Author Archives: WIH Reporter

How Much Do You Know About…Jews In Pop Culture


January 23, 2020

Barbra_Streisand_My_Name_is_Barbra_television_special_19651. Carole King, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, and many other successful Jewish song-writers churning out hit after hit in the 50′s and 60′s, all spent time writing songs in this iconic NYC location.

Answer: A. The Brill Building. The Brill Building’s name has been widely adopted as a shorthand term for a broad and influential stream of American mainstream popular song (strongly influenced by Latin music, traditional black gospel, and rhythm and blues) which enjoyed great commercial success in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Many significant American and international publishing companies, music agencies, and recording labels were based in New York, and although these ventures were naturally spread across many locations, the Brill Building was regarded as probably the most prestigious address in New York for music business professionals during this period.

2. Director Steven Spielberg is the top-grossing box office director of all time. True or False?

Answer: True. Grossing over $10 trillion over his career, Speilberg is the only person who has been thanked in more Oscar acceptance speeches than God. The director of 33 movies and the producer behind countless more, Speilberg has been thanked 43 times at the Oscars, while God has received 42 mentions since 1966, according to a 2017 report by Quartz.

3. Which of these films had Jewish writers, Jewish producers, a Jewish music score writer, and a Jewish director?

Answer: B. Casablanca. Casablanca is a 1942 American romantic film directed by Michael Curtiz based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Set during World War II, it focuses on an American expatriate who must choose between his love for a woman and helping her and her husband, a Czech resistance leader, escape from the Vichy-controlled city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Germans.

Warner Bros. story editor Irene Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to purchase the film rights to the play in January 1942. Brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein were initially assigned to write the script. However, despite studio resistance, they left to work on Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series early in 1942. Howard Koch was assigned to the screenplay until the Epsteins returned a month later. The music was written by Max Steiner, who was best known for the score for Gone with the Wind.

4. Which of these female Hollywood superstars is not of Jewish descent?

Answer: B. Audrey Hepburn

5. Who wrote the most popular Christmas song “White Christmas” and the most popular Easter song “Easter Parade”?

Answer: Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook. Born in Imperial Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States at the age of five.

6. When West Side Story was first conceived in 1949 Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents set their story on the east side of Manhattan and gave it the working title East Side Story. They planned to stage the conflict between rival Catholic and Jewish groups. True or False?

Answer: True. West Side Story began life as East Side Story. It was Jews and Catholics fighting it out over Passover. One researcher was how did show go from East Side Story to West Side Story? Original correspondence between Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins has statements like “What if Tony were Polish instead of Italian?” emphasizing the fact that it would make him lighter. It is possible the show changed from East Side to West Side because there wasn’t enough of a color difference between Jews and Catholics. Racial conflict depicted more of the tension they wanted.

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture with Dr. David Brenner begins on Tuesday, February 11 at 1:00.

 

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture


January 23, 2020

nathan-defiesta-hzc5cxRicFI-unsplashWIH Reporter: Welcome! We can’t wait to learn about Jews and American Popular Culture! Was entertainment a central part of Jewish culture in Europe or did it really take root upon immigration to America?

Brenner:  Entertainment was certainly a central part of European Jewish lives, as it was (and is) in most people’s lives! The only difference might be that more people started making distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow entertainments—the subject of my own research.  But whether it was mass-mediated or small-scale, popular entertainment for Jews was important wherever European Jews—largely Yiddish-speaking, from Eastern Europe—migrated to, regardless of their destinations.

WIH Reporter: What enticed Jews west to Hollywood and when did this occur?

Brenner:  This type of westward migration to California was typical for many Americans throughout the 19th century, and not just Jews. After 1900, the real center of Jewish settlement in Los Angeles became Boyle Heights. However, the founders of the film industry in the suburb of Hollywood were a group of independent producers running away from Thomas Edison’s powerful East Coast cartel (the Motion Pictures Patent Company, aka the “Edison Trust”). Many of them had gotten their start in the nickelodeon business, which Edison and his allies were intent on undermining or shutting down. A century ago, the independent film entrepreneurs were often Jewish, having found themselves limited by antisemitism to risky ventures such as this “new medium” of distributing and exhibiting motion pictures. As a result of establishing themselves in Southern California and entering the production of new content, they were ultimately able to co-create that “Hollywood dream factory” which has so successfully reflected and reproduced the dominant myths of American culture.

WIH Reporter: Who do you consider the pioneers of 20th Century Hollywood?

Brenner: Clearly the most famous were the so-called “movie moguls” of Jewish descent, many of whom were first-generation Americans. Foremost among them was Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who famously claimed that he—like his adopted country—had been born on the 4th of July. Other leading Jewish producers were Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Again, it was these recent immigrants to the U.S. who succeeded in reproducing the “American Dream” on the silver screen, especially for those who had immigrated less recently. The image of “America” and “Americans” therefore was reinvented by these early purveyors of mainstream American entertainment.

WIH Reporter: Comedy, in particular, seems to be dominated by famous Jews like Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart, to name a few. To what do you owe this trend?

Brenner: My own hunch is that a similar phenomenon is at work here, too. For the fact is that many Jewish Americans—of the “Borsht Belt” generation of comedians, for instance—were second or third generation Americans and still had enough of a distance from the mainstream culture to understand the processes involved in Americanization. Just think of Groucho Marx’s famous quip that he would never want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. Like other newer Americans, these Jewish humorists knew what was gained and what was lost in getting acculturated.

In addition to this, there is the finding of the most recent major survey of American Jewry. In 2013, 40 percent of Jewish Americans polled told researchers that a sense of humor was an integral part of Jewish culture for them. Compare that to another finding in the same survey, where slightly more than 40 percent maintained that concern for Israel was central to being Jewish, and you get a result that you (and the demographers at Pew, I bet!) probably didn’t anticipate.

WIH Reporter: In your course description you talk about addressing what it ultimately means to be American. What do you mean by this and can you give us an example?

Brenner: So, the integration and/or differentiation from other Americans by those who identify as Jews in U.S. society is crucial for understanding what is called “the American experience.” On the one hand, you have White Nationalists and other nativists questioning the national loyalty of Jewish Americans. And not only back in the 1920s; even today, there are still Jewish Americans who internalize that and other negative stereotypes. On the other hand, you have Jewish Americans (then as now) advocating for a stronger Jewish identity, fearing that they or their children have become too Americanized!

WIH Reporter: Are there any instances of the entertainment industry discriminating against Jews?

Brenner: Of course, because Jews like other minorities all too often internalize the prejudice and xenophobia directed against them. Just look how Americanized the Hollywood movie moguls became, not least at the height of McCarthyism following World War II. I suspect that there are Jewish Americans even today who still fear being perceived as “too Jewish.”  So, it’s still a bit of a tightrope that Jewish Americans must walk between appearing “too Jewish” and “too American.” It’s like the old paradoxical joke that “Jews are like everyone else—only moreso,” suggesting that people pay more attention to the successes and failures of Jews than of others.

WIH Reporter: What are you most excited about sharing in this class?

Brenner: I am eager to share just how powerful popular culture can be, even on those who are producing it—whether these cultural producers are Jewish or anything else that isn’t considered “mainstream.” At the same time, there are moments in which Jews and others have not only accepted but also resisted what critics refer to as the “hegemony” of majority culture(s). So, popular culture entails stereotyping but also breaking away—even deconstructing—the same stereotypes. So, like many things, it’s more complicated than at first glance. While Jews in history may have defined themselves as a people or religious group with an identity essentially different from other peoples or religious groups, Jewish identity —as it has been practiced and performed—has been more fluid than fixed, more heterogeneous than homogeneous. And that was even true for those identifying as Jews before the modern era and before America, with its tradition of reinventing yourself!

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture  begins on Tuesday, February 11 at 1:00.

The Idea of the First Lady: Truth and Reality


January 23, 2020

992px-Dolley_MadisonWIH Reporter: Welcome to The Women’s Institute, Dr. Young. We are looking forward to your 6-week class  The Idea of the First Lady  Americans have an infatuation with our first ladies. The china they pick, the policy platform they advocate, and the style of clothes they wear tends to set trends while they are in the White House. You have broken down the role of first lady into categories—Entertainer, Diplomat and Political Figure, Policy Activist, Media Personality, Mothers, and Cultural Leaders. This seems a lot to ask of one role. Historically, how did these expectations come about and are they realistic? 

Young: The thing about the first lady is that the position is not really codified. The first lady is not mentioned in the Constitution, and the legislation pertaining to the post mostly has to do with appropriations to fund the operations of the East Wing. As such, the work of the first lady has been determined by the people who have filled the role with some women being more activist than others, some more involved with cultural issues than others, and some more obviously trend-setters than others. The various roles that I want to explore in this course and in the book I am writing, have evolved over time. While it would not necessarily be realistic to expect one person to accomplish all these tasks, the first lady is no longer just one person. The East Wing bureaucracy has grown tremendously over the past century, meaning that the first lady has a large staff to assist with her work.

WIH Reporter: You are the author of several books on various political figures, you are currently working on a book that will address some of the aspects of this class. How did you come up with this idea?

Young: My book project on the idea of the first lady grew out of my biographical work on Lou Henry Hoover. I found Hoover to be a transitional figure to a more modern form of first lady activism. To test my ideas, I looked for literature that explored the institution of the first lady beyond the biographies of the individual women who had held the position. There was no such literature. At that point in the late 1990s the field had not advanced at all beyond biography. Some work has since been done, but nothing as encompassing as what I am undertaking. So, the short answer to your question is that I wanted to read a book that looks beyond biography. Finding none, I decided the only solution was to write one myself.

WIH Reporter: What is something that would surprise us to know about a first lady? And, give us an example of a first lady who was placed into a role that she was uncomfortable with.

Young: In answer to your first question one former first lady, Julia Gardiner Tyler supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. So did her husband, former president John Tyler, who was elected to the Confederate Congress. Perhaps two of the most politically savvy 20th century first ladies—Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson—were both shy public speakers and reticent to engage in politics earlier in their lives. They both had outgrown their hesitancies about public engagement long before they were in the White House, but this example is still illustrative. Historically, first ladies have not necessarily pursued the power and public role that comes with life in the White House, so an argument can be made that none of the women in the role have been fully prepared for what came their way.

WIH Reporter: You have expressed that the focus of this class will not be biographical in nature but will examine the first lady as an institution. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Young: Numerous academics have written about the presidency as an institution, but almost none have explored first ladies from this perspective. Institutional studies allow for analyzing change over time, a key historical concept that cannot be evaluated effectively from biographical methods. When considering the institution of the first lady, discrete biography does not work as a methodology because it does not offer the longer, comparative view needed to probe why and how the role of the first lady has changed. That said, biography cannot be completely abandoned. In my research and in this course, I use biography to show the evolution of how presidential spouses have defined their work and how they have been assessed by the public.

WIH Reporter: What most excites you about this class? Also, in an attempt to know you better, what books have you recently read or are reading?

Young: I look forward to a classroom where everyone has chosen to be there and where everyone embraces the life of the mind, characteristics not always applicable to the college classroom. Right now, I’ve got a stack of books on my desk that I’m reading in preparation for my classes this semester and another stack pertaining to my various research projects.  The one I’m most excited about, though, is Sarah Broom’s debut book, The Yellow House, which is getting a lot of buzz. Broom merges genres in this book that tells us the history of New Orleans and of the United States by looking at one house over the past half century.  I’ve just started reading, and if I can turn off impeachment news in the evenings I think I will be finished before the end of the month!

The Idea of the First Lady with Dr. Nancy Beck Young meets for 6 weeks beginning Tuesday, February 4 at 1:00. Register today. 

Image: Dolley Madison was said to be the first president’s wife to be referred to as “First Lady.”

 

More Religions in Houston


January 16, 2020

Beginning Tuesday, February 11 at 10:00 join Gregory Han of Interfaith Ministries as he introduces us to more faiths and faith communities in the Houston area ranging from Taoism to Orthodox Christianity. Each religion will be explored from an academic point of view and culminate with a visit to a local faith community.

Ancient Rome to Wall Street


October 23, 2019
  1. In the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, what financial instrument that fueled the Tulip mania in Holland is still a well-used financial instrument today?
    Answer: Options
  1. Who is a very famous individual who was devastated by the panic of 1819?
    Answer: Thomas Jefferson
  1. The South Sea Company in the 1700s was meant to duplicate in South America the great success of what company?
    Answer: The Dutch East India Company
  1. What famous investor bought stocks right after the 1929 crash only to watch the stock market drop an additional 55% over the next three years?
    Answer: Rockefeller
  1. What financial instrument that was pushed by Wall Street significantly exacerbated the 1987 crash?
    Answer: Portfolio Insurance
  1. In 1995 what company started the dot-com boom? It had no revenues and not a penny of profit and was actually giving most of its products away, yet it went public at $28 a share and rocketed to $71 by the end of the first day.
    Answer: Netscape
  1. In the late 1700s what individual stole British textile technology to establish cotton mills in the US?
    Answer: Samuel Slater, nicknamed Slater the Traitor
  1. In 1929, just prior to the crash, what famous Yale professor said “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”?
    Answer: Professor Irving Fisher
  1. What famous emperor used his own funds to stop the panic of 33 CE?
    Answer: Emperor Tiberius who had succeeded Augustus in 14 CE

 

Louis XIV…True or False?


September 13, 2019

WIH welcomes back historian Wil McCorquodale. His upcoming Sunday lecture on The Reign of Louis XIV will debunk some of the myths surrounding this king of France. Wil has come up with some True or False statements to test your knowledge. Answers to be revealed on Sunday, October 20 at 4:00.

1)      The wars of Louis XIV were by far his greatest expense.

2)      Louis insisted throughout his reign that he did not need the advice of ministers.

3)      Louis ignored his illegitimate offspring and relegated them to monasteries and convents.

4)     Louis almost never lost his temper in public.

5)      By the end of his reign, Louis XIV’s council of state was run from behind the scenes by his wife.

6)      Louis rarely commanded armies and gave his generals fairly wide latitude in what they did.

Ambassador Chase Untermeyer Speaks On: A Real Leader


September 12, 2019

What does a dead, rich, privileged white male have to teach modern America? If he’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quite a lot!

No one could have been more privileged than FDR, who was born to wealth, social position, and an open pathway to success. A character in an Evelyn Waugh novel remarks, “Only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor,” and in 1882 (the year of FDR’s birth) that gulf was far more vast than it is now. Of course, today’s ultra-rich can buy more things, and far fancier things, than the rest of us can. But thanks to the democratization of American society, pretty much everyone today has access to education, communication, entertainment, personal transport, and good health that ordinary Americans in the 19th century simply lacked.

Being “privileged” could not prevent FDR from contracting polio in 1922. Yes, he could afford the best medical care, but it could not restore the use of his legs. In an era when a disabled person was considered a social outcast, Franklin Roosevelt was determined to present himself as strong and fully capable of leadership. He willed himself to “walk” using heavy leg braces, a cane, and the strong arm of a son or aide. To deliver a speech, he used his well-developed upper body to hold himself at a rostrum — often with only one hand, so the other could be used to wave or gesture. He never wanted to be seen in a wheelchair, at the time the very symbol of weakness. Photographers covering the White House were strictly forbidden to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair or being helped to his feet, and the Secret Service confiscated the film of those who didn’t get (or ignored) these instructions.

FDR was also blessed with tremendous good looks and charm. Another Waugh character says, “Those who have charm don’t really need brains.” FDR was plenty smart, but it was his personality that carried him beyond the family estate on the Hudson to the presidency. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said FDR had “a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament.” FDR used his charm to put others at ease—those who might be concerned for his physical condition; those who had lost jobs, homes, and farms during the Great Depression; and those who worried for the future of the nation and its freedoms during the Second World War. It was said Roosevelt “radiated confidence”, and the United States needed a great deal of it during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Charm alone might have made Franklin Roosevelt president. But it was his experience with polio, refusing to let it defeat him and giving him empathy for the suffering of others that made him a leader.

Real Leaders, Real People: Overcoming Obstacles on the Path to Leadership meets on Tuesdays at 10:00 beginning October 15. Chase Untermeyer is a graduate of Harvard and served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. He was a Texas state representative; an assistant secretary of the Navy under President Reagan; director of Presidential Personnel and director of the Voice of America under President George H.W. Bush; and U.S. ambassador to Qatar under George W. Bush.

Master Naturalist Glenn Olsen wants to know if you can answer these questions…


September 12, 2019

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What was the major export group of items from Colonial America to Europe? 

Why did people want to study and know the plants of North America? 

Who is credited with establishing the method of giving a “scientific name” to all living things on earth?  ( hint: we are not referring to Adam )

How did having scientific names change the study of plants, animals, insects, and all living things. 

Who is considered the father of American Ornithology?  ( hint: not who you would expect ) 

Who is considered the father of Texas botany, when did he arrive, and where was he from?  

Who founded the organization that evolved into the National Audubon Society?

For the answers to these questions and so much more join us for Zenith of Discovery: Early American Naturalists for 6 weeks on Tuesdays, beginning October 15, 10:00 a.m.

 

How Much Do You Know About…Bollywood?


September 12, 2019

Bollywood1. Which is bigger Bollywood or Hollywood?

Answer: Bollywood. Hollywood produces 500 films per year on average and has a worldwide audience of more that 2.6 billion, whereas Bollywood produces more than 1000 (not consistently) films every year and has a worldwide audience of 3 Billion.

2. Bollywood was formerly known as?

A. Hindi cinema
B. Bombay cinema
C. Mumbai cinema

Answer: B. Bombay cinema. Bollywood is the Indian Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

3. The name “Bollywood” was coined in which decade?

A. 1960s
B. 1950s
C. 1970s

Answer: C. 1970s. The name was coined when the conventions of commercial Bollywood films were defined. Bollywood is a portmanteau derived from Bombay (the former name for Mumbai) and Hollywood, California. Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood is not a physical place and some film journalists and critics criticize the name because they believe it implies that the industry is a poor cousin of Hollywood.

4. Bollywood has been described as “Poetic justice in two and a half hours.” For the most part, the movies are about what?

A. Romance
B. Music, song, and dance
C. Comedy
D. Action and horror
E. All of the above

Answer: E. All of the above. Some argue that there’s a tried-and-true formula to any quality Bollywood film: swoon-worthy romance, swelling soundtracks, ridiculously attractive lead characters, and plot twists that you can see coming from a mile away. Others say that Bollywood’s secret is far simpler—it’s just a good time from beginning to end.

5. Films in Bollywood are produced in how many languages?

A. 2
B. 5
C. 7
D. 10

Answer: D. Films in Bollywood are produced in the following languages: Hindi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. Around 14 million Indians go to the cinema every day, which equates to 1.4% of the entire population. Cinemagoers pay around a day’s wage to watch a Bollywood film.

 

 

How Much Do You Know About …Women Suffrage?


August 22, 2019

Suffragists_demonstrating_on_Wall_Street copy

1. The first meeting of what would become the catalyst for the suffrage movement took place in 1848 in what town?

A)   Cleveland, Ohio
B)   Sioux Falls, Idaho
C)   Seneca Falls, New York
D)   Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Answer: C. Seneca Falls, New York. In 1840, when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, they were forced into the gallery along with all the women who attended. Their indignation led them, eight years later, to organize the first U.S. women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.

2. What year was woman suffrage ratified in the U.S. Constitution?

A) 1898
B) 1907
C) 1920
D) 1929

Answer: C. 1920. Although some states and territories had already given women the right to vote (on varying levels of national, state, and local elections), it was not ratified as national law until 1920.

3. Suffragists were all women. True or False?

Answer: False. Not all suffragists were women, and not all anti-suffragists were men. Numerous men were committed suffragists, and some were imprisoned and force-fed just like their female comrades. Many prominent women also proclaimed disapproval for the suffrage movement, arguing that women did not want to vote, and that it would mean competition with men rather than cooperation.

4. Which of these reasonings was used for denying women the right to vote?

A) 80% of women eligible to vote were married and would only double or annul their husband’s vote.
B) Most women did not want the vote and only a few, mostly radical, women would use it.
C) Women were too emotional and made decisions based on intuition.
D) All of the above.

Answer: D. All of the above. Many reasons were argued, but surprisingly, among the most organized came from women running the organization called the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. It published the first issue of The Anti-Suffragist in 1908. The quarterly magazine echoed the views of the anti-suffrage movement, which began in Massachusetts and New York in the 1890s and eventually gained a foothold in some 20 other states. For the most part, antisuffragists were middle-class, conservative, Protestant women who subscribed to the notion that women were biologically destined to be child-bearers and homemakers, whereas men were to be the lawmakers and leaders. In short, anti-suffragists believed it was against the laws of nature for women to seek enfranchisement.

5. Which was the first U.S. state or territory to give women the right to vote?

A) Mississippi
B) Wyoming
C) Maine
D) Pennsylvania

Answer: B. Wyoming. Women there had been voting since 1869 in Wyoming Territory, which only agreed to join the Union if this right was maintained. Congress threatened to deny statehood over the issue, but Wyoming wouldn’t back down.

Women in Politics: An Uneven Road Since Suffrage meets for 3 weeks on Tuesdays at 10:00 beginning September 23.

 

Women in Politics with Leandra Zarnow


August 22, 2019

113th_congress_usa_women_version_altered_by_office_of_House_Minority_LeaderWIH is proud to welcome Leandra Zarnow, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in History at UH, to our faculty this fall. Dr. Zarnow specializes in U.S. women’s history, political history, and legal history. Her first book Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug will be published by Harvard University Press in November 2019. We asked Dr. Zarnow to talk about her upcoming class Women in Politics: An Uneven Road Since Suffrage.

WIH Reporter:  Welcome to WIH Dr. Zarnow! We are really looking forward to your class. As we get closer to the 100th year since woman suffrage – what do you consider the greatest achievement in women’s politics since?

Zarnow:  I think the groundswell of women who ran for office in 2018 coming on the heels of the Women’s March of 2017 was a historic milestone and proved that women are increasingly willing to put themselves out there as candidates. So much attention has been placed on how few women are in Congress—and it is a pretty dismal 23.7%—but we might also look at how many women want to be there but have not yet made it. 528 women ran for Congress and nearly half made it past the primaries in 2018. This is huge, but the question is, why has it taken so long to reach a critical mass in this national power center? And as a historian, I want to also know about the hundreds of women who tried before 2018 and have not been considered as historically important because they lost.

WIH Reporter:  What are you most excited to share with your students?

Zarnow:  I am eager to explore with my students how much women have seized the opportunity to be involved in politics at every level since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, as well as why women continue to face impediments to voting rights and gaining public office.

WIH Reporter:  What do you see as the most critical impediment to the slow advancement of women in politics? Is it merely a reflection of society in general or is there something deeper?

Zarnow:  I think it is important to acknowledge that the founding framework of our legal and political system was one of patriarchy.  We have come a long way from the days in which it was assumed women did not need the vote because their husbands and sons would vote for them and vote the same way. But it was not until 2011 that women in the House of Representatives finally got a women’s restroom near the Speaker’s lobby; a parallel renovation was made in the Senate in 1993. This was something women in Congress had complained about since at least the 1970s, and it reminds that our nation’s seats of government are patriarchal by design. It will take more years ahead to fully eradicate the law and culture that goes along with this architecture.

WIH Reporter:  What do you think the first female presidency will look like?

Zarnow:  I think the first female presidency will be most impactful in settling the longstanding misperception that women are not as tough on issues of national security, and likewise help destabilize our gendered conception of the commander-in-chief.  It has been difficult for women politicians to overcome an enduring masculine political ideal.  We see this in the Democratic Party presidential primary, where six women are running and two—Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris—are leading contenders.  And yet, political commentators keep asking, “Are they viable?” and related to this question is talk of which woman would make a better vice-president.  This preoccupation suggests to me that this masculine political ideal is still a quite dominant and powerful cultural preference.

WIH Reporter:  In today’s world of women finding their voices and standing up to misogyny, what would surprise us to know about the women you will be discussing?

Zarnow:  My idea for this class really came from a collection I am co-editing with historian Stacie Taranto, Suffrage at 100: Women’s Uneven Road in American Politics Since 1920, which John Hopkins Press will be publishing in summer 2020 timed with the centennial.  We and twenty others are writing about women who have been persistent in using their political voices over the past one-hundred years to show that they are not merely finding them today, but rather there is a longstanding tradition of women’s political speech and political acts.

WIH Reporter:  Tell us a little about your book Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug. What made you choose her as an important historical figure?

Zarnow:  New York Representative Bella Abzug served in Congress between 1971-1976, and in her time, was seen as the embodiment of women in politics so much so that Life magazine put her on the cover in 1972 of an issue that explored that year as a “Year of the Woman.” When I began this project in the early 2000s, I was surprised to find that even though Abzug was a major figure in the feminist and anti-war movements, no major work had been done on her. I believe this was largely because she lost her bid for Senate in 1976 and did not return to public office thereafter.  In my book, I explore how Bella Abzug was a key figure of a Democratic New Politics faction that pushed the party leftward in the late 1960s and early 1970s not unlike the progressive challenge that is happening today.

Women In Politics: An Uneven Road Since Suffrage meets for 3 weeks beginning Tuesday, September 24 at 10:00.

The Rev. Gregory Han Speaks On: Religions in Houston


August 20, 2019

World's Next DoorLocal academics, politicians, business and civic leaders, all say something similar: Houston is America’s most diverse urban area. But how well do we understand or engage these diverse communities? Diversity is neither good nor bad—it just “is,” especially in the Bayou City. It’s up to us to figure out how best to leverage our diverse communities; it’s up to us whether we’ll see people from different places and points of view as a reality to be embraced or avoided, whether it instills in us the desire to seek greater understanding or greater isolation.

I’ve been interested in religion as a practitioner since childhood, and academically since my first religion class 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve been on a path that has taken me through a career of leading faith communities and being an educator about religions. I’ve never wanted to foster some sort of religious “goo” of sameness; avoiding examining the different ways we believe or practice means we’ll look at religions in a superficial way, which is both boring and dangerous. Differences and similarities are both crucial in understanding religions. I also know that religions are more than just terms and concepts; they are comprised of people believing the terms and practicing the concepts. Being a child of two cultures and ethnicities means that, for me, this isn’t just an abstract exercise—they (and we!) are real people living real lives, living in community.

A funny story: when I proposed the title of this class, I didn’t make clear the punctuation. When I proposed what became “The World’s Next Door” I was really thinking about it in the plural: “The Worlds Next Door.” In the plural form, I was thinking about the different religious worlds that are our neighbors. But I love the unintentional yet serendipitous wordplay that has happened. Yes, there are many worlds all around us here in Houston, but I also think that “The World’s Next Door” as in “the world is next door,” stresses the urgency and immediacy of these worlds. We don’t have to go far to experience other people and other beliefs. They are right here as our neighbors, co-workers, friends, people who care for us, and we for them.

WIH is pleased to introduce Gregory Han, the Director of Interfaith Relations at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. His upcoming class The World’s Next Door: Religions in Houston begins Tuesday, September 10 at 10:00. The class will be an exploration of our fellow Houstonians’ many religious traditions—Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism—culminating with a site visit to a house of worship.

 

The German-Soviet War with John Bradley


August 20, 2019

Picture1WIH is excited to introduce military historian John Bradley. Mr. Bradley served as an infantry officer in the U.S. and Korea and as an infantry advisor in Viet Nam. Recipient of a Bronze Star Medal, among others, he began his history career by teaching seniors at West Point. We recently caught up with him to learn more about his 10-week class World War II: The German-Soviet War that begins on Thursday, September 12 at 10:00. (Image of Soviet Soldiers Celebrating in Berlin, 1945)

WIH Reporter: Can you share one of the least known facts about the war?

Bradley: I think that one of the least known facts is how Stalin demanded that the Allies repatriate all Russians in Western Europe—Soviet POWS held by the Germans, Soviet deserters who fought for the Germans, Russians who had escaped from the USSR and lived in free Europe, all Russian émigrés who left Russia after the Russian Revolution and still lived in Europe—and the Allies complied fully. Tragically, the Allies even used military force to return Soviet personnel and Russian people who did not want to return to the USSR to Soviet custody, and they did so even after the Soviets summarily killed hundreds immediately after they gained custody of them.

In addition, the Soviets did not return all Allied POWS held by the Germans whom they captured when overrunning East Germany in 1945, and the Allies did little to regain custody of their POWs.

WIH Reporter: In your course description, you have described the German-Soviet War as the “largest war in modern history”. Since this is the case, why is it that so few of us have grown up learning about this aspect of one of the four wars contained within World War II?

Bradley: I propose the first reason would be that the Allied air and ground victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany in Europe – from D-Day at Normandy – dominated World War II history in the US. Americans were more interested in what the US had done and what American leaders and men had done rather than what our allies, British and Soviet, had done.  Victory in Europe even dominated the US victory over Japan in the Pacific in the US, the British victory over Japan in Burma in the UK, and the huge Sino-Japanese War.

The second reason would be that the Soviet Union became our primary enemy in 1946 and remained so until 1991. Americans focused on the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war with the USSR, and they were not interested in what the Soviets had accomplished in WW II. Moreover, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the discovery that the Soviets had spied on us during WW II, and the growing knowledge about the savage Soviet dictatorship destroyed most positive feelings about what the Soviets had done in the past. I do not know of any people I knew who held good opinions of the Soviets during the Cold War.

The third reason would be that the history of the war is overwhelming in scope, in the numbers of people and military units, in the number of large actions, in the strange and difficult place names, and in the immense tactical detail—few American historians, professors, or high school teachers know enough about it to teach it.

Lastly, the German-Soviet War was an ugly war in which little quarter was given on either side, where the number of battle casualties numbs readers, and where ghastly atrocities mar the military achievements of both the Germans and the Soviets.

WIH Reporter: Perspective is everything—the Russians called the Eastern Front of World War II the Great Patriotic War while in Germany it was called the Eastern Front. What does this tell us about the mindset of these two world powers?

Bradley: For Germany this was a repeat of the Eastern Front of World War I.  For Stalin, suffering disastrous defeats in 1941, he decided to revive Russian nationalism —something Lenin opposed—to somehow turn the war around: thus, the Great Patriotic War.

WIH Reporter: As a former infantry officer and now military historian, what were some of the main strategies used by each side to advance or defend their countries?

Bradley: To defeat the USSR in 1939, Hitler identified three major objectives: Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, but he did not designate Moscow, the critical one, as his main objective. To achieve the strategic objectives, the German commanders planned huge penetrations and tank-led turning movements supported by tactical air forces (Blitzkrieg) to break through the Soviet defense and then destroy the Red Army. The large turning movements in the center and south dominated the initial campaign and trapped and destroyed hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers at key places. Because of the wide distribution of forces, however, Hitler’s commanders did not have the combat power to seize any of the objectives.

The German commanders continued to use large envelopment and turning movements where possible in their 1942 campaigns.

In 1941, the Soviets had a shallow fixed defensive line all along their western border built around some strong points. After disastrous defeats, the Soviets improved their defensive lines by digging extensive trench lines, adding back up defensive lines, bringing up more artillery, adding large minefields, and deploying large reserves behind their defensive positions. As a result, they held Leningrad, Moscow, and eventually Stalingrad and Kursk.

When the Soviets went on the offensive, they copied the Germans and with their large army groups conducted huge turning movements.

The German commanders responded to the Soviet thrusts by conducting flexible mobile defenses until Hitler constantly ordered them to defend in place and not give up any ground. That proved to be disastrous for the Germans as they withdrew or were pushed back toward Germany in 1944 and 1945.

WIH Reporter: We are all aware of why Hitler is infamous. Can you expound on the impact of Joseph Stalin and will you touch on this in your class?

Bradley: Joseph Stalin was more barbarous than Hitler, but less so than Mao Tse-tung. Stalin caused the deaths of about 4,000,000 Ukrainians and 2,000,000 others by systematic, perpetuated famine in 1932 – 33, killed 690,000 Russians in the Great Terror 1937-38, and murdered tens of thousands in concentration camps from 1918 – 1930. During the Great Terror, he decapitated the leadership of the Red Army: killed 3 of 5 Soviet marshals, 13 of 15 army generals, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commanders.

Stalin killed people randomly, killed people and groups he did not like or trust, killed people who knew about his past, killed army officers who might argue with him, and after war began, killed several generals who he decided were responsible for early defeats and ordered the Katyn Massacre of Poles.  During WWII, he deported hundreds of thousands of minorities to the east because he did not trust them, causing untold deaths. I will cover all of this information and more in the course.

WIH Reporter: What do you hope students will learn from your class?

Bradley: A sound understanding of the war and its large and important campaigns. The importance of sound and judicious national war leadership as well as battle leadership.The importance of the Red Army’s defeat of the Wehrmacht to World War II in Europe.The war destroyed one terrible dictator and his regime only to elevate a more terrible dictator and his regime to be a world power.

WIH Reporter: Since you are new to WIH, we are interested in the books that you are reading or have read that you would recommend to others?

Bradley: For a first read about the war, I would recommend The West Point Atlas of American Wars. Though dated and based heavily on German sources and written by combat experienced World War II veterans, it provides an excellent, condensed operational narrative of the war with superb correlated maps.

For a less operational summary and generally an easier read, the newer The History of the Second World War, Europe and the Mediterranean, also a West Point product, provides sound information. The authors were combat experienced US Army, US Air Force, and US Navy officers and contemporaries of mine.

For amazing breadth and depth, David Glantz’ encyclopedic books, are worth reading. Be warned, however, they are not for the fainthearted. Glantz, a US Army officer, a Russian linguist and Soviet historian, has spent his whole life working on this war.

The memoirs of German veterans are very interesting and revealing, particularly Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Leader and Eric von Manstein’s Lost Victories. Georgii Zhukov’s two-volume Marshal of Victory is valuable, but the dedicated, life-long Communist general included large doses of Communist propaganda in his work. Typical of most memoir writers, he does not deal with his disasters or the massive atrocities he fostered. But Zhukov was a huge player in the war and provides much valuable information. There are several US Army historical studies of the war, written in great part by German officers, which include some excellent maps that provide very detailed tactical accounts of some operations.

For an understanding of the German high command and its background, Walter Goerlitz’s The German General Staff is a wonderful read. For an understanding of Hitler, Alan Bullock’s Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, provides a vital, contemporary view. And, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is an essential source and provides a fascinating contemporary view of the Nazi era.

World War II: The German-Soviet War  begins on Thursday, September 12 at 10:00 and meets for 10 weeks.

 

More Musicals! with Dominique Royem


March 26, 2019

Music makes musicalFans of Dominique will know her expertise in (and love for) Musical Theatre. She’s back with “More Musicals!” this spring! We asked her to give us a little more insight into her fun and informative course.

WIH Reporter: You mention in your course description that Musical Theatre is the only true American art form. What makes this so?

Royem: The musical was created and popularized in America at the turn of last century. It has been exported to every continent except Antarctica, and is a billion-dollar industry every year. The musical is one of the most popular cultural exports of the US, permeating world culture. The intoxicating mix of music, drama and dance is an American original.

WIH Reporter: Which musical has been the most popular and what do you think has contributed most to its success?

Royem: The designation of “most popular” is a tough one. The longest running Broadway show is The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in 1988 and is still running on Broadway. Its popularity can be contributed to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the romantic, gothic love story it is centered around. Other really popular musicals include Oklahoma!, which is revived all over the country, Chicago, which is the longest running revival on Broadway, and My Fair Lady, also revived all over the country.

WIH Reporter: Why are musicals important as an art form?

Royem: Musicals are the marriage of music and drama, adding to the best parts of both. They speak to many things in the American experience that are hard to translate to other art forms. Musicals are one of the most popular theatre traditions that bridge theater-goer and non-theater-goer alike.

WIH Reporter: How did Musical Theatre develop and is there an “inventor” of the Musical?

Royem: Musical Theatre came from the tradition of vaudeville during the turn of the last century. The first musical, The Black Crook, was a five-hour epic production that happened after a theatre burned down and stranded a Paris dancing troupe. They needed a reason to put the dancing girls on stage, so the producers added a story and songs to create a full evening’s entertainment.

WIH Reporter: We have to know… Do you have a favorite and can you tell us why?!

Royem: My current favorite always changes depending on the weather… but right now I really love Hamilton and The Music Man. Hamilton has been all over and is taking the world by storm. The Music Man will be performed by my orchestra, the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra, in May so I’m studying the score now.

Register here for “How Music Makes the Musical: More Musicals!”

Insights into Interior Design with Margaret Shilstone


March 26, 2019

DIYWIH Reporter: Margaret, welcome to WIH! We are excited about your upcoming class, “Interior Design Tips on a Dime.” Tell us what inspires you to think outside of the box when it comes to decorating? What is something unexpected that you have utilized to create interest in your home?

Shilstone: I have always tried to find economic and inventive ways to create what I call elegant, cost-effective interior design. Quality interior design does not have to be expensive. A creative approach is what I find fascinating. And, through my years of personal study, I have come up with ways to create an interior design update without spending lots of money. My theory is to look “outside the box” and see potential beyond the structured use of an object. For instance, I recently found an outdoor wall planter that is meant to be mounted on a fence and hold one potted plant. It is very vintage looking, and I could see that piece hung on a wall in a kitchen to hold kitchen utensils or in a bathroom to hold soaps, paper hand towels, or hair brushes. Another trick is that I find chalk spray paint works wonders for matted frames for pictures and prints. If you don’t like the matte color, just disassemble it, spray paint the matte, and put the artwork back in the frame for something that fits in better with your color scheme. You could even spray paint the frame.

My goal for this class is to open minds to see objects to be used not as they were intended, but in new ways. And on a budget! I will share resources that I use to help in the process of creating more out of less. I promise, this class will be an eye-opener to help students see beyond what they think are limitations to an amazing world of design creations.

WIH Reporter: Are you ever overwhelmed when you walk into a consignment store? Do you go with the idea of finding something specific or is it more organic than that?

Shilstone: No, that never bothers me. I actually like to look at things with fresh eyes. For instance, a book is not just a book to me. Rather, I might put it under a potted plant to create a different elevation on a table so that there are varying, cohesive levels for displaying cherished items. My vision in design is all about layering to create a pleasing, soft look that incorporates the things you love. Sometimes just adding a “base” to an object creates a totally new and interesting table top.

WIH Reporter: Are there any rules to interior design?

Shilstone: Did you know that most table top decorations should only be displayed in odd numbers? Three is the best tabletop configuration. Odd numbers are not only recommended for tabletops but also flower arrangements. There are a lot of tricks that make for really “design-correct” displays in homes that are pleasing to the eye and I hope to suggest ways to turn up everyone’s creative juices.

WIH Reporter: What is the one thing that you hope students learn from your class?

Shilstone: I hope this class will inspire students to take a more relaxed attitude when updating their interiors. We all drool over the professional interior design pages of magazines but, quite frankly, many of us – myself included – cannot afford that look. I hope to help students to see beyond the price tag and step outside those magazine pages and into their own personal style. My goal is to help them create a comfortable, budget-friendly interior that will reflect their personality and interests and to cultivate a creative attitude that will Wow their guests. All students need is an introduction into the creative process to open their minds to what is possible within their budget.

Interior Design Tips on a Dime” meets Wednesdays, April 17 at 1:00.

 

Kick the Clutter to the Curb with Liz Weiman


March 26, 2019

clutter imageWIH Reporter: Liz, in your upcoming class you will be tackling a subject that we all deal with—Clutter! What causes us to keep things that we don’t need?

Weiman: We can easily point to the lack of time, procrastination, and distractions inherent in modern life as reasons we keep things we don’t need. We can also look at all the items that we daily bring into our homes without looking at how little goes out. Additionally, there is a pervasive Great Depression-style mentality on the part of some that they “may need this someday.” However, I must mention a very powerful reason less looked at—which is our emotional/sentimental attachment to what an object represents to us. For example, Aunt Susie has died and left her unsightly couch to her niece who would never display it. However, it is as if this is “part” of her aunt, and somehow, even though it clutters up the garage, it feels impossible to get rid of. We will examine all of these issues in this class.

WIH Reporter: Marie Kondo is so popular right now. But, some of her methods seem over the top and maybe not totally practical. Is there a way to utilize some of her philosophy without becoming obsessive? Like maybe folding a shirt perfectly isn’t that important. Isn’t the idea of de-clutttering to find balance in your life?

Weiman: Kondo has touched a nerve with so many about how objects that no longer bring joy begin to weigh us down, and her techniques have proven a revelation for millions. Her techniques are powerful, and in our class we will go over many wonderful ideas and techniques from her and other clutter experts. Her folding methods are not necessary to follow her basic precepts, and I agree that the idea of  balance is the actual true goal. For some, the folding techniques represent a visual symbol of the idea of beauty and order where once there was only clutter. Even children love to fold, so why not teach them when they are young!

I feel it is important to note that in our society, we see so many clutter make-over shows in which an expert comes in and fixes a family’s clutter, teaches techniques, and leaves them with new hope and excitement for a changed life. However, when one checks back later on these families, one finds the rate of recidivism is high. There are reasons why they got to their cluttered place to begin with, and when these reasons are not addressed, there is the inevitable slide backwards. This is why, along with techniques, simple awareness of common reasons (often having to do with emotions and attachment) associated with objects can make all the difference in being able to keep the momentum going and truly leave a lifetime of clutter.

WIH Reporter: What is a good tip that you could give someone who wants to get started cleaning out their lives but doesn’t know where to begin?

Weiman: It is often overwhelming to think of trying to even start addressing the clutter, because it has grown to such daunting proportions over the years. Those going through boxes of clothes or papers often start out with lots of energy and then shortly become drained and defeated as they try to sort through it because of their ambivalence over what  they should keep or throw out. My suggestion to overcome the overwhelm is to use three paper grocery-style bags and label one bag “yes” , the next bag “no,” and the final bag as “‘maybe.” At this point, take each item out of the box and go as fast as possible, throwing items into the bags. We usually know what we DON’T want and what we DO want, but what slows us down and discourages us are the items we question. Having a “‘Maybe” bag to throw those items in delays the decision until a second pass is scheduled for another day. In my past classes, so many people have reported clutter-clearing successes using this process.

WIH Reporter: What is the one thing that you hope students who take your class will learn?

Weiman: In this class, we will learn so many effective techniques to help us clear clutter (both popular and lesser-known modalities). We will learn the very important Kondo system which brings a fresh point of view to the way we view the clutter in our life. Likewise, we will include the Western ideas from some of our top clutter experts in the US and Canada and also bring in the important 5,000-year old vision of Feng Shui in considering object placement. I will bring some wonderful ideas from my own system that has enabled countless people to address the clutter for the first time in their lives—even suggesting ways of using technology to address paper clutter.

By the end of the class, students will not only learn a multitude of techniques that they can apply immediately, but more importantly, learn perspectives on why we have clutter in the first place, so we can continue the “maintenance” processes that will allow us to remain truly clutter-free for the future!

Kick the Clutter to the Curb” begins Thursday, April 18 at 10:00 a.m.

How Much Do You Know About…Ballet?


March 26, 2019

ballet1. Where did ballet originate?
A) France
B) Germany
C) Russia
D) Italy

Answer: D – Italy. Ballet, as we know it today, began during the Renaissance around the year 1500 in Italy. In fact, the terms “ballet” and “ball” as in “masked ball,” come from the Italian ballare, to dance. When Catherine de Medici of Italy married the French King Henry II, she introduced early dance styles into court life in France.

 

2. In which language is most ballet terminology?
A) Italian
B) Russian
C) French
D) English

Answer: C – French. The official terminology and vocabulary of ballet was gradually codified in French over the next 100 years, and during the reign of Louis XIV, the king himself performed many of the popular dances of the time. The very first academy of ballet was opened in 1661 in France, thanks to King Louis XIV, and was called the “Académie Royale de Danse.”  Pierre Beauchamp, the king’s dance teacher, created the five basic positions of ballet for the feet and arms.

3. Tutus and pointe shoes have always been a mainstay in ballet costume? True or False?

Answer: False. At first, the dancers wore masks, layers upon layers of brocaded costuming, pantaloons, large headdresses, and ornaments. Such restrictive clothing was sumptuous to look at but difficult to move in. Dance steps were composed of small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns. Dancing shoes had small heels and resembled formal dress shoes rather than any contemporary ballet shoe we might recognize today.

4. What is the average lifespan of a pointe shoe?
A) 10 hours
B) 50 hours
C) 100 hours
D) 250 hours

Answer: A – 10 hours. Pointe shoes look dainty, but they really aren’t. The tip of the shoe is a rigid box made of densely packed layers of fabric, cardboard and/or paper hardened by glue. Depending on her experience level, a dancer’s pointe shoes will last anywhere from a few hours up to 12 hours of dancing. A professional ballerina can dance through 100-120 pairs of pointe shoes in one season!

5. Which country popularized the “classical ballet” in the 19th century?
A) France
B) Germany
C) Russia
D) Italy

Answer: C. Russia. During the latter half of the 19th century, the popularity of ballet soared in Russia, and, Russian choreographers and composers took it to new heights. Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, by Petipa and Lev Ivanov, represent classical ballet in its grandest form. The main purpose was to display classical technique — pointe work, high extensions, precision of movement and turn-out (the outward rotation of the legs from the hip)—to the fullest. Complicated sequences that show off demanding steps, leaps and turns were choreographed into the story. The classical tutu, much shorter and stiffer than the romantic tutu, was introduced at this time to reveal a ballerina’s legs and the difficulty of her movements and footwork.

6. Who is considered responsible for bringing ballet to the United States?
A) Jerome Robbins
B) George Balanchine
C) Adolph Bolm
D) Vaslav Nijinsky

Answer: B – George Balanchine. In the early twentieth century, the Russian theatre producer Serge Diaghilev brought together some of that country’s most talented dancers, choreographers, composers, singers, and designers to form a group called the Ballet Russes. The Ballet Russes toured Europe and America, presenting a wide variety of ballets. Here in America, ballet grew in popularity during the 1930′s when several of Diaghilev’s dancers left his company to work with and settle in the U.S. Of these, George Balanchine is one of the best known artists who firmly established ballet in America by founding the New York City Ballet. Another key figure was Adolph Bolm, the first director of San Francisco Ballet School.

Behind the Scenes at Houston Ballet


March 18, 2019

Coppelia CroppedWe are so happy to have Jennifer Sommers from Houston Ballet with us this semester. Jennifer serves as the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Houston Ballet. In this rare opportunity, Houston Ballet is opening their doors to go “Behind the Scenes at Houston Ballet” and see the creation of a classic ballet, Coppélia. WIH spoke with Jennifer to learn more about the process of taking a production from the studio to the stage.

WIH Reporter: How many months in advance does the ballet start working on a production? Has producing Coppélia had any challenges in regards to this? What excites you about this particular ballet?

Sommers: As you may know, our performance home, the Wortham Theater Center, was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Last year, we took our season on a “Hometown Tour.” This year, we are thrilled to be back at the Wortham, but while we normally open our season in September, we were unable to get back until The Nutcracker in November. That means that we are doing 6 productions between February 21st and June 23rd! The dancers have begun working on Coppélia, but they won’t be focused on this production until April. There are some challenges to Coppélia because we haven’t done this production in 12 years, so it will be new for most of our current company dancers. Fortunately, former principal dancer Barbara Bears is serving as ballet mistress. She was in the company when Ben Stevenson created it and has danced it several times. Coppélia is one of the great comedic ballets. I adore the music and love the use of character dance in Act I. It’s a fun story about an irreverent girl who goes on an adventure, and the dancing and costume and scenic design are spectacular!

WIH Reporter: Could you share what it really takes to be a dancer with Houston Ballet. The last time we spoke you mentioned that one of the principal dancers had just become a mother. What type of regimen does it take to get back on stage?

Sommers: Our dancers work 5 days per week, unless we are in performance, and then they work six days a week. They typically start their day with a 90 minute technique class followed by 6 ours of rehearsal. Because they are working on 6 productions at once, they are carrying around a lot of choreography and information in their minds and bodies. They can work on 6 different ballets in those 6 hours of rehearsal. They get a lunch break and have access to athletic trainers and other therapies thanks to our partnership with Houston Methodist, but these are some of the hardest working artist/athletes you’ll find in Houston! For the dancers who’ve had babies, it’s really a personal journey for each one. I know they work to stay in shape during pregnancy and afterwards.

WIH Reporter: Talk to us about costume design. On average, how many costumes does each dancer have? What production has the most amount of costume changes and is the most expensive to produce?

Sommers: There are lots of costumes for our full-length ballets, and most dancers have more than one costume for those. For one act ballets, they usually only have one. Desmond Heely, a world-renowned, Tony award-winning designer created the costume and scenic design for Coppélia. His work is gorgeous and transforms the Brown Theater into a German village and magical toy shop in one night!

WIH Reporter: Houston Ballet is very involved in outreach in the community. What are some of the programs that you are most passionate about?

Sommers: That’s a hard question because I love all of our programs! If I have to pick two, I’d say one is our weekly Dance for Parkinson’s class held in partnership with Houston Area Parkinson Society. We are celebrating the 10th year of this program that works on strength, balance, creativity and creates community for people living with Parkinson’s Disease and their caregivers. The other is our Chance to Dance program. This is a scholarship program for students from low-income schools. We partner with 9 schools each academic year. 25 first and second graders attend 8 classical ballet classes at Houston Ballet Center for Dance with professional teachers and a live musician. At the end of class series, all students are evaluated for full scholarships to the Houston Ballet Academy. We currently have 62 students in the Academy that have entered through the Chance to Dance program. I’m really proud of the inclusive environment we have at Houston Ballet. We are committed to equitable access to the very best this company has to offer, and Chance to Dance is a big part of that.

WIH Reporter: This is such a unique opportunity for the participants of this class. What are you hoping that they will take away from the experience?

Sommers: I absolutely love having the opportunity to share my passion for this art form and to welcome people into the Houston Ballet family. We have some of the best dancers and creative minds working in dance today right here in Houston, and I want everyone to know about and experience it for themselves.

Behind the Scenes at Houston Ballet” is a four-week class beginning Tuesday, April 23.

Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films with Laura Richardson


February 20, 2019

PopcornWIH Reporter: Hello, Dr. Richardson! We are really excited to have you back at WIH this semester. In fact, everyone who was in your “Roaring Twenties” and “Romancing the 20th Century” classes has really raved about you and your teaching style! The last time we spoke about your upcoming class “Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films” you were debating on the selections. Can you share with us what you have decided?

Richardson: Unfortunately, one of my original choices, Where’d You Go Bernadette, was set to be released in March but has now been delayed until August. I would still encourage everyone to read the novel and to see the film when it comes out, which is directed by Richard Linklater and stars Cate Blanchett. I still want to include a new film, so we’ll be reading The Aftermath (2014), by Rhidian Brook, and I’ll organize an outing to see the film, which comes out in mid-March. Due to the timing of the film release, we’ll read this novel and discuss this film first. Everything else on the syllabus will remain the same. I’m particularly excited about Austenland, which we’ll read/watch last.

WIH Reporter: Would you suggest that we read the novel and watch the movie before each class? Or, if we don’t have enough time which should we do—read or view?

Richardson: If you don’t have time to read the book, watch the movie! I understand that everyone won’t always have a chance to read the book or watch the film before class. That’s okay! Come to class anyway! I’ll provide a brief synopsis at the beginning of each session. One nice thing about the two-week, book/movie structure is that it gives you a little more time to read the novels; if you start right after we finish talking about the previous book, you’ll have two weeks. Since most of the novels are around 300 pages, if you can make the time to read 20 pages a day, keeping up will be easy. I recommend that everyone start reading The Aftermath now since we’ll talk about it during our first class.

WIH Reporter: Out of curiosity, by the end of the class will we have an idea of what your favorite novel and film adaptation are?

Richardson: Oh boy—there are so many good ones! I’ve included some of my favorites on our syllabus, and I will definitely give you some hints about which ones I like best. Beyond our syllabus, some of my other favorite adaptations include Tolkein/Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. I watch all 12-hours of the extended editions at least once a year (nerd alert!). Amazon will be releasing a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I’m beyond excited to see what they do with Tolkein’s deep mythology. I also love The Never-Ending Story, To Kill a Mockingbird, the BBC mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice (which I own and also watch every year—devoted Janeite!), Stardust, Adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Jumanji (if, given the great creative license, this still counts as an adaptation). Can’t wait to start talking about our favorite novels and our favorite films!

Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films” meets on Tuesdays beginning March 26 at 1:00.