Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ben Franklin: In Search of A Better World, at the Minnesota History Museum

In honor of Mr. Franklin's 304th birthday, the Minnesota Historical Society has recently added another fascinating artifact to
Ben Franklin: In Search of A Better World. This late edition to the exhibit is a rare draft of the U.S. Constitution -- it's a version that is older than the hand-written document in the collections of the National Archives.

I LEARNED A VALUABLE LESSON AT THE MINNESOTA HISTORY MUSEUM'S Ben Franklin exhibit: If I ever decide to curate a show about Ben Franklin, I'm going to fill a room with things he didn't have a part in creating. It will be easier that way.

The guy pretty much invented para sailing, for pete's sake -- he'd float in the water while flying a kite because he enjoyed being pulled around in the water. This is one of his lesser-known kite experiments, of course. I guess he really liked kites.

With that, Ben Franklin: In Search of A Better World, opening at the Minnesota History Museum on Friday November 27, has many interesting surprises along with new ways of looking at the more commonly known Ben Franklin facts.

There are interactive displays throughout, including touch-screen choose-your-own-adventure style games in which you recreate Franklin's trek from New York, south along the Eastern seaboard, using up shillings to buy food and passage. Here's a tip, kids: don't pick the option to sleep in the flop house. All your food and money will get stolen.

Besides his affinity for lightening, Franklin may be most well-known for being a printer (or creating libraries or organizing fire departments). A touch-screen printing press demonstration is part of the exhibit, which is in the same room as Franklin's actual printing equipment and publications.

There are many Franklin originals in this exhibit, including his books and even his wallet which hides a receipt for rum, as well as an original item that belonged to Franklin's father, who was a soap and candle maker. Much like the red and white spiral poles denoting barber shops, Franklin's father used a big blue ball to represent his store. The MNHS has this ball on display.

The original one.

This exhibit is host to an oddly touching reunion, one that involves Franklin's china breakfast bowl and his silver spoon, gifts from his wife. At some point the bowl and spoon were separated, perhaps filling exhibits at separate museums. For this exhibit however, after being separated for 100 years, the bowl and spoon are reunited and share a clear protective display box.

It's difficult to not list each and every object in this exhibit, as every item is fascinating. But, in keeping with Ben Franklin's lifelong lust for learning and discovery, I will leave you to head over to the Minnesota History Museum in St. Paul to make some discoveries of your own.

If anything, though, just go to experience the fan chairs.

Visit my entire photoset from this exhibit on my Flickr page.

When you visit MNHS, be sure to check out another of my favorites called Open House. Here's what I have to say about it, as published in City Pages:

"Open House: If These Walls Could Talk," is the recreation of a house that still exists in the Railroad Island neighborhood of St. Paul. The Minnesota History Museum is always bursting with hands-on exhibits, and "Open House" is no exception. Upon entering the house, every object in the Victorian-era living room begs to be touched, including a piano that acts much like its stage-fright-addled owner. Each successive room is dedicated to a later era and other families who lived there. In the bedroom there is a sign on the pink chenille-covered bed that says Sit On Me. Sitting on the bed awakes an audio recording of a woman telling a hilarious—and startling—story about a troublesome bed she owned when she lived in the house in the '50s. Even the littlest objects trigger stories and home movies. The dining-room table has an amazing setting, which will only whet your appetite for more stories and delightful surprises.

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Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Blvd W.
St. Paul MN 55102-1903
651-259-3000, 651-282-6073 (TTY)
800-657-3773 (toll free)

$10 adults, $8 seniors and college students, $5 children ages 6-17; free for children age 5 and under and MHS members.

Hours for Museum and Stores:
Tuesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (free admission 5 to 8 p.m.)
Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday noon to 5 p.m.

Closed Mondays except Monday holidays year round (open Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day). Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's day.

Library Hours:
Tuesday noon to 8 p.m.
Wednesday through Friday noon to 5 p.m.
Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday noon to 4 p.m.

Closed Monday, Memorial Day and Labor Day Weekends, and major holidays including the day after Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at The Dakota Jazz Club

"DEAR MR. ALPERT," SAID A WOMAN FROM THE SECOND FLOOR. She began speaking before the applause died down after Herb Alpert's final song at The Dakota Jazz club this past Tuesday. At the very beginning of his show he insisted that the mood be very casual and he encouraged questions from the audience, "but no song requests."

"Dear Mr. Alpert! Dear Mr. Alpert!" She said again, and finally Mr. Alpert looked up. The woman then told a story, starting with the fact that she had been a nun. It was 1968, and she said that A Taste of Honey "wafted in through my cloister window" from across the way one night, "and it inspired me to leave the seminary."

The applause was deafening.

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall react to a former nun's story

But let's get back to the beginning of the show.

The opening act is worth mentioning: Mr. Smooth Irv Williams. I found out that Mr. Williams has been a mainstay of the Minnesota jazz scene for over 50 years. So what does that make him? 90 years old! He plays at the Dakota every Friday during happy hour from 4:00 - 6:00. He'll be playing in the evenings at The Dakota in January or February as well.

Herb Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall of Brasil '66 fame, are touring to promote their first recorded project together entitled Anything Goes (warning, instant audio). As the title eludes, the album includes new takes on old classics, such as Fascinating Rhythm, It's Only A Paper Moon and I've Got You Under My Skin.

After his first song, Alpert asked if anyone had any questions. A hand went up and Alpert called on a fellow. I'd like to note how polite the Dakota's audience was that night -- the fellow stood up to ask his question. "Sir, is it true you and Tom Jones met the Queen together?"

To which Alpert responded, "How did you know that?" Alpert then told how in 1974 he performed for the Queen, but was instructed not to acknowledge her during the performance. If she liked what she saw, she would send a note after the show. Sure enough, Alpert received a note backstage. "I forget who else was there," said Alpert. "Ginger Rogers or somebody like that." The Prince told Alpert that he liked his music and listened to it in the palace den. This surprised Alpert, not because the Prince listened to his music, but the idea of what the den in the royal palace could have possibly been like.

Alpert and Hall then played an especially sultry rendition of Let's Face the Music and Dance. "First, Lani and I became friends," said Alpert, telling a story of when they first met and later when they became a couple. "This is an angel from another planet," he said. "She's from Chicago and she changed my life for the better." Hall then sang a very slow version of That Old Black Magic. She noted the fast version made famous by Louis Prima, but said she wanted to "slow it down in order to really understand that lyric." At many points during the show it was clear that Alpert and Hall still have quite a bit of magic in their marriage -- throughout the show they hugged and smiled at each other, and at one point she sat on his lap at the piano.

Hall did most of the singing at The Dakota that night, backed up by a driving rhythm section. Alpert added vocals here and there, but mostly trumpet flourishes whenever he wasn't taking over the melody. Toward the end of the show he took out an instrument he developed himself. "I called the guy, I paid to make it," said Alpert. I didn't catch what he named the instrument*, but it's two trumpets in one. One bell is sans mute, and he pulls a "trigger" to switch between muted and unmuted trumpet sounds.

There were more questions for Alpert before the evening ended, including "What is your favorite song?" Alpert couldn't really answer the question fully until he finished his next song, which must have jogged his memory as he ended it in an improvised flourish of This Guy's In Love. He was reminded of a story. "I called this friend of mine," Alpert said. The friend was Hal David, and at the time he had just written a song called This Girl's In Love. Alpert asked him if he could change the gender and some of the lyrics. In the studio, Alpert got the recording in one take.

It's no wonder Alpert is still going strong -- not only has he reinvented the music he's playing, but he gives songs sex-changes and turns nuns into the marrying type. It would seem that his trumpet's big bells rival his own.

*Update: That twin-belled trumpet is called the "Gemini." Thank you to Scott Allman, "CherryStreet" on the Beat 0f The Brass TJB Forum, for that bit of information!