30 September 2008

Legendary St. Louisan Stan Kann Dies

Because this is both a news site and a blog, I am able to write something that is meaningful and columnist-like, not just simple news. But it starts with sad news.

One of America's treasures has died.

Stan Kann grew up in St. Louis, and like any kid of his day, took music lessons which led to him playing in the orchestra at his alma mater high school, Soldan. He found his trade in music --- he was a born performer and showman. But what most people don't know outside of St. Louis unless they are dedicated to one particular form of music is that Stan Kann, who died Monday at age 83, was among the most prolific musical artists of his genre, not just of his generation.

It is true that many who read news on the internet regularly may not know the name Stan Kann. However, there is a group of Americans who know the man as a legendary "theatre organist" and will mark the passing of this short giant of a rare art form.

Stan Kann - the man - lived a long and somewhat storied life. In and out of the spotlight whether plying his trade by playing his music or simply having a conversation, he had a larger-than-life personality despite being short in stature. It was his smile, incomparable laugh, and fun personality that apparently struck someone in TV land just right. Mr. Kann's story would be incomplete without talking about his appearances on the "Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. On the tube he was Stan Kann the guy with a collection of vacuum cleaners which usually went comically haywire once they were plugged in for a demonstration. But unfortunately, Johnny and the Tonight Show Orchestra didn't have Stan play a theatre organ while guesting on the program. That means most of America never got to know one of the premiere musicians of the THEATRE. And when we say "theatre" in association with Stan Kann we don't mean the orchestra pits on Broadway --- but New York City played a part in his days as a "theatre organist".

In his younger days: Stan Kann had studied organ in St. Louis at Washington University, and when he visited Radio City Music Hall, he saw the massive theatre organ inside and made a mental note. The impression gave him an idea and upon his return to the gateway city he talked with the owner of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis and shortly thereafter became the regular organist. Most people who attended movies at the Fox from the 1950s through the 1970s, and again from the 1980s to the 21st Century when Kann was occasionally on the Fabulous Fox schedule, realized that Stan Kann could hold an audience spellbound through the magic of the mighty Wurlitzer organ with its ranks hidden deep behind the walls of the proud performance house. But one must realize that his talent to perform music along with a silent movie made him stand out. Yet, Stan gave even more of himself than just his musical talents. He was also the man who delivered the gag jokes for the audience --- as his boss and friend Mary Strauss would have him dress up in costumes which went with the them of the movies being shown. And his love of the laughs, the love of the theatre itself, and the heart he showed to his friends and acquaintences was evident nearly every week at the Fox Theatre. That's because he frequently worked as part of the staff who helped give public tours. It is obvious to most who knew Stan Kann that he would not and could not bring himself to actually retire because his work was never completely finished. There was always a plan for the next day, the next week, and the next weekend, if not further down the road.

It would be easy to stop any news article or column without discussing the organ with all its literal bells and whistles and drums and cymbals in addition to the hundreds of pipes, but it bears mentioning that to master the organ at the Fox one has to deal with a long delay of perhaps three or four seconds between the time you press the keys or the foot pedals and the time the sound actually comes out into the audience. It's like talking on the radio with a delay unit "on" all the time and wearing headphones listening to the delayed broadcast. It's NOT EASY.

Okay, when it comes to having known Stan Kann, I am one of the luckier ones. A person who grows up with music in their life will always appreciate it. I grew up with musical parents who just happened to know Stan Kann, so I was exposed to his performances my entire life. And I have heard hundreds of theatre organ performances by dozens of organists. The craft of playing the theater organ or theatre organ (you decide how you wish to spell it, but it'll always be theatre when I write it) is unique and --- many would say --- not easy to master. Stan Kann was more than a mere master at the organ in St. Louis and many of the other theatres worldwide. He could make it sing bigger than an entire orchestra. What he pulled out of the ranks and chambers could put you in a trance, with the exceptional personal compositions he played with a silent movie.

In fact, silent movies will NEVER be the same in St. Louis without Stan Kann. A memory I will treasure will be the time in 1989 when he performed for the silent movie "Phantom of the Opera" starring the late Lon Chaney. One of my friends was a fervent fan of the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the classic story - and I made sure to pointedly tell her to see this special event: it was the anniversary of the opening of the Fox. Stan had a musical treat planned, weaving his way through some of the Webber music in the pre-movie concert, also playing several of his favorites for the theatre organ --- mostly songs from the early 20th Century for an audience which may have been born and raised then. Although we attended separately, I saw my friend during the intermission and she was smiling. I knew I had help hook another person on the interpretation of the silent film whose score was being performed by Stan Kann. By the way, Stan Kann not only performed it --- he was the man who wrote the score.

Stan Kann was someone whom you could meet and find interesting and likeable. Some would say he was a bit quirky with his love of the unusual and antiques. But it is meant to be that one of the greatest memories St. Louisans will have --- if they were fortunate enough to catch Stan Kann in concert --- is that little guy at the keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Fox Theatre, making music surge throughout the seating, filling our nights with sounds that sometimes brought the silent pictures to life. Even if you never saw him perform for a silent film, and you saw him play the organ, you somehow knew you were witnessing something extraordinairy.

And so many in St. Louis, in Hollywood, and points across the U. S. were treated to his great talent at a keyboard, chiefly in a manner that gave people laughs and smiles. Stan Kann cannot be memorialized without adding that if you saw him once, you likely smiled wide for at least a long moment.


Sure, there will be some who label Stan Kann as a comic or silly man --- his vacuum cleaner joking was more than just a routine, it was part of who he was. But to many of us who knew the musician, Stan Kann will always be the best theatre organist who ever performed with a silent film.

22 September 2008

400 Mascoutah Owners Refile Proposal With Belleville

Two owners of a building in Belleville who had their proposal voted down once by aldermen, are coming back to the city with an altered-hours plan to open a neighborhood cafe. Angela Prosser and Mike Lieb have filed the paperwork and are hoping to see the proposed Cafe 400 through to the aldermanic council again, perhaps with a different result than the vote on September 15th. Just a couple of weeks ago the owners found out that their initial proposal to change the zoning on the big brick building and former bakery from a residential building to commercial had been approved by Belleville's zoning commission, setting up what turned out to be a lopsided vote by aldermen against the change. Neighborhood residents who went before the council were split about the use of the building as a commercial entity, but it appears that some in the area have softened on their stance, including some members of a local historic preservation group. Now, the couple is on hold to see whether the requested variance is allowed in the next series of votes. We'll keep you posted.

17 September 2008

New Belleville Cafe? Not Yet Says Council

When someone starts a news-intensive site or blog, you expect to hear from people when you openly ask for their stories. This story is about a building in Belleville which was built for a prominent business man around 100 years ago. More recently, the building was a tavern with a less-than-stellar reputation in its part of town. But it is also a story about those who purchased that same property with hopes to reopen the building as a nice neighborhood cafe. But it seems, also, to be about the awareness of the project and how it may be misunderstood by neighbors, city officials, and civic groups.

THE (not-so-abridged) STORY:

A recent Zoning Board recommendation in Belleville to the city's council was to approve the change of zoning to a building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue from residential to commercial. The full Belleville city council met on Monday, September 15,and after a discussion and public hearing in which two more residents spoke against the zoning change than in favor of the proposal --- the full board voted on the variance issue. Certainly the 4 - 2 vote by the zoning commission sounded favorable. However the owners of that building, which once housed a bakery a century ago, now have their hands full because the aldermanic council voted 14 to 1 AGAINST the variance which would have resulted in an operational neighborhood cafe.

For now, there sits a vacant historic building in a residential neighborhood.

Angela Prosser and Mike Lieb have names. They have an all-American dream to own their own business. They bought a large brick structure at 400 Mascoutah Avenue in Belleville with plans to fix up what was most recently a tavern that had run its course and transform the building into a local cafe. Unlike the tavern, they figured it would be easy to open in a nice neighborhood if they were serving sandwiches, soups, hot dogs, ice cream and other desserts, perhaps coffee and teas. Like any entrepreneurial group, they hope to make enough money to offset their plans which include the rehabilitation of the entire building so they may also live in the upstairs apartment. Angela told News St. Louis before the Monday night meeting that their plans had not yet stalled, but added that they ran into some opposition by select neighbors. She also said that in Bob Blaies and Paul Seibert, the two Ward Six alderman, they received no support.

Prosser says she and Lieb are apparently are not the only business people who have bought a property located within Belleville in recent months and found a possible flaw in local legislation. She maintains others with the same entrepreneurial spirit sought to purchase "empty commercial buildings (all over) in Belleville that can not be financed by...banks because of the zoning." And she maintains that many of those buildings "sit in limbo, unusable," and believes the reason is because "zoning laws changed" each commercial building to residential. In the case of the potential "Cafe 400", Angela Prosser says she and Mike Lieb "asked the city before we bought the building if there were any known issues --- and they said if we did not have a liquor license they saw no issue." It is her opinion that the city officials were saying "They thought it was a good idea." But now Prosser says they later were told by the city that since the property had been vacant for more than a year, 400 Mascoutah had automatically reverted to an "A1 residential property" and she adds that it was the aldermen who told them its status could not be changed. That proved to be the case at the aldermanic meeting --- although the board could have voted in favor of the zoning variance --- the recommendation of the zoning commission --- if they had felt the proposal was better than having the building stay vacant.

Back a few months, the couple looked into the situation. They studied the potential problems, addressed those issues with some of the neighbors, and, having taken the issue to the Zoning Commission recently, they received the commission's okay to put the issue before the full Belleville Council for a vote. That is the overwhelming "no" vote which took place on Monday evening.

As Mike and Angela pieced together plans to open the cafe, they came to realize that the large two-story building has historic value. Said Prosser, "The building is 3000 square feet. It was built in 1907 as a bakery for...the president of the Bakers' Union." She says it was that man's dream "to run his own bakery, as is it is ours to rehab his dream building and run it as a cafe."

Apparently that idea may be a problem to members of the group known as Citizens Reviving Historic Belleville. The local non-profit group's website MISSION STATEMENT is: "To protect, promote and share the wealth of our historical architecture and our unique cultural heritage." That statement sounds benign enough, but according to Prosser, at least one member of the historic group has been a voice against the renovating of the building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue.
It was the hope of both Lieb and Prosser that the public show up to the council meeting whether for or against their proposal and speak out on behalf of the idea of a local building being used for a small neighborhood business. Their theory is that most people would agree that it is time to renew the city's neighborhoods with small businesses that serve the locals.

Apparently 14 Belleville aldermen/alderwomen don't agree.

It's back to the drawing board for Lieb and Prosser.

Two Belleville area residents hoping to open a neighborhood cafe in an historic building had their proposal go before the city council on Monday night and came up empty. Angela Prosser and Mike Lieb bought the century-old brick building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue and told News St. Louis before the aldermanic meeting that they had run into opposition by some, including Ward Six supporters of ongoing historic preservation. Prosser says the zoning commission recently gave preliminary approval to have the former bakery re-zoned commercial following a stage "in limbo" as a residential building because the property sat vacant for more than one year. Although she hoped for public support of Cafe 400, Prosser and Lieb found the majority of residents who attended and spoke out were against their proposed neighborhood-based small business. The two owners are now considering their options, including resubmitting their plans following a revision of the proposed hours of operation.

We'll keep you posted.

14 September 2008

Ike's Rain Causes Flooding, Damage

It was a slightly altered path from what the National Weather Service storm forecasters had thought, but the remnants of what had been Hurricane-then-Tropical Storm-then-Tropical Depression Ike, dumped enough rain upon the bi-state region to cause water rescues, lane restrictions and highway closures --- and that is not leaving those hundreds of flooded basements uncounted.

The rain gauges in Farmington showed over one-point-three inches of rain, while those in the metropolitan St. Louis area ranged from 2.95 inches in Pacific to 5.25 inches in Edwardsville. Near Affton, the torrential downpours left enough water in the basements of older homes to cause residents to dig channels around their dwellings during the peak of the storm Sunday morning. Water rescues on roads were reported by numerous area fire and emergency personnel, including in Brentwood and along River Des Peres Boulevard just west of Gravois along what is usually a quiet creek with an oversized path. Sunday morning, River Des Peres was so full that some residents noted they had "never seen" the runoff produce what was described as "white water rapids".

The National Weather Service office in St. Louis says a Flood Warning remains in effect on the area rivers until further notice, with major flooding expected along the Meramec River at Valley Park and at Arnold, as well as the Missouri River at St. Charles, and the Illinois River at Hardin.

There is good news for those who had a basement full of flooded possessions: Sunny days and clear nights are predicted for the period through next Sunday in St. Louis. That should allow enough time for residents to air out those wet "important papers" in drenched cardboard boxes.

06 September 2008

Browsing Around the web

Tonight, as I read through myspace, I looked at my friends' bulletins. One caught my eye, from myFoxSTL.com --- former Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda has died. Sometimes one gets away from the news for a few hours --- in this case most of today. It pains me to hear this news, as the former Kirkwood mayor had been the lone bright spot in a terrible historic moment.

If you want to view their version of the story, go to www.myfoxstl.com

Mike Swoboda survived the gunfire at Kirkwood City Hall on February 7th, 2008, even though he sustained two gunshot wounds to the head. He battled back and made it to a council meeting in April. If you read the myfoxstl story, you'll see that he apparently had been battling cancer.

Rest In Peace, Mr. Mayor.

Just below the line:
By the way --- congratulations to John Brown of Fox 2 who joins KTRS for the early afternoon shift - 12 pm to 3 pm. He replaces Mark Christopher in that time period, ahead of the Large Morning Show In The Afternoon featuring Frank O. Pinion.

MUSIC: Who says you can't have your Squeeze? Apparently, nobody bothered to tell some of us that the legendary UK-based group was in town at The Pageant the other night. Reeling from this stark realization, one local (and unnamed) scribe was quoted as saying "And to think that I actually had a stain on my notebook from where my girlfriend's coffee cup had been and I didn't think to look at the concert schedule the past several weeks...great...next thing you'll tell me is that Brian Wilson released a new CD."
Um...yup, that, too! Lucky Old Sun is already in stores, as well.

Health Insurance - SAD Story In Post-Dispatch

It was not my intent to make commentary upon these pages until the stories were well established. However, reading the following story made me want to make a simple statement. What happened in the following story should never happen in the United States of America. But it did, and does regularly, because of a lack of true healthcare --- a result of the insurance industry being more about profits than any kind of CARE.

From the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Savvy Consumer column (you'll understand why it comes from the column when you read it) and online at www.stltoday.com comes this story:


05 September 2008

Thanks For Viewing

I'd love to say that I worked really hard yesterday to create news content for today, but I cannot lie. However, I did get some leads for some news stories which we will be presenting here soon.
Write your friends and tell them about this site if they have any news items they'd like to have printed here.
Thanks again for checking us out. We will be posting more soon!

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