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2016 / 2017
As a boy of ten or twelve, the world looked pretty good. Ours was an aspiring Lower Middle Class family: dad owned a service station (when gas stations still provided actual service); he got custody when my parents divorced; grandmother was a widow, soon to be diagnosed with breast cancer, which she did survive; I was in the fifth or sixth grade. The Korean Conflict had achieved a cease fire; Ike was our President. We read the American newspaper, one of four Chicago dailies and solidly Republican.
A postage stamp was 3¢. A loaf of bread, about 20¢. I shopped for my grandmother and could barely carry a $10 bag of groceries — I was small and the bags were big. I don’t recall who my Fourth Grade teachers were, but I have vivid memories of Fifth Grade math class with Miss Veronica Piper, who much earlier in her career had taught my father, so for an hour each day I answered to the name Roy. I didn’t know it at the time but Miss Piper was to me what Moses Woolson* was to Louis Sullivan.
All of this was sixty years ago when the world — or at least my sheltered portion of it — was a far, far simpler place, when New Year’s Eve didn’t amount to much [remember, I couldn’t drink]. An old guy in a white robe and carrying a scythe passed the hourglass of Time to a kid in a diaper; the imagery of my elders didn’t always make a lot of sense. Oh, and there were fireworks we sometime went to see at a disused drive-in theater.
I liked Ike. He was an elderly man, round-faced and with a soft reassuring voice. His wife Mamie looked like most of the ladies at the Congregational church in Argo, which I attended with our neighbors the Millers — my father being a vehement agnostic. By today’s standards, Ike would have been a Democrat, I suspect. He certainly wouldn’t be his party’s standard-bearer any more than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan could be. Because the Party Platform in 1956 was downright liberal, supporting stuff like:
1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;
2. Protect Social Security;
3. Provide asylum for refugees;
4. Extend minimum wage;
5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;
6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;
7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.
Sign me the fuck up!
New Year’s Eve this year will find us comfortably at home, probably sharing some nachos and shrimp cocktail (courtesy of Crazy Richard) and getting to bed early. Hoards of revelers; excessive amounts of booze and noise hold no thrill, and most of the company we might want to keep are either hundreds of miles away or dead. So I’ll simply share a few of my hopes for 2017 with you here and now:
- That you enjoy good health and a modicum of happiness, especially those with a pre-existing condition. You’re going to need it.
- That humankind eventually learn to share this fragile ball in space with Peace and Good Will. What’s it going to take to achieve that, I wonder.
- That we realize “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm,” to borrow from Shakespeare, is the only home we’re likely to have for some time and that we’d better begin caring for it and everything else that’s along for the ride.
- That whatever Creation Myth you accept — I’m fond of the Iroquois story of a muskrat who brings soil from the bottom of the primordial sea to build an island for humankind — that we find the common thread in those stories and knit the goddam human family back together again in a spirit of mutual coöperation.
- That my gain cannot be had at your expense and vice versa. Despite all his bad press, Karl Marx was on to something; too bad the Commies got it wrong.
- That the accomplishments of the last eight years not be thrown away because they happened on the watch of a guy with the wrong skin color. “Race” is a social construct anyway and has very little if anything to do with biology.
If we can address just two or three of these with conviction, I’ll consider 2017 well spent and hope to see you same time next year for a review of our progress.
* Woolson taught at Boston’s English High School while Sullivan was a student there. The architect credits Woolson with teaching to seek rules incapable of exception. I credit Miss Piper, likewise, with teaching me how to think logically.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
The Common Sense
As a seventy-four-year-old White American male, the media tell me the way I ought to feel and behave: disenfranchised and angry. I am neither—and I wonder in these contentious times why I’m not. Hindsight enables me to satisfy that curiosity.
Chris Mooney has written a book with a title that will put you off, so I won’t mention it. But his thesis is interesting: Mooney cites chapter and verse from scientific research (i.e., objective, if you buy into science) that, as our species evolves, we are becoming two distinct subspecies: one actively engaged with the World, prepared for and welcoming the new and unfamiliar; the other resistant to change, favoring the known over novelty. I am personally on the fence here, preferring the comfort of the campfire and the security of the cave on most days. But when shoved outside its shelter, I’ll respond to new and strange conditions with as much creativity as the next guy, maybe more. But if Mooney’s thesis is true, was there ever a time before the bifurcation; a time when there was a common sense, a shared vision of the World and our purpose within it? Having written this column for more than thirty years [has it really been that long?], I’ve looked at a lot of Agincourt’s history and tried to tell its stories with accuracy and enthusiasm. And I think there may have been a time in our community’s past, when our small world was new, that we shared a vision. Then, again, it may only be my hope.
In David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, his character Sonmi-451 is asked for her version of the Truth. Her reply, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” By Sonmi’s understanding, I have not been entirely truthful. Yet my “Truth” is all that I have to offer in these columns. If it resonates with yours, so much the better. When, on the other hand, it has struck a sour note, a hollow chord, I have been grateful for your kind and gentle upbraiding.
The renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a member of the Lloyd-Jones clan of southwestern Wisconsin, a band of 19th century Welsh Unitarians whose family motto was “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd” (“Truth Against the World”), which pervaded Wright’s architecture as well as his personal life. That note of counter-conventionality has sounded in Agincourt, as well, and it has been at those times that I believe our Truth has a common sense about it. I’ve written here about a few of those moments.
There was the case of Sheriff Joe Pyne [the antithesis of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio?] who performed his duties with due diligence in 1933 yet spared the Ruffini Brothers Circus from what may have been unjust prosecution. Pyne served six consecutive terms as Fennimore County’s sheriff principally because he understood the difference between that binary pair, Justice and the Law.
We were civilly disobedient a second time when in 1942 the community rallied ’round Tadao Ito, a Nisei in our midst when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and authorized the interment of all Japanese in the United States for the duration of World War II. Chance had marooned Ted Ito here and a group of citizens spared him that ignominy, hid him in plain sight as staff at the Blenheim Hotel and explained his appearance as “Native American.” This occurred during Sheriff Pyne’s last term of office, one of his last opportunities to “look the other way.”
Other examples include the tenure of Father Francis Manning, priest at St Ahab’s, who everyone knew was a woman but preferred “his” familiar services to those of an over-zealous priest fresh from seminary and eager to please his bishop. Long before the Ecumenical Movement of the 1960s, Fathers Manning (RC) and Grimaldi (Episcopal) shared pulpits and administered sacraments without prejudice—unknown to their respective bishops.
Or the triumvirate of women Annabelle Miller, Sissy Beddowes, and Martha Tennant (my great-grandmother), who sheltered the lives of “fallen women” and engineered their transition back into polite society when others would savagely cast them aside, and were aided in this conspiracy by Dr Rudyard “Ruddy” Fahnstock.
Or the creation in 1909 of the Muskrat Valley Building Association, a coöperative venture in providing low-interest loans for families of modest means. Or the creation of “Common Ground” a few years later to thank those who sacrificed so much in the Great War—our very own “G.I. Bill”.
All things considered, Agincourt has been a kind and nurturing community throughout much of its history. It’s even reasonable to think of it as the “Mayberry” of 20th century civil disobedience. But I’m beginning to suspect those days have passed. All things considered.
Max Pusch’s butcher shop might be in any American city. If I could have afforded this postcard, Max would have been an Agincourt resident.
You might be surprised to hear how easy it can be—sometimes—to discover who someone was. Ancestry-dot-com is a good place to start (make sure you’ve subscribed to some of the add-ons) and, sure enough, Max was there: a butcher shop in Chicago on the near North Side.
In the 1910 US Census, he was thirty-three and lived at 1229 Cornelia [I think that was after the Chicago street addresses were renumbered] with wife Alvina and an unnamed adopted daughter. This is two blocks from the Southport station on the Brown Line. He had emigrated from Germany in 1891 and been naturalized. His home was mortgaged but his; he had employees. The 1911 city directory puts his shop at 1444 Wells Street, a long block south of North Avenue in what would have been an upscale neighborhood.
The 1920 census information is slightly different. But—thanks be to Google!—a further search reveals Max had clout. He was, for example, president of the United Master Butchers of Chicago and a frequent contributor to the American Meat Trade and Retail Butchers Journal. And according to The National Provisioner Pusch had been a member of the local organizing committee for the 1914 convention of the “National Master Butchers Association.” No slouch, our Max. One wonders his “Germanity” became a problem during WWI.
Might it have been possible for Pusch to have begun his career in a smaller venue—Agincourt, say—and then have moved to greater glory in the big city? If I owned this card, the answer would be simpler. I could see this as a shop front on North Broad Street.
A typical fall day — ektachrome® blue sky (for those who recall film-based photography; anyone under forty won’t have a clue), crispness in the air like the first bite of a golden delicious, an excavated wardrobe of warmer wear stratified since the last spring thaw — Andy loped into the coffeehouse, joined the shortish line, placed an order for latté (without the affectations of “skim-goat’s-milk-decaf-no-foam” in a voice for others to acknowledge his discernment, thank you very much), left his credit card — “I’m waiting for someone, so add their order to my check, please” — and spied a table in the back left corner as the shop remained busy with late lunching.
Andy’s fashion statement today was neither average nor even median (remember he is a mathematician by vocation); his style, if you could name it, is casual neglect, which only reinforces the geeky stereotype of an actuary. Crouched at the table, chilly fingers wrapped about the cup (but more as a place to put them than as a source of warmth), his hands always seemed to belong nowhere or to someone else.
Parties of two, three, or four chatted, the conversational template of those who do this at least once a week. Andy was alone but not even remotely lonely, though it may have looked otherwise to anyone who noticed — which no one did. For this was a date, a border-line tryst (he hoped) with someone new at the office. After ten minutes passed, then twenty, hope morphed into melancholy.
Then, at his shoulder, there was someone, cup in hand, looking for a place to sit. “Please,” Andy found himself saying, “Sit here. I feel guilty hogging a table for four.” The guy sat down.
“Someone was supposed to meet me. Guess I’ve been stood up.”
“I’m Chuck, by the way. Do you mind if I take off my jacket?” he said, standing. “It’s stuffy in here.”
He was about six feet tall; chest somewhere between pecs and not-pecs, though you couldn’t tell which way they were tending. As he put the jacket on the back of the chair, Andy gaped. A pair of translucent wings unfolded from Chuck’s back, mosaics of iridescent brown and grey; more moth than butterfly. They emerged from parallel slits on the back of Chuck’s T-shirt — how did he put that on? — and, now fully unfurled, extended above his head and below the buttocks. A barista calling out an order broke Andy’s concentration; his eyes darted from side to side, wondering why he was the only person in a crowded restaurant surprised at the presence of a fairy. Yes, a stout six-foot male with late-in-the-day stubble, resembling a middle-aged biker, but nonetheless a fairy. He expected a guest appearance by Edmund Spencer or Rod Serling to make the appropriate introductions
“Don’t worry. No one but you can see my wings. To them I’m just another guy or they don’t notice at all. You know, that bothers me sometimes,” Chuck admitted. “I’m an S.E.P.: Somebody Else’s Problem,” explaining a bit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — which Andy had wanted to read but never got around to — where anything inexplicable gets that kind of response. “I could literally hover two feet off the floor and be ignored. You see me because I’m your case worker. Think of me as a fairy-god-brother.”
After an astonished “You’re my wha—?” the rest of the sentence lodged in Andy’s throat. “So do I get three wishes or something?”
“Hey! I’m not some damned genie. Besides, that m.o. was epic failure,” Chuck explained. “Nearly everyone blows the first two on the way to Number Three anyway. They generate a lot of bling but little long-term benefit. We’ll work together toward something lasting“, adding, “You O.K. with that?”
By now Chuck was sitting. His wings straddled the chair seat and reached well above his shoulders, glowing like Chartres as late afternoon sun reached the restaurant’s corner tables. Andy had a tough time not staring. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he apologized, “I haven’t seen a fairy since ‘Maleficent’ and you’re no Flora!” Then he studied Chuck’s steel grey eyes and the wings took second place.
In the following weeks, Andy didn’t see very much of Chuck but he heard plenty. Throughout the day, at the office or the market, in work and social settings of every sort, Chuck became a disembodied voice perched in the vicinity of Andy’s right ear — guiding, reminding, instructing, cajoling, exhorting, inquiring, sometimes laughing, but always limited to a short phrase or even a single word: Listen to his voice; he wants something. — She cares about you. — Why’d he say that? — Ask her advice. — Trust your instinct. — Smile! “It’s in the eyes,” he said later over coffee at what had become their table. Andy had to agree.
Progress wasn’t a straight-line graph, but gradually Andy learned to listen; to hear the discrepancy between what and how something is said. Body language, too. In time he gained confidence, read situations and exercised better judgment. Then one afternoon, back at the shop where it all began, it was Graduation Day.
“I don’t expect any kind of diploma or certificate but there is one thing I’d like to ask, if it’s not too personal.” “Sure,” Chuck smiled. “What’s that?” Andy was suddenly attentive to his coffee. “Could I kiss you once before you go?”
If you’ve never seen a fairy’s blush, it pales the Northern Lights; tangerine-pink washed across his cheeks and Chuck’s eyes surveyed the room for help. There was nothing in the instruction manual about a farewell kiss. But his panic, like snow on water, dissolved as they moved closer.
So did that pair of wings. Andy looked down to see if he was still standing on the floor, fully expecting to find them hovering those aforementioned two feet above it. What he saw, instead, was the pile of silvery dust that had been silky wings only moments before. And this time, other people did notice: strangers in their vicinity approved with smiles.
Later that night, Andy discovered an enormous tattoo on Chuck’s back where the fairy wings had been.
* “Hard Fairy” is a title borrowed from British composer Graham Fitkin, from a work for soprano saxophone and two pianos (which should be played at my memorial service, if there is one).
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Long before the railroad, long before steam power or cheap reliable electricity, Agincourt made things. It was waterpower — the default approach to generating energy that came west with settlers from New England and New York — that drove the earliest engines of industry. Our low-lying southwest quarter, wedged between the Muskrat and Crisping Creek, was a natural for milling of the New England type.
By the end of the Civil War, the first Muskrat dam created eight to ten feet of drop — enough to warrant the city’s first Industrial District. Phase One of the Syndicate Mills could have been mistaken for one on the Merrimack or the Brandywine; with four “side shot” water wheels and a complex system of axles, gears and belts distributing power to three floors of enterprise, its heavy timber construction is indistinguishable from its Eastern cousins. Phase Two was complete just before the Panic of 1875.
The Syndicate’s earliest tenants milled lumber and manufactured windows; they ground local wheat into flour. But there was also a maker of wool felt (one of the earliest employers of women) used in clothing and especially for hats. The oddest product from the mill was a type of “engineered wood” made from compressed wheat straw, a process patented by local farmer Hiram Baecher—who made more reputation than money, but I shows the creativity of 19th century seat-of-the-pants engineering.
The strip of land between the original townsite and the river attracted enough industry to warrant a railway siding when the Milwaukee Road arrived. Anton Kraus and his sons relocated their blacksmithing and evolved into an iron foundry, but the scale of manufacturing in the 1880s was cramped; the West Bank offered a solution. Expansion beyond the river also removed a growing fire hazard that had begun to concern the city.
Hearthstone Manufacturing was a pioneer in that new part of Agincourt called “Industry” on the west bank of the Muskrat. David Parmelee, a businessman from Rockford, Illinois, had visited the area about 1905 and chose to expand here. Hearthstone manufactured enamel cookware and other utensils in a plant managed by his son-in-law Aidan Archer.
The Archer family relocated here for business purposes and, like many Capitalists of that time—profiting from the labor of others in an age of organized labor—they became participants in many aspects of the larger community: serving on the school board and church building committees; giving to social causes; perhaps even taking a public position on America’s entry in the First World War. Most noteworthy, perhaps, Archer was an incorporator of the Muskrat Valley Homebuilding Association, a non-profit provider of low cost loans for home construction. Families, stable thriving families, eventually require pots and pans.
In light of recent expressions by hedge fund operators and venture capitalists a century later, the notion of “Capital” has evolved considerably.
Crispin Creek, named for the Saints Day of the Battle of Agincourt (October 25th), ends near the southwest corner of Agincourt’s original townsite where it joins the Mighty Muskrat. I’d like to think that this view represents some portion of the creek upstream, but the only village out that way—in the northeastern part of Fennimore County—is Grou, but that community doesn’t appear anything like this in my mind’s eye. What’s a body to do?
Perhaps it’s time for Grou (a Dutch settlement) to be re-imagined.
The question of “class” in America today is contentious. My own view has been shaped by having grown up in the 1950s, when Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate beds and father knew best. Our family were definitely middle class, aspirational, upwardly mobile. I was the first member to attend college; and there was no question that I would: my father wanted for me a better life than even he had enjoyed, and his (all things considered) had been better than his father’s.
So “Class” in Agincourt would have expressed itself in several ways: in housing stock and neighborhood; in the school you would have attended; and most certainly in the source of family income. There were capitalists in Agincourt, to be sure — Aidan Archer, for example, owner of a cookware manufactory, who employed many but did no actual “work” himself — but there were many more who worked with there hands, who labored for themselves or for an hourly wage — Nina Köpman, for example, the housekeeper and cook who worked for the Archers. You may be able to detect where my sympathies lie.
These two postcard images will present (for the time being) the range of the middle class: Boone’s Hardware and a yet-to-be-named balcksmith at the southwest corner of town. Each I’m certain has an interesting, even poignant, story to tell, and in time I will. What the images share, it seems to me, is manifest pride in their respective roles in the community; roles compounded by gender, church or lodge membership, public service and political activity, all those things that weave us into a culture.
[Both of these postcards, I should add, are far too expensive for my budget, so the image itself will have to do.]
The phone rang Sunday morning. I got nervous as an unfamiliar voice asked if this was the Ronald Ramsay who is an architectural historian. “Now and then,” I hedged. What followed was forty-five minutes of back and forth on a topic of mutual interest: William Halsey Wood. She is an art historian retired from teaching; I can’t afford to retire (for, oh, so many reasons). We are both from Chicago. We were born within four months of each other. But the meaningful link between us is a passion for an American architect unjustly overlooked by history.
Between us, Gayle and I have visited nearly all of Wood’s surviving buildings — of those that are known. She was impressed that the list of Wood’s buildings has grown from thirty-five (in a 1971 master’s thesis) to more than 105, three times as many, on my WHW blog. We discussed the revolution in on-line resources: OCR-readable databases, the Google Books project, genealogical records, and newspapers. It’s been a research revolution.
After farewells and promises to stay in touch, possibly even collaborate, I took a step back from my interest in Halsey Wood and considered this project as one of many during my academic life. What they have in common, I realized, is research, the addictive quest for information. The accumulation of information, much of it fairly ordinary stuff, gives me greater satisfaction — outright joy — than anything else I’ve experienced, with the possible exception of the classroom.
Research as Refuge
Frankly, I’m not very well equipped for life. Like Lemony Snicket, mine has been a series of unfortunate events. Humankind makes very little, if any, sense to me. Current events bear that out — in spades. From the ballot box to Aleppo, my fellow creatures mystify beyond the point of disbelief. And when those realities overwhelm me, I seek refuge in my very private world of research.
Actually, research and one other activity, sudoku, exist in ordered, predictable worlds; sudoku because numbers behave, and research in architectural history because questions beget either answers or consequent questions. In both cases, the journey is rewarding for a Capricorn devoted to finding order in what appears to be chaos.
The questions are basic and the sources constitute ground I’ve ploughed for fifty years, and during that time I’ve learned two things: 1) the trick is asking the right question and phrasing it properly, and 2) responses aren’t always “answers” while the actual answers frequently come from left field. Well developed radial vision is no bad thing. Patience is a virtue. I prefer to think of it as an exceptionally long attention span.
I work at an institution where not having a PhD is tantamount to second-class citizenship: if we were the good ship HMS Higher Ed, I’d be traveling in steerage (for those unacquainted with the term, it means below the water line). Which makes all the more pleasurable those cases where street smarts have served me well. I think of:
- An internationally-renowned architectural historian (now deceased) who wrote of an architectural drawing by H.H. Richardson as illustrating a building for an unknown location—yet a street adjacent to the plan is clearly labeled “Kneeland”, which is indeed a street in Boston fronting a now-demolished Richardson building.
- Or another HHR drawing in the archival file of a Boston project; the drawing must be an early scheme for the project, because it is “inexplicably” reversed, when that drawing is clearly, to anyone with the skill to read an architectural rendering, the plan of a Richardson building in Washington, DC. The inexplicability is easily dismissed: Richardson sent his Boston client the plan of a recent project in DC to see if its organization might suit the Boston client’s needs.
- Or a Frank Lloyd Wright perspective drawing in the archival file for a series of spec houses that seems to be of an earlier iteration, when it is, in fact, the perspective of another project illustrated four pages later in the same book.
- Or the snooty bitch who refused to believe that “Methodist Episcopal” and “Protestant Episcopal” are not interchangeable among American religious denominations of the early 20th century.
- Or the PhD candidate who transcribed a handwritten letter from someone identified as “Rufsell”, when the “fs” ligature in 18th century orthography continued to be used throughout the 19th century as a convention for double-S, even in printed documents.; an extreme case would be the word “pofsefsion”. Hence the name should have been read as “Russell”.
- Or the Frank Lloyd Wright scholar who wrote that nothing would be known about a client until considerable additional research was done; when actually it took twenty minutes to identify the client and print off ten pages of detailed biography about him. Some people are just goddam lazy.
- Or the same FLlW scholar who doesn’t know what the fuck a drawing for a U.S. Patent looks like.
- Ask me about Gabriel Spat some time.
Do I sound bitter?
The point is that there is one thing I am exceptionally good at — research — and another at which I am constitutionally impotent: writing. Has the time long since passed for the tiger to change his stripes?
The Auditorium and its predecessor Harney’s Orpheum were the heart of formal culture in 19th and early 20th century Agincourt. More casual, daytime and summer entertainment, however, was most like staged at the Chautauqua pavilion at the Fennimore County Fairgrounds on the Muskrat’s west bank (just opposite what would become Northwest Iowa Normal in 1919).
Chautauqua takes its name from a village in upstate New York where a summer institute was begun shortly after the Civil War. Intended as both education and wholesome entertainment in a resort setting, it hosted a wide range of music and lectures. Jenny Lind the “Swedish Nightingale” sang there and audiences also heard William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Revivalists and religious exhorters were frequent. Popularity of the New York original led to a wave of Chautuaqua-building across America. And their network became a circuit for entertainers, much like its less noble vaudeville counterpart. Agincourt’s pavilion was built some time in the late 1880s on land leased from the County Fair Association.
The Chautauqua pavilion as a building type was everywhere but especially throughout the Midwest “Methodist Belt.” A rectangle with radial or polygonal ends, today a large version might serve as a velodrome. Folding or overhead doors allowed summer breezes to cross-ventilate the building, and afford good sight lines to patrons seated on the verge.
PS: Here are two additional versions of the type:
PS [03FEB2017]: And yet one more, this time actually in Iowa:
PS [17SEP2020]: And yet another:
The 1895-1896 inaugural season of The Auditorium, Agincourt’s opera house, was a high point in community history. It represented not only the city’s aspiration to match the cultural accomplishment of other nearby cities — Des Moines, Sioux City and Omaha — but also to represent the full range of local talent. Trying to reconstruct that season involves an exploration of theatre, music and other forms of entertainment that are less common now. I met someone at coffee this afternoon, an NDSU art graduate, who’s expressed interest in creating some of the graphics that would have advertised each performance and enticed an audience through the doors.
Looking at what passed for “high culture” in the 1890s has been fun. A handful of potential players in the game were familiar by name and reputation, if not in detail. Here are some putative events:
- One of the more famous violinists of that era was Eduard (Ede) Reményi, a Jewish Hungarian by birth and friend of Johannes Brahms, he spent much of his late career in the U.S. He died at a San Francisco concert in 1898. Several sources give his birth name as Hoffman, but on the stage he was known only as Reményi. A 1906 posthumous biography provides some fodder for the possibility of an Iowa visit: “In the Autumn of that year he made his second visit to the United States, giving his first concert at Steinway Hall, New York. During the next few weeks he played in the New York Philharmonic concerts; in the Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts under Theodore Thomas’s baton; in the Carlberg symphony concerts, in Boston, Hartford, and, in the latter part of December, in Washington, where he was the guest of President Hayes at the White House. The following year he continued his American tour, playing in New York, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Quincy, Illinois, Burlington, Iowa, and other cities. In 1880 he went as far west as Colorado and greatly enjoyed himself in the mining camps, where he made himself a favorite with the miners by his impromptu performances.”
- Recitals of rhetoric and erudition were common entertainments, growing from the Chautauqua circuits. But these “displays” are more difficult to pin down than musical performers.
- Aside from theatrical performance by local companies and traveling troupes, I had a brain fart a few days ago about an opera that might have been staged. And as I thought about it, the standard repertoire seemed too easy. Like Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church, dedicated to an imaginary saint, why not invent an opera, the titular subject of this entry.
Its title “Philidor” popped into my head, and the chain reaction began:
- Philidor is a character in the 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death,” which was released in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s the story of a British pilot in WWII who was supposed to die during a flight over the Channel but was missed by Death’s collector, Conductor 71, in a dense fog. The film revolves about the pilot (David Niven) and his legal battle to remain among the living. Conductor 71 is Philidor, an 18th century French chess grand master, played by Marius Goring (a character actor you might remember from “The Scarlet Pimpernel”). I love the name Philidor.
- It turns out that, besides his prowess at chess, Philidor was also a composer of light opera! More than thirty of them, in fact, none of which are performed today. But that fact played nicely into the developing narrative.
- This should be an opera about Philidor, not by him. So who would have written such a work? Claude Monet and Wikipedia came to my aid. His surname is Argentuille, which comes from an obscure painting by Monet, and his given name Didier derives from an ancient Roman, Didius, a.k.a. Desiderius, which can be translated as “ardent desire” or “the longed-for” (both of which suit my current melancholy). So Didier Argentuille he will be. He’ll require a backstory, too, which can occupy me for weeks.
- The story of Philidor as composer will be a tough sell. But as a chess grand master, there is a nugget too good to pass by: the Café de la Régence in Paris was the 18th century hangout for chess aficionados and it was there that François-André Danican Philidor played chess with none other than Ben Franklin! Talk about manna from heaven. So, in the spirit of Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a Parisian bar in Montmartre as the setting for unlikely encounters, Argentuille’s comic opera “Philidor” will dramatize the philosophical asides of Ben Franklin and François-André Philidor during a chess game on a summer afternoon in 1740.
That’s the way things work here in Agincourt. All so we can create a placard announcing its performance on an October weekend in northwestern Iowa during 1895.