On stage: ‘9 to 5’ in 2019


“I’ve never met a man I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man who I couldn’t kick his ass if he didn’t treat me with the respect he should” -Dolly Parton in an interview


The largely sold-out play “9 to 5” at Oak Ridge Playhouse, a small-town community theater is nearing its last weekend and may well have sold out by the time I run this.
I point this out because theater reviews for me aren’t so much about whether to see the play as they are about what the play makes me think of. After all, most of this blog’s readers aren’t necessarily able to seen the plays in the Knoxville area. And with this play, there’s plenty to think about.

Community theater shows tend to bank on nostalgia and recognizability. Indeed the play “9 to 5” is both nostalgic and recognizable, especially in East Tennessee where it’s lyricist Dolly Parton owns or at least has her name on, a theme park, a water park and several dinner theaters. The film it’s based on came out in 1980 and the play takes place in the late 1970s as Dolly Parton herself, who appears by projection at the play’s beginning emphasizes that time period, a time of typewriters and secretaries and when “the boss didn’t care about no women’s movement unless it was under his desk.”

See, that’s what makes this play so interesting now, as opposed to 2008 when it originated in Los Angeles. It’s something that can be popular at a community theater still, but is something typically only associated with college productions and small regional theater shows: a story with a topical message about the current world. And, perhaps, unintentionally so.

The original film was intended by Jane Fonda as a work of advocacy, even if she was trying to avoid it being too preachy by cloaking the film’s point in farcical antics. As a side note, I am happy that Oak Ridge Playhouse used the US version rather than the UK version, keeping in the fantasy dream sequences, parodying gangster films, westerns and Disney films that was one of the film’s highlights.

As another side note, Dolly is one of the few people who can enjoy a friendship with “Hanoi Jane,” openly embrace an LGBTQ fanbase and still enjoy a thriving amusement park business in the middle of a red state.

Anyway, reviews of the original musical, many years later in 2008 and later when it debuted on Broadway tended to portray it as “harmless” at best or dated at worst. And given the play’s explicit setting in the 1970s, people might consider it like they originally did “Hairspray”: a campy musical about stuff we’ve already overcome.

But then in 2017 #metoo hit, making sexual abuse a topic on people’s minds again. And this play was positioned to already be a response.

With Dolly writing music and lyrics, the character of Doralee who she originally played, naturally seems to have gotten an expanded role. And, as in the film she’s a sexual harassment survivor. The show, especially in Parton’s lyrics makes more light of sexual harassment than people probably would if it was written now. But the show gets away with it because there’s no mistaking where the play’s sympathies ultimately lie, given Hart being bound and kidnapped and the empowerment anthems the leads belt throughout the rest of the show.

And to be fair Dolly, a businesswoman who seems to have won by being at least outwardly nice to everyone, doesn’t call herself “feminist” or endorse political candidates. But there’s no mistaking where she stands.

I’m calling this focus on sexual harassment, somewhat greater than in the original, “unintentional” on the part of the creators because Doralee’s expanded role was probably just because Dolly was writing the music and lyrics, so giving her songs like her rather meta “I am” song, “Backwoods Barbie” was probably just what appealed to her. But now it reads differently.

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Rugby, TN: utopia abandoned


The height of summer seems like a perfect time for visits to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole. I’ve written about it, calling it “too perfect.” And indeed I still stand by that description. Rugby has many trails, which to me are the main attraction in town. I recently visited to look at wildflowers this April.

Church at Rugby
Rugby’s Episcopalian Church.

But I’ve realized I’ve never covered Rugby itself at length.

 

Rugby Printing Shop
Rugby Printing Shop

The town, at present, consists of a few craft stores, some homes and some historical buildings, including the old library, and a church. The architecture is an understated version of Victorian, meaning it’s not really showy in terms of color or even Victorian flourishes like towers. But some buildings have their charm. And since it doesn’t look at all like other Tennessee’s small towns it stands out.

The video at the top of this post goes through the history. A popular 19th Century author, Thomas Hughes, author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” intended the town as a utopian community for high-born sons who failed to inherit their families’ fortunes.

But these aristocrats failed at farming and the town floundered before being revived, more recently, as a sleepy, out-of-the-way town, with stores selling local crafts.

As a side note, Hughes named Rugby after a private school (or “public school”) he attended which is also the setting of his book and the origin of the game Rugby. Tom Brown’s School Days was an influential book back in its day, but nowadays is only remembered here in the US as a possible inspiration for “Harry Potter” and that probably only by people who read Wikipedia.

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My own book Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail has a new home on the brick and mortar shelves of two stores there: the . While the book is not about Rugby, it is about the plants and animals of the Cumberland Plateau and you can learn quite a bit about some of the things you might see in the surrounding trails before heading out on them.

Harrow Road Cafe

Harrow Road Cafe

Rugby has exactly one restaurant: Harrow Road Café. After a rainy hike, some hot tea there was exactly what I needed.

The restaurant does have some burgers and pasta, but also, in keeping with its location, some English dishes such as fish and chips. It also riffs on English food at times, such as with its fisherman’s pie, like Shepheard’s pie but with fish.

Me? I went with the blackened catfish Salsalita salad, complete with pico, which I enjoyed.

Norris Dam


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Some time in the 1930s, Harold Roitman, my grandfather, Grampie as I called him when he was still alive, came all the way from Boston to visit this dam. My Chinese roommate in college knew about it. To them it was a symbol of progress, understood by both to be an unambiguous good movement forward, providing electricity to people who didn’t previously have it.
We can debate what progress is now, a debate I’m honestly not in the mood for now. Right now, I and others just want to look at and listen to the sheer volume of water spilling over the dam right now after all the recent rain.

In my day job, I’ve reported on the heavy recent rains and their effects on activities like rowing. From up above the dam though, I can just enjoy the view.

Great Smoky Mountains: Cucumber Gap Loop.


A Smokies gallery of icicles
A smokies gallery of icicles.

As winter continues, I look back at the many-icicle strewn hikes I’ve taken through evergreen rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains. Icicles are a glorious part of winter in the Smokies. Ice is rare here in Tennessee, but that makes its formations, in places where water drips over rocks, more special.

Smokies Iciciles
Icicles form on water dripping over rocks.

Here is my story on Cucumber Gap Loop in the Elkmont Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly three years ago, in 2017. As usual, the News Sentinel can only scratch the surface of the pictures I took for the story. Here are some more views of the area.

First, we started out in Elkmont, which was at the time full of old abandoned vacation homes, no longer open, but one of the places where people first contemplated the park that would surround them.  I have not returned since 2017 and don’t know how many are still standing, but here they are, abandoned. It’s not the most popular set of cabins for photos, but indeed an out of towner “discovering” the town made headlines at Huffington Post to which a Knoxville TV station responded “We didn’t know it was missing.” To be fair, the word “discover” has multiple meanings. I continue to discover new things here in Tennessee and the Smokies.

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Beyond Elkmont is the natural charm of the Cucumber Gap Loop, with small, but beautiful waterfalls and the “sights and sound” of streams. Be warned you’ll have to cross one of them, but if you’re careful, even in the winter, everything should be all right. Overall, it was a quiet place to spend a winter day in the Smokies. Here’s a slideshow of some highlights, but you should go out and enjoy the route for yourself.

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Bristol: The Grand Guitar


On the way from Oak Ridge, TN in a recent trip north, I passed this landmark: the grand guitar in Bristol Tennessee.

The Grand Guitar
The Grand Guitar, photo from Facebook. I didn’t pull over to shoot one myself. We had ground to cover.

“I’ve always thought, why would anyone stop at a square building that looked like every other building?” Joe Morrell, creator of the Grand Guitar.

It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Key word there is “historic.”  The building stands, a chipping ruin with broken strings and a parking lot covered in grass, even though the building only dates back to 1983.

Once an elaborate museum with a recording studio, it now joins probably many other buildings meant to advertise something no longer there, but so distinctive that it has to  stay up. That Roadside America link above gives an excellent history of this rather random landmark.

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This is what it looked like when it was still open, suposedly, according to some guy calling himself Dan. K on Pinterest. Again, sorry I don’t have something more definitive.

There actually is a name for buildings like this: mimetic architecture.  People associate it with silly old-timey highway side stuff to be enjoyed ironicaly. but even companies like Apple are getting in on the game. And in spite of the shamlessly commercial nature of this practice in nearly all of its forms, I have a soft spot for it.

Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville. Photo Creative Commons as shown on Wikipedia.

Simply put, it means buildings that look like things that they aren’t, usually things that the building is trying to sell or, in the case of a museum, like the one above, be about.

I’ve covered one other such building in my day job as a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger: the 1931 airplane filling station in Powell, now a barber shop and recently restored to its shiny glory. People sometimes think it had or has the ability to fly. It can’t. And even if it could the lack of a windshield is a problem.

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There are some things that straddle the line between mimetic architecture. Statues of course are always meant to resemble something but sometimes they can also be ads if they’re near a commercial building.

As frequent visitors to this blog (all three of you, but thanks!)  might note, I use every opportunity to shamelessly plug my book “Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail” (available now on Amazon!). I’m shameless.

While it’s not at all about Bristol or the grand guitar, it does go into detail about another specimen of  crazy roadside architecture that stands in Caryville Tennessee: George the Dragon. He’s a mascot for a fireworks store that burned down years ago.

I hope all these crazy architectural ads stay up and I hope you enjoy them. Share any examples you know in the comments!

 

Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s a Turkey … Vulture


Ijams Nature Center turkey vulture
Happy Thanksgiving! Zoe, a turkey vulture at Ijams Nature Center.

So we’re between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

What better way to celebrate that spot between creepy stuff and turkey stuff than with a turkey … vulture.

This one, Zoe, lives at Ijams Nature Center.

Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville is not a zoo, per se. The center features a quarry swimming area, boat rentals, trails along the river, a challenge course and outdoor movies.

But if you’re visiting Ijams, you will see some local animals for free at the main visitors’ center. Turtles and fish swim in tanks inside. Outside you’ll find a few birds in enclosures. Among them is Zoe.

Zoe is a turkey vulture, which is a kind of vulture, not a kind of turkey. You can find out more about them on the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s excellent page. Unlike black vultures, who have dark grey heads, turkey vultures have pinkish heads, kind of like turkeys.

Vultures are underrated, to say the least. But I enjoy spotting them both up close and soaring overhead. I would rather live in a world of vultures than one of rotting carcasses everywhere.

While birds of prey specialize in sight, turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, which they use to spot their (to us) smelly meals.

They have standards though, even if you can’t call them food snobs by our standards. They prefer more recently dead critters to longer rotting ones. Also, they refuse to eat skunks’ scent glands.

Since this is a family time of the year, it’s worth noting that like many birds, turkey vultures feed their children, by throwing-up. They also defend their children … by throwing-up. And in both cases, it’s vomited carrion. Ok, so they’re gross. But it’s striking they’re two bird households, with both parents feeding their young.

Zoe’s a little tamer than her high flying brothers and sisters, as you can see in this picture, although she’s not a bird you can pet or hold without experience. She’s usually behind glass. Say hi to her the next time you stop by.

Both my Dad and I write about turkey vultures and a few other birds, along with other family relations among animals, plants and each other in our book, “Wildly Strolling Along.”