10/18/19

Dawson City Resurrects Silent Hollywood


Dawson City: Frozen Time  (2017)
Directed by Bill Morrison
Kino Lorber, 120 minutes, Not-rated.
★★★

What happens to a movie when its theater run is over? In our time it lives on in various other media and places: TV, Netflix, DVDs, YouTube, Redbox, film archives, libraries…. Movies are endlessly replicated, which is why the same film can open on a thousand screens the same weekend.

It was not always this way. In the early days of movies–especially the silent era–only a limited number of prints were made. Theaters had to wait their turn and hope that the print wasn’t damaged when it finally arrived. Or worse. Until the 1950s most movies were printed on highly flammable nitrate stock. Hundreds of early films disappeared because they went up in smoke. “Lucky” was defined as a nitrate fire that didn’t also take the projector and the theater with it. Hundreds (if not thousands) of films met an even less glorious end: They were simply tossed away.

This was especially true of the silent era. The Library of Congress reckons that as many as 90% of all silent films disappeared–more than 3,500 in all. It makes some sense. Movies were originally a novelty, technology was rudimentary, and filmmaking was not considered an art. This is to say that very few people were thinking about “film history.” When a “program” of silent movies–many were just a few minutes long–reached the end of the distribution line, very few studios cared what happened to them. For a time, Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon was a film’s last stop. Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the improbable story of how 533 previously lost films were unearthed from the permafrost in 1978, when the foundations of an old indoor swimming pool/hockey rink were excavated.

Have you heard of the Klondike Gold Rush? It’s the reason so many films were shipped to Dawson. Today Dawson has just 1,375 residents and there are fewer than 36,000 in the entire of the Yukon Territory. In 1896, gold was discovered in Bonanza Creek, near where it dumps into the Yukon River. Only a smattering of whites and members of the Tr’ocdëk Hwëch’in First Nations* people lived in the area at the time, but gold caused the town of Dawson to spring up overnight. Some 100,000 prospectors lit out for the Yukon, which was not easy to do in those days. (One took a boat to Skagway, Alaska, and then trudged the next 440 miles to Dawson. It would be decades before Dawson had air service.) By 1897, Dawson was temporarily home to more than 40,000 residents–mostly men and prostitutes.

Eric Hegg
Director Bill Morrison makes liberal use of Eric Hegg’s photos of the gold rush era and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that most of those with gold fever were going to meet with disappointment (or worse). As the film puts it–in a text panel–several entrepreneurs figured out it was more profitable to “mine the miners.” Among them was one Fred Trump, whose gambling hall and house of ill repute was the basis of the family fortune. More respectably, movie houses also separated miners from their gold dust. 

As you might surmise, films had to travel the same rugged route to Dawson as the miners. Studios wanted rental fees wired to them, but they had no use for movies that played out their circuit. Hundreds of cannisters of film piled up in Dawson theater basements and wherever else storage could be secured: the library basement, for instance, or underneath the recreation hall. When there were too many films, some were ceremoniously burned for a cheap thrill and others were unceremoniously tossed into the Yukon River. None at all would have seen the light were it not for the few souls that set aside the cache discovered in 1978. That trove is a bonanza in its own right. We see snippets of various films, some of which are in bad shape and need painstaking restoration. It remains, though, a miracle that anything survived. These 533 films have written new chapters of the film history that few considered important in film’s infancy. 

In 1899, the Klondike gold fever subsided. Dawson shrunk as quickly as it grew–instant boom, instant backwater. Dawson City: Frozen Time has a great tale to tell, but its rewards demand patience. Morrison opts for a near-silent method of revelation: stills, silent movie clips, stock footage, and intertitles. On one level this echoes and honors the silent movies that are one of the film’s two major themes–Dawson City’s history is the other–but on the other, parts of the film are akin to opening random boxes found in an old attic. That is to say, the documentary is, at turns, exhilarating and prosaic. I admired Morrison’s moxie of making a (mostly) silent film about silent films, but I wondered if a more conventional documentary would have been more effective.

Still, if you are a film buff, Dawson City is a must-see. The flickering fragments of long-forgotten actors on the screen is a form of resurrection. These grainy, time-damaged images are both a window on the past and a lament for what remains lost. Who could have imagined that Hollywood’s past would be scavenged from the Yukon permafrost?

Rob Weir    

* Canada uses the term First Nations people as those in the US might use Native Americans. The Canadian term avoids many 'authenticity' debates and acknowledges the cultural multiplicity of pre-European contact peoples.
  
-->

10/16/19

Jay Masiel: You Can Bank on His Photographs


Jay Myself (2019)
Directed by Stephen Wilkes
Mind Hive Films, 79 minutes, Not-rated (language)
★★★★

When I was in high school, I went to New York City on my senior class trip. I recall that we took a Grey Line bus tour of Gotham’s highlights. Though I didn’t think much about it at the time, one of the “sights” was a trip through the Bowery where, from the comfort of our seats, we gawked at winos, drunks, and junkies passed out on slabs of cardboard. Yeah­–that was pretty pathetic in retrospect.


I wish that the bus had swung by the old Germania Bank. It would have been neat to see what photographer Jay Maisel (b. 1931) was in the process of doing. In 1966, Maisel bought the building for just $102,000–all six floors of it. For the next 50 years the 72-room, 35,000 square foot fading Bowery rockpile was Maisel’s home, gallery, studio, and warehouse. By 2014, it cost over $300,000 per year to maintain his domain (repairs, utilities, taxes, salaries, etc.) hence Maisel sold it for a staggering $55 million. He quips that in the years he lived in the bank he had no money but lived as if he did, and now he has money and lives as if he doesn’t.

Stephen Wilkes’s directorial debut sheds light on Maisel, his work, and his move to a 10,000 square foot studio/home in Brooklyn. It is said that there is no eccentric like a British eccentric. That may be true, but crusty New Yorkers can give them a run for their money. Maisel is cut from Jimmy Breslin/Pete Hamill cloth. Salty language is Maisel’s everyday discourse and he’s seldom seen without a cigar clinched in his teeth. His images not withstanding, some of the documentary’s most stunning frames are of Maisel sitting in shadow lighting a stogie, his face going from dark to light to dark–warm orange glows fading to black and back again.

This is appropriate for a film about Jay Maisel. Although his most famous shot is probably a black and white image of Miles Davis blowing his horn as if there was no tomorrow, in my estimation Masiel’s most striking images are those bathed in vivid colors. He has an eye for strong contrast–saturated yellow bleeding into rich orange, a blue pants-clad figure dragging a rope past a deep red wall, and hot reds and cool blues as backdrops for silhouetted figures. Gray Line presented the Bowery as hellishly exotic, but it was Maisel’s playground. Although he did commission work around the globe, many of Maisel’s images were taken in his neighborhood. He spent time on the street but also on the rooftop where he produced bird’s eye perspectives of the street and people. Today, skid row is giving way to investors and hipsters. Maisel’s images are a Bowery documentary in their own right, which gives Wilkes’s documentary a meta tint.

Numerous professional photographers appear on the screen to talk about why Maisel is an acknowledged master of our time, but Greg Heisler summed it best when he said that Maisel’s work is about “the joy of seeing.” Maisel underscores this by picking up an object or peering out the window and rhetorically asking, “How can anyone not see that?” Well… most don’t and that’s what makes Maisel’s work special.

Wilkes was once one of Maisel’s interns and the two have genuine affection for each other. This peeks through the veneer of detachment that both men try to exude. In Maisel’s case, it’s a New Yorker’s affection made manifest by a pulled punch not a landed one, and a bemused hint of a smile when he answers a question that first induces a few swears. Here’s the other thing about Maisel: his bank building was choked full–and I mean full–of found objects, scavenged junk, scraps, and castoff building materials–that caught his eye for reasons not even he can always articulate. One is tempted to think “hoarder” when suddenly he picks up a pane of wavy green-tinted glass and holds it against another object. Snap! A great photo.

Imagine emptying 35,000 square feet of clutter, building material, props, photo lights, printers, and untold numbers of framed images. It took 35 trucks to haul it away, with Maisel lording over the decision of what to pitch, what to store, and what to move. That process was sometimes surreal. He tosses a wall full of unopened Kodak film, yet hastily assembles old VHS cases into a pattern, declares, “There’s a photo,” and tells the crew the cardboard cases must be saved.

Maisel’s wife and daughter also appear in the film. One is tempted to nominate each for sainthood until we realize they are quite capable of taking care of themselves. It might be fun living with such an offbeat genius, but Maisel is also such a contrarian that I longed for a bit more exploration of his tics and orneriness and less on the contrivance of whether or not he will make his moving deadline. At 79 minutes, though, Jay Myself gives us just enough to appreciate the subject without making us reach for a cudgel. Maisel poses the question of what do we prefer: a photograph or photographing. For Maisel it’s the act of shooting which, for him, is a form of New York Zen: moments in which the world and its problems briefly disappear. The film skirts the edge of hagiography, but viewing it will alter how you see.

Rob Weir

10/11/19

Peter Heller's The River One of the Year's Best


The River (2019)
By Peter Heller
Knopf/Borzoi Books, 272 pages.
★★★★★

If the measure of a great book is heart-stopping drama, memorable characters, a tight plot, and evocative prose, The River is a strong candidate for the best novel of 2019. Imagine a mash between James Dickey (Deliverance, 1970) and Jack London that’s less histrionic than the first and more eloquently written than the second. Toss in a touch of Kristin Hannah and that’s a bit like what The River is like.

Heller, who gained public acclaim with his post-apocalyptic the Dog Stars (2012), is a master of taking us inside the minds of human beings in isolation and what they feel and fear. He is not the sort to give us last-minute rescues or deus ex machina heroes. Instead he wants us to imagine what is to be done when Fate holds the high cards.  

The River takes us to the northern Canadian wilderness. Two collegiate soulmate friends, Jack and Wynn, take to the Maskwa River with the intent of challenging their athletic bodies as they paddle their well-appointed canoe, sleep out under the stars, cook fish they catch, read some pulp Westerns, and enjoy the solitude. They are adventuresome and simpatico even though they are temperamentally different. Jack is a rugged Coloradan who carries a deep-seated childhood hurt that has left him suspicious in a hair-trigger manner. Wynn, by contrast, is a hulking Vermonter who is a bit clumsy around women, has an Eagle Scout’s sense of duty, and a sometimes too-trusting disposition. But their mutual love of the outdoors and each other’s company makes Jack and Wynn a great team.

As if to underscore their isolation, Heller populates the book with just four other characters: JD and Brent, two hell-raising Texas rednecks; and a couple (Mai and Pierre) whom Jack and Wynn at first know only though raised-voice arguments slicing through the fog. Jack and Wynn face the preliminary dilemma of how to communicate to them what they have a observed: a gigantic forest fire some 30 miles in back of them.

This is, however, far more than your standard idyll-goes-wrong beat-the-clock tale. As in Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone (2018), Heller’s novel is about human beings in the bosom of an impersonal environment. Forget “Mother” Nature as nurturing; in The River she is silent, indifferent, and unforgiving. If Nature has a personality it is that of Shiva the Destroyer, not some benevolent Earth Mother.

In such a scenario, the only subjective values are held by humans who venture into the blue and green void. What would you do if fleeing animals underscored your need to make haste with several dangerous stretches of white water and a few sure-kill waterfalls requiring portage lying ahead in your path? Would you care about the fate of two louts more interested in drinking and making sexist jokes get out? Would you double back and lose precious time to look for a missing person? Would you share dwindling supplies? Incur someone’s wrath?

Jack and Wynn’s dilemma is pretty basic. There is only one way out and the back country is filled with ways to die in addition to the fire: drowning, starvation, bears, devastating injury, crazy people with guns, and–if since it’s late fall–they could freeze to death before the fire overtakes them. They must also come to grips with their own stupidity; when they packed, they forgot the one thing that could save their lives: a satellite phone.

Because Heller is such a gifted writer, he easily leads us into waters in which we expect things that never materialize. This gives him the leeway to spring the unexpected. I will say no more except that it’s been a long time since I’ve been so emotionally wrung out by a novel. The River left me shattered.

Rob Weir

10/9/19

Discover Sebastain Martorana and Cig Harvey



Subject Matters: Sebastian Martorana in Sculpture
Eating Flowers: Sensations of Cig Harvey
Ogunquit Museum of Art (Ogunquit, Maine)
Through October 31, 2019

[Click on images for larger size. Blue = live link]

Unless you’re lucky enough to make it Ogunquit, Maine, in the next several weeks these two shows will have closed. More’s the pity, but here are two wonderful artists whose work may be unfamiliar to you. You should definitely check out their online portfolios and keep your eyes peeled in case their work shows up near you.

Sebastian Martorana (b. 1981) is an instructor at the Maryland Institute of Art. He works in various media and has won some important commissions in the greater Baltimore/Washington metro area. He is best known, though, for his marble sculptures. His commission work tends to be weighty in the way that sculpt-for-hire work tends to be, but the Ogunquit show captures him in a more playful mood.

These works fall into two categories. The first is whimsical, as in capturing Sesame Street characters Kermit the Frog and Sam the Eagle in stone. There is something about marbleizing each that endows them with ironic
dignity. 

It’s as if Sam is usurping the national bird for our national hearts, and Kermit’s drapery is suggestive of poking fun at past monuments of presidents posing as Roman nobles. You can’t look at these without both admiring them and chortling.
 

Perhaps more impressive, though, are works that take prosaic objects
such as a Teddy bear, a cushion, or a soiled towel and render them realistically—again in marble. I had a hard time looking away from the folds in the towel as I contemplated both the precision and degree of difficulty involved in executing it. It is at once ordinary and extraordinary.




It would be safe to say that I adored the photographs and poetry of Cig Harvey. She was born in Devonshire, England in 1973, but now lives in Rockport, Maine. Ms. Harvey is the real deal; she even has a Wikipedia page that highlights her diverse works and the various honors that have come her way. The eye-arching title of her show at Ogunquit, Eating Flowers, comes from the fact that part of her work for the museum involved helping it rethink its delightful sculpture garden. The inside display highlights images from three of her past portfolio/exhibition works, plus her merged photo/video projects, and a smattering of her evocative musings. 



Harvey’s photos have often drawn comparisons to Magritte. I wouldn’t call them that enigmatic, but she does evoke Magritte’s sense of the solitary. Some of her most striking images are of her daughters Jesse and Scout in isolation:  a pink coat against a high key beach bleeding into a fading ocean and sky; tussled hair and a rich blue velvet dress in a bank of snow. Be sure to check out her “motion” pictures, my favorite being that of a young girl staring out the window of a battered red pickup truck as a New England snowstorm swirls–a still image against moving flakes and a blank face that invites a thousand backstories. 




The greatest photographers use images to tell stories. What does one make of her frozen apples? Are they memento mori or reminders that those doomed globes are promises of spring’s renewal? How about a bagged spray of flowers lying upon a paint-strained table? Is the fading bouquet a grim reminder of endings, the raging of a soul insistent upon wringingbeauty from decay, or just a wondrously artful arrangement that signifieth nothing? You can attach as much or as little meaning as you wish from Harvey’s work and walk away stunned.

Rob Weir
-->

10/7/19

Linda Ronstadt Documentary is Like Falling in Love Again



Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019)
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman
Greenwich Entertainment, PG-13, 95 minutes
★★★★★


Legions of heterosexual male Baby Boomers once had serious fantasy crushes on three women: Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, and Linda Ronstadt. Between them they could fill a good-sized hall with Grammy Awards and platinum records. Each was the mistress of her craft and were drop-dead gorgeous. But just one also racked up two Country Music Association Awards, an Emmy, a Tony, the largest–selling Spanish language album of all time, recorded with Rubin Blades, scored with a crossover R & B record with Aaron Neville, sang jazz standards with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and made a trio album with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton: Linda Ronstadt. She has recorded with everyone from Frank Zappa and Philip Glass to Neil Young, Earl Scruggs, and Johnny Cash. About the only thing she never did was write songs, but few have ever interpreted them with such aplomb.

The Sound of My Voice documents Ronstadt’s remarkable life and career. Don’t let the last name fool you; Linda Mare Ronstadt was born into a Mexican-American household in Tucson, the third child of the former Ruth Mary Copeman (1914-82), a homemaker, and Gilbert Ronstadt (1911-95), a merchant and a fine singer in his own right except–as Linda joked–when he tried to use his baritone voice to sing the tenor parts to live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. If you’re wondering about the surname, chalk it up to several generations of colonialism and immigration. Gilbert taught Linda scores of Mexican corridos, canciones, and mariachi standards.

Ronstadt lit out for Los Angeles at age 18 in 1964 and never looked back. To the best of my knowledge she never recorded “How Can I Keep From Singing?” but if I had to pick a song title to describe her, this would be it. As directors Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman show, making music was never a career choice per se; it was hard-wired into Ronstadt’s DNA. She cared nothing for genres; if a song moved her, she sang it. Man, did she ever sing it! It’s not quite true, but you could come away from this film thinking Linda Ronstadt invented the power ballad. The film contains superb early footage of Ronstadt with The Stone Poneys, her first LA band, and it was apparent from the start she was special. In 1967, she covered a Michael Naismith song, “Different Drum,” which had already been a hit for the Greenbriar Boys. Or should I say, she inhabited it? Who today even remembers any other version of the song? We see Ronstadt’s trademark style already in place: open with a gentle, vulnerable touch and explode into the mix.

Footage such as this makes the documentary sparkle. Because there is film to color each transition, there is no need for a static Ken Burns-like approach that mixes stills backed with voiceovers and just as much original music as copyright law allows. Instead we hear Ronstadt singing and narrating in her own voice. Although she did not do formal sit-down interviews with the directors–she now suffers from Parkinson’s Disease–the film has a tight arc and immediacy that far surpasses the sort of retrospective one might see on MTV or VH-1.

Ronstadt also dazzles because she was to music what Lucille Ball was to television: a rare woman in the male-dominated entertainment world that dictated her own terms. The pop industry is both fickle and inherently conservative. Make a hit and industry heads want more in the same vein until the vessels are bloodless. We watch as time and again Ronstadt floated projects she was told would ruin her career. Each time she plowed ahead and each time she was right.

 A short list of Ronstadt pop hits includes: “Blue Bayou,” “It’s So Easy,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Crazy,” and “You’re No Good.” She was far and away the biggest-selling female artist of the 1970s and early 1980s. You can imagine how moguls must have torn out their hair to see her dressed in Mexican garb fronting rope-twirling gauchos, plucking songs from the Great American Songbook, prancing about a Broadway stage in Pirates of Penzance, making films, and telling anyone who listened that her favorite duet was with Kermit the Frog! She also mentored such young talent as Karla Bonoff, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, J. D. Souther, and scores of others. Ronstadt comes across as both generous and guileless–one quicker to praise the talents of others than to blow her own horn.

In 2011, Parkinson’s silenced Ronstadt. We watch her struggle to control her shaking as she sits in a room with two musical nephews singing a classic Mexican song. She doesn’t want to sing along but, as she puts it, “It’s family so what can you do?” We know instantly that she could still sing if she could forced herself to stay within her limitations. But how can she be at ease when the “sound of my own voice” is different from what is in her head? Call it a bittersweet footnote to a sterling career and a remarkable film. The latter is surely a highlight of 2019, a year in which documentaries thus far have outshined feature films.

Rob Weir


-->

10/4/19

If It Don’t Hurt It Ain’t Comedy



What do Joan Rivers and Shane Gillis have in common?
 
I had never heard of Shane Gillis until he was unceremoniously dumped from the incoming cast of Saturday Night Live. I’ll bet you never did either. Gillis got the hook when it was revealed that he had done fake Asian accents and made some racist jokes. It begs the question of whether anyone associated with SNL actually bothered to do any research, but several other things strike me. Some of you won’t like them.

I wonder why the same people who want to rein in the Second Amendment don’t give a damn about free speech rights guaranteed by First. I despise haters, but I’m not on board with anyone who would replace dialogues with monologues. Those seeking to make the world “safe” for marginalized people often do more damage than good. Gillis was once obscure; now he’s a martyr who will get lots of opportunities to spread what they find objectionable. He will become the darling of the right. When his jokes start showing up on You Tube, Facebook, and elsewhere, PC warriors will have no one to blame but themselves.

Noam Chomsky was right when he said that the answer to hate speech is more speech. I’d put Gillis on SNL and let his work address the court of public opinion. It will decide whether he’s funny or just a jerk. Maybe he’d stick even though he’s conservative–like Dennis Miller,  Norm Macdonald, or Jeff Dunham. IMHO, Miller is funny, Macdonald not so much. I also think Dunham and his puppets are a paint-by-the-numbers embarrassment, but  he’s not going away as long as he’s filling auditoriums.

My second point is that good comedy always has a butt, even if it’s humanity in general, one’s in-group, or oneself. Rodney Dangerfield was the master of self-deprecation; his tag line, “I tell ya’ I don’t get no respect” signals it’s his rear-end in the line of the arcing boot. Comedy exists in the absurdity that lies in the gap between logic and how we actually live and think. Lucille Ball made that approach classic and Steven Wright’s career is built upon it. Did anyone ever do it better than George Carlin? Carlin was assuredly not a PC kind of guy.

Where did anyone get the idea that comedy is pretty? The best comics bring the pain and derail the train. They often use profanity and ribaldry, even when they had to invent or twist it to get past the censors. W. C. Fields coined the word “drat” because he wasn’t allowed to say “damn.” Mae West pulled a fast one on the humorless when she uttered the hysterical line, “A good man is hard to find, but a hard man is good to find.” Give me stuff like that any day of the week over the cloying “cuteness” often mistaken for comedy.

Groucho Marx is my favorite comic of all time. On You Bet Your Life–one of TV’s very first quiz programs–Groucho interviewed people for the sole purpose of making fun of them. He once had a male guest who had something like 14 children. A leering Groucho remarked that he and his wife must be mighty friendly. The guy bit and said that was the case. That prompted Groucho’s immortal riposte: “Do you have any other hobbies?” Priceless!

Comedy also has context. In films made in the 1930s-40s, the Marx Brothers lampooned everybody and everything. A sequence in Day at the Races saw the lads smearing their faces with axle grease and ducking into a black community to evade the law. Today this and the song-and-dance number that followed are viewed as racist. It makes me cringe when I see them, but here’s the deal: In its day–not ours–the controversy was that the Marxes included African Americans at all.

I weary of those who read history from front to back. To be sure, there are comics who have been either total jerks or just not very funny. I have never gotten Andrew Dice Clay, for example. Nor did I like Don Rickles, whose one-trick insult of calling his target a “hockey puck” was only funny the first dozen times he uttered it. Still, truly brilliant comedians rub your noses in things you don’t want to hear–and make you laugh. Richard Pryor’s take-down of white culture was sidesplitting; Dick Gregory’s was a stiletto in the back. Chris Rock certainly isn’t known for being polite. And while we’re at it, don’t you privately feel that Louis C. K. was speaking truth to bullshit in his now infamous “N-word” routine?

How about the brilliant Joan Rivers? She made fun of suicide, women’s bodies, her husband’s penis, and whatever else came into her path. She once told a joke about some terrible condition–I don’t remember if it was cystic fibrosis or autism–that made an audience member blurt out, “That’s not funny.” Rivers’ response was, “Fuck you!” She said she had a family member with condition X and that humor made things bearable. Actually, she wouldn’t have cared even if that hadn’t been the case. Comics such as Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes are her children.  

If you were to make a list of truly great comics, there’s nothing “nice” about any of them. Henny Youngman was really sexist, but who can resist this joke: “My wife told me she wanted to go somewhere she’s never been for vacation. I said, ‘How about the kitchen.’” Remember the 1990s when every other standup pretender built acts around airline jokes. Nothing deathless about that prose! Who now recalls their names?

Let Shane Gillis do his act and we’ll decide whether he’s funny or not. If you want a monologue, talk to the mirror. If you need cute, watch cat videos. And if you need safe, join a monastery. But watch out for predator priests. Was that nasty? Yeah, but did it make you snort?

  

10/2/19

Curveball Resurrects the Story of a Female Baseball Player



Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone (2010)
By Martha Ackmann
Lawrence Hill Books, 211 pages + prologue, notes, bibliography, index

The recent dismissal of Boston Red Sox operations chief Dave Dombrowski touched off discussion that his place might be taken by a woman, Raquel Ferreira. The media has treated this as potentially path breaking, but that’s only the case if you don’t look very deeply into baseball’s past. As we move into time of the year where the World Series will be decided for the 115th time, let’s look at something that’s truly unique: the first woman to play professional baseball. And I mean on men’s teams, not in all-female leagues.

Maybe you missed it when it was first published in 2010, but Martha Ackmann’s Curveball tells the story of Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone (1921-1990), a second baseman who made her professional debut in 1945. Ackmann is a Mount Holyoke gender studies professor. Yes, this is an “academic” book, though there’s nothing dry about it; Ackmann is far more interested in presenting a compelling biography than in displaying her (considerable) scholarly prowess. Stone grew up loving baseball and was really good at, when she got a chance to display her talents. That required great determination. It was hard enough being a girl decades before anyone even dreamed of Title IX; try being a black female during the 1930s.

Stone had a few things going for her. First, her family moved from West Virginia–which bordered Jim Crow Virginia–to Minneapolis when Stone was just 10. Second, Toni didn’t buy into gender roles. At a young age she acquired a nickname that stuck with her for the rest of her life: “Tomboy.” (Even as a pro player she refused to do ‘feminine’ publicity shots until 1954, and even then it was in her baseball uniform, not a dress.) The third break was that Father Keefe, a Catholic priest, talked Tomboy’s family into letting her play ball. Stone’s earliest organized play was in the Catholic equivalent of Little League. Stone was also a diehard fan of the St. Paul Saints, the local white minor league team. She began playing semi-pro and American Legion baseball at the age of 15.

Stone was known as a sure-handed second baseman. She was never a power hitter, but she was good enough to make her professional with the San Francisco Sea Lions of West Coast Negro Baseball League (WCNBL) in 1946, after stints working in Bay Area defense industries during World War II. Note the timing: In 1947, Jackie Robinson would break Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color line. Stone wasn’t dreaming of MLB; she just loved competing in all sports, especially baseball. She played in the WCNBL though the 1952 season, first with the Sea Lions, then with two New Orleans teams, the Black Pelicans and the Creoles.

Her big break came in 1953: an invitation to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. A few explanatory notes are in order. The Negro League began its downward spiral when Jackie Robinson signed an MLB contract. The best talent soon gravitated to major league teams and by 1952 just six Negro League teams remained. But do not think of this brand of baseball as any sort of minor league. The year before Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns, it signed someone whose name you probably know: Hank Aaron. Ernie Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs before being signed by he Chicago Cubs. Tomboy Stone also one got a hit off a famous Monarchs pitcher: Satchel Paige. If you think he let her get a hit, you know nothing about Satchel Paige!*

Another matter in need of redress is the Indianapolis team name of the Clowns. To modern ears this sounds demeaning. That was only partially the case. The franchise came to Indiana by way of Miami, where they were known as the Ethiopian Clowns because of their proximity to the Florida Clown College associated with the circus, which wintered in Florida. Moreover, the Negro League’s “season” was so loose that its biggest game of the year was its All-Star game, not its World Series.** Money was tight and teams often barnstormed to pay the bills. On that circuit, the Clowns entertained with humor and razzle-dazzle analogous to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. Stone didn’t mind hamming it up during exhibitions, but she insisted on being treated as a real ballplayer.

In Ackmann’s telling, Tomboy spent her life defying expectations. She played baseball with men, but broached no nonsense. When a New Orleans player harassed her on the team bus and her manager told her to settle the matter herself, she did; she took a bat into her hands and clobbered him. Stone showed little interest in dating and her clothing choices led many to assume she was a lesbian. They were shocked when she married Aurelious Pescia Alberga in December 1950. She was 29 and he was 67!

Curveball is also a rich trove of Negro League facts and lore. There are good books on Negro league baseball, but most deal with its “golden age” in the 1920s-30s when such legendary figures as Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, and Willie Wells were at the height of their powers, and Effa Manley smashed a few gender roles as owner of the Newark Eagles. Ackmann’s book takes us inside the waning years of Negro league ball. Stone’s elevation to the big time was motivated in part by the hope that audiences would come to the park to see the novelty of a female player, but Stone refused to be a sideshow act. She played for the Clowns in 1953, but left the team over a money dispute and the signing of Connie Morgan, who also played second base. Tomboy then signed with Kansas City, but quit when it was clear that they too only wanted to cash in on her novelty. ***

Did gender barriers prevent Stone from following other black stars into the majors? No. She was more than a PR stunt, but she hit just .243 and would not have held her own in stiffer competition. Nonetheless, hers was a fascinating life that we are indebted to Martha Ackmann for resurrecting it.

Rob Weir  

  * The Clowns were the last Negro league franchise to fold. It barnstormed through 1967. I saw Satchel Paige pitch when the Clowns came to my Pennsylvania hometown that last year. Even at age 60, Paige could pull off his diamond trick. He took the mound with a catcher, a first baseman, and one infielder and retired the side. The next inning, Paige threw a strike and then motioned the two fielders to the bench. In just 8 more pitches he struck out all three batters.

** Because teams needed to make money through exhibition matches, it was impossible to prepare any sort of normal schedule. Were you to look at league “standings” in a given year you’d discover that some teams played a 100 or more “league” games while others might play around 40.

***One more female player took the field before the Negro League disappeared. Between 1953-55, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pitcher, registered 33 wins against 8 losses.
-->