Friday, July 18, 2014

The Link Between Video Games and Classical Music

I turned on Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station (99.5) last week, on my way to picking up Elias from tennis, and I was immediately drawn in to the topic of discussion on the program Performance Today: the music of video games.

Host Fred Child was interviewing Emily Reece, the creator of Top Score, a weekly podcast on MPR that explores the art of music in video games. Reece joined MPR in 2008 and has hosted the podcast since 2011; you can read more about its origins here.

At the point when I began listening, Reece was making a connection between a video game called Guild Wars 2 and the turn-of-the-last century English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.

“[Vaughn Williams] just had a bead on writing lush music. He could write something that made your heart melt – and in a lot of ways, I feel that way when I listen to music that Jeremy Soule wrote for Guild Wars 2,” Reece said. “I feel it kind of borrows on that lush English tradition, even though I’m not even particularly certain that’s what he had in mind.”

Child then played a song from the game called “Call of the Raven.” You can listen to it here:

Reece and Child went on to discuss the connections between the music of Vaughn Williams and of Soule – the orchestral textures, the use of solo instruments and of the harp, which Reece said is often used in fantasy.

“It gives us the sense of being in a different place and in a different time. Instrumental choices like that can do that for us,” she said.

Child said the music of both composers also reminded him of movie score soundtracks, and Reece agreed, noting that Vaughn Williams’ unique sound, with full orchestra and lots of strings, reminded her of a song that John Barry composed for the movie Dances with Wolves: the John Dunbar theme, which is among my favorite movie songs.

I had to shut off the radio when I arrived at the tennis courts. But I was soon back in the car with Elias, telling him about the program, and we listened to it all the way home. Once we got inside, I turned on the radio in the kitchen so I could hear the rest of the hour-long program.

I should mention, in case you don’t know me well, that I am not a big fan of video games. I really have no interest in playing them myself. But my kids are fans of them, so in the past few years I have made a conscious effort to be a little more open-minded about recognizing the positive qualities of video games.

Thanks to Elias and Sebastian, I already was aware that some video games incorporate more complex music into their story lines, way beyond the bleeps and buzzes of 1980s arcade games. The boys often fall asleep listening to the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary special orchestra CD. It is a medley of music from the various Legend of Zelda games, all of which involve a hero named Link. I do like the songs on the CD – they evoke adventure, drama, and suspense, and the phrases and melodies can stick in your head much like the great music written for movies.

But still, my mind was a little bit blown last week when I realized that composing music for video games is a growing field. Listening to the radio program expanded my appreciation for the link between music and video games, and talking about that link with my younger son was one of highlights of the week for me.

What I find exciting, and important, is that it is another way to introduce young people to orchestral music – much like people of my generation were exposed to opera and Wagner through Bugs Bunny (“Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit”).

It’s impossible to know what my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, would have thought about music composed for video games. However, his band concert programs 100 years ago did include excerpts from operas and popular songs of the day as well as marches. He also liked to challenge his players with intricate pieces of music.

Program from a 1909 band concert in Crookston, Minn.
This link between video games and classical music reinforces a theme that runs through the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather and his career as a music man. The theme is this: music has the power to connect people among different communities and across generations. It is a connection worth promoting and celebrating.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Echoes of the Fort Snelling Military Band

We don’t attend the Northfield Public Library’s summer Books & Stars events regularly now like we did when the kids were younger. But I couldn’t pass up the chance last Wednesday to take my great-grandfather – the small cardboard version – to hear the Fort Snelling History Players Band perform at Bridge Square. Steve and Elias also came along for the fun.

G. Oliver Riggs meets the members of the Fort Snelling History Players Band.
I had never heard of the band until I saw an advertisement for the event. I was expecting a larger group; turns out, it was a talented duo. The two musicians kept the crowd entertained by demonstrating official calls on a fife and drum and by performing some marches and popular tunes of the past. They also explained the role of musicians at Fort Snelling, from the time before Minnesota became a state through World War II.

It was a beautiful evening for an outdoor concert! The event was sponsored by the library, the Northfield Historical Society and the Northfield Public School’s Community Services Division, and was also supported by a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council.

G. Oliver never played in the Fort Snelling Military Band, but he was well acquainted back in the day with the ensemble and its longtime director, Carl Dillon. I’m not sure when the two men met, but I know their friendship went back at least as far as May of 1924. That’s when Dillon brought his Third U.S. Infantry Band of Fort Snelling to St. Cloud to perform in a public concert with the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band during a Minnesota Bandmasters Association convention.

At the time, G. Oliver described the Fort Snelling band as “easily the classiest band in Minnesota today.”

Dillon and G. Oliver worked together for several years as members of the Minnesota Bandmasters Association, and both men served as president of the organization – G. Oliver in 1929, and Dillon in 1928. I don’t know what happened to Dillon in the 1930s, or how long he stayed with the band. I am sure there’s a way to find out, but I will leave that to other researchers for now. The life and career of one overachieving bandmaster is more than enough to keep me busy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Legendary Locals of Crookston

My paternal great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, is mentioned in a new book about the legendary men and women of Crookston, appropriately titled Legendary Locals of Crookston (Arcadia 2014). There is a page about him in the chapter about music and entertainment, and a 1902 photo of him with the community band he directed.

The page came about because of this blog and our modern ability to make connections over the internet. Although the book’s author, Kristina Torkelson Gray, is a Crookston native, she had never heard of G. Oliver. But as she was working to meet her deadline, she discovered my blog through a post I wrote in December 2013 about Ted Thorson and his brother Nels (Encyclopedia Riggs and A Tale of Two Thorsons).

T. W. ‘Ted’ Thorson was a longtime band director in Crookston who died in 1973. He is featured in the new book, too, and is also featured in Kristina’s previous book about Crookston history: Images of America: Crookston (Arcadia 2013).

Once she learned about the important contributions G. Oliver made to Crookston’s history, Kristina knew she wanted to include something about him. So I am grateful to her for making it happen. She also found a photo of the band that I had never seen, and she sent it to me. It was too large for the scanner, so she scanned it in two pieces.

Steve connected the pieces through the magic of Photoshop, but I like the way it looks when viewed in two pieces, too – it has kind of a stereoscopic effect.

G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, were such movers and shakers in the city’s early cultural life, it seems unfortunate that they could become so nearly forgotten a century later. But that’s what can happen when people who remember you are no longer around to tell those stories. It reminds me of a passage from Ian Frazier’s book Family:

And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. 

And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. 

I don’t want these stories to fade. I don’t think Kristina does, either, which is why she is getting the word out about her new book. She is signing copies of it this weekend during the Crookston All School Reunion. Kristina will be at the Crookston Carnegie Library today (Saturday), June 28, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The building, which is no longer used as a library, has G. Oliver connections. When it was dedicated in 1908, G. Oliver’s orchestra provided the music. Also, the building was designed by his friend, architect Bert Keck. Keck, like G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, grew up in the Illinois town of Aledo, and Keck played in G. Oliver’s Aledo cornet band in the mid-1890s before the two men moved to Crookston.

I wasn’t able to attend the events in Crookston this weekend, but I bought an autographed copy from Kristina and she mailed it to me earlier this week. I look forward to reading about some of the town’s other local legends and helping keep their stories alive.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I Am a Writer – a Productivity Pep Talk

I have been getting up early for the past few days of summer vacation to work on my book about my great-grandfather, the real-life music man. It has felt great. When my alarm goes off, I’m often already awake. I lie in bed for a few minutes (OK, sometimes more like ten), thinking about the day ahead and my writing goals. Then I give myself a mini pep talk, I go downstairs and make some coffee, and I open up my laptop.

Now that Louisa’s high school graduation is behind us, I feel like it’s time to dig in and commit to making serious progress on my book. Getting up early and putting in a few hours of work while the house is still quiet, the birds are chirping, and a cool breeze is blowing in from the back porch, is a lovely way to spend the morning.

Carving out time to write and making it a habit is what productive writers do. It’s what I need to do. So, I’m doing it. It seems like a simple thing, but making a commitment and changing a routine is never easy. We’ll see how it goes. For now, it’s working.

The other thing I’ve been doing in the past few days is going through my computer files and reorganizing them. When I started doing research for this book project, I had no idea how much material I would accumulate. It’s never-ending, really. If I didn’t have a the Finder feature on my computer, I’d waste even more time than I already do trying to find a document I know is somewhere in the files. Occasionally, I come across an item I had completely forgotten existed. It’s almost like discovering it all over again, which is fun, but also frustrating. It’s way past time to assemble my materials into a more workable file system, which I know will also help me be more productive. So I am making progress with that, too.

It was in going through some files this morning that I found an essay I wrote two years ago about the time I lost my identity as a writer. I had forgotten all about it. I never did publish it anywhere, so I’d like to publish it here. It seems appropriate.

I Am a Writer
By Joy Riggs

When I was in third grade, I filled wide-lined spiral notebooks with stories about the escapades of a spunky girl named Randi. I had chapters, a table of contents, and even an author’s note, all scrawled in pencil. I wrote to please and entertain myself. I was ambitious, clueless and fearless.

In high school, I composed angsty poems on an electric typewriter. I wrote journal entries detailing struggles with my weight, worries that I’d never find love, and feelings of loneliness amid a circle of friends. I wrote to find out more about myself and the world around me.

When I was in my early 20s, I wrote for a living. I was too busy meeting deadlines and planning my future with my college sweetheart (who became my husband) to think too hard about what it meant to be a writer. I had editors to please and readers to serve. I wrote because it was rewarding, and often exciting, and because it was my job.

And then, at an age when many young career women hit their stride, I pulled back. I got pregnant and had babies. As this new aspect of my identity expanded – I was a mom, times three! – my confidence in my writing ability contracted. Yes, I dabbled in journal writing, in freelance magazine pieces. I even took on a part-time newspaper gig for a while, when my youngest was in diapers. But somewhere in the fog of sleep-deprivation, torn between family responsibilities and career aspirations, I lost my identity as a writer.

When people asked, “What do you do?” I haltingly responded with the only thing that felt true: “I’m an at-home mom.” Even when my kids entered school, and I carved out more time for my writing, I didn’t feel I had the right to call myself a writer. Why were those four words so difficult to say?

An encounter on the sidewalk one day finally knocked some sense into me. “This is Joy; she’s a writer,” an acquaintance had said as she introduced me to her friend. It was a small thing, really, but it made a huge difference in my confidence. If others could see it, why couldn’t I? I am a writer. I am a writer. I practiced saying it in my head until I felt comfortable repeating it aloud.

My kids are all in double-digits now, and I write when I can. Some days it’s only a to-do list. Some days it’s a column, written on deadline. Occasionally, a phrase appears in my brain when I least expect it – like in the minutes before my alarm goes off – and I am off and running with an essay idea that stimulates my pulse, excites my brain and makes me feel alive.

I’m ambitious. I’m trying to be more fearless. I’m still that little girl who puts words on a page because it’s a part of me that will not be quieted. I am a writer.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

All Children Should Be Taught Music

One thing that strikes me, when I read newspapers from a century ago, is how similar the story topics are to those covered in modern newspapers. Tales of murder and deceit continue to fascinate (and make the front page), natural disasters still cause death and destruction, and people never tire of debating the best methods for raising children.

Another thing that strikes me is how a person who is so well known to people of one generation can be so forgotten a century later.

I came across an example of this a few weeks back, when I was researching the attempt by my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs to form a band in Tacoma, Washington, in the spring of 1910. While I was scrolling through the Tacoma Times online, this headline caught my eye: Famous Woman Pianist Says All Children Should Be Taught Music.

American Pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler
The article was written by a reporter named Dorothy Dale, and she had interviewed Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, known as “one of the greatest women pianists in the world.”

Yes, that’s correct, Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler. What, you’ve never heard of her? I hadn’t, either. But I looked her up, and it turns out she was famous, accomplished, and an advocate of musical training for all children, in a time before schools had established music instruction.

Here’s an excerpt of what she told Dale, when asked why all children should be taught music:

“Four boys are tying a can to a poor dog’s tail. The little girls farther up the block are quarreling over who had the most turns at skipping the rope. Then along comes a band. You know what happens. The boys chuck the can and hurrah. The little girls drop the rope and slip away, eyes and feet dancing. They follow the band as far as they dare.

“And how do they come back? Everybody knows that, too. Their faces are bright, the bad temper is gone and they go to playing a different set of boys and girls. And yet people don’t think it’s necessary to teach the children music.

“Reading is splendid, of course it is,” she went on. “So is seeing the beauty of the world about us, and as we see it through a master’s eyes on his canvas – all that has a wonderful effect on us. But harmony – music – why, the tots begin to hum before they want to read. It’s the only thing that takes us out of ourselves. The effect of the band on the children shows how inborn the magic of it is. And a band – well, the better the music, the better the effect.

“Every home is better for a piano in it. Every child’s life is better for studying music ...”

I just loved this because I agree with her. I think it’s a shame that she is not more widely known or remembered now. She reminds me of my great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, who also pursued a career as a pianist around the turn of the last century. About ten years apart in age (Islea was born a decade later), both women continued to perform after marriage, while also juggling teaching and family duties.

According to Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Fannie Bloomfield was born in Austria in 1863 and moved to the United States with her family in 1867. The family settled in Chicago, where young Frannie attended public school and began studying piano. She later studied in Vienna under Polish composer and professor Theodor Leschetizky, who is known for saying: No art without life, no life without art.

To learn more about Bloomfield’s career, read the encyclopedia article: Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler.

At the conclusion of the Tacoma Times 1910 article, the reporter noted that Bloomfield had continued to defy society’s expectations after she married and became a mother.

Fannie Bloomfield’s marriage to Sigmund Zeisler, a Chicago attorney, just after she had begun to conquer the world, caused consternation in the musical world. But she did about that as she did about going on being a musician when she was told she had not the strength – she did as she pleased. And when she had a fine little son and the home world seemed complete she again wanted more worlds to conquer. So back to studying she went.

Bloomfield Zeisler died of a heart attack in 1927 at age 64. You can listen to samples of her piano recordings by clicking here.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Working Boys Band Takes the Stage

A year ago, I mentioned on this blog that the History Theatre in St. Paul would be putting on a new musical in spring 2014 about the Minneapolis Working Boys Band (you can read the previous post here). That show is now getting ready to open and has been getting some great local press.

There’s a story about it in today’s Star Tribune, I heard Euan Kerr talk about it on MPR, and it was also mentioned in the Pioneer Press.

Photo credit: History Theatre
We have tickets to see the production on May 15 – about the only date of the run that works for us, given our crazy spring schedule of concerts and other events, including the high school spring play, Prom, and high school graduation. I am eager to see the show for what I imagine are rather obvious reasons: it relates to the topic and themes on this blog and in my book in progress.

The Working Boys Band is set in 1917, before the United States entered the Great War. At that time, my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was directing the well-regarded 75-piece Crookston Juvenile Band, which he had originally formed as a feeder band to the city’s adult band.

The Working Boys Band was formed specifically to bring structure and discipline to the lives of immigrant boys living and working in Minneapolis, at a time when most schools did not have band programs. This was also one of the reasons G. Oliver was hired to form a boys’ band in Bemidji in 1919, and a boys band in St. Cloud in 1923 – it was seen as a way to keep boys out of trouble by giving them something positive to do. But the main reason businessmen in both Bemidji and St. Cloud were interested in having a top-notch boys’ band was for the positive publicity it brought to their growing cities.

The St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band (seniors and beginners) in 1930
G. Oliver certainly would have known Professor C.C. Heintzman, the man who formed the Minneapolis Working Boys Band and is the main character in the new musical. I don’t know how well the men knew each other, but I do know that the director who later took over for Heintzman, William Allen Abbott, was a friend of G. Oliver’s. Their bands performed in some of the same parades and even competed against each other on at least one occasion, in 1930.

In 1929, the year G. Oliver served as president of the Minnesota Bandmasters Association, his St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band and the Minneapolis Working Boys Band were among the more than two dozen bands that competed in the state’s first band contest in June of 1929.

The three-day festival was organized by G. Oliver and other MBA officers. The parade through downtown St. Paul on the first night attracted an audience of 60,000 people. The judges of the second day’s competition were Iowa composer and conductor Karl King and A. Austin Harding, band director at the University of Illinois. The top three winners in each division received trophies and performed in a concert in Highland Park on the last day of the festival.

At 96 members, the St. Cloud band was the largest in the entire competition. It took second in the Class B division, with a score of 91.9. Sleepy Eye High School took first with 93.0, and Bemidji (the band G. Oliver had directed before moving to St. Cloud) took third with 91.7 points.

The Minneapolis Working Boys took second in the Class A division. First place went to the the Minneapolis Bear Cat American Legion Band, and third place went to the Pillsbury Flour Mills band. In the Class C division, Elbow Lake placed first, the Brainerd Ladies Band took second and the Pederson Concert Band of Hallock took third.

St. Paul Pioneer Press front page, June 21, 1930
The next year, 1930, the band contest and festival was again held in St. Paul. The St. Cloud Boys took second place out of all 22 bands in the parade contest, placing behind the St. Paul Police Band. However, in the Saturday competition, it didn’t quite fare as well. It voluntarily jumped up to the Class A category to compete against bands from larger cities, and it was nudged out of third place by the Working Boys Band, whose score of 92.3 was 0.3 points higher than St. Cloud’s score. The Pillsbury Band finished in second with 92.6 points, and the Eveleth Boys Band won the Class A title with 93.66 points.

In writing about its hometown boys, the St. Cloud Daily Times explained, “A low mark in marching alone kept the St. Cloud band out of first place. In all other departments, particularly their playing ability while marching, they were given very high ratings. No special training had been given the boys in marching. In the parade contest they were conceded to be the best playing band.”

The Class B championship trophy went to Bemidji; Sleepy Eye High School took second, and the St. Paul Police Department Band took third. In Class C, Pederson’s Concert Band of Hallock was victorious, followed by the Ortonville Kid Band in second place and the Elk River High School Band in third. The competition was judged by S.E. Mear of Whitewater, Wisconsin, Professor Carl Christiansen of South Dakota State College, and Fred Griffin of Hartley, Iowa.

Boys from St. Cloud at the 1929 state band contest in St. Paul.
I realize the show at the History Theatre won’t cover any of this later time period; it’s too bad, because it would be fun to see G. Oliver as a character in the show! But I am looking forward to seeing how the production captures the joy and pride that come from being a member of a band, an experience that was life-changing for so many Minnesota youth 100 years ago – and one that continues to enrich the lives of young people today.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Crazy for Comets

I confess, I did not get up early the other morning to catch a glimpse of the “blood moon” lunar eclipse. But I followed the news coverage with interest, and I have also followed people’s excitement about the event with interest. No matter how much we learn about the universe, and no matter how much our technology changes and evolves, it hasn’t taken away the sense of wonder that comes from looking up at the sky at a natural phenomenon that only happens once in a blue – or red – moon.

One of the cool moon photos I saw online was this multi-exposure photo taken by Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson that shows the progression of the eclipse – the first total lunar eclipse visible in the continental United States since December 2011.

The images in this Star Tribune photo were taken between 1 a.m. and  2:46 a.m. on April 15, 2014.
With thoughts of celestial bodies already floating around in my mind, I was surprised yesterday to discover – in the midst of researching my great-grandfather’s connection to Tacoma, Washington – that in the spring of 1910, people in the United States were going crazy for comets.

I will explain. But first, a bit of background. I have been working on a scene in my book about G. Oliver’s experience in Tacoma, the one time in his career that he failed to successfully organize a band. To try to make sense of what happened and why he failed, I spent some time last weekend reading Tacoma newspaper clippings in the Riggs family scrapbook. Most of them are dated and are from the Tacoma Daily News, but they are not pasted in the book chronologically, which makes it more challenging to trace the sequence of events.

Tacoma had a handful of newspapers in 1910, as most cities did back then, and yesterday I discovered that old issues of the Tacoma Times can be accessed for free online through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website.

I spent several hours paging through the newspaper online to see if it had also covered the band situation. I realized right away that the Tacoma Times, founded in 1903 by Edward Willis Scripps, had a much different feel than its rival, the Tacoma Daily News. It seemed geared more toward a working-class audience interested in labor issues. Disturbing crime-related headlines were often splashed across its front page, and it contained many eye-catching illustrations and editorial cartoons.

Through my reading, I learned that the time G. Oliver spent in Washington state coincided with the appearance of not just one, but two comets.

In mid-January of 1910, while he held the job of director of a city band in Grand Forks, North Dakota, G. Oliver traveled to Tacoma to meet with businessmen in that city. He proposed to organize a new concert band of up to 50 members that would help promote the growing city and would provide entertainment for residents. The Tacoma Daily News reported on Jan. 20 and 21 that local businessmen were meeting with a “bandleader of considerable reputation in the east” but did not disclose his name. The article did not explain how long G. Oliver was in the city, but it probably was not more than a few days, because he would have been missed in Grand Forks.

The Tacoma Times mentioned nothing of this, but a few days later it printed its first of several articles about the sighting of a comet. The front page article, “Many Tacomans Saw Comet,” said, “A comet was visible for half an hour above the western horizon about 6 o’clock last night. Its size and brilliance caused many to think that Halley’s Comet had arrived ahead of schedule. The comet is a fast traveler and soon disappeared below the horizon, leaving a luminous trail in its wake. The heavenly visitor has been reported ‘seen’ from all parts of the country during the past few days.”

The comet coverage in the Times continued: the stories described the comet as a crimson-orange color, noted that people in California were planning their suppers around the timing of the comet, and quoted an astronomer as saying that the huge comet, which later was called the Daylight Comet, “is the largest foreign body ever in the solar system so far as is known since the art of writing was discovered. ... This comet is magnificent beyond all powers of description. We are now making history that will endure for the ages.”

I am not up on my comet history, so I did a quick search and discovered that, indeed, the comet that appeared in January 1910 is one of the greatest comets recorded in history. So far. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Great Comet of 1910, check out this blog post.)

The appearance of this comet whetted people’s appetites for what was yet to come in May – an appearance of Halley’s Comet, which had not been seen since 1835. Many people looked forward to the event with great excitement, although there were some people who worried it would bring about the destruction of the earth.

Halley’s Comet inspired songs, including this one by Harry Lincoln.
Some of you might already know about Mark Twain’s connection to Halley’s Comet. He was born in 1835 shortly after the comet appeared, and in 1909 he said:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.

He died on April 21, 1910, and within a week, the comet was close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

By the time of Twain’s death, G. Oliver had quit his job in Grand Forks and had been in Tacoma for three weeks, trying to organize the new band. He received the support of the businessmen and many musicians, but others took offense to the idea of an outsider from a smaller eastern city coming in and taking charge. G. Oliver’s attempts to stir up support, including an April 17 concert in Wright Park – exactly 104 years ago today! – attracted a large crowd and did get a brief mention in the Tacoma Times.

An article about the April 17 band concert in Tacoma’s Wright Park.
But what really got the Times excited was feeding people daily information about the coming Halley’s Comet, due to arrive on May 18. Even the newspaper’s society columnist, Cynthia Grey, contributed to the coverage. One of my favorite research finds yesterday was her lengthy article about how one could plan a comet-themed surprise party for the evening of May 17.

It included this description:

The guests gather in a circle just before the time we are supposed to begin our bath in the comet’s tail, and write their wills. Reading the wills is funny, as each would will each something to fit his peculiarities. The one who writes the cleverest gets a copy of the Essays of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic, done up in an asbestos package as a prize.

Suddenly, the light is turned down. The hostess whispers, “The comet is coming!” and in bursts a figure (daddy or little brother) clad in a sheet smeared with phosphorus. If he can’t get this paint he can flash pocket electric lamps under his covering of thin cloth. The comet runs into everybody and everything, kissing the girls and slapping the men, and runs out.

Grey suggested that guests come dressed as Greek gods, and her recommended menu included stuffed egg salad on lettuce, punch and two kinds of cake: angel food and devil’s cake.

“The person enacting ‘the comet’ proposes the toast of Epicurus, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ she wrote. “Of course, if anybody seriously thinks the world’s coming to an end, he might not care to attend such a party. But most of us think we’ll still be alive May 18 ... whatever happens we all want to stay up to have the experience that will be historic under any circumstances.”

The approaching comet also caused some people to reflect upon the changes that the United States had experienced during the previous 75 years. In a May 16 piece in the Tacoma Times, the writer wondered whether the comet would recognize the place. “... What changes the railroads made! Then came the telegraph, the telephone; then wireless, automobiles; and we are now learning to fly! What will the earth be like when Halley’s Comet comes back in 1985?”

The top half of the front page of the Tacoma Times from May 18, 1910.
May 18, 1910, came and went, and people survived (except for Mark Twain). But the band effort did not have a happy ending for G. Oliver. When it became clear by early June that Tacoma was not an environment where his directing star could shine brightly, he left – just like a comet – and returned to the Midwest.

I am sad to say that I don’ t remember doing anything special the last time Halley’s Comet was visible in the United States. It happened in 1986 (not 1985), when I was a senior in high school. Fortunately, I have lots of time to get ready for its next appearance, in 2061, when I will be 93 years old. I plan to have a huge party, and you are all invited. But be advised, it’s BYOP – Bring Your Own Phosphorus.