On Jan. 30, 2012, I started working for MLive Media Group as a city and county government reporter in Bay City. An automatically updated list of my stories is here.
Published March 26, 2008 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
Vogue magazine showed up in my mailbox yesterday, courtesy of the subscription my teenage daughter got for her birthday. Granted James is far larger than a 16, but the subhead said models and athletes were being featured, and he looked like the athlete he is.
Apparently everyone doesn’t think so. Shortly after I started hearing about how the scowling black man holding the tiny white blonde made people think of King Kong, and how racist Vogue was. Some quotes, courtesy of The Associated Press:
Vogue spokesman Patrick O’Connell said the magazine “sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game.”
Magazine analyst Samir Husni called the photo deliberately provocative, adding that it “screams King Kong.” Covers are not something that the magazine does in a rush, he said. “So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it’s not innocent.”
Lebron James told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer he was pleased with the cover, saying he was “just showing a little emotion.
“Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way,” James told the paper. “Who cares what anyone says?”
Here’s the cover. Do you find it racist? Or are some people hypersensitive?
Published June 2, 2007 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
As the time for the opening evening of the Matrix:Midland Festival approached, the parking lot was packed and people flowed into the Midland Center for the Arts, with quite a few carrying books under their arms and others stopping at the sale table inside. Anyone who wondered how many fans the Food Network’s Alton Brown had could stop.
The auditorium was very nearly full, and Brown seemed impressed as he peered out. “Wow. Who’s manning the town?”
He said his interest in cooking began as a way to impress women, starting with his mother and aunts, meandering through some ill-fated college attempts and resting now on a 7-year-old girl. He asked for a show of hands of dads with girls.
“I have taken it upon myself in the last year to amaze my daughter and her friends,” he said. That of course would lead to the world of candy, upon which kids would spend thousands of dollars a day if they could, he said including his daughter, who claims to have a regular stomach and a sugar stomach.
Brown was exactly as one would expect from the “Good Eats” show he writes and hosts, quick with the banter and tossing off facts and references as he went. Early on he took away a video camera and briefly shut it in the refrigerator, then admired the way the pots made different sounds on the cooktop burners “It’s like the Blue Man Group.”
Shortly afterward the cameraman lost part of his gear and Brown scolded him, saying, “You be more careful in the kitchen” and stuffing the pack back in the man’s pocket.
He turned back and pointed to the pocket. “Bam,” he said, to a roar.
“Actually, legally I can’t say that,” he said. “It’s copyrighted.”
A sugar mixture was in need of vanilla, and he refused to use a knife to split the vanilla bean, turning instead to a bean frencher “It is NOT a unitasker,” he insisted then pondered selling the tools online. He tucked the one he had just used aside, saying he would list it on eBay and his mother would buy it.
A quick survey of the number of scientists in the audience and some chalkboard work led to a drawing linking glucose and fructose. “Disaccharides,” several in the audience shouted before Brown could make it that far, and he tossed his chalk into the air. The discussion continued, but the battle was on. “So then you all know, certainly, because you were just sitting at your centrifuge this afternoon,” he began at one point.
Candy comes down to the percentage of sucrose in syrup, he explained, and because measuring this was difficult without a laboratory, the ball stages of candymaking were developed. The mixtures were to reach 300 degrees, 240 degrees and 170 degrees not even a syrup and would make completely different candies.
The 240-degree mixture was poured into gelatin in a mixer and turned on for 15 minutes. When it was done and poured out into a pan, he swapped it for one that had set for hours and set about turning it out of the pan.
At least, that was the plan. First he objected to the white board offered by his assistant, Tammy Cook, who travels with him and develops and tests all the recipes for “Good Eats.” No one would be able to see the white candy on the white board, he said.
Instead, Brown turned the candy out onto the black stage floor. At least, he tried. Several failed attempts led to his peeling the mixture out of the pan, dropping it onto the floor and cutting it into squares. He tossed many of the homemade marshmallows into the crowd, but it was hard because they kept sticking to his hand.
Undaunted, he turned to the next mixture, listing as he went. “Red food coloring. Overcooked sugar solution,” he said, noting it wasn’t supposed to be brown, and wouldn’t have been had the marshmallows cooperated.
No matter. A whisk with the end cut off did its work, and he whipped the mixture back and forth across the backs of two chairs, spinning barely visible threads of fairy floss cotton candy. The audience was charmed by the nearly magical presentation.
“I guarantee you, you show up to your daughter’s kindergarten class doing this, there ain’t no following that,” Brown said.
Now it was time for the 170-degree mixture, which was for ice cream. There was fat content and its effect on crystallization to be considered, sure. But that wasn’t the coolest part.
“I’m intrinsically lazy,” Brown announced, plunking his pot of dairy ingredients at the front of the stage. “I do however have a deep abiding love of ice cream. And I have access to liquid nitrogen.”
A cheer went up as his assistant poured in two quarts. “This is about controlling crystals with temperature, it’s not about having fun with chemicals,” he chided.
Again, there was a small hiccup. As the mixtures first were crafted there was a difference of opinion about the sugar needs, and too much went into the ice cream mixture. This of course meant more liquid nitrogen was needed, and the cloud spilled over the edge of the stage.
“I can’t feel anything from my waist down,” he said. But they kept pouring because the mixture had to freeze and, he said, it’s not like they could take the rest of the liquid nitrogen back on the plane.
A suitable soft-serve mixture finally resulted. And leftover liquid nitrogen? It was poured onto a marshmallow, which then was thrown down and broken on the floor. “Do you dare me?” Brown asked before popping a piece into his mouth. Then he turned to look at his work.
“Look at the stage. I trashed the place,” he said, laughing.
No one cared. He rocked the place.
Extra content published at www.ourmidland.com:
People were invited to scream out questions during Brown’s presentation, and occasionally obliged. They certainly weren’t shy about showing their feelings at any point.
Candy comes in two types, he said early on, chocolate and sugar but there would be no chocolate tonight. The audience responded with a despondent “Ohh,” and Brown hung his head. “Enjoy the festival. I’ll send Hall and Oates out early,” he said.
Conversation it truly felt like conversation was wide-ranging and off the cuff, and his onstage assistant scolded him at one point for talking about bathrooms and food at the same time.
“They’re scientists. They like cause and effect,” he protested. “Where else can you read all those scientific journals?”
Science was in heavy play during the evening, with talk about enzymes, proteins and forcing particles between sucrose molecules to keep crystals from forming. Brown was pleased finally to stump his audience with a question What is the difference between light and dark corn syrup? and did a small dance of glee before noting that dark corn syrup has a small amount of molasses, and therefore some acidity.
As he stirred the 240-degree syrup into gelatin, he called it his napalm, to a few more “Ohhs” from the audience. He might not have gotten the Dow Chemical connection but explained his reference: “This stuff sticks to you, you cry.”
He definitely picked up on the connection to sponsor Dow Corning, though, when an audience member asked why he was using an oiled metal spatula to scrape a mixture out of a metal bowl. He quickly grabbed another spatula, had his assistant spray it behind his back, and sang the praises of his new silicone spatula, and gosh who makes this wonderful stuff, he would just have to buy lots of stock on Monday.
The mixture needed to chill before using, so he did a swapout in the refrigerator, to applause. He chided the audience for being so pleased about a swapout 40 minutes into the show. Emeril Lagasse lives off swapouts, he pointed out, dishing on fellow Food Network stars to people’s delight. So does Rachael Ray, he said, but then it’s like this, as he stuck out his rear to full effect.
“I’m gonna lose my jo-ob,” he sang.
When the liquid nitrogen ice cream making didn’t go quite as planned, Brown warned the people in the front row to stand up if they felt lightheaded. No, really; the gas is heavy and would displace regular air low to the ground. He performed a mock faint himself for effect.
An invitation to ask questions at microphones stationed at both sides of the auditorium led to growing lines, more than half children, prompting Brown to wonder when their bedtimes were. He was generally polite, but felt free to ask, for example, if the woman with the glucose allergy had seen a doctor or been self-diagnosed.
Some of the questions:
From a 14-year-old boy recalling that Brown began cooking to impress women: “What was the recipe that worked best?”
Actually, he had a meal one, a meal two and “the closer,” he said. Fish works well, he said, particularly recommending sole au gratin florentine.
“Many of the leftover ingredients could be used for breakfast,” he said slyly. “Never worked.”
Can honey be used in candy? Yes, but it can’t be substituted in regular recipes because it crystallizes differently; recipes specifically for honey are needed.
“You seem to dis regular salt,” a girl told him, asking what makes kosher salt, well, kosher?
Koshering salt has to be able to cling to something to draw out blood, so the size and shape of the flakes are different, he said. “I like working with it because you can pinch it and hold onto it.”
Is there a fast way to make ice cream if you don’t have access to liquid nitrogen?
“Do you have a younger brother? Smaller monkey, perhaps?”
To speed the process somewhat, he suggested making sure the base is as cold as possible. He puts his in the freezer for a couple of hours.
This led to a question about dry ice. Brown said he has taken an ice cream machine and thrown in pieces of dry ice, but it had a carbonizing effect. “It was like Zot ice cream.”
ON OTHER STUFF:
Is another book coming out soon? Yes, in early 2008. He is writing a book based on the “Feasting on Asphalt” Mississippi River tour that will air beginning in August, and it will include 14 recipes.
What is his favorite color and how does it play into a hobby? That would be the egg yolk yellow BMW motorcycle that shows up in said river tour.
Does Brown have any training in acting? Yes, a college degree in theater, he said, adding he has performed Shakespeare on two continents.
Is there any food he just can’t stand? No, but he did have a bad experience with curried lamb eyes. “I was OK with the eye, until I got the lens stuck between my teeth.”
BEHIND THE SCENES:
Has Brown ever subbed out a food before eating it on the show? Yes, in the soup on the show devoted to oysters, because he has an oyster intolerance.
Is “Elton” on “Good Eats” really his nephew? Nope, an actor named John. Brown doesn’t have a sister, even. But daughter Zoe does appear in some upcoming episodes.
Has he made mistakes? Of course, he said, often with sauces, such as some “nasty marinades” and “positively wretched salad dressings.”
Any fires? “I’ve had grease fires, I’ve had butter fires, I’ve had alcohol fires. I’ve burned them all.”
Who is his best friend on the Food Network? He thought hard and said he had to be careful about his answer.
“I would call Bobby Flay and Mario Batale friends,” he decided. “And I would say they’re the best cooks on the network. But that’s just me.”
On “Iron Chef America,” for which Brown provides commentary, is Jeffrey Steingarten as much of a jerk as he seems? And do the Iron Chefs ever get upset at the judges’ comments?
Brown said Steingarten is one of the best food writers he knows, and sometimes he is frank but he is a very nice person. As for the chefs, they have long careers and didn’t get where they are by becoming unhinged over a critic’s comments.
What was his funniest moment on air? Well, he’s really not the best judge.
“I have a bad sense of humor that has to be monitored by others,” he said.
His wife is president of the company and can watch taping on a monitor in her office down the hall, he said. Occasionally the door bursts open during taping and it’s her shouting, “NO!”
Have there been any emergencies? 911 only has been called twice, he said no, make that once; the other time they just drove very quickly.
An ambulance was called when a giant brass diving helmet fell on a camera operator’s head in an Atlanta seafood restaurant.
Brown was the injured party in an early chocolate episode called “The Art of Darkness.” In the scene where he is sitting on bags of beans in a San Francisco chocolate factory, the reason he is seen only in profile and why the person he’s talking to keeps shooting him sidelong glances is because there is blood running down the other side of his face and he keeps trying to lick it away. He ran into a garage door and the resulting cut was held together with duct tape during taping.
What is his favorite food to prepare? His favorite part about working in a kitchen?
“My favorite part of working in a professional kitchen is having other people to wash,” he said.
He enjoys cooking, doing a lot of it at home. Eggs in particular he finds magical.
Cooks should have the same rule as doctors, he noted: Do no harm.
What is Brown’s favorite “Good Eats” episode? He doesn’t have one now, but until a couple of years ago this would have been his answer: “We did a show that was all about garlic that was seen through the eyes of a vampire.”
What was his favorite food on last summer’s “Feasting on Asphalt” four-part series?
At Ted’s Flatbread in Colorado, a dish called the Tourist Killer Navajo flatbread “with like four Coney Island hot dogs stacked on it. It was so wrong.”
What is his favorite grilled food? Marinated skirt steak, cooked right on the coals for 2 minutes on each side, then wrapped in foil for 20 minutes so the connective tissue breaks down.
What is his favorite costume he has worn on the air? The suicide flower.
Another is coming, though, as Brown realized the spinach show hasn’t aired yet. “When that comes on, you want to see that.” Watch for Popeye.
What is his favorite prop? “Oh. The giant squid arm.”
The only reason to keep doing squid recipes, he said, is to amortize the cost of the prop. He expects to be buried in it.
What is his favorite candy? That was a stumper. “I’m a user,” he admitted. “A really good caramel is hard to beat.”
Published May 31, 2007 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
The Matrix:Midland Festival kicks off with a bang Friday night, or at least some liquid nitrogen, as the Food Network’s Alton Brown brings “Crystals in the Kitchen: The Effects of Extreme Temperature” to the stage.
Brown created, writes and hosts “Good Eats,” which brings cooking, science and history to bear on subjects as specific as the olive. The decade he spent as a cinematographer and video director before culinary school is evident in his appliance cameras and creative props, such as the cutaway cow.
When reached last Thursday, Brown had been hard at work writing and editing for “Feasting on Asphalt.”
Last year’s four-part series, “a cross-country motorcycle trip that was about road food,” went from east to west, he said. “This time we went up the entire length of the Mississippi River, south to north.”
They spent 30 days — “The motorcycle is of course the finest way to travel,” he said — and returned May 18. The results will air for six weeks at 9 p.m., starting the first Saturday in August.
In Midland, he’ll be whipping up summer recipes in unusual fashion. Told that many local demonstrations of liquid nitrogen’s properties involve turning bananas into hammers, he replied, “That’s not very tasty.” And not the best use of materials.
“It’s a lot more fun to soak a graham cracker in liquid nitrogen and feed it to your dog,” he said. “You can only do it a few times before he decides it’s really cold and uncomfortable.”
He will be showing different ways controlling sugar changes the way its acts in food, such as how freezing periods affect crystal growth — hence the liquid nitrogen.
“It’s best way to make ice cream I know. You can make 5 gallons of ice cream in about a minute,” he said. “I use it a lot.”
Honestly? “Well, you know, if you’ve got a good supply of inert gas,” he said.
Storage seems to puzzle some people, he noted. “It’s kind of odd to take something that’s 300 degrees below zero and put it in your freezer.”
As for the rest of his demonstration, “Let’s just say we are dealing with foods that are very popular that no one makes for themselves.”
Told a publicist might have mentioned cotton candy, he feigned indignation. “I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of fairy floss.”
In addition to his “Good Eats” duties, Brown serves as expert commentator for the “Iron Chef America” competition show, also on Food Network. He has written three books, including the James Beard Award-winning “I’m Just Here for the Food,” and regularly contributes to Bon Appetit and Men’s Journal magazines.
Despite the regular appearance of food processors on “Good Eats,” Brown reaches for his own “probably 10 times a year,” he said. His daughter loves hummus, definitely a food processor food.
He also uses it to grate cheese, make pesto and chop nuts. The cutting board is avoided because of his daughter’s peanut allergy. And when that topic arises, again he turns to science.
“What happened that all of a sudden made all of these violent allergies come up in our gene pool?” he asked. “The fact that this exists now is extremely curious to me.”
His favorite new gadget is a panini press he got for his wife. He doesn’t really need it to press sandwiches — two cast iron skillets work fine for that. No, he’s been using it for other foods, such as asparagus and Cornish hen.
Truly. First the birds are butterflied. Then, because he wants extra pressure, a bungee cord and the kitchen cabinet handles come into play, producing quite crispy poultry.
When it comes to gadgetry, he said he tends to lock on to things that control temperature. “Immersion circulators are really cool,” for example, and make perfect three-minute eggs.
Which is not to say he doesn’t appreciate an open flame when appropriate. “I like to crank up the grill; I’m a man,” he said. “Fire good.”
When asked his favorite type of food, he insisted he’s not picky.
“Just cook the food right. I don’t have to make orange juice Tabasco caviar,” he said. “Buy the steak, don’t mess up the steak, eat the steak.”
The real power in food for him is not in the power to impress, Brown said.
“It’s the ability to connect people. Connect people to each other, to their heritage. It’s connective tissue.”
Brown’s demonstration begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Midland Center for the Arts auditorium. Tickets are $30 and $34 through the MCFTA box office, www.mcfta.org, (989) 631-8250 or (800) 523-7649.
Published April 11, 2007 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
So you’re headed to a baseball game at Dow Diamond, and thinking of making tailgating part of the event.
You’ll have to depart just a little from the traditional tailgate. For one, thanks to the Liquor Control Commission, no outside alcohol can be brought onto Loons property.
And grills? “I don’t know that that would be encouraged,” said Patti Tuma, office manager, because of the team’s own concessions.
Not to worry. Pack a few juices instead and take a creative approach to the picnic basket — and plan for a little prep work.
Greg Lopez, a Daily News food columnist, suggested panini — grilled sandwiches of Italian origin. They can be filled with cold sliced meats, topped with tomatoes and then grilled on a special press for a few minutes before popping into foil and packing.
Baguette sandwiches are “perfect for picnics,” he said. “They can be filled with a nice smoked ham and Swiss cheese accompanied by some nice mustard.”
Pastrami and corned beef are other options, he said, but must be kept cool. Ham and cheese will be OK for a while, but chicken salad should be brought only in a cooler with ice.
Wraps also are a good choice, Lopez said, especially now that tortillas are being sold specifically for that purpose at local supermarkets. “They can be filled with all sorts of grilled chicken or fajitas with salad. They are also perfect for vegetarian fillings.”
And while we’re on vegetables, don’t forget to toss them onto the sandwiches, even hoagies or subs. The Farmers Market will have fresh tomatoes later this summer, he said. In the meantime turn to grocery stores, and try something new — maybe avocado slices on sandwiches. Vegetable trays are nice sides, too.
Fresh pasta salads came to mind for Gar Winslow, owner of Eastman Party Store. Or there’s the picnic classic — bread and cheese.
“This time of year, we’d say take some cheese and breads and keep it simple,” Winslow said.
What kind? “Aged gouda would be fun,” he said. Jarlsberg or Cheddars also would work, he said, while brie wouldn’t because it requires utensils.
Or try fresh mozzarella on a baguette, with fresh tomato slices and basil.
“Just sort of pile it on and make a real quick sandwich that way. Maybe some sliced salamis,” he suggested.
Olives are a nice addition, he said.
For the bread, Winslow suggested baguettes, “good and crusty,” or Italian ciabatta.
“I would be happy with that. And a bag of licorice,” he said.
Kate Mass, another Daily News food columnist, suggested stacked sandwiches.
“Just a plain round unsliced loaf of bread at Meijer you could use,” she said. “You could go with a sandwich theme and go with like any kind of stacked sandwiches.”
Calzones or pasties could be brought if kept warm. And for dessert? “Regular cookies; they’re very portable.”
Mass also suggested a meat pie, such as an Italian Easter pie. This recipe is from her cookbook, expected out later this year.
Turkey Turkey Picnic Pie
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, chopped fine
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup cooking sherry
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 pound ground turkey ham
1/2 cup saltine cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon yellow salad mustard
Purchased ready-to-use double pie crusts
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter in a heavy skillet. Add onion and garlic, and cook until onions are soft. Add sherry and boil until alcohol is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Turn into a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly with your hands as for meat loaf. Turn into a 9-inch pie pan fitted with the bottom prepared crust and pat to form to the shape of the pan. Top with the upper crust. If you want to be fancy, cut leaf-shaped pieces of crust and decorate. Bake for an hour. Cool on a rack and refrigerate until you’re ready to go. This pie can go in its pan. Serves 8.
Published June 11, 2004 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
I’ve gone to art exhibits for decades, but this was a new one. People were enjoying the art by lying on their backs in the center of a round green room, speaking a few words, giggling and rolling out of the way for someone else to have a turn.
Welcome to “Ixilum,” one of five luminaria that tour the world, currently residing at the Midland Center for the Arts through Monday as part of the Matrix:Midland Festival.
From the outside it looks like a carnival moonwalk, and visitors are prompted to remove their shoes and keep any sharp objects to themselves. Most spend about 20 minutes inside the vinyl sculpture, I was told.
Fair warning: I took my children, Joshua, 11, and Heather, 10, after school Thursday. We stayed for an hour. Take the kids, take the adults — it’s that cool.
From the map, it didn’t seem like it could fill even 20 minutes. There was the blue maze room — not much of a maze, really — branching off into the red column and green column rooms, the centre chamber, belle chamber and tree. Low-key space music played softly.
At first, we just admired the way the daylight, even through the clouds, shone through the brightly colored walls and ceiling. But many side pockets that look like perfect picnicking sites were too inviting to ignore, so we sat, even though no one else did — at first. It turns out that part of the fun is choosing a vantage point from which you can see down several tunnels and watch other people interact with the luminarium.
The highlight for us was the tree, red with a yellow canopy. As soon as we saw the “branches,” we wished we could go “upstairs.”
Upstairs came to us, it turns out. The blowers that keep the sculpture inflated vary, so the top of the tree bends down in the wind, eventually dropping the branches to chest height.
“Breathe, my tree, breathe,” Heather declared dramatically as the branches dropped around her. Parents beckoned to small children and lifted them through the holes to peek into the chamber’s upper reaches before the blowers raised them again. Toward the end of our visit, a grown man stood enjoying the rise and fall of branches, and grinned sheepishly when I walked into the chamber and caught him.
The centre chamber’s elegant green dome was another favorite. In the very center — look for the circle on the floor — there is an echo effect only the speaker can hear. Off this chamber there are eight pockets and four paths, and it is easy to see how idle wandering and pauses can happily occupy a lot of time.
“Don’t you wish you could live in here?” Joshua asked.
Realizing we were unlikely to see such a thing again, the children asked to go through the rooms once more. Wait, it became twice more, winding around the photography students, visitors and outright loungers who dotted the place.
At $6 for adults and $3 for students, Ixilum is well worth the price. If Matrix organizers have a list of potential repeat events, we hope they add this one.
Published June 8, 2004 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
Daylight and vinyl combine for something entirely different, as the Matrix:Midland Festival hosts “Architects of Air Luminarium — Ixilum.”
Artist Alan Parkinson said the sculpture arose from “a combination of circumstances from about 20 years ago,” as he was working on inflatable structures and saw something that inspired him to create an architectural piece.
Ixilum is one of five structures that tour the world for visitors to walk through. It rises to 26 feet at its highest point and is 131 feet long by 131 feet wide.
“The principal motivator for me was that I love the particular experience of luminosity when you go inside this totally enclosed environment,” Parkinson said.
Once he has built a structure, he almost immediately begins thinking about what to do differently for the next one, he said. From start to finish it takes about a year, with three to four weeks of exacting design work to get the templates right. Ixilum took about three months to build in a workshop, using 6,000 individual pieces of plastic and about 30 seams.
The actual setting up of a structure is “quite light in technical support,” he said, and takes about six hours. All the elements get zipped together and pinned down, then the blowers are turned on. Ixilum takes about half an hour to inflate.
“One of the principal influences is the Islamic arch. There’s kind of like a modular element to Ixilum that functions to me like an Oriental bazaar,” Parkinson said. “Where the paths intersect there’s usually a very ornate dome that can be quite beautiful.”
Visitors experience “a very nice sense of disorientation,” he said, but there’s no danger of getting lost. Maps on primary color paper are provided.
“People are constantly surprised and often awestruck by the luminosity and the brilliance of light inside,” Parkinson said. “And the elements that create it are just so simple. It’s just daylight and vinyl.”
Ixilum is wheelchair accessible. Strollers are not allowed; small children must be carried in arms and all children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Average time spent inside the maze is 20 minutes. Tours run every half hour from noon to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Tickets are $6 and available at 631-8250 or www.mcfta.org.
Published June 1, 2003 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
You may have watched performers haul people out of the audience and onto a stage and thought, “They set that up ahead of time.”
I assure you, no one called me and asked if a bunch of Flaming Idiots could throw knives around my daughter, Heather. But after winning a growling competition against two other girls in the Matrix:Midland audience Saturday night, up she went.
Pyro and Gyro asked whether their plastic juggling clubs scared her and she said no, hitting one. “That’s why we’re not going to use these,” they said, as Walter trotted onto the stage with the nine knives. They asked about siblings and she replied she had a brother; they pronounced her expendable.
She survived, but during intermission there was some debate about the “machetes,” as she called them. “They were actually pretty far,” her father said. “No,” she insisted.
The evening held more contests and victors/victims. To choose a gentleman for a strait-jacket stunt, there were three phases of competition — manliness, artistic nature and intelligence. One audience member was tested on his flexing, ballet moves and recitation of Shakespeare. “To be or not, not to be,” he offered with some neighborly prompting.
Several rows up and across the auditorium, another man was ordered to beat his chest like Tarzan, pose like Rodin’s “Thinker” and recite a different line. In response to the taunt that the only Shakespeare he knew likely had been used, he offered an accented reading of a line not in the Shakespeare Top 10, to the audience’s delight.
The humor was all over the map. “Jacob the whip cracker” — Gyro — said he took that name because his hat “looked more Amish than gaucho.” References ranging from Kierkegaard to Tony Robbins to the macarena were sprinkled throughout.
Then there were the sheer physical marvels. Swami Walter swallowed a four-foot balloon, shaking his right leg to make a little more room. He pronounced a couple of sentences of alleged wisdom, then was wheeled off stage. “I want to know what happened to that balloon,” my husband said.
Sarah Horness wanted to know how Gyro’s feet smelled. Invited onstage to take a bite of a bologna sandwich he would make with his feet, she asked for the shoe he removed and sniffed it. A dunk in antibacterial soap followed, then the actual crafting, including the unwrapping of a cheese slice and the squirting of a mustard happy face, and she watched with interest. But when he dunked his foot into the pickle jar, her hands flew to her face.
But come the moment of truth, she plucked the olived toothpick out of the sandwich, lifted the sandwich and took that bite.
Published at ourmidland.com:
With an evening full of such Idiocy, not all of it fit into the newspaper. So here’s more:
Before the show proper began, an Idiotic-sounding voice had a few things to tell the audience. “Announcement No. 2: No matter how many lives depend on it, please turn off that cell phone.”
When the house went dark, the Flaming Idiots came on stage, each juggling one club. Then one would juggle all three while the other two danced behind him. They traded off being the one who juggled all three — then a club fell. They left the stage in shame and the lights came up.
This happened again. The third time, there was a sign of the cross accompanying the attempt, which finally was deemed successful. Later the audience would be told that when a juggler drops a club, an angel gets its wings.
Dropping a knife, however, is not so good. Only six notes into the knife throwing, Pyro dropped one, and the audience was told the agreement was that the girl helping would kick whoever dropped a knife in the shins. Heather promptly cooperated.
Another drop, another kick, this one looking from row Q like a solid blow. Pyro responded by sharpening his knife.
The music was an interesting choice: the “Charlie Brown” theme interspersed with shower music from “Psycho.”
One of the few tricks people actually could try at home was coin catching. The Idiot Olympics featured this event, with color commentary from a former coin-catching champion. Pyro as Spanky Carmichael stretched out his right arm, placed a coin on the back of his hand, flipped it off and caught it. Much celebratory dancing followed.
I tried it — the coin-catching part — and one isn’t hard. Try more than one, and do it the Idiot way: catching one at a time.
Six nearly defeated Spanky, who pulled both hamstrings on his first attempt. Eventually, following what another Idiot called “the first spontaneous chanting of Spanky I’ve ever heard,” the third try was the charm.
The sandwich making was a hit from the outset. After Gyro washed his feet, “paying particular attention to the problem areas,” he had to dry them, and the tearing and using of paper towels brought admiring applause.
He waggled the bologna in Horness’ face, then carefully peeled off the rind. The cheese wrapper was tossed in the wastebasket a leg’s length away.
He approved of her condiment choices, saying, “Mustard’s got a strong flavor that drowns out a lot of other flavors.”
A lot of trash talk went into the selection of candidates to compete for the privilege of coming up on stage for more Idiocy.
“This guy’s so tough he’s got a tattoo of Garth Brooks and Dennis Rodman slow dancing at the Republican National Convention,” one Idiot proclaimed.
As with the growling girls, the audience had to choose with applause; Walter was the judge. “Well, it was tough, because everyone voted twice,” he said. “Welcome to the Philippines.”
After donning the strait jacket — “Let me get my tie on the outside, makes it look more like a sports jacket,” Gyro said — he instructed victor/victim Eldon in the fastening, including a strap that goes between the legs and behind so the jacket can’t simply slip overhead. “How tight? Well, all the way to the last hole, just don’t make your own.”
The Flaming Idiots had demonstrated to Eldon that he could fall backward and trust them to catch him. Then they put on strait jackets, had him fasten the three together at the wrists and asked him to put on a blindfold.
Variations on this escape have been done for decades, they explained, including an artist hanging upside down. The Idiots abandoned that version, they said, because children beat them until candy came out.
Instead, they had the audience count backward from 25. At zero, they said, Eldon was to fall backward from his position and they would catch him. It looked pretty bleak for the 5 seconds that one Idiot was being dragged around the stage by another, his head trapped in his jacket.
Swami Walter was wheeled onto stage on a dolly in the lotus position, in which freak show barker Gyro claimed he had been born, much to the chagrin of Swami Mommy.
What were Swami Walter’s words of alleged wisdom? “The universe is within you. That is why your pants no longer fit.”
How do you talk with a 4-foot balloon in your gullet?
People who volunteer to be on stage often don’t fully know what they’re in for.
The Flaming Idiots proved themselves to be expert jugglers on several occasions. Pyro and Gyro swapped clubs and Walter stepped between them, and as he turned his head the clubs kept moving his ample and fluffy hair.
And as if three men juggling three clubs each and tossing them to one another weren’t enough, they added the twist of doing it while switching positions.
Still, when the final victor/victim agreed to let Gyro stand on his shoulders while juggling lit torches, he didn’t know that Pyro and Walter would be tossing torches in front of and behind him at the same time. When these performers say, “OK, stand right there,” you’d be wise not to breathe too hard.
Published May 29, 2003 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
How could you not want to see someone called the Flaming Idiots?
This is one Matrix:Midland act that truly is unique — unless there’s someone else out there making sandwiches with his feet.
“I say, well, I think you could do it, too. You just don’t choose to do it,” said Rob Williams, one of three self-proclaimed Flaming Idiots.
“I wish I could say I’d broken both my arms in a skiing accident,” he added, but the stunt came out of an improv show with a group of friends. There has been some fine-tuning along the way, such as when he appeared on the Guinness World Records show.
“It was their idea to add in the pickle jar and now I don’t know how I did it without the pickle jar,” he said.
The whole icky process — spreading the condiments, unwrapping the cheese slice, cutting the sandwich with a dangerously large knife — leads up to the moment when an audience member who has been sitting on stage the whole time is privileged to taste the results.
“It puts the whole audience just on the edge of screaming and throwing their programs down and falling into the aisle,” Williams said. “If the woman doesn’t take a bite of the sandwich, there’s no payoff.”
TV shows such as “Jackass” and “Fear Factor” haven’t raised — lowered? — the bar for the troupe. The sandwich routine is about as close as the Flaming Idiots come, he said. “We try to be smarter with it.”
So if you really want, you can marvel at the application of Bernoulli’s principle in the leaf blower ballet. “It makes some people wonder how it happens, because it doesn’t quite look possible,” Williams said. Then there are the little girls who just marvel at the sparkly things moving about the stage, or their daddies who admire yet another use for power tools.
Not everyone is so thrilled.
“The stagehands just hate us,” Williams admitted.
That would be because of the confetti — a pound and a half shot out of a leaf blower at 200 mph. Weeks later, some actor will be treading the boards in an alcoholic death scene and slip on a tiny piece of confetti, Williams joked.
In Midland, they probably will perform a 15-minute first act, pause for intermission then have a 45-minute second act.
“It’s pretty physically demanding,” Williams said. “The training is the doing. We never went to clown college or anything.”
In the troupe, he goes by Gyro. That’s ji-ro, like in gyroscope, not yee-ro as in sandwich. His counterparts are Pyro and Walter.
Pyro wasn’t the fire-eating one. That was Gyro, who was, in a true demonstration of flaming idiocy, entirely self-taught.
“I had the bare bones of it down,” he explained. “You just have to keep your head back and don’t inhale.”
A couple of years of working Renaissance fairs and the like led him to the belief there must be an easier way to make a living, so now eating — sandwiches, fire, whatever — is out for him.
“We juggle fire now, but we don’t eat it or breathe it,” Williams said. “Now for us the hardest part is getting fire marshals to say, ‘OK, I trust you.'”
The Flaming Idiots perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Midland Center for the Arts auditorium. Tickets are $15 adults, $10 children, and available by calling 631-8250 or (800) 523-7649, or online at mcfta.org. To see a sandwich-making slide show and more, go to flamingidiots.com.
Published January 10, 2003 in the Midland (MI) Daily News
Beth Medley Bellor
The Greenpeace version of events smacked of astounding corporate insensitivity. “Dow sues Bhopal victims,” the word came out.
As usual, The Dow Chemical Co.’s version of events is somewhat different.
Dow has been the target of numerous overseas protests since it acquired Union Carbide Corp. as a wholly owned subsidiary. Many in India and elsewhere in the world still hold Union Carbide responsible for the 1984 explosion blamed for the deaths and incapacitation of thousands, and say Dow now bears moral and financial responsibility to the survivors. Dow insists it does not.
A protest in India a couple of years ago was “fairly violent,” said Dow spokesman John Musser, with shrubs torn out and paint thrown on cars and buildings. Dow filed a request for an injunction with the local court, offering evidence of adverse impact.
“The court did issue an interim injunction, which provided for assurance that the protesters could not come within 100 feet of the plant and they couldn’t block employees from coming and going freely,” Musser said.
Since then, the National Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has become the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and has taken on Greenpeace as a partner. With different protesters, a new injunction was needed. While the most recent protest was peaceful, Musser said, it did interrupt business for two to three hours, and Dow has asked for $10,000 in compensation.
“Our objective was not to receive financial proceeds from this, it’s to assure the safety of our employees and protect our right to run our business without interruption,” he said.
This week, Greenpeace has been delivering toxic waste collected from Bhopal — contained in barrels — to Dow in the Netherlands instead.