Friday, December 28, 2012

An Old Friend at Rose Tree Park

Driving past Rose Tree Park a few weeks ago, I saw the Christmas displays set up for their annual Festival of Lights.  Each year it seems that more and more things are added to the display – trees, lights, holiday figures.  But my eye is always looking for one figure in particular: Schroeder, the piano playing character from Charles Schulz “Peanuts” comic strip.  The other Peanuts characters are there as well – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy.  But when I first visited the Festival in 1995, while the rest of the Peanuts gang was there, Schroeder was not.
I was newly divorced and had moved to nearby apartments, and was out exploring my new neighborhood with my children, then 8 and 7, when the holiday lights drew us in.  The Peanuts figures were at the far end of the walkway, and as we walked down towards them, the music of Vince Guaraldi was playing.  He was a jazz composer who came to public prominence in the 1960’s when he composed the music that was the theme of the Peanuts television specials.   You may not recognize his name, but most people would instantly recognize the Linus and Lucy theme (click through to hear it at YouTube).  You hear that piano music, and you instantly think of the Peanuts characters.  We saw them, enjoyed the lights and the music, but I was slightly disappointed.  Hearing the piano music, I was expecting the piano player, Schroeder, but he was nowhere to be seen.  I have heard somewhere along the way that the initial figures were made and donated by the Williamson Trade School.  They made the “A List” of Peanuts characters, but left out were the ones who were less prominent – Schroeder, Sally, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, pick your favorite. 
I am a piano player, and so I guess my nose was out of joint because the piano player had been overlooked.  I must have said something to my children, although at this distance – 16 years later – I don’t recall the exact conversation or the timing of all that occurred next.  But we decided that we were going to fix the problem by building a version of Schroeder and then bringing him to the Park and donating him.  It is the type of project that fathers and their young children talk about – grand plans – but typically do not follow through with.  “Why don’t we do this or that some day …”  And then it recedes into memory, and at times is lost forever. 
But this idea had staying power.  We did nothing that Christmas season – but one of us must have remembered the idea the following fall – probably the children – and so we talked about what we would have to do.  The children took books out of the school library so that we could see how Schulz draws Schroeder.  We copied the pages.  The existing characters had been cut out of plywood and then painted.  So we bought the plywood; picked out the paint colors that matched; and then came the business end of the project – actually doing it.  I am not an artist or a woodworker, and living in an apartment, I had no workshop.  I was simply a father who was carried away by his children’s enthusiasm for the project.  They were still at that age where they thought I could do everything, and I didn't want to disappoint them with the truth.  Let them wait until they made that discovery as teenagers. 
It is said that the Pope asked Michelangelo how he created his David from a block of marble, and Michelangelo replied “I just cut away anything that does not look like David.”  Great minds think alike – I used the same system.  We laid the plywood down on the ground, I drew the outline of Schroeder, and his piano as best I could, and at the children’s insistence, we added another character, the small bird named Woodstock, dancing on the piano.  I had no vise, and so wrestled a hand saw through the outline, as the kids held the wood tight against a table.   Woodstock was going to be a pain to cut – and so after considering the problem, I decided not to cut out the actual outline of the small figure, but to leave a square piece on top of the piano and paint him into that square.  When we were done, we had a serviceable piece of plywood whose outline looked vaguely like Schroeder at the piano. 
The next step – drawing in the articles of clothing and the faces and such.  Charles Schulz, bless his soul, used very simply line figures for his characters, and so it was not that difficult to sketch them onto the board.  I think I may have primed the board as well, so we drew on a white surface.  And then, as Michelangelo suggested, Schroeder and Woodstock and a piano finally began to emerge from the piece of plywood.   Over the next several weeks, we painted the figures in, then gave a second and third coat, then painted a clear sealant over the whole project.  And like all great artists, we signed our work.  On the back we each wrote our names, and “Xmas 1996”.  And we were done in time for the opening ceremonies of the Festival of Lights that year.
That night, we put Schroeder in the car, drove to Rose Tree, and there was a huge crowd.  We didn't know quite who to approach about it, so we stood around and watched and waited till the ceremony part was over, and then approached one of the speakers, carrying Schroeder with us.  We explained that we wanted to donate Schroeder to the display.  He told us to go down to the office and talk to the park director.  We did as told, walked in the door, and asked for her.  She came out – saw Schroeder – and immediately started beaming.  “I always thought we needed the piano player up there.”  She was thrilled to accept our gift.  We had just the wooden figure, as we were not sure how they were mounted to stand up, and the director assured us that they would take care of this all, and said “come back next week – we’ll have it all done by then”.  And they did.  The next weekend, we went back to Rose Tree Park, and there he was – playing the piano, while Woodstock danced, and the other characters smiled at us.  And he looked good – not amateurish or passable but good.  Like he belonged.  We were thrilled. 
I moved away from Rose Tree the following spring, but each year for the next few years, we would go back to visit and make sure that Schroeder was there, and then check to see our names on the back.  It is fun to take in the Festival of Lights each year, but even more so when you have a secret like this – “We made Schroeder!”  But children grow up, and move away, and it has been years since we have been back. 
Charles Schulz died shortly after these events occurred, in 2000.  If you are ever in California’s wine country, there is a wonderful Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.  Schulz was born in Minnesota, went into the military, and ended up in California after the war.  He missed his Minnesota winters, and so built an ice skating rink in his adopted community, and went there for breakfast each morning.  His seat at the rink is memorialized, and the skating rink is still active.  His Peanuts figures are not as iconic today as they once were.  There are so many other items of popular culture that now compete for attention.  And as newspapers fade away, so also do the comics section of the paper.  Do children today know that there is a comics section of the newspaper?  But for now, and for the generation that grew up with him, Schulz, the artist, is remembered.  As are his creations.  His kids.
Driving by Rose Tree Park earlier in the month, I saw the lights up, and noticed that the Peanuts kids were no longer set back at the far end of the walkway, but were now front and center near the parking lot.  I parked and went over to see them, and found as well that they had been repainted – though they kept our color scheme.  But the back had been painted as well.  Our names – once prominently displayed on the back for all the world to see – were no longer connected to the figure.  While thrilled to see that they had a new lease on life in a new location, I was a bit disappointed that our names were no longer attached to Schroeder.  No one would see those names scrawled on the back and wonder who we were and what our story was.  I felt the pain that Michelangelo would have felt if someone scratched his name off of David!
But today we have the Internet.  We can “inscribe” our name by connecting it to terms that a search engine can find.  And so when this article is sent off into cyberspace, Doug Humes, and Elizabeth Humes, and Drew Humes, will once again be linked to Schroeder at Rose Tree Park in Media, Pennsylvania.  And that’s the rest of the story!
For more on the Rose Tree Park Festival of Lights, visit here:

December 22, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Casa Mia today

My office is in an old Main Line mansion, built as a single family home in the 1920’s.  The estate was subdivided and a town home community was built in the 1970’s, but the old house was retained as the community center.  When I came here in 2003, my first office was in the servants’ quarters.  I would go up and down the back stairs several times a day to use the microwave oven to heat water for tea.  And while waiting those three minutes for my water to heat, I would look around in the kitchen and pantry – thinking about the activities that must have occurred there when this house was in its heyday – with a family living here and likely many servants scurrying about in this kitchen.  At some point I “discovered” the servant’s bell box on the wall in the pantry.  The house was originally wired so that each main room had a button on a wall; when pushed, it would ring the bell over the bell box, and also trigger a small arrow on the box that would point to the room where service was required.  The servant would then report to that location to hear what was required. 
The Bell Box

The bell box contained a hint of who may have lived here when the house was first built.  Two of the locations in gold lettering on the bell box are Mr. Jacob’s Room, and Mrs. Jacobs Terrace Room.  A pamphlet on the history of the house gave me a little more to go on.  I have been doing my own genealogy research for years, and so there finally came a moment when I decided to go off looking for the Jacobs family and see what I could find.  Over the last several years I have been able to find a fair amount on the family:  father John Jr., mother Dorothea, daughter Louise and son John III.  Their time in this house was not that long – from 1926 to 1938 – but they were the only family to own and occupy the house.  They lived here in style – they had approximately ten servants while they lived in the house that mother named Casa Mia:  chauffeur, gardeners, a cook, maids, a nanny.  They enjoyed entertaining – why else build a house with its own ballroom?  They sailed – at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Philadelphia when in town, and at the Watch Hill Yacht Club in Watch Hill, Rhode Island where they summered.  They rode horses – with the Radnor Hunt and jumping at Devon.  The children went to good schools – Shipley and Haverford School. 

Louise, Dorothea and Jake
 And yet no one’s life is all roses.  Mother and father divorced when young John went off to college, and the family moved away from Bryn Mawr, never to return.  Young Louise married a dashing young man from a prominent Chicago family, moved off to a beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, had a child, but was stricken with cancer and died before the child’s first birthday, in 1941.  Mother moved off to New York and lived at 950 Park Avenue in Manhattan, where she passed away at age 71 in 1967.  Father lived in Florida, remarried, and kept a summer home in Hyannis.  He died in 1970, at age 76.  And young John, called “Jake” by his family?  In reaching out to his descendants, I was astounded to find that Jake was alive and well, and living in Connecticut.

Jake left Bryn Mawr for Williams College.  World War II intervened and he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.  His rationale:  “If I was going to go to war, I decided I’d rather fly there than walk there.”  He returned to Williams to get his degree after the war, and met and fell in love with beautiful Greta.  They raised 9 children, 8 girls and a boy, and spent a long life together along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shoreline that he had grown to love during his summers there as a child.  Greta died a few years ago, and John has moved into a retirement community in Essex, Connecticut. 
Jake on left, and the author on right, recreating the original photo.
 After years of chasing after these ghosts of the Jacobs family, I really wanted to meet him and spend some time with him.  Essex is 4 1/2 hours by GPS, but an hour or two longer if you actually have to drive on I-95 in Connecticut traffic, so it is not exactly around the corner.  In conversations with his eldest daughter, I offered to drive up and meet her there so that she could introduce me to her father.  Our schedules were never quite in synch.  She sent me pictures last year of the celebration of his 91st birthday.  If I was ever going to meet Jake, I needed to do it sooner rather than later.  But finally this week, we made a firm date – “come up and have lunch with us in Essex.”

I spent several hours taking lots of photos and movie clips of the house.  Jake’s bedroom was in the room that is now my office.  We both had a view of the same huge oak tree through the back window, and the view of the comings and goings from the two driveways in to the house.  I think of him whenever I walk in – I see the young boy from the pictures that the family has shared with me.  On Tuesday I loaded up my computer with the photos and off I went to Essex.  It is a gorgeous New England town – immaculate and with well preserved 18th and 19th century homes.  I stayed in the Griswold Inn, the oldest continually operating inn in the country – since 1776.  I woke up early and explored, then studied my Jacobs family history notes, and put the photos in some kind of order.  I was not sure if our meeting would simply be lunch, or whether I would get a chance to talk more about his memories of Casa Mia.  I was prepared for either, but hoping that we could chat. 

As it turns out, we hit it off well and had a wonderful time.  We enjoyed lunch together with two of his daughters, and a caregiver.  After lunch both daughters had to leave, but Jake and I went back to his room to talk, look at his photos, and then look at my photos of his boyhood home.  He left to go off to college in 1938, and returned once, in 1980, when he spoke to the residents of Millridge on his family’s life there in the 20’s and 30’s.  The photos brought back memories – and we spent the afternoon talking about them. 
Jake on left, and author on right.
I sat in Connecticut traffic for a long time on the ride home.  But that gave me plenty of time to review my thoughts on this whole improbable journey, that started with a name on the bell box.  I have delved in to their family history as if it was my own.  I have put flowers on the grave of the young Louise.  I play the piano in the ballroom and think of what songs were being played during parties in the 1930’s.  My wife and I had our wedding reception on the back patio here.  And now I have met the last known living link to that past. 

I am not obsessed – but was simply drawn into this story – of the Main Line during its golden era.  And in researching the story, I have wanted to share what I have learned, and that has led me to regular writing for publication – something that I had always wanted to do but never had the time for.  Now I make the time for it.  I have met some wonderful people along the way.  Life has layers that we sometimes are not aware of.  If you are walking about in this house, and not thinking about the past, then you are missing one of those layers.  I always see the young boy, running in and out of these rooms.  Now I have met him.  The story has come full circle.  And I have been changed and enriched in the process.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 12, 1912: And the Band Played On

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 that night. The eight band members, who were off duty by that time in their second class cabin on E Deck, were called on by their bandleader, Wallace Hartley, to assemble on the deck and play music to help calm the situation. The ship was unsinkable, as everyone knew, and so seeing the band playing without concern would show people that everything was under control.

The band, also called the orchestra, was an "all star team" - assembled from the best of the musicians who worked the White Star line. The five older members who played as a quintet in the first class area were Wallace H. Hartley, 33, the bandmaster, Jock Hume, 29, first violin, Fred Clark, 30, bass viol, Percy Taylor, 32, piano, and John Wesley Woodward, 32, on cello. Three younger musicians filled in with the main band, and also played as a trio in the second class cabin and restaurant: Theodore Brailey, 24, piano, Georges Krins, 23, violin, and Roger Bricoux, 20, cello.

They played songs from their usual sets, first in the first class lounge on the A Deck, which had an upright piano, when it was unclear what had happened to the ship. Later they moved outside the lounge to the main deck, where they continued to play (without the piano) when it became more likely that the ship would not survive the night. They played popular music - light waltzes and ragtime, remembered by one survivor as "lively airs". The White Star Line had a songbook for the musicians who played on their cruises, the White Star Line Songbook. In the book were popular favorites like Alexander's Ragtime Band, the 1911 hit song for young American songwriter Irving Berlin, Oh You Beautiful Doll, Offenbach's Barcarolle waltz, and the Blue Danube Walt. Ragtime was a relatively "new" style, and most of the passengers who recalled specific songs that night remembered the more classical ones such as Songe d'Automne and Valse Septembre.

By 2:00 A.M. the last lifeboat had left the ship, and yet there were still over 1,500 people on board. The giant gash that had ripped into the hull had allowed the sea water to begin filling the lower holds of the ship, and so the front of the Titanic, the bow, sank lower and lower into the water, and towards the end the back of the ship, the stern, began to rise out of the water. When it became clear that all was lost, bandmaster Hartley dismissed the small band that had played now for about two hours. By some accounts, one musician, either the violin or cello, began to play a hymn, which some remembered as "Nearer My God to Thee". The other musicians joined in. Musicians, when inspired, play from their heart, and no doubt in this circumstance, and knowing you are probably playing the last song that you will ever play, your emotions flow into the song. That was the last song of the night, the last of the crossing, the last song these musicians ever played. Its sounds floated out over the ocean to the lifeboats that had pulled away from the sinking ship.

The band no doubt said their thanks to each other, "It was great playing with you", and then their goodbyes. In that situation, each person makes peace with his thoughts. Bandleader Hartley still had hope: he put his violin in its case, and found rope to strap it to his body. Minutes later, at 2:28 a.m., the ship plunged into the sea and disappeared from view.

All of the musicians died. The bodies of three were recovered: Hume, Clark and Hartley. Hartley's violin was still strapped to his body. The violin disappeared into history, but recently resurfaced. It has been a gift from his fiancĂ©, and was inscribed on the back: “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.” After Hartley's body was recovered, the violin was sent back to Maria, as she mentions it in her diary.

Clark was on his first trip across the Atlantic. He had never played for White Star before, but the company wanted the best musicians to play for the greatest ship in the world, and so offered him good pay to make just one trip. His winter concert season had just ended, and so he finally accepted.

A fellow White Star musician and friend heard the news and lamented, "The thing I can't realize is that happy Jock Hume is dead. He was the merriest, happiest young Scotchman you ever saw. His family have been making musical instruments in Scotland for generations. I heard him say once that they were minstrels in the old days. It is certainly hard to believe that he is not alive and having his fun somewhere in the world."

Many of the bodies that were recovered were brought to shore in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three cemeteries there are the final resting place of 150 of the passengers that night, including musicians Hume and Clark. Hartley's body was returned to his home town of Colne, England.

In the 100 years since that night, some have criticized the band, for playing light music, for setting a mood that may have convinced some passengers that they did not really need to get into the lifeboats. There is debate about whether they actually played "Nearer My God to Me". There are several tunes to which the hymn is sung, two of which were more popular in England and one more popular in America. The first British tune is called Horbury, and was composed by British composer John Bacchus Dykes. A second tune for the hymn, popular with British Methodists, is "Propior Deo" (Nearer to God), written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan). The American tune is called Bethany, and was composed by American composer Lowell Mason (best known for "Joy to the World"). Several surviving passengers claim to have heard the hymn from their lifeboats, but the American passengers heard the American version, and the British passengers heard an English version. Which tune was actually played? The answer went down with the ship.

I leave it to Captain Hindsight and Colonel Quibble to wrangle about the details. As a musician and a band member, I applaud these men for what they did. If faced with the same prospect, if I knew that I had one hour to live, what better way to spend it than playing music with my musical friends, and performing for a crowd who needed the calming and the hope that music provides?

For one version of this final performance, check out this You Tube clip from the 1958 movie, "A Night To Remember".

For the boys in the band that night, your fellow musicians remember you and salute you.

"Still all my song shall be, nearer my God to Thee."