The Inaugural Cobalt Club Wedding Reception

“A wedding reception at The Cobalt Club?”

“Yes,” Millicent said firmly.  “Is there a problem with that?”  She was giving me the glare she hadn’t used on anyone since Mandy Shunnarah attempted to enter the premises while wearing roller skates.

“No,” I replied, “there’s not a problem with it.  It’s just that we’ve never hosted one before.”

“But is that any reason why we should not, sir?” Currie asked.

Birmingham artists and soon-to-be-newlyweds Sarah Miller and Allan Woodall met during the filming of the 2012 short film We Never Talk Anymore.

“And it is Ms. Miller and Mr. Woodall, sir,” Emsworth reminded me.

I had been reading in the library when the three of them surrounded me in the hard-boiled egg chair.  Sometimes it feels like I work for them instead of the other way around.

“Emsworth, you know I won’t say ‘no’ to Sarah and Allan,” I told him.  “They’re regulars, they’re among the club’s most loyal supporters, and Sarah was even on staff here for a while.  She even designed our current logo.  Of course we will host a reception for them.  It’s just that…”

“Just that what?” Millicent asked.  Her voice was still sharp.

“We will just need to be properly prepared, that’s all.”

“In what way, sir?” Currie asked.

“Well, it’s a wedding reception.  Beverages will be served.”

A portion of Allan and Sarah's wedding shower actually took place in a shower.

“Indeed, sir,” Emsworth agreed.

“You know Sarah’s propensity for spilling things.  Baxter is still mad at me for recommending he hire her to serve drinks in the lounge.  At her own wedding reception, we’re likely to need to more raincoats and umbrellas than the audience at a Gallagher show.”

“I would suggest that you’re overstating things a bit, sir,” Currie said with a discreet cough.

“And then there’s Allan.  One never knows when or where inspiration might strike him and he’ll begin working on one of his Spatter Beast creations.  They’re incredibly imaginative, but you know that the artistic process is not always fastidious.”

Emsworth cleared his throat.  “I am quite confident, sir, that we shall be up to the task of promptly and thoroughly absterging the establishment after any spillage by Ms. Miller, as well as any drips or splashes resulting from impromptu art on the part of Mr. Woodall.”

“Then, by all means,” I said, “let’s host their wedding reception.”

Millicent nodded.  “Good.  Because the Mean People Art Collective is downstairs planning it right now.”

The Mean People Art Collective: (clockwise from top) Wade Smith, the super-villain Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor hope to be when they grow up; the musical Carrie Hill, who once painted a $2 million portrait; the irrepressibly cheerful Mandy Shunnarah; Allan, Sarah, and the smart and savvy Billie Dupree. That's me in the middle being eaten by the alligator.

There was no point in even feigning surprise.  “Then I shall go down and join them.”

In the dining room I found Wade Smith, Carrie Hill, Mandy, and Billie Dupree huddled around a table, engrossed in conversation.  “Hey,” Billie called to me, “it’s about time you got here.”

“Yeah,” Mandy said.  “Did you hear?  The club is hosting Sarah and Allan’s surprise wedding reception.”

“I heard,” I said, taking the empty chair beside Wade.  “Except for the part about the surprise.  If they don’t know about it, how will they get here?”

“They think we’ve already made arrangements to have the reception at another venue,” Carrie explained.  “The guests will all know to come here, and then I’ll drive Sarah and Allan here in the pedicab.”

“Getting back to the food,” Billie said.  “We’ll need plenty of okra.”

“And fried pickles,” Mandy suggested.

“How about a pasta bar?” Wade asked.

“Coordinate it with Chef Guy,” I said.  “He’ll make it happen.”

Even without an ostrich to chase Wade around in case of a lull in the festivities, this should be a reception no one is likely to forget any time soon.

Happy wedding to the Magic City’s most artistic couple.

Allan and Sarah when they were named Birmingham's pizza royalty by Slice Pizza & Brew. Drawing by Allan.

 

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31 Days of Comic Art Obscurity

“You seemed to be having fun with your Instagram account last month,” the mysterious Story Girl said as she sat down across the table from me in the lounge.
The indie publishing house owner had chosen a good night to stop by the club.  The Hearts’ first set was 15 minutes away, and the room was packed.  I like nights like this, when the place is full of the faces of old familiar regulars and newer faces such as that of the enigmatic brunette with the dark glasses.
“I was,” I said.  “I don’t often take part in monthly photo challenges, but that one was too good to pass up.”
The theme was A-Z and 1-5, a letter and number for each day of October, and I chose to mark the occasion by selecting images from the past 60 or so years of comic book art, including some of my favorite lesser-known characters, all of which are owned by DC Comics.
“It was an intriguing idea,” Story Girl said.  “Where did you get the photos?”
“They’re all from books in my collection.  I loved superheroes as a kid and never grew out of it, although now I have a greater appreciation of comic books as a storytelling medium and an art form.  It was a lot of fun scouring through my books looking for characters to correspond with the letters.  And the more obscure the character is, the better.  I thought the photo challenge would be a great way to showcase some of those old friends.”
“Nice,” she replied, “although I don’t think I saw all of the posts.”
I tapped a few keys on my tablet and pushed it across the table to her.  “Knock yourself out.”
A.  Aquaman, one of my favorite fictional characters.
B. The Bug-Eyed Bandit, an obscure villain who fought the Atom a few times during the 1960s. He was an entomologist who turned to a life of crime after inventing an army of mechanical insects to do his nefarious bidding
C. The Crimson Avenger, who first appeared in Detective Comics #20 (December, 1938). Debuting about six months after Superman and six months before Batman, he was the first masked superhero in comic books. His secret identity was Lee Travis, a wealthy newspaper publisher.
D. Donovan Flint, the protagonist in David Michelinie’s Star Hunters series, published by DC Comics in the late 1970s.
E. The Elongated Man. Ralph Dibny acquired stretchy powers like Plastic Man after drinking an elixir derived from a tropical plant. One of his adventures with the Justice League of America took place in Russia in the winter of 1985, hence the earmuffs.
F. The Flying Fish. A champion swimmer who turned to a life of crime after developing aerial skills, this terrifying super-villain struck fear into the hearts of mariners until Aquaman reeled him in.
G. The Gambler. After scooping up the moneybags that had fallen out of the armored car that accidentally crashed in his vicinity, Steven Sharpe decided it would be more productive to be a crook than a law-abiding citizen. So he adopted the persona of a riverboat gambler and began his felonious career, during which he joined the Injustice Society of the World and often found himself at odds with Green Lantern.
H.  The Human Bomb. Making his debut in Police Comics #1 (August, 1941), Roy Lincoln was a scientist who ingested 27-QRX (the explosive chemical he developed) to keep the Nazis from getting their hands on it. It gave him the ability to cause explosions whenever he touched something. Donning an asbestos costume and embarking on a superhero career, he switched to a Fibro-wax (whatever that is) suit once his writers learned about asbestos-related health hazards.
 I. Inside Earth is where Cave Carson’s adventures took place. A spelunker who built a vehicle (it looked like a sports car with a giant corkscrew mounted to the front) that could drill through the Earth’s crust, Carson and his crew paid frequent visits to the core during the early 1960s, where they encountered a sea serpent, a lava creature, a magnetic monster, a giant spider, aliens, an army of robots, an underground civilization, dinosaurs, an energy crrature, mole men, a flame creature, and a tribe of South American natives.  How the aliens, robots, and South Americans got to the center of the Earth without the corkscrew car remains unclear.
J. Jonny Double. The San Francisco-based private investigator with a penchant for snappy banter and turtleneck sweaters first appeared in Showcase #78 (November, 1968), earning 50 bucks a day plus expenses for a case that had him taking on the syndicate. Later he helped Supergirl defeat the evil criminal mastermind Dr. Tzin-Tzin and fought to save the world from the super-villainous menace of Kobra. One would hope that he got a raise for those cases.
K. King Faraday.  DC Comics’ top counterespionage agent, he first appeared in Danger Trail #1 (July, 1950). This atmospheric panel is from his adventure “Thunder Over Thailand, ” in which Faraday found himself tracking down the former head of the Axis Strategic Weapons Research Division (“the most dangerous man in the world”) and destroying the munitions factory he had set up in a southeast Asian jungle.
L. Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. This crime-fighting team made its debut in Sensation Comics #1 (January, 1942), the same issue in which Wonder Woman first left Paradise Island to visit “Man’s World.” Tommy Rogers (left) and his friend Tubby adopted blue costumes and masks in an attempt to help Tommy’s father — the district attorney — apprehend mob boss Wolf Lupo. They managed to capture the miscreant and his gang with the aid of Toughy (center), who eventually got his own blue outfit. Together, the youngsters put an end to The Scorpion’s Counterfeit Ring, solved The Case of the Curious Capsules, stopped Rustlers on the Rampage, and shared more than 75 other adventures before their series ended in 1948.
M. Metamorpho. One of DC’s classic quirky superhero creations of the Silver Age, soldier-of-fortune Rex Mason became the Element Man after he was exposed to a radioactive meteor that had been stashed away in an Egyptian pyramid. It gave him the ability to convert his body into any element or chemical compound, which he used to fight crime. It is believed by scholars, though not confirmed, that Metamorpho was Dmitri Mendeleev’s favorite comic book character.
N. Nicky Walton, one-fourth of the Sea Devils, DC’s quartet of deep-sea divers. During the early and mid-1960s, while Rip Hunter was tooling around through time, Cave Carson was hanging out inside Earth, and the Challengers of the Unknown were fighting scifi menaces, Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey, and Nicky and his sister Judy participated in fantastic adventures undersea. In this panel from Sea Devils #11 (May-June, 1963), Nicky fights a sea monster that turned out to be a hallucination.
O. Origami Man. This vile and terror-inspiring villain menaced Gotham City in The Brave and the Bold #178 (September, 1981), using paper as a weapon to rid the streets of other criminals. Batman and the Creeper foiled his plans, after which, presumably, they recycled.
P. Prez. After a constitutional amendment lowered the age of eligibility to run for president, Prez Rickard was elected to the White House. The teenager led America in fending off attacks from legless monsters, mob bosses, evil chess players, and the great-great-great-great-great-great nephew of George Washington, who attempted a military coup. He even survived an assassination attempt. The series, which lasted four issues during the Nixon administration, was written by Joe Simon, who had co-created Captain America 30 years earlier. Which proves you don’t hit a home run every time you’re at bat.
Q. Quakemaster. DC Special #28 (June-July, 1977) featured Batman, Aquaman, and the Legion of Superheroes in tales of Earth-shattering disasters. Gotham City’s was caused by the Quakemaster, a former architect who used a special jackhammer that emitted energy waves to knock down other architects’ buildings after one of his was destroyed during a hurricane. The Caped Crusader saved the city, and the Quakemaster was recruited for membership in the Secret Society of Super-Villains before losing his jackhammer in a poker game.
 R. Rima. The Venezuelan jungle girl of W.H. Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions appeared in seven issues of her own comic book series between April 1974 and May 1975. The stories were scripted by veteran comics writer Robert Kanigher, illustrated with brilliant art by the Nestor Redondo Studio. Rima later appeared in three episodes of The All-New Superfriends Hour, leaving the jungle to team up with Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman.
S. The Secret Six. Created by E. Nelson Bridwell and Frank Springer, this team of covert operatives starred in seven issues of its own title between April 1968 and May 1969. A recurring theme had the members speculating about the identity of Mockingbird, the mysterious cloaked figure who brought the team together and directed its missions. Mockingbird was actually a member of the team, unbeknownst to the other five, although which member remained a mystery at series’ end.
 T. Tomahawk. Unique among comic book characters because his adventures took place before and during the American Revolution, Thomas Hawk is one of DC’s longest-running characters. He first appeared as a backup feature in 1947, was promoted to his own title in 1950, and ended his run in 1972.
U. Ultra the Multi-Alien. The science fiction superhero appeared in seven issues of DC’s anthology series Mystery In Space between 1965 and 1966. Set in an unspecified future time, the feature starred astronaut Ace Arn, who was simultaneously blasted by rays from four different alien weapons. They transformed him into a combination of the four different alien species attacking him and gave him super strength, magnetic powers, flight, and an electrified left leg, while doing very little to improve his appearance.
V. The Viking Prince. Before DC turned it into a team-up vehicle for Batman, The Brave and the Bold was a swashbuckling adventure anthology featuring such heroes as Robin Hood, The Shining Knight, The Golden Gladiator, and Jon the Viking Prince. Written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Joe Kubert, Jon proved to be the most enduring character, eventually taking over the title. His last appearance there was in this issue, cover dated June-July, 1959. A few years later, he traveled through a time warp to visit Sgt. Rock during World War II, and he spent some time hanging out with the Justice League of America during the 1970s. Historians believe this accounts for the appearance of bell-bottomed pants in 10th Century Scandinavian art.
W. Welcome Back, Kotter. The 1970s TV show with the best theme song ever was adapted to comic book form by DC in 1976. Ten issues starring Gabe Kotter and the Sweathogs were published before the series ended two years later. Neither the show or the comic proved to be as good as John Sebastian’s theme song.
X. The “X” Effect. According to the cover of Metal Men #47 (August-September, 1976), DC’s team of super-powered robots were to face it, prevent it, or stop it. The story inside had them fighting their old enemy the Plutonium Man as he attempted to sabotage a military base in Antarctica. But exactly what the “X” Effect was never got explained.
 Y. Young Romance. Once a staple of the comics industry, romance titles are now relics of another time. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Young Romance was the genre’s first series. This issue (#153, April-May, 1968) featured the stories Too Late for Love, Stranger to My Heart, and Love is Just a Word. Other features include the alliterative fashion spread Mad, Mad Modes for Moderns and an advice column written by Laura Penn, Your Romance Reporter.
Z. Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. The Flash’s arch foe lived in the 25th Century, where he used advanced technology to give himself super speed powers. Wearing a costume similar to the Flash’s (but with reversed colors), he frequently hopped back and forth between the future and the present to hassle the fastest man alive. In this panel from The Flash #281 (January, 1980), he used a holographic illusion to escape capture. The Reverse Flash is expected to play a significant role in The CW’s current TV series, The Flash, in which it has been strongly hinted that he was responsible for the death of Barry Allen’s mother.
One. As in first. Such as the first issue of DC’s Super Powers miniseries, cover dated September, 1985.
Two, the number of issues of Showcase in which B’wana Beast appeared. Debuting in a two-part story early in 1967, Mike Maxwell became a superhero after drinking an elixir that gave him super strength and the ability to communicate with animals. Sort of like Aquaman, except with big game instead of fish. After defeating the power-hungry ecoterrorist “He Who Never Dies,” B’wana Beast wasn’t seen again for 18 years, and then only briefly. He eventually found his niche as an animated character, appearing in Justice League Unlimited, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Teen Titans Go! He’s even an action figure now.
Three, as in The Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas’ heroes Athos, Porthos, and Aramis sallied forth again in four issues of DC Special during the mid-1970s. Behind them on the splash page of issue 22 (June-July, 1976) is the story’s titular villain, “A Monster on the Road to Calais.”
Four, as in Green Arrow, The Atom, The Joker, and Two-Face. They were the 4 Famous Co-Stars who appeared with Batman in The Brave and the Bold #130 (October, 1976).
Five, as in the number of all-new stories in The Superman Family #216 (March, 1982).
“Who’s that with Supergirl?” Story Girl asked.
“That would be Toxus, a villain who used futuristic technology to give himself matter transformation powers.  I think in that scene they were fighting inside a volcano.”
“Imaginative,” she said.
“I know,” I replied with a sigh.  “Nobody writes stories like that any more.”
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George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

It was shortly before the 238th anniversary of American independence that I received a copy of Swords in Their Hands.  Within five minutes, I had invited its author to the club.

Published earlier this year by Pisgah Press, Dave Richards’ book draws attention to a now-obscure event that he describes as one of the most important events in the early days of the United States.  I was certain a conversation with him would be a fascinating experience, and he didn’t disappoint.

“I feel foolish saying this because I consider myself a history buff, but until I saw your book, I was not aware of the story of the Newburgh Conspiracy,” I told him as we settled into chairs in the library.

“Very few people are,” he replied.   “I think the best way to describe it is that it’s probably the closest thing to a military coup that we’ve ever experienced in America.”

A Connecticut native who now resides in North Carolina, Richards spent more than eight years researching and writing the book, which is the first full-length account of the Newburgh Conspiracy.  Copies are available through his website, www.swordsintheirhands.com.

Author and historian Dave Richards. (Portrait by Paul Vincent.)

“What prompted you to write the book?”

“I was reading a book about the writing of the constitution,” Richards said.  “The authors talked about how important George Washington’s presence was at the Constitutional Convention, because he was so respected by all the delegates.  They also mentioned his efforts to snuff out the Newburgh Conspiracy, which I came to learn was one of the most important but least-known events in American history.”

“And from what I’ve read in your book so far, it happened not long after the American victory at Yorktown in 1781, right?”

“Right.  George Washington’s officers and the soldiers in his army were not being paid by Congress.  Congress couldn’t pay.  It was broke, and it had no real taxation authority.  That rested with state legislatures, and they did not want to give Congress that power.  Imagine that you’re fighting for your country’s independence and not being paid for it.  That did not sit too well with George Washington’s officers.”

So a group of politicians – referred to as nationalists in Richards’ book – who sought a more powerful federal government and congressional taxation power attempted to take advantage of the situation by “using an angry army to terrify state legislatures into giving them what they wanted.”

Swords in Their Hands tells the story of how Washington diffused what its author describes as “a very bad situation,” leading to the first president’s observation to nationalist Alexander Hamilton that “‘the army is a dangerous instrument to play with.’”

“I love that quote,” Richards said.

“Will your readers notice any similarities between the current political climate and the Revolutionary War-era events you recount in the book?” I asked.

“Very likely, but I don’t emphasize them.  I don’t want readers to interpret the book as agenda-driven, although there are a lot of parallels, such as how during the Revolutionary War, Congress ran up a huge public debt.  Today, we have a huge national debt.  Near the end of the war, Congress was divided between nationalists and those who advocated states’ rights.  Today, we again have a divided Congress.”

Richards is currently researching the Yellow Fever Plot, a failed attempt to assassinate President Lincoln by infecting the populations of Northern cities with a deadly virus during the last year of the Civil War.

“Any others?”

“Federal neglect of the Continental Army,” Richards said as he accepted a cup of coffee from Emsworth.  “Today, our military personnel are being paid, but in some cases it’s so little that they have to go on food stamps to support their families.  After the Revolutionary War, veterans were not treated well.  Today, we have the Veterans’ Administration scandal.”

Holding two degrees in Russian, Slavic, and East European languages and literature, Richards is a veteran himself, having served in the Army “a long time ago, back in the days of the Cold War.”

As an example of mistreatment of Revolutionary War veterans, Richards describes how they were promised post-war pensions.  “They were instead provided with certificates, which Congress could not start redeeming until 1791, long after the war was over.  By then, the certificates had dropped in value, to the point that many veterans sold them to speculators for just pennies on the dollar.”

“Washington seems to be the pivotal figure in your book,” I observed, leading Richards to explain how his research has caused him to admire the statesman’s sense of public virtue.

“What public virtue meant in the 1700s was that people were willing to make sacrifices for the best interests of the new nation.  Washington did that.  James Madison did too.  Now, of course, when we watch members of Congress, it seems we only see them doing things in the interests of big cash groups.  I don’t see a lot of public virtue these days.”

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Comedy Ain’t No Joke

“How are you, Mr. Gregory?” I asked the Funniest Man in America as he walked into the club.

“Buddy, you call me James, okay?”

“Deal,” I said.  “Glad you stopped by.  You’re one of Birmingham’s favorite visitors, you know.”

“Well, I love Alabama, and I love Birmingham especially.  I come to Birmingham for shows twice a year, in May and in November.  My first show outside of Atlanta was in Birmingham.”

“I was going to ask you if you remembered the first time you performed here.”

“Oh, yeah.  It was June, 1983.  Back in those days, I was the opening act.  You may not know this, but…let me ask you what might seem like an unusual question.  How old are you, Buddy?”

“Forty-three.”

“I asked because I wasn’t sure if you were old enough to remember, but prior to 1982, there was no such thing as live stand-up comedy anywhere in the Southeast.  Before that, the only time you could see a comedian perform at a comedy club would have been in New York, Chicago, L.A., or maybe Boston.  The industry got started elsewhere after that.”

“And you got your start at The Punchline in Atlanta, I believe, right?”

“That’s right.  I had been a fan of comedy but never thought I wanted to be a comedian.  Shows in those days ran Tuesday through Sunday, and every Tuesday was open mic night.  I would go to the club not to be a part of the show but as a customer.”

By this time, we were seated at a table in the dining room, and Currie had appeared with plates for both of us.  Mine contained chopped steak on a bun topped with sautéed mushrooms, while on the comedian’s was chicken fried steak with a side of mashed potatoes.  Both were floating in gravy.

“So how did you end up on stage?” I asked.

“Some friends dared me to, one amateur night.  I was bad, ignorant, and stupid, but if right now you were talking to Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, or Bill Cosby, they would all tell you the very first time they were on stage, they were awful.  The first time you do it, you’re not supposed to be good.  It’s just a start.  You live and learn.  It turned into a great career for me, and I’m happy about it.”

A Georgia native who has become a perennial headliner at The Stardome and frequent guest on The Rick and Bubba Show, Gregory has been called the most successful comedian you’ve never heard of.  He has a hilarious knack for finding humor in such diverse areas of American culture as eating habits, animal rights, technology, and longstanding traditions.

I added ketchup to my burger.  “Some of the characters you do in your routines…I hear what you have them say, and I think, ‘That was my Grandmother Lucille,’ or ‘That was my Aunt Judy,’ and probably everybody else in your audience is thinking the same thing.  Do you feel like that gives your comedy a lot of its appeal?”

“Yeah, one reason I think I’ve been in the business this long is that my comedy is based on reality.  People can relate to that.  Everybody has a grandpa or a nephew or a high school teacher who used to say those things or act that way.  Even if I’m making it up, there’s a credibility factor to it.”

“I would imagine the fact that you work clean also has something to do with your longevity.”

“Well, I never did blue or X-rated humor.  I would use what I call ‘Baptist language,’ if you understand what I mean – certain words that over time have just become part of the vocabulary — but as time went on, I got rid of that too.  I also started to work theaters more than clubs, and a theater is not like a night club in that there are no age limits.  I have kids as young as age 8 at my shows, and often a fourth of the audience is under the age of 15.   When I do a show, I want people to enjoy it and not have to regret coming or bringing their family to it.  If it’s a couple in their 30s with two kids 9 and 11, they can sit there as a family, enjoy the show, and laugh a lot.”

“How does your Southern brand of humor go over in places outside of the South?”

“I’m glad you asked that,” James said after a sip of iced tea.  “This May was 32 years that I’ve been out there doing shows, and in the course of my career – and this may sound to you unbelievable – I have never, never, not once on stage mentioned the word ‘Yankee,’ ‘South,’ ‘Southern,’ ‘redneck,’ ‘grits,’ ‘coon dogs,’ or ‘chewing tobacco.’  You may think you’re hearing that, but you’re not.  You’re hearing a Southern accent.  And if a comedian has a Southern accent, people think he must be doing a Southern show.”

Admitting that he tries to schedule most of his work in the Southeast – “especially if the money is the same” – he points out that he’s performed in 38 states and all the Canadian provinces, but the act stays the same regardless of the region, and he gets as many standing ovations in Kansas City, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire as he does in Atlanta and Birmingham.

“You may have heard the routine I do about tornadoes and mobile homes.  Everybody assumes that’s a Southern thing, but that’s not so.  Watch the weather on the TV news.  There have been tornadoes in Utah; there have been tornadoes in Texas.  Connecticut.  Nebraska.  And there are trailer parks in all those places.  So if the listener wants to assume I’m talking about the South, that’s their problem.”

It’s something that used to bother him more than it does now.

“The media used to frustrate me for years, then I got over it.  Most comedians work in places other than where they were raised.  For example, if you go to the Stardome, most of the headliners there are from other parts of the country.  So if a comedian who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., does a show in the South, it’s obvious he has a Brooklyn accent.

“All right.  No one has ever referred to that guy as a Northern comedian.  He could go on stage here and have a routine about the subway.  Well, we don’t have subways here.  The only Subway we have here is the sandwich.  But not one journalist would refer to him as a Northern comedian.  If I were to be on stage above the Mason-Dixon Line – or even here, for that matter – I’d still be referred to as a Southern comedian.”

“Are you constantly updating your show with new material?”

James’ reply was one I didn’t expect.  “Do you know who Kenny Chesney is?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve known him for a lot of years, which is beside the point.  He puts on shows to huge, huge audiences.  His average song is three-and-a-half minutes long, and he’s on stage for at least an hour and a half.  But when he shows up, the audience isn’t expecting something new.  They expect Kenny Chesney to sing his classic songs.”

“Is it the same with comedy?”

"Beef Stew for the Brain," one of James' performances available on CD and DVD. Visit www.funniestman.com.

“That’s right.  For example, when I come back to Birmingham in November, I won’t have a whole new show.  It will be a lot like the one I did here six months ago.  I will do a few minutes of something the audience hasn’t heard before, and I rearrange some of my old stuff, because that’s what they want to hear.  There are some routines I can’t take out of the show.”

“Such as?”

“I’ve been doing a routine about my fear of flying for 30 years,” James said, spearing a piece of steak.  “It’s not the same word-for-word routine, and there’s always something new I can add to it.  You remember four or five years ago when that U.S. Airways plane crashed into the harbor in New York?”

I didn’t.  Should have, but I didn’t.

“Captain Sully was the name of the pilot, and he had to land in the water after the airplane was hit by a flock of birds.  The good thing is that nobody got hurt, but it became a joke in my show about how that’s one reason why I drive everywhere.  If a bird hits my car, I don’t have to worry about ending up in the water.”

“Who are the comedians you admire?”

“Anybody that makes me laugh.  As the years have gone by, there are fewer and fewer funny people.  There are a lot of comedians who are only funny for 10 or 12 minutes out of a 45-minute show.  A lot of comedians are jaded or cynical.  But I’m kinda happy about that because it weeds out those who should not be on stage to start with.”

“What I find off-putting,” I observed, “is when I see a comic — and I’ve seen some wannabe comedians like this lately — who doesn’t respect his or her audience.”

James drank tea and shook his head.  “You’ll never see me doing that.  I have a great respect for the public, and I think comedy is an art form.  There is only one purpose of comedy, and there is only one thing an audience expects of a comedian.  They expect to laugh.  They’re not expecting drama or a sermon.  You can say anything you want to say as long as the audience is laughing.”

“Any idea how many shows you’ve done?” I asked as Currie placed a generous portion of pecan pie in front of James.

“In my career, probably over 6,000 shows,” he said, cutting a bite from the ice cream-covered wedge.  “I don’t do as many as I used to, probably about 150 a year now, but unless I win the Powerball, I think I’ll be around for another 20 or 25 years.”

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Red Velvet and Roundball

“Glad to see you here tonight,” I said to Karri Bentley.  “How are things?”

She shrugged.  “It’s the most depressing time of year.  The Blazers’ season and March Madness are long over, and the NBA playoffs have just ended.”

“How did the finals leave you this year?”

“Disappointed.  I’m a sucker for the Heat.”

An avid basketball enthusiast, Karri may be the UAB Blazers’ biggest fan.  She doesn’t have the sash or tiara, but she’s often been referred to as “Miss UAB.”  It wasn’t her alma mater – Karri is an alumna of Brenau University where she double-majored in marketing and music – but the self-described controlled free spirit who never meets a stranger grew up cheering for UAB and never grew out of it.

“We’ve been season ticket holders since I was in middle or high school,” she said as Emsworth placed a red velvet cupcake before her.

“What’s your earliest UAB memory?” I asked.

“Probably the chicken.”

UAB's fear-inspiring former mascot Beauregard T. Rooster. (Photo courtesy of UAB Archives.)

“The chicken?”

She looked incredulous.  “You don’t remember the chicken?”

“No, but I didn’t grow up here.”

“The chicken was the mascot for a while.  He was this big orange and yellow bird, and I remember being a little scared of him.”

“Blaze must be a friendlier mascot.”

Karri nodded as she bit into red velvet.

“Did you play basketball in school?” I asked.

“In middle school and the beginning of high school at Ramsay.  But I was doing music, sports, and dance, and my mom said I had to pick just one.  I knew basketball was a hobby that wouldn’t take me to a career.  Music was the best possibility.  I thought I wanted to be on Broadway.”

“Well, it obviously served you well in college.  Do you still perform?”

“The occasional wedding,” she said, taking a sip of her latte.

“How you feeling about UAB’s future?  On the court, I mean.”

“My hopes are always high for the Blazers at the start of each season, though I had hoped we would have gone out with more of a bang than a whimper this past season. We were like March and came in like a lion and out like a lamb.  But it’s good to see there’s a strong bench full of younger guys who are going to be the stars of the future.  And I really like Coach (Jerod) Haase.  He’s a good leader, and he inspires confidence in his players.  He brings excitement to Birmingham.”

“Do you prefer college basketball to pro?”

“I do.  I think it’s more exciting.  The NBA is pure entertainment.  It’s all about money.  With college, there’s more on the line.  For some of the guys, they’re playing for their future.”

“Tell me about the basketball-watching experience.  Is there a difference between watching a game at home and actually being there?”

Karri didn’t hesitate.  “There is.  We always sit with the same group of people.  We all have to be there, my dad has his lucky sweatshirt on, and I’m feeding off the crowd and the players.  I get loud.  The next day, I’m often hoarse.  Although I cheer almost as loud at home as when I’m at a game.”

“What’s your position in the debate about whether college athletics are overemphasized?”

“Tough question,” she said.  “For colleges, a good athletic program can be a good thing.  It’s part of a thriving student life, and people often pick where they go to college based on what there is to do outside of class.”

“And as for the die-hard fans…?”

“Well, people like to be a part of something that’s bigger than they are.  During a game, they can get out of what’s going on in their own lives.  Unfortunately, I think too many people make it their lives.”

“Another cupcake, Ms. Bentley?” Emsworth said, offering said pastry on his tray.

“I shouldn’t,” Karri said as she smiled up at him.  “But since you’re already here with it…”

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Art Crawling with Mary Catherine Fehr

Walking into the club, the first thing I saw was Mary Catherine Fehr aiming her Nikon 3100 at a group comprised of Currie, Millicent, and Emsworth.  The latter two wore appropriate portrait expressions, but the corners of Currie’s mouth were turned up half a millimeter, which was as broad a smile as I’d ever seen on that worthy’s face.

Mary Catherine had obviously charmed him completely.

“Glad you stopped by,” I said to the photographic artist as the trio dispersed.  “Ready for the inaugural Art Crawl?”

“I am.  This will actually be my first time showing and selling my work, so I’m excited about the opportunity.”

An art major at the University of Montevallo, Mary Catherine is one of more than 25 artists whose work will be showcased during Birmingham’s first Art Crawl, which begins at 5 p.m. today.  Many downtown businesses will be staying open late and hosting the exhibitors, including Reed Books on Third Avenue North, where Mary Catherine will be the featured artist.

“How did you become involved with Art Crawl?” I asked her.

“I saw it on Instagram, actually.  Then I checked out their website and thought, ‘Why not apply?’”

The thought paid off, and she was selected to participate in the first of what organizers Miranda McPherson and Richard Burton hope will be a monthly event aimed at “bringing people to the cultural and historical center of downtown Birmingham to showcases local art, performers, and venues.”

Asked what patrons could expect to see from her tonight, Mary Catherine produced a few images, including these three portraits.“Is there a story behind each of them?”

“Yes and no.  I like portraiture, and I always try to capture the essence of something.  That’s why I really like black-and-white portraits.  I usually just tell models to do whatever they want and usually end up finding that the best shots are candid, but for these I wanted to convey a kind of mystery.  Who are these girls, and what is their story?”

“You succeeded in conveying that.  Terrific photo of the rose, too.”

“That one was from the botanical gardens.  I wanted to show the detail and delicacy of the rose and the fragility of it as well.”

“I like the neon look you’ve given to the now-iconic It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham sign.”

“It’s something we see photos and t-shirts of a lot,” Mary Catherine said, “but I wanted to make it different.  I’ll have some note cards with the image on it and some large format prints at Art Crawl, and you’ll be able to select from a wide array of color combinations.”

“Do you plan on making photography your career?”

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me it’s not really a career and that I’ll never get anywhere with it, but I believe that if you have a passion for something, you should do it, without worrying about whether it’s going to make you rich.  Money is important, but if you go through your whole life in a career you don’t enjoy, money is not going to make up for it.”

“Well said, Ms. Fehr,” Currie said as he handed her a beverage from his tray.  The corners of his mouth were still turned up.

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If You Like the Connection and the Walk, You’ll Love the Crawl

 “Did you go to Magic City Art Connection this year?” Miranda McPherson asked.

“Briefly,” I said, handing her the tablet which had resided on a nearby tabletop.  “Long enough to take a few photos.”

She began scrolling through the images.  “This was a neat idea.”

“Wasn’t it?  That’s Matchsticks, Hoover High’s entry in the Connection’s high school art exhibition.  I was really impressed with this year’s entries.  Did you notice the giant tack in the background?  Under A Tack was the Alabama School of Fine Art’s homage to an object that’s never considered until one can’t be found.”

“The students got really creative,” Miranda observed as she looked at Zipper, produced by Mountain Brook students Harrison Dutton, Isabella Mulkin, and Kathryn Oakes to “bring attention to the small, forgotten yet brilliant and ubiquitous object.”

“And here’s Christy Turnipseed.”

“For me, it’s always a highlight of the annual event to see what new Lil’ Seeds creations Christy has come up with,” I said.

“And this would be…?”

Charles Pinckney, a jewelry artist from Athens, Georgia.  That’s Stephanie Bynum in the photo with him, and I remember him telling her that his earrings, bracelets, and pendants are inspired by his memories.  ‘I shape the piece to tell the story,’ he said.  ‘That’s the magic of art.  In very short order, it can prompt someone to start dusting off memories of their own that they haven’t thought about in years and have let lay fallow.’”

“This is Stephanie again, isn’t it?”

“Right, with her poodle Jackson.  At right is his new friend Noel.”

“A very distinctive dog.”

“That’s one of the things I always like about the Magic City Art Connection,” I said.  “You see things there that you don’t often encounter.  But I suppose that one of the reasons you put together Birmingham Art Crawl, right?  So that such things can be seen more often?”

“Well, it wasn’t just me who put it together, but absolutely.  Events like the Art Connection and Art Walk are great, but they’re only once a year,” Miranda replied.   The creative director of Clear Marketing & Design, she returned to Birmingham five years ago after some time away and noticed that something was missing.

“Why isn’t something like Art Walk happening once a month?  Most major cities have an event like that once a month.  I haven’t understood why Birmingham didn’t have one.”   So, as a self-described lover of fine arts, she set to work to make it happen.

Which it does, from 5-9 p.m. Thursday in downtown Birmingham when more than 25 artists and performers will exhibit their work and talents in venues provided by local businesses.  An after-party will follow at Matthew’s Bar & Grill.

“Will you be able to make it?” Miranda asked.

“Regrettably, no.  I will not be in town.  But I hope the rest of Birmingham will more than make up for my absence.”

“We’re hopeful for a good turnout.  And you’ll get another chance to come to one.  Birmingham Art Crawl will be a regular first Thursday event.  We’re excited about bringing people to the cultural and historical center of downtown and give them a fun event that showcases local art, performers, and venues.”

“Groovy,” I said.

“Did you just say ‘groovy?’”

“I did.  Should I not have?”

“Use it all you want.  I like ‘groovy’,” Miranda said with smile.  “I think that sums up Art Crawl rather well.”

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At the Alabama Phoenix Festival, 2014

Organizers of the third Alabama Phoenix Festival said that this year’s science fiction, cosplay, gaming, anime, and comic book convention would be “bigger and better than before,” and they were right.

If you didn’t get to stop by the Birmingham Sheraton this weekend, here are a few of the sights you missed seeing.

Where else but the Alabama Phoenix Festival can The Phantom and Luke Cage, Power Man be found hanging out together? (Well, Dragon Con, maybe, but Birmingham doesn't host that.) Chris Walker and Greg Cantrell were among the most photographed cosplayers over the weekend.

Here's the Phantom chatting with Iron Maven, the alter ego of local pirate cosplayer Andrea Stovall.

I had a great time talking with authors and festival guests Sean Taylor, Tommy Hancock, Bobby Nash, and Michael Gordon. These guys are doing great work keeping pulp fiction alive.

Magic City artist Melissa Shultz-Jones was on hand to display her work, accept commissions, and discuss her children's illustrations.

Here's a retro-inspired example of Melissa's work. Great stuff.

A full-sized remote-controlled R2D2 garnered quite a bit of attention as he wheeled around the Sheraton.

The iconic little droid made friends with everyone, including Shay Blaze's Tinker Bell, a match made in Disney heaven.

Russell Jones helps a young Captain America fan try on the super patriot's shield.

Jones' modern version of the captain's mask got a break while he sported the character's World War II-era uniform.

Always a popular festival guest, Darrell "Doc" Osborn recruits a new minion with his Twisted Balloons of Doom. His aluminized plastic creations are works of art.

Meghan Pruitt made her first foray into cosplay this weekend, dressing as Darth Vader while helping staff the Yelp booth at the Phoenix Fest.

Keven Gardner, left is the president of Birmingham-based 12-Gauge Comics, which has gained considerable acclaim as independent producer of comic books. He was joined at the Phoenix Fest by Shane Berryhill, the writer of 12-Gauge's latest series, Sherwood. Gardner describes the series as "Robin Hood meets Sons of Anarchy." Berryhill, a Chattanooga native, is also the author of a series of young adult novels featuring student superhero Chance Fortune.

K.J. Singletary displays Gaigin USA's intriguing Star Boxes, each of which contains $25 worth of pop culture, sci fi, and comic book related merchandise. The local company only makes them available at conventions, the next of which is Sukoshi Con, the Social Anime Convention on June 21 in Montgomery.

Former Magic City resident Yoko Mizuhara returned to Birmingham as a cosplayer and panelist at this year's Phoenix Fest. In the role of Rogue from the X-Men, her costume was among the festival's most colorful.

Among the festival's guests was director and producer Kevin Herren of Macabre Mansion, producer of original and adapted dramas in the horror and science fiction genres, including A Christmas Carol, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Tales from Beyond (an orginial series Herren says is produced in the style of The Twilight Zone).

Sally Morriss -- "the Woman of Wonder" -- had one of the festival's most unusual costumes in Isis, the title character in a live-action Saturday morning TV series during the 1970s. I remember watching the show (and reading the DC Comics tie-in series) when I was a kid. So does Sally. "I grew up watching Isis, Wonder Woman, and Shazam. Not everyone does this character, and I don't get to wear the costume very often."

And here's Sally a few minutes later, after a quick change into her Batwoman costume.

I was pleased to encounter talented local artist Elaine Tindill Rohr, decked out in a groovy 1930s-style aviation costume. She told me that this year's cosplay panel discussions were quite entertaining, adding that it would have been less painful had she broken in her new red boots before walking around all day in them at the festival.

Birmingham's Will Knight chose to work the festival as Booster Gold because "nobody else was doing it." His costume -- depicting DC Comics' time-travelling superhero -- was quite authentic.

Moody resident Will Janus sported Oliver Queen's island costume from The CW popular superhero series Arrow.

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By the Numbers: The Indy 500

 

John Kiernan has turned into one of our favorite regulars here at the club.

The senior researcher for Wallethub has taken to dropping by before major sporting events – such as the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics – so I wasn’t surprised to see him this weekend sitting at the bar and discussing the Indianapolis 500 with Baxter.

“I take it Wallethub has conducted another analysis?” I asked as I joined the conversation.

“You would be correct,” John said.  A financial resources company, Wallethub analyzes just about anything related to money, including spending and numbers related to major entertainment events.

“What trends did the numbers reveal about the Indy 500?”

“We found that fewer are watching it on TV,” John answered.  “A lot of that has to do with the IndyCar Series losing its market share to NASCAR.  There’s not a whole lot of name recognition, and it’s hard for it to get a lot of traction when it doesn’t have a weekly event on TV.”

“But surely that doesn’t mean the Indy 500 isn’t still a major event,” Baxter said.

“Absolutely not.  Everybody’s heard about the Daytona 500 and it’s a great, fun race to attend, but the Indy 500 still sounds like it’s a pretty great party as well.”

“You’ve never been to one?”

“No,” John said, “but it’s a bucket list type thing for me, as it probably is for a lot of people.”

“Are you much of a motorsports fan?” I asked.

“Not a big one, although I usually watch the Indy 500 and some NASCAR races.  After college, I took a trip to Europe with some friends, and we ended up in Monaco a week after the race.  We could still see how the track was laid out, and the huge yachts with their hot tubs and who-knows-what else were still out in the water.”

Baxter suddenly produced a pencil and slip of paper, on which he began making indecipherable notes. 

“You’ve given me an idea, John,” he said.  “Next time you’re here, I’ll have a special drink prepared in your honor.  You just gave me the name, in fact.”

“And that would be…?” John began trepidaciously.

“A Monaco Hot Tub,” Baxter said without looking up from his notes.

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At the End of the Day, She’s Always Megan Rüger

 

As I’d suspected she would, Megan Rüger brought the house down during her first performance at the club, but she disappeared from the lounge after a few minutes of greeting and shaking hands with members of the audience.

I found her in the library, occupying the octopus chair and dipping mozzarella sticks into a large bowl of marinara sauce.  “I needed a snack and a quiet spot after the show,” she explained between bites.

I plopped into the rhino chair.  “I’m not surprised.  That was a high-energy performance, and I don’t know how you did a 90-minute set in those spikes,” I said, gesturing toward the heels she’d kicked off, which were sitting on the floor beside a tentacle.

Megan shrugged.  “They look nice, but I absolutely hate high heels.  I don’t have the grace required to wear them, they hurt, and I’m already 5’9” as it is.”

The octopus chair

The octopus chair

The tall rocker with the powerhouse pipes gained national attention this year as a contestant on season six of NBC’s The Voice.  She was eliminated from the vocal competition during an early round, which I thought was a shame, and I told her so. 

“Thanks,” she said, “but I can’t say anything bad about the experience.  I did season 10 of American Idol, and I liked how the atmosphere on The Voice is more like a family.  On Idol, there’s a lot of tearing down and criticizing as opposed to encouraging and coaching.  And that’s another thing I liked about The Voice.  I’d never had a vocal coach before.”

Rüger during the Academy of Country Music's All-Star Jam.

Rüger’s celebrity coach was country star Blake Shelton.  “He and Usher turned their chairs around for me pretty much at the same time.  I chose to work with Blake because I thought he could give me some behind-the-scenes perspectives about working as a musician in Nashville.  Now that I’m off the show, maybe I should have gone with Usher.  It was a bittersweet process, everything happens for a reason.”

A native of Wisconsin, she “up and left and moved to Nashville” shortly after turning 20.  “I found out quickly that Nashville is not an easy town to make money in, and making music itself is not cheap.  The best advice I was given when I moved here was to be patient, which I think I have been since I am coming up on six years of living in Nashville, pursuing my dream.”

Rüger has spent those six years working the Music City club scene, playing 80s and 90s rock with a few country covers mixed in.  Since her time on The Voice, she’s been back to her home state for some shows, performed in New York and Las Vegas, and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of an EP. 

“So what can your fans expect to hear on the new record once it’s finished?” I asked.

"I would definitely say that I am a trendsetter," Rüger says of her style. "I have changed my hair so many times since as far back as I can remember. I wear black a lot. But I always wear some kind of bold color in my hair, eyes makeup, or jewelry. I am a big fan of the 80s fashion and a huge admirer of Cyndi Lauper."

“A rockin’ album with just a splash of country,” Megan said, noting that she was running low on marinara. “It’s a little different from what they may have heard me do, but it’s still definitely me.  It will be unique to what is being played on the radio today in that I have a lot of attitude that I am not afraid to show.  Especially the lyrics in one of my originals.”

“When you were on The Voice, you were often compared to Pat Benatar, Joan Jett.  Do you consider them as influences?”

“Well, no one likes to be categorized or put inside a box.  I’m my own person and my own singer, but I am definitely inspired by them, and Annie Wilson from Heart.  I’d say my style is something like Joan Jett meets Pink, and I wonder if my downfall on The Voice wasn’t that I stood out as too different.  I feel like I might have been too much for the show.”

“In what way?”

“I’m a rebel.  I do like to sing Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Pat Benatar, but at the end of the day, I’m Megan Rüger,” the golf-playing, Great Dane-owning, dark chocolate-indulging, and shark and alligator-fearing singer said.  “There’s a lot of pressure on singers to conform because we’re constantly being judged on who we are, what we say, and what we look like, especially when you don’t fall into the category of what people want you to be.”

“And who you are is a rocker.”

“I can sing country if I want to – and you’re expected to in Nashville — but I definitely love to sing 80s rock.  I’d like to bring that sound back.”  

“I’d say you’re doing a good job,” I remarked.  “And you seem very at ease when you’re onstage doing it.”

Megan sipped sweet tea.  “When I’m on stage, I’m at peace.  Everything makes sense.  I’m always bouncing around, though.  I never stay in the same place on stage for more than a minute.  I put on a pretty intense show.”

“Indeed you do, ma’am,” said Currie, who appeared at that moment to replenish her supply of marinara sauce. 

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