Monday, November 30, 2009

'Show Boat' Weighs Anchor at Signature Theatre

This review of Signature Theatre's new production of Show Boat is scheduled to run in next Friday's edition of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia.

Signature Launches Show Boat
American Musical Theatre Classic in Fit Form in Arlington
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

It seems to be Edna Ferber’s year at Signature Theatre. Late last season, the company offered the world premiere of a new musical adaptation of Ferber’s Giant (Perennial Classics), with a score by Michael John LaChiusa. Signature is currently presenting the Kern-Hammerstein adaptation of Ferber’s 1926 novel, Show Boat. (If anyone at Signature is looking to musicalize Ferber’s Come and Get It, I know the president of the local historical society in Iron County, Wisconsin, the place where that book is set and where Ferber wrote it.) Like Giant, Show Boat has a sprawling story and only a couple of hours in which to tell it.

In his 1997 book, Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim, Geoffrey Block notes:

“By virtually any criteria, Show Boat marks a major milestone in the history of the American musical and has long since become the first Broadway show to be enshrined in the musical theater museum.”

A page or so later, Block adds:

“Beginning in the late 1960s historians would almost invariably emphasize Show Boat’s unprecedented integration of music and drama, its three-dimensional characters, and its bold and serious subject matter, including miscegenation and unhappy marriages.”

He also says that, “For the many who judge a show by how many songs they can hum or whistle when they leave (or enter) the theater, Show Boat offered ‘at least’ an unprecedented six song hits for the ages; moreover, nearly all of these songs according to [the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians], ‘are integral to the characterization and story.’”

It was no accident, one might conclude, that Ethan Mordden chose Make Believe as the title of his history of the Broadway musical in the 1920s, also published in 1997 and part of his multi-volume chronicle of Broadway through the 20th century, since “Make Believe” is perhaps the biggest of the hit songs from Show Boat, in addition to such (now) standards as “Bill,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the sonorous, haunting “Ol’ Man River.”

Mordden writes of the show’s opening on Broadway almost exactly 82 years ago, just a few weeks after it had had its first tryout at the National Theatre here in Washington:

“The piece opened at the Ziegfeld on December 27, 1927, to almost unanimous acclaim as the Awesome Musical. ‘A work of genius,’ Robert Coleman called it in the Daily Mirror. It ‘shows that managers have not until now realized the tremendous possibilities of the musical comedy as an art form.’ Variety’s Abel Green, while praising the work, completely misunderstood its revolutionary nature: ‘Meaty and gripping, rich with plot and character, it’s almost a pity that the novel wasn’t dramatized “straight,” sans the musical setting.” Is he kidding? The point isn’t that the subject was too busy for a musical but that musicals had been getting by on thin subject matter. Show Boat was a wake-up call.”

Mordden and Block both describe the many (per)mutations of Show Boat, from its first revivals, in 1931 and 1946, through its three movie versions (1929, 1936, and 1951), through its most recent major recording and revival (by EMI and Hal Prince, respectively, in both cases trying to be “definitive”).

This all brings us to the Signature Theatre in Arlington, where artistic director Eric Schaeffer has directed a slimmed-down yet tonally ambitious revival that incorporates some but not all of the additions that date to the discovery, in the late 1970s, of musical numbers and scenes that had been dropped from the original Broadway production and were not used until the Houston Grand Opera’s 1983 groundbreaker.

Schaeffer has assembled a cast of actors who are almost uniquely suited to the roles they play. Will Gartshore was born to play Gaylord Ravenal, a man of questionable virtue but unquestionable charm. Harry A. Winter must have been waiting years for a chance to play Cap’n Andy and his tour-de-force set piece toward the end of Act One, when he gets to play all the parts in “The Village Drunkard,” a play-within-a-play. And could Terry Burrell have asked for a better opportunity than to play Julie, the mulatto whose life is ruined by the race-based legal structure of the Deep South?

Burrell rapturously captures the soul of Julie in her stunning rendition of “Bill,” the song made famous by Helen Morgan in the original Show Boat cast. Burrell starts the song with indifference – singing it is just a job for her – but adds layer upon layer of despair and irony as the number continues. By the time she is finished, both she and the audience are emotionally twisted. That she then sacrifices herself, quietly and anonymously helping her old friend, Magnolia, adds even more weight to the moment.

After so much time since it first opened, the story of Show Boat is well-known. Edna Ferber’s novel spanned more than five decades of American history with a focus on one family and the people they knew. On the surface, it is the story of Magnolia (Stephanie Waters), the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy (Kimberly Schraf), and her husband, Gaylord Ravenal. This summary, however, sells Show Boat short. Mordden explains:

“This magnificent omnium-gatherum is – or was – a kind of container of everything that American show biz thought important in 1927. It was story-vaudeville, the comic operetta, the musical comedy. It’s not a tragedy, it’s a backstager. And it’s not Magnolia’s story; it’s America’s.”

Yet after more than eight decades, Show Boat still exercises power in its portrayal of racial prejudice and the “separate-but-equal” mentality that ruled during the 1880s through the 1920s, the period the show takes place. Joe (VaShawn McIlwain) sings, “Ol’ Man River,” the musical glue that holds the show together, with a somberness and vibrato that emphasize the burden that he and the other “colored folk” (as the modernized lyric has it – the original used a more degrading epithet that begins with “N”) must bear while “the white folk play.”

Show Boat is a kind of Russian nesting doll of musical Americana. Jerome Kern’s music is a compilation of operetta, ragtime, “coon songs” (or minstrelsy), jazz, and what we would now call Broadway standards. There are ballads, love songs, dance numbers, and comic turns. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics – keep in mind, he was just 28 years old when he wrote and directed Show Boat – nestle snugly with the musical shape that Kern gives the piece.

(There is a story told, perhaps apocryphal, that at a stuffy New York cocktail party sometime in the 1940s, Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein overheard someone say that “Jerome Kern wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’” She interrupted and stated, perhaps a bit too haughtily, “Jerome Kern did not write ‘Ol’ Man River’; he wrote ‘da-da-DA-dum.’ My husband wrote ‘ol’ man river’!”)

Schaeffer wisely compresses some of the action in the second act (he drops, as Hammerstein did in 1927, “It’s Getting Hotter in the North,” a number for Gaylord and Magnolia’s daughter, Kim) to bring us to a conclusion that has always seemed a bit contrived: the reunion of Magnolia and Gaylord after 23 years of separation. (Ferber avoided this contrivance by killing Gaylord off before the book’s end.) Still, the raw sentimentality of this moment cannot be denied, and Schaeffer helps us hurry toward it.

Throughout the show, Schaeffer balances the melodramatic with the comic, the dramatic with the musical. Rapid scene changes, projections to let us know when and where the action is taking place, and a bare minimum of props and furniture – all keep the show moving so that when thing slow down, it is for a purpose, and all just so.

Even if one finds Show Boat’s libretto a bit creaky and, as noted above, contrived, the music alone is worth a visit to Signature Theatre. Not only the principals – I left out Bobby Smith and Sandy Bainum as Frank and Ellie, and Delores King Williams, whose Queenie’s stability holds the Show Boat family together despite rocky shoals along that river – but the chorus and orchestra bring (pardon the pun) just the right notes to the evening’s entertainment.

Show Boat continues its run through January 17, 2010. Take advantage of the opportunity to see an American classic on stage.

Show Boat, music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, runs through January 17, 2010, in The MAX at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia 22206. No performances on December 25 or January 1. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Added performances on Monday, December 21, at 7:30 p.m. and Monday, December 28, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $52 to $76 and are available through Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting

Production photos courtesy of Signature Theatre; photo credit: Chris Mueller.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Congressman Rob Wittman at Blogs United

Anticipating by just a couple of hours the appearance of two potential opponents at the Blogs United conference last weekend, U.S. Representative Rob Wittman gave a well-tailored presentation about the "new media" and politics to the participants, who were mostly bloggers and political activists. Wittman represents Virginia's first congressional district, which stretches from the Hampton Roads area in the south to Fredericksburg and its suburbs in the north.

As noted by Anita Kumar of The Washington Post, Wittman is a member of the Republican New Media Caucus.

Wittman spoke for about 20 minutes, followed by about 15 minutes of questions-and-answers with the audience. The video recording of his remarks (including the Q&A) is divided into five segments on YouTube.

In Part I, Congressman Wittman is introduced by J.R. Hoeft of Bearing Drift:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part V (Conclusion):

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Journalists' Panel at Blogs United

Political candidates were not the only special guests at the Blogs United conference held at Christopher Newport University in Newport News last weekend.

Blogs United organizers also invited some journalists who cover Virginia politics for established news media outlets and who also blog as part of their jobs.

The participants in this lively panel discussion, which lasted for almost a full hour on the morning of November 21, were Anita Kumar of the Washington Post, Ryan Nobles of NBC12 in Richmond, Kimball Payne of the Hampton Roads Daily Press, and Julian Walker of the Virginian-Pilot.

In fact, Walker wrote about Blogs United on his own "Pilot on Politics" blog after returning from the conference:

In a role reversal of sorts, bloggers from across the ideological spectrum quizzed a panel of state government reporters who also blog: Anita Kumar of The Washington Post, Kimball Payne of the Daily Press, Ryan Nobles of NBC12 in Richmond and this Virginian-Pilot scribe.

Among the bloggers lobbing questions during a lively, engaging back-and-forth at Christopher Newport University were J.R. Hoeft and Brian Kirwin from Bearing Drift, Vivian Paige, Shaun Kenney, Lauren Victoria Burke at Crew of 42 and Article XI's Eileen Levandoski.

For her part, Anita Kumar wrote on the Post's "Virginia Politics Blog":

Did you know there's a Republican New Media Caucus in Congress? Neither did we.

But one of the group's chairmen -- Virginia's own U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R) -- was on hand to speak to dozens of bloggers today at the Blogs United conference at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

I'll be posting the video of Congressman Wittman's remarks soon. For now, however, we can look at the video of the panel discussion featuring the journalists/bloggers. It is divided into eight segments.

The four panelists are introduced by blogger Vivian Paige in Part I:

The conversation continues in Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part V:

Part VI:

Part VII:

The final segment is introduced with a question from newly elected Fluvanna County Supervisor Shaun Kenney, who also has a well-known blog. In Part VIII, Kenney asks about the Washington Post's nearly unique emphasis in covering gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell's graduate-school thesis:

More video from the 2009 Blogs United conference will follow.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Asking for Whom the Bell Tolls?

Forget about the sacking of its top three business-side executives, or the "resignations" of executive editor John Solomon and editorial page editor Richard Miniter.

If you want the strongest sign that The Washington Times is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, consider this: The paper has dropped its comics page, which has not appeared in the past two days.

When a whole section of a newspaper disappears without comment, you know that trouble is at hand.

At least Mallard Fillmore -- which, oddly enough, started at the Daily Progress in liberal Charlottesville -- remains on page A2 of the Times.

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Candidates Speak at Blogs United Conference

Blogs United, a bipartisan group of Virginia political bloggers from throughout the Commonwealth, gathered in Newport News last weekend to talk about blogging ethics, legal matters, new media, technology, and politics. About three dozen individuals participated.

The speakers included U.S. Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA1) and eight candidates for Congress. I'll be posting video of Congressman Wittman's speech later, but I have already uploaded the eight people who seek to join -- or unseat -- him to YouTube.

The eight come from four different districts -- the First, Second, Third, and Fifth. Here they are, in district numerical order.

From the First District came Democratic candidates Scott Robinson and Krystal Ball, who are seeking their party's nomination to challenge Congressman Wittman in the 2010 general election:

From the Second District, there are four potential Republican challengers to incumbent Representative Glenn Nye: Scott Rigell, Ben Loyola, Kenny Golden, and Scott Taylor:

In the Third District, Coby Dillard is seeking the Republican nomination to face incumbent Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA):

Finally, in the Fifth District, Michael McPadden is one of six or seven potential Republican challengers seeking to face off against incumbent Representative Tom Perriello (R-VA5):

For more information about Blogs United, check out its web site (a blog, naturally) and its Facebook group.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Books and Authors on Tape

On Tuesday evening, I -- along with hordes of other readers and booklovers -- attended the National Press Club’s 32nd Annual Book Fair and Authors’ Night in Washington. I ended up spending almost $200 on books (some for me, some for gifts) but, even better, I was able to speak with some of the authors and get a few of them on videotape.

I told former National Press Club president Frank Aukofer that I had already read his book, Never a Slow Day: Adventures of a 20th Century Newspaper Reporter, and that I enjoyed it enough that I would like to purchase a new copy with his autograph in it.

In the course of our conversation, I noted our shared history of growing up in Milwaukee. Aukofer is year younger than my father would be, and the two of them lived within about 10 blocks of each other as children, though they attended different schools and had very different careers.

Like me, Aukofer became a transplant from Milwaukee to Washington, where he eventually became bureau chief of The Milwaukee Journal (before it merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel to create a single morning daily and end one of the last afternoon dailies in the country). I mentioned that I live in Charlottesville, and he said his "little sister" lives there, too. It was not until that "V8 moment" that I put two and two together and realized that he meant Claire Aukofer, the theatre critic for the Daily Progress. (I should have figured it out a long time ago, having known that Claire Aukofer attended UWM [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee], but I simply never made the connection.)

In any case, here is what Frank Aukofer has to say about his memoir:

Speaking about shared histories, I surprised linguist Deborah Tannen when I told her I had read her first book. She thought I meant, That's Not What I Meant!, when in fact I was referring to the book based on her dissertation, Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends. She seemed shocked when I mentioned that I had seen a play, loosely based on that latter book, when it was performed at the Kennedy Center's College Theatre Festival almost 25 years ago.

Tannen was at the National Press Club with her latest book, You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives. In this brief video, she lists her books and the trajectory they took from topic to topic.

One of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman is author (with Joshua Green) of The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works. Here he gives a brief description of the book, and comments on my left-field question about how today's Congress compares to that of the time of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Writing about the third branch of government, legal correspondent Joan Biskupic took some time to chat about her new book, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Of course, I had to talk to somebody about a representative of the second branch, so I found two.

First, historian Harlow Giles Unger has written a book about our neighbor from Ash Lawn-Highland called The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness. Here's what he said:

At the other end of the timeline, veteran journalist Haynes Johnson has written a new book (with Dan Balz) about the election of Barack Obama. It's called The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election and this is what Johnson had to say about it:

Going back much further in history, James Reston, Jr., has written four books -- he calls them a "quartet," I'd call them a tetralogy -- about the clash between Islam and Christianity in the Middle Ages. His latest book, Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536, was on display.

I asked Reston to describe the sequence of the four books.

After I turned off the camera -- and I am sorry I did that! -- we chatted briefly about what Reston thought about Frost/Nixon, the Peter Morgan play and Ron Howard movie adaptation in which he is a major character. (In real life, James Reston, Jr., was a researcher for David Frost in the months leading up to the famous series of interviews with disgraced President Richard Nixon.) He said both the play and the movie were great experiences for him.

When Richard Nixon resigned, he probably could have used advice about finding a new job. Perhaps he would have found it in a new book by Brad and Debra Shepp called How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Other Social Networks. Here's what the pair of authors had to say:

Finally, in what is probably the shortest clip I got over the course of the evening -- but no less entertaining for its terse nature -- pundit Ann Coulter offered a few words (including the words "George Soros") to persuade people to read her book, Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America. Coulter was signing hardbacks as well as the paperback edition of Guilty, which just came out on November 10.

See her comments for yourself:

There were many other authors at the National Press Club last night, and I wish I could have met and interviewed them all, but I feel satisfied in what I was able to obtain over the course of about 90 minutes of wandering through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sagal and Ferguson on the 'Real America'

Peter Sagal, host of NPR's weekly quiz show, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, was a guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS-TV on its Friday the 13th episode. During the interview, both Ferguson and Sagal had good things to say about my hometown, Milwaukee, and about the Midwest in general. The sequence began with Ferguson asking Sagal about the home base for Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, the City That Ferris Bueller Made Famous:

FERGUSON: But you like Chicago?

SAGAL: Oh, I love Chicago. Illinois is fabulous.

FERGUSON: Do you ever go north?

SAGAL: (startled) To Wisconsin?....

FERGUSON: Do you ever go up to Milwaukee, for example?

SAGAL: Milwaukee's a great town.

FERGUSON: I like that city.

SAGAL: Milwaukee's a great city, very good for sausages and beer,

(audience titters)

SAGAL: It's true.

(audience titters)

SAGAL: They'll laugh at anything.

FERGUSON: That's why they're here; that's what they're paid for....

SAGAL: Milwaukee's a great town. As you know (leaning in), because you're an American, that the Midwest is America. This is where America is -- processed meats, tasteless beer. This is where it comes from.

FERGUSON: I don't know. There are other parts of America, like New Orleans is America, the Pacific Northwest. Where's not America, clearly, is Los Angeles.
At the end of the interview, Ferguson and Sagal agreed to "trade places, like The Prince and the Pauper," with each hosting the other's show.

While the suggestion may have been made in jest, as it was sealed with a handshake, I would not be surprised to see, sometime in the not-too-distant future, Peter Sagal sitting behind Craig Ferguson's desk one night and Ferguson standing at Sagal's podium at the Chase Auditorium, posing questions to panelists like Mo Rocca, Amy Dickinson, and Paula Poundstone.

Will NPR and CBS accede to the experiment? Stay tuned.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Video of 'Locked Out' Panel Discussion

A powerful documentary film, a joint project of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the Community Idea Stations (public television in Virginia), had its theatrical premiere at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on Saturday, November 7.

Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance
tells the story of a shameful chapter in Virginia history, when the Byrd Machine, Governor Lindsay Almond, the General Assembly, and local officials colluded to close down the government schools rather than permit them to be desegregated. Instead of ending Virginia's tradition of segregating schools according to racial classifications -- one school here for Negroes, another school there for whites -- the state's elites decided to close the schools altogether and prohibited the election of school boards by the people.

The film tells the story in the words of the African-American students who lived through the process of desegregation in several Virginia localities: Arlington, Prince Edward, and Warren counties and the cities of Charlottesville and Norfolk.

The one-hour documentary, which is studded with archival film and video footage as well as photographs and recently completed interviews with participants, marks the 50th anniversary of Massive Resistance, which began -- and, in most places, ended -- in 1959. (The holdout was Prince Edward County, where schools remained closed until 1964, resulting in 10- and 11-year-old pupils sharing classrooms with 5- and 6-year-old first-graders.)

After a screening for a sold-out audience in the Culbreth Theatre on the grounds of the University of Virginia, Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics moderated a panel discussion that included the documentary's director, Mason Mills, as well as former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, who had become the nation's first elected African-American governor precisely 20 years before, on November 7, 1989.

Other panelists were students who suffered under Massive Resistance and whose interviews are included in Locked Out: Rita Moseley of Prince Edward, Donald Martin of Charlottesville, Michael Jones of Arlington, Delores Brown of Norfolk, and Faye Coleman Hoes of Warren County.

Before the film was projected, Larry Sabato introduced it.

After the film was screened, Sabato assembled the panelists and posed a few questions. Later, he opened up the floor to questions and comments from the audience.

Panel Part I:

Panel Part II:

Panel Part III:

Panel Part IV:

Panel Part V (Conclusion):

In that last segment, Sabato urges the audience to visit the Center for Politics web site and click on its Youth Leadership Initiative, to help the Center raise funds to distribute copies of Locked Out via DVD to schools around the country.

Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance will have its broadcast premiere on November 16 at 9:00 p.m. on WCVE and WVPT, and it will become available nationwide on other PBS stations over the next few months.

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Photos from the 2009 Virginia Film Festival

I will be posting video a bit later. To whet your appetites, here are some photos that I shot during the 2009 Virginia Film Festival at various locations around Charlottesville.

To my disappointment, I failed to encounter cult moviemaker John Waters, who was scheduled to make three public appearances: a lecture at the UVA Arts Assembly and comments at screenings of his films Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. He didn't show up for Hairspray (which is the screening I chose to attend), causing grumbling among those who paid $15 per ticket when they could have rented the DVD for $3, but did appear at Pink Flamingos later Friday night.

Celebrities I did catch up with included Matthew Broderick, who discussed two of his films at the Culbreth and surprised fans at the UVA Amphitheatre after a screening for students of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, directors Norman Jewison and Hugh Wilson, and former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder.

Sparsely attended was a rare gem of a film, Gabriel Over the White House, which is said to have been a favorite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I would call it "FDR's fascist fantasy film," because it is about a U.S. President (played by Walter Huston) who assumes dictatorial powers in order to end the Great Depression and ends up bullying Congress and threatening foreign nations in order to get them to sign a treaty he favors. Huston's Jud Hammond resembles Hitler more than Roosevelt, and the film's release date (1933) is a sad reminder that what happened that decade in Germany could also have happened here.

After being out of circulation for several decades, Gabriel Over the White House is now available on DVD. No matter what, we must make sure that this movie does not get shown to the current occupants of the White House. (Oddly, one of the presidential aides in the film bears an eerie resemblance to Rahm Emanuel.) We don't want to give them any more sinister ideas than they already have.

The Regal Cinemas in downtown Charlottesville hosted the "fesital" along with other venues

This year's festival had an expanded "family day" schedule at the Paramount downtown

Director Norman Jewison spoke at two film festival events; here he is discussing The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

TV and Internet horror-show host Count Gore De Vol attended a screening of the new documentary, Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion, at Vinegar Hill

On the 20th anniversary of his election as Governor of Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder met Virginia Film Festival director Jody Kielbasa, prior to speaking on a panel about the new public television documentary, Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance

Some artifacts of Massive Resistance

Screenwriter Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnati, introduced his 1984 film, Police Academy, in Newcomb Hall

Matthew Broderick, in the lobby of the Culbreth Theatre, after a screening of Election

Matthew Broderick with Josh Goldin, director of the new film, Wonderful World, and producer Glenn Williamson

For a good summary of the festival's four days, see Lisa Provence's report in The Hook.

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