Notes from the Crane: July 2011

We’re back — with a new and improved work ethic, an intriguing new address (as detailed earlier, the literarily legendary Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park), and a new commitment to growing this little cultural cranny we like to call Upper WET Side.

The move from the dark, largely lifeless hills off Bayshore artery Route 36 —  a place of breathalyzer-started big-ass trucks and SUVs; McMansion developments and nursing homes and vacant commercial space; homeless encampments and unsettling shrieks from deep inside the woods — didn’t exactly come off without a hitch. In fact, we’ve still got a driveway full of furniture — dumped there by some ham-and-eggers who would only bring it upstairs for another thousand dollars in surprise “walking” and “stairs” fees  — to deal with a piece at a time.

But we’ve also got a re-energized outlook, and a sense of wonder over the turn of events that’s seen us actually set up home and office within a rather famous old house that represents a whole lot more than a run-of-the-mill historical site — and to be able to step off the creaky, cat-colony porch of that house into the amazing spectacle that is Independence Weekend in Asbury Park. Believe what you’ve heard — there’s no nexus of time and place like 4th of July Asbury Park.

Daniel Wolff’s sublime nonfiction book by that name tells the story of the city’s myriad lives and (prematurely declared) deaths through a slideshow of pivotal events — each of them, by some cosmic confluence understood perhaps only by Madam Marie, having occurred on or around the fourth day of the seventh month. The author, who appeared last spring at the Crane as part of the city’s slate of NewHarmonies events, has helped flesh out the American novelist and journalist Stephen Crane for an audience who likely knows him solely for the Civil War tale The Red Badge of Courage — finding thematic common ground between the 19th century writer and latterday bard Bruce Springsteen in a way that makes perfect sense.

The legacy of Crane, whose tenure at the house extended from early adolescence through the formative stages of his correspondent career, is evident in the public areas of the house we’re living in — a house that features several museum rooms, a performance stage/ screening room and countless quirky cubbies that are tantamount to “secret” spaces. We’ve discovered rooms within rooms within rooms; happened upon a groovy grotto that once served as a public phone booth, and even came face to face with a padlocked door in the attic that’s best opened only to the imagination of this veteran watcher of horror flicks.

Which brings us to the inevitable questions about the Crane’s haunted history and its renewed ectoplasmic cachet in the age of cable TV ghostbuster shows — a reputation that’s already brought in more than one request to outfit the place as a walk-thru spookhouse at Halloween. While the house’s owner, retired schoolteacher Frank D’Alessandro will brook no such babble, there was that closet door that swung itself open in plain view. The apartment door that we swear we locked, found wide open upon our return from some errands. That same door, gently shutting as we worked across the hall in the wee hours of the night. And a dining room door that closed with a click as we stood just inches away. Okay, that last one could have been the wind, but that’s at least three such incidents in our first few days of residency. All in the same general vicinity, and all of them taking place while our cat was poking around the premises. We’re just sayin.

Beyond “Mrs. Crane” or whoever’s been working the door, there are plenty of people coming and going at all times, each of them with a key to this house in which we live. Producers of featured events, renovators of the property, old friends of Frank’s — including one gentleman, a clown by trade, who showed up suddenly in search of a beach chair he thought he’d stashed in the attic (he left with a pair of ukeleles instead). Our pal, ace photographer Robert McKay, stopped in the other day to shoot wedding-album pictures of a woman who once lived in the house years ago, and the old place just recently hosted its first-ever amplified music event; a packed-house performance by the man called Ema.

In the days since we initiated our move to Asbury Park, we’ve run into several lifetimes of old friends, “discovered” a couple of stores we had no idea were there, got a private tour of the soon-to-be-rescued Savoy Theater, and walked around the corner to a wake for The Coaster newspaper publisher Bob Carroll. We listened to an entire Southside Johnny concert, stage banter and all, beamed loud and clear through our living room window from the Stone Pony SummerStage — and we similarly experienced every moment of a raucous porch party on the next block. We ignored the car; took a daily constitutional on beach, boardwalk or boulevard; did a just-passing-by at Asbury Lanes, and got followed by a crazy person outside a liquor store, just like momma always warned us was going to happen.

All in all, we’re thrilled to be here in Asbury Park — not that there’s much time for relaxing. There’s plenty of work to do here at the Crane House — every corner of every room a project, with the coming months bringing reorganized libraries, new public-use areas and a slate of new arts offerings that promises to be more intimately expansive than ever. It’s a marvelous thing we’ve lucked into, and we can’t wait to get to work on all of it.

We’ve also got a good run of work to do on the computer keyboard; continuing our little private mission to explore the PeoplePlacesThings that make the local arts happenings — not just Asbury town, but all around what we like to call the Upper Wet Side of New Jersey — er, happen. So stick with us and drop in often — and if you happen to know anyone who feels like helping us drag a heavy bedroom set up a narrow fire escape, we’d love to meet them.

On Sunday, June 17, Crane House owner Frank D’Alessandro pays tribute to the recently deceased Madame Era Tognoli (whose Metro Lyric Opera company brought grand opera to the stage of Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre for some 50 years), with screenings of a pair of cinematic operatics — both starring Placido Domingo, both concerning “infidelity, murder and mayhem,” and both adapted from single-act works by young Italian “one-hit wonders.” The 1982 Franco Zefferelli version of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci shows at 4pm, followed at 5:30 by Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Refreshments are served and there’s no charge for admission, but reservations accepted at cranehousereservations@gmail.com, and donations accepted for Asbury Park Little League.

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