Trump’s Most Unexpected Choice

Did you notice how many unusual spur-of-the-moment choices were made by President Donald Trump during last week’s global trip? Throughout his tour of the Middle East and Europe, he seemed to make minor-but-unexpected decisions over and over again.

For instance, in Saudi Arabia, he opted to grab a warrior’s sword and join a dance with a ballroom full of men in traditional Arabic garb. Strange, eh?

In fact, it may have been the most unusual cross-cultural Presidential activity since 1927, when Calvin Coolidge joined a Native American tribe and donned a Chieftain’s Headdress.

And then there were the two moments when the President impulsively reached out to hold his First Lady’s hand while walking to a meeting. Her response? She swatted his hand away.

Ouch! Those were awkward moments indeed.

Of course, a former President once memorably suffered the very same indignity from his First Lady. During the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair, Chelsea Clinton was photographed walking between her parents, holding their hands apart from each other. That was an awkward moment too.

As for President Trump, he made another unusual choice when he posed with his wife and daughter for a formal photograph with Pope Francis. The two women wore black and appeared dreadfully somber, while the Pope dressed in his customary white garb and appeared equally somber.

And the President? He stood for the camera with a bright smile on his face, lighting the room with his joyful countenance.

But his most unexpected choice of all may have occurred in a dark room in Saudi Arabia, when the President posed for a picture with the rulers of the Saudi kingdom and of Egypt. The three men stood together, caressing a brilliantly lit globe of the planet Earth.

Why was that choice especially unusual? Because the image of a ruler fondling the Earth is forever associated with a scene from the classic Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator. It was a brilliantly brutal comedy that lampooned Adolph Hitler at the very moment that the Nazi nation was vanquishing its European neighbors.

Indeed, it’s an image that most American Presidents would never wish to invoke, either explicitly or implicitly. And yet there was President Trump, choosing to do so. Now that was an unexpected decision!

In retrospect, should the President have made different choices? For the most part, perhaps not. After all, if one is attending a party and the hosts begin to dance, it is probably smart to join them. And if one’s wife wishes to walk alone, it is likely wise to allow her a little privacy.

And who could blame any one for breaking into an unrestrained smile while meeting the Pope in the Vatican? It’s difficult to criticize a person who chooses to share his pleasure at such a thrilling moment.

But considering that the President enjoys watching television in the evening, perhaps he should decide to see Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It would only consume a couple of hours of his time.

After he does so, he might opt to establish a new personal policy. As the leader of the Free World, it might be wise for him to avoid brightly lit globes of the Earth. Or, at the very least, to avoid fondling them for the cameras.

After The Circus

The last great American circus is about to pull down its Big Top for the final time! Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, heir to the legacy of the great nineteenth century impresario P.T. Barnum, has announced that its pair of traveling shows will close after appearing in Providence and Long Island in May.

The business executives of the circus partially attributed their declining ticket sales to the retirement of their performing elephants. But before we decide to heap blame on the mammoths for the closure, perhaps we should remind ourselves just how long the show lasted as a pillar of western culture.

The first modern circuses were introduced in England and the United States during the 1700s, and the genre flourished during the following century. Well into the 1900s, it was widely accepted as a popular form of mass entertainment, along with carnival shows, boxing matches, vaudeville performances, and other amusements that came of age during the Victorian era.

That’s not to say, of course, that the circus occupied the lowest rungs of the entertainment universe. During the heyday of its clown, trapeze artist, and animal performances, a night under the Big Top was considered far more respectable than an evening at a cock fight, crap game, or burlesque show. On the other hand, it never quite matched the respectability of high-brow nineteenth and early twentieth century activities like the opera, the symphony, and the public lecture.

By the way, have you spotted a common characteristic across all of these venerable forms of public entertainment? Each and every one has suffered through a deep and enduring decline in popularity, with some essentially reaching extinction. Even a once-powerful entity like the New York City Opera has struggled to remain open in the heart of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan metropolis.

So instead of blaming the elephants for the demise of the circus, perhaps we should simply tip our hats to a venerable institution that has run its natural course after thriving for centuries. After all, how many nineteenth century amusements are still entertaining twenty first century audiences today?

Well, of course, we still do enjoy at least one such amusement. It’s spring training season in the United States; time to play baseball!

Mystic’s Animal Behavior

Three nights ago, I attended the holiday season’s Festival of Lights at the Mystic Aquarium and its neighbor Olde Mistick Village in southeastern Connecticut. The Aquarium waived the admission fee for all entrants who donated food for charitable distribution, and the touristy shopping village lit up its buildings and walkways with a festive flair.

Without question, though, the stars of the evening were the beluga whales of the Aquarium. The astonishingly intelligent and amiable creatures recognized when tourists wished to snap photos and obliged by bringing their faces up to the tank’s glass walls to (quite literally) smile for the cameras. They danced with children, rolled upside down for applause, and even engaged in crowd control activities by temporarily swimming away when their fans became too loud and boisterous.

And how did the evening progress at the shopping Village next door? As can be expected, mobs of humans trampled the walkway lights, stormed the fudge counters, and flared into arguments as cashier lines lengthened throughout the stores. They drove their automobiles directly into fully gridlocked streets, and aggressively cruised the parking lots, desperate for open spots.

The Aquarium’s web site refers to the whales as “animals,” but if you had attended the Festival of Lights, you would’ve concluded that the reference was a misplaced one. For even if you had noticed any animal behavior in Mystic three nights ago, you wouldn’t had found it on the watery side of the aquarium tanks.

Connecticut’s Jurassic Tourism Industry

Just how many mammoth dinosaurs can be found roaming the tiny state of Connecticut this summer?

In New Haven, along the Long Island Sound, the 89 year old Great Hall of Dinosaurs in Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History is swarming with gigantic skeletons and fossils. It’s one of the most visually striking paleontology collections in the world.

About thirty miles north of the Elm City, in Rocky Hill, Dinosaur State Park sports a gigantic slab of jurassic footprints. And ten miles further north, in the heart of the capital city of Hartford, 22 animatronic dinosaur robots are threatening their human hosts at the Connecticut Science Center.

Meanwhile, about forty miles southwest of New Haven, 40 fiberglass dinosaurs are carousing on the sidewalks of Stamford via the Dinosaurs Rule! art exhibit.

I visited the Rocky Hill park and Stamford exhibit last week, and was quite surprised by the breadth of the drawing power of these extinct species. An entire cross-section of humanity, from toddlers to the elderly, and from blue collar workers to university professors, are enjoying the mix of knowledge and entertainment, from the serious to the silly.

Oddly enough, though, I couldn’t find a single promotional reference to the New Haven and Hartford exhibits in Rocky Hill or Stamford. No joint programs, no placards, no coupons … not a single synergistic prompt to encourage visitors to enjoy the other sites. It was a striking oversight, one almost as noticeable as the dinosaurs themselves.

And although a web site called the Connecticut Dino Trail exists online, it makes no mention of Stamford’s Dinosaurs Rule! exhibit. That city, though, represents the very first dinosaur location that is accessible to visitors entering the state from the metro New York region. And Governor Dannel Malloy is himself a resident and a former mayor of Stamford.

Governor Malloy, in fact, has noted that his state’s tourism industry generates $14 billion in annual revenues. Considering Connecticut’s position as one of the four wealthiest states in the nation, and one that can easily draw visitors from the nearby megacities of New York and Boston, these revenues indicate that the tourist sector is clearly doing something right.

Nevertheless, Boston’s Freedom Trail, New York’s Heritage Trails, and Connecticut’s own Wine Trail provide readily available examples of collaborative artistic, commercial, cultural, and historical associations. With these entities so close by, couldn’t Connecticut’s Dino Trail review their successes and learn to cross-promote its own sites a bit more effectively?

NYC Opera: The Final Curtain

It appears that the final curtain has fallen on the New York City Opera. Unable to raise the $7 million that it needs to pay its obligations, the company filed for bankruptcy last week and began to prepare to liquidate its possessions.

Does the loss of a single operatic arts company significantly impact the cultural environment of New York City? Perhaps not; after all, New York City continues to host the world renowned Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center.

In fact, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose nonprofit foundation supports cultural organizations around the world, declined to save the NYC Opera. When asked about the possibility of a donation, he simply noted that the company’s “business model doesn’t seem to be working.”

Once again, perhaps not … and yet few other New York City organizations have earned social reputations that are quite as illustrious as the NYC Opera’s. Founded during the Second World War and lauded as “The People’s Opera” by legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the company’s original mission was to deliver performances for all New Yorkers at highly affordable prices.

Based in the old City Center Theater, the company spent only $30,463 on operating costs during its first season. Ticket prices ranged from 85 cents to $2.20, amounts that were equivalent to four to nine times the price of a cup of coffee or a slice of pie. Imagine how many New Yorkers would still be attending the opera if tickets could be purchased for such prices!

The NYC Opera was also a trailblazer in the civil rights movement. Two years before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier with the Dodgers, Todd Duncan became the first African American performer to integrate the stage of a major opera company in 1945’s production of Il Pagliacci.

So what went wrong? In 1966, the company joined the mighty Metropolitan Opera by moving to Lincoln Center, celebrating its arrival with Placido Domingo’s starring role in Don Rodrigo. Although the company subsequently enjoyed years of enhanced exposure and acclaim, its operating costs and ticket prices necessarily rose to Lincoln Center levels. The company also struggled to differentiate itself from The Met, its far wealthier co-tenant.

Thus began a downward financial spiral that culminated in last week’s bankruptcy announcement. Although it is always sad to lose a major performing arts company, it may be even sadder to observe the gradual (and, likely, irreversible) abandonment of Mayor La Guardia’s original vision of operatic performances for The People.