Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Auction attendees are filled with patience, passion

All I need to hear as I approach a sale site is the amplified monotone of the auctioneer and my adrenaline level goes into overdrive. Auction fever is in my blood.

My mother started taking me to sales when I was quite small, and she would always stay 'til the end when the box lots were knocked down. I must have learned something about patience then, because I have sat through heat and hunger on uncomfortable chairs for hours waiting for a particular item to come up.

Some sales stand out for the record prices they bring in. One summer day in 1991, I watched as men from Roan's Auction Gallery in Cogan Station loaded their van in front of Dr. Paul Corman's house next to the library. Catching a glimpse of his collection of Americana, I knew this would be a great sale -- and it was. A painted blanket chest went for $22,000, a shield-back side chair for $14,000, and a decorated 1816 birth certificate for $3,100.

I bought an art deco clock that didn't work, testing the first rule of auctions: Everything is sold "as is."

A three-day sale at the Knorr estate in Stormstown in 1999 was so big it attracted a TV crew. I watched a suit of Japanese armor go for $10,000 and a ceramic frog go up to $3,000 until a bidder came out of nowhere and ran it up to $4,200 before disappearing into the crowd.

Another rule of the auction: Don't get into a bidding war.

I arrived at the Struble sale in Zion last summer intending to take a look at a Stickley corner-cupboard listed in the sale bill. After finding my way to Zion Back Road in the rain and walking down a muddy lane, I was too late for the furniture preview and, unfortunately, did not return the next day to see the cupboard go for $390,000, a figure that took even the auctioneers completely by surprise. Word traveled around town faster than speeders trying to beat the light at Allegheny and Linn.

Buyers are well educated these days. Online auctions, "Antiques Roadshow" and more books on collecting than you can shake an ivory-topped walking stick at have made experts out of everyone. They know their apple-butter stirrers from their butter paddles, their spongeware from their spatterware, their dough trays from their dry sinks.

Which brings up the third rule of auctions: Do your homework.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Garman's future may mirror its bright past

News of a possible expansion of the Garman Opera House movie theater adds another facet to the architectural gem I first saw as a diamond in the rough during the summer of 1991.

Leigh Melander, a singer and actress from State College, had been given a grant from the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association to produce a one-woman show based on a fictional character's memories of performances at the Garman. I was part of a committee to look over the site.

The back wall of exposed brick was painted over in spots with an advertisement for a minstrel show. A 15-foot step ladder dominated the empty stage, lit only by a ghost light, the single light bulb that superstitious stage managers leave burning so the theater ghosts don't play around with the props. Unlike Schwab Auditorium on campus, which has three of them, I'd never heard of a ghost at the Garman.

I remember thinking the stage was perfect for site-specific theater, the newest thing off-Broadway. So why not in Bellefonte?

"Theatre of the Heart" would be performed in the actual abandoned theater where the original performances on which it was based had taken place.

From her entrance, wearing a filmy gown that looked as if it had been pulled from a costume trunk backstage, Leigh ran through a history of the opera house that would have made Daniel Garman proud.

Her character, referred to in the script as Spirit of Theatre, welcomed the audience with the words:

"Finally, you're here. ... I've sat in my beautiful, empty theater feeling myself decay along with it, with only old playbills and several generations of pigeons to keep me company, and I've been angry."

So there was a ghost of the Garman, after all.

Leigh's monologue referred to actors such as Frank Mayo, famous for playing Davy Crockett; the Lilliputian Comedy Company presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Tom Thumb; and local residents such as General Hastings, who presented a thrilling lecture, "Reminiscences of the Johnstown Flood."

Melodramas such as "Ten Nights in a Barroom" were popular, as well as historical dramas like "Shenandoah" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Musical numbers recalled the eclectic taste of Victorian-era audiences from the pathos of "An Hour Too Late" to the titillation of "You Naughty Naughty Men."

The words of Col. Jack Spangler, quoted from his opening night speech in the Democratic Watchman on Sept. 12, 1890, have a prophetic ring:

"Long after we are gone, this beautiful edifice will stand here, a source of pleasure to our posterity and a beautiful monument to its builder."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The time is ripe for farmers' markets

The farmers' market on Allegheny and Howard streets is in full swing.

Last Saturday's stands held bushels of corn, quarts of blueberries, heaps of bell peppers, beans, beets, cucumbers and zucchini, onions and eggplants, potatoes and cabbage -- a whole cornucopia of fresh food everyone has been waiting for after the long dry spell.

We've gotten so used to our growing season that any departure seems like an imposition. The vendors at the market would just smile when people asked when they were going to dig potatoes or pick corn. When they're ready, seemed to be the stock answer.

These folks know all about the seasons and the uncertainty of having everything ripe according to a schedule.

Food writers for the past several years have been sprinkling their prose with words such as "seasonal," "fresh" and "local" like so much chopped cilantro. Their reference point is mostly California, where something is always in season. But there is not much that is seasonal in central Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, which is why summer's bounty seems that much more of a blessing.

Anyone who grew up during food rationing in the 1940s understands the struggle to produce food for a family from a home victory garden. I remember those times too well.

My mother would hire a team to plow up the whole back lot, rent out some of the space, then commandeer my sister and brothers into the work of planting, weeding, picking off beetles and, finally, lugging baskets of produce to the kitchen door for canning.

We had a coal-fired cookstove then, so the kitchen was an inferno. There was barely a breeze to stir the fly ribbons dangling from the ceiling. In this heat we would scald the tomatoes and skin them, or snip the beans and slice them before they were packed into jars and subjected to a boiling time that stretched to the supper hour, by which time no one even felt like eating.

I was disillusioned not long ago to find out that collecting all that tin foil and bacon fat during the war was just a way to make people feel useful. The lessons of the victory garden, however, will always be with me.

Until the self-anointed (with triple virgin olive oil) high priests and priestesses of food come down to Earth and get their hands dirty, their words are wasted on me.

Forget the heirloom and the organic, just give me a good, ripe tomato -- soon.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Too bad chapeaus are now old hat

A video at the Historical Museum, "Bellefonte 1940," shows scenes of people entering and leaving different churches in town on a single Sunday morning. All the women and girls are wearing hats.

Times change. Scanning the packed pews of well-dressed worshippers at St. John's recently, I saw no hats at all.

It has been some years since the relaxation of the rule that women must cover their heads in church, but I can remember how strictly the nuns at our school observed it. In a pinch, I would have to bobby-pin a crumpled tissue to the top of my head.

Some authorities date the decline of hats to the lowering of automobile roofs, others to the beehive hairdo -- neither of which could accommodate a hat of any size. The informality of modern life is probably another factor, but whatever the cause, hats largely disappeared from the fashion scene by the end of the '60s.

A census report at the library from 1880 lists 10 milliners in the borough, when the population was just more than 3,000. Hatmaking was a respected business in this town.

Locals may recall Nelle Flack, who sold hats from the Katz Clothing Store on South Allegheny Street or Peg Sciabica, who ran a hat shop out of her home on East High Street.

When I helped set up a hat show at the Bellefonte Museum two summers ago, I thought of the women in town who were defined by their hats. Jean McGarvey, for instance, wore hats that had a certain defiant air, like Jean herself, from exclusive shops such as Mary Sachs in Harrisburg. Mrs. Covey wore flowered hats in a more romantic tradition. I never knew the lady from Logan Street who owned the blue cartwheel, but she had great style.

The specialty stores are gone, but FaithCentre Thrift Store has a few vintage hats on display. And the Plaza Centre has many more.

Victorian Rose has handmade Victorian hats from a company in California that has been making them for three generations. They look like confections, deliciously trimmed with feathers, ribbons and lace.

Carol Walker, owner of Victorian Rose, thinks hats are coming back. Recently, a bride sent out wedding invitations requesting that all female guests wear hats.

And there are now seven groups of the Red Hat Society in Bellefonte alone.

If the revolution arrives, I am ready. After selling more than 50 hats at my yard sale last summer and donating bags full to the thrift store, I still have about a 100 left.