Category Archives: drama

A Year in Erie.

 

Tom Atkins is holding forth, on JET/FOX/ERIE, the latest weather forecast. Given tonight’s projections, our home town that time forgot might just jump into the national hot lights.

Seems we could break the all time record for 200 inches of the white stuff.

200 inches.

In one winter.

(Yes; around here, Punxsatawney Phil’s shadow notwithstanding, we will winter until the bitter end.)

Spring will arrive, according to the vernal equinox, sometime next week. But, Erie, PA is set to capture yet another snowfall, 8pm tonight through 8pm Wednesday night, 10 more inches that could blanket the already frosted landscape. Plus, another shot coming Thursday evening into Friday morning. It could happen.

But, take a moment.

Consider this.

Erie is known, already, for far more than snowfall in inches. And, the scope of its offerings could astonish you.

First of all, let’s look at the landscape.

Projecting out onto Lake Erie, one of the region’s most spacious state parks, the Presque Isle peninsula, boasts eleven public [public] beaches, complete with sunbathing, swimming, sailing, yachting, and skiing, as well as nature trail hiking, a family campground, bicycle path around the entire 13.4 miles, a nature center, lagoons for canoeing and paddleboating, the Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial, endless picnic groves and, nestled at its interior – a houseboat community!

Directly ahead of the entrance to the park, and careening overhead, the Ravine Flyer – a major rollercoaster – one of numerous amusement park rides, concessions, and arcade attractions at Waldameer Park.

And, the cherry on top? Sara’s, Erie’s 1950’s retro ice cream stop, featuring foot long Smith’s hotdogs with all the trimmings.

For evening, or other afternoon fare, try the Erie Seawolves, a pro baseball team at UPMC Park; a pro hockey team, the Erie Otters, and pro basketball, the Erie Bayhawks, at the Erie Insurance Arena; some 20! dance companies; more than one symphony; at least 5 (FIVE!) world class civic theatres; one of three of the original operational Warner Theatres; Jr’s Last Laugh, the comedy club; the fabulous Erie Art Museum (housing several thousand works in its collection); at least 10 art galleries; A Poet’s Hall; two Indy film societies; the Erie Zoo; LECOM – the largest Osteopathic medical school in the nation – and, 3 universities complete with their own collegiate offerings open to the public.

Hungry?  For every ethnic group ever populating this port city turned industrial turned vacation destination, there is a top notch dining experience. Latino’s, for authentic Mexico City fare; Cloud 9 Wine Bar; Mi Scuzi, Calao’s, and Serafini’s, only three of a multitude of Italian full course sit downs; Like My Thai, for the real Asian taste; Tandoori Hut, for Indian; and, Pineapple Eddie’s, for Caribbean. These are just a handful of remarkably high quality eateries literally too numerous to mention in one travelogue.

Thirsty? For wet: The Ale House. Jekyll & Hyde’s. The Plymouth. Two Public Houses. And, Brewerie, where a plethora of handcrafted beer holds court. Et al. For dry: The Juice Jar, or our Whole Foods Co-op. Et al, et al. ‘Nuff said?

But, here’s something else. The design layout of Erie is Philadelphia grid style. This means a geometry of symmetry. Anywhere you want to go, from the Polish/Russian/German/Irish/African American/Middle Eastern East side to the Italian/Puerto Rican/Mexican/Greek west, you can clock any trip within 10 minutes. And, easy access means increased options –  for a weekend packed with more events and encounters with friends and family than most metropolitans can manage in ten days.

In fact, actor Tom Hanks liked us so much, he made a movie here, “That Thing You Do”.

So, suppose you get displaced. Or, you just need to make that jump.

Do this thing. Spend one year in Erie. Erie, Pennsylvania. If, after 365 days, you don’t feel like settling into the plushest comfort of All [waterfront] American cities, you can go.

But, you’ll never know unless you come to town and find out.

We’ll be here, like we’ve been for over 200 years, still reinventing what’s always been the best thing about living. We’d love to have you.

And, a year means you’d still be around for the first snow.

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copyright 3/13/18  Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  Share liberally. Thanks!!

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“Blessed Assurance”.

 

The boy had a mouth on him.

He was the shortest, darkest, angriest trumpet player I had ever seen. Furthermore, his embouchure (through no fault of his own) had never been properly set and his tone, well, that’s what happens when your embouchure hasn’t been set right.

But, there was something in him. He had a deep, inborn sense of the good. He had principle. And, this combination produced a student of such determined commitment, a young man who put forth with every cell in his body to produce. I was merely the music teacher – a scant, 29 year old, belated second year fledgling – and this guy had convinced his impassioned concoction of underprivileged, underserved, and undertrained in the East High marching band to vote “Yes” to compete. I had my work literally cut out for me – by John Jefferson.

The first solution seemed to be a transfer to the F horn. This instrument’s conical bore mouthpiece would allow an easier tone production, in an alto range. John took to it. He learned the solo. I felt my first small triumph.

But, this, of course, was short lived. John spoke out. From the top tier of the bandroom at the end of the annex, he’d answer me back, in full on challenge, and loud enough for the whole room to hear. He was the alpha male, and I needed to know my place.

As for the next decision, I can remember neither the day nor the hour. I only knew that John needed to be out front. He needed to lead. And, that is exactly where I put him. By the end of his first season as a sophomore, John Jefferson was East High drum major.

The whole uniform fit him like the glove on his right hand. The epaulets were never more proud to grace any shoulder. But, most of all, John could finally assume the position he was born to take. John Willis Jefferson could stand, stock still – chin up, eyes fixed – at attention. And, John Willis Jefferson could salute.

The band did their absolute best. I always regretted that the association in charge of the competitions never produced a trophy for Most Developed Ensemble, because my kids deserved a big one. Nevertheless, led by John and his cohorts Shawn and Melanie, the students faltered not once. They just held up their heads .

John graduated from public education during my final year at his high school. The district would move me, against my will, across town to fill a vacancy, and I would never see either him or the rest of the students who would call me “mom” again.

That is, not until one, singular occasion.

Via the blessing of social media, I had been reunited with several former students. Naturally, one of the first to find me was John. Except that he had produced quite a life story – married, to Mindy, and the father of at least two of his three boys. But, about to realize more of that story, quite without warning I received news of an upcoming event: a 20th Class Reunion.

I’d been to several. In fact, every five years, my classmates from Academy High had dutifully taken on the enormous task of bringing us all together for dinner and more.

But, John.

John didn’t just tell me about his. John invited Miss Scanzillo to the East High 20th Reunion of the Class of 1990.

He was hosting, he said. Would I please come? They would be honored by my presence.

To my memory, no teacher had ever attended a high school class reunion. Certainly none of my former teachers were ever present at any of mine – not the 5th, the 10th, the 15th….you get the picture.

The night of the event, I thought perhaps I should appear low key. Clad in a casual, soft summer top and capris, I slipped into Calamari’s Squid Row. The doors opened into a full diningroom draped in white linen. A grand buffet spread across the front, covered in decorative stainless steel. And, presiding at the head of the long, formal room was: John Jefferson.

Master Sergeant John Jefferson, US Air Force.

In full dress.

The red and grey drum major’s costume had been replaced by the dark woolens of the United States Military, Sgt Jefferson’s chest emblazoned with three rows of colored ribbon and precious medals. I was beyond stunned.

Finding a discreet seat at one of the table rounds, I set my gaze on our John. He spoke as loudly as ever before, but with a refined speech, a grace, and a carriage that made my heart well up. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

We kept in touch, after that. Facebook chat was a great place to convene, no matter where he was deployed. He’d check in, from Iraq, Afghanistan….and, always, the sign off: “I love you!”

See, something else had happened to John.

During the first year he and Mindy became a couple, they had both committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Now, not everyone will know what that means to those about whom such an act bespeaks. But, to the faithful, becoming a born-again Christian is what happened to John. This meant that, like my father before him, John accepted a life changing force into his heart. They called this the Holy Spirit, and to this Spirit’s direction and counsel both men would vow to remain true.

John and I continued, now familiar references to prayer and faith peppering his dialogue.

Life marched on, past another decade of Veteran’s Days. Twenty five more years, to be nearly precise. My adored father passed on into eternity, age 95, and I retired from public school music education. Then, word came to me that John and his family were coming back to Erie for another visit. Would I please join them all, for dinner?

Overjoyed, I met the entire family – at Chic-Fil-A. The boys were sweet, quiet (like their mother!) and polite. John talked of his travels and experiences, of meeting President George W Bush; I marveled. Mindy and I met, for the first time, that day – and, before we ate, John bowed his head and publicly asked the blessing for our food.

Last October, (could it be?) John had reached a life milestone. Now Senior Master Sergeant, he was set to retire from the US Air Force. Twenty six years of devoted service to his God and country. A full military ceremony was scheduled, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. On Facebook, the word went out as an open invitation.

It only took me a couple days to decide.

I flew in. Mindy met me, at the gate, to grant guest of family passage. High security, all around. Miles of real estate, devoted to air power, air men and women, and their commander. I was introduced to the latter, in the office where SMSgt Jefferson had been spending most of his time. A gracious civilian base employee chauffeured me all around the grounds, allowing me a few select photos.

And, then the ceremony. Getting a bear hug from John was the icing on the cake, or so I thought. But, then John’s colleague, a Major, stepped to the podium.

What followed was a litany of awards and accomplishments so vast that I could not contain the realization. John hadn’t just devoted his life to service; he had positively excelled. Officer of the Year. Medals for this, and medals for that. A contract officer, SMSgt Jefferson had, near as I could tell, managed millions of dollars of military monies over two decades of military action across the globe.

The celebration was surreal, a fascinating trek through life passing before one’s eyes. His insisting that I sit “with the family”, me stubbornly resisting that “order” so as to get my choice photos, I sat on the officers’ side. The formal presentation was followed by John’s individualized “thank you’s”. I received the final, single red rose, and words of gratitude which could only be overtaken by those of my own; this old music teacher just had to make sure everyone in the room knew that John had begun his career out front, directing the East High Marching Band. Always a leader, always an outstanding man, from the beginning.

Then, the final occasion.

Last week, I would receive the last of so many words on my beloved student, the boy who came closer to being my own son than any other child I would ever know. Inexplicably, after a mere two months of retired bliss and following a statistically innocuous routine medical procedure, John would cease breathing; efforts to revive him failing, his brain would swell; by sundown the same day, those in power would declare his brain death and, only hours thereafter on a vent and then off, at the age of only 45 his body would give up its ghost to the God of all believers.

This time, I could not attend.

John’s had been a life so worth celebrating; how could I even acknowledge his untimely and unacceptable death? My best effort was to sit, holding the single rose he’d presented to me, and weep.

The world had become, in large, increasing part, a frightening and sinister place for humans to reside. Nations, rising up against nations; holy wars fast becoming the order of the day. Addiction and apathy, married; deceit and treachery, lurching into the limelight; and, all efforts to revive hope, faith, and charity met by the darkest of demons.

Today, many a Scripture verse from the Book of my childhood speaks to me in solitude, along with the memes on my grandmother’s wall:

“For if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

I hope to God it’s all true.

Because, if ever there were a voice on earth deserving of the realization of its passionately held convictions, that voice belongs to the soul of SMSgt John Jefferson.

And, I can still hear him.

SMSgtJohnJeffersonFinalSalute2018

© photo by Ruth Ann Scanzillo 10/17.

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© 3/9/18   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.  This piece dedicated to the life and memory of SMSgt John Willis Jefferson, of Erie PA. All rights to its contents the strict property of the author, copied only by the author and shared with those who carry respect for its subject.

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The Erie Chamber Orchestra Will Rise, Again.

 

Some things must never be said.

And, other things must never be done.

After last night’s performance of the Erie Chamber Orchestra, I can contain myself no longer. Having been urged to keep quiet about everything until now, it is time. I must speak.

I come to you as the principal cellist of the orchestra whose inception took place in the mind of one Bruce Morton Wright. An Erie boy, raised by faithful parents, he grew to express musical talent early on – earning enrollment at our local Mercyhurst College as a music major, on tenor sax. After completing his degree and spending several years “playing out” at various jazz clubs, he found himself in the audience of a symphony orchestra.  As he sat, listening, Bruce had an epiphany.

I can remember him telling us about it.

Bruce could always tell you about it. The man had stories, each more vivid and hilarious than the last. This one was fairly straightforward; as he sat there, in the audience, the thought occurred to him: “I could do this. I could start an orchestra.”

Never daunted, that is exactly what he did. Bruce traveled, first to Vienna, Austria and, from there, to Colombia, South America, to study conducting and gain experience. Upon his return to the states in the late 1970s, he and his wife Merja came home to Erie to establish his first orchestra. And – ever the maverick – the new maestro took his newly formed ensemble one step beyond the norm; Bruce vowed to make his performances available to anyone who wanted or needed to hear them. No admission charge. None.

Nearly 40 years hence, through a couple incarnations ( originally named the Erie Bayfront Orchestra, housed at a local urban center and, in its second decade, enjoying a CNN special feature interview broadcast world wide), Bruce’s orchestra still breathes life into the works of the greatest composers, living and dead. And, March 3rd’s concert was shimmering testament. We performed the Barber Adagio, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, and – incredibly – the entire Vivaldi Four Seasons with none other than the brilliant Buffalo Philharmonic Concertmaster, Dennis Kim, as leading soloist. And, we did THAT in a 15 minute Tutti read and one 90 minute rehearsal.

N.o.b.o.d.y. does that.

The Erie Philharmonic doesn’t do that. I would wager that even a top ten tier orchestra doesn’t put Vivaldi’s Four Seasons out to the public on one rehearsal.

If you were in our audience, you heard the outcome. Thank you, so very much, for coming.

Now, here’s the ugly part.

Though the ECO was being sustained by both the Musician’s Trust Fund and the generous endowment of one Clarence Byers, about twenty years ago Bruce entered into an agreement with Gannon University. Founded by Catholic Bishop John Mark Gannon, it would become the region’s primary science and technology institution, attracting a long history of pre med students( in a partnership with Hahnemann Medical School) and  an ever increasing multitude of potential engineers of every persuasion, many of them foreign students. Gannon agreed to subsidize the orchestra.

From Gannon Bruce commanded comparatively little by way of compensation, and received for his musicians not a penny. As for staff, well, Bruce was everything: musical director, baton, librarian, publicity agent, and stage crew. Many a conversation in trusted confidence occurred after rehearsal, as Bruce stocked chairs and stands into their proper storage. As a single, self supporting woman teaching music in the public schools, I had no more valued an advisor or counsel than that of my chamber orchestra maestro.

In 2011, Bruce succumbed to multiple myeloma. We grieved, deeply.  But, in keeping with his vision, we pressed on; hiring a new musical director, as well as a general manager (knowing full well that Bruce could never truly be replaced), we never missed a beat. By fall, we were ready with our season. And, we thrived; our repertoire expanded, and our audience burgeoned to 800+, creating a lovely problem: we needed a performance space large enough to accommodate our audience!

Therewith the following six years.

According to the story we were given, in the fall of 2017 Gannon discovered that they could no longer support us financially. We aren’t entirely sure when, as an institution, they came to this conclusion; we only know that the news came to us, as a professional organization, when we read about it in the local paper.

Yes. Forty years of collective professional commitment and artistry, and we received the equivalent of that which a parent experiences when he/she first hears of a child’s death on the televised news.

Not a single one of our section principals was consulted. Our newest Maestro, Bradley Thachuk – also totally ignored. We were never even apprised of the ongoing financial concerns, yea the threat, of dissolution as it emerged; instead, we found out by reading the published announcement that our beloved orchestra would fold at the end of the season.

This act, on the part of Gannon University, was unconscionable.

Not only does it reflect badly on Gannon’s management but, far worse: their action represents a sin of omission, a complete abdication of the precepts upon which they, as a Catholic institution, were founded. What they did to us was callous, low class, and professionally unforgiveable.

Had any number of the orchestra’s membership been contacted with any degree of warning, we could have done several things. We could have set about to solicit regional support; we could have appealed publicly, via the news media; we could have prepared for the worst, in order to save our orchestra.

Instead, we were left high and dry, offered only the option of accepting the venture created by the one person Gannon contacted, allegedly on our behalf: our former general manager, who now worked for another orchestra!

Gannon actually promised our remaining funds to this individual, who created a chamber series (quartets/trios, et al) and went public about his plan. The only problem with this series is: the vast majority of Erie Chamber Orchestra members, both recent and of longest standing, are set to be displaced by this venture, which will only be utilizing contracted members of the other orchestra. At last count, there were only a handful ( I count eleven) of Erie Chamber orchestral musicians (total membership: 40+ ) holding contracts with the other orchestra.

I am among those displaced.

As fifteen years’ principal cellist with the Erie Chamber Orchestra, and member since 1986, I performed cello continuo last evening to Buffalo Philharmonic Concertmaster Dennis Kim’s Vivaldi. As of April 29th, 2018, I and dozens of others are officially without a position in a professional orchestra.

The blogosphere is world wide. You, dear readers, are hearing this story because it is a.) true; b.) worthy of your ears, and c.) of critical importance to the entire artistic community. We cannot let our educational institutions behave like hostile corporations. We cannot permit them to play with lives as if these are mere pawns on the chessboard of their own, self serving interests. And, we must preserve those entities which consistently produce the beauty and truth which the highest art embodies.

We need to start, from scratch. We need a new name, the funds to pay a conductor, plus enough to cover basic musician’s wage and advertising. Yes; we are already taking the steps to regroup. If/when we re-emerge, we hope to have your name proudly attached to those who care most about the ideals we bring to life. We hope for your support.

We have never asked much. Four rehearsals, plus performance, plus the unlimited number of hours in private practice preparation for a paycheck not exceeding $250 per musician. That is a pauper’s wage, in our time. If you were to step up to help us, our love for you would grow with every breath.

And, Bruce Morton Wright, from his spirit, would thank you.

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© 3/4/18  Ruth Ann Scanzillo – Principal cellist, ERIE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA. Erie PA. PLEASE, SHARE LIBERALLY, WITH CREDIT TO THE AUTHOR, WHO WRITES ON BEHALF OF MARIAN BYARD, JAMES PEARSON, NICOLE MACPHERSON, GEOFFREY WANDS, BRIAN HANNAH, ERIK SUNDET, MEGAN RAINBOW, BRIAN WALNICKI, TED SMELTZ, MERJA WRIGHT, ANNA ROSE WELCH, CARL LAM, ANDREW SEIGEL, LAURA NELSON, JENNIFER DAUB ASHBAUGH, MICHELE NAPOLITAN, MAUREEN CONLON-DOROSH, HILARY PHILIPP, CARRIE BORLAND, KENT TUCKER, SLOAN LADWIG, HOWARD P. LYON, LOUIS NICOLIA, AND THE REST OF THE WONDERFUL, EQUALLY QUALIFIED PROFESSIONALS WHO FILL THE REMAINING SEATS OF THE ERIE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA.

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