Halloween in Southwood Park

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I remember my first Halloween in Southwood Park as if it were yesterday.

A little background: I came to Fort Wayne in 1998 from Massachusetts where I had lived in two college towns (although not simultaneously) for about 12 years.

College towns in western Massachusetts are not big on ostentatious holiday observances. A bystander or driver-by who likes to see Christmas lights on houses is hard-pressed to find examples of that holiday custom. I think I got five trick-or-treaters the entire time I lived there.

In the college towns of western Massachusetts, some people would rather be seen publically protesting a holiday (Columbus Day, especially) than be seen publicly embracing the trappings of one.

It wasn’t long after my arrival in Fort Wayne that I realized how different the Summit City is in this regard.

All holidays are loved unconditionally in Fort Wayne and each is celebrated to the hilt.

The first two neighborhoods I lived in here were Waynedale and Oakdale. Before I moved to Southwood Park in September of 2013, I thought I’d experienced the height of Hoosier Halloween hysteria.

But nothing could have prepared me for the way Halloween had achieved its quintessence in Southwood Park.

In Southwood Park, Halloween is like a block party that goes on for blocks and blocks.

It’s a blocks party.

Some homeowners transform their front yards into theme park-style attractions. Others haul out their grills and their coolers.

If you are a parent who looks hungry or thirsty or otherwise unfulfilled in life, you can expect to be offered a beer or a brat.

Diabolically decorated cars cruise around. Adults tend to be as extravagantly costumed as the kids.

There are moments you can look up and look around at seas of people in every direction.

It’s nuts in the best sense of the word.

It goes without saying that many of the families that participate in all this come from outside Southwood Park.

Some neighborhood residents are annoyed by that aspect of things. Some, like myself, adopt a “more-equals-merrier” mindset.

A Southwood Park Halloween isn’t for everybody. There are those of us who do not care to “look up and look around at seas of people in every direction.”

I get it and I respect it.

As for me, I didn’t really understand the adult appeal of Halloween until I moved here.

Halloween in Southwood Park is an annual opportunity for me to be comprehensively neighborly.

It’s like a town hall meeting – minus zoning squabbles, plus plastic fangs.

And it’s one of my favorite nights of the year.

 

 

 

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Core Jester

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People who have long dreamed about writing for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and its offshoots might be too sensitive to learn that Rifftrax writer Conor Lastowka really didn’t know much about MST3K before he started working for Rifftrax.

“I was extremely casually acquainted with it,” he said in a phone interview.

How Lastowka came to work down the hall from former MST3K head writer and Rifftrax founder Mike Nelson is a story steeped in serendipity.

It all started when Lastowka invented a holiday.

Yes, he did and yes, it did.

Incidentally, Rifftrax’ latest live event, “Carnival of Souls,” happens Oct. 27 and can be viewed at the Regal Coldwater Crossing in Fort Wayne, among many other nationwide multiplexes.

While matriculating at the University of Virginia in the early 2000s, Lastowka and some of his buddies invented National High Five Day (which happens every third Thursday in April).

The gag went viral in a manner that most college pranksters can only dream of. And it has since evolved into a serious, charity-benefitting, annual event.

Eventually, Lastowka received an electronic mash note of sorts from the vice-president of Legend Films, a San Diego company that restores and colorizes black-and-white films.

“She emailed and said she saw it and liked it,” he said. “I saw her signature – that she was vice-president of Legend Films … And I wrote to her just like, ‘Hey, any chance that there’s a job there?’ not really knowing what they did.”

Lastowka had some video editing and social media experience so Legend hired him to fill gaps not otherwise filled at the company. And that was where and how he encountered Nelson.

Nelson was in the process of getting his pay-per-riff, movie-mocking venture, Rifftrax, off the ground with Legend’s help.

“Once Mike moved there and started what was going to be Rifftrax,” Lastowka said, “I did my best to weasel into that. It worked out where I would sort of be walking by his office and thinking of something funny to say.”

Keep in mind that Lastowka was not at this point an MST3K devotee.

“I finished high school in 1999,” he said. “We intermittently had cable. If it was still on in college, I’m sure I would have latched onto it. But I was a ‘Simpsons’ guy.”

Lastowka was eventually rewarded for stalking Nelson when the latter asked him to provide the voice of DisembAudio, a computer-generated, robotic toaster that was initially created to help Rifftrax patrons sync the audio with the video.

“I think I had a big enough job description that when he needed somebody to come in and do robot lines for RiffTrax, I had the most free time,” he said.

In due time, Lastowka was promoted to full-time writer and Rifftrax became emancipated from Legend.

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Lastowka said the MST3K vets with whom he works (Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett) were patient with him in the early going.

“It was my first writing job and it was my first comedy job,” he said. “And there were these guys who’d been on TV for a decade and had won awards. Mike was very gracious about the way they would do things and he would often explain if something didn’t work. My tendency was to be darker than they were because I was younger and I didn’t understand that it wasn’t always worth going for shock value.”

Rifftrax ultimately established a creative beachhead in Minneapolis, where MST3K had been launched in 1988.

These days, however, everyone associated with Rifftrax is scattered to the four winds.

Given the nature of the collaborative creative process in the digital age, people do not have to live in the same city, or even in the same state, to work together on projects.

So when Lastowka’s wife got a job in Vermont, he was able to move there without relinquishing his Rifftrax role.

The only office where the Rifftrax creative staff regularly convenes nowadays is an online one, he said.

“We have a copy of the movie that has a time code overlaid on it,” Lastowka said. “Sometimes we will refer to scripts if they are available and we need clarification, but most of the movies that we do do not have scripts available online. But for the most part, I have a video file open on one monitor and a script in a Google doc on another monitor and I look back and forth between the two.”

The idea that Lastowka gets to live in a picturesque New England town while contributing jokes to a savory national project would incite envy in even the most placid and satisfied writer.

“It’s delightful,” he said. “I can say that without reservation. I have a chance to travel a couple times a year to the live shows. When I get to taking it all for granted, which happens sometimes, all I have to do is get to the end of one of those live shows when we’re really all sort of look at each other and thinking, ‘That was really funny. It worked. The audience responded well. Tens of thousands of people saw this all around the country and it’s something that we built.’ So you do take a step back at those times.”

There’s a flipside to that jubilation, of course and it’s wearing tighty-whiteys.

“And sometimes I’m sitting around in my underwear trying to think of a joke,” Lastowka said. “ We did this awful movie where there were literally scenes of John Carradine and his assistant digging around in a lab for 10 minutes. They would sort of move around almost in silence. When you get to minute nine of that, you think, ‘This sucks. I hate this movie.’ So that balances out some of the other stuff. Still, it’s not like I’m digging ditches here.”

 

 

Perchance to Dream

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Before dawn every day, Chicago trumpeter Phil Cohran woke his numerous sons and made them practice their brass instruments.

Eight of those boys grew up and formed the highly acclaimed Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble, which will perform October 26 at the Embassy Theatre.

This is probably the sort of outcome that Cohran foresaw, but eldest brother Gabriel “Hudah” Hubert recalled in an email interview that the boys didn’t always share their dad’s vision.

“Waking up at any hour as a kid, besides the hour you naturally want to awaken, can definitely cause a child to be upset, bitter, resentful,” he said. “But our father is a military man, so he believes that early morning is the best time to get the best results. And with that mind state, look at us now.”

The music that the Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble makes is hard to describe. After he happened upon the troupe about eight years ago performing on a Manhattan sidewalk, New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote this, “Certain genres sprang to mind—a New Orleans second-line band, say, or big-band jazz—but the music wasn’t jazz, exactly. The songs set small, compact melodies against a steady hip-hop beat, and everyone played simultaneously and continuously. The band had eliminated one of the dreary commonplaces of jazz, that class-recital rhythm of soloing—you go, I go, and so on, until the main melody returns.”

Later in the same profile, Frere-Jones added, “The music that Hypnotic plays might best be described as highly composed instrumental hip-hop. If it is jazz, it’s closer in spirit to jazz from a hundred years ago: accomplished and energetic music parceled out in short songs designed for dancing.”

Hubert said no label or salad of labels applies to what the Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble is doing.

“We think that journalists see what they’re inspired by,” he said. “So for us, we don’t fit in a box. So that leaves inspiration in hands of interpretation. Which gives us comfort. Music is universal, and an artist really sticks to that cold as we do.”

He said he understands why journalists might feel confused.

“What’s really funny is that hip hop and jazz coming from the same roots and environment,” Hubert said. “I think the best thing an artist does in creating is to conjure the purest form of that art.”

Hubert said the band ascribes to the Miles Davis quote: “There are only two kinds of music: Good and bad.”

“Critics wouldn’t get paid or make a living if they couldn’t divide and conquer,” he said. “ So we as the artist has to stand and create powerful offerings that shatter all doubt and ridicule.”

The Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble came perilously close to never existing. In 1996, brother Anthony Neal was murdered near the college he was attending at the time, the University of Illinois.

Hubert said the other brothers almost lost their way.

“When our brother was murdered, we were teetering on brink of diving deep into Chicago’s street life.” he said. “Where there is literally no return. But we had street guys in our circle who we grew up with and looked up to us. That convinced us to keep striving for greatness. They wanted to live through the potential of our success.”

The brothers saw a path out, Hubert said, and they realized that by following it, they could light the way for others.

“Where we come from, there isn’t much that’s tangible that inspires greatness,” Hubert said. “They realized as we did: There was a real opportunity for us to be beacons of light for the generations before us, with us, and behind us.”

Bands composed of family members are often uniquely contentious and the Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble is no exception, Hubert said.

“We absolutely butt heads on everything, and it’s frustrating to each one of us at different times,” he said. “But when there is a great idea on the table, it’s kind of hard not to go along with it.”

When strong families go into business together, the ratio of arguments to agreements is just naturally going to be about 70/30, Hubert said.

“It’s an interesting dynamic, but it works,” he said. “So that’s why, when people hear our music or see us perform, all the chaos has been filtered out.”

Success is an elusive beast in today’s music business if you measure it the old-fashioned way: Copies sold, Grammies accumulated, etc.

Hubert said the Hypnotic Jazz Ensemble has its own definition of success.

“In my opinion, success isn’t measured by where you want to be,” he said. “It’s measured by where you are. No one can see the future. You have no clue what’s in store you tomorrow, today, next year, or ten minutes from now. But we all know where we’ve come from, and also where are at present time. So to me, success is indicative of where I stand today.”

Satisfaction is being happy with what you have been able to accomplish up to the present moment, Hubert said.

“We want more, of course,” he said. “That depends of the strength of our tenacity and steadfastness, our dedication and our commitment to staying together throughout everything. But there is no doubt that we are a success story.”

 

 

 

 

Up To C2G I Send You

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In 2012, Fort Wayne-native and longtime Indianapolis-based musician Bill Mallers sat backstage with some band and stage mates after a show and contemplated the greatness of drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who had recently died.

Someone suggested putting on a charity concert, with proceeds going to Helm’s financially troubled music studio, The Barn.

Mallers didn’t suspect it at the time, but the resulting tribute to Helm’s renowned roots rock group The Band would eventually grow into an annual, multi-state phenomenon, not to mention a part-time job for him.

“Such a Night,” Mallers’ live recreation of Martin Scorsese’s star-studded concert film, “The Last Waltz,” will be presented for the fourth time in Fort Wayne at C2G Music Hall on Saturday, Oct. 1.

“The Last Waltz,” widely considered to be one of the finest concert films of all time, chronicles what was then billed as The Band’s final show. It proved not to be the case.

In the latest Fort Wayne incarnation of the recreation, Kenny Taylor will appear as Eric Clapton, Dave Todoran will assay the role of Bob Dylan, Jack Hammer will channel Van Morrison, Chilly Addams will get at the essence of Neil Young, Marnee will embody Joni Mitchell, Bob Bailey will appear as Neil Diamond, Rick Barrand will play Paul Butterfield and DJ Doc West will intone as Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Mallers’ Indianapolis-based group, The Haters, will back everyone up as The Band.

West, who has had notable interactions with many rock legends, said he had an interesting encounter with the post-film manifestation of The Band at the now-defunct Fort Wayne club, Piere’s.

West approached Rick Danko after the show to get an item signed and Danko replied, “OK. Let’s do it on the tour bus and bring your Heineken with you.”

“The Heineken was a fresh one,” West recalled, “and he goes, ‘Hey, do you mind if I finish your beer?’ And I go, ‘No! It would be an honor, Rick. Do it.’ He guzzled it down in two seconds. Bam, bam. He handed the bottle back to me and, as he handed it back to me, the door opened on the tour bus and it was Levon Helm.”

West later found out that Danko was on rehab at the time, so he was grateful that the timing of the bottle pass was such that neither he nor Danko got into trouble with Helm.

“Caught!” he said, laughing. “It was like we were teenagers.”

This isn’t the first time West has played poet and activist Ferlinghetti, who prefaced the historic concert with an eccentric version of the Lord’s Prayer called Loud Prayer.

West said the Fort Wayne editions of “Such a Night” have proved to be exciting.

“There’s a lot of spontaneity to it,” he said. “Because the local musicians rehearse along with the record or the CD.”

Mallers said the very first show was never intended to be anything but the last show, because no one wanted initially to be involved permanently or semi-permanently in a tribute act.

“But when this show was over, we all sort of looked at each other and said, ‘We’re in a tribute band now,’” he said. “‘We don’t want this feeling to end.’”

The organizers came up with the plan to present the show in a number of nearby cities annually, recruiting local musicians from each. The only constant would be The Haters.

“All of a sudden, it was like, ‘What a great idea!’” Mallers said. “We can go to different towns with the core band and enlist the cast from the town, and we’ll meet new musicians and we’ll have a blast and we’ll give some money to charity in every town we go to.’”

“Such a Night” now happens in Indianapolis, Bloomington, Louisville and Fort Wayne.

The charity in Fort Wayne that will benefit from this year’s show is the Community Harvest Food Bank.

The reason the concert seems to resonate with performers and audiences alike, Mallers said, is the variety. Portraying The Band means that the Haters (five permanent members plus three additional horns) get to act as house band throughout. It’s a role that comes naturally to them, he said.

Mallers and his seasoned musical cohorts have spent many years as sidemen and session musicians and have gotten quite good at melding with, and complementing, performers unfamiliar to them.

“When we’re backing up other people – in a way, I think the audience gets to see us do what we do best,” he said. “Whenever people get nervous and say, ‘Boy, this is a pretty big deal,’ I always tell them, ‘Don’t worry, because we’re just going to put you in a cradle and rock you back and forth like a baby.”

Longtime media personality Chilly Addams, who will perform Neil Young’s set during the show, said the movie helped him understand what life was really like for these rock pioneers.

He cited a Robbie Robertson quote from the film about how life on the road is a school where musicians either learn how to survive…or don’t.

“To know more and understand how it was like for those that were actually pioneering rock and roll; it’s an amazing thing to contemplate,” he said.

“I will always do everything I can to promote music to anyone and everyone, to keep it in schools and to give those who don’t have a lot of opportunities a chance to play.”