Home Town Windows

July 2, 2009

The latest segment of  Wisconsin Public Television‘s Home Town Stories series will air on Monday, July 6 at 8:00 p.m. It has been my pleasure to be part of the team producing the series, now presenting its fourth segment.

The mission of HTS is to present the history of Wisconsin “one town at a time.”  The “town” featured this time round is the combined community of Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

HTS takes the stained-glass window approach to its subject.  The map of Wisconsin is the frame. Each home town story represents a single section of window. Like multi-colored and diversely shaped chips of glass, facets unique to a community are fitted together to tell its story.  The town sections are then added to the frame and merge to  illuminate the story of our state–just as the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals illuminated the story of European Christianity.

The metaphor works well for television–a medium as graphic as stained-glass, and potentially as stunning and inspiring as a rose window.  A historical image can be animated for television but, since most historical images are photographs, the television presentation is often as static as a window–but less colorful.  No medium is perfect.

Narration is present on television, as are Biblical verses in church windows, but not as important as the images. Text can be found in a history book, or in the Bible but, like medieval stained glass, television is not truly aural, nor are words on screen easily readable. It is graphic, popular,  mass communication.

The Manitowoc/Two Rivers segment of the Wisconsin window focuses on our state’s maritime history: with images  of fishing, lighthouses, life saving,  ship wrecks and especially shipbuilding, from the first lake schooners to World War II submarines. All our lakefront cities, from Superior to Ashland, Marinette to Kenosha, have maritime stories to tell, but none is so immersed in the waters of the lakes as Manitowoc/Two Rivers.

It fills this portion of the Wisconsin window as neatly as La Crosse (HTS 3) told the story of Wisconsin and the Mississippi River, Green Bay (HTS 2) presented the first European contact, and Janesville (HTS 1) conveyed the impact of the prairie.

As in a church window, space is limited, and the challenge for the producers is to fit as much of the story as possible into tight quarters.  But they’re working, “one town at a time” to fill the frame.

–Michael Goc


This is your brain on Bach

July 1, 2009

In an episode called “Musical Minds,” last night’s season premiere of NOVA showcased the most recent research of neurologist/author Oliver Sacks. He’s perhaps best known for the memoir-turned-movie Awakenings, but his latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, examines the ways that individual brains respond to music.

Featured in the NOVA program are a rock drummer with Tourette  syndrome; an autistic pianist who can play nearly any song after one listen; and an orthopedic surgeon who, though not musically trained, began composing and playing classical piano after he was struck by lightning.

The following excerpt from “Musical Minds” shows Dr. Sacks himself submitting to a brain scan. To determine his cerebral response to song, researchers recorded the doctor’s brain activity while the life-long Bach enthusiast listened to two Masses — one by Bach and one by Beethoven. They wanted to see if the scan reflected his preference for Bach.

Which composer rocked Dr. Sacks’ amygdalae? Watch the four-minute clip to find out.

You can also view the full hour online at NOVA‘s Web site. But don’t delay: Due to rights restrictions, the program will only be available for streaming on the NOVA Web site this week, July 1-7, 2009.

NOVA is broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television. Check wpt.org to learn when the next episode will air.


MUS-kuh-day, not Mus-KOH-dah

April 29, 2009

Now there’s no excuse for mispronouncing the names of Wisconsin places and people. Wisconsin Radio Network reporter Jackie Johnson, AKA Miss Pronouncer, has created a Web resource devoted solely to state phonetics. Site visitors can click on hundreds of Wisconsin-specific names for online audio pronunciations–places like Muscoda (MUS-kuh-day) and people like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (kuh-BEER BAH-zha bee-uh-MIL-uh).

At her Web site MissPronouncer.com, Ms. Johnson writes, “I started out pronouncing all the names you’ll hear on this Web site myself, but in the cases when you’ll hear other voices, such as many of the lawmakers and cabinet members, those are the actual people pronouncing their own names. The exception is the voice pronouncing athletes, which has Wisconsin sports guru Bill Scott at the microphone.” She came to Wisconsin Public Television‘s Madison studios for an interview with Frederica Freyberg of Here and Now a while back.

If only Miss Pronouncer would head west to my home state, South Dakota. The state capital is PEER, folks. Not pee-AYR.

–Tammy Kempfert


Fill ‘er Up

April 16, 2009
I’m guessing most people, myself included, haven’t given much thought to the evolving architecture of gas stations. We’re more likely obsessed with the rising and falling numbers on the pump than we are with the buildings where we refuel our cars–we hurry through, we pay outside, we find ways to stretch the time between visits.
But last December, after seeing Christopher Robleski’s photo of a vintage filling station in PortalWisconsin.org’s Flickr pool (below), I wanted to learn more about these wayside relics. The quaint Wadham’s Oil and Grease Station he captured on film looked more like an Asian temple than the convenience marts we’re familiar with today.
The Wadham's Oil and Grease Company pagoda in West Allis has been preserved. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

Wadham's Oil and Grease Station in West Allis was preserved and converted to an automotive museum. Photo: Christopher Robleski.

On his Flickr page, photographer Robleski adds an accompanying description: “Famous Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler’s Wadhams Gas Station design is considered to be iconic. His ingenious design married typical steel frame, glass walled, box-like gas station to a swooping roofline, creating a building that was functional and efficient, as well as, eye grabbing.” While this gas station closed in 1978, the building was preserved by the West Allis Historical Commission and now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

I later learned that Eschweiler’s pagoda design dotted the streets of Milwaukee for a time: more than 100 of them were built in the 1920s and 30s, but very few remain. (In fact, here lie the remnants of another Wadham’s, a link Mr. Robleski sent me in an email.) Other gas stations, designed to meet changes in the ways Americans worked and played and spent, disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations.

Fill'er Up chronicles the glory days of Wisconsin gas stations. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Now, two Wisconsin historians have made a mission of locating and documenting the buildings that have survived. Jim Draeger’s and Mark Speltz’s book Fill ’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations , a companion to the Wisconsin Public Television special of the same name, chronicles gas station history from the advent of the automotive era. The book’s second section provides insightful depictions of 59 historic stations throughout the state.

WPT and the Wisconsin Historical Society partnered in 2007 to produce the tv program Fill ’er Up. Though the show hasn’t aired since last year, you can watch it all online at WPT’s Web site–or you can purchase the DVD at the station’s online store. There’s a nice corresponding Web site as well.

And Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller spoke with co-authors Draeger and Speltz on a broadcast of his show airing September 29, 2008. You can still listen to this program at WPR’s audio archives. (I used the search term “Draeger.”) The interactive element of the call-in show complements the other resources nicely, with listeners adding their own stories about the filling stations in their regions.

Right now, the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison has a Fill ‘er Up exhibit of photographs and memorabilia on display through June 20. Anyone attending the Cars on State Classic Car Show on May 9 should definitely plan a side trip to the museum. (You’ll stroll right past it, as the museum is located on the Capitol end of State Street.)

If you still haven’t had your fill, Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz have a blog, Fuelish Thoughts: Wisconsin Gas Stations, and they continue to appear around the state to discuss their book. PortalWisconsin.org’s events calendar has all the dates.

We’d love to hear from you, too. Do you have one of these architectural icons in your area? What do you think 21st century gas stations will later tell us about our culture and values? You can post your thoughts and your gas station memories right here at Portal Wisconsin’s blog. Start the conversation!

–Tammy Kempfert


Always Bring Binoculars

March 11, 2009

Getting caught without binoculars is, to a birder, a “cardinal sin.” That’s according to Andy Paulios, a DNR bird conservationist recently featured on Wisconsin Public Television’s On the Trail: An In Wisconsin Special. While Paulios may not have intended the pun, he is serious about protecting bird habitats in Wisconsin–both on public and private lands.

In Wisconsin producer Jo Garrett followed Paulios to Cook Arboretum for a segment of the program, which airs on WPT Thursday, March 12, 7:00 p.m. Carrying binoculars might be a nature lover’s version of the Scout motto, “Be prepared,” but experienced birders come to rely on their ears at least as much as their eyes, Paulios says. An acadian flycatcher, for example, will trill “peet-zaah!” and an Eastern towhee will loudly chirp “drink-your-TEEEA!” (Surely, though, the Wisconsin translation of towhee-speak must be “cheddar CHEEESE!”)

Cook Arboretum near Janesville is a stopping point on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail that links the best places for observing birds and other wildlife around the state. In Wisconsin viewers can follow the trail with Garrett to see and hear great blue herons, saw whet owls, sandhill cranes and other birds that make their home here–and just this once, no binoculars necessary. It’s well worth a watch, especially for those who crave the birdsong of spring after a long Wisconsin winter. (The entire special is streamed online as well.)

As for the trail, it reaches every area of Wisconsin by highway. Maps and guides are available through the Department of Natural Resources.