Dag 3 – in Rochester

English: Melanie Safka in Charlotte, North Car...

English: Melanie Safka in Charlotte, North Carolina in February 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Rochester, NY a view from Court Stree...

English: Rochester, NY a view from Court Street at dusk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rochester, New York

Rochester, New York (Photo credit: Dougtone)

English: High Falls Rochester NY

English: High Falls Rochester NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Images from left to right; Rochester Skyline, ...

Images from left to right; Rochester Skyline, The Eastman Theater, the University of Rochester, High Falls district, Eastman Kodak research facility on the Genesee River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Het is wonderlijk hoe de geest werkt.  Of is dat vooral mijn geest? Als ik voor het eerst in een stad ben of ergens heen ga lijken de afstanden altijd lang. Dat geldt ook voor Rochester. Ik heb op de kaart opgezocht waar de bus zal stoppen en het lijkt alsof het in het midden van niks is. Ook als ik werkelijk mijn voeten neerzet op de grond bij Broadstreet lijkt het alsof ik ergens ver buiten het centrum ben gedropt. Nu ik mijn weg wat beter ken in Rochester zie ik dat Broad Street midden in het centrum ligt en uiteindelijk niet erg ver van het Blackfriars Theatre waar ik de meeste tijd zal doorbrengen.

Ze zijn hard aan het werk daar, drilboren, hopen zand en geen trottoir. Volgens de kaart die ik gisteren bekeek moet ik naar het Noorden en kan ik daar een bus nemen die op Monroe Avenue zal stoppen. Ik heb de straat gezien toen ik nog in de bus zat en ik ga op weg. Maar een kaart op een computerscherm is toch wel heel iets anders dan de werkelijkheid vol lawaai.

Iedereen aan wie ik de weg vraag kent Rochester niet tot – zoals ik woensdag al schreef – een lieve mevrouw aanbiedt me naar het adres van M te brengen. “Het is vlakbij” zegt ze. Ze ontdoet de passagiersstoel van allerlei verpakkingen die ze op de achterbank gooit en ze legt mijn koffers in de achterbak. We gaan op weg. Ze vertelt me over Rochester. Er zijn hier wel vijf universiteiten, het is een echte studentenstad. Ik kan me niet veel herinneren van wat ik zie maar op een gegeven moment herken ik het hoefijzer van huizen waar M verblijft. Dat heb ik gister goed op de kaart gezien.
1600MA

De mevrouw helpt me mijn koffers uitladen en ik bedank haar hartelijk voor haar hulp.

De deur staat open. Ik word verwacht. M & B zitten in de kelder. Daar heeft B een studio gebouwd en ze luisteren naar wat opnames van de repetities. Ze zijn beiden niet tevreden en zenuwachtig. Vanavond generale repetitie. B wordt even later gehaald door een medewerker van het theater. M gaat naar boven om zich op te maken. Ik probeer me nuttig te maken door wat op te ruimen en de vaatwasser te ontruimen.

M en ik gaan met hun auto naar het theater. De accu blijkt leeg, een man probeert te helpen maar de auto wil niet starten. M belt iemand van het theater die ons komt halen.

Het theater is een ongebouwde garage. Hoge plafonds, grote deuren. M heeft als kleedkamer een met kleurige doeken afgescheiden gedeelte van het magazijn. Een houten dressoir doet dienst als kaptafel. Grote spiegel, lampen.  Het is gezellig gemaakt met bloemen. Ik laat haar alleen.

Ik bel mijn couchsurfing host, hij komt me later op de avond halen.

Ik mag bij de generale repetitie zijn. En laat me meevoeren door het verhaal van Melanie and the Record Man. Wat een mooi, romantisch verhaal. Prachtige muziek, mooie stemmen.  Ik ben diep geraakt en onder de indruk. In de pauze komt M naar me toe, ik vertel hoe mooi ik het vind en ze is blij.

Helaas moet ik weg, mijn host komt me halen.

We laden de koffers in zijn auto en rijden naar het huis dat de komende dagen mijn huis zal zijn.

Brand New Key’ singer’s improbable journey to Rochester

Melanie and Peter shwoing the golden record of Brand New Key

Melanie and Peter with the gold record of ‘Brand New Key’ – photo made by Maddy Miller

‘Brand New Key’ singer’s improbable journey to Rochester

Peter and Melanie Schekeryk. Melanie is holding the Gold Record for ‘Brand New Key.’ / Photos Courtesy copyright Maddy Miller, maddymiller

Written by
Jeff Spevak
Staff writer

The clerk at the Best Buy phone counter is helping out a 68-year-old man who, incomprehensibly in the 21st century, in November 2010, is asking the clerk if he’s ever heard of Melanie. The pop singer.

Then the older man leans on the counter and tells the clerk he’s not feeling well. The kid gets him a glass of water. It was Melanie who started the idea of people holding up lighters at concerts, the old guy is saying as he drinks the water, trying to compose himself. When she played Woodstock, in 1969. Of course now, in the 21st century, people hold up their cellphones at shows …

Then he slumps over, store employees ease him to the floor and call 911. He’s had a heart attack before. A year ago to that very day, in fact, during a plane flight from Germany. But Peter Schekeryk won’t survive this one at the Best Buy in Framingham, Mass. He’s apparently still trying to explain the lighters when he utters his last words. “It was Melanie. …”

Not far away, a 63-year-old woman is sitting on a decorative haystack outside of the Whole Foods supermarket with her overloaded shopping cart, waiting for her husband to pick her up. He has been gone a long time. She calls his cellphone, but gets his voicemail. She’s annoyed, and also concerned. A police car pulls up and a cop gets out. “Are you Melanie Schekeryk?” he asks.

This is how pop stars who have sold more than 25 million albums get the news that their spouse of 45 years has died. The same as you or I.

That scene could have been the end of the story for Melanie. That much seems obvious, her eyes reddening and a catch in her voice betraying the heavy emotions she still carries when she talks about Schekeryk. However, the opposite has happened. It is the beginning of the story. Her husband’s death is the opening scene of the autobiographical musical Melanie and the Record Man. And his death has allowed the story to continue, in an improbable way.

Improbable because it is a small community theater group in Rochester, people she had never had contact with before, who pulled Melanie from a sidetrack of pop history, created a play from her blogs and journals and ultimately convinced Melanie that she must be a part of it, tell the story herself, write new songs and sing many of the old songs.
The play begins its world-premiere run from Friday through Oct. 28 at Blackfriars Theatre.“It would be so much simpler if I were dead and they got some frumpy, gorgeous person to play me,” Melanie says, while sitting in the theater lobby on East Main St. “I have doubts and fears.”Inside the theater itself, a small crew is pulling together the doubts and fears, assembling Melanie’s story. Tall ladders reach into the ceiling lights. Curtains are draped across the red-fabric chairs of the 126-seat theater. The high whine of electric drills will soon give way to songs such as “Beautiful People” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” inspired by what Melanie saw as she played Woodstock in 1969. Four-hundred thousand people, many with flickering lighters and candles, just as Peter Schekeryk described to the cellphone clerk.Melanie’s biggest hit was “Brand New Key,” an air-light No. 1 record in 1971. It is what she is best known for. But she was not a one-hit wonder, releasing 35 albums, the latest in 2010.

Sure, she meditated with Indian yogis, but so did The Beatles. Melanie still has a little bit of mystic in her. Sometimes, she admits, she senses that Schekeryk is in the room with her, guiding her. She once wrote a song called “I Don’t Eat Animals.” The quintessential flower child, she was a reluctant celebrity, she says, who resented being cast as what she calls “a beautiful bliss ninny.”

And, Melanie now eats animals. Studies have shown, she says, you’ll live longer with a diet that includes meat and fish.“A pretty girl is a target,” she says. “You can’t be very smart and beautiful at the same time. Rolling Stone waged a war against me. They always put me on the same page as Bobby Sherman. I was on the Buddha Record label. That’s the same label that had The Archies. Leon Redbone and Captain Beefheart were on the label, too, but I guess that didn’t count.”It’s as though those old hits don’t belong to her anymore, because Melanie hasn’t seen any royalties on them in years. “I’m a very wealthy woman,” she says. “I just don’t receive the wealth that I generate.”Despite constant touring, her finances are no longer sound. “Peter made deals on a handshake,” she says, “and the handshakes fell through when he died.”
For years, John Haldoupis envisioned fashioning a story cycle from Melanie’s songs. He was a fan, he admits, and as a young man with artistic dreams, painted while listening to her music. Now, as a middle-aged artistic director at Blackfriars, he tried contacting Melanie through her website in spring 2010, never hearing back.Then one day, he opened up the blog on her site and saw that Melanie had written that this would be her last entry for a while. He read about Schekeryk’s death, closed the computer and had himself a good cry.The play Haldoupis had in mind now had a focus: a love story. He renewed his efforts to contact Melanie, finally tracking down her oldest daughter, who agreed to approach her mother about the idea. After a few more months, Melanie called. The collaboration was under way.Schekeryk, an immigrant who fled the Soviet-dominated Ukraine as a child with his family, met Melanie in 1969. He became her producer, her manager and then her husband. She was his only client for the next 45 years. “His entire motivation,” Melanie says, “was to keep the creation going.”Just as he was doing when he was talking to that clerk at the phone counter.A young, slim, blonde woman walks by. She is Mandy Hassett, who will play the young Melanie. And also Melanie in her 60s, when the play circles back to the death of her husband. This was a conceptual staging issue that Haldoupis couldn’t solve until the solution came one night, almost as though had been whispered in his ear, and he awakened with the sudden thought that Melanie didn’t have to age at all. This was how Schekeryk always saw her, Haldoupis reasoned, and inserted a line in a play in which young Melanie is asked, “How is it you’re not getting any older?”“When Jack told me that idea,” Melanie says, “I said to him, ‘Well, that’s how Peter always saw me in his eyes.’ ”Melanie was at the first reading of the play. “Seeing someone who was going to play her husband speak the words, it was a really powerful evening for her,” Haldoupis says. “The actors who I brought in to read, they didn’t know the show was going to be such an emotional wallop. I think they thought they were just going to come in and sing some songs with Melanie. I think they thought the play itself was going to be a train wreck.”The day after Schekeryk’s death, the Best Buy salesman met with Melanie. They hugged. “We were sobbing,” she says. “He said, ‘He loved you so much, all he could talk about was you.’ ”

“Sometimes you don’t know there’s a story,” Melanie says, “until it has an end.”

Peter and Melanie Schekeryk. Melanie is holding the Gold Record for 'Brand New Key.'

Peter and Melanie Schekeryk. Melanie is holding the Gold Record for ‘Brand New Key.’ / Photos Courtesy copyright Maddy Miller, maddymille

Written by
Jeff Spevak
Staff writer
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If you go

What:
Melanie and the Record Man.
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St.
Tickets: $45 at the box office from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, one hour before the performance or at blackfriars.org.
Call: (585) 454-1260 during box office hours.