The New American Museum – Historic Auto Attractions

Before his circus days, PT Barnum created the American Museum in 1842.  Showcasing the marvels of nature and art, the museum burned down twice, encouraging its founder to find another outlet for his showmanship.  While visiting the Historic Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, IL, I felt an immediate link between the two museums.  

Located in an industrial park, the museum is actually easy to miss.  The red sign helps; you definitely need to keep your eyes peeled.

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Museum

Historic Auto Museum

Since I wasn’t sure about the photography policy, I don’t have any indoor shots.  I’ll share some brochure pictures below.  

The actual collection is much vaster than the name implies.  You will find automobiles, movie star memorabilia, White House furniture, television show sets and props, fashion, including original Oleg Cassini gowns, and country music memorabilia.  You can trace 19th and 20th century social and cultural history in this one space.  

The museum is organized as a spiral, which maximizes the display areas and removes the warehouse feel.  You begin with gangster cars.  Ten feet from one another are John Dillinger’s luxury bank robbing car and Bonnie & Clyde’s sad, small death car.  While books describe the gulf between the two sets of Depression-era criminals, seeing their cars resonates more deeply.

For fashionistas or decorative arts aficionados, the displays allow you to closely view the artifacts and to appreciate the craftsmanship involved.  I wish the museum would rename itself because the collection is so much broader than the name implies.

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Dismissing the museum as a pop culture collection is a mistake.  Yes, there are some misspellings on labels, and some of the wax figures are a bit scary.  HOWEVER, the collection is impeccably maintained.  The space is spotless.  I have never been in such a clean, well-maintained museum space.  Authentication and donor letters are also displayed along side some of the objects – giving you a behind the scenes peek at how museums acquire objects.  Some letters included thank you notes for acquiring and sharing the objects.  

Historic Auto Attractions is a fun museum that will appeal to everyone in a family.  Fashion and decorative arts historians will also find treasures for their research.  Tin sign collectors will enjoy the gift shop.  Museum professionals will also find a space that challenges their truisms and believes in sharing its collection with the public.

Twisted Sisters or How I Spent National Women’s History Month

So March is National Women’s History Month.  I don’t have any particular celebrations but did note that my recent cultural activities involved female protagonists.  Thus my latest random cultural events roundup will cohere around that theme.

WildClaw!’s Carmilla and Lookingglass’ Ethan Frome explore women’s power via manipulation.  Readers are probably more familiar with Ethan Frome, the Edith Wharton classic, foisted upon high school students in a misguided attempt to introduce them to great literature.  No, I am not an Edith Wharton fan.  Her “woe is me” heroines excel in their passivity.  Their falls aren’t tragic; they should have learned that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.  When Wharton wrote, the West beckoned to men and women who lacked opportunity in the East.  A “poor relation” in the East could have moved West as a Harvey Girl – if she was ill-suited to being an adventuress.

Why did I go see Ethan Frome?  I subscribe to Lookingglass (because they are awesome).  Only Lookingglass could compel me to endure a Wharton.  Phillip Smith (Ethan) and Louise Lamson (Mattie) have been excellent in other productions, so I hoped they could give me a reason to get on board – the stage, not the sled.  While Smith and Lamson were top notch, the Whartoness was too much for me.  Having lived in New England, Wharton’s attempt to portray the lower class/poor did not ring true to me.   Zenobia, Ethan’s wife, Ethan, and Mattie are each too cowardly to act on their dreams or to admit their failures.  Zenobia manipulates Ethan and Mattie; Ethan clumsily attempts to manipulate Mattie, and Mattie winds up manipulating Ethan and Zenobia after the accident.  Yawn.

Carmilla was much more exciting on stage and in prose.  Written by JS LeFanu in 1872, Carmilla is the first vampire story and has a female as its vampire.  Born as a result of suicide on her wedding night, Carmilla lures women away from their husbands, gives them vampire power and strength, and then destroys her harems as she moves to new targets.  The men in Carmilla are the confused and mentally weaker sex.  Ultimately the strength of a man is required to actually kill the female vampires – after their betrayal by women.

Like Wharton’s female characters, Laura, the latest vampire victim is the only child of a once-wealthy family that is descending into poverty.  The family lives on an ancient estate in the woods.  The mother was already seduced and stolen by Carmilla.  Unlike the Wharton females, the Carmilla females manipulate from a position of power.  Laura may be the prototypical ingénue, but she becomes suspicious of Carmilla and instigates the vampire’s downfall.  Carmilla fights physically and mentally to retain her power.  WildClaw! created a vigorous production with lots of blood, fights, and sharp performances.  The final act of Carmilla is a dance macabre where the women lead.

The supernatural theme continued in Yuja Wang’s piano recital at the Chicago Symphony.  A Chinese prodigy, Wang is a mere 24 years old, playing with emotion and sophistication.  Her program began with Rachmaninov and Schubert, impressing the audience with her virtuosity; the second half explored the mysterious and dangerous with selections from Scriabin, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre Op. 40.  The Scriabin selections pulled the audience into a mystical and playful dream that became sinister as the devil danced on Bald Mountain.  Shakespeare’s impish fairies chase the devil off the mountain for a short while, but Old Scratch returns to remind us that “death at midnight plays a dance tune” (Dance Macabre – Jean Lahor).

Wang attacked each piece, delightfully frightening the audience with pounding bass lines and intricate treble dances.  Eschewing any kind of orchestral support, Wang challenged her audience as her fingers manipulated the percussive and string power of the piano.  She could easily have played Ethan and Mattie to their destiny with the tree.

Lectures by Jennifer Homans, the author of Apollo’s Angels, and Liesl Olson about Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine remind that women have always exercised power either directly or through manipulation – if they had courage.  Ballerinas embody the strength and fragility assigned to women.  Monroe used her editorial powers and friendships with wealthy donors to establish modern poetry in the United States and arguably the world.  While some ascribe influence to Ezra Pound, it is worth remembering that Monroe edited Pound – creating the power of “In a Station of the Metro” through her spacing, from Poetry Magazine, April 1913.

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd   :

Petals      on a wet, black    bough   .

Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

If the band/orchestra sucks, flee the theatrical performance immediately.  Even great actors cannot save horrible music.  However, a great band can save you from bad or mediocre actors.  The band for the hypocrites’ Cabaret was amazing.  Supplemented by violin and harmonium, the core piano, bass, percussion, and saxophone were frisky with an undertow of menace.  Kristina Lee, the bassist, was especially skilled at keeping the bass sounding crisp, not muddy (a common problem for bassists).  She and the percussionist, Kevin O’Donnell, playfully interacted and showcased the complexities of the score.  Some of the musical arrangements were a bit simplistic, but the vocal prowess of the actors may have been the reason why.

Cabaret is surprisingly bullletproof, like My Fair Lady or the Lennon-McCartney songbook.  The emotional resonance pulls you through, even when the actors aren’t quite up to the task.  According to the theatre geeks in line behind me, we were enjoying the 1998 re-staging of the show.  No Bob Fosse.  For most theatrical companies, the 1998 version is more manageable.  More bumping and grinding, rather than actual dancing.  The writhing on stage was particularly inspiring to a couple in front of me who made out during every intermission.  During the second intermission, the couple sitting next to Make Out Couple #1 decided that four could play that game and launched at one another.  Very entertaining.

The Emcee (Jessie Fisher) stole the show.  The woman playing the part really understood the need to hint at the fear and desperation that bursts forth from the decadence during the second and third acts.  Alas, the actors playing Sally and Cliff didn’t really delve into their characters, focusing on a surface shallowness and ignoring how both characters are weak and pathetic.  Michael York and Liza Minnelli really were excellent in the movie version and had more script to work with.  The book for this stage production let down the actors a bit.  Some scenes felt rushed or perhaps lines were cut.  The other supporting characters were able to flesh out their characters reasonably well.  Several people did succumb to shout-singing.  Too much American Idol.

the hypocrites at least try to challenge the audience and to interpret the material uniquely.  Some minor characters and plot-lines were more prominently explored.  Unfortunately, those minor characters upstaged the main storyline.  Cliff and Sally were tangential.  An art experience is successful if it provokes thought  and entertains.  While I found their Frankenstein to be a more satisfying theatrical experience, the hypocrites’ Cabaret was an entertaining production.  The band was excellent.