A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mea Culpa

It's one of the most famous scandals in local journalism: The Critic Who Wasn't There. For 25 years, I've been repeating it as a cautionary tale for young reporters.
It all started one day in the mid-1980s, when I got a call from the San Francisco Ballet.
They were angry because their performance at Stern Grove had gotten a negative review from one of the San Francisco Chronicle's music and dance critics, Heuwell Tircuit. What really frosted them, they said, was that he hadn't even attended the performance!
Their proof: He severely criticized one of the ballerinas, but unbeknownst to him she had been called away on a family emergency, and another ballerina danced instead.
The Chronicle fired Tircuit on the spot. The executive editor even took the unprecedented move of publishing a front-page retraction the next day that completely threw him under the bus.
Needless to say, I gleefully piled on for all it was worth. And so did every other columnist in town.
Great story, huh? Only one problem: I just found out it's not true.
Last week I talked with Robert Commanday, who was the Chronicle's chief music critic, and Janos Gereben, who was covering the Stern Grove event for another paper. And they both said Tircuit was there the whole time. The reason he didn't know about the substitution of ballerinas was that the flyer announcing the switch hadn't been inserted in his program.
He made a mistake, but it was an honest one, undeserving of the death penalty.
To his credit, he refused to feel sorry for himself and bravely soldiered on, freelancing for local music magazines. But he was never able to land a job with a major newspaper again. At one point, he was reduced to operating an elevator.
Tircuit died two years ago, so I can't even call him and apologize for my part in ruining his career. The only thing I can do is try to set the record straight.
This was not journalism's finest moment. We all should be ashamed of ourselves. I certainly am.
                                                    * * *
But Tircuit, who loved to encourage talented young performers, would have adored Audrey Vardanega, the 16-year-old piano sensation who has been wowing critics and professional musicians since she was a little girl.
When Audrey was 13, I asked George Cleve, the artistic director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, how good she is for her age. He laughed and said, "Martin, she's good for any age!"
Audrey will be a featured performer at the Midsummer Mozart Festival in July, playing Mozart's gorgeous piano concerto No. 17 in G Major.
But you can see her April 29 when she performs at the Berkeley City Club with the California Chamber Players, which includes several members of the San Francisco Symphony.
The concert is a benefit to raise money to refurbish the City Club's two pianos – a Steinway and a Bechstein – which are in a sad state of disrepair.
"The action is uneven, and they're badly out of tune," she says, "which is a shame because they're really nice pianos."
Tickets are only $35, a steal considering the quality of the performers. Seating is limited, so visit www.eventbrite.com and search for "Mozart Youth Camerata."
Don't miss this chance to hear Audrey before she becomes world famous. You'll be able to brag that you saw her when.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Shake, Rattle & Roll

Did you know that during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake– whose 106th anniversary we'll observe on Monday -  a five-foot-high tsunami wiped out the lumber wharves in west Berkeley?
Only one person – a man named B.J. Rose – was on the wharf at the time. The wave knocked him into the water, along with half a million feet of lumber. But somehow he miraculously survived.
Never heard of it? Neither did anyone else, including the U.S. Geological Survey. The tsunami was a one-inch story in the next day's Berkeley Gazette; but with everything that was happening, it was quickly forgotten.
But in 2005 a local historian named Richard Schwartz rediscovered the story and notified the USGS. They ran the numbers and decided the tsunami probably was caused by part of Yerba Buena Island falling into the Bay.
"Now here's the scary part," says Schwartz. "The Hayward Fault would cause a much bigger tsunami. Which means all of the flatlands are at risk, not just west Berkeley."
This is just one of the hundreds of great stories in Schwartz's book, "Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees."  You can't turn a page without stumbling over another fascinating factoid. For instance:
The ROTC cadets at Cal were mustered into service and ferried to San Francisco to prevent looting.
"At first, they treated it like a joke," says Schwartz. "But all the laughing stopped when boxes of live ammunition were brought out on deck, and they realized they might be forced to shoot their fellow citizens."
Many French Americans from San Francisco found refuge in Berkeley's booming French Quarter on Fourth Street, which featured some of the finest French restaurants in the Bay Area.
"But the next year, the city passed an ordinance banning the consumption of alcohol, and that put an end to Berkeley's French Quarter," Schwartz says. "The restaurant owners closed their establishments rather than compromise their culture."
And, of course, there's the Italian American fishing boat captain who was ferrying frightened refugees from North Beach to Berkeley.
"As they were crossing the Bay he noticed a young woman who looked really scared. He put his hand on her shoulder and said, 'It's going to be OK.' They fell in love, got married, and had a son. That son's name was Joseph L. Alioto, the future mayor of San Francisco."
Schwartz himself is as interesting as the stories he tells. He's not a professional historian; he's a building contractor.
One day in 1996 he happened to be visiting the Berkeley Historical Society when he spotted a two-foot stack of old Berkeley Gazettes from 1900 to 1909 that they were about to throw out.
"Hey, I'll take them," he said. The newspapers became the basis of his first book, "Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century," published in 2000. That was followed by "Earthquake Exodus" in 2005 and "Eccentrics, Heroes and Cuttthroats of Old Berkeley" in 2007.
Not being an academic historian, he didn't know that you're supposed to leave out all the interesting stuff and put in only the boring parts. So he did the opposite.
All three books are available not only at local bookstores, but at local hardware stores, too - he's a building contractor, remember? – as well as at http://www.RichardSchwartz.info/