Sunday, March 9, 2014

Walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963

DALLAS, TEXAS – When I arrived at my room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas this past February for the annual BBYO International Convention, the first thing I did (which has been customary with me every time I enter a hotel room that I plan to stay at for the first time), I always check out the view from the window of my room.

This time, the view was -- to say the least -- quite historical. It practically overlooked Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. These two sites’ notoriety are well known and are forever associated with one of the most jarring tragedies not only in modern U.S. history, but also modern history in general: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

A couple of days later, I had a couple of hours of free time, so I decided to walk the short distance between the hotel and Dealey Plaza and take a few pictures. If I was in awe that my hotel room overlooked this historical sight, the feeling increased tenfold as I made my way towards the area. Although Elm Street is still a busy thoroughfare in downtown Dallas with a steady stream of automobile traffic going through the street, the area between the Texas School Book Depository building and the overpass near the Stemmons Freeway also sees a steady stream of tourists, who treat it as a historic shrine to the six seconds when a country lost its innocence. I couldn’t help but get a very hushed feeling, as I looked up at the book depository building and saw the sixth floor perch where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the shots from his rifle, or stand on the Grassy Knoll (pictured above), or practically stand on the spot where Abraham Zapruder filmed the most notorious home movie in history, and gaze upon the “X” in the middle of Elm Street that marked where the fatal third bullet hit Kennedy (pictured below left), without having the black and white footage of the tragedy play in my head. Indeed, I was walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963. I have read my share of books about JFK and the assassination, and have seen the Zapruder film and the countless hours of black and white footage of the on-the-spot news coverage (including Walter Cronkite's moment when he choked up after officially announcing Kennedy's death), but when you see it up close and personal in living colour right in front of your face, the impact is still there as if you were actually standing along the motorcade route during that fateful Friday at 12:30 p.m.
The following Sunday morning, I was fortunate enough to be one of the group of selected BBYO adult staffers to escort a group of BBYO teens to the Dealey Plaza area as part of a day-long activity where many of the teens had the chance to do a little sight seeing at several of Dallas’ best known landmarks. Our group had the chance to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which now occupies the old Texas School Book Depository building. Since its dedication 25 years ago, the museum attracts 350,000 curious visitors every year, who want to personally experience up close and personal not only the assassination of JFK, but also the historical legacy of his brief 1,000-day presidency.

Unfortunately, photography any kind is not permitted on the sixth floor of the museum, where the permanent exhibition is displayed; however, it is allowed outside the building and on the seventh floor, where visitors can take a picture of the assassin’s view of Dealey Plaza … only one floor up from Oswald’s box-laden perch, which is encased in Lucite. Each visitor is given a complimentary audio guide; narrated by veteran Dallas radio reporter Pierce Allman (who was one of the first journalists to report about the assassination of JFK from inside the book depository), the audio guide is an effective, informative tool that directs the visitor through the permanent exhibition in order to get the full story of JFK, his presidency, the era that ushered in the “New Frontier”, the tense atmosphere in Dallas before the assassination, as well as the assassination itself and its controversial aftermath. Besides Allman’s excellent narration, the audio guide also gives plenty of eyewitness testimonies of people who were involved in the Kennedy administration, as well as those who witnessed the tragedy when Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.
But perhaps what makes the permanent exhibition so compelling to visit is the vast collection of artifacts that are on display that play a silent witness to the Kennedy assassination. There’s a copy of the home movie camera that Abraham Zapruder used to film the assassination (the actual camera is stored in the National Archives in Washington); the first wire copy bulletin to report the shooting; one of the actual table settings from the Trade Mart luncheon that Kennedy was supposed to attend that afternoon; the $12.78 Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle that was used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy (which is displayed on the exact spot where it was discovered by Dallas police Lieutenant J.C. Day); the actual suit, Stetson hat and pair of handcuffs worn by Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby (Leavelle was part of the notorious Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of the shooting; he was on the left side of the photo); and the expansive model mock-up of Dealey Plaza that was used extensively by the Warren Commission during its 1964 investigation of the assassination (pictured above is the original enamelled metal sign of the Texas School Book Depository that was above the Elm Street entrance of the building).

Of course, one’s fascination with JFK and the assassination gets ratcheted up a few levels after visiting the exhibition on the sixth floor. And the excellent gift shop/bookstore located on the museum’s street level helps foster that interest even further. It sells an excellent selection of books and publications that deal with Kennedy’s life, presidency and legacy (including such best selling titles as Arthur Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days”, Theodore Sorenson’s 1965 biography “Kennedy” and JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage”). There’s also a wide selection of books that deal primarily with the assassination, the conspiracy theories and about the museum itself (I chose its excellent illustrated guide book and the story behind the making of the Sixth Floor Museum called “Assassination and Commemoration”, which will be the subject of a future Book Banter review). There are also complete reproductions of several American newspapers from November 23, 1963, and the usual assortment of souvenirs and collectables relating to JFK (including a full-scale reproduction of his famous rocking chair, which can be purchased for about $400).

Also, here is a something to take note of when you visit Dealey Plaza. Throughout the area, there are several roaming vendors who are willing to give you a quick lesson on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. And if you’re convinced (or not), they sell copies of a privately-published illustrated historical journal ($5 each) that expands upon those theories, as well as a companion DVD. Being the tourist (and history buff) that I am, I decided to purchase the journal, which I added to my JFK library.

Visiting the Dealy Plaza area and the Sixth Floor Museum is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience which is almost like walking on historical hallowed ground. As you immerse yourself in this nationally recognized historical landmark, you get a mixed feeling of awe and sadness at how this somewhat tranquil part of Dallas set the stage for the turmoil that was to mark the rest of the 60s which forever burned in the conscience of the Baby Boomer generation and subsequent generations around the world. And it all happened with only three shots in six seconds on a sunny Friday afternoon in late November of 1963.

For more information about the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, go to their website at

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Meeting a True "Survivor" -- Ethan Zohn

DALLAS, TEXAS -- During the first seven or eight seasons of the pioneering CBS reality series “Survivor”, I was an avid watcher of the show, as I eagerly awaited the next installment every Thursday night to find out how the castaways fared in their exotic locale, as they tried to obtain immunity, not get voted out of their tribe, and win the title of “Sole Survivor” and get $1 million for their troubles.

Ethan Zohn, the former professional soccer player who won that title in the show’s third season “Survivor: Africa” survived the harsh, primitive conditions in Kenya, and yet never received one vote against him.

“The real challenge of ‘Survivor’ was what I would do when I suddenly won the million dollars. I wanted to be the type of person who used his celebrity in order to make a difference to others,” said Zohn, who spoke at the annual International Convention of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) last week in Dallas, Texas (that's me above, pictured with Ethan in between sessions).

During the two one-hour sessions he conducted, Zohn entertained the audience of teens and adult staff with stories of his time as a contestant on “Survivor: Africa”, in which he admitted he wasn’t prepared for the loneliness and isolation of the desert of southeastern Africa, and was guided by two principles that assured his eventual victory: be selfless in a selfish game and be a member of the community.

Zohn also spoke about how he became a survivor of another type: his two successful battles against cancer, in particular Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in which he had to endure 22 blasts of radiation treatments, four chemotherapy sessions, a new drug and a stem cell donation from his brother Lee, which helped to put his cancer in remission. “As a patient, it’s really hard to articulate what it is to be sick,” he admitted.

He also spoke about the charitable organization he founded with the $1 million he won from “Survivor”. It’s called Grassroots Soccer, and the inspiration came from a reward challenge he won with his tribe mate and alliance partner Lex, in which they went to a Kenyan village and Zohn ended up playing hackey sack with a group of children who were HIV patients at a local hospital (he ended up giving his hackey sack, which was his luxury item from the game, to one of the children).

“That was my ‘do something moment’, and from there, I decided to start this charity and help save lives,” he said. Based on that incident and his experience playing pro soccer in Zimbabwe, where bodies of HIV/AIDS victims are buried all over the streets, Grassroots Soccer trains pro soccer players from across Africa about HIV/AIDS, and in turn, through their soccer skills and what they learned from their training sessions, these players teach HIV/AIDS awareness to children across the continent, and hold charity soccer tournaments to benefit the cause.

“I was always taught to do the right thing, which is why I used the money I won on Survivor to help the disadvantaged in Africa and erase the stigma of HIV there, too,” said Zohn. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Short story collection shows another literary side to veteran Montreal TV newscaster

After It Rains by Bill Haugland (Vehicule Press, $18)

For years, Bill Haugland honed his skills as a writer and storyteller, mainly as a reporter for CFCF’s suppertime newscast “Pulse”, and later as its anchorman. However, while he became a master news storyteller, Haugland was also trying to develop his skills as a storyteller of a different nature, mainly fictional stories.

When he retired from telling new stories several years ago, Haugland decided that instead of going the traditional route of writing a trenchcoat memoir of his life as a TV newsman, he used his TV news background as a premise for a novel. In fact, he turned it into two novels about the goings on of a mythical TV news operation in Montreal during the late 60s and early 70s, Mobile 9 and The Bidding.

For his third foray into fiction writing, Haugland decided to dig through a dusty old box that was stored in his Vermont home that was filled with story ideas and short stories that were started but remained unfinished. So with a lot of discipline and his knack for telling a story, Haugland went back to many of those stories and completed them. The end result is his first short story collection After it Rains.

The book is a collection of 14 short stories of varying themes and narratives that don’t solely rely on his past experiences in TV news. In fact, it deals with several examples of the human experience, whether it be realistic, fantastic or humoristic. Haugland’s purpose in telling these stories is to show the reader what these experiences are like from the point of view of the people who are taking part in it or being affected by it.

For example, there is the experience of a quirky family planning a carrying out a bank robbery (“Family Finances”); confessing to a murder while on death row (“A Confession”); how a simple object can release a tale of survival during the Holocaust (“The Photograph”); the wild, hustle and bustle world of the TV news stringer during the late 60s (“Stringer”, in which the mythical station CKCF from Haugland’s previous two books figures prominently in this story); and how an inherited 1943 U.S. penny turns into something more for the lonely grandson whom it’s handed down to (“The Wishing Jar”).

Haugland shows that he does have the knack for crafting and developing a quite readable fictional short story. In fact, he even knows how to develop a good plot twist that will throw quite a curve to the reader. Case in point, “41 Ward B”, a story of two elderly patients who reside in the Alzheimer’s ward of a rehab center. Although their rantings and states of mind could be attributed to their deteriorating mental condition, the ending is quite surprising (for the better) and leaves the reader with a “wow!” reaction.

After it Rains is an enjoyable collection of diverse short stories from someone who spent his career telling the public true stories on a daily basis for over 40 years. And after so many years of telling the news, it’s refreshing to see that Bill Haugland can effectively craft a series of 15-20 page works of fiction. Basically, he just cemented his new career as a writer of good fiction. Hopefully, the trenchcoat memoir won’t be so far behind, too.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"American Idiot" A Raw, Energetic Production

The Evenko group got 2014 off to a raw, energetic start at Place des Arts, as the national touring company of "Green Day's American Idiot" started a brief two-day, three-performance run at PDA until tomorrow (Jan. 5).

This ground-breaking, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical does for the post 9/11 generation what "Hair" did for the 60s and "Rent" did for the 90s.

Using the songs from Green Day's landmark album of the same name, the show expresses the dreams, angst and hopes of three young men during the early 2000s -- Johnny, Turry and Will -- as they trek to the big city in search of their own sense of self-menaing and fulfillment in a rather cynical, harsh world. However, their respective journeys face unexpected obstacles, mainly early parenthood, drugs and the war in Iraq.

The young ensemble cast -- who are most resplendent in their uniform of that generation (torn jeans, t-shirts and hoodies) give raw, intense performances (which are exemplified by the riveting dance numbers, which are sort of a post-9/11 equivalent to what was done in "West Side Story"). They sing and dance their hearts out as they brazenly channel the deep rooted cynicism of the youths of that period.

The audience that were present at the Saturday matinee opening performance of "American Idiot" greeted each musical number with wild enthusiasm (it even got to the point that they even wildly applauded several of the numbers after hearing the first few notes being played, which is a testament to how familiar many of the audience members are with the album). The multi-media warehouse set with the multiple video screens and flashing lights are used to its fullest extent to signify the grittiness of the post-9/11 world. And the live onstage band that provided the loud, energetic musical accompaniment was excellent; it was almost like going to a Broadway show ... and a rock concert broke out!

Also, the cast, for an encore, gave the audience a special treat, in which each member was given an acoustic guitar and harmoniously sang "Time of Your Life", which is probably Green Day's most recognized song.

Although I was never a devoted follower of Green Day and their music, after seeing "American Idiot" onstage, it effectively showed me how the 9/11 terrorist attacks deeply affected the youth of that period who tried to find their own way during a very complex time in recent history. Also, if Evenko continues to present more original, out-of-the-ordinary Broadway productions to Montreal, I look forward to see what they have in store for its theatregoers in 2014.

If you want to purchase remaining tickets for the Jan. 5 performance of "American Idiot", go to the Place des Arts box office, or online at, or

Friday, September 20, 2013

Montreal International Black Film Festival opens with tribute to Danny Glover

It was a full house at the Imperial Theatre on September 18, as the ninth edition of the Montreal International Black Film Festival kicked off in grand style with the Canadian premiere of the film “Chasing Shakespeare” and a tribute to one of the film’s stars, veteran actor Danny Glover.

Glover, who is best known for his performances in such films as “The Color Purple”, "Witness", "Grand Canyon", the HBO bio pic "Mandela"and the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, was honoured with the 2013 Humanitarian Award for his work championing civil rights, fighting apartheid in South Africa and racial profiling by taxi drivers in New York, and serving as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador focusing on poverty, disease and economic development in the Third World, and his current role as a UNICEF Ambassador.

After he was given the award by festival founder, the dynamic Fabienne Colas (pictured below on the right) and program director Emile Castonguay (pictured below on the left), the 67-year-old Glover humbly accepted the honour by stating how he was born at a time when such social justice causes as equality for women, civil rights, and rights for farm workers were beginning to flourish.

“These days, with poverty, starvation and exploitation around, it’s up to the young people to step up to the table as artists, professionals and mothers and fathers to realize the importance of their moment of history is right now,” he said. “If these problems are not reversed, the potential of humankind is in jeopardy. The work that we do now will hopefully allows us to celebrate a better world for all, and a planet that will work for all of us, for all of humanity and for all of the species.”

The tribute was followed by the premiere screening of Norry Niven’s magical, spiritual drama “Chasing Shakespeare”, which tells the story of how a 40-year romance between a Black man and a Native American women developed in Arkansas during the early 1970s, and how the young woman’s passion for the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare becomes the link that brings the pair together. The very emotional film is well complemented by strong performances by Glover and Chelsea Ricketts, who portrays the young Venus Red Hawk, whom Glover’s character eventually falls in love with and marries.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An evening with Kathleen Turner

During the final weekend of the Montreal World Film Festival, attendees got a treat on August 30 at the Imperial Theatre, when actress Kathleen Turner received the festivals Grand Prix of the Americas for lifetime achievement from festival founder Serge Losique.

In a special live tribute to Turner and her career, clips were shown from some of her best known film performances, including “Romancing the Stone”, “Body Heat”, “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. This was followed by a live interview with Turner, in which she related several interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes, including how because of an actors’ strike in the summer of 1980, the shooting of “Body Heat” was done during the winter months, and she and co-star William Hurt had to chew ice cubes in between takes, so that their breath didn’t cloud when they spoke their lines; and when she was filming “Prizzi’s Honor”, director John Huston told her that “no woman is sexy and funny at the same time.” Turner also mentioned she will be making her singing debut at the beginning of 2014 when she appears in the stage production of “Mother Courage” in Washington, D.C.

The evening also included video tributes to Turner from co-stars Danny Devito and Michael Douglas, as well as a lively 96-year-old Kirk Douglas, who related the time when they “dated” during the filming of “Romancing the Stone” on location in Mexico. And Turner’s daughter Rachel sang a song in honour of her mother that she written and composed herself especially for the occasion.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exploring the beers that made Milwaukee famous

 MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – You can’t visit Milwaukee without noticing one of the main things that have made this city famous: beer.

When you’re in its downtown core, you are bombarded with signs of the breweries that have put this city on the map, whether it be Pabst, Miller, Schlitz or any of the smaller breweries that have contributed to its brewing heritage; even its Major League Baseball team promotes that heritage, as the Brewers plays its games in the majestic Miller Park.

And there are four brewery tours in the city that offer visitors a look behind its respective sudsy history (not to mention sample its famous suds). Last month, while I was staffing a two-week BBYO youth leadership camp in nearby Mukwonago, me and my colleagues Todd and Marty spent a day off in Milwaukee. After checking out the Harley-Davidson Museum, we decided to explore how Milwaukee was also built on beer.

That’s when we checked out the site of one of Milwaukee’s oldest and best known brewers, Pabst, which was established in 1844 and is still going strong (especially with its trademark Pabst Blue Ribbon beer). Although the original Pabst brewery facility closed in 1996, the buildings that made up the Pabst brewery are still standing and have been converted into the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery.

Named after Jacob Best, Sr. and Phillip Best, who established the brewery in 1844, the Best Place is run by its chief steward Jim Haertel, who purchased the facility for $10 million and has devoted himself to preserving Pabst’s brewing legacy to Milwaukee by gradually restoring the facility to its former 1880s glory. Haertel (pictured below at left, in the middle of the old Pabst corporate office that he is in the midst of renovating) is a walking encyclopedia of brewing history, and is always seen entertaining visitors at the guest center with his vast encyclopedic knowledge (especially how Milwaukee’s brewing dynasties have deep bloodlines through marriage). I even tried to stump him about Groucho Marx’s involvement with the Pabst family in 1944 when he hosted the radio show “Blue Ribbon Town” (and got then president G.W. Pabst drunk on Miller High Life beer, thereby ending his gig as the show’s host); he then proceeded to tell me a couple of anecdotes about Groucho and “Blue Ribbon Town” that I never heard or read about before.
Haertel then gave me, Todd and Marty a private tour of the old Pabst facility and its offices, starting with Blue Ribbon Hall, a beautiful reception hall with a traditional wooden beer hall décor that can accommodate up to 300 people (and was once used to film a series of Pabst TV commercials during the 50s and 60s). When we were shown the old Pabst corporate offices, including the original company boardroom and Captain Frederick Pabst’s office (with his rolltop desk, pictured below), you could sense the ghosts of Milwaukee’s brewing tradition seeping through its walls.

One vivid example of this aspect of preserving Milwaukee’s brewing history is the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, which is located across the street from the Best Place. The most distinguishing features of this all suite hotel, which occupies the building of the original Pabst brewhouse, are the enormous copper kettles that were used to brew their beer and the stained glass murals that date back to the 1880s, which have been integrated into the hotel’s décor (both are pictured below).

And how have Haertel’s efforts to preserve Pabst’s legacy to the city of Milwaukee paid off? The Best Place and the Brewhouse Inn and Suites were both certified as historic structures by the National Register of Historic Places. Not bad for a beer that helped to make Milwaukee famous.

The Best Place also has quite an interesting souvenir shop, with everything type of memorabilia that caters to the beer lover in you. There's mugs, glasses, old fashioned beer steins, collectibles, hats, insulated bottle and can holders that extol the virtues of Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Old Milwaukee and several brands that are no longer on tap (plus t-shirts, including this one pictured below, which shows a rather interesting way to promote Pabst Blue Ribbon beer).

For more information about the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, go to; to find out more about the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, go to

Most of this posting originally appeared in the August 17, 2013 edition of The West End Times.