Hoosen's Choice: Hollywood Glamour in Western Pennsylvania (1)
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD The First of Two Tales About International Hollywood Stars Born in Small Pennsylvania Towns Well Over a Century Ago.
How Long is This Post? About 3400 words, approx 15 minutes
I’m writing about my road trip a bit out of order in this post, because the story on my next major Road destination is taking a while to write! If you’re waiting for me to answer that question about Charles Guiteau from The President Who Didn’t Come Home, stay tuned.
After our visits to a dizzying range of very intense museums, Hoosen had suggestions. Hoosen, you may recall, is He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets, HWSNBNOTI, or Hoosen Benoti. He is my driver, my travel companion, the Ed McMahon to my Johnny Carson (dated reference, also one to which Hoosen objects) and, oh, yes, long-suffering spouse.
I am always happy to visit popular culture museums (which sounds waaaay more snotty than I wish it did, so let’s go with “fun museums”, shall we?). After our visits to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the President James A. Garfield National Historic Site, in Mentor, Ohio, and other fascinating but serious historical places, I figured Hoosen’s Choice Day would make for a perfect break in our road trip. Hoosen, by the way, is an engineer, and is very sporting about schlepping around so many museums with his historian Missus. And we both needed a break. That’s why we spent a rainy but lovely day in the pleasant forested mini-mountain country of Western Pennsylvania. It was a busy day, and here’s the first half of it.
Note from Annette: Why We Won’t Be Going to NYC
My spontaneous trip with Hoosen to random places in “flyover” America puts the lie to the absurd idea that the only interesting places in America are its major coastal cities.
Let’s be clear: I have nothing against Big Cities. I grew up near London, and (by brilliant cost management) visited the city every year before the pandemic, taking in special museum exhibits, theatre (especially the brilliant National Theatre, which is affordable, engaging, and stimulating, and where you’re as likely to see famous actors sitting in the audience as on the stage), and so much more.
But I have never been to Manhattan. There will now be a sharp intake of breath from New Yorkers, but let me cut to the chase, guys: I’m not a heights fan (so no Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty for me). There are few museums that tempt me to NYC: The Tenement Museum is the biggest draw, honestly. Why? Because if I want to see stuff brought (or bought) (or stolen) from around the world, that’s what the British Museum is for. Meanwhile, the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island, and little museums like the Coney Island Museum are actually about New York. They tell stories that are relevant to New York then and now, and to the rest of us, in native context. They would, I suspect, help emphasize to visitors that they have actually been there, in a way that hanging round a tourist trap like Times Square would not. Not that I would know. Ahem.
As for NYC theatre? I’m a great fan of everything from comedy to Shakespeare to immersive theatre, but I’m not much of a musical fan, and on those rare occasions I do feel like seeing a musical (Come From Away was great, not the usual McMusical), again, that’s what my trip to London is for. Plus London has amazing food these days, even at my price point, and by the way? London is both cleaner and safer than the Big Apple. Or so I’m told.
This is a subject to which I will return, because this Brit loves you, Americans, yes, I do, and I am so, so tired of watching you misunderstand each other, and being manipulated into doing it. Yes, New Yawkers, I am also tawkin’ to you. Yes, I do wanna make something of it. I do love to torture you with my failure to go to Manhattan, but I might swing by one of these days. Briefly. Even London, I can only take about a week before I yearn to breathe clean air again. I don’t doubt I will find NYC at least as exhausting.
Meeting an Impossibly Old International Celebrity
We almost didn’t go. Look, here’s a cautionary tale for museuming in Covid Times. It’s the kind of advice that makes a paid subscription to Non-Boring History such a bargain (that was a strong hint, like waving while I’m drowning, and acting all sort of British about it, like “No, no, I’m fine. Just drowning a little bit. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you mind throwing me that rubber ring? Yes. That one. Please. If you would. Glub.)
Okay, excellent advice: Call the museum you plan to visit to be sure it’s open. In these strange times, always call. Google announced the Museum we were hoping to see was closed. BUT, in better news, the website said that we could actually meet the celebrity who’s the subject of the museum, because twice-monthly meet and greets have been resumed on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of . . .
“Today’s the first Sunday,” said Hoosen. Oh. So much for that.
Was our visit even going to be worth the trip? We were wondering. But then I thought of how horribly slow Google has been to fix problems with my own listing. My Google panel stopped calling me a historian. It started calling me a chronicler (whatever that is) They told me the problem was fixed. It’s not.
So I called the museum. “Oh, we’re open!” said the cheery voice. I told her that Google said they weren’t, and she seemed unsurprised, but not too worried. Also, she told me the celebrity’s appearances aren’t going to happen for weeks. Never mind. At least the museum was open!
I set our navigation to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
And many of my readers are already going “OHHH!”
If you’re not one of those readers, stick around, because this is a chance to learn about the cultural blender that is the USA. Yeah, I know we’re all supposed to celebrate our differences, not go back to that old melting pot cliche. But here’s the thing: I'm pretty sure that being nice to each other about our differences actually brings us together. How about that. E pluribus unum, as it says on the coins: Out of many, one.
Pilgrims to Punxsy
Many moons ago, I first came to this country as a high school exchange student. My host sister’s birthday, it turned out, was February 2. Groundhog Day, she announced proudly. I was mystified. She explained. Something to do with a creature called a groundhog seeing its shadow, and weather. I was even more confused. And I have remained confused for the past four decades.
Now, all can be revealed to interested Brits, and American readers who have also never been quite clear on what that’s all about! Because we were on our way to Groundhog Ground Zero: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, known to locals as Punxsy.
Every year, for reasons that mystify and yet amuse a nation and the world, a group of blokes in a small town in western Pennsylvania don top hats, come out on February 2, in the dead of winter, hold up a large furry rodent, and declare that winter will or will not persist for six weeks. This story is dutifully presented in every major US TV news program, and many minor ones, always the last item on the show with the newsreader wearing an amused smile to introduce it.
The story goes that this prediction depends on the groundhog’s willingness to (a) Come out of his burrow and (b) Whisper whether he has seen his shadow, and, based on that, his weather prediction. He delivers his pronouncements in Groundhogese to the President of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who (magically) is the only person who speaks this language. The President then relays this prediction to the waiting crowd (about 10, 000 people or more pre-COVID) and the world.
You can see the coverage of this year’s event here. Start at 10:15 if you just want to see the most crucial bit.
The groundhog is named Punxsutawney Phil, possibly in homage to the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (according to the Interwebs, but it’s all a bit maybe, if you know what I mean, and I don’t have time to verify that.) Groundhogs normally only live seven or eight years. But Punxsutawney Phil receives a dose of magic potion at a special picnic every summer that enables him to live another 7 years each time. That means that Phil, who first predicted the weather in 1886, is well over 130 years old, although the Guinness Book of Records has yet to confirm this.
What we have here, folks, is folklore plus fun, and we all play along with it. Punxsutawney Phil's roots seem to lie in German and Scottish folklore, and in pre-Christian beliefs.
My expertise in such matters is pretty slim, so I won’t judge. I do remember the English legend that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) it will rain for forty days, and if the weather is nice, it will remain so for forty days. St. Swithin himself was a 9th century Bishop. In France, it’s St. Medard who plays groundhog.
The story in Pennsylvania goes, and I don’t doubt it, that German settlers in late 19th century Punxsatawney wanted to continue a similar German tradition by finding a little hedgehog to predict the weather. But there were no cute tiny hedgehogs in Pennsylvania, so they used a sharp-toothed massive groundhog instead. That’s America.
And so is this: There were also descendants of Scottish immigrants in Punxsutawney, and there was a Scottish Christian tradition that on February 2, known as Candlemas, the church distributed candles to light the dreary winter. It was (according to the Internets) a popular folk belief that if the weather was nice on this day, there would be a long period of bad weather, and if the weather was bad on February 2, the weather for the next few weeks would be great. All these traditions suggest wonderfully tangled tales of pre-Christian (or alternate Christian) belief and story that’s typical of human beings around the globe. And these traditions somehow came together (whether accidentally or on purpose) (America!) in 1886, when the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed.
Joining the club is a mere $20, but if you want in on the Inner Circle, you had better be a Punxsutawney native, and well-known in the community. The town is 98.8% white, so, not shockingly, this is reflected in the membership of the Inner Circle. Is there racism in Punxsy? Let’s turn that around. Is there anywhere there’s not racism? Not letting the town off the hook, so much as punting the issue for now. I can tell you one thing that’s obvious, though: It’s not a wealthy place, but on February 2, the eyes of the world are upon it.
Punxsy is a place built on miracles. That Punxsutawney has managed to build the entire town’s identity around its version of such a folk story, is the real miracle. And let’s be clear: There are other towns, other groundhogs, but only one Punxsutawney, only one Punxsatawney Phil, and only one Gobbler’s Knob.