Sunday, January 29, 2012

Double Feature: The Artist(ic) Descendants

The stars aligned yesterday.  Or maybe it had something to do with the increased waves of solar activity we’re experiencing.  Whatever the reason, Steve and I found ourselves without children or responsibilities for several hours, and we did something we haven’t done since our pre-children life together: we attended two Oscar-nominated movies in one afternoon.

We saw The Artist and The Descendants, both of which are up for Best Picture, and both of which made me think of my great-grandparents G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, for much different reasons.

The Artist is a black and white, mostly silent movie, and it’s delightful (if you go, and you should, remember that word silent – the Lakeville 21 Theatre ticket booth had signs notifying potential viewers of this fact; I suppose people have complained after watching the first few minutes, thinking something was wrong with the sound system). 

The movie takes place in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when talking movies began, and silent movies were abandoned (here’s a link to the New York Times review).

My great-grandmother Islea used to play the organ for silent movies at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud, and I thought of Islea as I watched a scene in The Artist where a live orchestra accompanies the premiere of a movie featuring George Valentin (played by the wonderfully expressive French actor Jean Dujardin) at the height of his popularity.   

The Artist isn’t the first movie to chronicle this period, when many silent movie actors lost their jobs because they couldn’t make the transition to talkies – think Singing in the Rain, which The Artist evokes in some ways – but I imagine many people like Islea also were affected by this change, which eliminated the need for live musicians to accompany the movies.

The Paramount, formerly the Sherman Theatre, underwent renovations in 1930 to accommodate the new “talkies.”  I don’t know when the theater showed its last silent movie, or when Islea stopped playing there.  I wonder how she felt about it?

Islea Graham Riggs
I loved the costumes in The Artist, especially the hats.  The cars were neat, too, and really helped drop me into that time period – which, in my great-grandparents’ case, meant St. Cloud, during the rising popularity of G. Oliver’s St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band.

Another part I loved about the movie was the dog, played by a Jack Russell named Uggie, who has his own IMDb page.  The dog is Valentin’s faithful companion on and off-screen.  And I couldn’t help but think of G. Oliver and Islea here, too, because they also were known for having faithful canine companions.
G. Oliver with dog Toby; the woman might be Islea, but it could also be G. Oliver’s sister Daisy.
The other movie we saw, The Descendants, is completely different from The Artist – it’s in color, for one thing, it’s full of colorful language (note the ‘R’ rating) and it’s set in modern-day Hawaii.  But the past plays an important role in the movie, too, which makes sense given its title.  The protagonist, Matt King (played by George Clooney), can trace his island roots back several generations to indigenous and missionary ancestors. 

The main plot of the story involves Clooney’s character discovering, after his wife has been seriously injured in a boating accident, that she’s been cheating on him.  He tries to sort this out as he, the “back-up parent,” reconnects with his two daughters (here’s a link to the New York Times review). 

A subplot of The Descendants concerns a large tract of pristine land on Kauai that King and his many cousins have inherited, and a decision they need to make regarding its sale.  This part of the movie made me think of the Riggs family cabin on Grace Lake, near Bemidji.  It was a sanctuary for G. Oliver for decades during his career as a band director, and my dad has memories of spending time there as a boy. 
The Riggs family cabin on Grace Lake, near Bemidji.
G. Oliver moved to the cabin full-time in 1944 after his forced retirement from his St. Cloud job, two years after Islea’s death.  He soon came out of retirement to conduct a band at Red Lake High School (here, again, I’m reminded of The Artist, and its themes of the old being pushed out by the young, and of the possibilities of career reinvention).

When he died in January 1946, G. Oliver had been planning to sell the cabin to a neighbor who operated an adjoining resort.  My grandfather Ronald and great uncle Percy (Pete) followed through with this plan.

Although it would might been nice if the property had stayed in the family – I know other families who own properties up north that have been in the family for generations – it’s also possible that it would have created family divisions, like in The Descendants – cousins arguing over its use, whether it should be sold, and if so, to whom.
A postcard from the Dean Davis resort, sent to my grandparents in 1951.
I don’t know what’s become of that property, and I’m curious to find out.  Louisa is attending French camp this summer in Hackensack, and when we pick her up in mid-July, we plan to take a side trip to Bemidji and see if we can find the spot where the cabin had been located.

If nothing else, the adventure could be material for a Lawler/Riggs family home movie, which, given our cast of human and canine characters, is certain not to be silent.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Modern Family Vaudeville Show

We are still basking in the glow of yesterday’s big event – an evening spent with talented friends, making music together in celebration of my two-year anniversary of blogging.  Yes, My Musical Family is two years old, and what better way to acknowledge the milestone than with a recital, right in our very own living room!

G. Oliver Riggs makes his appearance, aided by his great-great grandson Elias.
The Boxrud/Bratland and Mibus families were kind enough to take me up on the invitation and participate in the event, which included solos, some group pieces, poetry recitations and a demonstration speech on how to make a clothespin catapult that flings pennies (thanks Ryan!).

Here’s a video of my introduction to the event, followed by the first performer, Elias, on piano.


This Norwegian schottische by Amy, Doug, Synneva and Halvor added some international flair to the evening:

As did the Steve and Sebastian duet, “Back in the USSR.”

When we weren’t performing or listening, we were eating – the menu included two kinds of chili (beef and vegetarian), salad with roasted pears, and soda bread.  For dessert, we had ice cream sundaes and French macarons.

My friend Myrna made the macarons; she’s become quite the macaron maven over the last several months (she also plays the mandolin, which makes me think there’s a children’s book amid all the alliteration).  Here’s a link to one of her recent blog posts, Macarons – A Visual Treat!.  She made a special flavor just for the occasion, black licorice, which she cleverly arranged to look like music notes on a staff.
Myrna’s macarons – mmmmmmm!
We all had such a good time, I hope we can do it again soon.  But not too soon – I need a little time to work up a new piece, and my courage. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Recital Preparations and Palpitations

Instead of blogging, I should be practicing an instrument right now, to prepare for this weekend’s My Musical Family recital. 

We are having two families over on Sunday and have invited everyone – adults and kids alike – to perform a piece on an instrument, to sing a song, or to read a poem, essay or speech.  I concocted the plan several months ago when I was trying to think of ways to keep Elias interested in playing the piano (his teacher no longer organizes recitals, like he did when Louisa took lessons from him). 

I also was inspired by reading newspaper accounts of my great-grandfather’s experiences playing the violin at house parties at the turn of the last century, like this one that took place before my great-grandparents were married:

Miss Islea Graham gave a party and musical entertainment at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W.N. Graham, last evening.  It was one of the finest affairs of the kind ever in the city.  The musical program was of exceptional merit and was a real treat to lovers of fine music.  Miss Florence B. Wright of Burlington and Prof. G. O. Riggs of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, the eminent violinist, contributed to the enjoyment of the evening.  There was a large attendance of Aledo’s most fashionable people.

Our event will be much more low-key, with an emphasis on fun and good food, and not fashion.  But I have no doubt that it will be a real treat for all in attendance.

I am planning to play a piece on the piano.  If I chicken out, I may instead read this poem (author not known) that was in my grandfather Ronald’s files.  It must have been important to someone, because at the bottom it includes the instruction: Please keep.

(You don’t have to tell that twice to anyone in this family of pack rats).

The Young Bandman

It was a cold and dreary day,
The bandmen in the park did play
The people listened with their ears
And when ’twas done they gave three cheers.

One boy, a strong and manly youth,
His clarinet did play,
A boy who always spoke the truth
And made them clap their hands, hurray!

He stood up slim, and strait (sic) and tall,
And blew his clarinet to all,
Till people, wondering, would hear
The sounds that came with murmuring fear.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Time for a Pocket Watch Mystery

One of the resolutions my dad and I set for 2012 was to spend more time researching and writing about Percy Riggs, my great-uncle and the younger son of G. Oliver.  I wasn’t expecting to write a blog post about Percy this soon – five days into the new year – but one of Percy’s grandchildren posed this question to my dad and me today, and it’s too good to resist sharing:

Did G. Oliver have a pocket watch, and if so, did he give it to Percy, known by his family as Pete? 
Grandpa Pete’s pocket watch
My second cousin Chris, who lives in Texas, asked the question because he has a pocket watch that was given to him by his maternal grandmother.  Grandma Pat Riggs (who died in 1990) used to keep the watch in a display case above her television, and she’d told Chris that it had belonged to Grandpa Pete.
A close-up view of the watch face.
The watch was manufactured in 1892 by the Elgin (Illinois) Watch Company.  This was 12 years before Pete was born – so, Chris wondered, could it have originally belonged to G. Oliver?  Could it have been a gift to G. Oliver the year he started his first professional job teaching at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music?

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Chris is right.  G. Oliver graduated from Oberlin College in December 1891, and he started his job at Iowa Wesleyan in September 1892.  His parents, Jasper and Rebecca, were living in Joy, Illinois, at this time.  It’s quite possible that they would have given him a such a gift.  They weren’t wealthy, but an Elgin watch would have been affordable for someone who owned a hardware business, as Jasper did; the Elgin National Watch Company was known for making millions of popular, mid-grade watches – the "working man's watch."

Grandpa Pete’s watch is not engraved, and its case was made by Keystone.

Although I have not come across any written information about G. Oliver receiving a pocket watch as a gift, or about him giving a watch to Percy, it makes sense to me, especially considering that G. Oliver gave his older son, Ronald, a different family memento – the violin that had belonged to his father, Jasper.

Plus, I did find a photo of G. Oliver in which you can see that he’s wearing a pocket watch of some kind – the watch itself is not visible, but you can see the chain connected to his vest.

G. Oliver and wife Islea with children Percy, left, Rosalie and Ronald.
It would be great if the watch contained a message from Pete or G. Oliver, so we knew its full story.  But even if we never determine its origins, it’s managed to do something that neither man would have anticpated – it’s forged a connection between branches of the family that have grown apart in the years since my great-uncle Pete and my grandfather Ronald died. 

I have never met Chris or his siblings in person, and I had never known anything about them until I started the G. Oliver project.  Now in addition to sharing great-grandparents, we share a family mystery.

Percy (Pete) with daughter Mary Jane, father G. Oliver, and daughter Islea