One of the last letters I got before the MS-SQL worm choked off my mail was my sister forwarding me something from the Memorial Drive Church of Christ in Tulsa. Design-wise they’ve got a real Highway 1/Route 66 kind of website, the kind of thing that leaves me stuck on the halfway line between helpless fondness and a case of the giggles.
I have a similar reaction to the goings-on and shenanigans at St. Paul Saints baseball games: Bat races. Drawings to see who gets to watch the next game from the sofa behind home plate. The ceremonial trotting-out of their mascot, This Year’s Pig. Special cheers for certain players. The freight trains that run along two sides of the park slowing way down if they pass the stadium during a game, because they know there’s a special prize for any player who bounces a homer off a passing train. Much other goofiness. A stadium full of fans singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”, then making a game try at “O Canada” because they’re playing the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Primordial baseball.
It’s cheesy, it’s traditional, it’s much beloved. Also, nobody’s trying to shove it down my throat, or sell me mass-produced versions of it, or use it as a vehicle for some political agenda. It’s just there for its own sake, like the marshmallows in a church potluck jello salad.
O, my country.
I have that reaction in spades to the half-hourly show at Roadside America. It’s a roadside attraction, a huge miniature village built over a period of sixty years by an immigrant living in Pennsylvania. It’s actually pretty cool: huge amounts of detail, lots of nifty moving parts, and it’s obvious that its creator loved his work. The last time I visited there was when Maureen Kincaid Speller and Paul Kincaid were visiting from Britain. The four of us were on our way back to NYC from Gettysburg. I was the only one who had visited there before. All I told the others was that it was a must-see. I didn’t tell them about the show.
What happens: Every half-hour, the proprietors announce that it’s time for the show, and direct you to a set of bleachers at one end of the room. Music plays. The lighting mimics sunset. Evening falls on the village. Crickets chirp. Streetlights come on. “Stars” appear on the ceiling. It gets darker and darker. The lights in the shops and houses gradually go out in their proper order until it’s obviously the middle of the night.
And then! A patriotic and religious slide show gets projected on the far wall, the one that has the Statue of Liberty painted on it, while Kate Smith sings “God Bless America”, and an unseen electric fan flutters the American flag that hangs there. Then it’s over, the lighting simulates dawn, lights start coming on in little village windows, and a few moments later it’s daytime again and you can go back to watching the working coal mine.
On the one hand, it’s hokey as all get-out. On the other hand, there’s something profoundly sincere about it, as though it were a preserving spell or a blessing for that part of Pennsylvania. What really made it for me, that visit, was the family sitting nearby who were beaming as they quietly sang along with Kate Smith. Paul and Maureen and Patrick were deeply impressed by all this. “Thunderstruck” would be another way to put it. Or, as Maureen said once we were back in the car, “My god. You didn’t warn us.”
“Nope!” I said happily. “I couldn’t possibly have done it justice.”
The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City isn’t hokey; it’s brilliant. It’s not all that big, and shares its building with the excellent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Patrick and I went there with Connie Willis and various local fans when we were guests at ConQuest. We had some hours to fill before the convention started, and Connie wanted to visit the Negro Leagues museum because she’s writing a story about Satchel Paige. Naturally, as soon as she got there she ran into Buck O’Neill, so they talked for a while. When he heard about her story, O’Neill just said, “It’s always about Satchel.”
But I digress.
The jazz side of the museum has some nice exhibits of memorabilia associated with Kansas City jazz, well arranged, with informative signage (I particularly liked their wall of great record album cover designs); but musicologically it shines. It has a great series of interactive exhibits on topics like different styles of harmony, or ways to handle rhythm, or the characteristics of “Big Band” style. You put the headphones on and start pressing buttons, and get complex, professional-level demos of (for instance) what different bass lines could do to some classic piece of jazz. And yes, I probably could have left Patrick there all weekend.
Around the time we entered, a group of thirty or forty elementary-school children showed up to visit the museum. We had no problem with them. They were just tall enough to see into the displays—real rugrats—so we could look right over their heads. Besides, we like kids, and this was a happy and enthusiastic bunch of them. After they’d spent some time looking around at the exhibits, a docent gathered them into an area where there were wide shallow steps for them to sit on, and started telling them about the history of Kansas City jazz.
“Kansas City was a big place for jazz,” she said. “Some important jazz musicians came from right around here. This was their neighborhood. Can you say ‘Charlie Parker’?”
“CHARLIE PARKER!” they sang out in unison. They were having a good time. This was cool.
“Can you say Bebop?”
Patrick and I dived behind a Duke Ellington display, and clung to each other for support while we silently laughed ourselves stupid. As soon as he got his breath back, Patrick said, “I love my country.”