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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

ANN ARBOR, a poem by Meaghan Prindle

Mid-morning dawns slow over arbored lawns,
Where collegiate airs mix with quirky town affairs.
Now traverse Washington & State, downtown cosmopolitan and quaint;
Breath stilled at the view long west ‘cross avenues,
Sun’s sleepy rays slant through Midwestern haze
To glaciated hills, painted leaves, fertile till.
Lo, I confess! Rooted deep in my breast
There’s a fervent, enduring love that I harbor,
My city, my home, my beloved Ann Arbor.

Posted by John Hilton at 3:00 p.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 28, 2019


David Swain at the Ann Arbor Skate Park,  September 2014

When my family moved to the new Westaire Terrace subdivision near Haisley School in 1958, Vet's (Veteran's Memorial) Park was still known as the fairgrounds (it had replaced Burns Park in the 1920s as the site for the county fair). A few old buildings still stood on the high ground near Jackson Road where where the fire station, pool and ice rink are now.

There weren't any softball or baseball diamonds yet on the northern, lower area. In their place stood an old harness-racing oval track, though it hadn't been used for a few years. My older sister (who was quite the horse-fancier) was rather disappointed that there had been plenty of equestrian activity in the area, but we got there too late (we had moved from the Burns Park neighborhood, but we didn't know at the time about the relationship between Burns Park and Vet's (you can still see the outline of the track from the way the trees were planted at Burns Park).

I was never any good at most sports, but while still at Haisley School, I decided to try playing golf. My father also took up the game and for many years, we enjoyed playing together about once a week. After my father died in 2014 at age 90 (he scored his last birdie at age 89), I couldn't afford to keep up the membership at Radrick Farms, so I needed to find an alternative sport/activity.

My dad had been living at Hillside Terrace on Jackson Road for a few years and I was nearby in the Hollywood Park subdivision near Abbot School, so I would drive by Vet's Park quite often. The Ann Arbor Skate Park was under construction and would open on the first day of summer in 2014. My first contact with skateboarding (or "sidewalk surfing" as it was then known) was in 1963 when our family took a trip out west in our 1959 2-cycle, 3-cylinder SAAB.

I got a skateboard two years later from Beaver's Bike and Hobby on Church Street (where the Brown Jug back room is now). When M-14 (then called "Northbelt") was first built, a friend and I rode from by the Newport bridge down to the river before it was open to traffic. Coming home, we skated down Wines Drive where my erstwhile sixth-grade teacher, Bill Browning (Mr. B) saw me and remarked on how graceful I was on the skateboard, in contrast to any other physical activities that I had ever engaged in.

I continued to skate through the years. There is a brief film clip of me skateboarding in the legendary Ozone Parade (probably the second one [1973?]) streaming a big American flag behind me. I broke my elbow in 1992 rolling around during a break at my band's gig.

I had never even seen a skate park before one was built right in my neighborhood.

On opening day, I was down there with my bike helmet, garden kneepads, thick-soled Reeboks and my 20 year old skateboard (my "new" one). One of the many great things about the AASP is that no matter what your ability level, there are things you can do there. After going down a few of the gentler ramps, I got the courage to try one of the swimming-pool shaped bowls. I figured (incorrectly) that the more westerly pool (the "kidney bowl") was better for beginners because it had steps going down into it.

I descended the steps and got on my board and gingerly pushed off. The board (and I) accelerated down into the depths and when I got going as fast as was comfortable, I stepped off by kicking the board backwards out of the way. I stood and thought to myself "This is great! So far so good."

Skateboarding isn't rocket science. But it does share some characteristics with NASA including ballistics, and Newtonian physics. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Also, what goes up, must come down. Unbeknownst to me, my board had rolled up the concrete surface, paused ever so briefly, and then reversed its direction. Like the movie shark bent on revenge, the board silently and with ever increasing speed homed in on its target.

In Homer's "The Illiad," Achillles was the very personification of youthful strength, beauty, and valor. He was killed by Paris's arrow that struck him in the heel of his foot, his only vulnerable part. The tendon connecting the calf muscle to the heel bone is called Achiles tendon. The term "Achilles heel" refers to a person's weak spot.

So, I'm standing in the bowl, savoring my modest success, when suddenly I collapse in a heap with a searing pain in my ankle. The board ricocheted off me, rolled up and back again, then nuzzled up against my prostrate form, like a beloved pet trying to console me.

In an example of hope over experience, I look forward to having that pain go away sometime in the future.

Posted by John Hilton at 12:37 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 22, 2019


Victoria Hill and Haley Lu Richardson in The Chaperone. Courtesy PBS Distribution

The Chaperone, a new historical drama from the creators of Downton Abbey, opens Friday in Ann Arbor. The film, the first ever theatrical release from PBS Masterpiece, marks the return to Michigan of its key character, the silent film star Louise Brooks.

The Chaperone was produced by Elizabeth McGovern, Downton Abbey's Lady Crawley. The film was penned by Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and directed by series director Michael Engler, who also directs the forthcoming Downton Abbey feature film set for release in September. McGovern also stars in the new film, playing a corseted, unhappily married woman from Kansas who accompanies the rebellious Brooks to New York City in the summer of 1922.

The Chaperone is a glossy excursion into the morals and manners of the Jazz Age. The film is based on Laura Moriarty's 2012 novel of the same name, which in turn is based on real incidents in the life of Brooks, then a teenager and four years away from movie stardom.

Despite its intention to tell the story of its title character, the matronly chaperone, the film's cinematic focus is drawn to Brooks, played by rising star Haley Lu Richardson. The young actress steals the show.

In real life, Brooks travelled to New York in 1922 to study at Denishawn. As the film suggests, the precocious teen was a star pupil; despite the fact she was only 15 years old, she was offered a role in Denishawn's touring company. It is this dance troupe which first brought Brooks to Ann Arbor and other cities in Michigan.

In the 1920s, Denishawn was considered the leading dance company in America. Its widespread touring introduced modern dance to hundreds of cities and towns across America. The company also proved to be a training ground for a number of significant figures. During Brooks' two seasons with Denishawn, its touring company included not only founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (both historic figures in American dance), but also future great Martha Graham and acclaimed figures such as Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey.

During its 1922-1923 and 1923-1924 tours, Denishawn performed at Detroit's Orchestra Hall as well as the larger venues in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Adrian, Port Huron, Jackson, and Battle Creek. They performed before largely sold out crowds and received considerable press, including many glowing reviews.

The company's two Ann Arbor stops were especially well received. With Brooks an emerging presence in the company, Denishawn performed at Hill Auditorium on October 26, 1922 and November 26, 1923. About the first performance, the Ann Arbor News wrote, "Over 3,500 in the audience and there never has been an audience so appreciative or so enthusiastic about a performance before. On all sides came exclamations of surprise, wonderment, commendation and satisfaction. Round after round of applause broke from the crowd as the dancers left the stage."

The Michigan Daily was just as effusive in its coverage. The second stop was also well received, with the Ann Arbor Times News headlining its review "Denishawns Troupe Scores Triumph."

The Hill Auditorium performances loom large in Denishawn history. In his autobiography, One Thousand and One Night Stands, Shawn devotes more than half a page to the time he landed on the brass handle of a trap door on the Hill Auditorium stage. That injury pained Shawn for the rest of his illustrious career, which included the founding of Jacob's Pillow.

For reasons suggested in The Chaperone – namely her failure to live up to the moral and spiritual code of Denishawn - the 17 year old Brooks was kicked out of the company at the end of her second season. She went on the dance in two Broadway revues – the George White Scandals and Ziegfeld Follies -before landing in the movies. By 1926, her name was on theater marquees across America – including Ann Arbor's now closed Wuerth Theater, where many of her silent films were shown in the late 1920s.

The Chaperone plays Friday, April 26, 2019, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.


Thomas Gladysz is the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, and the author of Louise Brooks the Persistent Star and other books.

Posted by John Hilton at 1:39 p.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

Monday, March 4, 2019


Artwork New World, from the Hear Us! exhibition at Riverside Arts Center, March 2019

For unintended reasons, the visual exhibition "Hear Us!" at the Off-Center Gallery next to Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti offers a perfect example for Women's History Month. Among the many excellent works there can be seen a piece entitled New World, which has been hung above a doorway in the gallery. The placement is odd, at best. But there's a terribly familiar, unspoken message there. By hanging it above the doorway it has effectively lost its power – it's been domesticated like interior decoration. It's not only that the viewer can't see the details in the piece – the PERSIST index card perched on The Thinker's foot, and the particulars of each individual representation – but this remove has reduced it to its colors and the frilly frame. It's become simply pretty. It's eye candy. But useful – see how it bridges the space between the two walls? Yes, it 'made sense' visually, superficially, to place it there. Just as women's usefulness has made complete sense to the patriarchy. The reason the piece was made has been taken from it. The power it was meant to have has been diverted. There is no "hearing us" in the choice to hang it there – there is only confirmation that stealing our power can be a sneaky, subtle thing at times. It can happen even within a women's empowerment exhibition.

The Arts As Healing Foundation Inc. show Hear Us! runs through March 2019, Thurs.-Sat. 3-8:00 p.m., 64 N. Huron, Ypsilanti

Posted by John Hilton at 3:08 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


drawing of Henry David Thoreau

One May 21, 1861, Henry David Thoreau passed through Ann Arbor on the Michigan Central Railroad. The poet and naturalist didn't disembark (he was en route to Minnesota), but in his journal, he jotted down a few observations:

Detroit to Chicago. Very level to [Ypsilanti], then hilly to Ann Arbor, then less hilly to Lake Michigan. All hard wood or no evergreen except some white pine, when we struck Lake Michigan, on the sands from the lake partly & some larch before. Phlox varying from white to bluish & painted cup: deep scarlet & also yellow ? or was this wall flower? All very very common thru' Michigan & the former, at least, earlier.

An Amtrak rider today would see the same landscape, but our springs come earlier. By now, the phlox has blossomed and faded.

Thoreau returned home in Concord, where he died of tuberculosis the following May. He was forty-four.

Posted by John Hilton at 11:40 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 23, 2018


Terry Heck Seibert

"I believe that Terry has gained a kind of immortality through the people she influenced"

-- Todd Sheets

The news sent shock waves through the Southeast Michigan theater community. For many, it started on Facebook, when the actor John Seibert changed his profile picture to a photo of his wife. Many simply clicked "like" on the photo of one of their favorite performers and people. Others already knew that the unidentified victim in an accident reported in the Ann Arbor News was Terry Heck Seibert, 61, co-chair of the theater department at Eastern, a fine performer who appeared at professional theaters in and out of Michigan, including the Purple Rose and the Performance Network. Terry had been hit by a car while walking her dog on April 13, and she didn't make it.

Terry didn't have a Facebook page, so friends and colleagues created one. It's been a place to offer condolences to John and their son, Joseph, for people to commiserate and post announcements-- there will be a memorial for Terry in June, open to the public, after the recent private service the family held at St Francis of Assisi Parish; a group of former students now living in New York are meeting at a bar to remember her. And most of all, it's become a repositorie of memories. Former students, colleagues, and friends have been been sharing stories of her life in education and art, and its impact on them, including these:

"I'm still in shock, still processing this. When it starts to get too heavy for me, I picture her in her office, surrounded by her books, papers, and sticky notes. She'll set her pencil down, lean back in her chair, cross her arms and say: 'Now Joseph, what happened was terrible. But you can't let yourself dwell on it. The best way to honor a life is to keep living yours.' This little constructed thought is somewhat comforting. Terry will continue to teach lessons to her students for many years to come." Joseph Fournier

"There was a day I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed, overbooked, a bit stressed and emotionally destroyed as my grandmother just passed away the day or so before. Terry passed me in the hall…She stopped me, reached out and grabbed my hand and asked what was wrong…. I told her everything and she listened to every word...I explained to her that I was on the verge of taking a semester off, but I feared if I did I would never come back and finish my degree. She looked me in the eye, smiled and said that whatever I need to do, I need to do...but if I was strong enough to make it through this, the next challenge won't seem as hard….I think if this meeting hadn't happened, I would not be where I am, doing what I'm doing, and tackling the challenges that have come my way." Dustin D. Miller

"Terry constantly made fun of me. I mean just murdered me every chance she got. I loved it. She…prepared me for the profession. To this day I use tools she gave me…. I think of her when I teach my students. I think of her when I'm on stage. I will continue to keep her and her godamn laugh in my heart. That godamn laugh." William Coelius

"It was the morning after George W. Bush was re-elected…while I don't recall her exact words, she said something along the lines of 'now art is more important than ever,' and, after years of limited perspective, I began to shed egocentric views of what we were studying and look at larger impacts and purposes of why theatre exists and thrives." Jeff Luttermoser

"Terry was undoubtedly a wonderful teacher and mentor for so many students, but she also took care of her colleagues. She was a mentor to me when I began at EMU, and she continued to work to make sure things are healthy and happy for us in our area. She was my staunch advocate on the topic of maternity leave this semester, and I regret that she never got to meet my new son…I will miss her sardonic, dry wit, her epic snark, and her wonderful laugh. I loved watching her perform on stage, and I enjoyed working with her as a designer when she directed, which she did with sensitivity and a fine collaborative spirit. She was always open to hearing new ideas, and you could see her spirit flare up when she got inspired by something." Melanie Schuessler Bond

"Terry was my colleague and my friend. She was funny, sardonic, thoughtful, fiercely smart and supportive. She was what a university professor is supposed to be, and I am going to miss her beyond words. I could always depend on her to see the gist of an issue and to force proper focus. She tolerated little obfuscation…For several years we co-taught a course…I loved listening to her work with her folks who were enamored with seeing themselves on camera. 'Being on camera isn't the big thing,' she would say. 'Being honest is the thing.'" Geoffrey Hammill

"I remember one of our very first rehearsals for Circle Mirror Transformation. John was directing. [and] gave Terry a character note. Terry immediately shot back with an argument for why she made the choice she did…unlike the typical bickering argument, each word that was coming out of their mouths was genius…. they obviously loved each other so much, but because they were both so good what they did, they weren't afraid to challenge each other. I was a better actor after witnessing that exchange." Sarah Ann Leahy

"Terry was the Mr. Rogers of Michigan theatre. She made me feel smart, capable, funny, and likable. When someone as great as her sees the best in you - you believe what they see. …She was a true role model. The Michigan theatre community adored Terry, and the feeling was mutual." Marissa Conniff

"I would not have graduated without Terry. I would not have found the motivation to stick with theatre after my mom died. I would not have been able to go onstage the week after despite feeling like an empty shell of a human. Terry Heck Seibert gave each of us the courage to be real - onstage and off." Luna Alexander

"There is an incredible bond among people that do a Terry show…Actors fought to work crew on Terry shows just to be around her more. I offered to cook for one of her casts just as an attempt to impress Terry…God how I wish this group was for Terry's retirement." Michael Jaworski

"Losing Terry hurts. She was my first collegiate acting professor. She coached me in my first professional acting gig. She was a thesis advisor for me…She showered me with support and love when I needed it. She kicked my ass when I needed it. She smiled. She laughed. She was more than a mentor to me. She made me a better theatre professional. She made me a better person…Terry will live on in me, because she made me better, and I know I'm not the only one." Rick Eva

"We worked together many many times.... she acted in my plays, she directed my plays, I directed her…When I first started [teaching] at EMU 13 years ago, she became a permanent fixture in my life. I started coming early to make sure I had time to chat with her before classes." Joseph Zettelmaier

"When I teach theatre, I lift some of my best stuff straight from the notes I've taken in her classes…I believe that Terry has gained a kind of immortality through the people she influenced as an actor, director, teacher...human being." Todd Sheets

Posted by John Hilton at 11:43 a.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

SNOWBOUND LANGUAGE, by Stephen Hiltner

photo of snowy landscape


"Isn't it snice?" asked the snaughter, looking out the window at the latest principitation. "Looks like snizzle to me," answered her snaddy with a frown. His snack was still snurting from snoveling the sniveway the snay before.

As they gazed out over the snooftops of their beloved snown, the sunlight danced on the snazzeleen snowscape, all snapples and snazeycakes after sneeks and sneeks of snow.

Snay after snay, Snaddy had snoveled the snidewalk so the sneighbors could sneeze through with their stroller. First had come the snuff, which was pretty enough, but soon followed the snizzle, the snain, and the dreaded snice. The snaughters had been snappy not to have snhool, but as the snours turned to snays, and the snays to sneeks, and the snow rose towards the snooftops, they grew sneary of being snowbound.

"I can't snake it any snore!," said the snife, sneepless after another snight of her snusband's snoring. She had snuffered the snings and snarrows of outrageous snortune one snight too many. "I'm snorry, Snowcakes," offered the snusband sneepishly.

All power in the sneighborhood had been snost. "Snead as a snoornail," declared Snaddy when his snellphone finally snied. "Maybe we could snask the sneighbors to call," said a snaughter. "But we don't even snow their snames," answered Snaddy, snooking out at the snarkening sky.

"I better take the snog for a slog before we get any more snow," said Snaddy, climbing out the second floor window, snog in snand. The snog, too, was losing touch with other sneighborhood snogs, as each snay's p-mails became buried under new-fallen snow. Snavigating the snarrow, snow-lined snidewalk, the snog sniffed disappointedly, then snarled at a snogger snotting by.

Seeing the sneighbors approaching, Snaddy hastened to cross the sneet, snarrowly snissing being snit by a snar. "Snow down!", he snouted at the sniver. Just the other snay, the snog had snarked suddenly at the sneighbors, snaring the snickens out of the sniny snot in the stroller.

The trees had long since become snees, and snice had turned many a weak-trunked snee into a snoodle. "Once a snoodle, always a snoodle," worried Snaddy, snooking at a birch snee arched completely over in front of a snouse. Dodging the snool snipping from the snees, Snaddy wondered how he had ever become the designated snog-slogger.

Finally they returned snome, the snog's fur filthy from the snirty snow lining the sneets. That evening, as they snat down to sneat some leftover snoup, sneary beyond snords, Snaddy wondered if he'd ever snortle again.

"Is it possible to be blinded by the snight if it's snight-time?" asked one snaughter, confused by the new snowbound language. "Why are we snalking like this?" asked the other. "I don't snow," answered Snaddy, "but it has something to do with snimate snange. Just snink good snoughts, and snope it snoon will be snover."

Posted by John Hilton at 1:04 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Detroit Zoo water tower

In the early 1990s, when I was in my late 30s, I lived in Huntington Woods, a small suburb of Detroit near Royal Oak. I had lived in many parts of Detroit over the past dozen or so years (near the Algiers Motel just north of the New Center, by Harpo's on the east side, on Grand Circus Park next to where Comerica Park is now, and in the Grandmont #1 subdivision near Rosedale Park on the northwest side of the city), and I would soon move back to the Ann Arbor area. In addition to living by where I-696 was being built and by the City of Detroit’s Rackham Golf Course (where Joe Louis and many of the Motown artists had played), I was close enough to the Detroit Zoo that I could hear some of the animals (mostly seals) from my front yard.

For one year, I got an annual pass to the zoo which entitled me to free admission. I was a regular there during the quiet winter months. Attendance was sparse, compared to the summer months. When there are thousands of visitors at the zoo, most of the animals pretty much tune them out. When there are only a handful of people coming by during the day, the humans seem more interesting than they would be otherwise (one factor could be that with fewer homo sapiens present, the odds are better that one of them just might be the Bearer of Food). The cold weather also made some animals more active during the day. The arctic foxes were always capering about, looking like extra fierce pomeranians. Near the foxes were the hyenas, who always seemed to appreciate my visits.

I had a rather ratty (and smelly) green winter coat that I always wore and during those cold, quiet, and deserted months at the zoo, the hyenas and I developed a little game of hide and seek. I would try to sneak up on their enclosure, hiding behind benches and trash cans. But whether by sight, sound, or smell, my playmates were always able to sense my approach.

By early spring, more people were going to the zoo. There was a field trip of grade-school kids around the hyena enclosure, boisterously trying in vain to attract the animals' attention. When the Detroit Zoo was built in the 1920s, it was one of the first zoos to experiment with enclosures that didn’t have bars. The hyenas were in an area that was separated from the paying public by a moat and a low wall.

The hyenas were a study of boredom and nonchalance in the face of the children’s best efforts. That changed instantly when the hyenas got wind of their old playmate (me) wearing his trademark jacket. The hyenas went to battle stations, hunkering down and backing up with tiny steps as though they were preparing to leap. The hyenas were not the only ones whose affect underwent a sudden and profound transformation. There was panic and mass hysteria from the little children, who didn’t understand why the rules had changed so suddenly (and not in their favor). No one got hurt, and the young people were given the opportunity to learn an important lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

Posted by John Hilton at 1:39 p.m. | 2 comments Bookmark and Share

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