Monday, March 23, 2009


From Gatorland, I went straight to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for load-in.  The PAC is a big, modern facility with plenty of room for everything and everybody.  We've shortened our load-in schedule a bit in recent weeks; instead of a 1 o'clock start for the whole crew, everybody comes in at 6 PM for an average load-in.  While the change is good, financially, for the presenters, it has the bonus effect of meaning everyone can get a bit more sleep.  My load-in duties were done pretty quickly and I spent much of the evening regaling everyone with what it was like to hold an alligator.  

The Tampa Bay PAC sits on the Hillsborough River

For the Tampa engagement, I shared another Vacation Rental house.  Paula, Gurr, Suzanne and I lived a ways out of town in a 4 bedroom house with a big screened-in "Florida Room" in back.  The house was in Riverview, FL - and while it did not feature a view of any rivers, we did have a pond replete with wildlife.  All manner of birds could be seen swimming about and stalking the waters edge.  There was even a resident alligator!

Several Great Blue Herons (as well as their smaller cousins, the aptly named Little Blue Heron) waded around the pond's edges looking for a snack

This White Ibis was more adventurous, coming right up into the yard for a meal - a Ibis even wandered into the screened-in pool area.  Gurr had a time persuading it to go back out the door, while Paula restrained the dogs.

I saw this gator on a walk through the neighborhood park - we eyed each other and both decided to stay where we were...

Tampa was a busy city for comings and goings.  Callie Carter rejoined the touring Spamily.  She left us way back in Seattle to return to her husband and NYC.  Since then, she was recruited to the Broadway company, took over as their Dance Captain and was part of the closing night cast. Before she had even arrived, Callie picked right back up where she left off; I got an email inquiring if there was any roadfood in Tampa!  (Indeed, there was some great Roadfood - Ken tagged along and the three of us enjoyed some tasty Cuban cuisine between shows on Thursday.)  Callie came back to us as part of an elaborate plan to cover the departure of two of our girls: Candy and Angelina.  Candy is off to LA to work on an opera and Angelina is headed to Broadway as a swing for West Side Story.  

Of course, the departure of our beloved Muffins was a reason for a party!  Angelina has always been one of our "Let's get dressed up and go out!" girls (see my pictures from the New Year's party), so a pizza and beer sort of affair would never do for her farewell.  Instead, we headed to a more swank establishment, The Blue Martini.  The house band was great and got most of us out on the dance floor - and when the Spamalot girls head to the dance floor, they can draw a crowd (which is, I suspect, just how they like it!).  Those of us who weren't dancing, relaxed out on the patio.  It was a fun night in celebration of one of the most fun girls.

Francesca snapped some backstage photos of Angelina & Candy's last show.  Here they are getting ready for the infamous "Hump Circle" that welcomes each new cast member to the show and also sends them on their way to their last performance.

Ang and Nigel during the finale - Nigel surprised her and swung out her partner for the number

When the show played Florida last spring, I tried - and failed - to see a manatee.  This time around, I was determined to make it happen.  Months before we arrived, Angela emailed me about a day trip to Homosassa Springs to see the gentle giants up close.  So, Wednesday morning I was out of bed and in the car first thing in the morning for the drive up to Homosassa Springs.  At 8:30, I was squeezing myself into a wet suit and boarding a pontoon boat.  A short while later, I was floating in the waters of Homosassa River face to face with Florida Manatees.

Angela brought along her underwater camera!

I've done a lot of really cool stuff on this tour, but swimming with the manatees is certainly among the coolest.  

We were near the headwaters of river where the warm (being a relative term) waters of the Homosassa Spring bubble up.  The manatees hang out near the spring in the winter months to keep warm and conserve energy.  The area is protected habitat: there are manatee haven areas where people are not allowed to bother the giants and a crew of volunteers was on hand to make sure we all followed the rules of engagement.  In other areas of Florida, it's a crime to touch or bother the manatees; but in this one county, the state has established guidelines for human/manatee interaction.  

The manatees were quite friendly.  They would swim right up to us (one even nudged me from behind when I didn't see it coming).  They didn't mind being petted, many wanted to be scratched. They would roll over onto their backs, inviting us to scratch their enormous tummies.

Encountering these creatures in their world was amazing.  They are huge - like big, swimming refrigerators - but absolutely benign.  They simply aren't equipped to hurt you.  They're slow, but quite graceful; especially when compared to me splashing around and trying to remember I'm breathing through a snorkel.  They're so slow paced, in fact, that their backs are covered in a layer of algae!  Their skin is much like that of their closest living relative: the elephant.  They're, surprisingly, not soft feeling at all - their skin is sort of heavy feeling and they don't feel soft and fatty, rather very dense.  They also have long hairs widely spaced all over them, which I wasn't expecting at all.  They have "fingernails" on the ends of their front flippers - again, sort of elephant-like.

The manatees were very sociable.  A pair of them played with Angela, Katie and I for the last 20 minutes or so that we were in the water.  The mother and calf circled us rolling over for scratches and coming in for nose to nose encounters.  It was an amazing morning.

The other much anticipated event of the week came at the very end.  With a mid-week matinee and the long trek for the trucks to Austin, we closed on a Sunday matinee leaving the evening free.  Tampa is home to the justly famous Bern's Steakhouse.  I joined the tour shortly after they played Tampa the first time, and for two years I have been hearing from Karl how much I would enjoy Bern's and how sorry he is that I wasn't there the first time.  I couldn't let a golden opportunity like a Sunday night off get past - I made us a reservation.  

Six of us (Karl, Wayne, Ben Whitely, Gurr, DVZ and myself) spent five hours feasting.  Granted, the first hour was mostly spent in conversation at the fabulously bordello-like bar as we waited for dilatory Karl - but that still meant we were at the table for a marathon four hours.  And what a four hours they were!  My meal included oyster beignets (oysters dipped in light beignet batter, fried, and returned to their shells with a creamy, herbed sauce and bacon), a trio of soups (french onion, lobster bisque and vichyssoise), salad, baked potato, fresh green beans, hash browns and a perfect Delmonico.  All of this was accompanied by wine from Bern's cellar of more than half a million bottles.  After our steaks, our waitress (who was AWESOME) took us on a tour of the kitchen and the wine cellar en route to the dessert room.  Yep - there's an entire other facility for the consuming of dessert and after dinner drinks.  There I capped off the experience with some calvados and a vanilla soufflĂ©. We all staggered out into the night at midnight to pack our suitcases for Austin.  I paid for the experience the next morning when I had to leave for the airport at 5AM, but I loved every second.

Tampa and Melbourne were a much more pleasant Florida experience than the six weeks we spent in the Sunshine State last spring.  The sunny weather went a long way toward brightening everyone's spirits, even if we didn't get to wear shorts every day.  I welcomed spring with some baseball (hopefully enough to tide me over until the middle of May when we intersect with a home game again).  I encountered all manner of Florida wildlife (Westfall and otherwise) and I got to put my toes in the ocean!  A very pleasant spring break.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Great Gatorland Get-Away

En route from Melbourne to Tampa, I made a stop at a classic Florida attraction: Gatorland!

Gatorland opened its doors in 1949 as the creation of  Owen Goodwin.  It's part theme park, part wildlife refuge.  Gatorland offers a water park for the kids (w/o alligators) and gator wrestling shows, but there's also plenty of education about the wildlife of Florida going on as well.  Thousands of alligators call the 110 acre park home.

Immediately inside the park were enclosures where the gators were separated by size (and therefor age).  It's was cool the day I visited, the high was around 60 degrees, so the alligators were all piled up sunning themselves.  The gators are separated by size as bigger alligators have been known to eat smaller, younger alligators.

All manner of other creatures call the park home.  These turtles and a wood stork were quite comfortable next to the gators.

One of the big attractions at Gatorland is the alligator wrestling show.  Billed as "Cracker-style" wrestling as the practice evolved from Florida cowhands, known as "crackers" for the sound of their cracking whips, who had to remove alligators from water holes to keep the cattle safe.  The show featured a Gatorland employee and a 7 or 8 foot reptile.  The wrestler pulled the gator up onto the sand and climbed astride before demonstrating how to subdue the beast.  The jaws of an alligator have immense crushing power, but the muscles that open its mouth are not nearly as strong.  In fact, the wrangler was easily able to keep the gator's mouth closed with one hand!  He also demonstrated how alligators are able to retract their eyes back into their heads.  This allows a gator to swim with just its eyes above the surface of the water and not worry about low hanging branches or grab fighting prey in its jaws without worrying about the thrashing prey blinding the predator.  

The other show at Gatorland is entitled "Gator Jumparoo!"  As the name implies, the idea is get the biggest alligators in the pond to leap from the water.  The animals are lured with pieces of chicken first and then whole chickens for the finale.  As alligators are cold-blooded, they weren't feeling very frisky in the cooler temperatures and didn't come very far out of the water the day I was there.  Still and all, a person feeding meat to a 12' alligator by hand was pretty impressive!  (The trainers wear safety belts to keep the animals from pulling them into the water, but a miscalculation could still result in serious injury.)

3 feet is about as far as the beasts were willing to exert themselves

Most of the inhabitants of Gatorland live in the breeding marsh in the middle of the property.  This big lagoon is chock full of mature alligators.  They roam about freely, mating and building nests when the time comes.  The marsh is also home to lots of wading birds.  The birds like to nest near gators as the presence of the giant carnivores keeps smaller predators, like possums and raccoons away.  The gators mostly leave the bigger birds alone, but there's always the risk that their young will fall from the nest and become a snack.

This heron was right at home alongside the big gators

In addition to the native Florida alligators, several other species of Crocodilia call Gatorland home.  Salt water crocs and Nile Crocs were on display as were white alligators from Louisiana.  The white alligators are not albinos, in fact their eyes are bright blue!  These giants just have a genetic mutation that prevents them from secreting the melatonin that keeps them brown; they're known as leucustic alligators.  The gators on display at Gatorland are on loan from the aquarium that rescued them as hatchlings in the Louisiana swamps.  The hatchlings were collected in 1987 as part of a plan to help rebuild the alligator population.  It is thought that the white gators are so rare because the white hatchlings would be an easy target for hawks.

The highlight of the afternoon was my encounter with an alligator:

This little fellow (they told me he was a boy) was amazing!  He was available to pose for photos (as was a snake that I declined to get involved with) for a small fee and I just couldn't resist.  Yes, his mouth is taped shut; his handler said it doesn't hurt him and even though he's small, he has 86 sharp little teeth.  After I sat down, his handler presented him to me and I immediately started to laugh - I was holding a live alligator!  He was heavy (alligators are mostly muscle) and COLD (since they're ectothermic).  He quietly posed for the picture while I continued to laugh.  The woman taking the picture paused and said, "Are you going to be OK?"  Just as I answered, "YES!" she snapped the photo above.  Too soon, they were taking him back from me, but I was allowed to touch him in his terrarium.   It still makes me smile to think about holding an alligator.

I collected my photo and was on my way to Tampa and load-in not too long after.  As we loaded-in the big skit, I ran around showing everyone my photo and recounting my afternoon with the alligators - an "only in Florida" experience!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Space Ghost, Coast to Coast

From the Rocket City, Spamalot traveled to the Space Coast: Melbourne, FL is just south of Cape Canaveral on Florida's Atlantic Coast.

No visit to Florida is the winter months would be complete without a visit to the Westfall winter compound in Haines City.  The full complement of wintering Westfalls were in attendance: Barb, Donn, Rhoda, Dale & Joyce all welcomed me as did visiting Dean & June Andrus (Barb's brother and sister-in-law).  We caught up on all the Westfall family news and they grilled up a storm for me.  It was awfully nice to eat al fresco and to share the meal with so many of the people that I love. 

As the sun went down, I headed back toward the ocean - all the way to the beach!  While much of the company stayed in a perfectly lovely Candlewood inland and near the theatre, Paula Wise hooked 8 of us up with a HUGE vacation rental on Melbourne Beach.  Our 8 bedroom house sat right on the ocean.  My windows faced the Atlantic - I woke up each morning and fell asleep each night to the sound of crashing waves.  It made for some pretty nice VFMHRW shots:

VFMHRW as I left for load-in

VFMHRW as I woke up mid-week
The waves weren't all that large, but there were surfers out there a couple of times.

One last VFMHRW as I prepared to leave Melbourne

The house, itself, was spectacular.  It was two houses that were joined together with a series of big living rooms.  The house featured two pools (one heated, one not), big kitchen, wet bar (where the second house's kitchen had been) and a deck that faced the ocean.  We had a blast in the house.  Paula ordered a King Cake to be delivered on Fat Tuesday so we could celebrate in style.  We hosted a poker night and had a dog play-date in the sand as well.  I wouldn't want to live in an 8 person fun house all the time, but I had great time for the one week.

Our beach house as seen from the beach

The house with a crescent moon and Jupiter rising in the evening sky as the sun sets

In addition to the 7 other people I lived with (Matt, Paula, Jeff, Matthew, Roy, Jason & Mitchell), there were three animal companions in the house: Dorian, Patisse and Satine.  I loved living with the dogs!  This is Satine's adorable butt while she waited for her mom...

Spamalot's home for the week was the Maxwell C. King Performing Arts Center.  The King Center is named for a former president of Brevard County Community College, of which the performing arts center is a part.  The facility was completed in 1988 and boasts a 2,000 seat auditorium.  The facility is quite nice, if a little small compared to many of the other theatres we've played on the tour.  There weren't enough dressing rooms, so some of the principals had to share with the ensemble men and the Stage Managers' office was in the green room.  Ken had fun during the over-night load-in redecorating and rearranging the catering tables to make an office.  

Somehow, my corner of the room turned into a jungle of artificial plants!

The sun setting behind the King Center and its palm trees

The big activities for the week were, happily, baseball-related.  Spring Training kicked off while we were in Melbourne and we were close enough to catch a couple of games!  

On Wednesday I piled Roy and Scott into my rental car for the short trip north to Viera, Florida and Space Coast Stadium: spring training home of the Washington Nationals.  The Nats played host to the Detroit Tigers in their Spring Training home opener.  It wasn't a great game, but the weather was beautiful and it was great to feel the sun and hear the crack of the bat again.  The Nationals held off the Motor City Kitties for 2-1 victory.

The first game of 2009 with Roy & Scott

Thursday we had a mid-week matinee, so no baseball that day; but Friday I put together a bigger outing.  The Mets workout an hour, or so, south of Melbourne in Port St Lucie at Tradition Field.  Alexa, one of our ensemble women, is engaged to Chris who works in the Mets' front office.  Though all the box office had left when I called were seats on the grass in the outfield, Chris hooked us up with 14 seats along the third base line and even comped some of them!  It was another beautiful day for baseball as the Mets took on the St. Louis Cardinals.  Of course, we have some Mets fans on the road with us and the game pitted their loyalties against those of my long-time baseball tour buddy Matt Allen and his Red Birds.  We had a wonderful afternoon in the sun cheering for our respective teams.  In the end, Tony La Russa's Cardinals were too much for the Pond Scum; fending off a late inning rally to win 9-8.

David Wright with a big swing and a miss.
Though the girls were all happy to see Wright, I was bummed that Mr. Met was not in attendance (nor did we get to sing "Meet the Mets").

Spamily at the ballpark
Left to right: JV, Matt, Berg, Jen Mathie, Graham, Karl, Cuz, Cara, Ben Davis, Alexa, Havasi, Sarah-Lin & Merle

The mid-week matinee meant we got an evening off  on Sunday.  I went back to enjoy one last evening on the beach.  Cara and Graham brought their beagle, Lucy, over for a doggie play-date and a cookout.  Suzanne and Gurr also dropped in for a visit.  The house was full and fun for our last night.  I took a long walk on the beach and caught the end of the MSU basketball game.  It was a really pleasant and relaxing end to the week.

Monday morning, I was on the road again.  I drove across Florida toward the tour's next stop in Tampa.  Ken took the weekend to visit his beloved Miami, so I had to be at the theatre for load-in on Monday night.  But more on that adventure in the next post!

The extra pics:

My toes in the ocean.  The waters of the Atlantic were still quite cold during the last week in February - this is about as far as I wanted to go in!

The sandpipers didn't seem to mind, though.

Blue crabs were in season!   Between shows on Saturday, I plowed through an embarrassing pile of shellfish at the Eau Gallie Crabhouse.  Several of us sat beside the Eau Gallie River for dinner and the restaurant's proprietress came out and showed us how to pick the crabs clean.  Delicious and very decadent.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Rocket City

As soon as we landed in Huntsville, Alabama - Wayne and I packed up the car and headed for Tennessee.   We were bound for the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg.  The short drive up was pretty - Lynchburg is set in the gentle slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.  Jack Daniels built his distillery in Lynchburg in 1866 at the mouth of the Cave Spring - a natural spring that flows at 800 gallons per minute and a constant temperature of 56 degrees.  The water is just one local ingredient of the whiskey: the taste of Jack Daniel's is also influenced by the filtering of the whiskey through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal (charcoal which is created right on the premises from trees harvested locally).  Though the distillery creates the entire supply of Jack Daniel's, it remains a surprisingly small and craftsman-like operation.

With the statue of the diminutive distiller himself, Jack Daniels, that guards the mouth of the cave from which the spring springs

Our guide took us through the entire operation step by step.  We began in the yard where dried sugar maple is burned into charcoal and then went to the mouth of the cave for which Cave Spring is named.  We followed the path of the water to the mash tanks where the grains and yeast are added and the cooking begins.  We then saw several of the stills in action and watched as the clear whiskey is dripped into 10' tanks of charcoal for mellowing before it is put into oak barrels for aging.  The barrels are then stored in barrel houses until the whiskey is judged to be ready by a team of tasters.  For the black labeled bottle that is synonymous with Jack Daniel's, whiskey from many barrels (and many locations from within the barrel house) is blended together.  (Whiskey aged at the top of the barrel house is darker in color and more intense in flavor than whiskey aged in the lower levels of the barrel house.)  The distillery also produces a single barrel whiskey (usually from a barrel from the upper level of the house that is judged to be superior tasting by the tasting panel) and Gentleman Jack (which is dripped through the charcoal a second time after barrel aging and before bottling).

It is the oak barrel that imparts all of the color and much of the flavor to Jack Daniel's whiskey.  Here, Wayne sniffs the "bunghole" (the actual term) of one of the used barrels.

In the barrel house

I'm not a huge fan of Jack Daniel's, but the tour was fascinating.  The people who create the product obviously take great pride in their work and the product is beloved.  Most interesting of all, though, was the fact that Moore County, of which Lynchburg is the county seat, is a dry county and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future.  (According to Tennessee law, 1,000 residents must sign a petition to put the question to a vote and there must be 2,500 registered voters in the county: Moore County has less than 6,000 men, women and children - making such a vote unlikely.  Besides, doesn't it make the whole legend of Jack Daniel's more interesting, anyway?)  This also meant that despite Jack Daniel's being the major industry and tourist draw, one can't buy a bottle of the whiskey!  (Tennessee actually passed a special law allowing the distillery to sell a specially bottled whiskey in the gift shop.)

Back in Huntsville, the major industry is not whiskey production, but space travel.  Redstone Arsenal was created in the run up to World War II as a production and storage facility for chemical weapons and all sorts of nasty chemicals.  Following the war, the facility was briefly offered for sale until the Army began using the grounds for the testing of rock propulsion.  Several German scientists, lead by Werner Von Braun, were brought to Huntsville in the years around the Korean War and it was here the American space program was developed.    Today, Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center and all manner of defense and space contractors.  It is home to the famed Space Camp and a big NASA visitors' center.

The civic center in Huntsville is named for Werner Von Braun!
It contains not only the Concert Hall (where Spamalot performed, but a convention center, arena and smaller playhouse).

Roy and I visited on Friday.  We explored models of the space shuttle, actual Apollo capsules and pieces of the international space station.  We marveled at an actual Saturn rocket displayed in an enormous hall and a 363' model that towers over the center.  The courage of the early astronauts who allowed themselves to be strapped to these gigantic machines and shot into the unknown astonishes me.  Indeed, the courage of all the men and women who go into space continues to astonishes me.  There are memorials to the crews of both the Challenger and Columbia as well as a full size mock-up of the shuttle named Pathfinder.  (Pathfinder was built as a training simulator and to check the fit of various pieces.)

The Rocket Park outside the Marshall Space Flight Center - while all of these are imposing machines (and many of them are frightening military implements), they are nothing compared to the Saturn rocket.

Roy and Pathfinder.
The space shuttle program will come to an end in 2010 and will be replaced by a reusable system of rockets and parachuting capsules (much like those used in the Apollo missions) that will be capable of returning men to the moon and, theoretically, to planets beyond.

I had several tasty meals in Huntsville.  Surprisingly, Ken joined Karl and I for barbeque at Dreamland (an Alabama institution).  Roy and I sought out a local favorite, Gibson's, for another helping of barbeque.  Between shows on Sunday, several of us went for a very nice German meal at Ol Heidelberg Cafe: the German influence is still strong in the area!  

I took advantage of the comparatively warm temperatures in Alabama to get outside.  I drove up into the mountains to do a bit of hiking at Monte Sano State Park.  Monte Sano is the former sight of a resort that capitalized on the mountain's cool breezes and advertised itself as a sort of healthy retreat.  I hiked for about five miles around the relatively flat top of the mountain.  The vistas across Huntsville and the surrounding Tennessee Valley were quite pretty and the opportunity to just be outside was a welcome change from the colder climates the tour's been in lately.

One of the many dramatic lookouts from Monte Sano

The weather in Huntsville wasn't as warm as many of the Spamily had hoped.  It made it up into the 70's one afternoon, but many of the days were in the 50's.  While that was certainly preferable to the below zero temperatures we endured in Peoria and even some of the snowy days in Detroit, many people imagined traveling to the South and wearing shorts all week.  The seasonal change of clothes began in Huntsville, though.  The following week we were bound for Florida, so everyone put away their winter coats and pulled out some shorts.  I was no exception and my poor trunk and I battled mightily to swap bulky sweaters for short-sleeved shirts.

When I took this photo, I was obviously loosing the battle.  I ended up jumping on the lid to get it latched.  (In a side note: I'm rapidly running out of sticker space on my trunk.  There's a souvenir from every stop on the tour affixed  to the thing - I'm pretty proud of it.  I keep threatening to quit when I run out of space...)

I hosted shot night in Huntsville.  Given my visit to Jack Daniel's, I wanted to use the local spirit.  I combined Jack Daniel's with Southern Comfort and christened it: "Son of the South".  It was a strong shot, so I offered lime juice to dilute it a bit.  I also composed a playlist of Alabama related tunes (Alabama's "Song of the South" and "Mountain Music"; "Stars Fell on Alabama", "Alabama Getaway", "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Dueling Banjos").  Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and we got a head start on the party the local presenter through in our honor.

I'm all set up for shot night

When Merle Dandridge joined our company as The Lady of the Lake, she brought a tradition with her from Broadway: the Sparkle Cup.  Saturday night is often a tough show for the cast to get energized for - it's late in the week, the second show of a two show day and the day off is still two shows away.  Some actors describe Saturday as your average workers' Wednesday.  To help remedy this, the Broadway company came up with a Saturday night competition: each company member is meant to give a little something extra on Saturday night (some sparkle) and whichever company member is judged to have given the most extra somethin' somethin' is awarded the Sparkle Cup and given the task of judging the next week's competition.  While I have not, yet, won a Sparkle Cup; I did receive an honorable mention in Huntsville's competition.

Here I am with my sparkly certificate

I hear you asking, dear reader, what I did to win my honorable mention.  Well...

I did something a little like this.
During You Won't Succeed on Broadway the ensemble men do some big "Russian" leaps.  This is my attempt at one of those jumps.  Apparently, a fat guy jumping is sparkly.  I'm very proud.

In addition to the dream realized that was my Sparkle Award, I finally got to try on the Black Knight costume!  At the load-in, the local dressers need to learn how to help dress the actor in the costume and how the mechanics of that costume work.  Someone has to be the model for the costume demo - in Huntsville it was me!  It was super fun to wear the costume, but I can't imagine operating all the mechanics while performing fight choreography.

JV as the Black Knight

Huntsville was a surprise.  I had no idea what to expect from the Rocket City, but I found it quite nice.  While the downtown wasn't very busy, it was exceptionally clean and pretty.  All over the place were little gardens bearing plaques about downtown beautification.  The Five Points neighborhood had all kinds of historic structures and the area near the hotel was full of great big Civil War-era homes.  I was glad I rented a car so I could get out and see the surrounding area.  I enjoyed the mountains and the Southern hospitality.

TVFMHRW - Across the Holiday Inn parking lot was Big Springs Park


P.S. -  The tour's in what feels like a home stretch now.  We're all counting down to our adventures in Alaska and then our long California run beginning in San Francisco (much as we counted down to Vancouver, earlier).  To celebrate, David and I made some stickers:


Life on Big Beaver Road

w/ the Spirit of Detroit

I had an absolute blast for two weeks in Detroit.  Right from the moment the plane landed on Sunday night (a few of us traveled to the Motor City after our closing matinee in Chicago), I felt at home.  The whole visit was full of family, friends an familiar places.  I may have been the only member of the company who was sad to leave Detroit...

The title of this post comes from the location of our lodging in metro-Detroit.  The Residence Inn in Troy is a hefty drive from the Fisher Theatre, but the last two minutes make the trip worthwhile.  The next to the last instructions on my google directions told me to take: "Exit 69: Big Beaver Road".  Genius.  It's my second favorite set of directions ever.  (My favorite is also a Michigan special and involves I-69, the "Penetrator" and Dickman Road.)  

TVFMHRW - Residence Inn, Troy
The Residence Inn was wonderful.  I had a two story flat with fireplace and felt right at home.

The first Monday morning, I set out to visit my family.  My first stop was in Chelsea to visit Grandma Curtis.  She fell and injured her shoulder several months ago and was living and doing her rehab in a facility in Chelsea.  When I arrived, Grandma was actually on the phone making plans for her move to a more permanent assisted living facility in East Lansing.  Her recovery from the fall has been smooth and relatively speedy.  I hadn't seen her since Casey's wedding in June and was glad I got to spend two hours catching up with her.  I also got a short visit with my Aunt Mary and Uncle Kirk who had also come to see Grandma.

After visiting with Grandma, I headed north to have dinner at home with Mom & Dad.  I was surprised to see that they've done a fair amount remodeling to the house!  Mom's built herself a master suite and given Dad a den in what used to be my brother's bedroom.  They've also cut a pass through into the wall between the kitchen and the formal dining room.  All the changes look great, but I was surprised to learn that they did all this work on the house before the holidays and kept it a secret "so they could see my face".  Dinner was wonderful - home-cooked meals are rare enough as I tour, but to have my parents make me one was special.

Our opening night in Detroit marked the official return of Jeff Dumas to the company.  Jeff was our original Patsy and came back to us after a year away at the end of Brad Bradley's contract.  I like Jeff a lot and was happy to see him back on our stage.  We took an afternoon in Detroit to do some more publicity photos - we hadn't taken any for nearly a year.  While the professional photographer worked from out in the house, Francesca got out her camera in the wings.  She got some absolutely amazing photos, including this great shot of Jeff.

It was fun to play another town that I had some familiarity with.  Though I was born and lived the very early part of my life in the Detroit suburb of Redford and I have been visiting the Motor City as long as I can remember, there were still plenty of new things to see and do around town.  Karl and I visited the Motown Museum one morning before work and I really dug it.  Berry Gordy built a recording empire and created an entire musical sound from a few houses along Grand Avenue.  Even when the Motown Sound was at its zenith, the whole operation had a very family feel (or at least, that's how the museum portrayed it).

Roy and I visited the Ford Rouge Plant and watched members of the UAW build F150 pick-up trucks.  To watch Ford crank out 1 truck a minute was absolutely fascinating!  It did make me wonder who, exactly, was going to buy a truck every minute; especially since, when we visited the Rouge, they were building only crew cab and extended cab versions - the standard two door truck is built somewhere else.  The scale and complexity of the plant was amazing - it really made me appreciate the size of the auto industry as a whole and the size of the fix that they're in.

I also got an up close look at the auto manufacturing process courtesy of my friend Andy.  Andy (last name withheld to protect the guilty) is an engineer at the Ford Rawsonville Parts Plant and invited me to come and see what it is that they do there.  After a tiny bit of fibbing about my occupation and reason for visiting the plant, I was watching the safety video and donning a pair of glasses and yellow vest to venture where the merely curious are not allowed.  Andy is one of the engineers responsible for designing and maintaining the machines that make starter motors for all manner of Ford vehicles.  It was fascinating to watch all the machines and their operators at work turning out parts for countless vehicles.  Andy even let me operate one of the robotic arms that assembles the tiny gears inside the motor as he tested out a new fitting for the machine.  Cool stuff.  I'm often surprised that people find the day to day operation Spamalot so interesting (after all, it is jut my job), but I absolutely loved the peek into Andy's profession.

Of course, there was some great eating to be done in Detroit as well.  No visit to the D would be complete without a stop in Greektown!  Hellas may be gone, but there's still plenty of tasty mediterranean bites available along Monroe Street.  David and Karl joined me for big plates of octopus, pastichio and, of course, saganaki!


A bunch of us also went over to Hamtramck for no joke Polish food.  My friend, Katja, introduced me to Polish Village when we were home visiting in June, and I took along Gurr, Suzanne and Roy for a between shows feast.  Everyone ordered something different and we all stuffed ourselves to the breaking point.  We weren't too full, however, to stop by a Polish bakery on our way back to the Fisher to load up with boxes full of angel wings and Kolaczki (tiny filled cookies - sort of the Polish answer to rugelach).  Heaven.  The only disappointment was that were a few weeks to early for paczkis...

Speaking of Katja - I got to hang out with my old college roommate quite a bit while I was in town.  Katja and her husband, Jeff, invited me to the opening night of Jeff's show: Rabbit Hole.  I loved seeing Jeff work (and sitting in the audience, for a change).  The production was quite good and Jeff's work in a difficult part was great.  Later in the visit, they came to see Spamalot and took me out for drinks at an old haunt from their Wayne State days just up the street.  While Sheila Marie was in town, Katja hosted us at their home and made a huge dinner for us between shows!  While Katja drove me back to work, Sheila Marie got to stay and read stories to Ella, Katja and Jeff's beautiful daughter.  That my friends have such amazing children still freaks me out a little, but I adore Ella.

Katja gets Ella ready for bed - but not before Sheila Marie snaps a photo!

I also got to spend quite a bit of time with some more old friends - Paul and Jenny entertained me all day during my Monday off in Hockeytown.  Paul took a day off to hang out with me, which I though was exceptionally cool of him!  We ate olive burgers downtown (why hasn't the rest of the country caught on to this delicious Michigan-ism yet?) and explored the amazing Guardian Building  Then we checked out the Pewabic Pottery studios and bowled several games at the oldest continuously operating bowling alley in the US, Garden Bowl.

Paul and Jenny in the banking lobby of the Guardian Building.
The Guardian Building is an absolutely amazing Art Deco skyscraper in the heart of downtown Detroit.  Built for the Union Trust Corporation in 1928-9, it is the jewel of the many Deco buildings in Detroit.

w/ Paul "The Pin Terminator" Fanson at Garden Bowl

Later that night, we met up with Andy and Steph for dinner.  All four of them also came down to see the show and hang out with Sheila and I during her visit.  They took us to Slow's Barbecue for great BBQ and an enormous selection of both beers and bourbons.  Between Andy and I, we sampled 5 different bourbons, each distinct from the last.

Steph, Andy, Jenny, Paul and JV as we bundled up to leave Slow's.

Seeing all these friends was amazing.  I've known Paul as long as I can remember and we became good friends in high school.  I was there when he met Jenny and when our mutual friends tried to set them up on their first date.  Steph and Andy were more friends I met in college who I've grown closer to as we age.  Katja was one of my roommates at 565 Stoddard and is one of the people I know I can call for anything.  To be able to spend time with all of those people made Detroit a magical stop on the tour.

Before I left town, I got another chance to be with my family.  Sheila Marie and I drove up to East Lansing to visit Grandma in her new digs.  This visit was a little shorter, but no less wonderful.  That same evening, Mom and Dad drove down for a between shows meal.  We met up at Mario's with my cousin, Shannon, and his wife, Jen.  My Mom adores Shannon (along with his brother, Charlie) and we always have a good time when we get together.  We all share a sense of humor and can get each other laughing in no time.  I'm only sorry that we could only spend such a brief time around the dinner table.

Mom, Jen, Shannon, JV & SM at Mario's

While others only saw Detroit's shortcomings, I realized what a soft-spot I have for the city.  There are plenty of wonderful things about the town, it just takes a little more work to uncover them than some other places.  Granted, everything is spread out all over the place and you have to get in a car and drive (sometimes for quite a while) to get from one thing to the next - but this is the Motor City after all.  I do fear for the city, however, in the current economic times.  Times are tough everywhere, but Detroit is obviously taking a beating.  I'm hopeful, though, that Detroit can weather the storm and emerge stronger for it.

Some extra pics:

I made a pilgrimage to "the corner of Michigan and Trumbull", as Ernie Harwell always used to identify the place, to visit the origination of my fascination with baseball.  I remember several games with my family when the tickets were bought as Fathers' Day gifts for my Grandpa and watching my brother pick out batting helmets for his collection from the vendors around Tiger Stadium.  It hurts my heart that the Tigers have moved out (especially since so many new ballparks have features lifted from this great old park - Citifield, the Met's new home, has a rightfield corner lifted straight from Tiger Stadium), but I'm glad an effort's being made to preserve the park.  The oldest sections of the grandstand (some from when it was Navin Field) have been spared the wrecking ball and will see use for high school play-offs and the like.

Strangely, I did a lot of bowling in Detroit.  In addition to the Garden Bowl adventure, Paula arranged a Spamily bowling night.

Take a showgirl bowling...
(Another of Francesca's amazing snaps)