph of music would go out into the world.  When he arrived from Paris to oversee the installation he was astounded, and angered, to see that “Triumph” had already been mounted in the wrong location.  The artist maintained that his screams could be heard all over Lincoln Center.  However the ever persuasive Bing was use to handling all manner of prima donnas and resolved the issue by convincing Chagall that the new arrangement was an equally effective message.  “Why,” he asked, “do you want the music to go out of the theatre and into the world?  Perhaps destiny was behind the error, and the heralding angels should play for the people who have come to the opera house, because they do love music.”   Chagall eventually agreed that Bing had a point and perhaps the error had indeed been serendipity.

The Triumph of Music – Surrounded by musicians, singers, and dancers the Angel heralds The Song of the Peoples.  Chagall slips in sly little tributes to Rudolf Bing (the Essex House were Bing and his wife Nina lived) and to himself and his wife Vera.

Chagall was also concerned that there would never be a good vantage point to take in a complete mural – the view from the Plazas is broken up by the panes of the archway windows and the Grand Tier Promenade is too narrow to allow viewing from an adequate distance.  And though seeing them as Chagall envisioned them is next to impossible it has been suggested that the two works are the most seen – if not the most observed – pieces of modern 20th century art in New York City.  And they have become one of the enduring symbols of the Metropolitan Opera House along with the iconic starburst ceiling fixtures and the great gold curtain.  When the Met celebrated its 125th anniversary on March 15, 2009 the Triumph of Music was prominently featured in a stunning piece of animation set to the music of Chagall’s favourite composer and opera – the Overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Using many of Chagall’s initial sketches as well as the finish work the animators at 59 Productions reconstructed not only the mural but also the activity behind the scenes as sets from various productions are assembled (including a brief reference to the David Hockney Zauberflöte that replaced Chagall’s).  Lincoln Center, Harrison’s opera house, those ascending starbursts, the great gold curtain and finally the iconic proscenium at the old Met form and reform.  Surely much of the applause at the end is for Chagall’s great tribute to the magic of flutes, drums, sopranos, basses, composers, artists and everything under the sun that creates music.

Though I have embeded the video in this post I would suggest that for a closer look that you follow the link below for a larger version.

This animation was directed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
The lead animator was Peter Stenhouse

The Magic Flute – Chagall Animation from 59 Productions on Vimeo.

On this day in 1941: February strike: In occupied Amsterdam, a general strike is declared in response to increasing anti-Jewish measures instituted by the Nazis.