Part 1: The Haunted Hotel
In a coal mining town set into the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, along a train track where a million dollars of coal passes daily, a rust colored Victorian Lady stands. Rising beside the tracks, once a landmark, now a relic, she looms: she is the Grand Midway Hotel, an establishment that once housed rail-riders coming into and out of town, a rollicking bar, and women catering to the miners. Now she is a meeting place for the creative, the odd, the literate and the artistic.
The view from the hotel's porch.
The brain child of writer/film maker Blair Murphy, who bought the hotel about a decade ago, the Grand Midway is not a public hotel. Only those invited may live there, though one night a week the hotel hosts a music and poetry coffeehouse open to the local public. But a few times a year a small crowd of selected guests meet here for festivals such as the one I am here for right now, Kerouac Fest.
The deer that guard my room.
Above: The Poe Room. Below: the ghost lurking there is just l'il old me.
The hotel itself hides long halls and a labyrinth of rooms that hold rarities and oddities. Each room has its own theme, sometimes congruent and sometimes not. A room of typewriters; a room with a bathtub laying inside; a room of maps; and my room, the Red Room, with a grand Victorian mirror and Chinese wall hangings. Downstairs the cafe/bar holds a library of books and DVDs: there are reading nooks set into every corner, and a screening room that doubles as flop bedding. The dining room continues the library, book shelves surrounding a grand table and high back chairs that each contain the Hebrew name of God. Cryptic messages are inscribed in every wall, on every stair and in every nook; at least, the ones that are not adorned with the multitude of taxidermy animals that were bequeathed to Blair. My room is entered between six deer heads, three on each side. The reading room at the end of the hall is guarded by a masked coyote, and a model I shot in one of the rooms communed with a bobcat.
Coal is still the economy of the town, and the tracks run right in front of the hotel porch. I am told that each of the two trains that pass daily carry a million dollars worth of coal. The train, a mile long or more, cuts the town itself in two as it passes, with no one able to cross the tracks during the train's slow, noisy passage (a local told me the best time to rob a bank is as the train ambles through: the police could not cross the tracks to pursue such an endeavor). During hotel events, a “train-watching party” forms each time the conveyance passes, interrupting anything else going on inside the hotel's myriad rooms.
Of course the hotel gets its nickname, the Haunted Hotel, from the fact that spirits are seen often. Television crews and paranormal researchers have all come, and all agree that there is activity here. Ghosts are said to roam both the basement and the back stairs. Ghosts of saloon girls, drunk miners and hobos are said to wander these hardwood halls, passing among the living who dwell here, wondering at the bohemian atmosphere that has been created. At bohemian events like Kerouac Fest!
Part 2: Kerouac Fest
Preparations for the fest happening when I arrived: Above, the library: that's Margaret vacuuming in her pin-up girl apron and heels. Below, Margaret and Kennedy in the hotel kitchen.
And bohemian it is, a celebration of Cabaret, Beat culture, the poetic aesthetic, and artistic expression. I arrived here on Monday, which was good. My first time at the Haunted Hotel, I got to know the place and meet a few of the key people before the crowd showed up on Wednesday evening. I bonded right away with Kennedy, the cook who, ironically, lives a few blocks from me in New Orleans; with poet, model and ersatz cleaning woman Margaret Bashaar; and with Blair himself, the owner and event coordinator of the hotel, and his group of film makers and writers.
Above: owner Blair Murphy, surrounded by lingerie girls. Below: Lucien, the hotel dog, likewise surrounded.
Wednesday evening I played a set during the coffeehouse show, open to locals: at midnight Kerouac Fest officially began. Locals left, and the invited arrived.
The festival is named, of course, for the American beat writer, author of On The Road. The festival is a barrage of workshops, concerts, film screenings and discussions, all punctuated by drinking parties, fire spinning, donut eating and train-watching (at one point the train passed right through a fire spinning session).
A train-watching party. These were happy social gatherings that happened each day of the festival.
There were full blown stage shows Friday and Saturday. Tommy Amoeba played Friday night with a full band. If you've never heard Tommy Amoeba, he is a brilliant absurdist performer. The show was followed by fire spinning (with a train), a set by singer E. May, and a screening of erotic-absurdist films by brilliant Pittsburgh film-maker Rachael Deacon. Saturday night's show featured myself, KabarettVulgare, and singer-performer Phat Man Dee. They were pretty awesome shows.
Above: film-maker Rachael Deacon in the cafe.
Poet/model/publisher Margaret Bashaar , posing for me (above) and giving a workshop (below) on the subject of Mexican shaman Maria Sabina. It was one of my favorite workshops of the fest.
I was skeptical when I arrived and Blair told me that food would magically appear; but he was right. Each day a feast was magically laid out at each meal. Often it was the amazing Kennedy who was responsible; other times guests had food catered, or arrived with as much food as they could carry. I really ate more this week than I have in the last three months of my tour!
Kennedy cooking. Appreciate her!!
Sign on the bathroom door. It's that kind of place.
The afternoon before their main stage show, Kabarett Vulgare did a workshop on the science of sideshows. They revealed the secrets of laying on the bed of nails (above and below: those are the real nail marks on Nick Noir's stomach) and walking on ground glass (further below).
That glass is seriously sharp!!
Kabarett Vulgare on the main stage. Above, MC DeVille; Below: Nick Noir lays on the bed of nails: Macabre Noir stands on him as he does so.
Macabre Noir and Penny De La Poison approach the pile of ground glass. Yes, that's real ground glass, and those are actual dainty girl feet!
...and dainty girl hands!
Macabre Noir is laying on ground glass while being walked upon by the lovely Penny De La Poison.
Myself performing Saturday evening on the Grand Midway stage. No ground glass was involved in my performance. (Photo by Margaret Bashaar).
Macabre Noir is a talented artist as well as a sideshow performer. These are her hand sewn creepy dolls (above): Macabre Noir and Nick Noir after their performance (below).
Absinthe party in the Poe room (above). Small, intimate gatherings over drinks, like this one, happened throughout the festival. There were also chess games, music jams, films showing constantly, and a general feeling of happy camaraderie.
E. May fire-spinning as the train passes through. E. May and I played a set together Friday evening; she is an amazing singer-songwriter as well as a daring spinner.
This festival was a dizzying, chaotic, brilliant week for me. I met a lot of very talented people, the small group of Blair's friends and guests who fed off of each others' brilliance and artistic energies. I planned to leave today and head home, but as I write this I am still at the hotel: hurricane Isaac is delaying my travel for a few days. Blair has graciously allowed me to stay on until the storm makes its intentions known. So I will wait here, and see if I feel the ghostly presence as the festival-goers depart.
From the Grand Midway Hotel, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.