In the brief interregnum between snowstorms I was able to get to the first weekend college baseball of the year — always a big deal around here.
Over in Bethlehem, Moravian College did battle in a doubleheader with Catholic University of America, which is apparently a ranked team in whatever division it calls home.
I surprised myself by staying through the wind and cold to watch the entire (seven-inning) first game, which Catholic won 3-2. I hadn’t thought I was jonesing that hard for baseball, but I guess I must have been. It felt good to watch the choreography of the warmups — third baseman whips to second, who whips to first, who tosses to short, and like that.
Both teams played well, with relatively few errors or slop. The final out came on a bang-bang play at the plate that could have tied it for the home team. It made for a dramatic final play … and I was content not to watch extra innings.
As always, I indulged my hobby of taking amateur photos of the game.
I am the last person in America (here I go with that again) who buys digital point-and-shoots; as my old Kodak has finally bit the dust, I had a new Canon to break in. It seems to work acceptably.
I’ll post some of the better pix here, just ’cause that’s what I do, and also because it will give me something to look at at work on Wednesday while six to eight inches of snow pile up outside.
My latest recording is available at Bandcamp as of a few minutes ago. This time around I had help, from dozens of shaggy-haired, bell-bottomed, short-skirted teenagers who had no idea what I was doing.
The new one is called Things We Burned. It was created by extensively editing the music from a locally released 1970 album featuring various student performing ensembles from Penfield, N.Y., High School.
You’ve probably seen this kind of record in the crates. Maybe you even own one. The local high school concert band or marching band cuts some songs in a studio on the cheap, presses up some records, and sells ’em to parents and grandparents. Some end up sitting in a box years later in the bandroom storage area. That’s how this one landed in my hands.
The record — being bare-bones, as these things often seem to be — doesn’t have any performer credits beyond the names of the ensembles, so I can’t thank Johnny and Jane from the Class of ’71 for their groundbreaking work on tympani or flute. If you’re out there, and you read this, thanks. You played great. Knocked ’em dead.
The record also doesn’t have any copyright claim anywhere on its label or jacket. So far as I can tell, that places it in the public domain, and thus fair game for my kind of vandalistic re-creation.
What’s it sound like? As chaotic as all the other stuff I do, only this time there’s a concert band playing. Maybe that’s more palatable; maybe it isn’t.
It’s out there, anyway — and it’s name-your-own-price, which means free. So take two, tell your friends, and cover your ears.
Nothing noteworthy to say about it except LCCC whipped up on PSUWS 19-3 and they stopped the game early, after five-and-a-half innings. Penn State WS appeared to have only about a dozen active players during the national anthem, and the whole thing was kind of a mismatch from the word go.
The usual photos were taken and you get to look at some.
To each song on the Top Ten, I’ll assign a numerical grade, ranging from 0 (never wanna hear it again) to 5 (one or two spins a week would be fine, thanks) to 10 (play it all night long).
Then I’ll add ’em all together, and the year with the highest score wins.
(And yeah, I’ll probably toss out a couple irresponsibly dismissive value judgments while I’m going about it.)
Here goes, then. All song titles are reproduced as they appear on the surveys, for what that’s worth.
1971 (WRAW-AM, Reading): 1. Janis Joplin – Me And Bobby McGee – 8 (I’m kinda tired of this, but I can’t deny it’s a magnificent record, especially the joyous jam at the end)
2. The Carpenters – For All We Know – 2
3. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Have You Seen The Rain – 6 (can’t give CCR too low a score, but I like it better when they put the pedal down a little bit more)
4. Jackson Five – Mama’s Pearl – 8 (this is glorious, at least until it gets too far away from the chorus and kinda loses its way)
5. Tom Jones – She’s A Lady – 7 (a different sort of glorious. Gloriously hammy.)
6. The Temptations – Just My Imagination – 6 (oh, yeah, that Stones tune)
7. Osmonds – One Bad Apple – 7 (and I could have given it a point or two more. Osmonds/Jax 5 back-to-back on the radio would have been as much fun, in its own way, as Beatles/Stones or Beatles/Beach Boys)
8. Partridge Family – Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted – 2
9. Sammi Smith – Help Me Make It Through The Night – 3
10. Wadsworth Mansion – Sweet Mary – 5 (for pop records about chicks, I’ll still take “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes),” but this one’s OK anyway)
1971’s total: 54 (Would the average have been higher if I’d rated all the songs?: Hard to say. The rest of the countdown is evenly split between killers – “I Hear You Knocking,” “Proud Mary,” “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You” – and crap – “Cried Like A Baby,” “Amos Moses,” and “D.O.A.,” which would get a negative score if such a thing were possible.)
1974 (WKAP-AM, Allentown): 1. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun – 0 (This one was in the midst of a three-week run at Number One nationally. The purest distillation of the tacky/mawkish side of the Seventies.)
2. Cher – Dark Lady – 1
3. John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulder – 2
4. Carly Simon & James Taylor – Mockingbird – 3 (that’s being kind, probably, but it’s uncouth to speak ill of pregnant ladies)
5. Jim Stafford – Spiders & Snakes – 2
6. Redbone – Come Get Your Love – 5 (there is room in the universe for “it’s stupid but it grooves”)
7. David Essex – Rock On – 4
8. Sister Janet Meade – Lord’s Prayer – 1 (it’s probably uncouth to speak ill of nuns, also — they work hard for the money — so SJM gets a solitary point. If you look at the survey, WKAP was running a promotion for a private showing of “The Exorcist” at the same time it was spinning Sister Janet in heavy rotation.)
9. Paul McCartney – Jet – 9 (not Macca’s best lyric but a fabulous soaring piece of rock n’ roll, and one of my five favorite McCartney solo tunes, were I to list them)
10. Barbra Streisand – The Way We Were – 3
1974’s total: 30 (Would the average have been higher if I’d rated all 25 songs?: Yes, probably.)
1975 (WKAP-AM, Allentown):
1 Frankie Valli – My Eyes Adored You – 2
2 Minnie Riperton – Lovin’ You – 5
3 LaBelle – Lady Marmalade – 10 (not a typo, nor a mistake. Outrageous sassy New Orleans funk. The radio needed more of this. It still does.)
4 Doobie Brothers – Black Water – 7 (their finest moment? yeah, most likely.)
5 Sugarloaf – Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You – 7 (underrated wiseassery)
6 Ringo Starr – No No Song/Snookeroo – 3
7 Styx – Lady – 2
8 Olivia Newton John – Have You Never Been Mellow – 2
9 Average White Band – Pick Up The Pieces – 8 (I taped this off the radio when I was maybe 13 and just learning about a whole class of Seventies tunes that were bad and funky and colorful and totally un-Eighties. Like “Lady Marmalade.”)
10 Joe Cocker – You Are So Beautiful – 4 (as professional hit-making songwriters, did Dennis Wilson, Bruce Johnston and Mike Love all fare better in the Seventies than Brian Wilson?)
1975’s total: 50 (Would the average have been higher if I’d rated all 25 songs?: Probably not, although “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Harry Truman” and “Shaving Cream” would all have scored strongly.)
1979 (WKAP-AM, Allentown): 1. Neil Diamond – Forever In Blue Jeans – 3 (there’s more to this song than the chorus but damned if I remember it)
2. Little River Band – Lady – 2 (classy and professional and ultimately rather boring)
3. Rod Stewart – Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? – 4 (Jorge Ben’s “Taj Mahal” smokes this)
4. Dire Straits – Sultans Of Swing – 4 (should get more but I’m plenty sick of hearing it)
5. Melissa Manchester – Don’t Cry Out Loud – 2 (classy and professional and ultimately rather boring)
6. The Bee Gees – Tragedy – 4
7. The Doobie Brothers – What A Fool Believes – 4
8. Nigel Olsson – Dancin’ Shoes – 4 (never heard it enough for it to wear out its welcome)
9. The Babys – Every Time I Think Of You – 3
10. Donna Summer – Heaven Knows – 4
1979’s total: 34 (Would the average have been higher if I’d rated all 25 songs?: Possibly, though even in its full incarnation, the chart is lacking in 9 or 10-scores.)
The winner: For all the time I’ve spent deriding 1971 countdowns — it is, pound for pound, not my favorite year — that was a pretty good March to have the radio on. At least around here.
A Twitter trending topic brought this post from the old blog to mind. Originally posted December 2009; edited ever so slightly for rebroadcast. The title comes from here.
Help me out with a question, readers.
It’s apparently considered gospel here in the Lehigh Valley that, had the Russkies launched a nuclear assault during the Cold War (and especially in the ’50s and ’60s), this area would have been on their first-hit target list because of the national strategic importance of Bethlehem Steel.
The local paper alluded to this rumor in this section of its big Steel history published a few years ago — though they were slightly less definitive, saying only that published maps showed that Bethlehem was within the target range of missiles planted in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
(That’s kind of a no-brainer — everything on the East Coast south of Portsmouth, N.H., was probably within range of those missiles.)
The story does claim, though, that “Bethlehem Steel had made the Lehigh Valley a target because it was a leading defense contractor.”
This reminds me of a conversation a whole bunch of kids had around a middle-school lunch table when I was in seventh grade, circa 1985.
A couple of the cool kids at the table said (citing no authority that I remember) that in case of a Soviet missile attack, Rochester would be a first-hit target, due to the proximity of the Ginna nuclear plant.
This sounded like bushwah to me at the time, and I said so immediately … which earned me a “Shuddup, Blumenau!” from one of the nerdy cool kids.
(Remember, this was 1985; those were halcyon days for nerdy cool kids. Ferris Bueller, the Eighties patron saint of nerdy cool kids, would be along in less than a year’s time.)
It didn’t really sting, though; I still thought I was right, and time is on my side.
So annnnnnnnnyway, dear readers, I’d like your feedback:
Was this a nationwide trope during the Cold War?
Did every community in the country have some homegrown reason why they would be near the head of the line for a Soviet nuclear attack?
Just like college kids have passed around the story of the sinking library for generations, did generations of younger kids explain earnestly to each other why they were in Leonid Brezhnev’s crosshairs?
Or maybe this goofy canard just followed me around and no one else.
Anyway, do weigh in in the Comments. Is this something you heard as a kid or young adult wherever you happened to be?
I know at least a few of my readers grew up in areas of smaller population than my hometown, so I’m especially interested in their answers.
If the people of Loyalsock Township or Cadiz expected to get a night letter from the Soviets, I’d love to know how they justified it.
On the original post, my man Jim Bartlett commented: “They said the same thing in Quad Cities, USA (Davenport/Bettendorf IA, Rock Island/Moline IL), thanks to the John Deere and Alcoa Aluminum plants, which would presumably have started producing tanks and aircraft aluminum in the event of a war.”
And regular reader West Berkeley Flats added: “I grew up outside the DC area, which according to the Book of Lists was the USSR’s #1 nuclear target. #2 – #10 were places in the middle of nowhere in areas such as North Dakota that had missile silos. I guess the question is how many areas did the Soviet Union have the nuclear capacity to target?”
It’s sort of a tradition here for me to write something about the start and end of each baseball season … so here goes.
I took the family to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ last game of the year earlier today. This is the third straight year we’ve gone to the last home game. My younger son likes the idea of buying half-price concessions; the rest of us just like a last trip to the ballpark before hockey season starts.
(I remember last year Lehigh University played a few games of fall ball. If they do that this year, and if I have the free time, maybe I’ll go check that out. I recently checked their website and saw no word of anything.)
There was nothing all that noteworthy about the game. The Pigs never seem to play that well for us, and today they fell behind early and lost 8-1 to the Rochester Red Wings. It was fiercely hot (93 degrees) and even my last ballpark beer of the season, a Victory HopDevil, didn’t do much to cool me off.
We sat in a new section of seating next to the bullpens; and in the eighth inning, one of the Red Wings’ relief pitchers started handing out baseballs to nearby kids (including mine). Made for a nice souvenir, and a complement to the New York-Penn League foul ball I took home earlier in the summer.
For some reason I am especially jonesing for fall and winter this year, so I am content to put another year of baseball-watching to bed. I want cold and bare trees and hockey. Sorry, baseball. Your time will come again.
I had no real good excuse to go back to the 50-cent bin at Allentown’s Double Decker Records.
But I went anyway, leaving roughly $10 in their coffers and walking out with another pile of secondhand (maybe even third- or fourth-hand) goodies.
I didn’t get any of the country or gospel stuff that turned my head the first time I went … mainly ’cause I couldn’t find any of it.
Instead, this latest batch is roughly equally split between Seventies mellow gold and classical.
Here’s the latest. Cheer or throw stuff as you choose:
To Be True, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Theodore Pendergrass: A former No. 1 album on the R&B charts (for the week ending May 10, 1975), and a marvelous showcase for the finest voice Philly soul ever produced. Of all the stuff I bought, this got played first.
Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John: In 42-plus years of my existence, this is the first Elton John album I have ever owned. A few months ago, something brought me to a YouTube video with the entire album, and I listened to it all, thinking, “Y’know, this is pretty damned good.” Have listened to Side 2 since I got it home and my opinion has not changed.
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon: Forgetting that I will probably receive my parents’ vinyl copy of this in a month, I gave in to a whim and bought it. I hadn’t heard the full album from start to finish in many years. Put it on again last night and I thought it was solid, if a little too polite and well-groomed in places. (I had an incorrect memory that “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” went double-time at some point, the way “Kodachrome” does. It would have been better that way, methinks.)
The Marblehead Messenger, Seatrain: Double Decker Records had two Seatrain albums, neither of which included the band’s one semi-hit, “13 Questions.” I’d read about them, and something in their style (Wiki called it “roots-fusion”) sounded appealing, plus I’m a sucker for anything Massachusetts, so I figured this was worth a shot. (Also: Produced by George Martin.)
I’m In You, Peter Frampton: The second album on this list to stall at No. 2 on the U.S. album charts. I have written in the past (not in this space) about my deep fondness for the title track. As for the remainder … well, it was 50 cents, and in good shape. And Stevie Wonder and Ritchie Hayward are on it. I’ll listen at some point.
Beethoven: Christ on the Mount of Olives, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: From Frampton, to this … let’s play Segue Fever!
This record looks like the feel-good hit of the season, doesn’t it? Its aura of suffering and seriousness helped draw me in. This just looks like the sort of cultural work I need to chew on, and can only aspire to be worthy of and to understand. I feel like maybe I should drag nettles along my forearms while I listen.
(I do know that the Philly Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy was a force to be reckoned with; so whatever I think of the music, I’ll at least know that it’s being conducted and played about as well as it can be.)
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Leopold Stokowski and the New Philharmonia Orchestra: Thanks perhaps to early exposure to EL&P, this is probably my favorite classical piece. And even though I’ve got CDs of Vladimir Horowitz playing it on solo piano and someone heavy (George Szell and Cleveland, maybe?) playing the orchestral arrangement, I’m still up for an additional version.
The bonus jam on this elpee is something called The Engulfed Cathedral, which sounds frothy and danceable.
Charles Ives: Symphony No. 1 and Three Places in New England, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: All the stuff I said about Ives in my first crate-digging expedition still applies. And hey, there’s Ormandy and the Philadelphians again. Not sure why I haven’t spun this one yet … maybe during dinner prep while I’m making tonight’s spring rolls?
Various and sundry by Britten, Elgar and Schoenberg, Victor Desarzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra: It looked interesting and curious and sorta modern-ish, and it was 50 cents. If it sucks I’ll frame the cover. (The classical music industry has provided lucrative work for all manner of artists over the decades, hasn’t it?)
Camille Saint-Saens, I can’t read the rest of the bloomin’ cover but it’s a bunch of preludes for organ: I like pipe organ music.
Moments, Boz Scaggs: I read a contemporary Rolling Stone review of this that said it was a pretty good record, so I thought it was worth a shot. (I’m vaguely interested in what Boz was doing in the wilderness before Silk Degrees made him a superstar.) Features the studio version of “We Were Always Sweethearts.”
Bombs Away Dream Babies, John Stewart: The popularity of the single “Gold” (with help from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks) lifted this one into the Top 10 on the LP chart in the summer of 1979. “Gold” is the only song I know, but I was in a mellow-gold mood, so I decided to give this a chance.
And really: Put a white guy in a white suit with a white Les Paul against a white background, and you’ve pretty much got the ultimate visual representation of mellow gold, haven’t you? If the music on the album is half of what the cover photo promises, it ought to be an easy ride.
Compositions by Bartok and Hindemith, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: What were we saying a moment ago about classical music providing extensive opportunities for graphic artists? I assume the two gents on the cover are Bartok and Hindemith, and not, say, Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg. This one promises to break up the mellow gold nicely. Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra: I’ve been meaning for years to try to work Bartok onto my dance card. Robert Fripp, who I consider one of the most creative and interesting guitarists to reach mainstream rock notoriety, has cited him as an influence. With a world-class orchestra playing, I figured it was worth a shot. Beethoven: Emperor Concerto, Glenn Gould, Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra: We heard from Stokowski and the ASO the last time I went digging for vinyl. Here they are again, this time in the company of the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.
“Will he ever get away from this highbrow shit and back to pop?” you ask. Well… Chicago 13: This album — Chicago’s first LP without any hit singles at all, I believe — is so bad it’s almost legendary. I thought I had gotten away from buying bad music just to make myself laugh, but I guess not, quite. Features “Street Player,” the dance mix of which I enjoy unashamedly. Can’t wait to hear the songs where Peter Cetera sings in a lower register. The Pretender, Jackson Browne: Another YouTube special; I found myself a while ago listening to the entire thing online and thinking, “Hey, this is much more accessible than Late For The Sky, and really is pretty good, except for the mock-flamenco Mexican-restaurant nonsense of ‘Linda Paloma,’ which I would instantly and invariably skip over if I owned my own copy.”
Well, now, I do.
Living and Dying In 3/4 Time, Jimmy Buffett: I have a dear old friend — one of my truest and longest — who introduced me years ago to both the first Ramones album and Blood On The Tracks, which gives you some idea of his eclecticism. In recent years he has become fond of Jimmy Buffett, so I figure I’ll check it out myself and see if there’s anything to it. (I made sure to find an album from Buffett’s earlier years, before he turned into a franchise.)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 and Karelia Suite, Alexander Gibson and the London Symphony: I have lit’rally no idea why I picked this up. We’re almost done, anyway.
Feels So Good, Chuck Mangione: The third album on this list to stall at No. 2. The title just about says it all, doesn’t it? Dunno why Betty got rid of her copy, but I’m glad she did.
The last time I wrote about an old local radio airplay chart, I found the story of a band that was huge on most continents but small potatoes in the U.S. … except for a couple of weeks in the Lehigh Valley, when they got Top Five airplay.
I’m looking at another of these old radio charts. And this time, the story is an album — one of those earnest high-concept Seventies jobbies — that stiffed in most other parts of the U.S., but was unaccountably popular here in the Valley.
Summer’s nearly over. What are the kids reporting for fall sports practice at Northampton and Nazareth and Becahi buzzing over?
Well, the list of top singles is a typical ’73 mix of the sublime (“Here I Am (Come And Take Me),” “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” “Live and Let Die”) and the ridiculous (“The Morning After,” “Uneasy Rider,” “Gypsy Rose”).
But what interests us is the LP chart. That’s an uneven mix too — you’ll see the kids in the Lehigh Valley getting off on Leon Live and Sing It Again, Rod alongside the more lasting likes of 1967-1970 and Countdown to Ecstasy.
And then, near the bottom, you’ll see the Osmonds’ The Plan.
The Plan, released in June of that year, is an openly religious album — an attempt by the group to express aspects of its Mormon faith in a pop setting.
If you skip to about 1:30 into this promotional video, you’ll see one of the guitar-toting Osmond bros explain it in a po-faced voice-over: “Recently, we released a new album … a concept album … based on our philosophies about life. Where did I come from? Why am I here? And where am I going? In other words — the plan.”
Anybody who knows their Seventies pop culture knows where the Osmond family of Ogden, Utah, formed its “philosophies about life” — philosophies that guided the group members’ offstage lives and, on this album, spilled over into their music.
Like other musicians of faith — including fellow ’73 hitmakers George Harrison and Al Green — the Osmonds found ways to package their spiritual concerns in ways that would be palatable to a mass audience.
Two of the album’s songs cracked the lower reaches of the U.S. Top Forty and one hit No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart, testament to the professional talent of family songwriters Merrill and Wayne Osmond.
That said, online reviews of the album suggest that most listeners found The Plan too openly religious to embrace. (Some reviewers also criticize the album for skipping too wildly between musical genres.)
If you watch the promotional video above, skip to about 4:05 in, and you’ll see the brothers tackle a foreboding, heavy tune called “The Last Days,” which segues abruptly into a bouncy, encouraging tune called “One Way Ticket To Anywhere.” (This is just for the purposes of the promo video; the songs do not abut on the LP.)
For my taste, the whole thing seems a little too theatrical, a little too well-scrubbed, like the soundtrack to the spring musical at a religious high school.
This being the Osmonds, the whole thing is performed with the utmost professionalism, and it’s kinda catchy here and there … but ultimately, it just doesn’t hit a nerve for me.
Audiences in other countries loved it: According to Wiki, The Plan hit No. 6 in the U.K., and its singles went Top Five there.
But American album buyers only sent The Plan to No. 58 on the charts — a letdown compared to predecessor LPs Crazy Horses (No. 14, 1972) and Phase III (No. 10, 1971.) By the standards of religious albums, The Plan was a strong success; by the standards of mainstream pop, it was a misfire.
(It’s true that bands appealing to the teenybop market tend to have short, torrid runs of popularity … and maybe the Osmonds’ time would have been up in 1973 even if they’d released a fully secular album. As it was, they chose to take a chance; commercially, it did not pay off.)
Which brings us back to WAEB in the Lehigh Valley, where listeners highly rated The Plan, even though the region is not particularly a stronghold of the Mormon faith.
In the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts, only five charts mention The Plan — one apiece from Buffalo, N.Y.; Oklahoma City; Provo, Utah (a Number Three hit there, not surprisingly); Windsor, Ontario, Canada; and Allentown.
That doesn’t mean The Plan wasn’t popular anywhere else. Some Top Forty stations’ airplay charts focused heavily on singles, paying little or no attention to LPs. And the ARSA database is not comprehensive, so there could be additional local charts with The Plan that haven’t yet been scanned in.
Still, the available evidence suggests that the Lehigh Valley embraced this record in a way that didn’t happen just about anywhere else.
The WAEB chart came out a good two months after the album did. So the placement of The Plan must have been based on genuine popularity, rather than being a pre-emptive strike on the station’s part. (i.e., “the kids love the Osmonds, and this new album will probably be hot, so we’ll put it on our Top Ten.”)
The only explanation I can think of for The Plan‘s strong local sales is that eternal shifter of units: Tour dates.
The Osmonds played the Great Allentown Fair — a major annual event, held around Labor Day — in 1973. They’d played the fair the year before, according to the local paper, and would be back yet again in 1975 and 1978. Presumably the anticipation of their upcoming gig drove the local kids out to their local record stores to pick up The Plan.
The Osmonds gigged in lots of other places where The Plan didn’t chart, so that doesn’t seem like an ironclad reason.
But at this distance, trying to peer back into the haze of a distant late summer, that’s as much as I can come up with.
The Lehigh Valley’s most successful polkapreneur died yesterday at 85. And in a perverse and deeply personal way almost totally unrelated to his artistic contributions, I miss him.
By the time I moved to this area in 2002, Jolly Joe had carved out a mini-empire in the world of Lehigh Valley entertainment. Depending which hat he had on at any given time, he was:
– The host of a weekly 90-minute local cable TV show, The Jolly Joe Timmer Show, on which he showed polka videos and chatted with random guests.
– The operator of Jolly Joe’s Polka Grove, a small party hall for rent in the sticks north of Bethlehem. His wife, Jolly Dottie, worked the concession stand. Like any good local businessman, Jolly Joe knew how to make his properties work for each other: Many of the polka videos aired on JJT’s show were filmed at the Grove, and each episode featured a commercial urging viewers to “call today for shindig dates and rates!”
– The promoter of polka concerts at venues other than the Grove — most notably at the Westgate Mall, a moribund shopping center at the edge of the city of Bethlehem. The busiest that mall ever got was during the polka concerts, which says quite a bit.
– The owner of Sunny WGPA, an AM radio station broadcasting a mix of national talk radio and, you guessed it, polka. Ads for WGPA are visible behind Jolly Joe in the TV screenshot at the top of this post.
– The owner of a small store on the Southside of Bethlehem selling polka records — including some by his own band.
(Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that hat. Jolly Joe was also the drummer for a polka band bearing his name, which, I think, continued to gig on its name recognition even after he’d stopped playing.)
There had been nothing like The Jolly Joe Timmer Show on the cable stations I knew in Massachusetts. As an auslander trying to make my way in a new home, I became a regular weekly watcher, along with my young children.
Of course, the low-budget cheese factor was part of the appeal. Even in an obituary, I would be lying not to admit that.
When he wasn’t showing polka videos, Jolly Joe would take live callers and chat at length, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a guy talking to his monitor made for lousy TV.
On other occasions, he would invite packs of Cub Scouts into the studio and insist on speaking to every single camera-shy one; I’m here to say that five minutes of JJT interviewing Scouts was the longest half-hour of television I’ve ever watched.
At the same time, I recognized that Jolly Joe was part of the Lehigh Valley’s DNA. He was a lifelong Bethlehem resident, a local celebrity, a star entertainer and a successful businessman. He was popular here for a reason. So I watched and watched, hoping that strands of the local identity would begin to rub off.
The Lehigh Valley, as it turned out, was changing underneath both of us — and for a while, Jolly Joe was probably more keenly aware of it than I was.
For one thing, the polka crowd was aging into senescence. You never saw people under 60 on the dance floor in Jolly Joe’s locally filmed polka videos; they simply weren’t there.
What you did see in nearly every video, and I’ll long remember this, were pairs of seventy-something women dancing together — presumably because their husbands had predeceased them. Pathos is the furthest thing from the soul of polka, but it was easy to feel a little sad at the sight of that.
At the same time, a growing number of people from New York and New Jersey were moving into the Valley, willing to trade an hour-plus commute for an affordable suburban home. They made the region younger, richer and more populated, and they voted with their dollars to make it more sophisticated in terms of chain shopping, restaurants and entertainment.
(There were some of us who moved in from other places, too. But the 212s tended to get the attention, which was fine with us.)
The Valley’s entertainment scene began to sprout attractions and destinations that would have seemed unthinkable when I moved here. (Indeed, I’ve taken a special kind of pleasure from watching provincial long-timers pooh-pooh each idea, only to have them take root, blossom and succeed.)
We got a shiny new ballpark in Allentown and an extremely successful Triple-A minor-league team to play in it, plus a handful of open-air concerts there. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs regularly rank at or near the top of minor-league attendance.
We got a similarly shiny hockey rink and AHL team in downtown Allentown — finally replacing Lehigh University’s small Stabler Arena as a viable big-name concert destination.
We got an arts complex, including several marvelous music stages, in the former Bethlehem Steel mill by the Lehigh River in Bethlehem.
It takes more than just country and classic rock to fill all those stages, and it feels like the region’s taste is expanding in turn.
Snoop Dogg, O.A.R. and the Flaming Lips are among the headliners at this year’s Musikfest, the annual Bethlehem music festival where Jolly Joe Timmer used to rock the polka tent each year. Not to be outdone, the Great Allentown Fair — whose headliners typically run to country, classic rock, and the Disney soubrette of the season — has booked Deadmau5 as a headliner this year. Modest Mouse has played the new stages at the old steel plant two years running, and sold out at least one of the shows, if not both.
(The Valley’s Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants are pretty well gone, so you’d be hard put to get a plate of schnitz und knepp after the shows. But you can get good Thai, Ethiopian, or handmade Chinese dumplings.)
It was worth watching Jolly Joe to get to know his Valley, because you can better appreciate where you are if you know where you came from. I will never qualify as a long-timer here, but I’ve picked up enough roots to be able to fake it.
My kids, in contrast, have the Lehigh Valley pedigree I lack. One was born here, while the other one moved here before he was old enough to form conscious memories of his birthplace in Massachusetts.
They will never really know Jolly Joe’s Valley, having grown up in a place with shiny ballparks and hockey arenas and Apple Stores.
But they still remember — and I think they long will — the show they used to insist on watching every Thursday when they were little … the show with the smiling old man, and the same four ads every week, and the polka videos that used to set them to exaggerated projectile-pogoing around the living room.
See, I was only partially watching Jolly Joe to be part of the Lehigh Valley. I was also watching to be part of my kids’ lives. My kids dug it, and we could share it, and talk and joke about it every week, and even go on one memorable occasion to one of JJT’s multi-band polka festivals at the godforsaken Westgate Mall.
One of those kids will be a high school sophomore in a month’s time. The other will start middle school. The smiling old man we used to watch is gone. And the Westgate Mall … well, nowadays, it’s probably a real nice place to get some thinking done.
So I’ll wallow in the past for a couple more hours. It was a provincial place, that Valley, and I never felt entirely comfortable there; but there were good memories to be had.
By tomorrow night, I’ll have snapped out of it and come back to today’s Valley.
Yesterday’s outing for a baseball game at Lafayette College was insufficient to ease my pent-up jones; I had to go to another one today.
Today I took the kids to Moravian College in Bethlehem for an ultra-small-school matchup with Elizabethtown College (it’s somewhere else in Pennsylvania; I forget where.)
Another day, another extra-innings thriller. Moravian’s pitchers only allowed three hits in 10 innings, and the Greyhounds finally put together two walks and a single in the bottom of the 10th to win the game 3-2.
(Today’s game was again to be the first of a doubleheader, but other interests kept me from watching the second, including the dinner whose preparation I am blowing off to write this.)
The great joy of Moravian’s home field, Gillespie Field, is that it’s tucked into a city block in the middle of downtown Bethlehem — maybe not the precise middle, but work with me.
Unlike other local college ballparks — which are either on campuses, or part of off-campus athletic field complexes — Gillespie Field is surrounded by residential streets with old brick houses. It’s a cool, rootsy setting, and one I always enjoy.
Unfortunately, since my last visit, the school has erected a couple of high fences surrounding the field — presumably to protect adjoining homes from the hazards of foul balls. It’s a sound bit of town-gown compromise, but it’s tough to shoot pictures through.
No matter. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And, between this and the Lafayette game, I feel like spring is well and truly here, at long last.