Friday, July 27, 2007


(News-Herald, July 24)I’m barely old enough to remember when the Latonia Theater was a real, live operating theater (at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it). But I’m old enough to appreciate the place today.

I missed the Oil Heritage tour, but I took a trip over Tuesday night and got the super-deluxe tour of this work-in-progress.

The Latonia went into operation in 1929, just in time for the death of silent cinema and the stock market crash. It operated for many years as a Warner theater and was, in its prime, a great piece of art deco architecture.

Like many local theaters, it didn’t make it to the 1970’s. The problem with theaters is that they’re really cool spaces that aren’t good for much of anything else. So when they’re bought, they suffer through a great deal of renovating, and sometimes the original charm is hopelessly lost.

The Latonia certainly suffered from its transition to business space. Most famously, a concrete floor was inserted halfway between the original floor and ceiling, and shops and offices were shoehorned into the bottom half.

But what is left is exceptional. Walk up the sweeping staircase and you are looking at a circular mezzanine balcony above the lobby, ringed by a railing that represents some of the last iron-work that Wendell August Forge ever created. Across from that rail is an art deco fountain; facing it from the other corner is a fireplace. Both are in fine shape. Past the fireplace is the original office for the theater, with a conveniently located window that allowed the boss to look down over the house.

That’s all pretty cool, but the revelation is on the other side of the rail. Pass through a door and you are looking across that giant concrete slab, obviously out of place.

Originally you would have been entering here at balcony level, and the upper balcony is behind you, stretching up a reeeeeeeeally long way eventually to the projection room (located so far from everything else in the building that it has its own little rest room.

Opposite the balcony is the top of the stage, eight or nine feet of proscenium sticking up above the slab (the rest of the stage is intact, a few artificial floors down). The whole room gives a bit of the impression of something from a disaster movie, a building that has been engulfed and filled by snow or lava.

What dominates this large room is the biggest art deco chandelier I have ever seen in my life. Weighing more than a couple of tons, operating on three separate circuits, and requiring half a billion light bulbs (maybe closer to 800—but, dang!), it hangs below a sweeping dome which is itself resting on the wings of a circle of golden eagles. It’s impossible to look at it and not think, “Wow! I need a picture of that.”

The room ends up looking more like a ballroom or Greco-Roman amphitheater than a conventional theater, though it would be a great place to play a small show in the round. The acoustics are striking, but in 1929 the best sound system a theater could have still only put out about 50 watts, so the acoustics in a big room still had to be good. This certainly sounds like it has a large bare concrete floor, but with some carpet to take the edge off, it will be a unique space.

The stage is pretty shallow with virtually no space in the wings, but then, performers could walk out of the wings into a labyrinth of dressing rooms, storage rooms, and even showers. Doors lead to doors and the backstage area is further honeycombed with ladders and staircases and trap doors. A group of twelve-year-old boys could be entertained for a week.

The owners, Linda Henderson and Roxanne Hitchcock, have ideas and plans and a grant, God bless them, and they‘re to be commended for taking on this monstrous project.

The timing is in many ways perfect; this is a facility that can pick up some of the slack created by the Franklin Club’s self-destruction. And while purists may bemoan the presence of other businesses in the building, a steady source of income for this kind of operation is a major bonus.

And I know some people just can’t help themselves—if someone in Franklin or Oil City sneezes, they have to look for someone in the other town to sneeze bigger or louder or snottier—but the Latonia isn’t competition for the Barrow. They’re two types of operations, offering different settings and services.

Right now, the Latonia is trying a Tuesday night jam session starting at 6:30. Come listen, or come gawk, or do both. You can contact the Latonia folks at 677-1260 or e-mail

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Riverfront Park

7.07.1, originally uploaded by palan57.

The blog posting function seems to clip the horizontal shots; let's see what happens to a vertical one.

Riverfront Park

7.07.8, originally uploaded by palan57.

Shooting from the middle of the Allegheny River at the mouth of French Creek.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

French Creek

7.07.14, originally uploaded by palan57.

Riverfront park in Franklin

7.07.30, originally uploaded by palan57.

Woods and river

7.07.33, originally uploaded by palan57.

I've been doing some shooting around the area over the summer. Right now I'm trying out Flickr's blogging capabilities.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


(News-Herald, July 19) It’s time for the premiere Venangoland summer festival—the Oil Heritage Festival in Oil City. If nothing else, this is an opportunity for all those people who whine “There’s nothing to do around here” to either put up or shut up.

Squeezing the festival down from a week to four days (with some bonus warm-up events beforehand) was a genius move because it has helped the festival achieve that all-important critical mass. As with Applefest, the festival does not require you to plan or organize to attend and enjoy. Pick a day. Drive to Oil City. Park the car, get out, and spend the rest of the day enjoying whatever you find.

The legendary fearfulness of navigation in Oil City is not an acceptable excuse. There is no place in Venangoland (outside of the new hospital) with more available parking. Once you’re on foot in Oil City, the dreaded maze of one-way streets is not a problem.

No doubt the News Derrick will be providing a complete listing of events; let me highlight some of the treats that I think merit a trip to Oil City this weekend.

There’s a lot of history in Oil City. The National Transit Building tours on Friday afternoon (5:30) are definitely worth a look, but the tours of the Latonia Theater tonight (6-8 pm) are the big history draw for me. I’ve heard that the owners are up to some exciting things in that too-long-neglected building, and it is way cool to have the chance to take a peek.

The raft race on Sunday from Henry’s Bend to Veteran’s Bridge is also mighty appealing. Prior info about the race says that it will be canceled in the event of bad storms or dangerously high water in the Allegheny. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the water level is not going to be a problem, though contestants should probably wear their river shoes for when they have to get out and push.

Fireworks are Sunday night. It’s not a party in Venangoland until Scott Cartwright blows something up (he should probably use that line in advertisements and on t-shirts).

And of course there’s the parade from noon till 2:00 on Saturday. The parade is always large, impressive, and well-run. And the same bizarre street layout that makes Oil City the scourge of little old lady drivers makes it a superb setting for a parade.

Those are the items on my own personal to-do list. But if that’s not your cup o’tea, another impressive feature of the weekend is the sheer variety of events. Skateboarding, weightlifting, a 5 K race, a fishing derby, and a softball tournament provide plenty for folks who want something a little more active than strolling and browsing. But there’s plenty of strolling and browsing, including the return of Pipeline Alley, a cute little side street from the past.

All of it is spread out enough to avoid the massive crammage of Applefest, but still compact enough that you don’t have to walk till you drop.

And the music! The organizers have outdone themselves this year with a steady diet of music that includes hired guns from outside the area and local favorites like Catro (really smooth and cool jazz), the reappearance of the much-beloved Southern Knights, and a Feroz Brothers reunion. Plus the various local groups that have been hired to accompany some of the other events and venues.

There’s something to listen to virtually all day every day. In an age where live music is a too-endangered creature, the Oil Festival Honchos are to be commended for providing a great setting for so many working musicians, and audiences will be fortunate to hear them.

One thing that always tickles me about small town life is our sense of distance. City folks will spend two hours in the car just to go out to eat and never bat an eye. Here in Venangoland, folks don’t like to spend fifteen minutes driving eight miles—it’s just “too far” to go to all that trouble.

Well, this weekend would be a great time to hitch up the horses and make the journey to Oil City. It’s a festival that has much to offer everyone, whether they live in The City or not. It is a credit to Oil City and all the folks who support her.

Not that I’m suggesting you should go because it’s your civic duty or you have an obligation to boost a Venangoland activity. You should go because it’s a chance to get out and have some fun and eat some food and see some folks. But hey—you can stay home if you like. Just don’t start whining about how there’s nothing around here to do.

Monday, July 16, 2007


(News-Herald, May 2003) I’m not sure why so many people are interested in other people’s marriages. I don’t think it’s just a small town thing, but we certainly do like to play the game.

Probably the most common version of the game is to compare a couple to the unofficial, but widely known, Rules for Marriage.

It’s never too early to start that game. Back in college I knew a man who had almost never dated and a woman who had just come off a multi-year intense relationship. They had been seeing each other a week or two, I recall, when they announced their engagement. We thought they were joking. Nobody gets married with such little preparation. As you’ve already guessed, the punch line of this story is that now, twenty-five years later, they are still happily married.

We are forever noting the Rules that have been broken in the pursuit of matrimonial bliss. Too much age difference. Too much income difference. Too soon. Too late. Too mushy. Not mushy enough.

Many of us cling to the Rules with an obsessive tunnel vision. We know dozens of exceptions to the Rules, and dozens of people who followed the Rules and failed anyway, yet we hold tight to the notion that the Rules must be followed for success.

In life, some rules are valuable. Some rules are on the order of “Don’t stick your tongue in a running fan.” They tell you how to avoid fairly predictable unpleasant consequences.

But other rules are about trying to create particular consequences, and these strike me as more suspect. “Keep your tongue out of the fan and you will become rich and famous” is half good rule, half groundless hope.

It’s nice to believe in rules, nice to believe that if you just do the right thing, you get the right results. It’s comforting. It’s liberating.

And it’s a great excuse to be lazy.

We like rules because they can substitute for judgment. Rich or poor, well-off or struggling, we deal with one constant in life—making choices is hard.

One of the most basic pieces of information that most of us long for is an answer to the question, “How am I doing?” Do I have a good job? Am I in a good relationship? Am I good parent, spouse, friend? Am I happy? Should I be happy?

These seem like easy questions, but for many folks they aren’t. It is hard for us to look at out lives and decide how they are doing, to decide if they are going well.

Particularly something as large and amorphous as a marriage. There are good parts and bad parts, days of joy and days of misery, and long periods in which folks just go through the motions without thinking much about it.

What’s easier than thinking about it is carrying around a checklist. If I am doing A, B, C, and D, then my marriage must be good and my spouse and I must be happy.

And perhaps that’s why people who break the rules can seem so threatening. If you’re breaking the rules, and it’s working for you, then how can I be sure that following the rules is working for me?

Perhaps marriage is more susceptible to this effect because so many of us continue to think that romance and love are magical events that happen to us. You wander through life, waiting for the moment when your “soul mate” appears and announces his/her presence. As long as they match all the checkpoints on the list, you can remain confident that True Love has happened to you.

Well, it’s nice to be idealistic, I guess. But then one day you have an argument or a disagreement or you just look at the person once shone like the sun and now they just give off the dull glow of a waning 40-watt bulb, and you check your list of rules and there are too many being broken. So you conclude that that itch of discontent must be the Truth of your situation, not a condition to be overcome by commitment and work, and you head out the door, waiting for the next Soul Mate to appear.

Well, even the Bible tells us that we’ll know good or bad by its fruits. In other words, it’s not a matter of going through the right steps, but a matter of where you end up. If you’re in a good place, it really doesn’t matter when people tell you that you can’t get there from here.

Friday, July 13, 2007


(News-Herald, July 12)Teacher merit pay is back in the news. Some pilot programs in Minnesota, for example, have met with support from teachers, and look to expand.

This is a bit of a change. The NEA has always been opposed to merit pay, a position that we can add to the sixty gazillion somewhat boneheaded stances that the NEA has taken over the years.

Many teachers chafe at not being treated like professionals, but traditional teacher pay scales, based on years on the job alone, is not how professionals are paid. And for many teachers, what really chafes is the realization that they work twice as hard as some of their colleagues, for exactly the same pay.

For a merit pay system to work, two basic pitfalls have to be avoided.

First is the issue of measurement.

In any system where numbers are used to measure quality, it’s crucial that the numbers mean what you think they mean.

One of the weakest links in the PSSA system is the assumption that the high-stakes test given to all PA students shows how well-educated they are. It doesn’t. Student scores on the standardized test are an excellent measure of how the students do on a standardized test. What that has to do with actual knowledge, wisdom or education is open to debate, but I feel certain that student scores are not a reliable measure of their education or their teacher’s quality.

Much ado was made recently of a study showing a disconnect between a hospital’s cost and its mortality rate. Figures suggest that patients are more likely to die at more expensive hospitals. Or maybe not. You’re terribly terribly sick, and you want to make sure you get the best care possible. Do you check yourself into St. Ignatius of the Presitigiously High Pricetag, or Bob’s Community Discount Hospital?

The high-prestige, high-cost hospital attracts all the worst cases. The best way for it to improve its mortality rate? Find ways to turn away difficult, inclined-to-die patients. One of the predictable outcomes of school evaluations based on test is scores is to make pariahs out of poorly-testing students.

Are there other ways to measure teacher quality? If every school administrator was excellent, we could trust their judgment. But there are plenty of bad administrators who already find ways to take out their petty personal vendettas on particular teachers; giving these bozos the ability to control a teacher’s pay will only increase the carnage and give bad administrators the ability to drive every decent teacher out of the building. That doesn’t benefit anybody.

We could come up with a rubric, a clear-cut objective set of measures of teacher quality. Three problems here—one is that so much of the best teaching is not so clear cut, second is that the rubric has to be set to measure what you want it to measure, and the third is that administrators then have to follow the rubric and not just ignore it when it gives them an answer they don’t like.

A real, useful teacher evaluation and remediation program is the great missing link of the ed biz. It would take a lot of time and effort, but until then any “merit” will be awarded randomly, and there will be little to do with incompetent teachers except hope they’ll get the urge to retire quietly to Florida.

The other challenge with merit pay is, well, the pay part.

If you work somewhere that uses a bonus pay system, you know the problem. Sometimes bonuses are based on the individual job performance. Sometimes they’re based on the performance of the corporation as a whole. And sometimes bonuses are based on whether or not the company wants to spend money on bonuses.

No public school district in the country will ever find itself in a position to say, “Well, we cleared an extra 100 grand this year, so we’re going to hand it out as bonuses to the best teachers.”

Instead, it’s far more likely that school districts, strapped for cash and wishing to avoid a tax increase, will “discover” that nobody on staff “merits” the highest level of pay.

A poorly-constructed pay system based on merit becomes an easy way for a district to cut teacher pay arbitrarily. And if too many safeguards are locked in to avoid that scenario, the district could find itself with wildly fluctuating payroll costs that it can neither control nor predict.

Neither the problems of evaluation nor the problems of money are insurmountable, but the solutions require leadership, vision, time, and a whole lot of work.

Friday, July 06, 2007


(News-Herald, July 5) I was reflecting once again on the benefits of living in Venangoland, standing ankle deep in the waters of French Creek, right above the point where they empty into the Allegheny. The evening sun was angling in to illuminate 143 different shades of green, and every direction I turned, the view was beautiful.

Families of geese angling in across the water. A father teaching his daughter to skip stones from the edge of the park. Flashes of red and yellow as cyclers worked their way up the bike trail.

It is easy to take so many of the resources around us for granted, to imagine that we enjoy all of these things for free. But I’m inclined to believe that anything worth having is worth paying for.

I’ve written about the bike trail before. I think it is one of the great treasures of the region.

I have no doubt that it brings people in from outside the region. It’s certainly not Disneyland or a giant casino; it will never be a great driving engine of tourism. But it does bring a slow steady trickle of people here to visit, buy some food, envy us our beautiful river and woods.

But if the bike trail never brought a single soul into Venangoland, it would still be a local treasure for what it contributes to quality of life. It gives each of us a chance to walk or run or pedal our way through long stretches of natural beauty the likes of which millions of Americans will never ever see.

I know there are some people who are violently, vehemently opposed to the trail, and while I try to see most sides of an issue, I can’t really see theirs. The people who have blocked the trail’s progress through some areas have put petty selfishness ahead of the good of the community. The people who continue to subject the trail to petty harassment need to crawl back into their caves and get over themselves.

The trail is an enormous asset to the region and deserves appreciation and support, and it’s an asset that’s provided to us without ever an admissions charge. We get to use it for free.

Not all our assets are outdoors. We just finished up the run of Sweet Charity at the Barrow-Civic Theatre, and afterwards dozens of people have stopped me to tell me how great it was to see such an outstanding amateur production in such a great space.

The Barrow is just about to turn fifteen. It showcases local talent and a wide variety of professional acts that our region would be hard-pressed to book without such a showplace to put them.

But a regional theater like the Barrow is a hard resource to maintain. Management has to balance what it actually costs to run the place against what people in this market are willing and able to pay for a theater ticket. Theaters like the Barrow live forever on the edge of financial disaster, even as people go on about how great it is to have such a place here.

The list goes on and on—there are libraries in Venangoland, including the Oil City library that was built as a Carnegie library. A Carnegie library!! The country is filled with cities, much bigger cities, that fought to have a Carnegie library and were bitterly disappointed to fail.

We’ve had a chance this summer to experience the loss of one of those take-it-for-granted resources. Hopefully, once the smoke clears and all the children are done throwing hissy fits at each other, someone will figure out how to restore the use of Two Mile Run County (or Not) Park. But in the meantime, there’s not much the rest of us can do.

But for everything else, we have power. It’s the power to put our money where our mouths are. If you think it would be tragic, a major loss, for DeBence Music World or the Venango Museum of Arts & Science to have to close up shop, write them a check. If you regularly use the bike trail, show your appreciation by sending them some money.

If something’s worth having, it’s worth paying for. Do your part, however large or small, to preserve the better parts of life in Venangoland. Look—I’ll even give you some addresses:

Allegheny Valley Trails Association
Box 264
Franklin, PA 16323

Barrow Civic Theatre
1223 Liberty Street
Franklin, PA 16323

You can find more in the phone book. Go ahead and put your money where your heart is.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


This Thursday night the Bully Hill Brass Band will be appearing at the South Park band stand. It will be a concert of traditional dixieland jazz, free and open to the public.

The band includes Dave Greene, Fred Frye, Ed Frye and Kristen Criado. Oh, and me. Drumming this time will be Nate Frye, and Suzi Ditzenberger will be guest vocalist for the shindig.

We've been around for years-- you might have caught us last spring as the house band for the Barrow-Civic production of A Night at Big Daddy's. Our repertoire runs from period pop pieces like "After You've Gone," "Five Foot Two" and "Ain't She Sweet" to jazz standards such as "That's A Plenty" and "Wolverine Blues."

We have a lot of fun, and we don't take things too seriously. We hope you will join us-- it will be a good time. And there will be popcorn for sale, too...

Sunday, July 01, 2007


(News-Herald, September 2002)This originally saw the light of day back when contract talks between the school district and the teachers union, of which I was the president, had pretty much ground to a halt. Within a month we were going to be on strike. It was a tough period for writing this column, because I didn't think I could follow my usual approach and simply write about what was on my mind. A little more thought and I found my way around that obstacle...

I am an optimist in some things. For instance, I believe that the vast majority of people always try to do the right thing.

I have known just a handful of what I think of as Bad People, people who knew right from wrong and chose purposefully, deliberately, to do the wrong thing. But almost every person I’ve ever known, I believe, was a person trying to do what, in their own mind, was right. Even the people that I really disagreed with.

Not that Doing the Right Thing is always easy. First you have to settle on what the right thing is, and that can be a good deal of hard work, hard enough that many of us, in our laziest hours, will look for a shortcut. We’ll find an expert to tell us, some authority figure who will do us the favor of telling us what answer is correct, what course is the right one. We’ll sort people into two groups—people who we always agree with and people we think will always be wrong—and then we don’t ever have to actually think about what anyone is saying ever again.

Of course, I’ve never known anyone who was either right or wrong 100% of the time.

But even as people take the lazier route and avoid thinking through the matter of right and wrong in a situation, I still believe they are trying to do what they think is right.

That probably seems like one of the less profound observations that I’ve ever made here, but I think it’s pretty commonly overlooked.

I think it’s more common to believe that those who are taking a position opposite our own are doing so because they are evil or stupid or out to get us, and that mistaken belief makes communication break down in some critical ways.

First, we stop listening. After all, why listen to evil, stupid people who are out to get us? However, my own observation over the years is that if someone has something important to tell me, and they don’t think I’m listening when they just talk, they will scream instead.

Second, we stop talking. After all, why try to explain yourself to evil, stupid people who are out to get you? Unfortunately, the chances that they will understand my concerns and my intentions when I’m not trying to explain myself are slim indeed.

So if other people really are trying to do the right thing, how can their right thing be so different from mine?

Sometimes it’s a matter of different values. For instance, America continues to have trouble finding a common view with some other cultures because we value an individual human life so much more than they do.

Often that differing value system extends to disagreements about The Right Thing itself. This is one of the hardest things about parenting. Virtually every major argument that I’ve ever had with my children (particularly since puberty) has not really been about what The Right Thing is—it has been about whether my idea of The Right Thing would prevail or not.

I have done extensive field research with my children. I have, on so many occasions that I’m ashamed to count them, stopped thinking of them as rational, reasonable human beings who wanted to do what was right as they saw it, and instead viewed them as willfully obtuse, wrongheaded little children who needed to be made to see things my way (AKA “the right way”).

I could say that I was perfectly happy to discuss the matter at hand with them, but what I really meant was that I’d be happy to talk to them just as soon as they acknowledged that I was standing up for what was right and they were being bullheaded for no good reason.

What I have had to learn, and relearn, is that as soon as I could unclench long enough to recognize that they were trying to do what was right as best they could see it, my house stopped feeling like a battlefield. At that point the real search for a Right Way that we could both live with could begin.

Believing that other people want to do the right thing doesn’t cost you a bit. You can still stand up for the right thing, as you see it, just as forcefully as you need to.

In fact, the third mistake is to think that since you’re stupid, evil, and out to get me, I had better not stand up for anything, but just try either to obliterate you or, failing that, pay any price for peace. My mistake here is to think that you are all of the problem, instead of part of the solution.

From my Flickr