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Old Weird America - Thursday Feb. 14th

OLD WEIRD AMERICA—THURSDAY FEB. 14TH  @ 6PM, NORTHSIDE LIBRARY/ VAMPIRA: AMERICA’S FIRST HORROR SHOW HOST AND GOTH CHICK

It’s 1954—and a new late-night program premieres on Los Angeles KABC—called, Dig Me Later, Vampira.  A long- dark hallway appears, and out of a cloud of fog glides a dark, svelte woman who pauses before the camera in close-up and lets out a bloody scream. She then smiles contentedly and flings back her black mane of hair, as the program title emerges. Erstwhile model and housewife Maila Nurmi had re-invented herself as Vampira—the first Horror Show host.

And although her name is almost forgotten now, the image of the character of Vampira burst on the scene as a subversive cultural sensation amid the conformity of the 1950s and remains an underground icon of goth imagery and incendiary sexuality.

She was linked romantically to the likes of Orson Welles and Marlon Brando, —and was even accused of putting a curse on James Dean after his death in a car crash in 1955. Yet almost as soon as she became America’s “girl of the moment”- that moment was over, and Vampira was relegated to appearing in the kind of z-grade movies she skewered on her program—hitting rock bottom when she appeared in Ed Woods’ spectacularly bad masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space in 1959.

Please join us for a look into rise and fall of the phenomenon that was VAMPIRA.

 

Old Weird America

Why was Edgar Poe roaming around Baltimore dazed and confused when he should have been on a train heading north in October of 1849? In our first Old Weird America program for 2019, we will explore the strange circumstances of Poe’s last year and his premature death—and the even stranger story of his curious afterlife. Who is the mystery man who, 100 years later began to pay tribute to the author on his birthday each year by drinking a toast at Poe’s grave? We may get some answers when the “Poe Toaster” himself pays a visit to our program. Please join historian Cathy Polovina for the first story in what may prove to be a very weird year, here at the Kenosha Public Library.

Old Weird America: “Dancer in the Sand”—Marta Becket Thursday Dec.13 at 6pm, Northside Library

In 1967, NYC dancer Marta Becket and got a flat tire at a ghost town in the middle of Death Valley. Instead of getting out of there as fast as possible—Marta became enchanted—bought a ruined theater and spent the rest of her life making it into an oasis of beauty—building, painting, writing, dancing—mostly alone—until the rest of the world discovered her world and began to make the trek to the wonderland she called Amargosa. Come see and hear about the magical world of this remarkable artist who spent 50 years dancing in the desert sands.

"Old Weird America" Thursday, November 8 at 6pm, Northside Library

Please join us for the strange and sad story of Homer and Langley Collyer—a true tale that sounds like an urban legend.  In March 1947, two brothers living in seclusion, died in their crumbling Manhattan brownstone among 150 TONS of debris. The lesson of their lives lives on in a contemporary fascination with hoarders—and in NYC emergency shorthand—where a “Collyer mansion” warns responders to be on the lookout for a potentially dangerous hoarding situation.

OLD WEIRD AMERICA PRESENTS--VAMPIRES IN AMERICA Thursday, October 11 at 6 pm at the Northside Library

As Bram Stoker travelled America in his job as a theater tour manager in the late 19th century, he observed a strange and frightening episode then occurring in the eastern states. Fear of rampant tuberculosis, then known as consumption, decimated the population, and in lieu of any reliable medical cure, many panicked citizens blamed a very old menace as the cause--VAMPIRES. Was Stoker inspired by this contemporary "Vampire Scare" to write his masterpiece, Dracula in 1897? And what prominent American poet may have served as his model for the notorious count?  Join us for a look at how a New World Vampire scare transformed the traditional Eastern European myth of the vampire and helped to create a cultural icon that lives on today in popular culture. 

Old Weird America Series

  We really go weird this month with a look at the self-professed genius of art pottery, George Ohr-- who couldn’t give away his work during his lifetime--but whose pieces can now command prices in the six figures. In fact the eccentric Ohr often refused to sell his “mud babies” and after he died in 1918, his family was left with a shed full of over 5000 unique ceramic pieces which sat accumulating dust for fifty years. When amateur antiques dealer from New York, Jim Carpenter happened upon Ojo’s Junkyard and Machine Shop in out-of-the-way Biloxi, Mississippi in 1968, he was in for a happy surprise when Ohr’s son Ojo offered to let him see “my Daddy’s pots”.  Carpenter introduced Ohr’s work to the world and an outsider art star was born. What made his pots so particular and his life so peculiar? Join us and find out.

 

“Old Weird America” Thursday August 9 at 6 pm—Northside Library / LITTLE RICHARD: CHILD OF GOSPEL, PRINCE OF ROCK-N-ROLL

 

The ebullient shout of Whop-Bop-A-Loom-Mop-A-Lop-Bam-Boom on the hit single, Tutti-Frutti (1955) has been characterized by music critics as the “birth cry of rock-n-roll”. And what a child it produced—a flamboyant, gay, black pianist who called himself “Little” Richard, who remains one of the last living icons of the youthquake of the 1950s.  Elvis Presley’s swaying hips and all-American good looks brought a decidedly masculine sexuality to the new sound, while Chuck Berry defined its equally muscular guitar signature. Little Richard imbued something arguably even more vital and influential into rock-n-roll—an uninhibited sexual androgyny and a sheer life-affirming joy in music. He was the first black artist that white kids really wanted to see as well as hear. Please join us to see and hear the story of this unique rock pioneer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First in the Series Mysteries with a Touch of the Fantastic

 

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw

H.P. Lovecraft meets Sam Spade in this genre-bending novella that blends noir with ancient occult evil in modern London. John Persons comes across as the typical literary P.I, caustic and world weary, until eleven year old Abel  brings in his piggy bank as payment for killing McKinsey, his abusive father—whom he refers to, quite literally, as a monster. The boy knows what we only learn later—that Persons is more than a man, but a creature as old as time and as dangerous as a god.  Persons doesn’t go in for hits, but the more he learns about this McKinsey character, the more seriously he takes his assignment. McKinsey shares something with Persons—that same spirit of an ancient presence who is capable of contaminating everything it touches—but unlike Persons, McKinsey revels in his power to infect and destroy anything decent he sees.  Persons, determined to tamp down his own inner devils, perceives it as his mission to take this character down. His character is very self-aware, as if he’s doing a Bogie impression, while tracking evil more akin to Cthulhu than Peter Lorre, which makes for some tongue in cheek humor as well. Person returns in A Song for Quiet as a secondary character with an American setting involving a blues musician who brings forth monsters with his playing.

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian

Zoe Faust is a 300-something ex-alchemist who moves to open-minded Portland, Oregon to live a normal life. Things go awry immediately, of course, when she buys an old house and hires a contractor who is promptly murdered on her property, making Zoe the prime suspect. She then unpacks a box whose contents include a mysterious talking gargoyle who wants Zoe to use her long-unpracticed powers to help him reverse the spell that made him into stone. A nosy young neighbor and potential housebreaker named Brixton sees too much and Zoe makes a pact with the boy to include him on both her quest to solve the death of the carpenter and find the lost book that will restore flesh and bone to the stone effigy.  His name is Dorian, by the way, and he’s the son of the famous 19thc French magician Robert Houdin—a delightfully goofy character who loves mystery novels and insists upon advising Zoe in her every move. The handsome Detective Max Liu rounds out the cast of characters who try to help Zoe out of the mess, which includes another murder and threats from a Czech chemist who would also like to get his hands on Dorian’s missing book of magic. Then there’s Brixton’s vegan artist mother who shares recipes while trying to keep her meddlesome kid out of trouble. You get the picture—it’s light fun, but are surprising bits of historical information and lore as well.  The next book is The Elusive Elixir.

The Binding by Nicholas Wolff

This thriller looks to be the first in a promising ongoing series featuring police detective John Bailey and psychologist Nat Thayer looking into murder and missing person cases that enter into the realm of the supernatural. Seemingly idyllic Northam Massachusetts (Lovecraft territory?) is rocked by the horrific death and lack of evidence in the murder of college student Margaret Post. Detective Bailey is troubled by the both the crime and the subsequent rash of suicides and strange disappearances of those same bodies from the morgue. Meanwhile, Dr. Thayer deals with the disturbing memories of a number of patients, including an attractive young women named Becca Prescott, who insists she is a ghost. While he knows there are medical conditions that can bring on such symptoms, the manifestations become even stranger and more profuse. Another patient, lawyer Chuck Goodwin feels the presence of an invisible stalker, while Bailey’s little son Charlie begins to question the reality of the people in family photographs. Thayer and Bailey join forces to uncover the sinister secrets of the once quiet little town—secrets that bind them to an indelible and haunted past that sets the scene for future sequels.

“Old Weird America” Thursday, July 12 at 6pm—Northside Library THEDA BARA: KISS ME MY FOOL

While Europeans were butchering each other during the Great War in 1914, the U.S. was developing a film industry that would make it a world-wide cultural influence throughout the rest of the century.  Beyond the technical innovations in movie making, the most lasting contribution of the early studios was the invention of the movie star. The most recognizable faces in the world in 1915 were “The Girl with the Curls”-Mary Pickford, “The Little Tramp”-Charlie Chaplin, and “The Vamp”- Theda Bara. What? Wait. Who? You’ve never heard of her? I know you haven’t seen any of her films –they’re non-existent—yet no one made more of an impact or created a more significant and copied persona than Theda Bara. You’ll get a kick out of the story of how this quiet young woman from Cincinnati became the very definition of the female sexual predator by 1915. Her publicity stills alone are enough to captivate and convince you that “The Vamp” was one weird character!

Old Weird America: A New Monthly Series of Programs at KPL NS Library 2nd Thursday of each month @ 6 pm

The concept of “Old Weird America” was introduced by the music critic Greil Marcus in his 1997 exploration of Bob Dylan and the Band’s long suppressed so-called Basement Tapes from 1967.  Marcus, a vivid prose stylist began as a reporter for Rolling Stone and has authored books about origins of Rock-n-Roll (Mystery Train) and  Lipstick Traces, about the Punk phenomenon. The term has since been used to describe a lost American independence, a time when a person could make of him/herself whatever they were capable of—before mass communication flattened the imagination and consumerism suppressed our dreams of self-expression.  Marcus alludes to this concept as “that misty, funky version of Brigadoon that lies just outside the normal precincts of American culture.”—further seeing it as the "playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes". 

I believe his description applies to much of our history—especially before the constant connectivity to a mainstream American culture that began with TV in the late 1940s. (Radio was very local and an often eccentric communicator itself—a topic that may well enter into future stories).

In these presentations, I will use the term as a catch –all description for the eccentric, the odd, and the strange strain in American culture that still hides in the crannies of our 50 states—as we concentrate on peculiar characters and events in history.  I believe the weird is still out there. America can be seen as a “cabinet of curiosities”—borrowed from European traditions in particular, of course, but uniquely interpreted within the vast heart of a strange new land. This fresh world was ripe for democratization and commercialization, perhaps—but it also still exists as a haven for deeply personal interpretations within its lost corners and endlessly varied landscape. And not just on the lonesome desert byways, the bayou honky-tonks, and the cheap urban dens—but in middle America (see the disturbing Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy) –or small towns anywhere-- there’s a youngster who knows they are different—not a sad “freak”, maybe not a genius either—but one who decides to cultivate instead of hide what makes them unusual. We’ll talk about women with taboo ambitions—as in our first two explorations of Nellie Bly and Theda Bara—or Little Richard (Penniman)--a young man who transgressed traditional gender, racial, and religious roles to put the sex in rock-n-roll that even Elvis could not fully convey.  We will explore the obsessed hoarders, the mad artists, the squelched genius, and more of those people lost to history whose lives were ruled by their own compulsions. You may have heard of some of their names like Nellie Bly or Little Richard—but you probably don’t know the whole story—and just how far out on a limb they went to be true to themselves, for we know the world isn’t always kind to the outsider.

                                                                                                        Cathy Polovina

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