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Tuesday, April 07, 2015


Taking a break from jabbering about the Hannah for a while to talk about what's been taking up all of my time since The Cherry Orchard closed a couple of weeks ago: I'm treading the boards again, for a little while.

First I should mention that the last time I was on stage in a purely acting role (as opposed to playing a musician onstage, which is what I did in my Cherry Orchard cameo) was a few months ago in iHamlet, and whaaaaaa it turns out I got a really nice nod for that performance: Play Shakespeare nominated me for a Falstaff Award for Best Principal Performance, Female. I didn't win, but LOOK AT THAT POOL.

Kate Fleetwood (Goneril, King Lear, National Theater) - Winner
Lily Rabe (Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park/Public Theater)
Michelle Terry (Beatrice, Love's Labour's Won/Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company)
Melissa Dunphy (iHamlet, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre)
Annette Bening (Goneril, King Lear, The Public Theater)
Jessica Hecht (Regan, King Lear, The Public Theater)

OK, look, I could pretend to be all cool and professional-PR-flavored here, like this is no big deal, almost like I was expecting it, and gosh how nice it is to be nominablahblahblah. But you know what? SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE HOLY CHRIST ON A BIKE.

So anyway, since this acting thing is going pretty well, I picked up another job at Philly Shakes in their latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

That is not me in this image. I am, however, on the back of the postcard.

Yes, I'm finally playing Puck, which is sort of funny because Puck was one of the first roles I ever auditioned for when I first came to America, at Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival (turned out the role was pre-cast, but I ended up playing a fairy, and that experience is what led to me becoming a composer).

My Official Photographerthe lovely Kendall Whitehouse came and took pictures this past Sunday; you can view the whole set on Flickr. Please note the presence of a WATERPHONE which I have wanted to play for years and years. I convinced the theater to buy one for the show.

We're in previews at the moment, with the official open on Friday, and we're running until May 17 (nine shows a week including student matinees, wheeee!). And Geekadelphia is already saying lovely things.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Hannah Callowhill Stage: An Overview of the History of 103 Callowhill Street

As I mentioned in my previous blog post about The Hannah, one of the things I did back in July after we first looked at the theater was delve into the history of 103 Callowhill Street. I had never before faced the prospect of living on a property that even comes close to having a well-documented written history going back hundreds of years. I think at least part of my initial excitement was due to how much detailed historical information I could find, thanks to Philadelphia's excellent online property records and searchable databases of old newspapers. There is definitely something to be said for living in a city which, following European colonization*, has had a history of being populated by swarms of lawyers and journalists (a tradition which arguably continues to this day).

The Penn Charter

First, a touch of background from Wiki, for those of you unfamiliar with the basics of Pennsylvanian history:
The Province of Pennsylvania, also known as the Pennsylvania Colony, was founded in English North America by William Penn on March 4, 1681, as dictated in a royal charter granted by King Charles II ... The Province of Pennsylvania was one of the two major restoration colonies, the other being the Province of Carolina. The proprietary colony's charter remained in the hands of the Penn family until the American Revolution, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was created and became one of the original thirteen colonies.
William Penn suffered a series of strokes in 1712 and his wife Hannah Callowhill Penn became acting proprietor of the colony until her death in 1726 (a fact the wiki on Pennsylvania's colonial governors doesn't acknowledge, although Hannah's wiki page does). The colony's proprietorship then passed into the hands of Penn's sons, John, Thomas, and Richard (and also his son Dennis, although he died when he was still a teenager) collectively known as "the Proprietaries."

1687 map of Philadelphia, showing the Manuor of Springetsberry (named for Penn's first wife Gulielma Springett) where 103 Callowhill Street would later be situated.

The Eighteenth Century

By painstakingly looking through the scanned handwritten register books of Philadelphia property deeds (instructions here—that's right, the *instructions* on how to look up historical deeds is a 27-page pdf), I found the first deed associated with 103 Callowhill Street, dated the 1st of November, 1745. Callowhill Street, named of course for William Penn's wife Hannah Callowhill, was in the process of being created by leasing lots along its intended path to developers.

By squinting and concentrating very hard, I was able to decipher the calligraphy (I think):
By the Proprietaries

Whereas by our consent and direction there were surveyed and laid out unto Benjamin Mifflin of the City of Philadelphia Four certain Lots of ground situate within our Manor of Springetsbury in the County of Philadelphia on the Northside of a new intended Street to be called Callowhill Street between Front Street continued Northward and another new intended street to be called New Market Street at the North End of the said City each Lot containing in breadth East and West twenty feet and in length one hundred feet. For all which the said Benjamin Mifflin agrees to pay to our use the Annual Rent of Eight Pounds Sterling or value thereof as the Exchange shall for the time being between our City of Philadelphia and the City of London to commence the First day of March next And to cause to be built thereon within the space of five years from the date hereof four good brick or stone messuages each of three stories high to the front of the said Callowhill Street, and for the insurance of such agreement to give and enter into a proper and sufficient bond to us of the penalty of Four Hundred Pounds within the space of twelve months now next insuing;

These are therefore to authorize and require you to accept and receive into your office the surveys of the said four lots of ground and make returns thereof into our Secretary's Office for the use and behoof of the said Benjamin Mifflin, and in so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant, upon this proviso and condition nevertheless that if the said Benjamin Mifflin shall duly enter into such bond in time and manner aforesaid for performance of the abovementioned agreement that then the said surveys shall be valid otherwise the same is to be void and the said Benjamin Mifflin is not to have or claim any benefit thereby on any wise. Given under my hand and the seal of the Land Office by virtue of certain powers from the said Proprietaries, At Philadelphia, this First day of November Anno Domini 1745,

To William Parsons, Surveyor General
I just want to point out that when this document was created in 1745, George Washington was a 13-year-old boy kicking around listlessly after the death of his father. 16-year-old James Cook had just moved out of home for the first time to become an apprentice to a grocer in a coastal English village. Abigail Adams was a bouncing baby girl three weeks shy of her first birthday. Leopold Mozart hadn't even married Anna Maria Pertl yet, and Papa Haydn was still singing soprano parts in a cathedral choir.

(With all that in mind, perhaps we can forgive the fact that the initial measurements of these lots at 20 feet wide apparently turned out to be incorrect or were quickly adjusted, as they were listed as 16 feet wide in all future deeds.)

So Benjamin Mifflin, who is almost certainly the same Philadelphia merchant named Benjamin Mifflin (1718-1787) who wrote a journal about his travels in the area (I'm not sure whether Benjamin was somehow related to the Mifflin family that produced Thomas Mifflin, but I think the chances are fairly high), erected some "good brick or stone" buildings at what would later become 103, 105, 107, and 109 Callowhill Street between 1745 and 1750. The buildings were likely primarily used as warehouses and tradesmen tenements, since their location puts them right next to the Delaware River, which was perfect for the renter's needs; Mifflin went into business with Samuel Massey in 1751, forming the creatively named merchant firm Mifflin & Massey, which dealt primarily in teas, coffee, sugar, and flour. [Shipping and Trade from Philadelphia to the World.]

One of my favorite Benjamin Mifflin tidbits is this piece, published in the Pennsylvania Journal, December 6, 1770. Here we discover that the general tone and timbre of political arguments found on the closest thing to social media in the 18th Century does not differ overly from what we experience today:

"...lick up the excrements of Jeffries..." Pure gold.

Of course, you probably also noticed all the glaring racism in the above screed; Benjamin Mifflin was also very much a wealthy white man of his time. Over the span of several years, there are numerous advertisements from Mifflin in the Pennsylvania Gazette (a Ben Franklin paper) in which he sells "sundry sorts of wine, rum, load and muscovado sugar, melasses, in hogsheads, tierces and barrels, rice, Carolina soal leather, pitch, tar, and turpentine, allom, brimstone, copperas, rosin, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, and 20d. nails, corks, tea, coffee, chocolate, pepper, alspice, corn, salt, whalebone, flour, feathers, chalk, in hogsheads, or by the hundred, and sundry other goods." Oh, and slaves. Plenty of ads in which he sells slaves. One example among many:
A Likely Negro woman and child, she is about 22 years old, country born, has had the small pox and measles, is sober, honest, a very good house Negro, and sold for no other reason than her fast breeding, having had four children in less and five years. Also two years and a half of a white servant maidtime; a low priced horse, and a two mast boat, 31 feet keel, almost new.
It's not as though this is particularly surprising, it just feels to me like this kind of ugliness ought to be acknowledged. Especially since it's the last day of Black History Month, and although the history of this property is full of interesting tales of immigration, they are all very White European tales of immigration, which of course isn't the whole story.

Things get a little hazy regarding who or what occupied the lot and the building at 103 Callowhill Street for the next 100 years or so. Technically, during all this time, the lot still belonged to the Proprietaries or the Penn Family, and the only deed recorded is the one in which it was leased to Mifflin in 1745. Mifflin probably sublet it to other merchants and tradesmen, but there aren't any definitive records of those transactions, and there's not much indication of what it was used for after Mifflin died in 1787. His 1784 will is in the Delaware archives, and I would love to see it sometime, but apparently you have to pay to acquire an electronic copy, phooey.

A few advertisements give some hints. This is from the Pennsylvania Gazette, November 1, 1770:

BY virtue of a write to me directed, will be exposed to public sale, on Saturday, the 27th of January, at five o'clock in the evening, at the London Coffee-house, a certain tenement, and piece of ground, situate on the north side of Callowhill street, near Front street, in the Northern Liberties of the city of Philadelphia, containing in breadth 16 feet, and in length or depth 100 feet, bounded eastward by the back ends of Front street lots, southward by Callowhill street aforesaid, westward by a house and a lot late of Aaron Hassert, deceased, and northward by the Proprietaries ground, subject to a groundrent of Two Shilling sterling per foot per annum; late the estate of Abraham Carpenter, deceased; seized and taken in execution by JOSEPH REDMAN, Sherriff.
From the description, this is almost certainly 103 Callowhill Street, since the lot matches those dimensions, and it's bounded eastward by the back ends of Front Street lots. In the Hexamer Locher 1858-1862 Philadelphia Atlas, you can see that 103 Callowhill would be the only lot that fits:

Let me digress for a moment here to talk about about this rather excellent map. As you can see, there are at this point two structures on the lot at 103 Callowhill Street. The dotted line to the right of the building that faces the street is a lane on the ground floor that gives access to the yard and second building from the street. This lane is still described in the property deed, but at some point between the 1800's and the mid 1900's, it was absorbed into the ground floor. According to the map legend, the dots on the buildings indicate type of construction; 4 dots means it was was a fourth-class (i.e. the lowest class) brick or stone building with a shingle roof and without a basement. The numbers written on the structures indicate the number of floors, so the building in the yard, which was probably some kind of storage, was two stories tall, and the street-facing building was three and a half stories tall; we believe the "half" was a roof attic with a dormer, as you can just make out in this 1924 aerial shot of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge construction that Matt found and enhanced:

Now take a look at the current western wall of the property, as seen from the now-empty lot at 105 Callowhill Street:

It's possible that this wall is such a distinctive shape because it links and extends the side walls from the two buildings that existed in 1859**. The dimensions are about right. And it seems possible to me that the bones of the front building were originally laid by Benjamin Mifflin way back in 1745. While this is just speculation, and confirmation would probably involve some kind of archeological dig and testing that I am not equipped to do, it's possible that there are bricks in the foundation of the theater lobby that were laid in 1745. Bricks that are older than America. Basically, I have doubts that the build date of 1912 on the original Zillow listing is accurate.

But back to the documented history. Abraham Carpenter, mentioned in the sheriff's notice as having recently died in 1770, leaving the 103 Callowhill lease in his estate, was an interesting character who occupied several of the buildings in this area with his cooperage and other businesses. Three years earlier, on June 29, 1767, he ran this advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette to sell the building on the corner (400 Front Street), which was an inn—and also to dispose of an indentured servant. As you do.

A Large brick house, on Pool's Hill; the house is 20 feet front on Front street, and 42 feet front on Callowhill street; the house is three story hugh; the lot is 68 feet 10 inches deep; it stands in a pleasant place, where you have a find prospect of the Jerseys and the river Delaware; the kitchen is the whole width of the house; a little house in the yard, where two tenements may be built; all the chimnies carry smoke exceeding well; the house is cool in summer, and warm in winter; it has been a public house ever since it was built; it has the sign of the ship aground; it is well finished.For terms of sale apply to the Subscriber.
A servant lad's time also to be disposed of; he is eighteen years old, a hearty fellow, fit for business; has served one year with a gardener, and has three years to serve.
This advertisement also serves to demonstrate that the area at the time was known as Pool's Hill, sometimes spelled Poole's Hill. The name is all but unknown today, although it's true that our block still sits on a little hill that lifts it out of the 100-year flood plain next to the Delaware River. For a while, before I hit on naming the space after Hannah Callowhill, I considered calling it the Poole's Hill Theater.

Abraham Carpenter also may well have been one of the first people in America to create an advertisement jingle:

Philadelphia, October 22, 1747.
TWO handsome chairs,
with very good geers,
With horses, or without,
To carry his friends about,
Is to be hired by Abraham Carpenter the Cooper,
And known to be a very good hoop-maker
For masts of vessels, and cringles so good,
As can be made out of good hickery wood;
And truss-hoops, of any size,
For gentlemen, coopers, or merchandize;
Likewise saddle horses, if gentlemen please,
To carry them handsomely, with a great deal of ease.
   N.B. The said Abraham Carpenter lives in Dock street, Philadelphia, near the Golden Fleece.
Stay tuned, I'll probably set that to music one of these days.

Of course, in 1776, some pretty important political things happened in Philadelphia, including, you know, a bit of a war. The records go dark for a long while. The first half of the 19th century seems to be a complete blank as far as records regarding this lot are concerned; one day when I have more time to dig, maybe I'll unearth something.

I guess this happened about 35 miles upstream of 103 Callowhill Street.
 What we do know is that, although they had supported the cause of independence, the Penn family was stripped of the Proprietorship of Pennsylvania via the Divestment Act of 1779, except for their privately held lands, which included 103 Callowhill Street. Eventually, the lot came into the possession of Thomas Penn's grandson William Stuart (1798-1874). [Penn Family Papers.]

The Nineteenth Century

Which brings us to my next primary source, a deed from 1872, which cost me quite a few ibuprofen to read.

That is some headache-inducing handwriting, Philip A Oregar, Notary Public, assuming you are the scribe. And once the reader figures out what the words say, the legalese is no less impenetrable:
Know all then by these Presents that William Stuart of Hill Street Berkley Square in the county of Middlesex in England Esquire and Georganna Adelaide his wife by George Cadwalader of the City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania Esquire their attorney duly constituted by Letter of Attorney under their hands and seals hearing date the Eleventh day of November AD 1870 Recorded at Philadelphia Letter of Attorney Book J A No. 1 page 531 &c for [illegible] consideration of the sum of one hundred and Sixty Dollars lawful money of the United States of America unto there at and before the Sealing and delivery hereof by Patrick Murray of the City of Philadelphia late Liquor Merchant well and truly paid the Receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged have extinguished revised released and forever quit claimed and by these presents do Extinguish Revise Release and forever quit claim  unto the said Patrick Murray and to his heirs and assigns all that certain apportioned yearly ground Rent or sum of one pound twelve shillings sterling money of Great Britain or value thereof in coin current issuing and payable on the first day of march in Every year forever out of all that certain lot or piece of ground situate on the North side of Callowhill Street between Front Street and New Market Street in the Eleventh ward of the city of Philadelphia formerly in the Proprietaries Manuor of Springetsbury in the County of Philadelphia containing in front or breadth all Said Callowhill Street sixteen feet and extending that breadth in length or depth Northward one hundred feet, Bounded Eastward by the Back Ends of Front Street Lots, Northward by a lot paid out to George Pajsagice(?), Westward by Remaining part of the Lot of which this was part and Southward by Callowhill Street aforesaid.

Which said lot of ground is the easternmost part of the easternmost of four contiguous lots or pieces of ground east containing in front all said Callowhill street twenty feet and extending in depth one hundred feet which the honorable John Penn, Thomas Penn and Richard Penn Esquires thus Proprietaries and Governors in Chief of the Province of Pennsylvania by Letters Patent under the hand of George Thomas Esquire Lieutenant Governor of the said Province and the great seal of the Said Province bearing date the Second day of March AD 1745 and Recorded in Patent Book A Vol 13 page 240 &c granted and confirmed unto Benjamin Mifflin his heirs and assigns Reserving out of the said Lots a yearly rent or sum of Eight Pounds Sterling money aforesaid or value thereof in coin current payable unto the said Proprietaries his heirs and successors at or upon the first day of March in every year forever and which said ground rent or aportioned rent by
[illegible] deeds wills and assents has be came vested in the said William Stuart in fee Simple, together with the Reversions and Remainders thereof and all the Estate Right titled interest property claim and demand whatsoever of this the said William Stuart and and Georganna Adelaide his wife in law Equity or other use howsoever of in deed to the said apportioned yearly ground rent and the lot of ground out of which the same is (???)ling and payable. So that the said William Stuart and his heirs or any person or persons whomsoever lawfully claiming or to claim by [illegible] there or any of these [illegible] at any time hereafter have Claim Challenge or Demand any right of entry or other Right Rent or Rent Charge of into or out of the Said first above described Lot or piece of ground or any part thereof but of and from all Such Claims and demands shall be utterly [illegible] and forever excluded by virtue of these presents the witness whereof the Said William Stuart and Georganna Adelaide his wife [illegible] [...] dated the thirty first day of October in the year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Seventy Two. [...]
You see what I mean. I typed that. I swear my head still hurts.

Long story short: William Stuart divested the lot for $160 to Patrick Murray, Irish liquor merchant, who likely used it to store liquor and do typical Irish liquor merchant business. This arrangement lasted until Murray's death in 1900, and oh, what a mess there was then.

The First Half of the Twentieth Century

Legal language, like the cost of living, seems to undergo a near-constant process of inflation; the next deed, from 1905, is nine pages long. Some of this length, however, can be explained by the sheer number of parties named in the deed. Patrick Murray, who had no children of his own, was evidently the large Irish Murray family's official Rich Uncle. Above are the pages listing all the beneficiaries who inherited 103 Callowhill Street, along with their spouses, and as you can see, there were a *lot* of them.

According to the deed, after he died, Patrick Murray, who resided just down the road at 11 Callowhill Street, left everything to his wife, Bridget Murray, five nephews (Michael A. Regan, Timothy J. Regan, George H. Regan, Patrick D. Murray, John Murray), three nieces (Ellen A. Hopkins, wife of Benjamin, Catharine J. Regan, Margaret Donovan, wife of Dennis), and the children of a deceased nephew (Robert Joyce Murray, John Murray). Bridget died in 1903, and in 1904, the Orphan's Court appointed an equitable trust guardian for the children. By this time, a man named Frederick Nothaft was leasing the property, so when it was decided that the property should be auctioned off and the proceeds split between the heirs, he put in a bid for the actually rather princely sum of $7,100 (a 4,500% increase from what Murray paid for it 30 years earlier!). Because most of the Murray heirs lived in New York City by this time (aside from John and Mary Murray, and Dennis and Margaret Donovan, who lived in Ireland), the deed appears to have been executed there.

I found records for Frederick Nothaft on through the Penn library. He was born in Bavaria in 1831 and German was of course his first language. By the time he bought 103 Callowhill Street 74 years later, he was a widower with a son, Frederick Jr., and two unmarried daughters, Anna and Mary (a third, Lena, was married to a man named Bower and did not inherit the property from her father). After owning the property for just two years, he died on the 12th of June, 1907, and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Frederick Jr. seemed to have the most use for 103 Callowhill Street, and over the next 20 years or so, he bought out or inherited his sisters' shares until he and his wife Matilda (also spelled Mathilde) were the sole owners.

The corner of Front and Callowhill Streets in 1915. 103 Callowhill is just out of the frame on the far left. The mansard roof belongs to 400 Front Street. As you can see from the sign at 402, the sale of produce was not unusual in this area.
Below is a page from the 1920 Federal Census where Frederick Nothaft Jr. and Matilda (nee Trompter - they were married in 1912) are listed, second from the top. It's actually quite lovely, I think.

Summary: Frederick was 55 at the time of the census, born in 1865; Matilda was ten years younger. They owned their home free and clear, and were both able to read and write. While Frederick's parents were German and spoke German as their mother tongue, Matilda's mother was born in Pennsylvania, and her father was from Alsace-Lorraine (annexed by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870) and spoke French (I wonder what he thought of her marrying a German boy?). Frederick is listed as a produce merchant; I assume that Frederick Sr. was too, and that the business also passed to his son.

Thank the good lord, by the 1920s, typed property deeds had become a thing.
In 1942, Frederick Jr. and Matilda were 77 and 67 respectively, and perhaps they were retired, or looking to retire. They sold 103 Callowhill Street to a couple in their thirties, Franklin (Frank) and Mildred Yeagle, for only $1,500, less than a quarter of what Frederick Sr. had paid for the property in 1905. Two years earlier, Frank Yeagle was entered in the 1940 Federal Census as a wholesale worker, but according to this Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections permit he obtained shortly after the sale, he intended to remove the probably crumbling third floor and attic of the building, and turn the second floor into an office, probably to service the commission house (for storing or selling goods, probably foodstuffs) downstairs:

Perhaps Frank's business didn't work out, or perhaps he was happy to make a nice profit, because only three years later, as World War II was just about to end, he flipped it for $3,000 to one Solomon Warshaw, a 61-year-old Russian Jew.

According to the 1930 Federal Census, Solomon Warshaw spoke Yiddish, immigrated in 1906, and was a fruit store owner. He was married to a Jewish woman seven years younger, Jennie, who was originally from Austria and had come to America when she was twelve. Although he had a produce merchant background, Solomon seemed more interested in renting 103 Callowhill out to other business owners. Another L&I permit in 1945 shows Quaker City Cold Storage contracting J.S. Steele Company to repair plaster ceilings and cork insulation in the building. Cold storage was still a major industry at this point in history, before mass production of consumer refrigerators began in earnest after the war, and Quaker City seems to have been a fairly large company, in existence since at least the late 1800s, with other cold storage warehouses scattered around the city.

Warshaw's 1942 Draft Registration Card. Because why not.

The Second Half of the Twentieth Century to Today

1963 is the date of the earliest photograph I could find that clearly shows the building that will soon become the Hannah Callowhill Stage.

You can just make out that the sign says "Victor Morris" under the awning. The year after this photo was taken, on April 1st, Solomon Warshaw passed away, and the same Victor Morris and his wife Gladys bought 103 Callowhill Street from his estate. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find out very much about Victor or Gladys or the nature of Victor Morris Inc. I do know from the next (very biographical) deed, from 1973, that Victor died at some point, Gladys remarried a man named Leroy Dibeler, and that the two of them sold the property to another couple, Howard and Ruth (I'm withholding their last name because I think Ruth is still alive! She's 78 years old and lives in New Jersey. Perhaps I should write to her...) Howard and Ruth sold the property to an Italian-American couple in 1993, who sold to another Italian-American in 2001, who sold it to the Grassos in 2004.

And that brings us back to the present moment, and the longest and most extensively researched blog entry I think I've ever written.

Since there's so much information to digest here, I also arranged it into a pretty timeline that you can scroll through (click):

In the coming weeks, months, and (hopefully not, but I'm ready for anything) years, we'll be transforming the space yet again, and there will be so much more to add to this history. I'm so excited to give this property what it deserves in terms of love and attention, not to mention blood and sweat.

* Of course, there's a whole lot of pre-European history too, but most of that isn't well recorded. And then there's the whole deal with the Walking Purchase, where Penn's reprobate son, the Proprietor Thomas, scammed the Lenape out of a whole lot of land with a forged document. But that is a topic for another blog post, and possibly another composition which I've been planning for a while. Look for that one of these Columbus Days.

** My friend Kendall Whitehouse has a copy of the G. W. Bromley Philadelphia Atlas published in 1910, which you can also view at Philadelphia GeoHistory, and which shows the same two-building configuration. He was also kind enough to scan the page showing 103 Callowhill -- see his reply to my post on facebook.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Music in The Cherry Orchard at People's Light

About eight years ago, back when we lived in our Downingtown house and I was still actively auditioning as an actor, I heard that there was a professional theater close by holding an open call. I was pretty excited by the idea of potential employment at a theater that didn't involve a 30-mile commute to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, at the time the only monologue I had under my belt that I could whip out at a moment's notice was bloody Juliet and her stupid vial speech. Unsurprisingly, I did not get a callback.

(One day I will write a whole blog about how sick I am of Juliet. Short version: very.)

Fast forward to last year, and out of the blue, thanks to a recommendation, I was finally given my first opportunity to be a part of a production at that same theater—but primarily as a composer and sound designer, though I'm also playing the violin live on stage. Of course, now I've moved to Philadelphia, so I have a wretched 30-mile commute in the other direction.

But it's worth it.

The Cherry Orchard at People's Light in Malvern is my first Chekhov. It's about time I popped that cherry, wakka wakka. It's a really great (mostly resident) company and a fantastic theater, led by artistic director Abigail Adams. And this play in particular stars Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. Dear readers, for the past month, I have been coming to work every day and having wonderful conversations with and receiving hugs from Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. Then I go home at night and watch them on TV, because they are in some of my favorite television shows. This is not something I imagined myself doing any time soon. It is pretty awesome.

In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard with Mary McDonnell. Picture by Emma Lee/WHYY.
Aside from rehearsals and performing, working on the music for this show has been unusually engaging and inspiring. The first task I was given was to set Yepikhodov's sung lines in Act II of the play. But rather than take the easy route of simply composing my own tunes to fit the words in Emily Mann's translation/adaptation, I postulated that Chekhov must have been referring to an existing song and opted instead to barrel down a research rabbit hole like a crazed dachshund.

In Chekhov's original play, Yepikhodov sings:

"Что мне до шумного света, что мне друзья и враги"

I don't speak or read Russian. Not even a little. I can kind of get around in Cyrillic by treating it as a form of simple substitution encryption, because I've had a little experience browsing the *cough* perhaps not 100% in copyright compliance *cough* sheet music archive Tarakanov. But I do have decent Google fu and some terrifically resourceful friends and contacts. I copy-pasted the Cyrillic lyrics into Google, and came up with the full text of the 1871 song “Спрятался месяц за тучку,” originally composed by Alexandre Dubuque (whose page on the Russian Wiki is much more expansive than the English version), with lyrics by poet Vasily Chuyevsky. Digging around in the aforementioned Tarakanov collection, I eventually found the sheet music (listed under "Unknown composer – Gypsy song").

Here are the lyrics in Russian as printed in that sheet music. There are other versions of the poem, but I am pretty convinced that these are the lyrics Chekhov knew. The second stanza here is the one quoted in The Cherry Orchard, although Chekhov made one slight change: "нам" ("we") has been replaced with "мне" ("I").
Спрятался месяц за тучку,
Больше не хочет гулять,
Дайже ты мне свою ручку,
К пылкому сердцу прижать.

Что нам до шумного света,
Что нам друзья и враги,
Было бы сердце согрето,
Жаром взаимной любви.

Когда ты со мною бываешь,
Я мало с тобой говорю.
Хо ты и без слов понимаешь,
Как страстно тебя я люблю.

Когда ты с другими бываешь,
Я взором слежу за тобой.
Жалею зачем ты с другими,
зачем ты опять не со мной.

Когда ты в раздумье глубоком,
любуюсь твоеы красотой.
мечтаю о счастье далеком;
Быть может, любим я тобой.
As far as I know, the song has never been translated into English in a way that scans with Dubuque's melody. In fact I can find no reference to any English language productions in which Dubuque's melody was used. Even Russian productions don't bother tracking down the original music.

The first thing I did was try my hand at an English translation, which was daunting. Not only is the song in a language I don't speak, Chuyevsky's poem uses archaic forms that aren't generally known to modern Russian speakers. For instance, the first line and title of the song includes the word "месяц" which for most Russians translates as "month." However, just as in English, the word "month" can also refer to the moon (in English of course they have the same root). Some of the Russian speakers I spoke to swore up and down that the word had to mean month, but eventually one of them asked her grandmother and confirmed that, indeed, месяц can mean moon in a poetic/archaic context.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I have some awesome and resourceful friends. One of them, Louis Greenstein, put me in touch with Joseph Brodsky's translator (!!!!) Barry Rubin. Mr. Rubin answered all my questions, set me on the right path in translating the song correctly, and pointed me toward some terrific information in this article by S. S. Yanitskaya, published in a Belorussian scholarly journal. Since the article is in Russian, and there isn't a published English translation, I doubt very much that I ever would have found it on my own. By this point my grasp of Russian and my ability to navigate the shortcomings of Google Translate were improving considerably.

Here's my version of the lyrics. Of course the exact translation had to be butchered to fit the meter, which anyone who has sung a song in two languages knows is nothing unusual. Also my rhyme scheme is ABCB because if I had shot for ABAB, I would have had to butcher meanings even further.
Under a cloud, the moon's hidden,
No longer wanting to shine;
Give me your right hand, my darling,
Tell me your heart will be mine.

What care I for the world's troubles?
What care I for friend or foe?
I'd have your heart to warm me
If you would be my own.

When you are with me, my darling,
I never know what to say.
But you always know what I'm thinking.
Passion will show me the way.

When I see you with another,
I'm filled with longing and pain.
I'll never feel love, my darling,
Till I am with you again.

Sometimes I see you a-dreaming.
How beautiful do you appear!
I dream that we are together
And happy forever, my dear.
And here's the PDF of the sheet music I created (click to download):

And finally, here's a quick little guerrilla video Matt helped me record this evening (opening night!) while sitting in the house before it opened. I am, of course, playing a mandolin, which Yepikhodov explicitly isn't.

A part of me wonders whether releasing all this information publicly might actually influence future English-language (or even Russian!) productions of The Cherry Orchard! I'm sure I'm saving some future composer or dramaturg a lot of time. If you're mounting a production of The Cherry Orchard and you want to use my translation or sheet music, please let me know - you won't have to pay me, just give me a tiny credit in the program.

I do have to say that the experience of chasing down this information made me realize how relatively segregated Russian music is from the rest of the Western canon. As Westerners who study music, we think we know something about Russian music because we're familiar with the usual suspects: Tchaikovsky, The Five, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, etc. But there are huge swathes of Russian music and musicology that are virtually unknown in the West (see also the song that Yasha sings a snippet of in Act III; the original "Поймёшь ли ты?" was by Natalya Rzhevskaya, a woman about whom I can find ZERO information online). I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the tumultuous history of Russia in the last 150 years. And some of it probably is probably an effect of the Iron Curtain. In any case, for a moment there, I almost felt like I wasn't a complete imposter with my almost-Ph.D. (ABD).

Oh, one other fun little trivial gem that I unearthed, despite my complete lack of Russian, is that this same song is referenced in the Nabokov short story "The Admiralty Spire":
In the evening, on the veranda, the gramophone’s gaping mouth, as red as the lining of a Russian general’s coat, would pour forth uncontrollable Gypsy passion; or, to the tune of ‘Under a Cloud the Moon’s Hidden,’ a menacing voice would mimic the Kaiser : ‘Give me a nib and a holder, to write ultimatums it’s time.’
Mr. Rubin looked at the story in the original Russian and confirmed I am correct! I love Nabokov, so this was pretty exciting to me.

I wrote a lot of other music for the show, including a two-step, a polonaise, and a waltz, (I also arranged several polkas by Glinka and the traditional lezginka), and of course the main show theme. I recorded all the music myself with Matt's help. Here's the main theme, which is already out there floating around in the background of radio promotion spots on WHYY and WRTI.

Opening night is now well underway (the famous string breaking sound is just about to play—it was exhilarating to make my own version of such a pivotal moment in theater), and pretty soon I have to get into my Jewish orchestra outfit to play in the third act, so I should sign off here. My bones ache from clearing out the Hannah for the last three days (more on that later). Life is pretty great.

The Cherry Orchard runs through March 8, and you can purchase tickets on the People's Light website.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A new addition to the family ... congratulations, it's a theater

I haven't blogged in months, partly because I've been very busy, and partly because I was afraid if I blogged before now, I wouldn't be able to keep from mentioning what I'm about to tell you, and I'd jinx myself.

Let me start from the beginning.

A few times in the past couple of years, Matt and I have idly discussed the idea of one day owning a property with a space that we could turn into some kind of music studio. It would be nice to have somewhere that isn't a windowless and somewhat smelly and damp basement where we could practice and record. Maybe I could also use it as a teaching space for both music and acting. Maybe we'd even be able to have small performances of some kind there. Every now and then, we'd window shop empty lots and buildings on sale nearby, and we'd dream.

In early July of last year, a house a block away from us went on the market, and out of curiosity, we took a look inside. It belonged to a sculptor (who incidentally worked with H.R. Giger - that's him on the far left in the group photo), and included a sizable artist workspace which might have worked for our purposes. But the price was much too high, especially for our area (over $600,000!), and the living space was too small, so we didn't pursue it.

I put the entire matter out of my mind, thinking we weren't ready to buy anything right now anyway. This was something to think about in the coming two or three years after extensive window shopping and research. But Matt liked to procrastinate bedtime by continuing to casually browse real estate listings on Zillow.

Only a week or so later, at 1:30AM on July the 16th to be precise, while I was busy wasting time on Facebook, I heard an urgent shout from Matt's office. "Mel! Mel, come here! Look at this! What ... what is this?"

Matt was staring incredulously at a very strange Zillow listing. The property was described as a studio apartment. With three bathrooms. 2,080 square feet. The location was only half a mile from Matt's work in Old City, and a block from the riverfront. And the listing had just been reduced from $425,000 to $375,000. That was still a lot of money, but not for the area. All these details were enough to warrant some curiosity, but it was the photos that made both of us yelp.

The exterior seems normal enough. A rowhome, though it appears to have at least two entrances. And then...


Of course the first thing we did was Google the address, 103 Callowhill Street, to find out what on earth we were looking at. We quickly discovered that the venue was called Grasso's Magic Theatre, and as its name suggests, the space was dedicated to magic shows. We had never heard of it, even though we live in the same zipcode. It had recently closed down, although it had been operational only three months earlier.

Here are a couple of shots of it in action:

Why had it closed down?
Why was it for sale?

The answer to those questions is sad and upsetting.

Sidebar: have you ever wondered why magic is such a gendered performance genre? Consider: how many professional female illusionists can you name? In fact, it seems to me that whenever I see women on stage in a magic show, their purpose seems to be to dress in sexually provocative costumes and have swords and knives thrust into them, or be locked inside boxes, or disappear. Think about that a moment. Consider also that a magician is essentially someone who makes a career out of professionally gaslighting children. TL;DR - this whole experience has left me thoroughly creeped out by magic.

But back to the real estate listing. Matt and I didn't sleep a wink that night. Our minds were racing. All we could think about as we tossed and turned was this apparently operational theater in an amazing location, and that maybe, just maybe, with our marketing chops and combined fingers in so many local performing arts pies, we could buy it and turn it into something wonderful. We contacted the agent.

Here are some pictures from our first look at the space.

It was kind of a mess, but it was still a theater. On the second floor is a tiny 480-square-foot efficiency apartment (hence the listing category) that was too small for two adults and four cats to live in. We realized that if we wanted to buy this space—and live above it—we would have to build a suitable apartment on top. This was a much bigger endeavor than the gut and renovation of our house in Downingtown. This project would involve architects and full scale construction, and dealing with Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections, and much more money than just the purchase price. Things were about to get very complicated.

Over the next seven months, the acquisition of this theater became a saga that manages to be both utterly terrifying and also incredibly boring to relate. A bad leak developed in the roof of the second floor and both the upstairs apartment and the lobby flooded. In September, while we were still in complicated talks with architects and several mortgage brokers, the property was foreclosed on, since the owner wasn't making any mortgage payments (he also owed over $42,000 in property taxes to the city). The mess that you see in the photos above became much, much worse. The owners stripped the theater of pretty much all the amenities, including the beautiful curtains that had once been rescued from a dumpster outside the Merriam Theatre and had been hemmed especially for the space (it broke my heart that they took them, since I can't imagine they would be useful to anyone but us). When the foreclosure sheriff's auction was held, the foreclosing bank refused to allow a low enough upset price for us to buy it directly.

After another month or so, with the condition of the building worsening, the foreclosing bank dropped the asking price to $300,000, and we decided to play ball. After much back and forth, we negotiated the price down to $265,000 and signed an agreement of sale. Meanwhile, we were jumping through endless flaming hoops trying to qualify for an FHA 203K loan which would help us with both the purchase price and the cost of construction. For several weeks on end, there was a crisis every three or four days that put the entire deal in jeopardy. The 203K loan turned out to have unreasonable restrictions on the size of the commercial space and demanded that the residential space be larger. The estimated cost of construction ballooned. I claimed too many tax deductions in 2013 to have my income count toward financing limits. Money gifted to us last year by my mother in Australia had to be traced minutely, requiring not only our bank statements but hers as well. A mind-melting catch-22 developed: the bank couldn't give us a loan until we had firm construction estimates, but we couldn't get firm construction estimates until we'd performed a structural investigation, which couldn't be performed until after we'd bought the property, which couldn't be bought until the bank gave us a loan.

Then all hell broke loose. The foreclosing bank was revealed to be a financing company that wasn't FDIC insured, meaning that the property was subject to an anti-flipping rule. Unless we could postpone the date of settlement, we couldn't get ANY bank to give us a mortgage. Simultaneously, we heard that the board of the directors of the foreclosing bank was actively trying to scuttle the agreement of sale because they had realized the property is in an ideal location for development and thought they were selling it too cheap. They weren't going to allow us to postpone anything. They'd much rather the entire deal fell through.

Bottom line: we had to raise cash for the sale, or we would have to forget the whole thing. The only good news was that if we could pay cash, we would save about $20,000 in closing costs compared to getting a mortgage.

We went into beg and liquidation mode. And we did it. We raised $265,000 cash plus an extra $10,000 or so in closing costs.

And it's ours.



We feel very broke, but we own a theater.

The next step is to leverage the property, and also probably our Downingtown house, to get a construction loan to build our living space on top. This is going to take some time. When it's finished, we'll sell our current Philly house and put all the cash we used to buy this house back where it belongs. And then we'll have a house with a 1600 square foot performance space cum music studio cum teaching space on the first floor.

Some things to note:

Because there is only one means of egress (front of the building), we are limited to 49 seats. The first floor of the building is 100% lot coverage, and the lot is landlocked on the back and sides, so we can't just knock in a door and call it an egress. We can deal with this limitation for now, but the ultimate goal would be to ask for (buy) an easement from the owner of the empty lot next door so we could put in a second means of egress on the side of the building and expand capacity.

There is a lot of development going on in the immediate neighborhood. In fact, our architect just bought the lot at 107 Callowhill Street and is building a five-story office and residential building there which will become their headquarters. There's also a massive apartment high-rise going up around the corner, and another one around the other corner, and a lot of plans for the waterfront in general. We're a block from Dave and Buster's, a couple of blocks from Festival Pier, and a few blocks from the new Fringe offices and the Painted Bride. And it's a ten-minute walk to Matt's work. Matt currently walks to work from our house which is two miles away, so this will cut his "commute" significantly.

Ideally, we will add two floors of residential space above the theater, and create two apartments, one of which we can live in, and the other which we can rent out for added income. According to code, we can only build on 70% of the total lot area (the first floor's 100% coverage is grandfathered in).

I of course went into crazy Ph.D. research mode, and was delighted to discover that Philadelphia has meticulous records of deeds and other historical resources that you can access online. I traced the deeds on the land back to the Penn Charter. In 1745, William Penn leased four lots, including this lot, to Benjamin Mifflin on the proviso that he "cause to be built thereon within the space of five years from the date hereof four good brick or stone messuages each of three stories high to the front of the said Callowhill Street." So there are almost certainly bricks in the structure and the foundation that predate America. I'll write a separate post showing my research later, in case anyone is as excited by it as I am. I've never lived on a property with easily accessed recorded history like this before.

I plan to make this a truly multidisciplinary space. We can play host to bands, classical recitals and concerts, theater shows (especially for the Fringe), improv and stand-up, puppet theater, and speaking events. It can be a rehearsal space. We can rent it out for events like weddings. I can teach music and acting there. I can let my friends teach there as well. I can one day fulfill my dream of opening up a composition school for girls.

Pretty much anything except magic. No magic shows allowed.

The first show is obviously going to be a massive Up Your Cherry extravaganza, like our 10th anniversary party.

And the name? We're calling it the Hannah Callowhill Stage, after Hannah Callowhill Penn who also lends her name to the street. She's kind of great. And hardly anyone I talk to has heard of her, so I'm very happy to give her some recognition. Keep an eye on and

(Maybe I could organize a Penn composer recital initiative and call it the Hannah Callowhill-Penn series LOLOLOL.)

If this blog seems rushed and loopy and poorly written, it's because I'm exhausted: in addition to closing on this property this week, I finished a choir piece for a commission, and I'm involved as a performer and composer/sound designer in The Cherry Orchard at People's Light and Theatre, which has its first preview tonight and opens officially on Saturday. The production stars Mary McDonnell (squeeee) and David Strathairn (squeeee), and hopefully I'll have time to write a separate blog entry about that. Maybe tomorrow.

Right now I have to order a dumpster for all the water damaged drywall and insulation, and research how to fix a roof leak as cheaply as possible, since eventually we'll be ripping it all off to build on top of it anyway. And then I have to find something to eat before call time.

I feel a bit nuts. And a bit amazed that this has happened. But I'm pretty sure this is all really, really good. Really good. Scary good.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Examples gross as earth exhort me: witness this one-person Hamlet I'm doing for the Philly Fringe

In a little under a week, I'll officially be treading the boards again as a Shakespearean actor, but with a twist: I'll be performing in South African playwright Robin Malan's one-person adaptation of Hamlet, quirkily renamed iHamlet, in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

Hamlet has a habit of showing up in my life at strangely synchronicitous times. Just one example: the first time I played Ophelia professionally (Gamut Theater 2006), my dad passed away a week before opening, which made my mad scenes after the death of Polonius some of the most painful performances I've ever had to give. Earlier this year, when Carmen Khan of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater approached me to be in iHamlet, I had coincidentally just purchased and hung on my wall a 7-foot-tall reproduction print of the 1899 Alphonse Mucha lithograph advertising Sarah Bernhardt's groundbreaking portrayal. That alone made me feel fated to accept the role, but when I read the play again, and then Robin Malan's distillation of the text, I was surprised by how many new parallels I could draw between the circumstances of Hamlet's distracted globe and my own. I may not be trying to avenge a murdered father, but I grew up in a chaotic household, and I realized with some shock that many of Hamlet's speeches echoed words I had hurled at my own family in its worst moments. I've faced (and continue to face) the paralysis of depression, with its accompanying overthinking, avoidance, and futile self-loathing that sabotages initiative and relationships. For the last five years, I've taken a break from the stage to concentrate on my academic studies at Wittenburg—or rather, the University of Pennsylvania—and now, as I continue to agonize over my doctoral dissertation (still not finished), there are no words in the world that ring truer than: 'I do not know why yet I live to say "This thing’s to do," sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do 't.'

So much for a certain public radio host's (quickly backpedaled) tweet a month ago about Shakespeare being "not relatable, unemotional." It's the extreme relatability of Hamlet that made putting together this work so easy, even though it's easily the most challenging role I've ever undertaken. Also sweeping my way: the clarity, creativity, and personability of director David O'Connor, who was so easy to work with, I hardly want to call it work.

To make it explicit when you can come and see this crazy thing, here are the dates/times:

Saturday September 6 @ 7PM (preview)
Sunday September 7 @ 7PM
Tuesday September 9 @ 7PM
Wednesday September 10 @ 7PM
Thursday September 11 @ 7PM
Friday September 12 @ 7PM
Saturday September 13 @ 7PM
Sunday September 14 @ 2PM

Purchase tickets at this link, and you'll be able to use discount code "HAMLET" for buy-one-get-one-free tickets (or "HAMLETJR" for student tickets).

All shows are at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater, 2111 Sansom Street, and you'll be out the door again in about 90 minutes, with enough time to spare to come say hello to me after the show.