Monday, June 13, 2011

Today's Blog Post Brought to you by History!

I'm going to get a little history nerdy in tonight's post.  I bought a new book today, called American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work.  I bought it for several reasons. Here they are, in quick succession:
1. I love the idea behind the WPA.  I seriously seriously do.  From what I know of the program, it was a bit of genius on the part of FDR, it brought art and beauty across the nation and gave a whole bunch of people work. I want to know so much more than I do about these projects, and this book is a great start.
2. I love FDR. There are very few presidents I love more.  I probably couldn't explain this in any kind of logical way, except that the ideas he proposed and then put into action, including the WPA and Fireside Chats (see photo above).  He was a president of ideas AND of action.  I want to know more about him, too.
3. The Federal Theatre Project, which was of course part of the WPA, is brilliant and fascinating and incredibly important to the history of theatre in America, and so few people ever learn about it.  But they should. I want/need more context for this particular initiative.
4. The WPA holds a special place in my heart because, regardless of how I feel about current Stamford, the Stamford of the mid-20th century was being revived and made beautiful by various projects initiated as part of the WPA.  It's one of the reasons that history was so interesting to me--one of the reasons I've always loved learning about the WPA--because I can see the actual results of it all around me every time I go home.

Alright. So WPA, FDR, Theatre, Stamford.  Maybe it seems unrelated to the average consumer, but it's a list that seems perfectly logical to me. So I bought this book and I'm eventually going to read it.  In the mean time, I want to explain a few things.
I learned about the WPA first in my tenth (eleventh? They all blur together...) grade American history class. It must have been eleventh grade, or maybe twelfth? I don't know at any rate it was one of those history classes with a teacher that takes literally no nonsense. Mr. Moriarty, or Coach Mo as we all referred to him, would lecture throughout the class period and if you paid any attention at all, asked a question or two, and wrote down every word he let fall out of his mouth, you had the answers to all the tests right in front of you.  The thing is, he didn't ask for regurgitation, he asked for critical thinking.  You passed his test by UNDERSTANDING what he lectured on, not regurgitating it.  I wrote one of my favorite papers (still, to this day) for Coach Mo, about advertising in the 1960s and 1970s America, and I still remember a lot of what I learned while researching for that paper.  This was where I first heard of the WPA. Not only did I hear of it, I actually got to see the results.
The image above is of a mural which (the last time I saw it, anyhow) has been re installed in Stamford High School since it was originally painted there in the 1930s, as a part of the WPA initiatives.  Not only is it a brilliant example of art-deco style, it's also tangible evidence of the Works Progress Administration.  There used to be 30 murals in the school, but construction happened (alright, realistically, construction is ALWAYS happening in that god-foresaken place) and the construction workers threw out the murals.  They were rescued by a student who took the now-chopped-up-murals to a barn for storage until they were bought back by the state years later, restored by an artist and then re installed to their original location.  Other sections of the murals have been installed at the Ferguson Library (worth it's own post, but that's for another day) and in other arts institutions across the city, or at least that was my understanding of the situation, and now they stand, scattered, but still a strong reminder of the state of the country after the great depression and it's recovery thereafter.
These murals, we were told by Coach Mo, were far from the only remaining evidence of the WPA.  If we wanted a more intact example, all we had to do was enjoy a Friday night football game.  So this is what it looked like when it was first built:
And here's a picture of what it looks like now (ish)
It's sort of awesome.  But what's Stamford, in the grand scheme of things? So far away from Washington, D.C, so far from any decisions being made about war and depressions and anything important.  Alright, so on the map of the U.S... you could definitely get farther away.  But still.  Not an important city.
Eh. Think again.
Stamford is actually a major commuting city, still today.  It's only about a forty minute train ride to New York, and even before all the wonderful buildings and billboards and shiny, overpriced theatres, New York City was a big fucking deal.  And you have to keep the people who keep the City running... running.  So, according to Coach, FDR zoomed in specifically on Stamford.  He sent out a great big greeting card to the City That Works (well, at that point, the City that WILL work, dammit!!) inviting us to develop and thrive, setting up theatres and a new satellite of the Whitney Museum, building stadiums and painting murals, and making the city beautiful on so many levels. 
The city was full of so much promise, when someone was still promising it a future.  Now, however, I don't see any of that in Stamford.  At least, I don't see much.  the Whitney has been taken out in favor of more offices, the stadium needs repairing, the library has truncated hours; the city is but a pale shadow of what FDR was so close to making it become.  When I was a kid it was beautiful in so many ways.  Now it makes me sad.
Because I've seen the murals, and the stadium, and the art museum and the theater, when it wasn't being infested by Jerry beads. (that's right.  The stage where I once sat on the edge of my seat, watching the Hobbit and Curious George and countless productions of the Nutcracker... it's been handed over to trashtastic talk shows. It has literally become the sound stage for Jerry Springer. Or for Maury Povich.  I suppose it depends on the day, and the stage... you can't make this stuff up.)
Alright, I'm totally off topic now.
The WPA.  There we go.  Back to the source.  So Coach Mo shows us these murals and tells us that Boyle Stadium (that's what it's called, Boyle Stadium) were actually created as government initiatives to stimulate the job market, the economy, and the general loveliness of the City of Stamford, and I can't help thinking about all the other fancy tidbits I may have missed in the history of my hometown.  I tried researching it, but guess what's a little bit not at all well documented (any more, anyhow)?  A city that used to be so vital it was hand-chosen by the President to get special treatment, in a time when most of the country was starving, has been left to the vultures.  How can I feel proud of a city that doesn't seem to take pride in itself?
At that point, however, I was still smitten with stamford (that should be on a t-shirt, though no one would buy it and even less people would actually wear it.) and I believed a great many things about what I also still considered My City.
It wasn't until my freshman year of college I found out about the Federal Theatre Project, and how some playwrights used the money doled out by the undermine the government.  We watched The Cradle Will Rock and Cradle Will Rock (yep, they're different. One is a play written and produced as part of the FTP, and the other is a movie about it's production and place in history. Both are fascinating.) and, although the soundtrack is atrocious, the story behind the whole affair is brilliant.  Check it out if you have time.  Angry writers (oh, and Orson Welles) decide to produce a play about unions and how they are a Good Thing and how Mr. Mr (the proverbial Man) is trying to keep the working man from working.  Well.  The government wasn't so crazy about this idea and even though the show was sold out, the theatre it was supposed to go up in was magically padlocked, props and costumes and all, on opening night.  What does a cast and crew and group of musicians with a padlocked theater do?
Announce there has been a change in location, and march block and blocks away, picking up even more audience members on the way.  So now they have a theatre, but no one can perform on the stage because it's a government production and they're all under contract.  Well, everyone except the playwright, who sits on stage in front of a piano and plays.  One by one, the actors stand from the audience and perform among audience members.  Nothing in their contract against that.
The show is still performed from the audience in most productions today.
Oh Jeez.  I've made it to my hour mark. I supposed I history nerded a little harder than I expected. Ah well.  I suppose that must be the point.  Go watch Cradle will Rock.  There'll be a test on it.

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