Wench for a day: Working at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire

Customers get a theatrical version of life in 16th century England during a visit to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in Lancaster County. Julia Hatmaker, Pennlive.com entertainment concierge, spends a day working at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. Paul Chaplin | pchaplin@pennlive.com

This story was originally published on Aug. 25, 2013 on PennLive.

In the bowels of the Globe Theatre, I was handed a pair of peasant’s bloomers. Little did I know that by day’s end, I would be royalty.

Lily Steiner, head costumer for the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in Mount Hope, dressed me in Renaissance garb in preparation for my day shadowing workers at the Faire. With two caps, an embroidered vest and a skirt, all in a hodgepodge of colors, I looked like a medieval Eliza Doolittle as we listened through the wooden floorboards to Mark Sullivan, artistic director for the Faire, begin the morning meeting on the stage below.

It was 9:30 a.m.; only an hour and a half remained before the gates to the Faire’s medieval land would open and 21st century citizens would flood in.

As the moments until showtime ticked by, all the actors — both the professional Bacchanalians and the volunteer Blackfriars — were given a language challenge. The week prior, they were tasked to devise an insult of five words or more. This time, they had to woo the crowd at every opportunity: praise the of calves of male guests and wax lyrical on the eyes of the ladies in honor of the weekend’s theme, Chivalry and Romance.

Commendations were bestowed upon the winners of last weekend’s “Best Bit.” A “bit” is a spontaneous moment of theater that gathers a crowd. Highly coveted, this title explains many of the antics patrons see at the Faire.

When the gates finally opened, each actor had their own position and their own game plan that they worked on in months of rehearsals. As patrons poured into the Faire, the accents came on and the energy was high.

I, on the other hand, was confused. I had lost Mark — who I was shadowing — and had no instructions about who I was, how to act or what I should say to the stampeding masses. My lack of experience at Ren Faires (I’ve only been to one other before) did not help. Does one say, “Welcome to the Ren Faire?” Or should I opt for something along the lines of, “Welcome to a theatrical pseudo-historical representation of a fictional shire in medieval England?”

Neither, obviously. After a few “Welcome to the Ren Faire”s I gave up. I smiled, nodded and pretended that I was just a patron, a tactic that worked until I found Mark again.

Being “on” all the time was hard, and getting my footing when it came to interacting with the patrons was harder still. What was even more confusing was talking with “playtrons,” those guests who come in costume and pretend they are part of the world. I often got “playtrons” confused with cast members until I learned all cast members wear a black rosette on their costume. During my time at the Ren Faire, I became a champion rosette hunter.

Kelsey “Teddy” Allison of Harrisburg wore her rosette with pride. A member of the Blackfriar cast, her job was interacting with the crowd. “It’s very much a theme park where you feel you can be free and ridiculous,” she said, maintaining her accent throughout the interview. Her tactic for interaction was easy. “You just look for the happiest person… and maybe they have a drink in their hand to loosen them up,” she grinned.

“One of the things we talk about is having a 7 year-old mentality. You can go out and be as silly as you want…”

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How James Wolpert found his voice: Strasburg singer talks past, upcoming concert and EP launch

This story was originally published on Feb. 11, 2014 on PennLive.com.

James Wolpert at his home in Strasburg. JULIA HATMAKER | jhatmaker@pennlive.com

James Wolpert has lived in the same house in Strasburg all his life.

From the outside, you can tell that is a house filled with stories, ghosts and memories of years long past. It is a touch rustic and still undergoing projects as staircases are added and walls are torn down. Despite that, it is filled with an aura of comfort and coziness.

It does not feel like a house – it’s a home.

It is a fitting home for Wolpert: a dreamer, a man still trying to find his own identity and his own path in the world. He is a charmer with an easy smile and a quick laugh. With his mismatched socks and a friendly handshake, you realize this TV star and singer will be a small town boy no matter where he goes.

After welcoming me inside, he took my coat, gave me a short tour and walked me through how to use iCalendar, which he had seen me struggle with before.

“Sorry, it’s the inner Apple employee” he apologized.

It has been a busy few months for the 23-year-old, whose calendar has only gotten fuller since he came in fifth on NBC’s “The Voice” in December.

“I’m obsessively working on stuff,” he said, gesturing to his makeshift workstation, a mess of wires and cords with a laptop and multiple speakers on a table by the front door. A microphone stands off to the side.

“I don’t get out much these days — there’s just too much to do! Too much on the docket.”

“I’m sure I’ll find time to do things that are recreational and not within this 50 foot vicinity of my house, but that’s not until after my show at least,” he said.

The show in question is actually two shows. Wolpert is performing at American Music Theatre on Feb. 15 and 16. The first show at the 1,600 capacity venue is already sold out, while the second is more than halfway there.

Wolpert will be performing some original songs as well as covers, all backed by a full band.

“I don’t want to reveal too much about it,” Wolpert said. “There’s nothing super huge happening, but I’d just like it to be a surprise.”

He did share that fellow “The Voice” contestant Cole Vosbury would be joining him on the stage, playing the guitar and singing along. “The Voice” contestants Caroline Pennell and Matt Schuler are going to be there for the Sunday show as well, but in the audience rather than on the stage.

As for the genre, Wolpert is going full-on pop rock.

“It’s going to be a rock show, so it’s going to be really high octane, but there’s going to be some intimate acoustic moments as well,” Wolpert said. “It’s going to be bombastic.”

“That’s my headline! ‘Bombastic James Wolpert,’” I exclaimed.

“Please don’t do that,” he laughed. “I don’t know where I pulled that out of my adjective grab bag.”

There was a momentary debate as to what exactly the word means.

“I think it means just spectacular and large,” he volunteered, turning to his laptop and announcing “I’m going to use this computer and fully understand the meaning of bombastic.”

“High-sounding with little meaning; inflated,” he read.

A beat passed.

“Wow,” he laughed. “I actually stole that adjective from Adam [Levine] on the show and I assumed he knew what it meant.

“The show’s not going to be bombastic,” he assured me with great eagerness. “It’s going to be big, but not bombastic.”

Also on that docket is his upcoming EP, which has decided to self-produce.

“It’s fun, I’m learning a lot,” he smiled. “I want to be literate in terms of sound engineering. I don’t want to move forward going into studios where I leave all of that up to the engineer — I’ve dabbled in that and it’s not been bad, but it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to. I want to know how to exert creative control over what’s happening outside of the booth and I think that the best way to do it is to self-produce an album and stumble through it.”

The EP, titled “Forfeiture, Portraiture,” is slated to be released around the same time as his American Music Theatre show.

“Conceptively, it’s a self portrait,” he said. “It’s a sketch, a reading on where I am personally right now… it’s largely a critique on myself. It’s a very introspective album and I’m sure that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it.”

“I like to think it does something new that not many people are doing out there,” he went on. “Just in the way it sounds and the way it’s coming together: the instrumentation, the choices I make when I mix it down. I think it’s interesting. It interests me, at least.”

He admits, though, he will probably never be satisfied withe the EP. “I will obsess over this until it’s somewhat presentable, then I will release it and hopefully people will enjoy it.”

They will, hopefully, walk away with a better understanding of who, exactly, James Wolpert is.

“It is as true to life a self-portrait as it possible can be,” he said. “That’s an important part of music — that you have some personal investment in it. People like that stuff.”

People also, by and large, like Wolpert. In the corner of the room that he had designated his studio sat multiple poster boards filled with clippings documenting his time of “The Voice” dropped off at his home by fans.

He has no idea where some of it came from.

“There are a lot of things just kind of lying around here that are memorabilia from the show,” he said. “For example, there was a wreath on our door that said ‘Congratulations, James!’ and apparently somebody just came up to our door and hung it there and ran away.”

Also included in the mini “Voice” shrine: two cards from which Carson Daly read the names of the contestants who were saved and who was not.

But perhaps the strangest item displayed was a pack of diaper pins adorned with ducks. The pins are an inside joke amongst Lampeter-Strasburg High School drama students. During their senior year, they are each given a pin to wear during their final performance for good luck by L-S teacher Erik Welchans.

Wolpert actually wore a few pins himself while on “The Voice.”

“My mom sent me a few of them to give to other contestants,” he explained. “We were in the green room one day and [the pins] were lying on the table and Adam Levine came in. He was just to talking us, like ‘Hey guys, how you doing? Are you excited for the show?… Whose diaper pins are these?’ And I’m like, ‘They’re mine,’ and he was like ‘[pause] Dude, you wear diapers?’”

“I said sarcastically, ‘I totally wear diapers’ and he was like, ‘Really? You do?’ and I was like ‘I was kidding! I don’t! I don’t wear diapers, Adam Levine’,” he laughed. “[Levine] didn’t say anything after that, he just kind of moved on.”

Wolpert’s road to “The Voice” really began in high school, when his friends formed a band called Mr. Smith. Wolpert started out as the group’s third guitarist, before moving into the lead vocalist position after their old lead singer dropped out.

The group performed at the high school talent show, and it was there Wolpert was bit by the performing bug. Later, Mr. Smith would go on to win his high school’s Battle of the Bands two years in a row, playing what Wolpert calls “bro-y music” — Dave Matthews Band, Dispatch, etc. He maintains that Mr. Smith really wasn’t that good.

“I can’t stress to you how terrible we were,” he said. “We were so bad. I question how discerning were the ears that were judging us.”

The band “fizzled and died” after Wolpert was cast in ABC singing competition series “High School Musical: Get Into the Picture.” He was 17 at the time.

The show had teenagers singing for a spot on the third film of the “High School Musical” series. In each episode, they had to complete a singing challenge before performing in a big number, after which they would be told if they had been eliminated from the competition.

The show definitely doesn’t rank on “best memories ever” for Wolpert, who still cringes a little when talking about it — specifically about one week’s challenge to sing “A Whole New World” in a different style. Wolpert was told to perform it as a rap.

“It’s physically painful to think about that, because you had to do it in front of a live audience and they dressed me up and it was definitely out of my comfort zone,” he recalled. “When I tried to approach it with some levity, the judges nailed me for not taking it seriously.” He gave a hollow laugh.

“And that’s that. ‘High School Musical: Get Into the Picture’ was a weird thing.”

Wolpert ended up coming in fifth in the show, the same place he came in on “The Voice.”

“It’s weird,” he mused. “I’m always relegated to that fifth place.”

After “High School Musical” Wolpert vowed never to do a televised singing competition again. That changed when he dropped out of Carnegie Mellon University midway through his college career, a decision that was far from easy to make.

“I wasn’t succeeding there by any stretch of the imagination — in any way,” he said.

Searching for a direction to follow, he finally stumbled upon it after seeing a Train concert. It was at that moment that Wolpert rediscovered his original passion for performing and settled on making it his future career path.

His parents urged him to try out for “The Voice,” but he was resistant. It wasn’t until a visit from his cousin, Jonathan Groff (of “Frozen” and “Looking” fame), that he changed his mind.

Groff and his then-boyfriend Zachary Quinto stopped by the Apple store where Wolpert worked just to catch up. It was Quinto who urged Wolpert to join “The Voice.”

“He told me, ‘Dude, you should go out for ‘The Voice.’ I love that show. You’re super good. It’ll be great,’” Wolpert recalled. “I said ‘Thank you, Zachary Quinto, I will definitely give it a shot. I’ll go do it — I have nothing to lose.’”

He caught a red eye bus to New York and joined a giant casting call, where he was asked to sing a 20-30 second song. His choice? “Somebody to Love.” That song led to more auditions and eventually the blind audition where Wolpert landed himself a spot on Levine’s team.

“That song was always what I wanted to do, from the very beginning,” he said. “And that’s that. That’s how it all happened.”

After the show, he was on his own. He met with a couple of well connected people — some introduced to him by Groff. But nothing concrete has happened since.

“Everyone is waiting for me to drop my EP so they have samples to show people,” he said. “I think after the [AMT] show is over, some of those avenues are going to stop being hazy and come into clarity a little bit.”

But Wolpert isn’t worried about whether he will succeed or not. “I’ll figure it out. I’m very confident I’ll find a way,” he said. “When I want something, I’m very determined to make it happen.”

Behind the Scenes: What it takes to put on a Hersheypark Stadium concert

The stage at Hersheypark Stadium is set up for the Matchbox Twenty and Goo Goo Dolls concerts. Bill Hartmann, of S. Lebanon Twp., pulls cabling. 08/14/2013 Dan Gleiter | dgleiter@pennlive.com

This story was originally published July 8, 2014 on PennLive.com. It was the cover story for Central PA Magazine’s Arts and Entertainment issue, as well as a front-page story for The Patriot-News.

Screams surround you as you stand, rocking to the beat, drink in one hand and cell phone in the other. You’re snapping picture after picture as your favorite artist hits the Hersheypark Stadium stage.

You know your ears will be ringing for days after, but you don’t care. What matters is right now, this moment when the song you’ve had on loop on your iPod is finally played.

You’re lost in the music. That’s when Hershey Entertainment knows its done a good job.

Flash backwards.

It’s January and Amanda Haffly is thinking of June.

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1984 agreement between Amish and Pennsylvania sets tone for ‘Amish Mafia’ debate

This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2014 on PennLive.

Governor Tom Corbett made headlines earlier this week when he, and other state and national politicians, called for a halt to production of the Discovery Channel series “Amish Mafia” in a statement issued by the Respect Amish movement.

“Amish Mafia” follows a gang in Lancaster County who “enforce” Amish law and protect the Amish from their neighbors. Experts have continually stated that the show is fake.

While PennLive readers were quick to criticize Corbett for weighing-in on a television series, the governor’s feelings on the matter were nothing new.

The state of Pennsylvania has a long-standing policy regarding the Amish and film companies.

It all goes back to the days of “Witness,” the 1985 film starring Harrison Ford as a cop tasked with protecting an Amish boy who witnessed a murder.

It was called “a high-water mark of commercial exploitation and harassment of an innocent people,” by Amish scholar John Hostetler in a 1985 Patriot-News editorial. The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom (a group which did not have any Amish members) called for a boycott of the film.

During filming, community attitudes grew so heated that the Old Order Amish Steering Committee’s Board of Directors met with then-Governor Dick Thornburgh’s administration and the Department of Commerce to share their concerns regarding television and film productions about the Amish.

The meeting was held on Aug. 31, 1984. The agreement was written down in a letter to Mr. A. S. Kinsinger, chairman of the Old Order Amish Steering Committee, which PennLive obtained through a Right to Know Request.

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How to be the ultimate zombie: ‘Day of the Dead’ actor shares his tips at Central PA Comic Con

Mark Tierno of “Day of the Dead” fame at the Central PA Comic Con on April 5, 2014. (JULIA HATMAKER | jhatmaker@pennlive.com)

Originally published April 5, 2014 on PennLive.com

With the “Walking Dead,” zombies are the rage.

It’s important therefore that all zombie actors and zombie fans take a moment to bask in the present popularity of the undead – at least that’s what Mark Tierno believes.

Tierno played “Beef Treats,” one of the featured zombies in the film “Day of the Dead” (1985). The Pittsburgh actor, who also stared in Syfy’s “Mercury Men,” is in the midstate for the Central PA Comic Con at the Hotel Carlisle April 5-6.

But back to zombies.

“I really think they should have their own variety show,” he was telling me Saturday afternoon at the con. “Or a talk show – a grunt show!” He laughed.

Tierno and I embarked on an epic zombie discussion, in which he shared with me his tips for being the ultimate zombie. These are the things every zombie portrayer must master before trying to tackle the role of the stumbling undead.

Zombie thoughts

“You need to think like a dead person,” Tierno said. “Their mental processes aren’t that acute.” So how does one achieve that perfect mixture of dead, but not-dead thought patterns? “It takes years of zombie meditation,” he joked.

“It takes years of zombie meditation”

Zombie walks

Tierno is old school, so to him zombies don’t move fast. So slow down your movements. But do realize that by following his model, you’re taking a side in a zombie war. “There’s a conflict between the old zombies and the new ones on that,” Tierno warned.

Also, leave your gracefulness at home. Nobody wants a ballerina zombie. The undead are all about the shuffling. “You’re always unbalanced and ambling and shuffling,” Tierno said, demonstrating briefly with a stilted walk that made me nearly want to chop his head off for fear of him eating my flesh. Now all that can make your legs a little stiff, maybe even cramp them up a bit. So if you’re really dedicated to it, consider seeing a masseuse. “There should have been zombie masseuses on set” for “Day of the Dead” Tierno said with a grin.

Another Tierno zombie movement fact? Zombies cannot dance. Continue reading

Ringling Brothers ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson on why performing in the circus is worth the risks

Originally published May 17, 2014 on PennLive.com.

The circus is coming to town.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey are bringing their “Legends” show to the Hershey Giant Center May 21-26. Tickets begin at $27.85 for “The Greatest Show on Earth,” where you can see death defying stunts and mythological creatures – including Pegasus and a unicorn – come to life.

But the heart of any circus is its performers, who push their bodies to the limits to defy the odds. So why do they do it?

“It’s not the fame and Lord knows it’s not the fortune,” laughed Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster for “Legends,” during a phone interview. “It’s for who you are.”

“That’s what people have to understand about the circus. If you’re asking the question ‘why would anybody do that to themselves?’ Well, why do you do what you do?’ he went on. “For whatever reason God puts certain things in people, certain drives and that’s who they are. As James Baldwin said, ‘You have to go the way your blood beats.’ If you don’t, you don’t really live.”

As for when Iverson knew he was meant to be part of the circus, it was something that happened gradually. He never set out to be a ringmaster.

“That dispels another myth – nobody runs away to join the circus,” he said. “The circus finds you.”

Iverson originally planned to be an opera star, but took the Ringling gig when he graduated college. It was meant to be his job for a year or two – but fate had other plans.

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The non-fan’s guide to enjoying a One Direction concert

This article was originally published on PennLive.com on July 6, 2013.

Did you get roped into chaperoning your tween daughter/sister/friend at the One Direction concert at Hersheypark on July 6? Already dreading your task?

Well don’t, because it can actually – surprise surprise – be fun.

Follow these 10 tips and lessons learned (the hard way by me at the July 5th concert), ranked by importance, and you’ll have a grand ol’ time – or at least not a miserable one.

10. First things first, be prepared. It’s going to be hot and, chances are, sunny. Bring sunblock and make sure you’re hydrated before the concert even begins. Heat exhaustion is not fun, as I found out. Also be sure to bring cash – as it’s the only way to buy drinks or food once you’re in the stadium (and you aren’t allowed to bring your own).

9. Time your arrival. The boys don’t go on until around 8:30 p.m., so don’t rush to get to the stadium unless your fan is madly in love with 5 Seconds of Summer, the opening act. Instead, take your time. If you’re relaxed, odds are you’ll enjoy yourself more than if you’re a frantic mess.

8. Read the signage. Some of the posters are actually quite funny, others mildly disturbing – but all are interesting.

7. Feel free to sit down. Trust me, you won’t be missing much. One Direction is more Monkees than Backstreet Boys – there isn’t any choreography and the boys spend most of the time prancing around the stage and embodying British charm. If you’re not subscribed to J-14, chances are that actually watching the concert won’t do anything for you.

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Drag queens speak out: Local documentary tells their story

One of the photographs captured during the filming of “ScottChurch’s Drag.” Photo by ScottChurch.

Originally published in The Patriot-News on Nov. 8, 2012.

Mitchell L. Ernst of Lebanon is a performer at heart.

He’s a professional actor — but the character he is best known for lives off the theater stage.

Her name is Jade DeVere and she is fierce, fabulous and oh-so feminine.

Ernst is a drag queen and one of the subjects of the documentary “ScottChurch’s Drag” premiering Friday for a one-time showing at the Allen Theatre in Annville.

The film began as a series of humorous pieces of art for famed erotic photographer Scott Church, who invited filmmaker Michael Donati of Palmyra to tag along on the endeavor. His goal was to showcase drag queens in ordinary places — bowling alleys, grocery stores, gas stations.

The first subject was a straight man who was married with children and did drag as a hobby.

“We had this guy in full drag at a gas station filling up a motorbike,” Donati said. “Scott and I were like, this is great. [The film will] be fun; it’ll be silly.”

The next interview changed all that.

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‘Amish Mafia’: Amish experts weigh in on new Discovery Channel show

John, Alvin, Levi, Jolin – the subjects of “Amish Mafia.” Photo from the Discovery Channel.

Amish mafia.

The two words together seem like an oxymoron.

But, according to a new Discovery Channel show, they are not the oddest of pairings.

“Amish Mafia” explores the world of Lebanon Levi and his gang of three men, Jolin, John and Alvin. Together, the four act as “protectors” of the Amish community in Lancaster.

The Discovery Channel’s “Amish Mafia” follows the group that allegedly “protects” the Amish in Lancaster.Discovery Channel photo

A graphic at the beginning of the episode states that the Amish church denies the group exists, but the camera crew appears to tell a different story through interviews and reenactments.

Throughout the first episode, the mafia members drink, drive cars and gamble on cow pies. They blackmail bishops, threaten people and shoot up cars.

“Levi is the cops. He’s the courthouse. He’s the bank and he’s the insurance company,” says Esther, John’s sister, during the series’ first episode, which is slated to premiere at 9 p.m. Dec. 12. A sneak peek of the show will air at 10:30 Dec. 11.

The existence of an Amish mafia is news to Amish experts Donald Kraybill andDavid Weaver-Zercher, professors at Elizabethtown College and Messiah College, respectively.

“When I first saw the trailer [for the show], I thought maybe it was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit on reality television because it was so far fetched,” Weaver-Zercher said.

“My sense is this Amish mafia is about as real as the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in ‘The Office.’ ”

Read more on PennLive.com.

Mixtape Festival brings nostalgia (and music) to Hershey

NKOTBSB onstage at Hersheypark Stadium in 2011. Photo by JULIA HATMAKER, The Patriot-News.

When the Summer Mixtape Festival was announced on April 16, the news was met with screams and squeals.

“I flipped out,” said Tabatha Pelletier of East Pennsboro Twp. “I started yelling and ran upstairs telling everyone that I had to go to this concert. I was like a little child.”

Held in Hersheypark Stadium Friday and Saturday, the festival features a selection of the who’s who of pop worlds, past and present. For Pelletier, the lineup was a dream come true. Her favorite groups, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees and The Wanted were together for one weekend, and practically next door.

“I was not expecting Hershey to put on something this crazy,” she said. “We usually have good concerts, but I think this is really awesome.”

She isn’t the only one. New Kids on the Block fans Abbey Fisher of York County and Amy Sharpe of Palmyra were shocked.

“I couldn’t believe that they picked Hershey of all places,” Fisher said.

Sharpe agreed. “It was like, ‘that’s ridiculous,’” she said. A big New Kids on the Block fan, she heard the news via their fan club. “It was like God put them in my backyard,” she said. Continue reading

Commentary: My night in Gotham City at ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ world premiere

Julia Hatmaker at the world premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in New York City. Photo by Laura Hatmaker.

Originally published in The Patriot-News on July 20, 2012.

Earlier this week, I was transported to Gotham City.

Luck had brought me to the comic book metropolis. My parents, siblings and I were extras during the “The Dark Knight Rises” filming in Pittsburgh last year (look for our blurs in the stadium scene). As a reward for our hard work of waiting, screaming and more waiting, there were raffles for prizes. My sister Laura won the grand prize — two tickets to the film’s world premiere and after-party in New York City. Her husband, being a wonderful human being, graciously turned down his ticket so I could have it.

On Monday night, Laura and I found ourselves on the red carpet. Or rather, the black carpet. Or rather, by the black carpet.

We, the regular people, don’t walk the carpet. Instead, we pick up our tickets at will call through a side alleyway entrance to the theater. Once inside, with tickets in hand, we could observe the carpet activities from a window. Marion Cotillard posed, Anne Hathaway glided and Christian Bale smiled for the camera. Even from our vantage point it was still, mind you, very cool.

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Brian Littrell of Backstreet Boys talks about the band, fans and rivals

Originally published in The Patriot-News on July 28, 2011.

Brian Littrell, member of the Backstreet Boys and heartthrob at large, is making his way to Hershey. The same man whose faced grinned from posters on bedroom walls and covers of teen magazines has joined up with his band mates and New Kids on the Block for a concert tour that makes every boy-band fan’s dream come true. Their next destination? Hersheypark Stadium Saturday.

Even if the name Backstreet Boys sounds foreign, chances are you know their music. The group shot to fame in the late 90s with hits like “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” and “I Want It That Way.” Six of the group’s albums have been in the Billboard 200 Top 10. It has recorded numerous hit songs and has been nominated for seven Grammy Awards.

When BSB’s first U.S. album debuted in 1997, Littrell’s photo made elementary students squeal. Now, 14 years later, those same kids are adults — and many have kept on screaming.

The band has done a fair bit of growing as well. Their music has changed from standard boy band pop to acoustic rock to dance and they lost a member, Kevin Richardson. Littrell has shed his nickname “B-Rock,” in favor of his first name. “I’ve kinda out grown that phase,” he says.

“I got that title growing up as a Backstreet Boy, being a young man,” he says. “That’s not really my title now. I’m a grown man, husband, father.”

He could also add to that lyricist and song writer, as many BSB fans know. Littrell co-wrote the hit “Larger than Life,” in addition to “The One” and “The Answer to Our Life,” among others.

“I hear melodies in my head and I write about what I feel,” he says. “It’s a way for me to tell the fans, tell the public, what’s going on in my head and what’s going on at that time.

His favorite song he’s written, however, cannot be found on any Backstreet Boy album. Continue reading

Holy extra, Batman! An extra’s experience on the ‘Dark Knight Rises’ set

The Hatmaker horde (with a couple of my brother’s friends) on the set of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I am the “U.”

Originally published in The Patriot-News on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011.

To say I am a Batman fan is an understatement. Growing up, I had the costume, the action figures, the sleeping bag and the toys. I used to parade around my house, leaping down stairs singing “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-BATMAN” in full bat costume. My first prayer was for a Batman towel set to complete my collection (I’m not proud of that).

So when my brother, Ben, told me that the latest Batman film by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight Rises” was looking for extras in Pittsburgh, it didn’t take me long to clear my calendar and round up my entire family (father, mother, brother, older sister and her husband) to join me.

What awaited us was explosive.

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Steelton rapper Skillz Hurachi’s death stuns friends and family

Skillz Hurachi (right).

Originally published in The Patriot-News on May 19, 2012.

Many people called Terrance Manning “Skillz,” and his growing success in different fields show that he deserved the nickname.

Known as Skillz Hurachi, the Steelton rapper had opened for nationally known superstars Drake, Lil’ Wayne and Soulja Boy as a member of the rap trio VSOP/XO. He was slated to perform his first solo concert Friday at the Seabash restaurant in Harrisburg.

A tattoo artist, his work was about to be featured on UrbanInk.com, one of the top African American tattoo sites in the country. He also produced custom T-shirts.

Today, he planned to celebrate his 26th birthday at a bash filled with friends.

But Manning died Friday, leaving stunned friends and family mourning. Scores of friends and loved ones posted condolences on Facebook.

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Psychic John Edward connects with the dead, science and skeptics

Psychic John Edward.

Originally published in The Patriot-News on August 18, 2011. 

Quantum physics enthusiast and former health care administrator, John Edward is more than just a proclaimed psychic. He is a teacher, a messenger and according to some, a fraud.

Edward, 41, is coming to a sold-out performance Friday at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center. with a price of $125 per ticket the feat is commendable.

Here, Edward tackles the issue of cynics, the accusations of being a fraud and his own story of how he went from a phlebotomy specialist to a psychic extraordinaire.

You’ve said the one person you want to connect to most is Albert Einstein. Any luck?

“No, I would have to have someone in his family. There has to be a lightning line. I don’t think he’d come through in a way that I’d want to have a conversation with him, either. He would come through in a way that was personal them.”

What would you talk about?

“I would like to talk to him when he was alive about what he thought of the potentiality of the afterlife and then I’d like to talk with him once he had passed on. I think that would be a fascinating chat. But you know, you’re talking to the person who likes to read books about quantum physics.”

Ahh, but no one understands quantum physics.

“It’s all debatable thought. It’s stuff that’s all hypothesis on what there are theories on. It’s really fascinating stuff.”

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Rusted Root spreads its roots in Lancaster

Photo by Julia Hatmaker, edited on Instagram.

Originally published in the official guide to Launch Music Conference 2012

Not every band can say its music has been played in space.

But, then again, Rusted Root is not your average band.

Formed in the early 90s, Rusted Root has built a name for itself on its unique blend of the world and rock genres. Its music has been played during television shows and movies, including “Ice Age,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Twister.” In 2003 the band’s song “Send Me on My Way” was chosen as wake-up music for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity by NASA engineers.

This year marks the release of a new album and a 20th anniversary for the group.

“Honestly, I feel real blessed to be making a living 20 years later from this band I started in college,” said Liz Berlin, percussionist and vocals for Rusted Root.

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Harrisburg rapper J. Bair’s video goes against grain, slams violence

Photo by Christine Baker, The Patriot-News.

Originally published in The Patriot-News on April 19, 2012.

A gunshot interrupts the ting, bass, ting of a rap song’s percussion.

Screams sound and characters scatter. One guy slumps forward.

The image is stark and horrifying.

“Gunshot Blast” by Harrisburg rapper J. Bair goes against the grain of the stereotypical modern rap music scene, which tends to glorify guns and gang violence. It decries violence, emphasizing the human consequences.

The music video, which premiered March 17 on YouTube, has been featured on its “Hip Hop Update” channel and is nearing 3,000 views. What has people talking is its message: an unforgiving slam on the prevalence of guns in the community.

And it couldn’t come at a better time.

The week the video went online, a Steelton cabdriver was shot and killed in Harrisburg. On April 12, a man died after being shot on Derry Street. This year, Harrisburg has already seen five homicides and was named the 20th-most-dangerous city in America by NeighborhoodScout.com.

“The city right now is in a frenzy,” said Rob Roman of Harrisburg, who does multimedia work for J. Bair. “It takes strong people to actually try to do something productive and avoid being involved in the nonsense that goes on.”

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‘I Am Harrisburg’ video aims to rally city

The hip-hop artists and producers behind I Am Harrisburg are, from left, Pacino, Zach, Jaymes, All Steezy, Bobbo and Supa Dupa Sultan. Photo by Julia Hatmaker, The Patriot-News

Originally published in The Patriot-News on March 23, 2012.

Harrisburg might be making headlines for violence and debt, but there’s more to it than that.

That’s the message behind “I Am Harrisburg,” a hip-hop song written for the people of the city to rally behind.

Written by local rappers and producers All Steezy, Jaymes, Zach, Pacino, Bobbo and Supa Dupa Sultan, “I Am Harrisburg” is meant to be an anthem for the city.

“I just hope it brings people together,” said All Steezy, the man behind the song’s hook and chorus. “We don’t have to be against each other.”

He cited the song’s creation as an example. “We all came from different places, we all came from different groups, and we all came together to make this song.”

The song was written last May but its music video was posted this month.

When it made the video and the song, the group had no idea that the month it posted it would be known for violent crimes nor that Harrisburg would be named the 20th most dangerous city in the United States by NeighborhoodScout.com.

Just as the media was flooded with reports of shootings, stabbings and robberies, YouTube lit up with a song about the positive side of Harrisburg.

“It was perfect timing,” Pacino said.

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Digging the drums: Frankie Muniz talks Kingsfoil and career so far

Photo by Dan Gleiter, The Patriot-News

Originally published in The Patriot-News on April 7, 2012.

It’s Friday afternoon and Frankie Muniz has locked himself in with his drum kit.

Since arriving in Harrisburg on Thursday morning, Muniz has been living and breathing the music of Kingsfoil, the York band in which he plays drums.

Muniz rose to fame in 2000 as Malcolm in the hit TV series “Malcolm in the Middle.” He also played the title character in the “Agent Cody Banks” movies. After “Malcolm” ended in 2006, Muniz took a break from Hollywood and moved to Phoenix, Ariz., to be a race car driver. Two years ago, he left competitive racing to be a drummer for You Hang Up, an unsigned band in his southwestern home.

Now, at age 26, Muniz has come to the midstate to pursue his drumming dream.

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The Summer Dress Guide: How to find the perfect gown for you

Photo by Jenny Kane, The Patriot-News

Originally published in The Patriot-News on Aug. 4, 2011.

This summer it’s all about dresses. A great way to keep cool and look cute at the same time, the summer dress this year is bright, breathable and bold.

Taylor Eisenberger, fashionista and owner of Taylored for You Bridal Boutique in Mechanicsburg and Paula Trimpey, Associate Professor of Theater and Fashion at Albright College, weigh in on the trend and share what dress is best for you, based on your body’s shape, bust size and height.

If you still are unsure about which dress to buy, follow Eisenberger’s advice: “When in doubt go shopping with your best friend and get a second opinion. Go with your gut instinct, if you feel good in it you’re going to look good in it.”

The dress trends

  • Bold prints: Tribal, geometric or tropical prints and patterns are vogue. Go big, bold and just a touch funky.
  • Bright colors: Summer is the time to celebrate the sunshine, so embrace shades like fire-engine red, golden-yellow and cerulean blue.
  • Flowy fabric: There is no set fabric for the season, but the style is flowy and soft, rather than the stiff or rigid looks popular in the winter
  • Ruching: This sewing technique adds a bit of ruffle detail to any dress. It causes a draping effect which flatters most figures.
  • Maxi: These slimming dresses look good on just about anyone, as the eye automatically is drawn down the length of the body, adding more height.
  • Trench dress: These shorter dresses take the look of a trench coat and turn it into a fitted dress with an a-line skirt, complete with a belt around the middle.

The perfect dress for you

Pear shaped – For those that are smaller at the top and wider at the bottom be on the hunt for dresses with these looks:

  • Bodice: Go for a detailed neckline or more of a halter shaped look.
  • Skirt: Choose one that hits at the knee or longer which “will float around your figure, definite it and also create interest,” according to Trimpey.
  • Belted: Show off the smallest part of your figure with a belt around the waist.
  • Colors: Avoid solid white, “It just makes you look like a puffalump,” Trimpey said. Instead go for an interesting print in multiple colors.

To find the ideal gown for other body shapes and sizes, read the full story on PennLive.com