Saturday, October 19, 2013

Adieu, Hilltop.

Here is some sad news from Massachusetts: the Hilltop Steakhouse closes its doors tomorrow after 52 years in business on Route 1 in the North Shore town of Saugus. Fittingly described as "iconic" and "treasured," the Hilltop enjoyed a devoted following among several generations of Bay State residents. Writing this week in the Boston Herald, Roger Berkowitz described the closing of the Hilltop as "akin to learning about a favorite elderly relative passing away. You kind of knew it was inevitable, but it took a toll nonetheless." News of the Hilltop's imminent demise has led many loyal patrons to return this week for one last meal at the restaurant, producing wait times of up to three hours and leading the manager to quip, "If it was like this all the time we wouldn't be closing." Eager for souvenirs of a beloved eatery, some patrons have been making off with menus, plates, and other items, a few of which have appeared for sale on eBay.

In its heyday, the Hilltop Steakhouse was the busiest and top-grossing restaurant in the United States, serving over two million customers annually and raking in $27 million in a year. What made the Hilltop so popular? A 2010 report from the blog Eccentric Roadside provides an explanation:
. . . In 1961, restaurateur Frank Giuffrida wanted all of Massachusetts to know he was opening a western-themed steak house, so he erected a 50-foot neon cactus in the style of old Freemont Street Las Vegas to beckon all carnivores near and far, along with a restaurant building resembling a corral and life-size plastic cows grazing in front. The place became a sure-fire bonanza, serving three million customers annually in their enormous dining rooms named Kansas City, Dodge City and Carson City. Customers stampeded for the huge portions at low prices and a wait of an hour or more was not uncommon, with a regionally accented lady announcing over the loudspeaker "numba 44 for Dawge City" to get you to your table. . . .
As Eccentric Roadside's editors conclude, the Hilltop was "a time warp, a reminder of a bygone era when eating a ton of meat and starch meant you were living the good life and your place mat showed you what part of the cow you were eating." The Hilltop's stand-out status is all the more impressive given the concentration of characterful dining establishments that surrounded it; as another blogger once wrote, "Even on Route 1 north of Boston, home of kitsch eateries like the giant pagoda Chinese spot, the seafood restaurant shaped like a ship, and the Italian joint with The Leaning Tower of Pisa out front, the Hilltop was special." To get a sense of what made the place so special, take a look at Eccentric Roadside's selection of photographs capturing the distinctive ambience of the Hilltop, from the giant neon cactus and herd of plastic cows outside to the massive 'Old West' dining rooms and generous serving sizes.

Given the longstanding success of the Hilltop's formula of large portions, low prices, and an appealingly kitschy dining experience, why is this venerable restaurant closing? As reported by Garrett Quinn in an article for MassLive, the reasons for the decline of the Hilltop are depressingly familiar:
The last decade . . . has not been kind to the restaurant, as competition has steadily increased along the Route 1 North sprawl. At one point there were less than a dozen restaurants in the area around the Hilltop, today there are over 60. Doward says the competition, along with the Hilltop's aging loyal customers, has hurt because the national chains that have sprung up have advertising and promotional capabilities that they do not.
In other words, the closing of the Hilltop can be put down to the same broad trends that sounded the death knell for many other once-successful locally-owned restaurants which proved unable to compete in a changing business environment. Though I understand the reasons for this quite well, I can't help but mourn the passing of the Hilltop in the same way that I mourned the closing of Thad's Steakhouse in New Bedford. Unlike Thad's, the Hilltop was not a place that I visited very often, largely because the restaurant was very far from where I grew up. The long drive to Saugus made each visit to the Hilltop a special event, timed to coincide with a family milestone or else planned as a stop on the way to a family vacation in New Hampshire or a visit to relatives in Maine. Though I regret that I didn't have the opportunity to visit the Hilltop one last time following the announcement of its closing, I am happy to have known her in her glory days, and I bid her a fond farewell. AMDG.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Exorcist, "a hymn to Georgetown."

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, a film which, as journalist Terry Mattingly reports, was once cited by researchers as the film with "the greatest spiritual effect on viewers, in terms of provoking people to think about sin, salvation and life after death." The Exorcist is also, as I once wrote here, "the Georgetown movie," a film with an intimate connection to the university and neighborhood in which it was set and filmed. To make clear just how intimately The Exorcist is linked with Georgetown, director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty recently returned to the Hilltop to reminisce and to revisit old haunts. Here is some of what Friedkin and Blatty had to say, as reported by Brian Truitt:
[Friedkin and Blatty] shot in several places on the Georgetown campus, the place that not only strengthened Blatty’s own faith and inspired him to become a writer, but also led to some aspects of The Exorcist.

"The film is in many ways a hymn to Georgetown," says Friedkin, 78.

It was in White-Gravenor Hall in a New Testament class that Blatty first heard of the 1949 exorcism of Maryland boy Roland Doe, and that sparked his interest in writing about the possession of Regan. And the infamous fall of Father Karras was influenced by Blatty watching one of his physics classmates take a hospitalizing tumble after trying to steal a final exam.

Blatty modeled Karras after his own feelings, he says. The death of Karras’s mother caused him to lose faith in God for a time, while the passing of Blatty’s mother also was deeply traumatic, "a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief."

Exploring the evidence of his faith in writing The Exorcist was "very gratifying because it solidified my belief that I would one day see my mother again," Blatty says.
The Truitt article also touches on a matter of longstanding controversy concerning The Exorcist, namely the removal from the original 1973 theatrical release of some scenes which helped to bolster the religious message. A Jesuit who was involved in the production of the film told me that Friedkin had cut the scenes - despite strong objections from screenwriter Blatty - because the director didn't want his work to be regarded as "a commercial for the Catholic Church." Friedkin eventually came around, restoring the excised footage in a 2000 director's cut. Here is more from the article:
Through the years, the film has grown in popularity, but Blatty missed the spiritual aspects from his original work, so Friedkin added 12 minutes for an extended director’s cut that was released in theaters in 2000.

"I felt that Bill created this, and the film had played by that time for about 27 years with those cuts that worked marvelously well," Friedkin says. "I thought, 'Why shouldn’t Bill have the version he wants at that point?'"

One of the additional scenes between bouts of the exorcism had Karras wondering what the point of the whole thing was and why a demon would invade the body of a little girl.

"And Merrin answers that the girl is not the target," Blatty says. "The girl is us, every one of us in this house, and the purpose is to make us feel vile, bestial, rotten and corrupt so that even if there were a God, he could not possibly love us."

"That in my head was not only the moral context, but it was the context that gave the audience a reason not to hate itself for liking the most sensational parts of the film."

. . .

"It was not a promotion for the Catholic Church but definitely a story about the power of Christ and the mystery of faith that continues to this day," Friedkin says. "I’m flattered when people admire it, but when they call it a horror, that’s not how I feel about it."
To read more - and to watch a video tour of Exorcist filming locations in Georgetown, conducted by Blatty and Friedkin - click here. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

On the Memorial of Bl. John Henry Newman.

This blog has been on an unplanned hiatus since mid-September, in large part because I've been so busy with schoolwork and other responsibilities that I simply couldn't find the time to post here. Partly in an effort to return to more regular posting, here is something for today's Memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. The stained glass depiction of Newman seen here comes from Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University, which happens to be the place where I really 'met' Newman for the first time. Though I had at least heard of John Henry Newman before I arrived at Georgetown, I had to answer "no" when Father Stephen Fields, S.J. offhandedly asked me whether I had ever read Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua. Father Fields insisted that I remedy this, and to make that task easier he spontaneously gifted me with a copy of Newman's Apologia; that old Image Books paperback, printed in 1956 with a cover price of ninety-five cents, would weather several readings in my hands and remains in my library today. Father Fields later led me through a more systematic engagement with Newman's major works in a course on the subject. It is perhaps a tribute to Newman (and to Fields) that I still return to the notes of that course from time to time to quickly reacquaint myself with what Newman said on topics like certainty, conscience, and the relationship between faith and reason.

To mark today's memorial, I decided to reread the homily preached by Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham, England for Newman's beatification on September 19, 2010. Benedict's words on Newman's scholarly and pastoral work seem particularly worthy of note:
Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or "Heart speaks unto heart," gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness. As he wrote in one of his many fine sermons, "a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles" (Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv, 230-231). . . .

The definite service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing "subjects of the day." His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world. I would like to pay particular tribute to his vision for education, which has done so much to shape the ethos that is the driving force behind Catholic schools and colleges today. Firmly opposed to any reductive or utilitarian approach, he sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together. . . .

While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: "Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you" ("Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel," Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3). He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here. . . .
I'd also like to take note of the Salve Fundator, a new Latin hymn commissioned by the Birmingham Oratory to honor their founder on his feast day. Composed by Father John Hunwicke, the Salve Fundator begins with this salutation: Salve Fundator, Pater et Magister! Salve Iohannes! magnum qui beati Cor et Philippi Anglis ostendisti Primus, et mentem ("Hail, Founder, Father and Master! Hail John, who were the first to show the great Heart of blessed Philip [Neri] the English, and St. Philip’s mind"). The rest of the text is available, in the original Latin and in English translation, on the Birmingham Oratory website. I could not find a recording of the hymn online - it is a new work, after all - but perhaps one will appear in the coming days.

On this, the day of his memorial, I pray that Blessed John Henry Newman will intercede for us before God. As one who was greatly cheered by Newman's beatification, I also express the prayerful hope that we will someday know him as Saint John Henry Newman. AMDG.