February 22, 2008
Ghosts in the House
That's what I was facing Wednesday morning. For two days I'd written and rewritten this piece about the Kelly Street Chorus. The story was about a battered statue and some singers of old-timey music, with lots of quirky Philadelphia history, and I was getting nowhere.
A friend in Virginia once said that newspaper stories are like hamburger. If you handle them too much they start to rot. I was about to call in the men in hazmat suits. It just was going nowhere, paragraph after paragraph. Some nice words, no music.
I'd spent Friday night with the singers, then on Sunday interviewed a man, Ken Mobley, who'd devoted months to a wild goose chase through newspaper morgues, historical society archives, museum basements. He was after a bronze bust of the singers' first honorary conductor, Victor Herbert, the superstar of the Tin Pan Alley era. Herbert's bust used to stand in Fairmount Park. Then it disappeared.
The story was about today's Kelley Streeters' intense need to resurrect Herbert's image and story, and Mobley applied everything he new about history - he taught high school social studies - to make a most pleasing find.
But even a sentence that clear I could not write for some reason. So I did what I always do when stuck writing. I did more reporting. And in our newspaper morgue I got lost in the words of these old Inquirer columnists - Harold Wiegand, John Cummings - who championed the Kelly Streeters through the years.
There was a time, around the turn of the century, when most of the city's papers had their offices around old Kelly Street, which ran off 10th Street above Chestnut. Apparently, newspapermen used to know how to sing in addition to drink. They did both at the Dooner Hotel, where Herbert first encountered the group that honors him to this day.
After soaking this all in, I went back to my desk and started typing, and the damned thing started flying off my fingers. I'd like to thank the old newspaperman who must have entered my body Wednesday morning, and knocked this off in an hour or two. It was good for me, too.
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