A great day for Pedro and Susan

Posted on March 28, 2011 by Leave a comment

It’s an understatement to say it was a thrill for me on Friday when I attended the presentation ceremonies of the inspiring portrait of major league baseball pitching ace Pedro Martinez into the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

This is the nation’s premier repository of portraits of those who’ve made an impact on American life, from politics and the arts, to business, sports, science, even crime.

“It’s like America’s Facebook,” commented director Martin Sullivan, greeting over 100 people in the auditorium on the bright, brisk morning.

 “It’s a brilliant day,  full of energy and life and perfect for inducting this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery,” he added.

The portrait depicts Pedro, eight time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner and a World Series champ with the amazing 2004 Red Sox, in his prime. He’s on the mound, arms slightly raised, elbows bent as he prepares to hurl a pitch. There’s a look of commitment on his face as he stares with strong determination into the unseen batter’s eyes. His long, talented fingers curl around the ball. It’s a moment in time, perfectly preserved.

“She’s captured such a telling likeness of him,” said Sullivan, as he introduced the speakers..

The “she” Sullivan referred to is artist Susan Miller-Havens, who so ably captured Martinez’s fierceness, as well as his heart  in the work, one of three portraits she painted of him in her Cambridge gallery over 10 years ago.

 Miller-Havens is my lifelong friend, dating back to Miss Grace Bloom’s kindergarten class at the Forest Avenue School in Glen Ridge, N.J.  Her artwork fills the 1962 Glenalog, our high school yearbook.

I have followed her career since we reconnected at our 25th high school reunion almost 25 years ago. I saw her Pedro on view before at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J. and I also savored her portrait of stellar catcher Carlton Fisk that’s also part of the permanent collection in the National Portrait Gallery two years ago. I’ve written about her work featuring women and their dogs that was featured in a group show during Lowell Women’s Week eight years ago. 

But I wasn’t prepared for the moving events that took place on Friday, and several days later, still find myself processing all that happened that day.

 First, Susan talked about Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who “understood the beauty and athleticism” of his subjects. “He said ‘art is not what you see, but what you make others see,'” noting that she lives by that expression, which hangs on her studio wall.

She talked of meeting Pedro and getting to know him, something she does with every subject she paints.

“Pedro is exceptional. I spent time with him, talked about gardening and life with him, got to know his family. I saw his devotion to his country, his promise to help children and to build a church there where there was none and of his love of nature, his soul,  and. yes, his moodiness.” said Susan.

“Pedro is one of the greatest pitchers who has ever played baseball, but he also has a great heart,” she added. And that made him an exceptionally appealing subject for her to paint.

Gloria and Peter Gammons, the great ESPN baseball commentator who grew up nearby in Groton, donated the portrait to the NPG from their extensive art collection. Gloria had purchased it for Peter several years ago on his birthday. They loved it a lot. But they also knew it deserved to be seen by millions more over the coming years, decades, even centuries, as an important part of American history and culture that the NPG preserves and presents  in its collection.

“Gloria bought it for Peter seven years ago and I know how much they treasure it,” said Sullivan.

His Excellency Dr. Roberto Saladin, ambassador of the Dominican Republic, also spoke and commended Pedro for his talent, but also his commitment to his native country.

“It’s a great  honor to congratulate Pedro Martinez, and thanks to Susan Miller Havens for capturing his strength and talent. He is an artist with his arm and every  Dominican is proud of Pedro. He’s a wonderful example to our nation,”  he said.

Finally, it was Pedro’s time to speak. And when he did,  a standing ovation erupted and greeted him. He thanked God, his family and all who had contributed to his success in life. He lauded Susan for her stellar work.

“My friend Suze –  you did a great painting. I love you and am proud of you and proud to be the one you painted,” he said.

Overcome with emotion, he wiped tears from his eyes and noted, “I never felt this much emotion in any of the games I played. I’m sorry, Suze, I didn’t know this was going to happen. I thank you all, I thank God from above and I am extremely proud and happy. It is an honor to be inducted into this museum. Susan, you are beautiful and your artistry is even prettier.”

His family, including his mother, wife and children flocked to the stage, hundreds of photos were taken and dozens of hands were shaken. “This is a day to celebrate,” said Sullivan. “Now millions will see Pedro’s portrait, as it joins presidents, poets, activists, actors, men and women of greatness who have shaped our nation.”

Afterward, at the reception, Pedro signed autographs, posed for more pictures, including one with my awe-struck grandson Jack, and basked in the glory of the day. Susan looked on, hugged her friend and marveled at his hands. He marveled at hers, too, two artists – one with a ball, the other with a brush – who have added to the national legacy preserved in the National Portrait Gallery.

It was a day to remember – one I’ll never forget – and neither, I bet,  will Pedro Martinez nor Susan Miller Havens either.

Visit www.millerhavens.com for her detailed explanation of the Pedro Project.

In memoriam

Posted on March 23, 2011 by Leave a comment

It’s said that deaths come in threes and, once again, the old adage holds true, as three remarkable people I’ve had the chance to interview and write about have passed away within the course of several days. 

The first is Jon Lipsky, a remarkably talented Boston playwright, teacher and director, who died of cancer over the weekend in his Martha’s Vineyard home. I knew Lipsky in the early 1990s, when David Kent named him playwright-in-residence at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and Lipsky worked his magic on stage there, creating what Kent called his Lowell Trilogy of plays. The first was Maggie’s Riff, a play about Jack Kerouac and based on Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy. I recall David Zoffoli portraying Kerouac in a captivating performance that paid tribute to Lowell’s legendary writer. But the Lipsky work that completely moved and mesmerized me was Survivor: A Cambodian Odyssey, a taunting, terrifying, terrific play that captured the essence of the experiences so many of Lowell’s new Cambodian residents had endured. It was a magnficent piece of theater and went on to national acclaim, since it was selected to be a party of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a great recognition for any work. I also enjoyed Lipsky’s work at the Museum of Science, where he made a somewhat dry, non-theatrical-seeming topic – Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity – come to life for a non-scientist like me. He was always accessible, friendly and smarter than anyone in the room.

Sandy Walters’ death is the second in recent days and one I only learned about through a posting Paul Marion made today on the dickhowe.com blog. Walters, of course, was one of the early superintendents of the Lowell National Historical Park, here when the park was taking off and establishing institutions as the Tsongas Industrial History Center and the Lowell Folk Festival. I remember Walters as a fun-loving, approachable and dedicated to making the LNHP a stand-out in urban parks. One strong memory stands out of her performing a comic act with then Congressman Chet Atkins at a fundraiser for the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Indeed, those were heady, fun days in Lowell.

The third death is Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood icon, actress and humanitarian. La Liz came to Boston in the late 1980s, to promote her fragrance, Liz Taylor’s White Diamonds, a perfume named after her remarkable jewelry collection, with all profits going towards AIDs research. Liz arrived at Jordan Marsh, an entourage in tow. She was still gorgeous, with that remarkably creamy skin, violet eyes and sense of fun when she talked. Those were the days when The Sun sent me in to cover all the celebs showing up in the Hub, and, thanks to my Jordan Marsh publicist friend Lois Frankenberger, I got close access to Ms. Taylor, who wowed me and the rest of the press entourage with her wit, charm and commitment to her cause.  Her acting was memorable, so, too was her life, despite its scandals and tragedies. 

These three people each made an impact on me with their talent, commitment and lives well-lived. All fine examples of making the most of life and giving back. I’m honored to have known them, even for a brief moment, and to have had a chance to write about them and share their stories with readers. May they rest in peace.

Casting call

Posted on March 16, 2011 by Leave a comment

Calling all extras! Here’s your chance to be in another movie. 

Boston Casting has announced two calls this weekend for a new Kevin (King of Queens) film Here Comes the Boom, slated for filming in the area late March to early June. According to my sources at Boston Casting, they need hundreds of people of all ages for this comedy.

Here’s the specifics. There’s an open call on Sunday at the VFW Lowell, 190 Plains St., Lowell from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and another that day from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at  Burlington Mall, 75 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington. Bring a current photo.

Again, all ages – 18 and up – welcome. If you recall, James filmed Paul Blart, Mall Cop a couple of years ago at Burlington Mall and had a fine time doing it.

See you there!

Of deer and foxes

Posted on March 16, 2011 by Leave a comment

It’s been quite a week for a suburban girl like me, who admittedly loves the buzz of city life, but always enjoys escaping back to the cozy raised ranch I call home in Acton.

But this is about my brief, albeit scary, encounter with wildlife, not once but twice in a matter of days. 

The first happened last Friday night, when I was driving along Rt. 2A, somewhere on the Concord-Lincoln-Lexington line near Minuteman National Historical Park. Molly, my granddaughter, and I were caught up in a bit of reverie recalling favorite parts from the adorable movie Gnomeo and Juliet that we’d just seen in Burlington. It was a girls night out for us, as I was having her stay overnight, while the rest of her family was in Maine, for the start of her brother Jack’s first official hockey tournament.

Molly was safely strapped in in the backseat, chatting away about the movie, when, out of nowhere, it seemed, a flash of white appeared in the headlights on the right side of the car. There was a bump into the car’s fender, and I quickly swerved to avoid the deer, clearly a large one and likely a doe. Without limping away, the deer ran off and the car seemed fine, no scraping on the wheels or flat tire. So I headed home, with Molly asking in the back seat “what was that?”

At home, I pulled in the driveway, noticed a dent in the fender and quickly called my husband and our insurance guy. The next morning in daylight, the damage seemed much more, but the car was still drivable, so I filed my claim and brought Molly to Maine for the rest of Jack’s tourny.

Enough of wildlife, I thought, admitting I’d been a bit rattled by my deer encounter and thankful neither Molly nor I were hurt, especially after hearing horror stories of other deer encounters from Facebook responses I received from friends.

But then on Monday afternoon, sitting by the window in the Kennebunkport home we’ve been lucky to enjoy a lot this winter, I came face to face with wildlife again. This time it was a red fox, blithely skipping across the yard, and, then a few minutes later a smaller red fox, likely his vixen, came prancing by.

They were so close that they looked me in the eye. And I, quite honestly, was glad there was glass, wood and brick between us. Their eyes are quite evil-looking and I can see why the play that came out a few years ago starring Richard Dreyfuss was called Sly Fox. This pair looked looked mighty sly to me and I wouldn’t want to encounter them on a quiet night in the country.

I know wildlife are important to the ecology of a place. But, for me, I hope they don’t come too close and will leave me alone instead of bumping in to my car or staring me straight in the eye.

Looking forward to ‘Two Jews’

Posted on March 16, 2011 by Leave a comment

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Seth Rozin’s comedy Two Jews Walk Into a War opens tomorrow in previews and runs through April 10. This is a production I’ve anticipated with great glee ever since MRT artistic director Charles  Towers told me nearly a year ago that he had nabbed Jerry Kissel and Will LeBow to play the last two remaining Jews in Kabul, Afghanistan, who are trying to maintain their temple even though they hate each other’s guts. Kissel and LeBow are two of Boston’s finest actors, both comedic geniuses and they haven’t appeared together at the MRT in nearly 20  years. This is one you won’t want to miss. I interview them along with playwright Rozin in tomorrow’s Curtain Call column in the Sun’s Stepping Out section and will see the play Sunday and plan to post a review next week. They’ll also join Jack Baldwin and me on WCAP-AM next Thursday, March 24 at 11:15 a.m. Be prepared for laughs. I certainly am. And, by the way, Thursday’s preview is pay what  you can night, a real deal at the box office, cash only from 4:30 p.m. to curtain at 7:30 p.m. Lowell residents get in for a measly $10 on Saturday at 8 p.m. (That’s less than the price of a movie). Check www.merrimackrep.org for other specials, including Director’s Dialogues and a cookies and coffee matinee. See you at the theater. 

Molly meets Miss Alcott

Posted on February 26, 2011 by Leave a comment

I enjoyed a delightful tea party with my granddaughter Molly yesterday at the refined, yet kid-friendly Concord Museum.

There were sweets, of course, fancy mini-cupcakes, brownies and star-shaped cookies. And the tea service itself was fun for kids and their adult companions. We were offered a fine selection of teas from Tea Forte, a Concord business that blends custom teas in intriguing flavors like citrus and ginger and chamomile. But no ordinary tea bags, these special little gems are pyramid- shaped silk infusers, topped with a tiny leaf on a string, that arrive in their own little pyramid-shaped box.

You take the bag from the box, drop it in your individual little tea pot, pull the leaf through the tiny hole in the lid and dip your infuser up and down in the water to brew your tea to the desired strength.

She could have had cocoa, but Molly wanted tea, of course. After all, she’s a little girl who loves tea parties and when you’re having a tea party, you drink tea, don’t you.

I enjoyed watching her take tiny sips of the golden brew, using her spoon daintily, and savoring her chocolate cupcake. And I was  touched when she politely asked if we could take the other goodies home to Jack, Claire and Mom and Dad. Her generosity and love of  family is more evident each day, now that she’s turned five.

But the proper tea wasn’t our only treat. A special visitor had stopped by the museum, stepping in from the cold after her carriage broke down on the way home from Boston. It was none other than Louisa May Alcott (or her alter-ego, Jan Turnquist, who manages the nearby Orchard House, the Alcott homestead where LMA wrote Little Women nearly 150 years ago.)

Molly is still too young to read Little Women, but she gamely got into the spirit of the visit, chatting easily with Miss Alcott. Among  tidbits she shared was that she likes to make books; that, like Jo in Little Women,  her Molly doll’s dad serves  in a war and cares for sick soldiers; that, like Jo’s sister Amy in Little Women, she has a teacher named Amy; and the she misses her friend Finny a lot. 

Miss Alcott encouraged her and other children there to read good books if they want to become good writers, to write letters to friends if they miss them and to keep a journal or diary with their thoughts inside. She also said that acting out stories is a good thing – and that’s something Molly excels at. 

Molly was enthralled with Miss Alcott. And the feeling seemed mutual, as Miss Alcott smiled and responded warmly to her frequently raised hand each time. Once Miss Alcott left, several ladies helping at tea told Molly she had asked  good questions.

We ended our day with a scavenger hunt through the museum, something Molly relished as she discovered the antique clocks, pitchers and the Paul Revere lantern. We never found the bonnet, but we’ll save that for another day.

On the way out, she asked to stop in the gift shop to buy “pirate hats” for Jack and Claire, and, oh, yes, one for herself, too, at my urging.

“I had such a good time with you today, Grammy,” Molly said, nodding into a nap in the back seat.

“I did, too, Molly, it was special,” I replied.

Molly made my day shine.  And she and Miss Alcott inspired me to keep reading and writing – maybe even a children’s book to commemorate this special day when Molly met Miss Alcott.

An ‘Exceptional’ play at MRT

Posted on February 21, 2011 by Leave a comment

How far is a mom willing to go to make sure her child has every advantage available to him, or her?

That’s one of the  questions Bob Clyman poses in his new play The Exceptionals,  now playing in a spell-binding world premiere production at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. 

But Clyman also delves into other timely topics –  ethics, eugenics, parenting, competition – in his well-crafted play that’s as current as today’s headlines.

Set in the office and waiting room of a prestigious sperm bank, we meet two moms – Gwen and Allie – who’ve been called in  to discuss their five-year-old sons, Michael and Ethan, and what could lie ahead for these two exceptional little boys, whose biological fathers are from the center’s  catalogue of  “platinum” donors. 

Gwen, ably played by Carolyn Baeumler, is a single mom, uptight, controlling, terribly dependent on her son. Allie, played to sassy perfection, by Catherine Eaton, is loud, bossy, a bit rough around the edges. Still married to Tom (Joseph Tisa), her nice guy, albeit average husband, they think it might be time to give their boy a baby sister.

Claire, the frosty, controlling assistant to the center’s director (another great performance by MRT vet Judith Lightfoot Clarke), runs the meeting and proposes that they give the boys the chance to become truly exceptional by attending a new school the center is creating for its most outstanding children.

The moms recognize it’s in the kids’  best interest. Or is it? And then there’s Tom’s desire to have a child who is simply “average” like him. And Claire’s admission about her own aversion to becoming a parent. And the nasty bickering between Gwen and Allie that amazingly turns to a bonding friendship, of sorts, at the play’s frightening conclusion.

Charles Towers directs the production. Clyman is here on a regular basis, watching audience reaction as he tweaks the script.. It’s a great opportunity to watch the world premiere of a play that is sure to have a life in other theaters around the country.  

Funny, poignant, heart-breaking, disturbing,  The Exceptionals is one you shouldn’t  miss at MRT. Runs through  March 6. Visit www.merrimackrep.org for  times and ticket information.

And, during Lowell Women’s Week,  get $10 off the price of a ticket with a LWW button, available button, at all Women’s Week events, beginning  Monday, Feb. 28. Visit www.lowellwomensweek.org for details and check the cover story on LWW  in the Lowell Sun Steppin’ Out section on Thursday, Feb. 24

Tantalizing ‘Tryst’

Posted on January 21, 2011 by Leave a comment

I caught Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s latest show, a production of Karoline Leach’s thriller Tryst during a matinee performance last weekend,

It’s captivating, frightening and all-enveloping as it deals  with contemporary themes in a setting, 100 years ago,  in Edwardian England..

Today issues like child abuse, incest and eating disorders are not so readily swept under the carpet. Back then, they were, until they came back to haunt the abused or disturbed as adults.

The plot, at first, seems simple. George Love, a charming con man, plies on unsuspecting women, hungry for love, and always with a little nest egg tucked away. Love is so adept at his trade that he can pick the women out without much trouble. He woos them, weds them and gives them a memorable wedding night. Then, in a flash, he’s gone – along with the booty.

Adelaide Pinchin is his latest prey, a dowdy milliner with a brooch and a bounty from a dearly departed aunt. She falls for his charms over cheap wine and onion soup in a little French restaurant. He seals the deal with a  floral bouquet he’s swiped from the cemetery. And, in a matter of days, they elope and head on a honeymoon to a tawdry boarding house by the sea.

But it’s here, it seems, that George has met his match. In a complex turn of events, he  and Adelaide revert to their childhoods, with their deepest, most troubling secrets revealed. Does he succeed in his quest? It can’t be revealed — it would  spoil the suspense.

But this  telling drama, a true cat and mouse game, is one of the best we’ve seen so far on the MRT stage.

That in large part is due to the torrid  pairing of Mark Shanahan (we’ve seen him here before in Rich Dresser’s Augusta) as the charming, despicable George and Andrea Maulella as the dowdy, determined Adelaide. Director Joe Brancato makes this threesome complete, as he has directed the two in two other productions. And their trust and familiarity with each other makes the show all the better for MRT’s audiences. 

Here is one you don’t want to miss. It draws you in as it amuses and frightens with its compelling themes and terrifying message. There is brief nudity, but it’s done tastefully. But the show’s not for kids.  On through Jan. 30. For tickets, visit www.merrimackrep.org.

Lovin’ Lowell and The Fighter

Posted on January 17, 2011 by Leave a comment

How cool was it when Christian Bale accepted his Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for The Fighter and thanked all the people of Lowell? .

And when Melissa Leo, winning for Best Supporting Actress,  thanked David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg for making sure the great legacy of this Lowell boxing family was remembered.  

Dicky did a great job on Channel 5 news talking about his connection with Christian Bale.

The Fighter didn’t take Best Picture, but the two acting awards bode well for a few Oscar nods and more recognition for The Fighter.

Remembering Mary Sampas

Posted on January 12, 2011 by Leave a comment

It’s with great sadness tonight that I report the passing of Mary Sampas, a true Lowell legend and a columnist/reporter at The Sun for a remarkable 75 years. 

Mary died peacefully this morning in a hospice suite at Saints Medical Center. She was 93 and had refused any life-saving treatments to battle her kidney failure.

“She was amazing,” reports her daughter Marina Schell. “She was ready, she’d lived a great life, had wonderful friends and had done everything she’d ever wanted to do.”

Mary, of course, was the arbiter of social events in Lowell, making it to every party, soiree, gala and fete that went on in the Mill City for decades. And she wrote about it with flair and panache on the Sun’s style pages, under several pen names for many years, but most recently under her own name. 

Mary wrote her last column last Thursday from her hospital bed, dictating recollections of a holiday party at La Boniche to her daughter, who then went home, typed the column into her computer and e-mailed it to The Sun newsroom.

What a pro to the end. And what a model to all of us to live life to the fullest, never stop being creative, and never wavering  in your dedication to what you love and believe in.

I knew Mary from our many encounters at parties and really got to know her in September, 2009, when The Sun asked me to do a full-fledged feature on her amazing life. It was fun to sit with her in her lovely Christian Hill home, reminiscing and looking over all the photos of her rich, interesting career. The photos were numerous – Mary with Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Jackie Kennedy, Harry Belafonte and on and on.

We had fun talking and I loved her memories of old Lowell and the people who passed through. 

Mary also did a lot to promote the cultural scene here, from volunteering at the Brush Art Gallery and Folk Festival, to serving on the the board at the Whistler House and Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society.

Mary’s friends loved her. I did, too, and treasure the memories of her witty writing, true dedication and all that she added to the fabric that is distinctly Lowell.

She had fun and we did, too, when we read her columns. She was a class act and hers was a life well-lived. We will miss, but may she rest in peace.

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