NXNW: The big screen experience

March 16, 2011 – While South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music and film festival rages on through Saturday in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia celebrated a mini film festival of its own last night when Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “North by Northwest” came alive on the big screen.

The film, which deals with the consequences of mistaken identities, stars Cary Grant, and was hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s own Ben Mankiewicz and film co-star Eva Marie Saint. It was the headline act at the Prince Theater on Broad Street, as part of TCM’s Road to Hollywood series. The annual event is scheduled to visit 10 North American cities in all, and features “North by Northwest” and a handful of other films and its stars, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Birds”,  and “Psycho”.

Standing in line in front of the theater.

The line began forming by 5:30 for a 7:30 showing, and grew quickly around Chestnut Street and onto Broad Street. The festival was free, and seating was limited, which meant approximately 300 or so people were turned away at the door.

The unique crowd of diverse ages kept me entertained while I waited. The man in front of me was jotting down in a notebook things the people around him were talking about, which was interesting, and then he began asking people for their Comcast usernames and passwords so he could sign in to one of the free hotspots with is laptop, which was annoying. The elderly couple in back of me where charming, and looked as if they just stepped off the bus from Iowa. They had a bag of goodies with them, and both were eating dinner in line that consisted of sandwiches and bottled water wrapped in aluminum foil, which made me wonder how far they traveled.

My feet began to hurt from standing for so long (I wore the wrong shoes), and when an usher came out to ask if there were guests from some film club that was let in early, I was tempted to raise my hand. But I resisted realizing that was exactly how Grant’s character got into trouble in the movie.

TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz and Eva Marie Saint address the audience.

As a Hitchcock fan, I’ve seen “North by Northwest” a handful of times, but nothing compares to seeing it on the big screen, and with the seemingly ageless Eva Marie Saint to discuss its finer moments. She spoke about Hitchcock as a director, and how he didn’t direct like others in the sense that he told actors what to do. He simply laid out the scene on storyboards and let the actors take over. Then he’d watch the dailies (film clips) without sound at the end of each day, as if he were watching a silent movie, and that’s how he determined if they were good enough to go to print. According to Saint, Hitchcock did very little editing.

The big screen also added to the drama of the more famous scenes in the movie, such as Grant and Saint climbing Mt. Rushmore, and Grant being chased by a crop duster on a farm in the Midwest. It also added to the excitement that the well-packed theater was wracked with emotion and reacted with spirit at the appropriate moments.

Cary Grant seemed larger than life as the innocent ad executive Roger Thornhill who is chased by Federal Agents across the country in a fight for his life after he is mistaken for a spy, but that may be because I’ve only ever seen his movies on television prior to last night. “North by Northwest” is not my favorite Hitchcock/Grant collaboration — that honor belongs to 1944’s Notorious — but it is very good; it’s even better now that I know a few of the behind the scenes secrets, such as the producers wanted Cyd Charisse in the female role, and Grant wanted Sophia Loren (in every way, according to Mankiewicz), but “Hitch” (as Saint called him) insisted that she play the part.

It’s a bit more difficult to spot Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the movie, a trademark move he pulls in all of his films, but if you don’t blink you’ll spot him at a bus stop right after the opening credits.

Here are two other photos from the event:

10 books I vow to read this year

March 14, 2012 – Like most people, I go through peaks and valleys when it comes to reading.

At times I’m an avid reader, devouring one book after another, and then I don’t pick one up for weeks. That’s why I put together a list of 10 books that I want to finish before midnight on December 31, 2012. If it’s written down and out there, I will do my best to make it happen.

1. The Good Earth
I’ve heard wonderful reviews about Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel about the struggles of a poor Chinese farming community for years, but I’ve never read a word. Now that I’m taking a writing class at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center (her actual home in Perkasie, Pa.), I feel compelled to give it a go. The woman who runs the center continuously tells us that Miss Buck looks over us all when we’re in class, under the same roof where she wrote many of her works. So, I’ll return the favor and look over her most famous novel.

2. The Purpose Driven Life
While I’m not one of those people who is always searching for the meaning of life, do I believe we all have a purpose and it benefits us tremendously if we find it. Make fun all you want about reading a self-help book, but “The Purpose Driven Life” is actually spiritual in nature. Author Rick Warren’s premise that there are no accidents is intriguing and I want to learn more.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
LOVE the movie, but I’ve never read the actual Truman Capote story, which I understand is quite different and a grittier than the Audrey Hepburnized screenplay. I’ve also never read Capote before, so it will be an interesting experiment.

4. Made to Stick
As a corporate communications professional, I’m always looking for good reads about the industry to sharpen my communication skills. However, I typically don’t enjoy those that read like a college textbook; I lose interest too quickly. Whenever I ask those I respect for suggested titles, Chip and Dan Heath’s guide to understanding why some ideas survive and some do not is always mentioned in the mix.

5. Then Came You
As a fan of Jennifer Weiner, I put her latest novel on my list as a good beach read for the summer. I’m not ashamed to admit that I read other books besides literary novels (and usually more often), nor am I offended by the label chick lit, even though literary snobs condemn it. Still, I’m fairly certain whoever coined the phrase “chick lit” didn’t mean it as a compliment so I don’t label her novels that way. Instead, I’ll  say they are funny and often compelling stories that appeal to women. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

6. The Magic of Thinking Big
The title alone makes this book seem like a must read. We all need a little magic. The book was written by Dr. David Schwartz and first published in 1959. Dr. Schwartz claims – and I believe him – that the only thing holding people back from their goals is small thoughts. Just paging through it in the bookstore gave me confidence that although the premise is similar, this book has much more credibility than “The Secret”.

7. The Millennium Series: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
I saw the Americanized film version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” a few months back and loved it. Before I see the other two movies in production now, I want to read the trilogy, also known as the Millennium Series, by Stieg Larsson. I’m counting these three books as one, so I hope I get extra credit.

8. More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon
There’s been plenty of controversy plaguing this biography penned by Stephen Davis, from accusations of plagiarism and poor journalism, to downright lies. Yet, I’m still drawn to this book because I adore Carly Simon. Davis apparently had access to a lot of Simon family information (he knows Carly’s brother well) and while it’s not touted as a scandalous tell-all, I’ve read reviews that it does contain some things that upset Carly. Oh, I keep trying not to buy it, but I’m getting weaker and I know I’ll give in.

9. The Four-Hour Work Week
I laughed out loud when I saw my son reading this book. It seems absurd that you can be successful and only work four hours a week. But he assured me that blogger and author Tim Ferris offers solid advice on finding out what you want, eliminating society’s expectations and perfecting time management, which is key to everything. I’m still not sure if the title is literal or not, but it will be easy to borrow, so I’ll read it and hope it enhances my life as the book jacket claims.

10. Daughters of the Hall
This title won’t sound familiar to anyone because it’s written by the same author who writes this blog. It’s also just a working title at this point. That class I mentioned above at the Pearl S. Buck Center is one that encourages you to write a novel in a year. We meet the fourth Saturday of each month from January through December, and check in online with word counts and questions/suggestions in between. I should be finished the first draft by year’s end (hopefully sooner) and it will need a good read through before the actual editing process begins. And yes, it counts.

I’m always open for new suggestions if you’d like to pass some my way.

A lunchtime tourist in her own city: The Italian Market

March 12, 2012 – As an American woman with an Irish/German heritage and a love for Italian food, I enjoy embracing all that is good about each culture. I’ve attended my fair share parades and drank many spirits in honor of St. Patrick, raised a glass of beer at more Oktoberfests than I can count, and dined at some of the best Italian restaurants around.

That’s why it’s incomprehensible that for someone who appreciates Italian food as much as I do, and who is a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area, I visited the city’s famous Italian Market for the first time this past Saturday. I drove to the heart of Little Italy where the streets are narrow and there’s nary a chain store in sight, only mom and pop shops and outside vendors. It’s as if the area stood still in time, and visitors really get the feel for how it was back before Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Walgreens took over.

Advertised as one of the oldest and largest working markets in the United States, the 9th Street Italian Market is still predominantly Italian, but it now includes some of the best items from other cultures. It’s touted as an outdoor market, but it is actually a combination of outdoor stands and indoor stores along 9th Street between Christian and Wharton Streets. From cheese, pasta, baked goods, seafood and Italian Water Ice, to antique shops, herbal shops, jewelry and more, Philadelphia’s famous market strip has it all. There are also a variety of excellent Italian restaurants and pizza shops, and of course, the famous Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s Steaks at the southern most end.

Movie buffs may recall that it is the famous stretch, aside from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, that Rocky ran through in the movie of the same name.

Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market may be considered off the beaten path as far as city attractions go, but if you’re looking for a unique way to spend an afternoon and a lot of good food, it’s well worth the trip.

If you write it they will come…

March 11, 2012 – I LOVE the latest WordPress feature that rolled out on Friday. It let’s you know what country the visitors to your blog are from, and let me just say that when I checked my stats, I was amazed. People from 47 different countries visited my blog over the last three months, two from countries I’ve never even heard of (which doesn’t make me proud to admit). It truly makes the world feel like a more intimate and friendly place.

For all you bloggers out there who missed the announcement, go to your “My Stats” tab on the WordPress.com homepage and look for the new “Views by Country” panel.

Thanks WordPress!

The latest social trend, or are they just hopping mad?

March 9, 2012 – It was almost 70 degrees in Philadelphia yesterday, which prompted the desire to dine alfresco. I headed to the food cart with a friend, and walked across the street to enjoy the meal in Washington Square Park.

On the grass facing Walnut Street, I observed something so odd that I cursed myself for not having a camera or cell phone with me to capture the moment. A handful of people, who didn’t appear to be together or even know each other, were hopping across the grass.

I was mesmerized. Were these well-dressed adults playing hopscotch, I wondered, or were they trying to get in touch with their inner child, back before they crossed into awkwardness and started to care about what people thought?

For all I know, this could be an odd new social trend. I’m usually not hip (or hop) to these trends until they’re on the way out. I just recently discovered planking, or lying face down in an unusual location with your hands at your sides in public.

As if that wasn’t enough, something even stranger happened next. A huge gust of wind blew through the park causing most of the people to head for the shelter. We finished our lunch in the lobby of our building and chatted a bit before heading back to work. When I glanced out the lobby window, which overlooks Independence Mall Park, I saw people in the distance doing the same thing, two blocks away from the original hoppers.

Are people in Philadelphia going crazy? Or are they just hopping on the latest fad wagon? I Googled “social trends hopping” and all I got was results for “social trends shopping”.

Does anyone out there know what’s going on?

10 jobs that play hard to get

March 8, 2012 – Spring is on its way, which means that college graduations are close behind.

While the job market is expected to be a little better than it was over the last few years, here are 10 jobs graduates may want to avoid applying for since they are ranked as the hardest jobs in America to land, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and collegetimes.us.

  1. Astronaut – There’s a time during the lives of many children when he or she dreams about becoming an astronaut. But what little Billy or Betsy may not realize is that the chances of actually achieving that goal are 12,100,000 to 1. Why? Because NASA hires only a small number (about a dozen or so) each year.
  2. Astronomer – Like astronauts, the need for astronomers is relatively small – only about 50 a year land the job. This means that for most stargazers astronomy will most likely be a hobby and not a career, unless you want to forget it altogether and use the telescope to spy on your neighbors.
  3. Model – It looks like an easy way to make a lot of money, and attract attention from admirers, but the Bureau of Labor statistics report that although more than 1,500 individuals are employed as professional models, only 80 positions usually become available in this field each year. Note to grads: choose another path and eat that sandwich!
  4. Professional Athlete – Professional athletes can linger in childhood longer than anyone else, and they are overpaid to do so. Who wouldn’t want to play a game for a living? Still, chances are slim of making it to the show – 24,550 to 1 to be exact. Your best bet is to get a corporate job and join the company softball team.
  5. Professional Referee – If you can’t play, referee. It’s the next best thing, right? Believe it or not, it’s even more difficult to land a job as a ref than as an athlete. I suppose that’s because there are fewer refs needed, making opportunities not readily available. Still, you can always buy a striped shirt and a whistle, and play ref when you attend sporting events. I’m sure it would go over extremely well with the people sitting around you.
  6. Mathematical Technician – If you ask me, a job in math sounds positively dreadful because I’m terrible at it. But there are math geeks out there who stay awake at night dreaming of making it big in this profession. Not a great idea though, since through 2016 the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will only be about 40 job openings in this field.
  7. President of the United States – Why anyone would want to be president is beyond me. Not only do you have to be on duty around the clock, you end up with half of the people (or more in some cases) around the world hating you. Also, candidates who run for office must at least 35 years old, so graduates will have to wait a few years before they pursue this dream.
  8. Prosthodontics – Yes, I had to look it up, but one who is employed in prosthodontics makes dentures, crowns and bridges for dental patients. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are less than 400 people across the country that have this skill, which sounds like a good thing. But through 2016, the field is not expected to expand by more than 30 or so positions. Odds are just not good enough to consider a career in prosthodontics.
  9. Geographer – Years of extensive study and high intelligence are just two of the requirements to become a geographer. And like the occupations above, there is a small pool of practicing geographers, with a smaller amount (40 or less) hired each year. Take up camping and practice on the weekends instead.
  10. Forest Fire Inspector – All of you Smokey the Bear wannabes be warned. Most jobs in this category are with government agencies, and come along with a difficult screening and selection process. Also, it’s predicted that only 38 specialists in all will be required in this field through 2016. Remember, only you can prevent forest fires, but purely for pleasure and not for a living.

‘Down the shore’ pizza wars

March 7, 2012 – Residents living in the southeastern Pennsylvania area, who go “down the shore” (area speak for vacationing at one of the beach towns in southern New Jersey) are probably aware of the friendly, yet competitive pizza wars on the boardwalks.

In Ocean City, N.J., for example, the battle for best pizza was once fought between Mack and Manco and Prep’s. The clear winner judging by the long lines that formed outside of its three boardwalk shops was always Mack and Manco.

The original Mack's in Wildwood opened in 1953

In Wildwood, N.J., a few beach towns further south, the pizza wars are fought between Mack’s and Sam’s. Again, the crowds favored Mack’s two locations over Sam’s.

Mack’s and Mack and Manco actually create the same famous thin crispy pizza vacationers have come to love. Tony Mack and Frank Manco, the ones who started it all, are first cousins. The Mack family opened Mack’s Pizza in 1953 on Wildwood’s Boardwalk, and partnered up with the Manco family in 1956 to open Mack and Manco in Ocean City.

The new Manco and Manco. Thankfully, just the name has changed.

Those pizza wars have taken a drastic turn, kicking aside their competitors’, Sam’s and Prep’s to battle it out with each other in an action that has the Mack and Manco families are acting more like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. A few months ago the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the name “Mack was officially dropped from a moniker that has been around since 1956, and the pizza shops are now called simply Manco and Manco.”

According to Chuck Bangle, who co-owns the pizza chain with his wife Mary and her parents Frank and Kay Manco, the two entities decided to go their separate ways. No one knows – or at least no one will talk about whether the split was amicable, but Mack’s will continue to be a favorite on the Wildwood boardwalk, while in Ocean City, Manco and Manco will continue to rule.

Would there be a change in flavor or in recipe with Manco and Manco Pizza? I did a little investigative work over the weekend to find out. My plan was to have lunch in Wildwood, and dinner in Ocean City, and compare the two. Unfortunately, Mack’s in Wildwood was still closed for the season, so I made the best of my time and wandered about the eerily empty streets taking in the famous art deco landmarks that made Wildwood famous.

The deserted Wildwood boardwalk
The familiar pink awning means it's time for Laura's Fudge, a Wildwood and Ocean city staple.
The art deco styled motels in Wildwood are plentiful. They just look a little strange against the empty streets.

When I reached Ocean City, I was met by crowds on the boardwalk, and inside the 9th Street location of Manco and Manco, which is open year round.

Two slices and a birch beer. I'd actually ordered one, but they brought me two and I didn't complain.

I’m happy to report that Manco and Manco the pizza tasted the same – not that I really doubted it would. They’d be crazy to mess with a famous and popular recipe. I tried to pry information from the men behind the counters about what really happened in the pizza feud, but like good employees, they stuck to the script and told me the families simply decided to go out on their own.

One thing was for certain. The diners in the shop didn’t seem worried about the name change. Every table was taken, and the lunch counter was practically full. I found several groups like me who drove in from Philadelphia just to have a late lunch. After I left, I walked the boards before heading home.

The Ocean City Music Pier, over looking the Atlantic Ocean.
The crowd on the Ocean City boardwalk. Not bad for a chilly March day.
Shrivers Salt Water Taffy, an Ocean City tradition since 1896.

The moral of this story is that a name change doesn’t always affect the quality of a product. Mack’s will continue to be enjoyed by the folks visiting Wildwood, and Manco and Manco will feed those who flock to Ocean City. It’s just sad the pizza wars that were once friendly competitions between vendors happened from within, and probably broke up a family.