February 28, 2008
Freaks & Geeks
All he knew was that three 11-by-14-inch prints were strange:
A black man in a coat and tie, wearing a jeweled turban and tiny smirk.
A snake devouring a rat.
And, even more frightening, a tall man in sunglasses, standing on a stage, with his arms folded and tapered into sharp points where there should have been hands.
"They were clearly art shots," recalls Langmuir, 57, a white-haired, white-bearded man in owlish glasses, sitting in his workshop under a giant pastel painting of Humpty Dumpty. "I thought they were special."
Only when he brought the trove back from a Brooklyn dealer to his West Rittenhouse Street place, and spread the papers over his long desk, did he glimpse just how special.
Paging through tax documents, calendars, dream journals and correspondences to a couple named Charlie and Woogie, he came upon an entry in a 1964 address book that read:
Diane Arbus, 1311/2 Charles St., WA 4-4608.
Had he just found a mother lode of lost prints by the legendary New York photographer?
The wrong era
The man was Richard "Charlie" Lucas. Born in Mississippi in 1909, Lucas had been a sword-swallower, hot-coal walker, and African wild man in sideshows across the country. By midcentury, he was working in a Times Square emporium called Hubert's Dime Museum & Flea Circus as an inside talker - emcee for the assortment of human curiosities on display.
And that, it turns out, is where Lucas befriended a female photographer who was moving from shooting fashion to shooting those on society's fringes.
Langmuir had been drawn to African American culture since his boyhood, growing up in Delaware County at the edge of the black community called Morton. His first buying and selling was of jazz and blues 78s he found at People's TV, Tire & Record Store.
After leaving school, he jumped from adventure to adventure, joining the Merchant Marine, roaming around Europe and Russia, hopping freight trains, staying in missions, working as a roadie for Muddy Waters. He was scouting books and papers at auctions and junk stores when he settled down in 1978 at a Center City shop called the Book Mark. His business lasted a good 20 years.
He and his partner had wound down the business when he bought that circus trunk in 2003 that contained what he felt were rare Arbus prints.
At first, Langmuir says, Rosenheim said the style in the photographs seemed different from what he knew of Arbus', telling the collector, "You'll have to sell me on them."
Meanwhile, Langmuir learned there was much more to the collection. He returned to Brooklyn, and the dealer - a Nigerian named Okie - handed him a second envelope of photos. Langmuir tried to stay calm. He was burning up.
He peeked inside, and saw 19 more prints, and a note, written in the same handwriting he'd found in Lucas' address books:
"Pictures enclosed for you, Suzie and Dingo. (Went to Amusements of America Carnival in Hagerstown, MD. I saw my first geek.) Diane."
That was the Eureka! moment. Before anything else could happen, Langmuir needed to show the prints to the Arbus estate for authentication. Months more passed.
Right as his professional life was at the verge of greatness, his personal life was falling apart. His mother died. He was in the midst of a bitter divorce. He was fighting depression, and losing the battle.
Still, Langmuir pursued the last pieces of the collection. He acquired more photos, from a Florida collector and from the artist Richard Merkin in New York.
Finally, word came down from lawyers representing the photographer, who had killed herself in 1971. What Langmuir had discovered: at least 30 vintage photographs from before 1963 that Arbus, herself, had printed.
On April 8, Phillips de Pury & Co. is set to auction the photographs and Charlie Lucas' archives in New York. The collection is on exhibit in Los Angeles now. Germany is next. A New York Times article priced the pieces at hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2004, when a fellow collector named Gregory Gibson proposed writing a book on the discovery of the photos, Langmuir said the story was about his own spiritual journey as much as anything.
Gibson spent four years researching and writing, and says he saw Langmuir, whom he'd known for 20 years, go through an epochal change. "As much as he is a genius at discovering old paper, he turned his attention inward and discovered things about himself. It was remarkable to watch the progress of that. In a way, that might have been the most satisfying part."
Gibson's book is called Hubert's Freaks, and is set to be published in mid-March by Harcourt.
Last year, Langmuir was remarried, to a teacher. He's looking forward to using proceeds from the auction to go into schools with his wife and enliven history with real artifacts from African American history.
"I'm not going to do anything differently," he said. "I've already started to do the differentlies."
Bob Langmuir has managed to put himself back together again.
Them Changes: Buddy Miles is Dead
Buddy Miles is dead.
The drummer died Tuesday at home in Texas of conjestive heart failure. He was 60. You might know him as man assaulting the skins on "Them Changes" or from a live record with Carlos Santana.
You could hide a revolution in that hair.
February 24, 2008
Who is Ryan Seacrest?
"Who is Ryan Seacrest, and what is he doing on national television?"
The first paragraph of his web site bio shares the key stuff:
With his successful broadcasting career, it's no wonder why he was recently awarded a prestigious star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and why he was voted as one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful,” as well as one of their 2005 “Most Eligible Bachelors.” With Ryan Seacrest Productions (RSP) becoming a known entity producing and hosting multiple television and radio specials, his many restaurant investments, as well as the launch of the R Line, Seacrest is redefining what it means to be an entrepreneur and a triple threat in Hollywood.
He's a known entity.
Best line about Ryan's gravitas goes to the New York Post, which blogged:
Like I said, he makes Joan Rivers look like Edward R. Murrow.
February 23, 2008
Tower Theatre. Saturday Night. John Doe opening for Wilco. Paying some real money for this one. The above version of "Impossible Germany" is from "Austin City Limits," via Aquarium Drunkard, and its pretty much definitive. Gorgeous and alone, face-to-face.
Haven't seen Wilco since a mellow incarnation at the Troc around 2000. Old `97s opened. Found myself upstairs at an after-midnight show afterward, Los Straitjackets in their Mexican wrestling masks, and I remember something about the boys from Marah sending over a Jagermeister after we sent a Slippery Nipple their way. Or was it visa versa? Lotta freaks.
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.
February 20, 2008
Audio Killed The Video
We had all sorts of video queued up and ready to go to illustrate Monday's column on Josh Winheld, the 29-year-old author of a memoir of his life with Duchenne, the most-common form of muscular dystrophy. But we messed up. You could barely make out his words over the din of his ventilator.
Thanks to the Gray Lady, here's six minutes of video on Josh. The New York Times featured the Cheltenham native today in a piece on new tactics to treat those with the disease.
The Times says this about fighting Duchenne:
Rather than concentrate only on a cure, some researchers are now intent on developing drugs that may alleviate the effects of the disease.
But, absent a cure, too many doctors around the country still assume there is little or nothing that can be done for the muscle-wasting condition, parents and specialists say.
“We’re in a stone age with Duchenne,” said Dr. Linda H. Cripe, a pediatric cardiologist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. She describes Duchenne patients as “a group of kids that pediatric medicine had forgotten, a group of lost boys.”
February 18, 2008
Thanks For Sharing
Pray he's on the phone.
I don't understand how you can conduct business when you are, well, conducting business. It just seems wrong. Especially when you are in a public restroom, and the person next door is a captive audience for an intimate scene in your life. Do you have to share so generously?
"I hope you're on the phone," I said after he followed his "I Love You" with something about the groceries. Clearly I was intruding on his world, which was only fair.
"Yes," he replied after a second's pause. "Why?"
I looked down. Black loafers. Shined. Clearly not from the newsroom.
"Because I was hoping you were talking to someone else."
"Because I was hoping you weren't talking to me."
Suddenly, he wasn't so talkative.
February 15, 2008
Big Brother Falls
From Chris, who was writing from South Dakota: "I feel a profound sadness at the loss of someone who I considered a father to me and I only hope you can possibly help other people see how he lived and how much he actually gave back to the community and those around him. Craig was a great man who thought nothing of himself and always thought about the welfare of others before considering himself."
I'd spent an evening in May with Craig and his newest little brother, Pernell Francis, as "Perry" wolfed down a meal and a half at Tony Luke's. Craig visited Perry each week, picking him up at his South Philly rowhouse, taking him to dinners, and other events in Perry's packed life. The column's here. That's Craig and Perry, together in this photo, being honored by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah this September.
Craig was a Big Brother for 36 years, helping four young men to their feet. He'd been a borough councilman in Oaklyn, N.J. He managed a cemetery in Cinnaminson the past 16 years. He also ran a tax preparation business. He fished and read avidly. He played Santa at Big Brother Christmas parties for a decade. He was a member of the Avalon and Aqua String Bands. His wife died four years ago.
What I remember is the softness of this exchange, toward the end of the evening at Tony Luke's:
Craig: "I've gotten an extended family out of this. Not only with the ids, but with the family. You never lose track of them when they grow up. They stick with you like the mud. I've got four sons I'd never have had. I love them, and I think they love me."
Perry: "You think?"
February 14, 2008
Flowers Flying Across The Room
You might want to put on the headphones and take a moment with this one.
Flower wilt, candies melt, dinners out make me feel like a lox.
But this is a Valentine's gift for the ages.
Years past, I'd go out and buy an opera for my wife. Not commission one, buy one. I'd look up favorite performances in Ted Libby's guide, then hunt one down at Tower's classical branch on South Street, or HMV, and now what do I do?
What will join Tosca and Il Trovatore and Aida and Cosi Fan Tutte and Peleas and Melisande?
The Drive-By Truckers doing Feb. 14?
Why not. The kids are out of the house. It's just us and the dog. Time put on those high-heeled sneakers.
February 12, 2008
Nude Beer and Chicken Feet
This week was to start off with a column about a historic dump -- the press room in the Roundhouse. It was suggested I try to capture the ambiance of the place called Room 619 on the occasion of our being thrown out of there by the new police administration. So much for history.
Apparently, the execution has been stayed. We don't have to leave the building, though there is some question whether we'll get to keep the room. But what a room it is. Or was.
It's been a few years since I've sat where Barbara Boyer now works the phone and her sources in blue.
But the place sticks with you.
The stale pistachio green walls, decorated with black and white photos from when cops wore hats and drove squad cars that looked like they'd been designed by R. Crumb.
The floors were some sort of no-tell, mottled brown and gray tile that had snuffed the life out of a million cigarette butts. There were towers of ugly file cabinets and spent Royal typewriters, pizza-stained Rolodexes and big-shouldered desks whose bottom drawers secreted stacks of skin magazines.
My first visit I was filling in for the regular Inquirer guys -- Tommy Gibbons and Bo Terry. There was an agreeable gent from the Daily News named Joe O'Dowd, and when his day was over, in came a white-haired, squat and silent type who worked the night shift. His name was Jack McGuire and he was an old-school guy who worked with pencil and paper, and I had the sense he viewed new Inquirer reporters from the main office as something to scrape off his scuffed soles.
It took hours before I realized that the giant glass vat on his desk was not stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, but rounded ice cubes for his tea.
I was talking about the place with city editor Chris Hepp the other day, when he shared a Jack story. This was back in the day when reporters from four papers -- the Inquirer, the Daily News, the Tribune and the Bulletin -- all worked the cramped press room, and lived in fear of getting beat. Chris was the Bulletin's guy, and it was late on a Sunday. All night, Jack had been quiet. He'd get up occasionally and disappear for a half hour. This would fill Hepp's head with horrors.
"It was a bad sign when he got up. It meant he was working on something. He'd file from a phone booth."
At the end of the night, when McGuire's shift was over, and the Bulletin's deadline had past, he got up from his desk, crumpled the sheet of paper he'd been working on, and marched to the door.
"Read it and weep," he announced, and threw the wad of paper over his shoulder like a grenade.
For the past week maintenance crews have been sweeping up, getting ready for a move may or may not happen.
Barb Boyer says the crews discovered corners that hadn't seen light in years. The room had been given a bit of a makeover since a group of young woman replaced the old boy's club. Boyer brought in an unfortunate '80s couch from home. The paper paid for the walls to be repainted, the bilious green replaced by a bluish-white.
But some things are hard to cleanse. In a closet someone found a single bottle of a libation called Nude Beer, whose label sports a picture of a buxom blonde in a black bikini. A Whoopee cushion turned up in someone's desk. When you sit on it, it spits out scatological insults, perfect for what one might think of one's superiors.
The last thing they found was a dried-up chicken's foot.
Public Affairs was apparently interested in it, and removed it from the room. Maybe for evidence, of a more storied time.
(Photos by Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish. Why, you may ask, is a second-floor press room called 619? Tradition. That was the number of the old room in City Hall where cop reporters made their calls.)