Maya Plisetskaya monument, Moscow

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I will begin this little journey by grumbling. But this time, instead of grumbling at what I’m writing about, I’ll grumble at those who have grumbled at what I’m writing about. In short I think Viktor Mitroshin’s new monument to Maya Plisetskaya on Plisetskaya Square in Moscow is wonderful. I have read all kinds of nonsense about what is wrong with this statue, located between houses 6 and 12 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. It captures the great ballerina during a single, expressive moment in her famous performance of Carmen. I love that choice already. The obvious (read: cliched) choice would have been to put her in a classical tutu and picture her dancing Swan Lake or The Dying Swan. Then she would have looked like all other ballerinas on all their bronze and marble stands all over the world. But in choosing Carmen, Mitroshin emphasized not only Plisetskaya’s physical prowess, grace and beauty, he put a big exclamation point after character! Plistetskaya was a spit-fire right down to the end of her life in 2015 when she died at the age of 89. And she looks it here. This is a woman that’s going to mess with you. Whether you can handle it or not.
Maya Plisetskaya was born November 20, 1925, in Moscow. She died May 2, 2015, in Munich. She had lived in Germany most of the time since the Perestroika era. In fact, she spent several years growing up in Germany (1932-36), where her father worked, first as the head of a Soviet mining company, and then as the General Consul of the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1937 and shot in 1938; her mother Rakhila Messerer, a silent film actress, was arrested and exiled in 1938. To keep the state from sending Maya to an orphanage for children of enemies of the state, her aunt Sulamif Messerer, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre, adopted Maya. The influence of a tight, artistic family would surely have exerted itself on the young girl even without this development, but now the imprint of Sulamif’s profession clearly had every reason to be felt. In fact, Maya debuted as a dancer when she was around 15 or 16. It occurred while she and her family were in the city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg today) from 1941 to 1942 during evacuation from Moscow due to the war.  She joined the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater in 1943 and soon was dancing solo parts and taking on the role of prima ballerina.
Hers was an enormous, rich, eventful life, and I won’t even try to dig into that. Suffice it to say that some five years after her retirement from the Bolshoi (at age 65! – absolutely unheard of for a dancer), none less than Maurice Bejart created a show especially for her – Ave Maya – for her 70th birthday. The following year she danced The Dying Swan in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York.

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I saw Plisetskaya dance in Boston in – I believe it would have been 1987 or 1988. I was (and am) no ballet expert, but during a short stint in Washington, D.C., I frequently saw performances by Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov and others, so I had a certain grounding for good dance. I remember sitting in the hall at the old Opera House in downtown Boston and thinking that she was doing little more than moving gracefully around the stage – but with what extraordinary grace! The main piece in which she danced that night was in a ballet adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog,” with music written especially for Plisetskaya by her husband Rodion Shchedrin. I just dug into the net and found a clip of that very performance (not the Boston performance, of course, but of Lapdog). And there she is again, “not dancing,” but performing with astonishing grace, precision and feeling. Give the video a look.
The last time I saw her dance was at a concert on Red Square. It was 1992, at the first Red Square Invites! festival where she performed The Dying Swan. Oksana and I had great seats – fourth row – because I was covering the event for The Moscow Times. Here is a video of what we saw that night. Again, I must say it – what astonishing grace, elegance and precision. This is not anywhere even close to the norm for a dancer of her age. It is virtually unprecedented. Four years later – without me in attendance – she danced that part for the last time in her career.
Several years later I wrote a play and Plisetskaya emerged immediately as an inspiration. The play begins as a mother talks to her daughter about Plisetskaya and it ends as the daughter, alone, remembers her mother talking about Plisetskaya.
Plisetskaya is in no way, shape or form to blame for the fact that I could not stop myself from pointlessly adding still one more play to the world’s endless oceans of plays, but she, for, me, was a tuning fork throughout the writing of Dancing, Not Dead. Enough of that. I allow myself that little bit not to insert myself in this story, but to indicate the power of the effect Plisetskaya had on me.
A few words on the photos and the monument. If you look closely you may see something that looks like defects in the photos – blobs or streaks of white. That is just the way a fairly heavy snowfall was captured by my camera. As for the monument itself – look at those gorgeous arms, hands, legs. Look at the sassy sway of the dress. Look at the dark, hard eyes and the tight, determined mouth. Look at the sway of the back. Look at that crazy flower on her head. Look at how all of it strains upward into the sky. I’m telling you, the whole thing is beautiful.
If I’m going to grumble a bit, I might suggest that the sculptor didn’t spend enough time thinking about the base on which his fabulous Plisetskaya dances. It’s very clunky, a big rock half-hidden by a bronze drape. I give it a minus, but I give such huge pluses to everything else it just doesn’t matter in the end. I also, as a parting comment, want to say that I love the muted colors. First of all, they don’t try to compete with the gorgeous mural that stands beside the monument (I’ll write about that another time), nor do they try to conjure up the fiery red and midnight black that were Plisetskaya’s costume in Carmen. As for Carmen, I won’t bother to link to videos. Just go to YouTube and search “Plisetskaya Carmen.” You won’t get anything done for the next hour or so.

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George Blagoi gravestone, Los Angeles

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You almost can’t find this guy under his real name – Yury Blagoi. Even on most Russian sites he is listed as George. And even when you do find information about Yury/George Blagoi, it is of the skimpiest kind, often just a name in long lists of actors who performed in some film, appeared at some party, or were part of some Hollywood hotshot’s entourage.
I tracked Mr. Blagoi down at plot 119 in the Chandler Garden of the Hollywood Forever cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The birth-death dates there are almost correct. That is, his birth date of August 27, 1895, in Moscow is true if you consider that it is in the so-called Old Style. This was still 20-some years before Russia joined the rest of the world by jettisoning the Julian calendar and embracing the more accurate Gregorian calendar. So on the day that Blagoi was born it was actually September 8 in most of the world. The gravestone indicates that the date listed is by Old Style, but does not offer the true contemporary date. Virtually all internet sources pick up the date off of the gravestone, therefore providing for posterity an incorrect date of birth for this Russian emigre actor. His death date of June 24, 1971 in Los Angeles is not in dispute.
It is interesting that this man, who appeared in close to four dozen films over the span of his career, chose to identify himself in death as a military Major and a Prince with the full last name of Blagoi-Obolensky, a member of the Imperial Army and Navy before the Revolution, and a descendant of the noble Smolensky and Zabolotsky families. At least by the end of his life, these aspects of his biography clearly had become the most important.
For those interested in the full scoop in regards to what is written on Blagoi’s grave marker – the phrase at the top is a quote from John 11:25: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
One of the longest descriptions I found about Blagoi’s biography is a single sentence in a Russian Wikipedia article about his older brother Dmitry, who was a well-known literary scholar and specialist in the works of Alexander Pushkin. Here it is: Dmitry’s “brother Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi, a participant in the Civil War, abandoned Russia with the Whites, and lived in Hollywood where he performed in the cinema as George Blagoi and Lieutenant Blagoi.”
It’s not much to go on, but it’s something.

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It’s no easy task even coming up with a good list of the films Blagoi acted in, although the always-reliable site is the best. This listing suggests Blagoi was in at least 31 feature films and at least 14 television programs or serials. Over the years he worked with some major directors, including John Ford and Josef von Sternberg. With the exception of his very first film, Into Her Kingdom (1926), where he was credited as Lieutenant Blagoi, virtually every other one of his roles was uncredited. Could this be why we have such a difficult time scaring up information about this actor? On the other hand, he was there hands-on at the making of many of American TV’s best early serials. Get a load of this, he appeared (again, uncredited) in I Love Lucy (1956, where he played a passenger on a ship), Perry Mason (1957), The Untouchables (1959-60, three episodes – one credited!), The Twilight Zone (1961), The Andy Griffith Show (1963), Dr. Kildare (1963), Rawhide (1963), The Fugitive (1964), Bonanza (1965) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1967) and It Takes a Thief (1968). I and a couple of generations grew up watching every single one of those shows.
A Russian site suggests that he worked on the 1959 feature film The Buccaneer where he was a stand-in for Yul Brynner.  He was an extra in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). The kind of roles he played can pretty much be summed up as follows: bar/cafe patron, clerk, officer/sailor/soldier, party guest, judge on a panel, juror, courtroom spectator, medicine show spectator,  barn fight spectator, mourner at wake, dinner patron, club patron, customs man and the like. It’s a great working man’s resume! That made me particularly curious when I ran across a site that promised to tell me George Blagoi’s net worth – just to see what a small-time working man in Hollywood made back in the day. I clicked on the bait and found that “George Blagoi’s net worth is under review.”
Blagoi was married to Tina Blagoi, apparently born as Valentina Ivanova ( writes “Ivanovna” but that is a patronymic, not a last name), also in Moscow, in 1900. She died in 1986. She had a short career in film, too, with at least seven credits. She too was uncredited in all her roles.
And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, I have exhausted what I have to say about Major Prince Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi-Obolensky, a man who appeared to live a life as unusual and unexpected as any in Tinsel Town. That’s an achievement and I take my hat off to him. If you think I’m being facetious, you don’t know me.

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Old Actors House, Moscow

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Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

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Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

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Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Karandash the Clown monument, Moscow

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Not a good day to sit down and write. I’m doing this for the wrong reason. My apologies to the great Soviet clown Karandash, or, Karan d’Ash (given name Mikhail Rumyantsev) for dragging him into a battle that has absolutely nothing to do with him. But today, on the day that my native nation elected a so-called clown and showman (small letters) to be its leader for the next four years, I can only write about a genuine Clown and Showman.
Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901 – 1983) was born in St. Petersburg and began his young adult life as an artist drawing and painting posters for theaters and then the circus. But it was Moscow and the still very new art form of cinema that would change Rumyantsev’s life. Let me turn this pivotal moment over to a source that has put it as well and succinctly as possible:
In 1925 Rumyantsev moved to Moscow where he began drawing posters for the film industry. But 1926 was the year that changed the young artist’s life when he saw up-close Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Like them, Rumyantsev resolved to become an actor. After taking lessons in stage movement in 1926, he entered a school for the circus arts in a class that educated eccentric acrobats. By 1930 he successfully graduated from the circus school and began working as a circus artist.”
In his earliest years Rumyantsev imitated Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp but pretty much gave that up after a few years. Whether by instinct or by good advice, he quickly realized that imitation was not the proper road to real success. He began working as a clown in Leningrad in 1935. It was at this time he came up with his own persona and the pseudonym by which he would be known for the rest of his life – Karan d’Ash, or, Karandash (which means “pencil” in Russian). He then jumped to the Moscow Circus the following year, in 1936. This was the moment when the last stroke of his stage character came together – in addition to his ill-fitting, over-sized suit, his cane and his frumpy hat, Karan d’Ash added a little fox terrier to his act. The Karan d’Ash character was a clumsy, good-natured, star-crossed, half-unaware bumbler who constantly got into trouble no matter what he did. There are quite a few videos of him on the internet. If you’re interested you can begin with this one of him stumbling around in a park and work from there.
Karan d’Ash was not only a wildly popular performer (he starred in several short films and he and his dog were the subject of an animated film), he was a true artist and a renowned teacher. Other great clowns served under his tutelage, including the equally great Yury Nikulin. It is said that his demeanor outside of the ring resembled his dopey, endearingly silly stage image in virtually no way at all. He was sharp as a tack, a stickler for detail (as every comedian and every circus artist must be) and a severe task master for anyone working for him and his act. These, of course, are traits that separate a Clown from a clown.

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The small statue pictured here of the diminutive Rumyantsev-Karandash stands outside the building where he once lived and where the headquarters for the Union of Circus Performers is located today. The address is 12 Yefremov St., Building 2, not far from the Frunzenskaya metro stop. The statue was created by Vyacheslav Dolgov and was unveiled in 2008. I can’t say the location suits the work well. The cheap facade, obviously slapped on an older building in some recent time, has a fake quality that clashes with the attempt to paint a loving portrait of the beloved Clown. Small in size – in order to maintain a certain realism, I presume (Rumyantsev stood all of 4 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall) – the statue is almost lost against the backdrop of the crass red doors of the Circus Union, a pedestrian railing and a potted plant. The tiles on which the sculpture stands are the exact same tedious ones that were put in all over Moscow en masse in one fell swoop a few years ago by a construction company belonging to the wife of the then-Moscow mayor. Gee, wonder how her company got that order? Just lucky, I guess.
Speaking of luck, the right thumb of this statue of Karan D’Ash is said by tradition to be good luck if you rub it. As you can see in the last photo in the block above, a lot of people figure nothing can be lost by trying the old rub-that-finger thing. Had I thought of it in time, prior to the latest American presidential election, I would have gone and rubbed that thumb madly as if it were a magic lantern. I would have rubbed it until the skin came off my palms. It’s too late now.
Many have called the American President-elect a clown. I beg to differ. A Clown is a higher calling. A Clown like Karan d’Ash is a national treasure, a great artist who does his people proud. The soon-to-be American president elect is no Clown; he is an unthinking, insensitive, corrupt, lying, cheating individual who – at the very best – will give us all a bad name for a very long time. Would that this were the least damage we and our friends and loved ones will suffer. I have done what I could to salvage the epithet of Clown for today. My repeated apologies to Karan d’Ash for dragging him into this. But I suggest everyone beware of the buffoon who soon plans to masquerade as the President of the United States.

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