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Make Our Garden Grow – The Ornamentals


Ornamental Garden – the purging has begun.

Of necessity, my decorative gardening work went a lot slower than putting in the annual vegetable patch.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, my husband and I pulled out pretty much everything in my ornamental garden, a fan-shaped plot about fifteen feet across and nearly as deep.  Some years ago I made the error of planting a trumpet vine in the garden.  I had a clematis growing up a cheap metal arch in the middle of the garden, but the clematis never did that well and I decided to start the trumpet vine up the other side of the arch.  Well, the trumpet vine liked where it was so well that it grew and grew and got heavier and heavier until it was almost too much weight for the arch.  A windstorm blew it over one day; we managed to jimmy the thing back up but knew it was a matter of time before everything came crashing down.  Hurricane Irene in 2011 delivered the coup de grâce.  We were out of town due to a family death and came home to the sight of the whole arch crumpled across the garden.  I should have pulled everything out then and there, but I didn’t, and the vine kept growing and growing, until it, along with two big patches of sawgrass and a pair of scruffy bushes (species unknown), had pretty much taken over the garden.  2012 flew by and I was too busy/uninspired/lazy to deal with it, but in early spring of this year I had a happy confluence of good weather, unemployment and fresh determination, and started pulling the ornamental garden apart.


One haircut down, one to go.

I wish I’d taken some photos before I actually began yanking out stuff, but the photo above will give you an idea of the mess.  What you’re seeing is mostly the sawgrass and the bushes; I had already pulled out the trumpet vine and the remnants of the metal arch (so rusted that I could snap it apart with my bare hands).  Some of the vine is piled in the foreground.  I knew I wanted to move the sawgrass to the side of the garden nearest the house, but first they had to get their spring haircuts so they’d be manageable.  Then I’d have to dig both plants up – a daunting prospect.  Sawgrass plants don’t strike deep roots, but the rooting is thatchy and stubborn, and my plants are quite large.  To your left is a photo of the sawgrass plants – one pre-haircut, one post.  I used my electric hedge-trimmer for the buzzcuts.

Once the sawgrass were trimmed, I dug them up using a combination of spade and mattock.  Yes, boys and girls, I had to chop them out.  Once the largest one was uprooted, I actually had to sit down and lever it out of the ground with my feet – it was that massive.  Out of the ground, the plants were hard to move; I was able to drag the smaller one (by the short hairs, so to speak) but the larger one had to be turned on its side and rolled, like a barrel.


Aha! Hosta!

About the only thing left in the garden at this point were a liriope plant, some daylilies, a bunch of dependable sedum, a bleeding heart (which had already bloomed in spectacular fashion), the two nondescript bushes and an azalea, which had not enjoyed being overwhelmed by the fallen trumpet vine and looked pretty scraggly.  The nondescripts, on the other hand, looked positively robust.  John has always hated those bushes and we could never agree on how they should be pruned, so when he asked if we could remove them entirely, I saw yes.  I bundled and bagged while he chopped, and we had them out in no time.  Then we raked all the rubbish out and discovered that the hosta I was certain had been killed by neglect were, in fact, still alive and beginning to push through the soil.  I knew I’d have to move them, but I wanted them pop through a little more before I did.

About this time my mother informed me that she was sending me a birthday gift of plants, so I was able to begin planning the garden’s layout.  With the nondescript bushes removed, I had a lot more space to deal with.  I knew I wanted some kind of small tree in the center of the garden and toyed with the idea of a fig tree, but eventually John and I decided to buy ourselves a 20th anniversary tree, in the form of a dwarf Japanese weeping cherry.  We bought a pretty one at our local nursery and planted it carefully, then netted it against the ominous warnings about Brood II cicadas and the damage they can do to young trees.  I still wanted a fig three, though, and the ornamental cherry reminded John of the cherry tree he had planted in his family’s yard long ago (and which is still going strong as of this writing).  We decided we wanted those, too, although they would get places in the yard rather than in the garden.  The bare-root saplings arrived quickly and were planted and netted posthaste.


Dwarf Weeping Cherry


Brown Turkey Fig


Dwarf Cherry “Northstar”


Dwarf Cherry “Lapin Sweet”

So here they are – our four little trees.  I realize some of them hardly look like trees at all – more like sticks covered with black cotton candy – but all of them are budding and leafing and showing every sign that they’re trying to get established.  I am praying that the Brood II cicadas (which have yet to appear in our area – thank you, long cool spring) will leave them alone, but I know we’ll have to be vigilant.

The gifts from my mother arrived in dribs and drabs – in fact, I’m still awaiting a shipment of crocosmia – but I ended up with doubles of some plants, so I guess I can’t complain.  Instead of a single hydrangea, I got two – a pair of Snow Queen Oakleaf Hydrangeas.  This entailed a certain amount of replanning in the ornamental garden, which entailed having to shift the liriope yet again – the poor thing had already been moved twice and wasn’t happy about it.  I got everything planted and the garden finally has a shape to it, although because so many of the new plants are quite young and small, it looks rather empty at the moment.  I’m sure with time and care, everything will expand to fill its place.  Yesterday we weeded yet again and then laid down some mulch, and I’m giving some thought to how I want to fill in the gaps until everything gets established.  Until then, it’s weed, feed, water and watch – and cross fingers that the cicadas won’t be as awful as everyone predicts.


The rebirth of the ornamental garden.


Bonus photo: herb garden and some of the potted stuff on the deck. The rocks in the herb garden are being eyeballed as part of a potential rock garden.

Kentucky Shaker Weekend – Part Two


An open gate at South Union Shaker Village.

As I headed south through Kentucky, the snow disappeared and the sun played hide and seek with the clouds.  Even without the snow it was still cold and blustery as I got off I-65 and turned west on US 68/State Route 80.

I had been on this stretch of road back in August, when I had accompanied John on a trip to Cave City, KY and made a quick side jaunt to visit my mother.  The drive is a pretty one, on a good road that passes through rolling farmland and never seems to be heavily traveled.  I had noted signs for another Shaker Village on that trip, and that’s where I was headed now.

In the early 1800s this part of the country was a hotbed of religious activity.  The Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement, sent evangelical ministers into newly settled regions to enroll new members via camp meetings.  Lucy Wright, leader of the Shakers at the time, sent her missionaries to proselytize in Vermont, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky, and it was at this time that several Shaker communities were established.  The Pleasant Hill settlement was one, and another was located at South Union, in Logan County.

Like Pleasant Hill, the Shaker community at South Union thrived during the pre-Civil War era and produced furniture, textiles and farm implements and was part of the birth of the seed industry in the area.  And like Pleasant Hill, South Union also suffered economic setbacks after the war, resulting in a decrease in membership.  (Remember, these folks practiced celibacy, so new members had to come from the outside, rather than being born into the faith.)  The South Union community last a few years longer than Pleasant Hill, with its remaining members selling off the settlement’s worldly goods and property at public auction and closing its doors in 1922.  Restoration of this site began in 1971.

The South Union site sits about a mile off the main road and consists of five buildings on approximately 500 acres of land.  There’s a small visitor center with a gravel parking lot, and that’s where I headed first.  The nice young man running the visitors center gave me a dollar off the $8.00 admission fee since I’d visited Pleasant Hill – even though the two organizations aren’t connected.  There were no tours that day and I had the place all to myself, but he told me the main building, which houses a museum and gift shop, was open, and that I was free to walk around as I pleased.


Shaker barn.

So I did.

I bundled up in my gloves and parka and fleece headband and struck off across a nearby field to visit the Shaker Grain Barn.  It was wide open and felt just a little eerie; the wind was gusting and making all the loose bits creak and groan.  I explored it a little:  went up some staircases that were roped off at the top and it would have been easy just to step over the ropes to explore further – but it was just too creepy.  In fact, the whole area seemed a bit creepy – maybe it was because I was by myself, or because the wind was blowing so hard or because I keep seeing starling murmurations overhead (I took some videos of my own but they didn’t come out very well).  I decided to walk further out into the fields, and that’s when I came upon the Shaker cemetery.

When the few remaining Shakers sold out and left the area in 1922, they left behind a sizeable graveyard with some 425 people buried there.  Some of the graves were marked with stone markers, and others with iron “lollipop” markers.  A Louisville businessman bought much of the Shaker property, including the burial ground.  So what did he do with it?  He took down the fence around it, pulled up the stone markers and had them ground up and used to lime the fields.  Apparently he also had the iron lollipop markers simply plowed under, because the restoration folks have founds shards of them by the bucketful.  The cemetery was built upon and cultivated, and for the longest time no one was exactly certain where the graves were.  Eventually a grant allowed the non-profit which runs the site to bring in ground-penetrating radar, and the gravesites were finally located.


The Shaker cemetery, with the nearby Fathers of Mercy complex in the background.

Now the cemetery has a fence again, and a single monolithic stone marker serves as a memorial to all the Shakers who rest there.  It’s a sobering sight, and with the starlings whirring and wheeling overhead, a little melancholy as well.

I made my way over to the village’s Center House, which houses the museum.  It’s an imposing brick building but it smelled wonderful when I walked in:  warm and scented with coffee and baked goods.  That’s because the gift shop is located on the bottom floor.  I decided to save that until last and worked my way up through the museum.  It’s beautifully laid out and the exhibits are fascinating.  There’s a whole section dedicated to the cemetery, with a case full of those shattered iron lollipop grave markers that have been painstakingly pieced together, along with supporting documents from the settlements’ papers – so much so that the former residents came alive as I read their histories.  I was also startled at the amount of artifacts and furniture on display that was ORIGINAL to the site (most of the furniture at Pleasant Hill seemed to be reproduction).  Apparently the local folks that came to the South Union auction back in ’22 cherished their Shaker purchases and were kind enough to return pieces when restoration of the site began.


View out the window of the Center House.

After I’d spent an hour or so in the museum, I went downstairs to the gift shop.  The prices seemed far more reasonable than at Pleasant Hill, and I bought some soaps and tea and herb mixtures, the latter from Sabbathday Lake in Maine, the last active Shaker community in the United States.  I also bought an unusual “turkey wing” whisk broom to use on my potting bench, which turned out to have been made by the young man running the visitors center (he stopped in to help the lady in the gift store with a computer issue).  He told me he had taught himself how to make them by studying pictures, and invited me to stop back by the visitors center to see some hawk-wing whisks he’d been working on.

From the museum I pottered around on the grounds for a while, but the afternoon was starting to wane, I still had another hour or so to drive and I knew my mother was waiting for me.  I stopped back by the visitors center to look at the hawk-wing whisks, but the young man wasn’t there although the whisks were.  I had a look at them, admiring the handiwork and the patience that they must have taken.  I was charmed at the thought of that earnest young man, greeting visitors on a cold February morning and using his spare time to make by hand a utilitarian item that could be mass-produced in a matter of seconds by machine – but where’s the beauty in that?  As the Shakers said:

“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

Kentucky Shaker Weekend – Part One


The view from my bedroom at Pleasant Hill, about 7 AM on a cold, snowy morning.

My mother’s birthday is in early February.  Since that usually coincides with the end of the run of whatever holiday show I’ve booked, my practice is to take a few days and drive down to northwest Tennessee.  I celebrate Mom’s birthday with her, visit my sister Joan and her kids, maybe see my Aunt Julia who lives a few hours away.  I always enjoy the trip except for the drive, which involves about ten and a half solid hours in the car, mostly on interstates, with very little scenery and no time to stop even if there was something to see.

This year I decided to shake things up a little and go a different route.  Normally I go south through Virginia and then west through Tennessee to get to my mom’s, but this time I decided to go through West Virginia and Kentucky.  I knew it would add another hour to my travel time, but I thought it might be fun to break the trip halfway and stop overnight someplace.  That would give me time to do a little sightseeing on the way.  I started doing a little internet research but kept coming up with chain hotels and the same old/same old B&Bs.

Then I stumbled on the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.  It’s in Harrodsburg, KY and was a little further down the road than I had originally planned to go on my first travel day, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became.

The Shakers, or as they call themselves, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, is a religious sect started in the mid-1700s with an emphasis on ecstatic worship services, a celibate communal life, equality of the races and sexes, hard work and craftmanship, and the belief that doing something well was, in itself, an act of prayer.  The settlement at Pleasant Hill was established in 1805 and thrived for nearly fifty years before the post-Civil War industrial revolution changed both society and the economy.  After a long, slow decline, the settlement closed its doors in 1910, but restoration work began in 1961 and the site today features 36 of the original 260 structures built by the Pleasant Hill Shakers.

As one might expect, Pleasant Hill is most popular in warmer months, but even in February one can stay in one of the restored buildings.  I was able to book a room in the West Family Dwelling (with private bath) for a single night at a cost that was in line with rates at chain hotels in the nearby Lexington area.  The Winter Kitchen, located in the basement of the building, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so I made a dinner reservation as well, packed my stuff in the car and on a cold and blustery morning, headed out.


My Shaker reproduction bed, complete with Tempur-Pedic mattress.

I had some delays along the way and ended up driving the final miles of the trip down a winding back road in the dark, so I was grateful when I arrived at the village entrance.  I had to drive to the Trustees’ Building to check in, then drive to the West Family Dwelling.  I’d asked for a quiet room with a pretty view, which meant I was on the third floor, but I knew this in advance and had packed an overnight bag just for this leg of the trip.  I hurried up all the pretty staircases, stashed stuff in my room and then ran downstairs just in time for my 7:30 dinner reservation.  The cozy Winter Kitchen serves a limited menu – only about three or four choices – so I decided on the country tart, which turned out to be a sort of vegetable quiche.  I like quiche, they had some nice wines to choose from and my little table was near the hearth with a good fire, so I was happy.  A dozen or so Mary Kay ladies had a large table near me and their makeup chatter didn’t really go with the ambiance of the place, but I was still in a good mood when I climbed the steps to my room once more.  There was a little TV in a Shaker-style cabinet in one corner of the room and a little rocking chair to watch it from, but I opted to unpack the travel laptop and try to get some work done before I went to bed.  Unfortunately the wi-fi reception in the room was spotty so I gave up after a while.  I wanted to get in some sightseeing time in the village before I left in the morning, so I had a shower, set my alarm (I had an 8 AM breakfast reservation), read for a while and then turned out the lights.  In addition to the Mary Kay ladies, there was some meeting of college-age girls going on in the building and I heard the occasional outburst from them, but by and large the place was lovely and quiet and I slept well.


My breakfast table in the Winter Kitchen.

In the morning I had a surprise – snow!  (See the first picture above.)  It was so pretty, but I could tell it was going to be a cold, blustery morning and was glad I’d packed warm clothes in my overnight bag.  I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast and was just about the first one there, so I got my pick of tables.  Of course, I chose the one right by the hearth and it was delicious to sit there sipping tea and eating biscuits with the crackling fire so warm and close.  Breakfast itself was nothing to write home about; on the weekends they do a buffet-style thing and the reconstituted eggs and bacon in warming trays weren’t very appetizing.  They also had pastries and oatmeal and cold cereal, just like any chain hotel’s free breakfast.  I filled up on biscuits with butter and jam and lots of hot tea, then ran up to my room for my luggage.  I packed the car and brushed about two inches of soft, pretty snow off the windshield, et al, and then drove over to the main parking lot and left the car there.  It was snowing pretty hard but I was warm and full of breakfast so I walked over to the Trustees’ Building to check out – maybe a quarter of a mile.  The nice lady who checked me out seemed surprised that I wanted to buy a ticket to tour the village, but she assured me that many of the buildings would be open at 10 AM and I was free to stroll around as I liked until then.

So I did.

Pleasant Hill has a kind of Colonial Williamsburg vibe going on, but I expect that even on busy days it’s nowhere near as crowded as C.V., and this was definitely NOT a busy day.  In fact, I had the whole place pretty much to myself.  I’m not all that hepped on the insides of old buildings but I do enjoy the outsides and it was fun to trudge down the deserted village streets with the snow scrunching under my boots and the wind whipping around my face.  I had a fleece headband as well as my jacket hood to keep me dry and relatively warm, and I also had a map of the place the nice lady had given me.  I discovered that there were working farm buildings in the eastern half of the village, so I hiked off in that direction.  Soon I saw a large black barn in the distance and as I got closer, saw a pen full of frisky goats having their morning constitutional.  I went over for a visit and was joined by a large and insistent cat.


Kitty and goat confab.

Everyone was covered in snow but still friendly enough; the goats kicked and capered and tried to nibble my coat through the fence and the cat positively yowled until I petted it (and then got so excited that it tried to bite me, fickle creature).  I spent a good long while playing with the goats and then moved down the road to a turkey pen, with a single large tom turkey in dignified residence, and then further still to snow-covered pastures lined with stone walls, where a lot of cattle were standing patiently, their hides frosted white.

It was nearly 10 AM by then so I mushed back to the Visitors’ Center.  The gift shop was just opening so I had a look in there – the prices were jaw-droppingly high – and then strolled down the village’s main drag to the Centre Family dwelling, which is used as a museum.  A pair of lovely elderly ladies in Shaker garb were doing the docent thing while ironing shirts and doing other picturesque things.  They were pleasant enough but seemed content to leave me to my own devices, so I went up and down the staircases, snapping pictures to my heart’s delight.


So many pretty windows with lovely snowy views.


Going up the stairs to a spare and pretty Shaker hall.

I went back outside and noodled around some more.  Signs led me to the eastern section of the village and the little Shaker graveyard, which was particularly poignant in the snow.  I saw some geese in a half-frozen pond, many more cattle and some donkeys sharing some hay with a few sheep.  I also finally began to see other people; a few brave folks were out wandering like me, but mostly people seemed to be shuttling between their cars and the West Family Dwelling.  The snow was letting up but it was still blustery.  I knew I had another three or four hours to travel to my mother’s house, and I also knew there was another Shaker village I wanted to visit along the way, so reluctantly I went back to my car, brushed off the fresh accumulation of snow, and pointed my nose to the southwest.

I’d like to go back to Pleasant Hill one day – maybe in the autumn.  I bet it’s gorgeous in the autumn.  But Pleasant Hill in an early February snowfall is pretty darned magical.


Cattle in the snow.


One of the restored buildings.


In the Pleasant Hill cemetery.


View of the pond and the fields beyond.


The snow is letting up and the sun is trying to peek through the clouds as I get ready to leave Pleasant Hill.

Waxing Philosophical (A Lesson from T.H. White)

I hauled out my battered copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King last night to look up a particular quote, one I had been thinking about using as a signature for emails and such.  I hadn’t read the book in some time, and it took me a few minutes to locate it.  I have a large and not terribly well organized personal library, and things tend to get shifted around when I get new acquisitions or attempt to cull a few books from the mass.

I finally found the book on a top shelf with my few treasured fantasy novels, cheek by jowl with J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin and Douglas Adams.  I stood thumbing through the pages for a while, enjoying the sensation of rediscovery, like seeing an old friend after a long time apart.  I knew the quote occurred in “The Sword in the Stone,” the first section of the book, but I dawdled a while before getting down to the actual search.

I do so love White’s narrative voice:  whimsical, wry and yet wistful.  When I was a child, the animated Disney version of “The Sword in the Stone” was one of my favorite movies, but after I read the book I found it difficult to watch the film again.  Compared to White’s prose, the movie’s tone seems all wrong – raucous and coarse.

Eventually I got down to business and found the quote I was seeking.  It’s in the latter part of “The Sword in the Stone,” where Merlyn has informed The Wart that the time has come for them to part ways.  I was startled to see that during some previous reading of the book, I had circled the page number and drawn a star next to one of the paragraphs.  Clearly, the section had spoken to me before.  The starred graph is actually earlier than the quote I was seeking, and with a genuflection to the gods of Fair Use and Proper Attribution, here is the paragraph:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

Dear old Merlyn goes on at some length about what one can learn, and how long one can spend learning it.  The Wart is feeling low because he has already been cast aside by his childhood companion Kay, who is about to be made a knight, and he feels worse knowing that Merlyn is leaving and he will lose the two people closest to him at the same time.

I stood re-reading the paragraph and wondering what circumstances in my own life had driven me to circle that page number so I could find it again.  It had to have been at some time of major upheaval which no doubt caused me a lot of sorrow, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was now.  But I think I must have gone off with the lesson ringing in my head, because I am a learning fool when I get curious about a topic.  That’s the beautiful part about writing and acting both:  research is a huge part of both crafts, and there is nothing more satisfying than packing your brain full of wonderful information that, while it may never find its way onto either the page or the stage, can still inform the choices you make.

A few paragraphs below the one I marked lies the quote I wanted.  Merlyn asks The Wart if, in all the years he has been under Merlyn’s tutelage, The Wart has learned anything.  The Wart responds:

“I have learned, and been happy.”

Something about those words makes my heart leap every time I see them.  I’ve underlined them now, so I can find them more easily.  If I was ever to have an epitaph, that is what I would want it to be – but since I plan to be cremated and scattered (along with a generous libation from a really good bottle of Pinot Noir), I have engraved the words on my heart instead.  A cure for cancer or world peace may be beyond the scope of my ability or skill, but to be able to look back at the end of my life and say those words truthfully – for me, that would be a life well lived, and more than enough.





Getting Lost

It isn’t often that John and I have free days that coincide, but when that happens, we like to drive out somewhere and just get lost.  Our jaunts usually have a destination, but once we get there and have done whatever it was we drove out there to do, then it’s time to just get in the car and noodle around to see what we can see.  What with onboard GPS and cellphone navigation apps, it’s hard to actually “get lost,” but we try our hardest.

Yesterday we drove west to the Sperryville area to visit the Copper Fox Distillery and learn about making whiskey.  Neither of us drink whiskey, but we’re curious about the recent uptick in boutique distilleries in the area.  Some months back we visited Catoctin Creek Distillery and found it interesting, so we thought it might be fun to see another distillery in action.  It was a beautiful day and we drove the whole way with the windows down, enjoying a taste of early autumn while Betty in the Box (our name for the onboard GPS system) gave us the directions.  We got there just in time to take the distillery tour, which was free but did not include samples – which was fine because neither of us drink whiskey.

We got to see big bags of barley.  We got to see barley being sprouted and barley being smoked.  We got to see barley fermenting in great big vats, which makes the mash that makes the whiskey and also gets fed to happy area cows, who apparently knock each other down to get to the mash when it’s delivered (we were assured that this is only because the barley mash tastes nice – the alcohol has been cooked out by the time the cows get to it.  We actually tasted some of the sprouted barley and it ain’t bad).  And then we got to see the distilling setup, which was not nearly as complicated as I thought it would be.  We got to see the whiskey in its charred white oak barrels, sitting on shelves aging quietly except for the occasional break in routine when the distillers roll the barrels around the floor to shake things up a bit.  And we got to smell but not taste the finished single malt whiskey and the rye and compare the two, which was fine because we don’t drink whiskey.  And then we bought a bottle of the single malt.  Don’t ask me why – we don’t drink whiskey.

And then we got back in the car and looked at each other and said “let’s go noodle.”  This means we’re just going to drive until we see something that interests us enough to stop, and it’s my favorite part of our little jaunts.  This time, however, we were also looking for a place to eat dinner.  We bypassed a couple of likely-looking spots in Sperryville because John had a hankering for barbeque.  We drove south past Culpeper and saw a small-town parking lot flea market where someone was serving barbeque from a truck, but we passed that, too.  We noodled further south to Mineral but didn’t find anyplace that looked exciting, so I did a little cellphone survey and found a ‘que place back in Culpeper that got high marks on Yelp.  It seemed a wee bit pricey for ‘que, but we were hungry so we plugged the address of The Culpeper Cattle Company into Betty and pointed our nose north once more.

Culpeper is one of those towns that has a couple of refurbished historic blocks in its downtown area featuring shops and restaurants with names like It’s About Thyme and Green Roost and Hazel River Inn and Miss Minerva’s Tea Room & Gifts, and we figured a ‘que place with a name like Culpeper Cattle Company and three dollar-bill signs on its Yelp reviews (meaning “Pricey”) would be located in this district.  We weren’t wrong, and the signage on the restaurant, with added “at the Stable” language (which gave it an even more gentrified sound, sort of like like Stratford-upon-Avon) was in keeping with the overall appearance of the area.  There was an outside deck that seemed pretty busy, so we opted to go inside and check with the host/hostess to see if there was a wait.

When we stepped inside, we discovered that the fancy sign is as fancy as this place gets.  The dining area was small – only eleven tables (mostly booths) – and the kitchen/service area opened right onto it.  I suppose we looked confused; someone in a booth hollered, “Sit anywhere!” and so we did – at the only available table, which was dead in the middle of the only path to the kitchen.  We were greeted almost immediately by a kinda-punky, kinda-pregnant but very self-assured young server who gave us menus and brought us a drink orders: two diet cokes.  We acquainted ourselves with the menu and had a look around.  I was a wee bit startled to see that there was apparently no place for the waitstaff to put their personal belongings – purses were stowed between the soft drink fountain and the only two-person table in the place, which was occupied by a biker-y looking dude.  He seemed right at home, though – he got up a couple of times to refill his own drink and actually disappeared from the restaurant for about 15 minutes, but he also assured us that the food was good.  I ordered a brisket and sausage sandwich with a side of collard greens; John asked for a half-rack platter, and we settled back to wait for our food.  I was thirsty so I’d already sucked down most of my diet, and it was about that time that I noticed the waitstaff struggling with the soda dispenser.

Turns out that our two drinks had drained the Diet Coke fountain dry, and there was NO MORE DIET COKE.  Our waitress offered to sub some other beverage, so I asked for an unsweetened iced tea and John decided to have a beer and a glass of water.  The beer and the tea and the glass of water were duly fetched, but within moments the staff determined that there was also NO MORE UNSWEETENED ICED TEA – that mine was, in fact, the last of it.  Our waitress told us she would have to make some more.  She was so dry and unembarrassed about the situation that I had to laugh.

About fifteen minutes passed and here came our waitress again, and something in her expression told me she had more news for us. Actually, the news was for John – she clapped him on the shoulder and told him the ribs were still in the smoker and WOULD NOT BE READY FOR ANOTHER FIFTEEN MINUTES.  He looked nonplussed; the waitress shrugged; I howled with laughter, so much that everyone else in the restaurant peered over at us.  Most of the other patrons merely looked amused, but a woman in a nearby booth began to study us.  I told the waitress not to wait my order; I was starving.  Off the waitress trotted; over came the woman from the booth, who informed us that she was SURE she knew us from somewhere and were we from Culpeper.  We said no, we were from the DC area and were rarely in the Culpeper vicinity.  She repeated that she KNEW US FROM SOMEWHERE and that she NEVER FORGETS A FACE and then, barely modulating her voice, told us she was with the Virginia State Troopers and had we EVER BEEN PULLED OVER BY HER?  We had to inform her that no, we’d never been pulled over by her or any other State Trooper in the area; so sorry.  I made a joke about Bonnie and Clyde but it didn’t go over terribly well and the woman’s smile became a little fixed as she retired to her booth, still giving us strange looks.  I was chewing on my lip to keep from laughing and eventually the woman and her companion left, but not without stopping again to tell us she was SURE SHE KNEW US and IT WOULD COME TO HER EVENTUALLY. 

We’d been waiting for another fifteen minutes before my food arrived and I have to confess it was a grave disappointment.  The collard greens were completely unseasoned – not even salted – although they tasted very fresh.  There was no hot sauce or vinegar on the table but there were two squirt bottles of barbeque sauce on the table so I squirted a dollop of sauce from one of them into the greens, which at least gave them a little flavor.  My sandwich came with something advertised on the menu as “fresh cut seasoned potato chips,” and they were kind of thick cut and snappy when you bit into them but without any flavor beyond a faint and rather odd sweetness.  John and I decided to try the hot sauces on the potato chips to see which one we liked better, but as nearly as we could tell both bottles contained the identical sauce, which was sort of sweet and sort of hot but really not much of either.  The first bite of my sausage and brisket sandwich was flavorful, though – the sausage was nice and spicy, the brisket tender and the cole slaw topping it was tasty and fresh.  The brisket could have used a rub or something, though – if the sandwich hadn’t contained the spicy sausage, it would have been pretty darned dull.

Right about then one of the servers came in with two two-liter bottles of Diet Coke, and our waitress dryly informed us that she loved us enough to send out for Diet Coke.  So mad props to her for that.  John’s platter of ribs showed up shortly after.  It was served up with corn on the cob and a piece of cornbread, as well as the two sides he ordered with it:  french fries and slaw.  I sampled the fries; they were quite good.  John liked the corn, but when I tried the cornbread it was nearly inedible – hard and flavorless and stick-in-the-throat dry.  The waitress offered butter to go with the cornbread, but it would have taken a LOT of butter to soften that cornbread up enough to eat it.  We passed.  John’s ribs, while very nicely cooked, were also without flavor except for the thin coating of barbeque sauce they’d been slathered with prior to serving.  Someone in the kitchen needed to get acquainted with the salt and pepper shakers, at least.

So the food was kind of a bust, but our waitress and the clientele were entertaining enough to make up for it.  We even got a senior discount and a free cookie, which took some of the sting out of the bill.  We tipped our waitress 25%, which seemed to surprise her Not At All.  I had to admit it:  she had blasé down to a fine art.

 Would we go there again?  Probably not, but if you add in the entertainment value, it wasn’t a bad way to end a day of Getting Lost.

Wheeeee! (Opening Night Party)

The opening night bash for Ragtime was held at Tavern On The Green in Central Park. Many of us had had our fingers crossed that the event would be at the Roseland Ballroom, largely because it was right across the street from the theatre. But the Tavern it was, and shuttle buses were ready take the cast members from the theatre to the party. Guests had to find their own way there, so John and Debbie had instructions to take a cab and go on to the party, since I still had to get ready.

Savannah and I dashed to our dressing room and frantically started repairing the damage from the opening night performance. Both of us had long hair that had been in pincurls all night, so our hair was curly, if nothing else. I had a curling iron to fix the curls that were bent at weird angles, but eventually realized the best way to go was just sweep everything off my forehead, spray it in place and call it a night. Savannah fiddled with some hairpieces but then decided just to go with her own lovely locks. We’d both agonized over our dresses; she’d ended up having hers made, and I finally found one I liked at Lord & Taylor. So we went from this:

To this:

And all in the space of about 30 minutes, which may be a new world record. We did pause long enough to drink a toast with some prosecco that had been a gift from two of the ensemble men (in champagne flutes provided by our wonderful dresser, Rose Keogh). Savannah was ready first, so she scurried down to meet her boyfriend and was gone before I knew it, I took a more leisurely speed of necessity, since I was wearing VERY high heels and they were turning out not to be terribly comfortable. I paused in the stage left wing to get a photo with some of the ladies of the ensemble:

From L to R, Carey Brown, Carly Hughes, Mamie Parris, me, Tracy Olivera, Lisa Karlin, Jennifer Evans.

The shuttle buses were parked across the street from the theatre, so I picked up the train of my dress, started across the street in a stately and elegant manner, and promptly caught the heel of one shoe in a manhole cover. I had to actually step out of the shoe and stand on one foot before I was able to yank the damn thing free. Then I got on the shuttle and we were rushed to the party.

Upon arrival, I was culled from the bus riders by our PR people and hurried into what I can only call the photo corral. I waited in line until they called my name, then stood like a ninny in front of the a bunch of photographers. Savannah had been ahead of me and coolly posed like a pro, laughing and smiling, but I was flummoxed by the whole experience (particularly the photographers calling “Look here, Donna! Look here, Donna!”) and the photographs that showed up in the press the next day showed it. This is one of the better shots, but I still look a little befuddled. The PR people hustled me out of the photo corral and sent me in to the party, bypassing the area where select company members were actually asked to SPEAK to the press – which is probably just as well, as I think the most I could have provided at that moment was a dumb look. I was waylaid by a reporter in the hallway and didn’t even realize he was taping until midway through the conversation when I saw his recorder; I doubt I said anything of any significance and fortunately never heard or read any of my quotes in any subsequent publication, which was probably a good thing. Finally I made my way into the party and spent nearly half an hour in the crush of people trying to find John and Debbie. We kept missing each other on the cell phone, and I was having a terrible time juggling my drink (club soda – I was parched) and the cell phone and trying to keep my train from under other guests’ feet at the same time. I was actually starting to get a little teary when we finally located each other.

Then came the struggle to find a place to sit down. I had been on my feet for less than an hour and was already discovering that the Very High Heels were a Very Bad Idea. All the tables seemed to have reserved signs on them, but finally we found one that was largely vacant and the few folks sitting there welcomed us to sit with them. John dutifully went off to get us some food, and I took a moment to breathe and look around. It was absolute madness – crowded and loud and sparkly and festive, but in a really overwhelming way. I saw a few famous faces go by but was simply content to look at them and drink my club soda. Eventually John returned with a plate of food and a more festive beverage for me; we shared the food (I really never eat much at parties; someone always stops for a chat or a kiss when you’ve just taken a bite of something greasy). There was a band nearby and Debbie promptly went off to dance.

At one point John turned to me and said, “Tell me how you’re feeling right now.”

“I wish everything would just slow down – it’s all going by so fast!” I answered. So we slowed down for a minute.

I love this photo. John looks so happy, and I look almost normal at this point. I was finally starting to relax and enjoy myself (I think my feet were also going a bit numb, which was a relief). After our nosh, we got up and socialized a bit. It was an unseasonably warm night, particularly for November in New York, so we went out onto the Tavern’s patio, with its topiaries and sparkling lights. Everyone had a camera and we kept stopping to take pictures. Here are a bunch of “Me With ______” photos:

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge….

James Moore, conductor and music director…

Playwright Terrence McNally…

Robert Petkoff (Tateh)…

Max Woodward, Vice President of Theatre Programming, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts…

Mark Aldrich (Willy Conklin)…

Nicole Powell (Ensemble)….

And a giant topiary bunny.

I think John would have happily stayed much longer, but the combination of a long week, a long night, numb feet and the knowledge that I would have to be back at the theatre at noon made me less inclined to stay. We gathered up Debbie and made our way out of the Tavern. I’m glad John thought to get this photo of Debbie and me at the Tavern’s entrance. A month and a half later, the Tavern went out of business after decades as a New York City landmark.

The cab dumped us out at the corner of 54th and 8th. Debbie walked down two blocks to her hotel, and John and I walked up to my building. We got out of our glad rags and I sat down at the computer to look at the reviews as they rolled in. Many were quite good, but the New York Times, was a little tepid – although Ben Brantley called my performance “rousing,” which was nice to see. By the time we climbed into bed, it was close to 3 AM, and I regretfully set the alarm for 9 AM, knowing that it would arrive all too soon.

The People Called It RAGTIME! (Part 2)

While I was getting ready to go onstage, John was outside taking video of the crowds outside the Neil Simon Theater. Even though my dressing room faced 52nd Street where this footage was shot, I was completely unaware of what was going on outside.

Inside the theatre, the cast was assembling on the multi-level set, calling out good wishes, waving and blowing kisses. We could hear the crowd on the other side of the curtain talking excitedly as they made their way to their seats. We got the call to “stand by” from our stage managers and everyone took their position. Our final warning was the orchestra tuning up; as soon as they finished, there was a moment of silence, then the curtain rose.

Photo by Joan Marcus

There was a ROAR from the audience. Granted, this was an opening night audience and we had a lot of friends, family and producers in the house, but over time we learned that this would be the standard greeting from the audience to the show. It never got old. There was an extended ovation (which also became the norm) and we all stood stock still, waiting for it to subside so the show could begin. I can’t be dramatic and say that my heart was pounding – it wasn’t; I was pretty calm. But I admit to a tweaking in the corners of my eyes at the outpouring of love and hope and good wishes coming from that opening night house.

There was another ovation when the opening number pulled back before exploding into the full-throated final chorus. It’s always been a goose-bump moment for me, whether listening to it on the original cast recording, rehearsing it in a studio or performing it onstage. Yet another ROAR greeting the conclusion of the number, and again we had to stand completely still until the ovation abated enough for us to hear the blast of the ship’s horn that signaled the change of scene. I hurried downstairs for my first costume change, and the opening performance was on its way.

I don’t remember a great deal about the performance except extended ovations were the norm after most of the numbers. I do remember making certain to husband my vocal resources so I would be able to make it through the show – remember that I was still recovering from the respiratory crud, and that we had already done a full week’s worth of performances (not to mention all those rehearsals). But my chops didn’t let me down – I felt strong on my solo moments in both “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and “He Wanted to Say.” In fact, I felt good all the way through the finale, when the company reprised “Wheels of a Dream” and received yet another ROAR from the crowd that lasted throughout the curtain call.

The company acknowledges conductor James Moore and our wonderful orchestra:

The company waits for director Marcia Milgrom Dodge to take her own well-deserved bow – that’s Quentin Earl Darrington’s heel in the right foreground as he heads to the wings to escort Marcia out.

The creative team takes their bow:

From left to right, front row: Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse Walker), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), Terrence McNally (book), E.L. Doctorow (author of the novel “Ragtime” on which the music was based), Marcia Milgrom Dodge (director) and Christiane Noll (Mother). I wish I could remember the source of these opening night curtain call photos so I could credit them properly – they’re really terrific photos (I’m pretty sure they’re from I think the photographer was one S. Mack.

As the final curtain came down, the company scattered in all direction because, after the weeks of rehearsals and previews, it was finally time to CELEBRATE!

The People Called It RAGTIME! (Part 1)

The Broadway opening of the Ragtime revival was pretty darned spectacular. Of course the company was still exhausted; all during previews we’d been on a full performance schedule while still rehearsing during the day. We also had our share of illnesses – the weekend prior to our November 15th opening, I’d caught the respiratory crud that was making its way through cast and crew, and ended up missing both performances on Sunday the 8th. I can’t remember when I’ve been so sick. I had a hacking cough and was terribly weak – no joke when you’re dashing around trying to climb those stairs to make your costume changes. I stayed in bed all day Sunday and most of the day Monday, and by Tuesday I was able to perform again, although I wasn’t back to full voice for a while.

John and our friend Debbie Hren came up to enjoy the opening festivities. I spent part of the day Sunday walking around New York with them; we visited Rockefeller Center and did a little shopping, but my mind was on the show and I doubt I was very good company. I headed over to the theatre well in advance of our 6 PM call time; never in my life have I been able to get ready for a show in under an hour. In fact, for Ragtime I was usually at the theatre an hour and fifteen minutes early. Opening night I think I was there slightly more than an hour and a half before showtime!

And a good thing, too. I should have known something was up when I signed in and remarked to one of the Neil Simon staff about the masses of flowers waiting at the stage door. She said, “you haven’t been up to your dressing room yet, have you?” I said no, and her response was “hmm.”

I saw why when I walked into the dressing room I shared with Savannah Wise (Evelyn Nesbit). Actually, I could smell why as I stepped out of the elevator. Our whole floor smelled like a garden, and our dressing room was simply one flower arrangement after another. I couldn’t even see my station for the flowers. I had flowers on the shelf above, flowers on the table, flowers on the chair, on the radiator and on the shelf above the costume rack. In addition to the flowers, there were cards and gifts piled high. I was in a state of shock.

I only had a few minutes to open cards and to make space at my station before I had to start getting ready. Pincurling my hair and pinning on my wig cap usually took about twenty minutes, and I knew at the one-hour call we’d be summoned to the stage for the presentation of the Gypsy Robe. I didn’t want to miss a minute of it, and I’d also been given permission to bring John and Debbie backstage so they could watch. All the while, more flowers and gifts and cards kept arriving. Somehow I got my hair partially prepped, stuck a hat on over the wig cap, met John at the stage door and got to the stage just as The Robe arrived.

For those who’ve never heard of The Gypsy Robe, there’s a great explanation of the history and significance of The Robe at the Actors Equity Association website. It’s a Broadway tradition, and one that neither John nor I wanted to miss. I was lucky that John was there to take photos and movies, and I’m mostly going to let the movies speak for themselves. Here’s the moment when all of us who were making our Broadway debuts were recognized:

And here’s where Michael X. Martin, who played J.P. Morgan (among others), was named the recipient of The Robe:

The previous recipient of The Robe (from Finian’s Rainbow, I believe), explains how The Robe came to be, and the responsibilities of The Robe recipient:

And after a false start, Michael X. begins his Gypsy Robe duties:

After The Robe ceremonies were over, we all went back to our respective dressing rooms to get ready. The cards, gifts and flowers continued to pour in; I think I ended up with a dozen arrangements (the one from John was ENORMOUS and GORGEOUS). I didn’t have time to open all of them (in fact, it would be the next day before I got a chance to look at everything carefully and read all the cards). Savannah and I hurried into costume and went downstairs to get ready for our Opening Night performance.

Picking Up Steam

The company of Ragtime was well into previews on October 29th, when we had our big full costume photo call. This took place during our daytime rehearsal slot; we had a performance the night before and a performance that evening, so everyone was tired but surprisingly good-natured. When we weren’t being used onstage for a shot, we were able to sit out in the house and see what the show looked like to the audience. Not every scene was photographed since photos had been taken from the house several times over the dress tech and preview period. This particular session was to set up some posed shots; this photo is from early in the session, with Robert Petkoff and Sarah Rosenthal in “Journey On.”

It was also a chance to take some photos of Derek McLane’s set from angles not seen by the audience, and to get some closeup photos of Santo Loquasto’s wonderfully detailed costumes and Edward J. Wilson’s meticulous wig and hair designs. The lighting is doing funky things to this shot, but here’s a look at the stage from my perspective during “New Music”:

The set had five levels: the deck (or stage level), Level One (a balcony that wrapped the perimeter of the playing area), Level Two (a catwalk that ran across the rear of the playing area, just above the center balcony of Level One), Level Three (balconies at left and right, attached by a catwalk that could be moved up and down), and Level Four (a stationary catwalk above Level Two and at the extreme upstage of the playing area). During “New Music,” I stood at the downstage left edge of Level 1; this view is looking across at the stage right part of Level 1, with the catwalk visible at the upper right of the photo. From left to right, standing on Level One are Jonathan Hammond and Savannah Wise (in full Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit gear), Catherine Walker and Associate Director/Choreographer and cast member Josh Walden fidgeting with his costume. Just to the right of Josh, on Level Two, is Eric Jordan Young. On Level Three above are Carly Hughes and Nicole Powell (I think that’s Corey Bradley just behind Carly), and Stephanie Umoh seated on the Level Three catwalk in the foreground.

This is ensemble member Mamie Parris on the Level One center balcony, with Christopher Cox (Little Boy) lounging on the rolling stair unit just below. There was a gate built into the railing at that point, and Mamie is opening it so that Christiane Noll (Mother) can climb from the deck level up the stair unit and enter Level 1. The stair unit and another gate at the downstage right section of Level One were utilized similarly in the scene leading into “Goodbye My Love”. If you look at the floor of the balcony, you’ll see that the carpet lining the walkway has been painted with a grate design, one of the many details that made this set so amazing. Its welded steel design meant that it was extremely sturdy, and because it was “hung” rather than built, this means that it was constructed from the top down, rather than the other way around. I was told the weight of the set at one point but it’s since slipped my mind; I do remember that the set piece that was flown in for the Morgan Library scene in the second act weighed in the neighborhood of 6,000 pounds. Knowing this, is it any wonder that those connected with the production wince when others refer to this Ragtime as “scaled down?”

Here are ensemble members Jennifer Evans and Benjamin Schrader, fellow denizens of Level 1 Left during “New Music” (that’s Christiane Noll holding one of the many Coalhouse babies in the background). You can see more of the set details in this shot – the filigreed angles are particularly pretty, I think. You can also see the loving work that went into Jennifer’s wig, and the gorgeous hat that Ben is holding – one of many in the show. One thing that is missing from this shot are the body mics all of us wore in performance – since this was just a photo shoot, we weren’t wearing them. I’ve never been a big fan of body mics (I’m one of the dinosaurs that learned my craft before the era of personal amplification), but I learned a new trick with this production – we wore the mic packs inside our wigs! The mic packs were only about 2×3 inches and the mics themselves were tiny; maybe half an inch long. Those of us who wore wigs (all the females except the Little Girl) prepped our hair into pincurls, then pulled a stocking cap over the prep. Our mic packs were placed in little pockets mounted on a stretchy elastic base, and the wig crew pinned those onto our wig caps, drawing the mic cord along the top of the head and pinning the mic into place so that it would hang just below the hairline of our wigs. Then the wig was fitted and pinned into place on top of the whole rig. It was heaven not to have a mic pack on a belt on my body, nor to fiddle with the cord at the back of my neck, and it certainly made quick changes much easier. Since the gentlemen of the cast didn’t wear wigs, they still had to wear the belts, but I was always tickled at how cleverly the mics themselves were concealed (for example, the Little Boy’s mic was attached to the glasses he wore throughout the show).

We moved from the first act into the second, and spent some time setting up “What A Game.” Here’s a picture of the gentlemen in that number showing off their very fine hats and facial hair. From left to right, front row: Josh Walden, Benjamin Schrader. Second row: Dan Manning, Jonathan Hammond, Mike McGowan. Third row: Ron Bohmer, Christopher Cox. Fourth row: Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Mark Aldrich, Michael X. Martin. I always thought it was clever the way the dining room set from the previous scene was transformed into the bleachers for this number.

One of the unsung heroes of our production was John Mara, the child guardian or “wrangler,” who was responsible for the safety and well-being of the six children in our cast: Christopher Cox, Sarah Rosenthal, Benjamin Cook, Kaylie Rubinaccio, Jayden Brockington and Kylil Christopher Williams. Here he looks on as Jayden and Robert Petkoff share a quiet moment while “What A Game” was being photographed. John was a constant presence backstage, escorting the kids to places, keeping the ones who weren’t onstage occupied and happy, dealing with all the small dramas and little tragedies of which the grownup cast members were largely unaware. The kids in the show were a pleasure to work with, and that was in no small part due to John

We moved from “What A Game” into “Atlantic City/Buffalo Nickel,” and some of the prettiest costumes in the show. The costumes for the Atlantic City band were a beautiful bright red with blue details, but for some reason they came out looking pretty electric when I photographed them (probably due to the setting I was using on my camera). From left to right are Carly Hughes, Wallace Smith, Corey Bradley, Nicole Powell, Valisia Lekae and Arbender J. Robinson. Behind them you can see the bright blue cyc that formed the backdrop for the Atlantic City scenes.

Tracy Lynn Olivera is wearing one of the more elaborate hats in the show. You can’t see the crown of it, but it looked like a whorl of creamy meringue. What you can see is the black lace detailing around the hat’s brim, as well the amazing amount of detail in the neckline and bodice of her dress and the intricate styling of her hair. It was hard for us to appreciate the workmanship of these costumes during the show, as we were usually tearing in and out of them in our rush to make a costume change, so it was nice to get a chance during this photo call to relax and admire the costumes under the stage lighting.

I’ll finish with a little video clip I took as the photo session was drawing to a close. There’s a certain amount of goofing around going on, but it’s a nice pan of the set, including the stage crew setting up the prop camera on the rolling stair unit, as well as some costumes you might not have seen before. Savannah and Catherine, I apologize for the “up” shot at the end of the clip!

New Music

Just like that tune
Simple and clear
I’ve come to hear new music…

On the 17th of October, the company of Ragtime reported to the studios at Carroll Music for our sitzprobe. For those not conversant in the language of musical theatre, a sitzprobe is a German term for a rehearsal in which the singers, seated, sing with the orchestra, focusing attention on integrating the two groups. I apologize in advance for the quality of these photos; I didn’t use a flash as I didn’t want to be obtrusive, so they’re a little blurry. You may also notice that the cast looks very tired; this was because the sitz took place at the end of our first week of tech, and we had been working some very long hours.

(From left to right: Stephanie Umoh, Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll and Ron Bohmer.)

Even though we were all so tired, there’s an excitement when a cast and orchestra come together for the first time. In the rehearsal studio our only accompaniment was a piano, played either by Associate Conductor Jamie Schmidt or Assistant Conductor Sue Anschutz (you can see Jamie in the background of the first photo above). But when you get to hear the full orchestra for the first time, it’s always a thrill. For Ragtime, we were fortunate to have an orchestra of 28, and when you add in a cast of 40 – well, that’s a LOT of sound. Here’s the cast as we were getting started, and you can see how excited everyone looks:

(Back row, from the background forward: Michael X. Martin, Michael McGowan, Mamie Parris, Bryonha Parham, Valisia Lekae, Carly Hughes, Carey Rebecca Brown, Wallace Smith, Arbender J. Robinson, Terrence Archie. That’s Dan Manning and Robert Petkoff in the front row, with the noble profile of Eric Jordan Young just peeking into the left hand side of the photo. Standing in the background, also at extreme left in the blue sweater, Asst. Stage Manager extraordinaire Jim Woolley.)

Music Director, Conductor and Maestro James Moore was running the rehearsal. Can I just say a word about Jim? I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show with a more loving and encouraging person at the musical helm. I don’t think I ever heard Jim say a cross word, or be in a bad mood – and he’s a veritable font of funny stories. Sometimes in the middle of a music rehearsal, he’d stop conducting us and say, “I just have to tell you what happened to me last night,” and in moments we’d be in hysterics. Can I also just tell you that he conducted the show, performance after performance, WITHOUT THE SCORE IN FRONT OF HIM? He knew the score absolutely stone cold. I used to love to watch him conduct the show; he clearly loves the music and would look absolutely transported as he guided the orchestra through the score.

Here’s the orchestra tuning up:

One of the unfortunate things about the Ragtime experience was that it was difficult for the orchestra and cast to mingle. Generally speaking, the only times the orchestra members were out of the pit, the cast members were in their dressing rooms either getting ready for the curtain or changing clothes during intermission. We didn’t get the chance to learn each other’s names, much less socialize. So I can’t tell you who all the talented people are in this photo. That’s Concert Master Rick Dolan in the pink shirt; Maxine Roach in the red jacket was one of our viola players. James Moore is the plaid-clad blur, and that’s Jamie Schmidt again, standing in the background. The gentleman at extreme right in the blue sweatshirt and jeans is Peter Lawrence, Production Supervisor and Master of All He Surveys.

We had a round of introductions, then got down to work, starting at the very top of the show. Jim Moore gave the downbeat, Jamie played the piano solo which begins the show, and then the Little Boy speaks: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for some years thereafter that all the family’s days would be warm and fair.” However, if memory serves, Christopher Cox (here in the striped shirt) bobbled his first entrance, and we had to back up and start again. That would account for his somewhat abashed look, and for the grin on the face of Sarah Rosenthal (Little Girl) in the background of this photo. That’s Director and Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge looking over the top of Sarah’s head.

As the company moved into the vocal section of the opening number, and as more instruments came in, I began to realize just how amazing this show was going to sound. The surging voices blended beautifully; the thrum of the swelling sound from the orchestra made my heart race. It was simply thrilling. Orchestra and cast finished the title number with a bang; everyone cheered and applauded, and I wept a few tears from the sheer joy of it.

We worked our way through the score, stopping and backing up when we needed to, orchestra and cast feeding off each other’s energy. I shed a few more tears when we got to “New Music,” one of my favorite numbers in the show. The song’s wistful quality has always been lump-in-the-throat inducing for me, but when Maxine played the viola solo that occurs under the lyric “Why? Why can’t you hear the song?” I’m afraid I just dissolved. It was poignant and pensive and simply wonderful.

We only had three hours to rehearse with the orchestra, so every moment had to count and consequently, there wasn’t a lot of time to joke around. We had some moments of glee occasionally – this photo is extra blurry, but it captures the intensity as well as the fun of “What A Game”:

(Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Mark Aldridge and Michael X. Martin)

Most of the time, though, everyone was pretty focused and serious. I’ll close with few more photos. This is Sumayya Ali, clearly moved…

Eric Jordan Young really laying into one of Booker T. Washington’s moments…

Ron Bohmer, Robert Petkoff and Bobby Steggert listening intently…

Bass player Jeff Cooper and cellists Laura Bontrager and Sarah Hewitt-Roth hard at work…

Catherine Walker and Tracy Lynn Olivera during one of our breaks…

And finally, the entire company sings the show’s finale:

(Photo by Jenny Anderson, courtesy of

…Breaking my heart
Op’ning a door
Changing the world
New music
I’ll hear it forevermore!