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Explore our roots through theatre, film

May 31, 2008
Readers who missed last November’s presentation of Sam Paladino’s extensive memories of Jamestown’s history will get another chance on June 6. That evening, at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, Paladino will narrate an enlarged version of last November’s Theatrical History of Jamestown. It begins at 8 p.m.

The event has been scripted by Paladino, of course, and by David Schein, executive director of the Arts Council for Chautauqua County. The set was designed by Anita Paladino.

Last fall, Paladino told his audience he first stepped onto a stage in grade 4 back in the 1930s, when he performed a Russian dance with his elementary school class. For more than 70 years, he has rarely been very far from a stage, whether as an actor, narrator, master of ceremonies or jazz clarinetist.

Tickets for the event are $10 per person or $15 for a couple. Students pay half price. Small children pay nothing at all. Also getting in free will be volunteers for and members of the Reg Lenna Civic Center. To reserve tickets or for more information about the performance, phone 484-7070 or go to

I recently spent an afternoon with Paladino, hearing both his memories and evaluation of them. It was an event I could have prolonged for a very long time, had common sense not intervened. I want to give you a taste of what Paladino has to offer without stealing the thunder of his presentation. So, let’s talk a while about Paladino, and then I’ll tell you about an extraordinary film I saw recently.

Jamestown, once

upon a time

Paladino has lived in Jamestown for nearly all of his long life, but his memories go beyond that. He remembers stories told to him by people who were old when he was a young child.

Most people in Jamestown know that our community was founded by James Prendergast. Paladino was told that Prendergast first came to the area in 1820, searching for two lost horses. Finding the flat land along the Chadakoin River to be an appealing site, he built a small cabin. Eventually his brother came to the area, and the two built a saw mill operated by the river.

Soon, wheat was growing where Brooklyn Square is now located. English settlers followed, then Swedes, then Italians, then Jews, then Albanians, then Blacks, then Hispanics.

In my experience, few residents of the city know that the James Prendergast Library was not named for our city’s founder. It was built on the orders of Mary Prendergast, the founder’s daughter-in-law. She paid for the impressive stone building and donated the beautiful 19th century paintings which are displayed in the library’s Fireplace Room.

She named the library for her son, also James Prendergast, who died in his 20s. If you’ve ever noted the similarities between the library and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, she also paid for the present church building to be built by the same architect.

Paladino remembers how the Broadhead family built several industries in our town, and that they were instrumental in connecting Jamestown to the railroad and building the famous streetcars which once carried passengers from Falconer to Lakewood, while another line traveled from Jamestown to Westfield along the north and east shores of Lake Chautauqua.

There was a day when Jamestown boasted 13 theaters, where the public could see all kinds of performances, from Shakespeare to vaudeville. If that didn’t keep them busy, they could take a streetcar to theaters in Bemus Point and on Long Point, as well as the famed 6,000-seat performance venue at Celoron Amusement Park.

In winter, they flooded the Celoron site so people could ice skate, Paladino remembers.

The actor remembers playing as a child in the Broadhead Brickyards along the Chadakoin. In those days, if a child fell and hurt himself, his parents told him he should be more careful. They didn’t sue someone because bricks are hard, and if you fall on them, you hurt yourself. Most of the bricks to be found in our famed brick streets were made in those yards.

There was a day when the downtown Jamestown Commercial District stretched from the present-day site of Jamestown High School to the Third Street Bridge, on both Second and Third streets, and also along most of Fourth Street, as well as the cross streets running among them.

It hasn’t been so long since you could have bought shoes, women’s clothing, chemically treated paper for photographs, pianos, the mechanism which enabled pilots to eject from damaged aircraft, and an astonishing list of other products, all of them made in Jamestown. There are products made in Jamestown that are now located in the Statue of Liberty, in the Washington Monument, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house named ‘‘Falling Water’’ and in the White House.

The Humphrey House, one of the biggest hotels in the area, had a restaurant which could seat more than 100 diners, including balconies and private dining rooms where business of all kinds could be discussed. It was located near the headquarters of the Salvation Army in Brooklyn Square.

Paladino remembers Lucille Ball herself, and was friends with some of the people with whom she corresponded and talked with on the phone for her entire life.

You can learn a great deal about our community and the surrounding area, and you can hear Paladino’s views of how so much of it came to be lost, next Friday at the Civic Center. It’s a great way to spend an evening, and I recommend it to you heartily.

Across the Universe

I recently had another, very different, encounter with the past, in the form of a film available on DVD. It’s called ‘‘Across the Universe,’’ and it was the creation of famed director and puppeteer Julie Taymor, whose inspired production of ‘‘The Lion King’’ has revolutionized Broadway shows.

Anyone who lived through the late 1960s and early 1970s will find this film of interest. Anyone who didn’t, but who wants to catch the sense of that period, will find it worthwhile.

I was talking to a college classmate not long ago. He had invested a considerable amount of money in purchasing a series of recordings of the complete works of the Beatles, whose music served as the soundtrack for our lives in those radical days. He admitted he found the recordings disappointing.

When we attend concerts or plays, we bring to the theater, hidden in our heads, a vast jungle of experiences, thoughts, ideas, understandings, expectations and more. Young people who have lived only a short while and whose experiences are often limited love music which reminds them of the first time they fell in love, the first time they headed off on their own, and similar, very important rites of passage in our lives.

This is why the World War II generation tends to still love the Big Band Sound, while the Baby Boomers have a soft spot in their hearts for the Beatles and the early Rolling Stones, while Generation X may thrill to disco or to punk rock.

‘‘Across the Universe’’ was created by Taymor, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais from the words of 33 of the Beatles’ songs. They use many of the techniques of filmmaking which were so prevalent in the Beatles period, but they use the latest and most sophisticated of contemporary filmmaking.

If that sounds like an oxymoron, imagine the psychedelic interludes which were once written into virtually every film from that period, but in which computer generation makes the soaring images and the melding of one image into another so much more sophisticated than was remotely possible in those days.

They also have all 33 songs, performed by contemporary singers, nearly always the ones we see moving their mouths on the screen, using more contemporary musical techniques. When an actor sings ‘‘All You Need Is Love,’’ for example, the instrumental accompaniment doesn’t make the ‘‘Ruh-ta-Da-ta-Da’’ riff which we tend to associate with that song following those exact words.

The plot involves a young man from Liverpool, England, which was, of course, the home of the Beatles. His name is Jude. (Hey, Jude.) Jude is portrayed by British actor James Sturgess, who resembles very much the young Paul McCartney.

We learn that he is the product of a World War II liaison between an American serviceman and an English woman, after which the American abandoned wife and son and returned to the States. Jude sets off to find him, bearing only an address in Princeton, N.J.

He arrives at Princeton, assuming that his father is a professor at the famed university there, but quickly learns his father is a maintenance man on campus. While in Princeton, he meets a mischievous, wealthy young student — Max — and helps him avoid some frat boys who are hoping to do some serious damage.

Max invites Jude home for Thanksgiving, where he meets Max’s younger sister, Lucy. Soon the trio moves into nearby New York City, where they rent two rooms in a huge apartment owned by a singer named Sadie. Much of this is done to early Beatles music, back when all they wanted to do was to hold your hand.

Once they’re in New York, Lucy’s boyfriend is killed in Vietnam, Max is drafted and sent into the war, Sadie’s boyfriend’s younger brother is shot by police during the Detroit race riots, and gradually the sweet, rather simple view of the world with which they began the film, is shattered. The principal actors are nearly all relative unknowns, who are very attractive and extremely good singers. The one relatively well-known name is Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Lucy. She sings with a pure, delicate soprano which brought back memories of Judy Collins and Michelle Phillips from the recordings of those days.

Others are Joe Anderson as Max, Dana Fuchs as Sadie, Martin Luther McCoy as Sadie’s boyfriend, Jojo, and T.V. Carpio as Prudence, who also lives in Sadie’s apartment. Fuchs was reviewed in these pages when she performed ‘‘Love, Janis,’’ the off-Broadway biography of singer Janis Joplin, and she sound so much like Joplin it brought shivers.

McCoy looks very much like Jimi Hendrix and sounds like him, too.

The film is packed with cameos by famed actors and especially rockers of the 60s. Doesn’t that street person who grabs Jojo to prevent his being hit by a car look a lot like Joe Cocker? And then he starts to sing, and we know for sure.

Bono plays the mystery figure who lures the cast off on a magical mystery tour, Eddie Izzard is the curious Mr. Kite who runs a circus with giant, dancing blue fingers, and Salma Hayek is all of the many gorgeous nurses who roam though the dreams of Max as he recovers from his war wounds in a hospital.

If you attended the theater at Chautauqua Institution in 2006, you will recognize Dylan Baker, who plays Max and Lucy’s father.

Great art isn’t great because it shows something. It’s great because it evokes in the observer the feelings and ideas and memories which have been living in them, often sub-consciously. The Parthenon, for example, doesn’t have perfectly linear walls, because an optical illusion makes a perfect line look bowed. The Parthenon has bowed lines, which the optical illusion makes appear perfectly linear.

If the late 1960s and early 1970s don’t mean anything to you, you may enjoy the music in this movie, but it will probably leave you feeling confused and as though you’ve missed something.

If that period is a part of your life, both the things which happen in the film and the things which are seen in the background, mentioned in passing, etc., will set you rocking and rolling. Speaking only for myself, I loved it.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
Sam Paladino will perform “A Theatrical History of Jamestown.”



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