Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Florida Corner to Corner

Tuesday, February 26th

I had all day yesterday to get myself from Jacksonville (in the NE corner of Florida) to Fort Myers (in the SW). It was the first day in more than a month that was entirely up to me. No bus call, no flight, no show, no nothing. Glorious!

With only 320 miles to drive, I decided there was plenty of time for visiting and sight-seeing.

I checked out of the hotel around 9:30 and was on the road after a breakfast of eggs and country ham. My first stop was Saint Augustine. St. Augustine is the oldest continually occupied European-established city in the continental US - founded by the Spanish in 1565. It is also the sight of Juan Ponce de Leon's arrival in 1513. I had no idea, but St. Augustine is a major destination; it's home to lots of tourist activities, some more legit than others.

My intended destination was The Fountain of Youth. This "National Archaeological Park" is quite a tourist trap. It's situated on the water and in the spot "where Ponce de Leon is traditionally thought to have landed." For $7.50 you get a guided tour of the facility: the spring house (home to the natural spring billed as the fountain of youth), the discovery globe and the planetarium as well as some other exhibits of dubious historical distinction. Next to the spring are a bunch of flat rocks that are reputed to have been laid in the shape of a cross by de Leon in celebration of his safe voyage. The globe and the planetarium were downright silly. There was a recreation of an ancient Timucuan Indian village and exhibits about Indian life. And then, of course, there was the water. It was spring water - sort of mineral tasting. None of the hoards of bus tour old folks were instantly transformed, but it also didn't seem to be hurting anyone.

w/ Juan Ponce de Leon

The park's owners claim that de Leon laid down these stones and thought the spring at the cross's head was the legendary Fountain of Youth.

After my quasi-history, I went to the Castillo de San Marcos. The Castillo was built by the Spanish beginning in 1672 as the main defense for the city of St. Augustine. It's constructed of coquina stone which, like limestone, is composed of ancient shells bonded together. The coquina has a the advantage of not exploding when hit by artillery (a good property when you're trying to hold of British and Pirate ships that are armed with cannon). The fort is outfitted with antique cannons, mortars, reenactors and displays. Of course, the castillo was later taken over by the British (and renamed Fort St. Mark) and the US (Fort Marion) before being named a National Monument. In addition to a military base, the fort was used a prison for Native American "War Leaders" in the late 19th century.

A 17th century flag flies over the castillo.

Two drawbridges guard the entrance.

A close-up of the stonework. While the stone does make the fort safer under fire, it doesn't hold up well to the weather. If I were to rub the stone, it would flake off in bits. There were masons at work all over the fort restoring crumbled pieces.

w/ one of the castillo's cannons

From one of the ramparts of the fort I could see a bunch of dolphins swimming by!

Once I had seen the castillo, it was well past lunch time. On my way into town, I passed Buck's BBQ. Buck's is housed in a trailer decorated to look like a log cabin. Now, any of you who may know my personal barbecue history already know that my all time favorite barbecue meal was served from a truck camper decorated as a log cabin. I couldn't pass this by. The barbecue wasn't outstanding, but I got to eat it in the company of an egret alongside a river - and that ain't bad.

Bucks BBQ

I pointed my rental car south from St. Augustine and was truly on my way after lunch. I enjoyed miles and miles of I-95 before turning west on I-4 toward the Gulf. The power of the interstate to make any place look like everywhere else is amazing.

After I passed through the shadow of the Mouse in Orlando, I made another stop. This time it was to visit my in-laws in Haines City. Donn, Rhoda and Barb are in winter residence there and were joined by Dale and Joyce for a few weeks. They were kind enough to host me for dinner! As I've mentioned before, home-cooked meals are so rare on the road that they are always greatly appreciated. We sat and visited for a couple of hours and I got a tour of the park (highlights: the social center, shuffle board courts and the resident ducks) before dinner. They grilled some chicken, boiled fresh sweet corn and whipped up some cole slaw. The highlight of the meal was strawberry shortcake with fresh local strawberries!! It was so great to see friendly faces and share a meal.

On the way to visit the Westfalls, I passed through citrus groves. There were trucks loaded with oranges and tangerines by the side of the road.

The Westfalls visit with a neighbor.

Suppertime! Rhoda, Donn, Dale, Joyce and Barb

Grapefruit on the tree outside Barb's "Dollhouse" - they sent me on my way with some homegrown grapefruit and oranges.

I was back on the road by 9PM and safely in Fort Myers around 11:30. It was a long day, but a really fun one. So much fun to be responsible to no one but myself and to travel in my own time. I'm looking forward to driving myself for the remainder of Florida - probably by the time we're ready to head to Birmingham I'll be ready to have Company Management arrange everything for me again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


February 24th

That's right, the loading dock is shaded by palm trees. Welcome to Florida!

The Times Union PAC is a modern performing arts center. The stage house is of adequate size for an auditorium that seats 3,000, but the support spaces are a bit lacking. A couple of our principal men had to share a dressing room with the men's ensemble. The outside surroundings, however, are hard to beat. The building sits right on the St. John's River and an esplanade runs by.

The Times Union Performing Arts Center

Sunset on the St. John's

The Alsop Bridge - as it gets darker, the bridge gets even more intensely blue.

Lest I make Jacksonville appear too glamorous, I'll share a photo taken inside the loading dock:

Yup, we're still in the state with a gigantic swamp in the middle.

Much of the week was taken up with rehearsals. The charming Cara Cooper had her second week of rehearsals and her put-in (she'll join the company onstage with our opening in Fort Myers on Tuesday). We also welcomed Gary Beach to the company with a week of rehearsals (he'll assume King Arthur's throne in Miami). Our Associate Director and Choreographers came for a visit (and a dose of Florida sunshine), so that also meant some note sessions and added excitement. With two rehearsals going simultaneously Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I didn't get out to do any sight-seeing.

Happily, my hotel provided me with some entertainment, right in the back yard:

The VFMHRW - Jacksonville

"What does that sign say?" I hear you wondering.

Yes, my hotel came equipped with a large, carnivorous reptile.

While I only glimpsed the head of the beast gliding around in the swamp, it was very exciting just to know he was out there. I spent most mornings looking for him. I didn't get my much hoped for photo of the alligator (surely I'll have more alligator encounters in the next five weeks), I did get some bad photos of some big, creepy birds.

A great blue heron.

An anhinga. He's sitting in a tree across the swamp drying his wings after he went fishing. He swims with his whole body (except his snake-like neck) underwater. Then he dives down and spears fish with his beak before he surfaces to eat them like a pelican (tossing them in the air until they go down head first).

A great egret.

Yesterday there was randomly a van from the Crime Scene Unit parked outside the stage door. I have no idea why. It did provide a nice backdrop for a photo...

Ken Davis as Horatio Cane - CSI Jacksonville.

Last night's shot night was especially enjoyable. Brian O'Brien made the shot and dubbed it "The Homojito". He began with ginger & cucumber infused vodka and mixed it with cranberry juice and a dash of bitters. The result was suitably tropical and refreshing. Fantastic.

Brian pours a shot for Nigel.

Erik and Cuz enjoy a Homojito.

That's really it. Planning a bit of a road trip adventure with my travel day on Monday. I have all day to drive from Jacksonville to Fort Myers, so I'm going to stop in Haines City and visit with the Westfalls and maybe see some road-side sights along the way.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Put Some South in Yo' Mouth - Nashville, TN

Monday, February 18th

Let me begin with apologies to Brother Jimmy's Restaurant for stealing their slogan, but it seemed appropriate given the week I just had in Nashville.

There are many things I do not like about the South: the accents, the lackadaisical pace, the SEC, the accents. There is, however, one thing I do especially enjoy about the South: the food. I arrived in Nashville, Tennessee with barbecue on the brain. I love the Northeast, but the folks below the Mason Dixon Line know how to cook up a pig. I've been missing it. Before we left Pennsylvania I consulted both my much beloved Roadfood.com (the link will take you to the impressive list of approved establishments in Nashville) as well as Nashville Citysearch, looking for barbecue joints in particular. I was ready to do some damage.

Monday night, after our flight from Hershey, I did some quick shopping and made dinner for myself. Without meaning too, I kicked off my own personal "week of the pig" with a dinner of pork chops. It was wonderful to prepare my own food for the first time since Christmas. While the dinner was nothing spectacular, just making it lifted my spirits.

For our traditional Tuesday load-in lunch, team Spama-management went to a fine representative of a particularly Southern classification of restaurant: the meat 'n three. The one Ken picked out for us was in the Nashville Arcade - a covered alley of tiny shops and restaurants. The arcade was built in 1903 as Nashville's first enclosed shopping center and maintains an antique feel. I've forgotten the name of the meat 'n three where we ate (it may, in fact, have been called "Meat 'N Three"), but the individual restaurant is not as important as the genre: a meat main dish (in this case: fried chicken, salmon croquettes or steak in gravy) and your choice of three sides (mac 'n cheese, collards, potatoes, green salad, green beans) with a biscuit. I was frankly amazed Ken picked this place out, but I was grateful.

Wednesday I headed out to one of Citysearch's top ten barbecue joints. I picked Neely's for my return to all things barbecue. The Nashville Neely's operation is an off-shoot of their famous Memphis operation. (The Neelys also have a show on the Food Network.) The smell outside the place was heavenly, but - alas - the barbecue wasn't what I'd hoped for. The ribs were listed as the specialty of the house, but I found them uninspiring. Possibly, I had built up the event too much in my mind. The ribs were fine, but nothing more. The beans were divine, though. There was barbecue in the beans!

Nashville barbecue meal #1 - ribs, beans & slaw at Neely's.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped in Nashville's Centennial Park. In 1897, the park was home to the Nashville Centennial & International Exhibition which celebrated (a year late) the 100th anniversary of Tennessee's joining the union. The only remaining structure from the Exhibition is a full scale recreation of the Parthenon. The Parthenon was constructed as a home for the Exhibition's art exhibit and is a nod to Nashville's nickname: "The Athens of the South". (Nashville is home to 19 institutions of higher learning including: Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt and Nashville Auto Diesel College.) Today, the building contains an art museum as well as exhibits about the original Parthenon and the Exhibition in the basement. On the main floor is a 41' tall recreation of the statue of Athena believed to have graced the original Parthenon. As a lover of all things world's fair and grand exhibition related, I really dug the Parthenon. It also afforded many photo opportunities.

The Nashville Parthenon

Athena - she's 41' tall!

JV and the Parthenon (patented arm-out photo).

A photo from the exhibition. Nashville hosted exhibits in the Parthenon while Memphis used the Pyramid.

While we were still in Hershey, Karl started talking up this breakfast place he remembered from his days touring with The Phantom of the Opera. He couldn't remember the name of the place, but a google search turned up a roadfood.com review of The Pancake Pantry! I got an email that read something like: "... now we HAVE to go!" Thursday morning a large part of the Spamily convened for a trip to The Pancake Pantry. The Pantry offers 24 different varieties of flapjacks - everything from buttermilk and silver dollar through buckwheat and sweet potato. Nearly everyone at the table ordered a different variety - all were delightful, but we hardly made a dent in the offerings. It was at The Pantry that I had my first brush with the food item that has come to define Nashville in my mind: country ham. This salty, cured, bone-in, sliced and pan-fried deliciousness was undoubtedly my favorite part of Nashville. I'm pleased to report that country ham rates both a wikipedia entry and a national association of its devotees: The National Country Ham Association. (Membership makes a great gift.) Christopher Gurr and I shared a slice and made noises worthy of the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally.

Spamily at The Pancake Pantry: Gurr, Nate, Esther, Tera-Lee, Ben, Julie & Karl

Esther and her pancakes.

For breakfast on Friday morning Roy and I loaded up into the rental car and headed for the Natchez Trace Parkway. At the end of that venerable road from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville lies The Loveless Cafe. The cafe began as a fried chicken and biscuits concession in the lobby of the Loveless Motel, but has since taken over the entire property. The former motel buildings have been taken over by a mail-order and souvenir operation and the cafe has taken over the main building. The cafe is famous for its scratch-made biscuits and rightfully so. If my taste buds didn't deceive me, they were about 2/3 made of butter. They come with homemade preserves and sorghum molasses - perfect. My breakfast of biscuits, country ham, red-eye gravy (pork drippings AND coffee?!?!? Come on!) and eggs was divine.

Scratch biscuits.

JV outside The Loveless Cafe

Friday afternoon I visited Ryman Auditorium. Built by a Civil War-era steamship captain as a home for revival meetings, the Ryman is probably best known as the long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry. While I'm not a fan of country music, the history in the place was evident and interesting. I took a guided tour of the backstage areas from Buddy, a former stage hand for the Opry. The dressing rooms are all named after stars of the Opry (the Johnny Cash and June Carter Suite, the Minnie Pearl Room, etc.) and contain pictures and posters. The house itself has display cases with artifacts from the hey day of the Opry and was restored in the early nineties after nearly 30 years of neglect after the Opry decamped to Opry Land. The Opry has returned to the Ryman and performs a three month winter season from "The Mother Church of Country Music". The acoustics in the place really are amazing and it must be a thrill to play from the stage where so many greats have been.

Ryman Auditorium

Buddy and the rest of my tour group at the Ryman Auditorium's Stage Door.

One of Minnie Pearl's $1.98 hats.

On the stage of the Grand Ole Opry!

After my visit to the Ryman, I was ready to give Nashville Barbecue another shot. Also on Citysearch's list was Hog Heaven. Hog Heaven is a shack next to Centennial Park. There is no dining room. One orders from a window in the front of the cinder block building and either takes one's meal to go or sits at a picnic table on the screened-in porch to eat. Happily, the weather had warmed quite a bit from the snow squall earlier in the week and I could sit on the porch. The specialty here was pulled pork with cole slaw sandwiched between two rounds of fried cornbread. Pork on cornbread sounds like a good idea, but in this case it left the whole affair feeling a bit dry. Dry was my impression of the pork alone as well - not good in the case of pulled pork. The sandwich could have benefited from more sauce. I have, however, come to appreciate the penchant for serving dill pickle slices with barbecue (something I used to discount). They make a nice, simple counterpoint to barbecue sauce; almost the pickled ginger to the wasabi of sushi. Their turnip greens were very tasty - they even came with a tiny take-out container of vinegar.

Hog Heaven - that's the "dining room" on the right.

Pulled pork on cornbread.

Since I was in "Music City, USA", I thought I had better head out to hear some of their famous live music on Lower Broadway. I joined a fair portion of the crew boys on Friday night and went to Robert's Western World where we squeezed in to hear Brazibilly. While, as I've mentioned, country music isn't my thing, I enjoyed these guys. They had an older guy on the fiddle who could really tear it up! I'm glad I went with the boys and got out to see some of Nashville's nightlife. I called it a night before it got too terribly late, though, as I had another breakfast date Saturday morning.

At Robert's Western World: Scott, Berg, Jeff, Tony & Ben

All week Nate raved about a breakfast place he had visited on a previous tour stop in Nashville. More breakfast in Nashville (another chance for country ham?), sign me up! Another sizable gathering of Spamily descended on Monell's in Nashville's Germantown for their famous "Country Breakfast". This is the sort of breakfast the lady of the house would send the field workers out with in the morning. The sort of breakfast you eat when it's the last hot meal you'll eat until the threshin's done. The menu for Saturday's breakfast: smoked sausage, bacon, country ham, biscuits and gravy, fried apples, pancakes, scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheese grits, skillet fried chicken, corn pudding, broccoli and cheddar fritters, peach/molasses preserves, coffee and tea. Monell's serves everything family style at tables for twelve (the nine of us were joined by 3 strangers) and they keep bringing the food until you cry for mercy. It's like eating at your Grandma's house, if you're Grandma was a mess cook for the Southern Army. It was absolute genius. I was, quite literally, high from all the good food by the time we rolled out of there. (Ben went home to take a nap before the matinee!) Props to Nate for taking us there!

Spamily at Monell's: Karl, Jeff, Ben, Tera-Lee, Berg, Cuz, Maggie & JV

Nate relaxes after breakfast.

I was just about ready to THINK about food again by the between shows dinner break on Saturday. Jeff Brewer heard about my barbecue needs and mentioned that he had been to a pretty good barbecue place on his last visit to Nashville. Jeff, Cuz and I went to check out Rippy's on Broadway. We fought our way through the hockey crowd (hockey, in the South?) to get a table and ordered up some barbecue and tea. This time the ribs were right on! Dry rubbed, with sauce on the side, these were winners - just what I had been hungering for all week. Hooray!

Finally, the ribs I'd been waiting for!

Cuz reacts to the arrival of his ribs.

Sunday, I had no culinary adventures. I had fruit, cottage cheese and shredded wheat for breakfast in an effort to apologize to my body for a pork-fueled week... There was, nonetheless, excitement - Julie Barnes made her debut as the Lady of the Lake! Lyn, our usual cover for the Lady was out sick, so Julie got to have a crack at the role. She was, of course, fabulous! Such fun to see her break out of the ensemble and step downstage to sing in the spotlight. (I took some photos from the wings with Sabra's camera, if any of them turned out I'll share them...)

The show played quite well in the Tennessee PAC. The new company members are settling in and the show has a different (quite honest) energy as everyone is listening and responding to one another. The crew cracked me up. There were a bunch of ladies on the wardrobe crew that I nicknamed "The Paulas" as they all reminded me of Paula Deen. They all did their hair up in that helmet-like style that ladies of a certain age all seem to do in the South and they all smiled at me all the time, addressing me as "Sugar." (I kept trying to find an excuse to take a picture of them, but couldn't find a way that didn't seem rude...) The stage crew didn't need my help with nicknames - they came equipped with names like Jimbo and Chew-Chew. Even our sign language interpreters were characters - we dubbed them Weezer and Clairee. They were perfect Southern Gentlewomen; they dropped by our office twice just to introduce themselves.

TPAC - quite likely, the only theatre we'll play with a state office building above it. The theatres share a lobby with the office building. (The State Museum is located in the theatre's basement!)

This morning, before the plane ride to Jacksonville, Karl and I couldn't resist one more trip to the Pancake Pantry for breakfast. We bumped into Julie, Tera-Lee and Ben in the lobby - they were also headed back for one last Southern breakfast! It was a great way to say goodbye to Nashville and to wrap up a very busy (and very enjoyable) week.

An album of the week in photos is on Snapfish. Enjoy.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Carol Channing DISASTER

Friday, February 15th

We interupt this blog to bring some disturbing news:


Carol was robbed!

I am stunned.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Holiday Edition

Thursday, February 14th

I miss my Valentine.

Boston, January

Columbus - November

Washington State - October

Manitou Springs, CO - September

Minneapolis - August

Dallas - July

Houston - May

Indianapolis - May

Boston - April

This is our second Valentines Day apart. Even thought it's a weird pretend holiday, it still sucks to be 900 miles apart. So, I'm thinking loving thoughts about my Valentine today.

I love you, Mrs. Everett.

Thank goodness the people who plan such things have given us a holiday that falls in the middle of cold and grey February. A holiday to warm the cold reaches of our sun-starved hearts. I'm speaking, of course, of PITCHERS AND CATCHERS DAY!!!! Today is the magical day when hope springs eternal for every baseball fan. Today every team could be the next World Series Champion. Today the long winter that began in October is over. Today pitchers and catchers are called on to report.

Not to report to Congress - that was yesterday. (Though how what Roger Clemmens had injected into his butt nearly ten years ago is any concern of my elected officials, I'll never understand. How 'bout the congress use its formidable investigatory powers to find out how the Bush administration is violating the Constitution...)

To Spring Training! Where we can stop talking about who used what when and start talking about World Series Championship #27!

Welcome back, guys. Can't wait to see you in a couple of weeks!