Thursday, April 11, 2019

Christopher Robin

Last night I watched Christopher Robin, the 2018 movie, with my daughter, Sabrina. This movie starts off surprisingly bleak and sad, but if you stay with it the heartbreaking eventually changes to heartwarming. Along the way there were moments that Sabrina and I found almost unbearably sad. It was sweet, though, that we were watching this together, because we held each other as tears streamed down both our faces.
I wonder whether others experience this movie the same way that we did. We both related very personally to issues of thwarted dreams, and the heartbreak of fractured family and lost love. If you have not seen this movie and want to, I encourage you to watch it with a loved one or loved ones...and be ready to hold each other tight.

Sentimental about Old New York City

I'm very sentimental and nostalgic...especially for eras before I was born; and especially for Old New York City; and especially for the 1920's-40's.
This 1928 film footage from NYC evokes all sorts of wistful thoughts and feelings in me about life in my city at that time. So much was happening here. 1928 was just four years after George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue, just one year before The Marx Brothers' first movie - The Cocoanuts - was filmed, and just a few years after my grandparents set foot in NYC, immigrating from Poland. It was also two years after my beloved piano was built by Steinway & Sons, also right here in NYC...

Values and Priorities

I performed a ventriloquist show recently for orphans at a Hasidic center in Brooklyn. It is always gratifying to be able to bring joy and laughter to people, but it is particularly meaningful to perform for audiences like this...for children who have experienced true hardship and undoubtedly great sadness.
It reminds me of how fortunate I am in so many ways, not least of which is the fact that I have two amazing daughters. Having raised them as a single dad, I have great "nakhes" (pride and joy) to see that they are such talented, intelligent young women...and more importantly, that they are caring, warm-hearted, good human beings, with values that I respect and share.
And that reminds me of how important shared values are in friendships and relationships. I once knew someone who told me that my love and concern for Israel is "very annoying". That same person also expressed "great disappointment" that I'm not interested in ziplining and similar activities. I am no longer friends with that person.
Life is too short to waste with people who do not share your values and priorities. It is a lesson that I am still learning. And I am still learning to better appreciate the people in my life who DO share my values and priorities.
And I am still learning to cherish all the good fortune that I have in my life. There is no more touching reminder of that than being able to bring a puppet "to life" in front of a crowd of smiling, laughing, orphaned children. לחײם (l'chaim = to life!)

My Musical Odyssey

When I was growing up I was encouraged by a number of people in the classical music world to work toward becoming a concert pianist. I considered that path intermittently as a child and teenager, but I had too many other interests that distracted me from spending enough time practicing the piano. Plus, I had a severe problem with stage fright.
Eventually I became a professional ventriloquist, and I'm very glad that I did. It has felt like the perfect art-form for creative expression for me, and I have never experienced much stage fright while doing it. It has felt very gratifying to be able to bring joy and laughter to so many people, especially to children.
I stopped playing the piano as a young adult and - for psychological reasons - I did not play it for many years. Then, when my first daughter, Michelle, was born, I began playing songs on the piano for her. Then I started playing classical music for her. From an early age it was apparent that Michelle had an extraordinary talent for singing, so I soon became her accompanist. I introduced her to the jazz standards of the Great American Songbook that I love. I played them for her and with her at home and in concerts. We also performed her favorite Broadway and pop songs.
In high school Michelle's rare talent for classical singing was discovered and encouraged by my late cousin, Bruce Zemsky, of Zemsky-Green Opera Management. This led to Michelle choosing the path of classical singing. She is now graduating from Juilliard.
This has inspired me to reconnect with my suppressed passion for piano playing. I don't have the time to practice the piano as much as I'd like, but I'm working on finding more time for it. There is so much beautiful piano music that I now want to learn and play. Meanwhile, I have started a playlist of piano pieces that I have recorded at home. I hope to expand this playlist rapidly in the near future. If you'd like to check it out, you can bookmark it...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Naked Ventriloquism

Naked City was a ground breaking police detective tv series that aired from 1958-63. It was filmed on location on the streets of New York City. I remember watching some of those episodes as a child growing up on the outskirts of the city in Little Neck, Queens. Recently, as I watched some Naked City episodes on DVD, a flood of buried memories burst out of the recesses of my mind. A nostalgia tinged with more than its share of the sadness that is intrinsically part of the bitter-sweetness that is nostalgia.

My troubled childhood did have moments of joy, moments of connectedness to my parents and sister amidst the more pervasive feelings of sadness and alienation. Moments of hope. I remember feeling as I watched Naked City as a child that the show presents an experience of life that mirrored my own. Though I didn't have the words to express it then, I would describe it now as a dark, melancholy noir-like world of forlorn people struggling to escape from being trapped. Whether trapped by the consequences of their own misdeeds, or by circumstances beyond their control, the characters in Naked City episodes were invariably lonely, desperate and alienated.

The series got its name from the iconic noir movie of the same name from 1947. The name is apt as the series strived to strip its characters of their usual layers of psychological and sociological cover, and show us their gut-wrenching emotional vulnerabilities. The characters, including the lead police detective, were psychologically and emotionally naked in a way that was unprecedented in any tv series before and (I believe) since.

This feeling of psychological and emotional nakedness is also reminiscent to me of what drew me to ventriloquism as an art form and career. All my puppet characters are expressions of aspects of myself, whether readily apparent or deeply hidden. So when performing ventriloquism I have the feeling that I am revealing parts of myself that would otherwise always remain hidden or latent. Ventriloquism allows me to do this in a safe way. As I create the illusion that my puppets are real I also give myself permission to reveal parts of myself that I otherwise never would. And by making my audience laugh I get their permission - and encouragement - to push the boundaries ever further between reality and illusion.

In this way I feel that ventriloquism is a means to transform dark feelings into joyous ones, alienation into human connections, hopelessness into hope. This is also a key element of the film noir genre: when done well, a noir film transforms its own gloominess into something greater and larger than itself. There is a coziness, a solace that the viewer feels, if only in his or her empathy with the characters' inner psychological struggles and outer struggles against relentless unbeatable forces. As I now watch and re-watch various episodes of Naked City I feel that this feeling is conveyed consistently throughout the series.

The Naked City tv series - or my vague memories of it - also helped inspire me to create the Trillo & Suede characters of my mystery novel, While the Village Sleeps. The lead character, Van Trillo, is both a detective and a ventriloquist. So I feel that with this novel I have incorporated the two forms of "nakedness" that are the most exciting and meaningful to me...noir and ventriloquism.

Dummy Noir. I hope that this new genre that I am creating will do justice to the heritage of Naked City, and to the spirit of Naked Ventriloquism.
Trillo & Suede introduce While the Village Sleeps:
Trillo & Suede intro video

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My Fiverr I nuts?

As you may know, is a place where anyone can offer to do (nearly) anything for a fee of five dollars. Each offer is called a "gig". This could potentially be a lucrative endeavor for someone who has a gig to offer that many people want, and that is very quick and easy to fulfill via upload. I searched "ventriloquist" on the site recently and apparently there were only one and a half ventriloquists who were offering gigs. I say "one and a half" because...judging by the gig intro videos that sellers can post...there was one legitimate ventriloquist and one lady who called herself a ventriloquist although she didn't seem to have the slightest ability to do ventriloquism.

After sellers on Fiverr have sold a certain number of gigs they are then allowed to offer "extras", which are add-on elements to their gigs for which they can charge added fees. This could potentially turn a Fiverr gig that is not worth doing into one that is much more lucrative. But as a newbie to Fiverr I am limited to five dollar gigs for now. 

So, what kind of ventriloquist gig could I possibly offer that would be worth my time for a fee of just, actually four dollars, after the 20% commission that takes from the sellers? For a ventriloquist gig I'm limited to creating videos for people and uploading them through the site, since anything other than a video gig would render the ventriloquism aspect of the gig irrelevant. So what sort of video could I offer? Have a puppet sing Happy Birthday? Or deliver a message or greeting? Or a poem? Or answer a question? Give advice? It seemed that none of the above would be worth my time, so naturally I decided to do all of the above...

I've posted several such gigs in the past few days. Why? I'm known mostly in the New York City area as a performer, so if I get tons of Fiverr gigs it would be a potential way of getting myself known better around the world. Then again, I might find that I don't have the time to fulfill tons of Fiverr gigs. But I can close my Fiverr account whenever I want, so for now I'm very curious to see what comes of this. As of now, I have booked just one gig, which happened to be a very interesting one. An author asked me to create a video with my puppet pretending to be a shy ventriloquist shooting a video in an unusual dating scenario. The short script provided to me was spot-on, and the video was fun to shoot. When the video goes live I will post a link to it. 

Meanwhile, if you want to check out my current gigs before I change my mind and remove them...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ventriloquism at Rikers Island

One of the more unusual performance experiences in my career occurred during the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot. I was asked by Chabad - the outreaching Hasidic sect - to  perform a ventriloquist show during the annual Sukkot celebration that Chabad brings to Jewish inmates at the famed prison on Rikers Island, NY. This was a return engagement, actually, as they had asked me to do this same gig two years ago. I knew what to expect at this, my second Rikers Island performance...or I thought I did...

Two years ago, having never been inside a prison, I was a bit nervous in anticipation of my prison debut. After security checks that lasted more than an hour, I finally was allowed to enter a gym together with about a dozen Chabad members who proceeded to set up for the party. A small band, also brought in by Chabad, set up and began blaring Hasidic rock. A small group of about a dozen inmates gradually entered the gym and took seats at round tables spaced widely apart on the gym floor. The Hasidim yanked inmates from their seats and onto the dance floor (Hasidic rules do not allow mixed gender dancing, and encourage same-gender dancing). Most of the inmates accepted the dance invitations, but a few of them steadfastly refused.

A few more prisoners eventually filtered in to the gym. Food and drinks were shared. Finally it was my turn to perform. The Hasidim loved my show. But as far as the inmates were concerned, despite being a captive audience, they were also a "dead" audience. They pretty much ignored my show, except for one middle aged man who paid rapt attention to the entire show. He had pulled up a chair close to me as soon as I had begun the show, and seemed to watch intently till the end. He was no more responsive than the other inmates (he didn't laugh once) but he seemed fascinated by my ventriloquist techniques.

While packing up after the show, I asked the Head Hasid if he knew what the inmates were in for. He said, "Most of them are here for white collar crimes...what you'd expect from Jewish criminals. But a few of them are here for other crimes."

I said, "Like what?"
He said, "For example, did you notice that guy sitting close up to you throughout the show?"
"How could I miss him. What is he in for?"

Despite my awareness that one shouldn't judge people by their appearances, I couldn't help feeling surprised. That man looked very ordinary and nondescript. More like an accountant than a murderer.

"Do you know the details?"
"Multiple murders. He's a hit man for the Russian mob."

I wondered whether that explained his intense fascination with my show. Had he been hired to whack me and/or my dummy? Was he sizing us up? Waiting for an opportunity when the guards might wander off during the show? Or had he been thinking about ventriloquism as a possible technique to incorporate into his profession, if he ever gets out of prison? Perhaps he could throw his voice to throw his victims off guard before striking?

I left the prison as quickly as I could, after dealing with another hour of security checks.

A few weeks ago, my second Rikers Island experience was different. First off, the security was much tighter this time. It took a good two hours to get through security checks entering, and another two hours leaving. Second, the Hasidim had learned from my first show. This time, they arranged for a large contingent of non-Jewish inmates to be invited to see my show, so that I had a much larger audience than the first time. And for some reason, this time the audience response was terrific. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish inmates laughed often and heartily. True, I had also learned from my previous experience, and had honed my act a bit to make it more prison-friendly. But that wouldn't entirely account for the difference in reception. One never knows.

I had wondered whether my hit man fan would be there. I don't think he was. Rikers is basically a holding prison for people who are awaiting trial or re-trial or sentencing, so there is a lot of turnover. My hit man fan is likely in an upstate prison. Or maybe he beat the rap and is back in Brooklyn, whacking people. Wherever he is, I hope he started a fan club for me. I've never been good at marketing myself, so I'll take all the grass-roots support I can get.