Halloween 2017: William Shakespeare

Posted by jdg | Thursday, November 02, 2017

I asked my daughter to write her own explanation of why she wanted to be William Shakespeare for Halloween.

"When I went to camp last summer, I chose Shakespeare as my minor. Not because I was already interested in Shakespeare, though, but because I enjoy acting in plays and I thought I would get to act. And at first, I did not like the class much because we spent so much time talking about Shakespeare and not enough time acting. But as the week went by, I found myself becoming more and more interested in the actual Shakespeare as a writer and poet. And by the time I left camp, I had memorized an entire scene from Hamlet and performed it in a real Shakespeare theater modeled on the original Globe! After camp, I became very interested in Shakespeare and his times. We have gone to several performances in Michigan, and even went to the Stratford Festival in Canada and my dad and I saw a real company perform Twelfth Night, which is probably my favorite. I really like the confusion about Viola and her brother but my favorite character is Sir Toby Belch. I also love it when Malvolio wears the yellow socks. I have seen performances of A Midsummer's Night Dream and Romeo and Juliet as well. I liked being Shakespeare because it is so amazing how many phrases he came up with and how timeless and interesting his stories and characters were."  

I went through three sewing machines making this one, and watched a lot of episodes of The Tudors waiting for King Henry VIII to get fat and eat a turkey leg. I swear Skinny Henry and Superman never wear the same doublet twice. I usually hate movies about royalty but I needed inspiration. I used some floral upholstery fabric that we've had for a decade, and it sure seemed destined to end up in a Tudor-era doublet and cape; for the accents I used some thin gold pigskin I have been hoarding for years. The bald pate is leather and the hair, mustache and beard are all felted alpaca wool. This was a real challenge for me and sewing machines are well outside my comfort zone, but I enjoyed working on this and it should fit her for some time, maybe for a future performance as Viola? (I did buy her yellow tights, too).

Halloween 2017: The Ghost of Harry Houdini

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died in Detroit 91 years ago, on Halloween. Before his death, Houdini had added "spiritual debunker" to his resume; he was disgusted by mediums who used the same sort of trickery he employed on the stage---not to entertain---but to exploit bereaved parties into believing their loved ones could communicate with them from beyond the grave. Houdini would even attend seances in ingenious disguises to expose their trickery. Before he died, he gave his beloved wife Bess a secret word and said after he died he would try to contact her using it. If anyone attempted to claim the great Houdini wanted to speak to her, he said, the secret word would confirm whether or not it was his ghost. For years, seances held on Halloween night have attempted to commune with the spirit of the great Houdini. None have been successful. They have continued long after Bess confirmed that no medium had uttered their secret. This year the official Houdini seance was held in Cleveland. Cleveland? Why would his ghost go to Cleveland? Why would anyone go to Cleveland? The only place worse than Cleveland. . . oh, never mind. Still, maybe they should have held this year's seance in Detroit, because he's stuck here. I had no trouble locating Houdini's ghost. The chains totally gave him away.

My son has been obsessed with Harry Houdini for about a year now. He's read all the kid-level biographies; his bedroom is plastered with reproductions of old Houdini show posters. Last year we took a day trip to the American Museum of Magic to see Houdini's milk can escape and other artifacts. He can recite more facts about Houdini than you could ever care to know and he's even has put on a handful of magic shows for the neighborhood kids (training involved me wrapping him in chains so many times that we only narrowly avoided the neighbors calling child protective services). I made him a strait jacket that impressed the guys at the local magic store and even though he promised he'd never put on his police-issue handcuffs unless he knew he had the key hidden careful on his person, at least one pair has been "picked" with my dremel. He knew he wanted to be Houdini's ghost for Halloween ever since I told him the story of the days leading up to his death, right here in downtown Detroit.

Legend says that some college kid in Montreal punched Houdini in the gut (something he apparently let every Tom Dick and Harry do) but this time he hadn't flexed his muscles and the punch ruptured his appendix. Houdini traveled to Detroit for what would be his last show at the Garrick theater (now demolished) near the site of the David Stott building. Would you believe I found Houdini's ghost doing a chain escape right on the site of the theater where he cut short his last show? What a showman!

From the theater, Houdini was taken to the nearby Statler Hotel, which was also demolished (albeit much more recently, so that visitors to the Super Bowl wouldn't have to see. . . an abandoned building. . . in 2005 Detroit. . .) Now it's a big hole in the ground and they'll probably build something there for millenials soon, but while we were walking around the site we noticed across the street that the famous Michigan theater parking garage was open and Houdini's ghost could not pass up the opportunity to perform in the same place they have filmed so many Eminem videos and car commercials. What a showman!

On that fateful day in 1926, a stubborn Houdini was hauled from the Statler hotel to Sinai-Grace Hospital, which like most places of historical interest in Detroit, is now a parking lot. Nonetheless, my visit to the parking lot on the corner of John R and Willis totally proved that the site is nonetheless haunted by the ghost of the great magician who died right there. What a showman!

The parking lot is right behind the Majestic Theater, which has led a lot of urban legends about Harry Houdini dying during an escape act at the Majestic Theater. If you try to tell my son this, you will receive a lecture about the actual circumstances of Houdini's death. Just a warning. From the hospital, Houdini's body was taken to the nearby funeral home at the corner of Cass and Alexandrine, which is still there, although currently abandoned and very creepy, at least until they turn it into something for millenials. I repeat: THE ABANDONED FUNERAL HOME WHERE HOUDINI WAS EMBALMED IS STILL THERE. It's a Detroit Halloween miracle. Of course, that place is haunted.

Last summer we hung out on the porch with a ouija board but my son got creeped out pretty fast, and returning on Halloween in the garb of his hero's ghost was pretty scary. But not nearly as scary as it will be when the millenials move in.

A note about the costume: I was stumped by this one for a long time. Ultimately he and I sculpted creepy Houdini-ish features on of those plain $1 plastic masks. We decided to make everything pure white but the eyes, including the old-timey magician's tuxedo (which looks exactly like the tux Derek Jeter wore to my first high school homecoming dance in 1991). I hate wigs so instead we just made a pathetic 1920s part with merino wool roving felted to a wool hood. The chains gave it a nice "Marley's ghost" feeling while being true to Houdini. But of course, it really came down to my son's embodiment of his hero while we were out on this adventure. He really got into it. What a showman!

2016 Sweet Juniper Holiday Card by Claire Bédué

Posted by jdg | Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Holidays to you all out there. The Christmas holiday really crept up on us this year and we're busy sewing and hammering to get everything done in time. This year we are so happy to share the family portrait that French illustrator Claire Bédué created for our annual holiday card. Ice skating on the canals of Belle Isle is one of our favorite winter activities and Claire did an amazing job capturing it. Be sure to to visit her Tumblr (http://clairebedue.tumblr.com/) to see more of her work. Merry Christmas, etc. and happy New Year to all.

Past cards: 2015 (Yinfan Huang), 2014 (our daughter), 2013 (Phoebe Wahl), 2012 (Michael Burdick), 2011 (Heather Ross), 2010 (Yelena Bryksenkova), and 2009 (Samantha Wedelich).

Halloween 2016: Half Pint

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 02, 2016 | ,

Last summer she decided she wanted to be Laura from the Little House books for Halloween (after seeing a woman playing the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder at Greenfield Village). I am proud to say I had nothing to do with this costume: over a series of Saturday afternoons my wife and daughter made up their own pattern and cut this 19th-century calico into a dress. 

It's never been in my talented wife's nature to make up her own pattern but I think she did a fantastic job with this. They based it on descriptions of what Laura wears from the books. 

Over the past couple years the kids have made it through all the series and I've even shown them a few of the old television episodes. She's still a small kid and really identified with Laura. We all agreed the dress looks best while running, which is something Laura would have done:

My mom even found an old pair of shoes her great-grandmother wore back in those days and we polished them up good as new.

Last weekend we gathered up some props from Pa's old-timey corner of the basement and headed to Greenmead Historical Village for some pictures with an old-fashioned town as a backdrop. These photoshoots often turn out to be more fun than Halloween itself. 

Good old blind Wendell came along to play Jack. 

They even convinced me to dress up like Pa. I'm definitely more of the Garth Williams version of Pa than the hunky clean-shaven Michael Landon version. Let's face it: I'm more of a Victor French version of Mr. Edwards, and I'm okay with that. Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man. . .

My favorite part in the books is when Pa goes off to kill the wolves. This Pa's equivalent of that is going down to the old-animal-rugs-ordered-on-eBay corner of the basement. 

Still, epic:

The Twelve Labors of Little Hercules

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, November 01, 2016 | ,

He says he wants to be Hercules for Halloween, so I say let's start the lionskin. Lots of heroes wore lionskins, I tell him. Samson wrestled a lion with his bare hands. Gilgamesh killed lots of lions with his friend Enkidu and when Enkidu died he said, "I will grow my hair long for your sake, and wander the wilderness in the skin of a lion." Lionskins and long hair, those are things for heroes, I say. But Hercules, now there's the best hero of all. We have James Riordan's retelling of the Twelve Labors and he is old enough to read them himself now, but we still read them together. He likes this version because unlike on all those pots at the museum, that Hercules wears something to cover his you-know-what. Don't worry, I say. We'll make something to cover your you-know-what.

Can I use this old baseball hat? See we'll cover it with foam, then cover the foam with strips of wool fabric. Now's the fun part: we'll sculpt the lion's head with bags and bags of wool stabbed a million times to form the shapes we want. How does the story go again?

Before he had his lionskin, Hera made Hercules go crazy and kill everyone he ever loved. It's very sad. So the Oracle at Delphi said he had to go to his half-brother the King of Mycenae and do everything he said. First he had to get rid of the Lion of Nemea with skin that no sword or spear could pierce. So Hercules killed the lion with his bare hands. How? Oh, he probably choked him.

Then he turned the skin into his new armor. It made him look pretty tough.

Next Hercules had to kill the Hydra of Lerna. It had eight heads and every time he chopped one off another head just regrew in its place. The snake necks wrapped themselves around his arm and even his sword. Luckily Hercules figured out which head was the main one and burned the neck where he chopped it off so another couldn't grow.

For his next labor, Hercules had to capture a Golden Hind (a kind of deer) sacred to the goddess Artemis without harming it. So he headed off to the Ceryneian Hills, grabbed the Hind and carried it all the way back without harming a hair on its head.

Did I mention the club? Hercules used a club instead of a sword most of the time. His was probably olive wood but just bring me any log you find and we'll make it into a club. I need to put this hipster axe to use, bub.

Next the King sent Hercules off to kill the wold boar of Erymanthus. Before he found it he got into a fight with some nasty centaurs and accidentally killed his old teacher, Chiron.

Yes, Hercules kills pretty much everyone he loves. Why didn't he just kill his nasty half-brother forcing him to do all these ridiculous things? You're not supposed to ask that I think. So he climbed into the mountains to kill the boar. No, I'm not going to lift you up on that wall to club the boar. We'll just have to pretend.

The next task didn't involve any clubbing or killing. There was a lazy king named Augeas who had thousand of animals but never cleaned up any of their poop, and his stables were full of poop as far as the eyes could see.

Hercules had a single day to clean up all the poop. This is why I sometimes call cleaning your room a Herculean task. I wish I could dam and divert a couple rivers to clean out that barnyard.

Next were the brass birds of the Stymphalian Marsh. Hercules killed those by scaring them with a rattle Athena gave him, and shooting them down with his bow and arrow.

Next he had to bring back the white bull troubling King Minos in Crete. Try to just ignore the naked butt up there. I know it's embarrassing. I'll try to crop it out.

In his next labor Hercules had to tame the man-eating horses of King Diomedes. No, not Diabetes. Diomedes used to feed his horses people until they developed such a taste for manflesh they wouldn't eat anything else. Hercules fed them with King Diomedes and then cut their chains and bound their mouths so they couldn't eat him.

Next his half-brother sent Hercules to get the golden belt of Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons. Yes, they are the ones who cut their boob off so they could shoot a bow better. I can't believe I told you that. Hippolyte was smitten with the hunk in the lion's skin so she just gave him the belt. Wasn't that nice of her. After that they got into a fight and he killed her.

I don't know, Hercules just kills everyone who is nice to him I guess.

Next he had to kill evil King Geryon and rescue his special cows. Geryon lived out beyond the sea so Hercules had to break two cliffs apart to get to the Atlantic Ocean. They call the cliffs the pillars of Hercules even today.

Next Hercules had to go get the Golden Apples from the Garden of the Hesperides and he tricked Atlas into doing that but I forgot those apples we painted gold, so let's just skip to the next one: Hercules had to descend into hell to bring back the three-headed hound Cerberus.

When he got there he asked Hades if he could take Cerberus and Hades was like, "Sure, he needs a walk, if you can catch him. But be sure to bring three poop bags." Hercules was like, "No problem. Have you heard about the Augean stables?"

Hercules' half-brother couldn't think of anything to top that, so he was free. And that's the story of the twelve labors.

Thanks to the security guards at the Cranbrook Educational Community for completely ignoring us while we did all this on an unseasonably warm Saturday.