Saturday, May 11, 2013

Leaving The Star: The spiral staircase -- and a Gershwin song

Back around the turn of the century, The Indianapolis Star underwent extensive renovation, affecting the newsroom operation drastically. The closing down of the composing room — victim of major technological change — was related to changes in the disposition of the third floor.  The second floor, where the news operation is centered, was radically redone, most notably with  the Herculean task of opening up, through thick concrete, an open space between the second and third floors. A spiral staircase was built to connect the two floors.

Gershwin's "Stairway to Paradise" was briefly mine. 
The area was called, slightly pretentiously, the atrium. Easy communication between the two floors was the object, though I recall very little necessary shouting between the word people and the photo people, who were headquartered upstairs. The spiral staircase (pedants would probably want me to refer to the pattern as a helix, not a spiral) creaked ominously about the same whether one person or five people were on it. It was sturdier than it sounded, however.

In idle moments on the nearby features copy desk, where I spent 13 years in what I've described as the Babylonian Captivity part of my career, I used to look over at that staircase and imagine how much fun it would be to ascend its winding course while belting out "A Stairway to Paradise" by the Gershwin brothers.

"I'll build a Stairway to Paradise, with a new step every day," the chorus begins. The song was written in 1922 for a show that the Paul Whiteman Orchestra helped put across on Broadway. Whiteman's acquaintance with George Gershwin began with that show, and resulted two years later in the bandleader's commissioning of "Rhapsody in Blue" (which the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will perform May 30-June 1 with piano soloist Awadagin Pratt). So:  No "Stairway to Paradise," no "Rhapsody in Blue."

The indelible blend of George's tune and Ira's lyrics suggests such endless good possibilities, just as it reflects the optimism and appetite for life we associate with the early 1920s. But why did I even daydream of making a fool of myself singing this infectious song while going up the spiral staircase? "That's not you," I would tell myself when I had calmed down. "And even if it were you, you'd better hope to God a stern inner voice would tell you not to do it."

Last year, the spiral staircase was removed and the newsroom made spiffy and open, a project completed about the same time The Star began seeking a buyer for 307 North Penn (a process concluded as of May 10). My temptation, weak as it was, had vanished with that creaky, winding staircase.

Now, poised on the start of my last week as a Star employee and launching an independent arts blog, it's more fun to envision such a performance in my mind, perhaps with a cane and a top hat, giving it all I'm worth. If you know the tune, I invite you to sing it along with me -- for all you're worth. We can be a kind of cyber-"Sing Along With Mitch" chorus. There are no critics present, not even me.

I'll build a Stairway to Paradise,
With a new Step ev'ry day!
I'm going to get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way.

I've got the blues,
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes,
Go on and carry me there!
I'll build a Stairway to Paradise,
With a new Step ev'ry day.