Thursday, May 25, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 4) - American Flyer flown

Pre-war standard gauge AF trains.
We saw about the same amount we
normally do at this show.
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons for what I see as a major shift in the hobby. Basically, younger collectors seem more interested in operating their trains rather than simply displaying them. And that, I think, explains what we say this time at York -- the results of upgrading.

And it wasn't just limited to Lionel. We saw a lot of postwar American Flyer sets, locomotives, and rolling stock.

A little background

American Flyer trains, like those of Lionel, have a long history. The company started out in 1907 as a low-cost alternative to the higher-priced (and higher-quality) German imported toy trains. In the 1920s and 1930s, it competed directly with Lionel, offering trains in the same track gauge. A.C. Gilbert (or Erector Set fame) bought the company in 1937.

In 1937 A.C. Gilbert bought American Flyer. It seemed
to be a good match.
Toy train production ceased during World War II, and when it resumed, American Flyer had changed. Lionel continued to use O-gauge track, with a middle rail for the motor's electric pickup. American Flyer went with S-gauge track and used the same two-rail electrical system as the new H0 trains.

Flyer was never as successful as Lionel and went out of business in 1967. Children who received American Flyer trains in the 1950s grew up to be American Flyer collectors in the 1970s. It was a smaller group than Lionel collectors, but no less enthusiastic.

Limited resources

Unlike Lionel trains, which were in continual production even after the original company was bought out, American Flyer trains were not reintroduced into the market until the 1990s.

American Flyer, 1955. We saw plenty of these pieces, both in sets and for
individual sale.
So if you wanted to have an operating S-gauge layout, you were pretty much confined to vintage Flyer equipment

S-Helper Service helps

S-Helper Service and American Models jump-started the S-gauge operator's market in the early 1990s. These independent companies produced their own lines of rolling stock -- and eventually locomotives -- for S-gauge operators. S-Helper Service was purchased in 2013 by MTH, one of the largest toy train manufacturers in the US. American Models is still in business.

An example of MTH's S-gauge offerings. There's a greater variety
of road names and more realistic detail in these cars, compared
to vintage American Flyer rolling stock.
In the meantime, Lionel had purchased the assets to the old American Flyer line of products and started reissuing old trains. And they also began offering new products.

A sampling of Lionel's American Flyer-branded S-gauge trains. Like MTH,
Lionel offers models and road names never made by Gilbert

So what does that mean?

New products mean modern materials. New S-gauge cars roll more easily than older AF. The electronics in the locomotives offer remote control and more reliable operation. And there's a greater variety of road names and locomotive types, which lets the operator model the rail lines he wants, not just the few Flyer offered.

What did we see?

A LOT of American Flyer trains. But not from the prewar era. No, most of the American Flyer we saw was post-war. Train sets from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as individual locomotives, freight cars, and passenger cars. We didn't see a lot of postwar accessories, though.

Conclusion? As with their O-gauge brethren, S-gauge operators are trading in their aging Flyer pieces for newer, better-running equipment.

So what didn't we see? 

Across the board, anything that would be useful for modern toy train operators was in short supply. We didn't see operating accessories, buildings, crossing gates, billboard signs, etc.

The hobby has indeed changed.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Kate Loder Piano Music - a Victorian composer returns

In the 1840s The Musical World called Kate Loder (1825-1904) one of the finest pianists of the day "without reference to her age or sex or country." Loder was young, female, and British at a time when audiences preferred their musicians older, male, and foreign (preferably German).

Loder came from a musical family and exhibited an early talent at the piano. Her musical life is too rich to detail in a review.

Among other things, she performed Mendelssohn's G minor piano concerto in the presence of the composer. She was close friends with Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. Like Clara, she enjoyed a successful career as a concert pianist and composer.

Then she married.

In the Victorian Age, the wife of a prominent surgeon did not perform in public. Kate Loder Thompson concert career was over. She did perform, teach, and compose privately throughout the rest of her life.

So what was her music like? This release features her two published collections of studies, plus a few short piano works.

The Twelve Studies Books 1 and 2 document her impressive technical ability, and also her musicality. Though some are quite didactic, Lodor, like Clementi manages to make them more than just finger exercises.

The Study No. 9, Book 2, for example, has a hint of Mendelssohn about it. On the other hand, the Study No. 5, Book 2 seems to be inspired by Chopin. That influence sounds even stronger in her later piano works, such as the Voyage Joyeux in A major (1868).

Ian Hodson performs with a calm assurance and tasteful musicality. He's able to bring out the musical contours in the studies, giving them music form instead of letting them just be a jumble of notes.

If you're interested in women composers, this release is a must-have. But that shouldn't be the only reason to explore Kate Lober's music. It doesn't sound especially youthful, nor feminine, or especially British. It simply sounds like what it is: well-constructed music of the middle Romantic period.
And that should be reason enough.

Kate Loder: Piano Music
Twelve Studies, Books 1 & 2; Romance in A flat, Pensée Fugitive; Two Mazurkas, Voyage Joyeux
Ian Hobson, piano
World Premiere Recordings

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dick Tracy's Spirit - Part 3

Dick Tracy recently concluded a storyline involving Will Eisner's creation, the Spirit (Dec. 2016 through Mar. 2017). In Part 1 I tried to fill in the background of this important comic strip character (for those who came in late). In Part 2 I looked at how parts of the Spirit's mythos were handled by Mike Curtis and Joe Staton.

It's not my intention to rehash the entire story arc, but in this final installment I want to look at a few details embedded in the story.

By now, Boston Charlie (of "Terry and the Pirates") is now a supporting character in Dick Tracy. So it's not surprising to see him piloting in a mysterious figure for an exclusive auction. Also shown are Oliver Warbucks, ("Little Orphan Annie") who's found a home in the Tracyverse. The last panel shows the Spirit's archenemy, the Octopus, and his henchman, Mr. Carrion.

Up for auction is an immortality formula. The Spirit relates the last time he encountered one, which was also the first time he met P'Gell in 1946, who would became a love interest/opponent throughout the series.

P'Gell's first appearance in the Spirit, 1946.
More P'Gell from 1947. Note how her features look a little less exotic.

I have to admit I liked this sequence. Commissioner Dulan and Chief Patton are trading stories about their respective crime fighters. Sammy Strunk, the Spirit's sidekick, isn't impressed. What I find amusing about the first panel is that the middle character has served both as superior and sidekick to the hero. Pat Patton started out as Tracy's assistant, and became police chief only because Tracy turned down the offer.

The immortality formula is being auctioned off by Perenelle Flamel, widow of Nicolas Flamel. The name may be familiar to Harry Potter fans, but Flamel's story predates JK Rowling.

Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) was a scribe and printer in medieval Paris. He was also an alchemist -- not unusual for the time. Centuries later, he was credited with finding the Philosopher's Stone, actually turning base metal into gold, and developing an elixir of life. These legends continued to grow, and far outgrew the original person.

Its always fun when Diet Smith, Chester Gould's original plutocrat mixes with Oliver Warbucks. Warbucks mentions Doc Savage had an immortality formula in 1934. I'm not sure about that, but I do know Lester Dent's pulp character did encounter such a formula in 1939's "The Crimson Serpent."

And we see who Boston Charlie was transporting -- the Dragon Lady, Milton Caniff's quintessential villain from "Terry and the Pirates."

It's the details such as these that make the story, I think. As always, Curtis and Staton tell a great story.

This panel from the end of the story arc is a study in shadow and
light that is worthy of Eisner.