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Tex and the City: Living a Neiman Marcus Fortnight Life

Today on Tex and the City: Jon Paul realizes the influence luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has had on his world view, and Big Apple life.  Tips on Dosa Garden restaurant, NYC Christmas lights, and Batali’s Eataly.

Poster for the first Neiman Marcus Fortnight, 1957

Growing up in the shopping Mecca of Dallas, I looked forward to early November with the same nervous anticipation that most kids reserve for Christmas morning.  The reason was simple—Neiman Marcus’ Fortnight.  For two splendid weeks, the luxury retailer transformed their downtown flagship store into a celebration of an exotic country with special displays, food, costumes, wares.  Forget Santa’s lap, Sophia Loren was supposedly making an appearance for the 1975 Italian Fortnight.  What little gay kid could resist that?

It’s hard to understate the importance of the annual event to Dallas.  The concept of Fortnight was created in 1957 by the retailer’s mastermind founder Stanley Marcus as a way to combat the lagging pre-Christmas sales.  That first year’s celebration of France landed in the pages of Time magazine detailing visits by Coco Chanel, and the landing of Dallas’ first international flight at Love Field—an Air France jet filled with Gallic dignitaries and press.

Over the years, I begged my mothers and sisters to take me multiple times to the downtown palace of wonders as I ate and shopped and gawked my way through countries like Japan, Brazil, Greece, Germany, Spain.  It’s no wonder as a travel writer I often pre-judge destinations based upon a Fortnight reference point.  In my mind, Ireland always seemed uninteresting to me based upon a flat 1976 Fortnight, but a quick trip as an adult to bustling Dublin corrected that notion.  In 1986, the retailer hosted the final extravaganza—Australia, probably the beginnings of my Down Under love affair that has ended up indelibly inked on my arm.

Perhaps moving to New York City helped ease the sadness over the passing of Fortnight.  After all, living in the Big Apple means there’s a different ethnic fortnight around each corner.  This weekend, Chef popped my Staten Island Ferry cherry by escorting me to a neighborhood in the one borough I hadn’t visited in 14 years.  Our destination?  Little Sri Lanka.  The Dosa Garden restaurant had recently been written up in the New York Times, and its Southern Indian food delivered on a large scale.  Literally.  The tasty rice-lentil crepe like dosa spilled over the cafeteria-style tray.  Besides the delicious dal doughnuts dipped in spicy sauces, the standout for me was ennai katherikai, a baby eggplant pan-fried cooked in a tamarind and chili infused sauce that cleared my sinuses.

potato filling in the enormous dosa helped balance the spicy dipping sauce

the addictive doughnuts

On our walk back to the ferry terminal, within a block we had left Southern India and passed quickly into Little Mexico.  Chef’s eyes brightened at the number of South of the Border markets selling some of his favorite delicacies.  I watched and smiled as he picked out some Mexican sweet bread known as conchas, and an addictive white Oaxacan cheese.  I realized my life is turning out to be one big authentic international fortnight.

Yes, you can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Neimans out of the girl.

Tex and the City Top of the Week Tips:

New York City may not have the organized glamour of Neiman Marcus’ fortnight, but for building that holiday shopping spirit and centralized international experience here are my Top of the Week Tips:

  • Lord & Taylor unveils their Christmas windows Monday evening at 5:30pm with a performance by Kristin Chenoweth (Frida’s voice if she were an animated character).  I’ve always had a soft spot for Lord & Taylor, mostly because in Dallas they were located in Northpark Mall right across from the Magic Pan restaurant.  Oh how I miss watching the crepe pans travel around a conveyor belt.
  • Eataly, Mario Batali’s shopping homage to all-things Italian, feels like a Fortnight done by a more mid-range retailer like Dillard’s.  While it’s not my favorite because of the crowds, vegetarians are raving about its no-reservation restaurant Le Verdure, which as the name might suggest, serves only vegetables.

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Tex and the City: Paris/Promises

Today on Alphabet City: A Tex and the City outing to Promises, Promises rekindles JP’s Parisian love affair with Sean Hayes.

It was a movie theater in Paris on New Year’s Eve 1998 when I fell for Sean Hayes.  At the time, he was a beguiling actor in the indie charmer Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, which I had missed in the U.S. but had just been released in France, where I was spending the holidays.  Alone.  I’d read somewhere that Woody Allen, or maybe David Sedaris, or possibly both, loved going to the movies in Paris.  I thought that sounded decadent, and consoling, and warmer than cruising for love along cold boulevards.  Little did I know that 50 francs would earn me a big crush on the beguiling Sean Hayes.

Since then, we’ve had our ups and downs.  Honestly, I felt a little betrayed by Sean’s promiscuity with America when he landed the campy role of Jack on NBC’s Will & Grace.  While it seemed odd to me that he was at times cagey with the press about his sexuality, the fact that he didn’t do a “I Am What I Am” interview with The Advocate until this past March never particularly bothered me.  I just longed for a return to the low-key magic I had discovered in Paris—the charming boy-next-door with a heart of gold and a smile that could melt your heart.

I’m happy to report that our love affair has been rekindled—this time on the Great White Way where Sean is starring in frothy production of Promises, Promises.  This time, I’m not the only one carrying a torch for Sean.  And I’m not talking about the other lead, the indomitable Kristin Chenoweth.  No, right before my eyes, Sean is carrying on a full fledge torid love affair with the entire audience.  At the production Chef and I saw Sunday at the Broadway Theatre, Sean’s character Chuck could do no wrong as far as ticket payers go—they laughed at every pratfall and comic bit, and audibly gasped in sympathy when Chuck finds out that Kristin’s Fran, the girl he has been pining away for, has been seeing his two-timing boss.  It’s rare these days to see a live performance where the audience is so completely invested in the character and the performer that they are rooting for them—even when the plot is a sometimes uncomfortable excuse for men two-timing their wives.

All of that is good news for Sean.  His surprisingly strong singing voice is rich, and I never had a moment of worrying about him hitting a note, unlike his fellow TV star Kelsey Grammar down the way.  Not only is Sean’s comic timing spot on—his antics with his boss’ modern chair recall Lucille Ball—but also I had no problem believing him as a straight lead.  Judging from the reaction neither did the audience.  I make this case because of an unfortunate essay called “Straight Jacket” in Newsweek.com by Ramin Setoodeh that argues out gay actors can’t seem to play masculine characters, using Sean Hayes as exhibit A.  Typically, I wouldn’t pay attention to that kind of dribble, but Kristin Chenoweth’s impassioned retort was brought to my attention—and I’ll sit up and take notice about anything that little bundle of energy says/sings including her memoir A Little Bit Wicked. G’linda’s correct that Setoodeh has some deep-seated issues and prejudices that heterosexual guys can only be played with hyper-masculine swagger.  Dismissing other out gay actors Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris, Setoodeh conveniently forgets Cheyenne Jackson whose turns as straight men in Broadway’s Finnian’s Rainbow and TV’s 30 Rock earned no arched eyebrows.

Sean’s Chuck reminds me of many straight male friends in my life who are sensitive and funny, and have no need to prove their sexuality with a Rambo-like swagger.  So, keep up the good work Sean—you’ve weasled your way back into my heart—and I completely believe your chemistry with your female co-stars.

Speaking of female leads, indeed the buzz is true about Katie Finneran stealing the show in just under 13 minutes at the top of Act 2.  She milks every line and sound—including an odd Owl call that reprises itself a couple of times to great comic effect.  That Tony is hers for the taking.

Which brings me to Kristin.  Those of you have read me for a while are aware of my complete adoration for the fireball of talent.  After all, she is Frida’s voice in the animated version of my life.  No surprise, Kristin lights up the stage despite her short stature—you can’t help but smile when she sings.  Except that two of those songs added to this production for her—“I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home”—don’t make any sense for her character or the storyline.  Closing Act 1 with the latter song about coming home, turning the key, and hoping that the lover is there makes not a bit of sense sung at the end of an office party—especially when we know there is an apartment set hanging around somewhere in the wings.  There’s also the matter of unfortunate coincidence of that song appearing in a recent Glee episode in which Kristin appeared, sung to perfection by the character Kurt.  But while other critics believe Kristin is horribly miscast here—that Fran is meant to be a frump—I completely disagree.  I think Kristin breathes believable life into the role—that capable women (and men!) often make disastrous choices in their lives, especially when it comes to love.  I can see why without a couple of star number turns for Kristin/Fran the role would be much less interesting, I’m just not sure these are the right choices.  But Kristin looks like she’s having a ball onstage with Sean, and that chemistry will make me overlook a lot.

Scenic Designer Scott Pask’s Act 1’s modern minimalist sets of insurance giant Consolidated Life are appropriately cold and oppressive, giving his brother and costume designer Bruce Pask an opportunity to shine with eye-popping color.   Rob Ashford’s directing and choreographing keep things moving for the most part, including a choreographed number during the overture giving us a taste of what’s to come.  I’ll never look at a hat rack the same again.  The opening starts off with such a punch that by comparison things seem to slow down and sag for a while so that when we get to “Where Can You Take a Girl?”—a number about the problems of finding a place to cheat on your wife—I suddenly had the thought, “Am I really watching a show that revolves around such an awful premise?”  And maybe that’s what makes this show feel so dated—there really is no opportunity for a strong female point-of-view.  [SPOILER ALERT, but come on…]  When the boss’ secretary reveals his shenanigans and ends his marriage, she does so out of bitter revenge, not out of empowerment.

Still, the show manages to pull off a bit of fun hijinks.  It’s a little bit like the office Christmas party memorialized in the “Turkey Lurkey Time” number at end of Act 1.  Holiday office parties, like “Promises, Promises,” hold such promise—a little bit of cheer, a little bit of messiness—but all in all, the promise of a memorable time.

And for me, Sean reminds me of the days of yesteryear.  That’s right, we’ll always have Paris.

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The Bodyguard

Today on Alphabet City: Kristin Chenoweth and her hunky male Christmas pinup calendar inspires Jon Paul to reveal more of his cross-country travels with Tyra Banks.  Full Episode 5 now available.

Chef and I decided a few years back that if our little dog Frida were ever an animated character that she would be voiced by singer-actress Kristin Chenoweth.  They both share the same sense of perky spirit and sometimes curls, although I imagine  Kristin has a little more drive—we often refer to Frida as the “laziest dog in the world.”

Frida and Kristin, the resemblance is uncanny

So I follow Kristin’s career with considerable Glee (when is she coming back to my favorite show?), even devouring her memoir A Little Bit Wicked.  Of course I’ve already set my DVR for this Saturday’s Lifetime movie “12 Men of Christmas” where Kristin stars as A NEW YORK PUBLICIST casting a male pinup calendar!  Alessandra Stanley in today’s New York Times refers to it as “a watered-down reworking of Jane Austen’s famous comedy of manners (call it ‘Pride & Pectoral’).”  Sign me up!

Remember the literary agent who told me that a publicist wasn’t a familiar figure in people’s lives?  Well, I’m sure Kristin and Lifetime are about to change all that.

But if not, and you’re still wondering what publicists do, I thought I’d give you more of the behind-the-scenes tales of book tour with Tyra Banks.  You’ve seen only a snippet of this story, and if you forgot how I landed the job with the supermodel then you should probably read Episode 4 first.  Then delve into Alphabet City’s Episode 5: The Bodyguard.

As I was reading the chapter this morning, the non-stop cross-country travel reminded me of George Clooney’s character in the new film Up in the Air.  Would the suave Oscar-winning actor be the right choice to play me in the Alphabet City movie?  Nah, I’d probably ask Frida’s permission to let Emmy-winner Kristin Chenoweth step into the role—she may be the wrong sex, but the attitude is all right.

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