Saturday, January 20, 2007

Legacies: Baseball from Flatbush to the City of Angels

at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
Hollywood, California
August 15, 2004

In 1958, Walter O’Malley moved the beloved Dodgers baseball team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in what proved to be perhaps the most controversial franchise shift in professional sports history. The westward move of the Dodgers was a watershed for major league baseball, heralding an unprecedented growth in the business aspects of the national pastime, but also triggering deep emotional reaction on both coasts. To the borough of Brooklyn, the Dodgers had come to symbolize the hopes and aspirations of its citizens, and the team’s departure was nothing less than a tragedy, a destruction of a culture, which left a lasting residue of resentment still felt today. And in Los Angeles, a relatively young and still evolving city, a contentious and ideological battle erupted over Chavez Ravine, the Mexican-American neighborhood designated as the site for the new Dodger Stadium.

Legacies: Baseball from Flatbush to the City of Angels incorporated, in the course of one evening, a variety of artistic interpretations of the move of the Dodgers and the relationship of baseball to community and to American social and cultural history. Another of the Dodger “legacies” spotlighted in this program was the franchise’s role as a pioneer of diversity in major league baseball, perhaps best represented by the signing of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s “color line” in 1947 at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Later, the phenomenons of “Fernandomania” (Fernando Valenzuela) and “Nomomania” (Hideo Nomo) would help ensure the broad appeal of the Dodgers within the diverse communities of Los Angeles.

The pre-show festivities included a performance by Nancy Bea Hefley, the popular Los Angeles Dodgers organist since 1988. A native of Bellflower, California, Hefley began playing the piano at age four, and over the years has amassed a repertoire consisting of more than two thousand songs. As the audience entered the theater and took their seats, Hefley entertained them with a selection of traditional baseball songs, Broadway hits, and tunes associated with New York and Los Angeles.

Just minutes before the show began, Roger “The Peanut Man” Owens made a surprise guest appearance, trick-tossing bags of salted peanuts to an enthusiastic audience in the same manner that has made him a vending legend for over 45 years at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Dodger Stadium.

Brooklyn-born comedian Elayne Boosler, now a resident of Los Angeles, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, and her opening monologue featured an hilarious routine based on the corporate sponsorships that are beginning to take over the game and its stadiums. According to Boosler, major league baseball attempts to sneak in commercials at every opportunity as if they belong, when they really don’t. Her solution is to stop fooling and insulting the viewers; since they’ve got to pay the salaries, sell everything, put it in our faces, and call the game. In a rapid-fire delivery, Boosler then proceeds to announce a few minutes of a game where every call and every player is tied to corporate sponsorship. [Examples: “. . . his walk up to the plate is being brought to you by Home Style Buffet, where you can walk up to the plate as many times as you like . . .;” “. . . today first base is being brought to you by Aflac, because everybody needs an annoying duck as an insurance agent . . .”]

Singer-songwriter Byron Motley and his band (Patrick Gandy on piano, Roberto Vally on bass, and Randy Drake on drums) began their set with Woodrow Johnson’s spirited 1949 musical tribute, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” Motley, who inherited his love of baseball from his father, who was an umpire in the Negro Leagues, interjected, “But even with all the glory, it was not a bed of roses for Jackie. He had to endure all the threats and taunts of the first few years. But he held his ground and persevered and succeeded because he knew he had to. No matter what your profession or interest, or whether or not you even like baseball, the contributions he made affect us all.”

Motley then sang the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh tune, “The Best is Yet to Come,” adding between the lyrics that the Dodgers were at the forefront in signing a bevy of black ballplayers, not only Robinson, but also Don Newcombe, Dan Bankhead, and Roy Campanella. These players paved the way for future generations of black baseball stars such as Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. “America’s game was colorized,” proclaimed Motley.

As a tribute to Paul Robeson, Motley performed one of the entertainer and civil rights activist’s signature songs, “Ol’ Man River.” Stating that Robeson was “an idol of his race and the promise of his people,” Motley noted that he also left a mark on the integration of baseball: “As early as 1938, Robeson, in conjunction with the black press and the American Communist Party, were at the forefront in telling the baseball world that it was unfair that black players were not allowed to play in the major leagues.”

Motley concluded his musical presentation with a medley of songs popularized by Nat King Cole (including “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Nature Boy,” “Orange Colored Sky,” and others), who, like Jackie Robinson in baseball, overcame tremendous odds to become one of America’s great cultural treasures.

Next up was comedian Bobby Kelton, a baseball fan known for his many appearances on The Tonight Show. Wearing a 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers replica jersey, Kelton recalled his fond memories of going to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn as a young boy, and talked about the differences between fans in New York and Los Angeles: “I was at a Mets-Dodgers game in Los Angeles this year. The Dodgers had won the first three games of the series, so if they won the fourth game they would get a sweep. And there were about a dozen guys walking into the stadium with brooms in their hands. I was wondering what kind of person would go to the trouble of bringing a broom from his house just to have the visual metaphor of a sweep. Then I saw a Met fan walking into the stadium with a vacuum cleaner. And I said why do you have that, and he said because the Mets suck.”

Kelton also alluded to the different characteristics of vendors at ballparks in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, adding that vendors “actually have to go to a school to learn the trade -- how to throw peanuts and hot dogs. There’s even a school for vendors. One night there was a commercial on TV about two in the morning. I turn on the TV and saw a guy say something like this: [starts in a thick Brooklyn accent] ‘Hey, Hot Dog here! Hi, that’s not my real voice. That’s just the voice I use in the high paying world of hot dog distribution. You too may be qualified to be a vendor. Are you goofy and have nothing to do? Do you have the mind of a Chiclet? At the American Academy of Vendors, we offer a number of courses, such as the art of shortchanging children and immigrants, how to keep beer at 195 degrees, and how to block everybody’s view during a home run in the bottom of the ninth. So pick up the phone and dial 555-HOT-DOGS.’”

Political activist and folksinger Ross Altman then came on stage to sing and play on the guitar two original compositions dedicated to Dodger greats Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson. Writing in traditions ranging from Woody Guthrie to Tom Paxton, Altman has composed songs on virtually all political topics over the last 20 years and has shared the stage with such legends as Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sam Hinton, and Johnny Walker. His “Sandy K” was written in response to the rumor printed in one of former Dodger owner Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers that Sandy Koufax was a homosexual. Altman opined that Koufax had “stood up to somebody just as intimidating as Willie Mays when he demanded and got an apology from Rupert Murdoch.” He introduced his song in celebration of Jackie Robinson by noting that it was written in 2003 for a book signing featuring Lester Rodney, the founding sports editor and columnist for the Daily Worker, the American Communist Party newspaper, who played a pivotal role in the campaign to integrate baseball that culminated with Branch Rickey’s signing of Robinson.
The first half of “Legacies” concluded with several excerpts from Heather Woodbury’s remarkable solo performance, Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks. A self-described “fictional anthropologist” and “stand-up novelist,” Woodbury has lived in New York and now resides in Los Angeles. Tale of 2Cities was conceived as a nearly six-hour work which interweaves multiple characters and story

lines in its examination of the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and its contemporary reverberations in terms of loss of home and community and the disappearance of buildings, sites, and local identity. Her characters are amalgamations of literary and historic figures, family members, and people she has met or heard in her travels. Working with just a microphone and a few chairs as props, Woodbury gives voice to people who have gone largely unheard, but who have witnessed and, in their own individual ways, engaged in the creation of Los Angeles and Brooklyn that we know today.

Included in Woodbury’s excerpts were her poignant vignette of Miriam, a sensitive Anglo woman who befriends Gabriela, a child who lives in Chavez Ravine in the 1950s just before the residents are evicted. Miriam disagrees with her husband, who wants to bring the barrio into the 20th century, while creating beautiful images (“sagging porches overgrown with pretty roses”) to explain why the Mexican-American community needs to be preserved. Another excerpt features a conversation between a talkative cab driver, Mike, and his teenager passenger, Angela, who lives in the Ebbets Projects in Brooklyn. Mike’s vocabulary draws heavily on baseball sayings and analogies and his cab is a shrine to his late and beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, decorated in blue satin with a bat light modeled after the chandelier that hung in the main entrance to Ebbets Field.

Following the intermission, Michael C Ford, a legendary voice in the Los Angeles poetry scene, read a narrative poem written for the occasion, entitled “From Flatbush to George Bush” [click on title to view complete text of poem]. Ford received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Emergency Exits (1998), his volume of selected works from 1970 through 1995, and a Grammy nomination for his 1986 debut vinyl disk, Language Commando. A baseball fan whose plays have been staged internationally, including Termite Palace, a one-act homage to the last wooden stadium in the Pacific Coast League, Ford often draws from history and politics in his witty and intelligent writings. He also hosted a memorable program of baseball poetry sponsored by the Baseball Reliquary in 2002, which was documented in the Hen House Studios CD, The Los Angeles Bards: Live in Pasadena.

Next up, the acclaimed Chicano/Latino performance trio, Culture Clash, came out swinging with excerpts from their play, Chavez Ravine, performed here in the style of a radio play. Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, and Ric Salinas were joined by special guest Monica Sanchez in this abbreviated version of a work which leaves no stone unturned -- from Walter O’Malley to Dodger Dogs -- in its examination of the history behind the displacement of the Mexican-American community to make way for the arrival of the Dodgers nearly half a century ago. In this highly ambitious production, Culture Clash lambastes the politically corrupt power elite of Los Angeles in the postwar years, and shows how the seemingly powerless families of Chavez Ravine helped foster a culture of resistance and the beginnings of a civil rights movement and Chicano activism.

Highlights of this version included Richard Montoya’s impersonation of Vin Scully announcing a game pitched by Fernando Valenzuela; Herbert Siguenza’s comic portrayal of Valenzuela, complete with paunchy belly and bowl-cut wig; and Siguenza’s and Ric Salinas’ hilarious version of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s “Who’s on First?,” which in this instance starts out in English and ends in Spanish.

Renowned vocalist Sue Raney, widely considered one of the finest interpreters of the great jazz standards, followed Culture Clash on stage with her musical trio, consisting of Frank Collett on piano, Tom Warrington on bass, and Raney’s husband, Carmen Fanzone, on flugelhorn. Raney sang two haunting and nostalgic ballads of years gone by and innocence lost, Joe Raposo’s “There Used to Be a Ballpark” (popularized in the 1970s when recorded by Frank Sinatra) and Dave Frishberg’s “Dodger Blue.” Fanzone, a former infielder with the Chicago Cubs and an accomplished studio musician, was the featured soloist on his rendition of “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

A master storyteller and one of Los Angeles’ most creative voices, Dan Kwong then presented his solo performance work, Dodgertown. Kwong’s performances, which draw largely upon his own life experiences to explore the personal and historical, are known for their keen insight, dynamic physicality, and generous sense of humor. He often incorporates baseball references and themes into his performances, such as in his earlier solo work, Secrets of the Samurai Centerfielder. Dodgertown is Kwong’s paean to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that he has followed religiously since the fourth grade (“If religion be the opiate of the masses, then professional sports are its Prozac -- not really fixing any problems, just making them harder to notice.”) Although he had his share of heroes, most notably Willie Davis, Kwong, who is Asian American, always felt some level of disconnection. Dodgertown concludes with Kwong’s exultation at seeing Hideo Nomo, the first major leaguer from Japan in nearly 30 years, pitch for the Dodgers in 1995.

The evening concluded with Elayne Boosler returning to the stage to sing the National Anthem, accompanied by Nancy Bea Hefley on organ. But this was not just the usual rendition; rather it spoofed the echo common at large ballparks which often makes it a difficult experience for singers, as what they hear on the loudspeakers may be several seconds late. In this instance, while Boosler was singing live, a tape recording of Boosler singing runs several seconds late, and then even longer; the delayed sound echoes back and then the sound crosses over (as in “Row Row Row Your Boat”). By the end of the song, Boosler’s voice comes out at the right place, but her lips are not moving; you hear only the voice on the tape finishing the song. Hard to visualize this finale? Probably so, because like most of the evening, you really had to be there to fully appreciate it. “Legacies: Baseball from Flatbush to the City of Angels” was totally unique in its mix of artists, whose approaches and styles ranged from the traditional to the more experimental. It was illuminating to all those in attendance to discover that an historic occurrence nearly half a century ago -- the westward move of the Dodgers -- continues to interest and provide meaningful source material for younger generations of artists.
The Baseball Reliquary extends its appreciation to Anne Oncken, Project Manager and Fundraiser for “Legacies,” and to Eileen Cooley, Production Manager and Lighting Supervisor. This project was supported in part by grants from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

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