« December 2013 | Main | February 2014 »

Looking Back at the Silent-Film Period

January 28, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Silent cinema is one of those elements of American cultural history that gets unduly overlooked. Before the advent of sound in film in 1927, with The Jazz Singer, silent films were of central importance as an American popular art form—and, indeed, a world popular art form. As there was no spoken dialogue in the films, they could be shown in any locale. The stories of essential human dramas and comedies translated into any cultural milieu. It has been argued by scholars of cinema that silent films and sound films are different mediums entirely. They play by totally different rules. Silent films involved a very refined art of pantomime. And the music was a central part of the story in a way more comparable to ballet than sound films. Once the “talkies” took over, the whole idea of what it is to make a film and what it is to watch a film had to be re-conceptualized. Nowadays, it is difficult to even see a silent film (excepting the recent hit film The Artist). But there are a few places that still pay homage to the old films and the old stars.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum : Fremont, California

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum stands on the spot where the legendary Essanay Film Company stood in what was then Niles, California (now part of the town of Fremont). Essanay (a phonetic spelling of S & A—which stood for the initials of the two owners of the company, “Bronco Billy” Anderson and George K. Spoor) was one of the first great California film studios. The company featured two of the biggest film stars in the world during 1914 and 1915 (comedian Charlie Chaplin and cowboy star “Bronco Billy” Anderson—who was also co-owner of the company). The film studio closed down in 1916, but the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum keeps its spirit alive to this day with a museum and an active theater.

In the museum portion of Niles Essanay, you can see film cameras and projectors from the era, as well as posters for movies that the company released 100 years ago—films like His Regeneration and A Bunch of Matches. Since most of the studio’s releases were one-reel fifteen-minute films, they managed to release an astounding two films a week. To really celebrate silent films, you have to do more that investigate them in a museum, though—you have to watch them. Niles Essanay shows silent films in their theater (called the Edison Theater) every Saturday. Their programs range from light-hearted comedy toepic drama and are not limited to the releases of the Essanay Film Company. They show releases from all of the studios.

The Hollywood Heritage Museum: Hollywood, California

The Hollywood Heritage Museum is housed in a barn that was the first building owned by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later to become Paramount)—the first major film studio to be based in Hollywood. Their first production, The Squaw Man, was made in 1914. Famous Players-Lasky was run by heavy hitters like Cecil B. DeMille, Adolph Zukor, and Samuel Goldwyn. The museum now houses a historical reconstruction of DeMille’s office. As he was one of the most important and successful directors and producers of the era, this is a rare glimpse into the seat of power in pre-talky Hollywood. There are also a few galleries where you will see very rare memorabilia and excerpts from the studio’s great films.

After a day spent exploring a key facet of film history, you’ll be ready to head to an amenity-rich, home-style hotel. Extended Stay America has just what you’re after.       

Small Cities with Big-Time Artistic Spirit

January 22, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Some small cities are just more conducive to great art than others. The factors that make them so are complex. The simplest way to explain it is that in these cities, the people are just cooler and the area is just prettier. I’m a person who’s very artistically inclined. I’m a maker and an appreciator of art. In my travels around the country, I have noticed which cities are more liable to summon the muse. This is by no means a scientific study, but I think you will find the results convincing nonetheless.

Asheville, North Carolina

The Blue Ridge Mountains, where Asheville is located, are so pretty that they have inspired more loving songs than you can count on your fingers: There’s The Carter Family’s “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains,” the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Blue Ridge Mountains,” to name just a few. There’s good reason that these great songwriters have been so rhapsodic about this area. It’s got the whole package: beautiful scenery and good folks. In Asheville, homemade art is especially prized. While you’re in town, make sure to check out the Asheville Art Museum. The museum specializes in 20th and 21st century pieces, which means you will see a lot of very innovative work. Also make sure you get to the Downtown Asheville Art District, a section of town where you will find twenty-five working studios and galleries. There’s so much art going on, it can feel like a downhome version of Paris in the twenties.

Santa Fe, New Mexico   

Santa Fe has very few bad-weather days. It’s all blue skies here. If you like to paint alfresco, that is very good news for you. Santa Fe is literally built around the arts. There are upwards of 200 art galleries in this little city. The artistic tradition in Santa Fe goes way back—back past European settlement in the Americas. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture traces the artistic traditions of pre-Columbian and post-Columbian Native Americans. The exhibition Woven Identities is all about how in Native American cultures, baskets were much more than just vessels. Using anthropological categories, the baskets in this exhibit are put into different sections, representing different aspects of form, function, and (most importantly), cultural and ritual significance. If you want to explore a place’s deep artistic roots, Santa Fe is the place for you.   

Gloucester, Massachusetts

Gloucester is probably the best-kept secret on this list. Gloucester is the oldest and, remarkably, least spoiled seaport in the US. It is full of classic northeastern sights—lighthouses, old white wooden churches, secluded coves, and harbors. And this little unspoiled city is just thirty miles above the thriving metropolis of Boston. Gloucester actually has a functioning art colony—the Rocky Neck Art Colony—which means that artists in residency are chosen to come to the area and create beautiful art. This work, as well as the work of other artists (local and national), is then shown in the gallery associated with the colony—the Elynn Kroger Gallery. This ensures that the art scene in Gloucester is both dynamic and that it produces reliably quality work.

After a day exploring artistic oases in the US, you’ll be ready to head back to your own little oasis of comfort on the road. I suggest an Extended Stay America hotel. An Extended Stay suite has all you need to make a proper night of it—a kitchen, a flat-screen TV and free Wi-Fi.

For Winter Fun, Visit Hemingway’s Idaho

January 14, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Frequently, when people think of the great western states, they think of them in the summer with cowboys riding under their scorching western sun. This probably has something to do with Hollywood westerns, which tend not to show the west in the winter (John Ford’s The Searchers is an exception). When people think of a winter wonderland, they frequently imagine the northeast. We can point the finger at Hollywood for this, as well. The recent Hallmark film Winter Wonderland, starring Naomi Judd and Paul Campbell, is set in Manhattan. But the west has just as big a claim as the east to being a winter wonderland. The Rocky Mountains run through inland western states, like Idaho—setting the scene for perfect winter sport and recreation.

Ketchum, Idaho

Ketchum is famous among students of literature because it was the vacation home and hunting grounds of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was known for liking the finer things in life. And this extended to his taste in vacation destinations. You would be well advised to follow Hemingway’s lead and explore Ketchum and its environs. The Ketchum area is a snow sport enthusiast’s dream-come-true. Every winter activity can be found in the Ketchum area. Are you looking for world-class snowboarding and downhill skiing? Check out Sun Valley—a ski park located on Dollar Mountain and Bald Mountain. Are you into snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing? Sawtooth National Forest is the place for you. If you want to get the best views of the area available (a bird’s-eye view, literally), then try taking a paragliding trip over this breathtaking mountainous terrain. Fly Sun Valley is a local paragliding company that works in cooperation with the US Forest Service.

Silver Creek Preserve

If you prefer a more contemplative, leisurely winter sport, the Ketchum area has some of the best winter fly-fishing around. Hemingway was, it is well known, a fly-fishing enthusiast. One of his most famous short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River,” is almost entirely about the details of a fly-fishing trip. If you, like Hemingway, enjoy the simple pleasures of spending a day in cooperation with nature and reaping its bounty, then I highly recommend fly-fishing here. This area has an astoundingly great bounty of aquatic insects (don’t worry, they don’t bug people). Since trout feed on these insects, there is also a very large population of trout here. The area’s legendary fly-fishing was one of the major reasons Hemingway bought a house here. The Silver Creek Preserve is the place to do your fly-fishing in the area. Located only a stone’s throw from Hemingway’s Ketchum house, the Silver Creek Preserve was purchased in 1975 by The Nature Conservancy, at the behest of lifelong fly-fisherman and son of Ernest Hemingway, Jack Hemingway. The Nature Conservancy, true to its mission, ensures that this area remains entirely pure of commercialism and any sort of dumping. The area is all about nature. And it has some of the best fishing, canoeing, snowshoeing, bird watching, duck hunting, and hiking in the world.

After a day spent in Hemingway’s idyllic country, you’ll be ready to kick back for the night. If you’re looking for the kind of comfort that Hemingway prized, look no further than Extended Stay America

The Best Elvis America Has to Offer

January 6, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

In 2010, Time magazine published its list of the ten best Elvis impersonators ever. This is a lofty list indeed. It’s hard to make a true Elvis fan (someone who has listened to and watched the genuine article thousands of times) suspend disbelief and feel like they are seeing and hearing the real thing. The first three Elvis impersonators on the list have “left the building,” so to speak. Time gives the top honor to Johnny Cash. During a 1959 television appearance, Cash, who knew Elvis personally (they recorded for the same label), did an Elvis impersonation that lands somewhere between a parody and a tribute. Cash has always been about giving the people what they want. When he made this TV appearance, Elvis was in the Army, and the people were hungry for whatever Elvis they could get. So the first Elvis impersonator was born.

The second Elvis impersonator on the list is disgraced former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich. Look for him on the Elvis circuit when he gets out of prison in 2024. The third man to make the list is (much less surprisingly than Blagojevich) Andy Kaufman, the great conceptual comedian, who died in 1984. Though there have been rumors to the contrary lately, it’s still pretty fair to assume that Andy is unavailable for personal appearances. 

Shawn Klush: #1 Elvis Impersonator

The fourth name on the list is, however, very much alive and available. He is Pittston, Pennsylvania’s Shawn Klush. Klush took top honors on the BBC talent show World’s Greatest Elvis in 2007. And it’s not hard to see why. Apart from nailing the singing, he looks very much like the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. He’s got all the mannerisms down cold, and the famous Elvis suits fit him to a T. Klush is headlining the Elvis Tribute Artist Spectacular early in the new year. You can catch him on January 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, or 17th across the country. You’re in for a rare treat if you can make it to this one. Elvis Presley Enterprises rightfully named Klush the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist. He is simply the best. If you’re looking for a magical experience in the new year, this is your ticket.

Pete (“Big Elvis”) Vallee: Las Vegas Elvis

The only Las Vegas performer to make the list is Pete (“Big Elvis”) Vallee. It’s interesting to note that while the image people claim to prefer is the boyish, thin Elvis, it is the older, heavier Elvis who inspires impersonators. Is it because this Elvis had more of a shtick, more of a specific act that an emulator can latch onto? Or is the answer deeper than that? It’s hard to know. In any event, the city that the latter-day Elvis is most associated with is Las Vegas. His shows were a fixture on the Strip—along with the shows of other Vegas standbys, like Sinatra, Martin, and Rickles. Carrying on the Elvis Presley Las Vegas flame is Pete (“Big Elvis”) Vallee. Pete is quite a big man—a good deal bigger than Elvis ever was. Seeing him is rather like seeing an Elvis who never died and just kept on living life and satisfying his appetite to the fullest.  You can catch “Big Elvis” every weekday at 2 PM and Wednesdays at 6 PM at Harrah’s Las Vegas Piano Bar.

After a day or night of basking in the glow of Elvis Presley performances, you’ll be ready to head back to the hotel and take some time for relaxation. Extended Stay America hotels are the real deal—your only home-on-the-road destination. Accept no impersonators.