Saturday, January 20, 2018

Brother, Help Thyself Awards $75k in Grants

Brother, Help Thyself (BHT), one of the truly worthwhile LGBTQ organizations, handed out a total of $75,000 in grants to 34 LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS nonprofits in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, DC region. The ceremony was held on January 20 at the Baltimore Eagle.  

Mayor Catherine Pugh brought greetings on behalf of the residents of Baltimore, as did Jeffrey Hitt of the Maryland Department of Health.

“The story here isn’t that BHT gave out $75,000 today,” said Andrew McCarty, grant reception chairman, in a statement. “The story here is that in the era we find ourselves in today, where our freedoms and rights, and healthcare choices are being threatened, these 34 non-profits, with our help, are out there each and every day fighting to preserve and defend those rights and freedoms in support of our community. We are proud to play a small role in that work.”

2017 BHT Grant Awards
AIDS Action Baltimore - $4,140.00
Athletes United for Social Justice - "The Grassroots Project" - $1,130.00
Black, Gifted & Whole Inc. - $5,830.00
Breaking Ground - $2,930.00
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop - $830.00
Casa Ruby Inc. - $4,390.00
D.C.’s Different Drummers - $1,130.00
DC Center for LGBT Community - $2,360.00
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church - $150.00
Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC - $560.00
FreeState Justice - $920.00
Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore - $770.00
Health Options & Positive Energy Foundation, Inc (HOPE DC) - $3,790.00
Heart to Hand, Inc - $3,410.00
HIPS - $3,580.00
HopeSprings, Inc. - $3,350.00
Latino GLBT History Project - $2,200.00
LULAC Council 11125 - $1,000.00
Mary's House for Older Adults, Inc. - $8,280.00
Metro DC PFLAG - $850.00
Mid-Atlantic Deaf & Interpreter Fund - $1,670.00
Mosiac Theater Company of DC - $350.00
New Ways Ministry, Inc. - $1,980.00
PFLAG Columbia-Howard County MD - $1,020.00
PFLAG Westminster MD - $1,020.00
Rainbow Families DC - $2,080.00
Rainbow History Project Foundation - $790.00
Rainbow Theater Project - $540.00
SMYAL - $1,690.00
St. Margaret's Church Vestry - "Charlie's Place" - $3,030.00
TransGender Education Association of Greater Washington - $1,460.00
UUC of Rockville "Rainbow Youth Alliance - $4,740.00
Wanda Alston Foundation - $2,470.00
Washington Renegades Rugby Football Club - $560.00


BHT also presented four annual community service awards:

▲Anthony J. Bachrach Award for Outstanding Service (to an individual), to Baltimore’s own Rik Newton-Treadway for his longtime and terrific support of our community.

 ▲Billy Collison Award (to an underdog, and grantee), was presented to the Latino GLBT History Project who does so much, with so very little, to preserve the history of the LatinX LGBTQ community in Washington, DC.

 ▲George Dodson Business Award (to a business supportive of the community) was presented to the Baltimore Eagle (for a second time no less) for its outstanding support of our community.

 ▲Founders Award (to a non-profit, doesn’t have to be a grantee) was presented to the Wanda Alston Foundation for its record of vital service to the homeless LGBTQ youth population in Washington, DC.

“Our community has some great unsung legends who for years have gone about their days working for the betterment of LGBTQ people,” said McCarty. “None of us are in this for self-aggrandizement, and we believe it is vital to recognize folks and groups we collectively feel are worthy of recognition.”

Since its incorporation in 1978, BHT has now given out $3,169,699.45.  For more information about BHT call 202-347-2246  or email

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Republicans Must Break From the Shithole President

The GOP is heading off the cliff with Trump.

Election Day 2018 is less than 10 months away.  On a national level, midterms are usually perilous for the party in power as voters have little other choice but to vent their frustration against those holding offices. This cycle is shaping up to be a doozey against the GOP fueled by the revulsion towards President Donald Trump who remains the most unpopular president in modern times.

Voter surveys have shown a marked preference for a generic Democratic candidate over a Republican in Congress.  GOP representatives are retiring at a record pace that now give hope to Democratic candidates to seize the opportunities presented and re-take the House.  While it is true Democrats need a strong message during this cycle to win over voters and as importantly, stoke the needed enthusiasm to get out the vote, disdain for Trump will be the party’s guiding star.

Trump has demonstrated an inordinate capacity for getting himself in trouble with his tweets and his verbal comments—the latter exemplified by his reported racially charged characterization of African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries” in reference to immigrants.  He needs this controversy like a hole in the head following the publication of mega-seller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff where his fitness for office, his mental capacity and stability are allegedly questioned by those who are around him. #hocopolitics

From Charlottesville to Ghana, Trump has displayed his inner bigoted self, substantiated by a history of racism from his real estate development beginnings and birtherism to his anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican rhetoric.  Now the “shithole” mess that validates the charges of racism.

Throughout these episodes, Republican lawmakers have been tepid concerning Trump’s actions and overt racist words, the hovering Russia investigation, and the cavalier saber-rattling handling of the stalemate with North Korea.  While privately they raise their eyebrows and shake their heads with respect to Trump (even calling him a moron or worse), publicly they are latching on to him without any fissures of this alliance to this point.

Trump with his pardoned pal Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who was once a strong critic of the president and gave hope to Americans that the preservation of democracy is far more important than party loyalty has exercised a rather suspicious whiplash reversal since a golf outing with Trump and now seems to be an ally. Even retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) who had criticized Trump and questioned his stability appears happy now that the new tax law has been signed, which will benefit Corker (and Trump) mightily.

For GOP electeds who will be facing a likely prodigious blue wave, it’s not enough to “distance” themselves from Trump; they need to strongly condemn him when appropriate.  This applies to moderate Republican officials—local and national—who don’t agree with Trump on many if not most instances but somehow feel obliged to keep silent about him lest they lose Trump’s shrinking but noisy base.  This is a false calculation because those Trump supporters have nowhere to go but to back a Republican.  Voters in Alabama who supported Roy Moore preferred a sexual predator of underage girls to a Democrat.

Picture GOP elected officials in a line, locked in arms with Trump in the center, heading for a cliff.  If they don’t break from that linkage with Trump, Democrats will remind the voters that Republicans are the party of Trump, Moore and Sheriff Arpaio, and the Republicans could plunge into the abyss with him. 

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has been hammering Trump for his debasement of the office of the presidency.  His tweet below sums up accurately the challenge facing Republicans.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

LGBTQ Orgs Must Cope with New Tax Law

Image from Watermark Online
From food banks to churches to cancer research to LGBTQ organizations, the recently passed tax bill that was signed into law by President Donald Trump poses new financial challenges to non-profits that depend heavily on individual contributions. 

By increasing the standard deduction from $6,350 to $12,000 for individuals and from $12,700 to $24,000 for couples, an estimated 33 million more people will choose the standard deduction over itemizing on their 2018 tax returns than they did in 2017.  For those who will not itemize, charitable contributions will no longer be written off.

Tim Delaney, CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits,  told NBC News   that several aspects of the plan are “disastrous” for the sector as a whole and cited estimates from the Tax Policy Center that the plan could result in $13 billion in lost revenue for nonprofits and more than 220,000 lost jobs.

Many LGBTQ groups are registered with the IRS as 501(c) (3) organizations, meaning that donations to these nonprofits are tax deductible and will continue to be so—except for those taxpayers opting for the standard deduction.  However, since the election of Trump, organizations have reported contributions from larger donors, which may mitigate potential losses.

A recent report by the LGBTQ think tank Movement Advancement Project found 39 of the leading LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. brought in $230 million dollars in revenue 2016, with more than 80 percent of the money going to 501(c)(3) organizations.

Individual contributions accounted for 35 percent of those organizations’ revenue, and the vast majority of individual donors (94 percent) were small donors who gave less than $1,000. These small donors are the ones who would most likely be disincentivized to donate by the doubling of the standard deduction, explains Delaney.

It is not only the mere election of Trump that has motivated donors but also his specific policies and actions, such as his attempt to ban transgender service members riled the LGBTQ community and allies. 

Matt Thorn, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit OutServe-SLDN , told NBC News that tax incentives were the biggest drivers of donations but notes a shift.  “This year, in this climate, a lot of it has to do with the work we are doing. People are really generating their gifts based on the causes.”

To be sure, persuading donors to contribute based on the mission of the organization has always been the centerpiece of fundraising drives. The tax incentives added to the appeal. 

Now LGBTQ nonprofits (as well as nonprofits in general) must double-down their focus on mission-centric messaging to attract smaller donors.  Many LGBTQ organizations have seen a falloff in donations (and interest) once marriage equality was achieved, which created another challenge for these entities. 

There is so much more work remaining that is seemingly under the radar because these issues aren’t as glamorous as marriage equality.  Continued discrimination against LGBTQ people, homelessness among LGBTQ individuals, violence against members of the community particularly transgender individuals, bullying in schools, inequality in the juvenile justice and foster care systems, increase in hate crimes since the election of Trump, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment—the list is long and daunting.

LGBTQ nonprofits provide vital services to their clients, especially marginalized populations and will require the funds to keep these programs running.  There will be more demand on these organizations because of a burgeoning LGBTQ youth population as well as a sharp increase in the number of LGBTQ elders—both groups depending on client-based services.  Communicating the organization’s mission and the rationale for the funds are essential to tackle the ongoing challenges.

Locally as well as nationally, LGBTQ nonprofits must strategize on how to mitigate the loss of individual contributions resulting from the new tax law.  Again, the mission must be the focus of any fundraising appeal.

Though it declined to specifically comment for this article, FreeState Justice announced in November the launch of the Maryland LGBTQ Legal Defense Fund to provide free legal services to those facing discrimination who could not otherwise afford representation.  

“The Maryland LGBTQ community continues to face troubling attacks and policies from the current federal administration,” FreeState Justice’s fundraising letter stated.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by President Trump
“We are not immune from the rescinding of guidelines protecting transgender students, condoning bigotry masked as religious belief, advocating in favor of discrimination in court, and targeting transgender service members.  Now is the time for our community to come together to confront vitriolic national rhetoric and defend equality in our state.  With the launch of this Fund, FreeState Justice is fighting back.”

Max Crownover, the new chapter president of PFLAG-Howard County,  agrees that the emphasis must be on the mission. 

“The message and the motivation has to be on the intangibles rather than the individual's tax benefit,” Crownover says.  “In the current sociopolitical climate, I believe PFLAG can convince like-minded people that contributing makes a difference—not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for our whole community and society. We are also working hard to make that difference very visible. With that in mind, we have kicked off a strategic planning initiative to identify how we can have a more significant impact in Columbia, Howard County, and beyond.”

Others see this tax law and other dangerous policies by the Trump administration potentially harmful to LGBTQ youth.

“We know that lower income households may lose the incentive to give if they can no longer write-off their donation,” says Jabari Lyles, executive director of GLSEN Maryland

“We do not expect the benefits of the tax breaks given to high income households and large corporations to ‘trickle down’ to us, as it has never trickled down to anyone. This could mean job losses or weakened programmatic impact.”

Lyles adds, “We are hopeful our supporters will continue to give due to the dire nature of our work and especially in response to the dangerous decisions this administration makes regarding LGBTQ youth.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Whatever Happened to the Trump Resistance?

I recently saw the most excellent film Star Wars: The Last Jedi in which I heard the term Resistance mentioned at least a couple of dozen times in reference to the Resistance against the New Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke.

Back to reality, back to 2017 in the galaxy of our own country, we are witnessing the conclusion of the first year of our own version of the Supreme Leader’s term—a period for a consistent solid majority of Americans whose emotions had fluctuated somewhere between disheartening to disdain.  During Star Wars: The Last Jedi I mused what happened to the Resistance against President Donald Trump that had debuted with the incredible Women’s March a mere day after the inauguration.

This majority of Americans see Trump’s election as illegitimate.  All U.S. intelligence services concluded that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and found a way to strategically release the contents with the sole goal of helping Trump win the election while disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton.  That Russia, a foreign adversary, sought to meddle in our election process and most likely succeeded in installing the candidate of that government’s preference, has been accepted as fact by everyone but curiously Trump and his hard core supporters.

Whether the Trump campaign aided that effort is an open question and is the subject of investigations by House and Senate committees as well as the probe headed by Special Counsel Robert S, Mueller III.

Despite Trump’s denials, most Americans saw this election as tainted, and cries of “Resistance” were echoed throughout social media.  Following the Women’s March whereby stunningly several millions of people participated in Washington, D.C. and in any one of over 600 satellite demonstrations around the country to protest Trump’s presidency, there was unexpected momentum to the Resistance. 

To be sure, Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with #Resistance, but what actually transpired?

There were sporadic demonstrations following the ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim nations, the pullout from the Paris Climate agreement, the rescinding of protections for the children of undocumented immigrants among other actions.

Then the protests seemed to quiet down though resistance manifested itself in several special elections where opposition to Trump was apparent in the level of turnout and enthusiasm highlighted by the upset win by Doug Jones in Alabama.  The opposition to Trump at the ballot box by dint of energy and enthusiasm is a strong indicator that Democrats will experience a successful mid-term election in November 2018.

Clearly, the street demonstrations, which harness the energy of the opposition, seemed to wane a bit.  This has been surprising given the unpopularity of the president and the dispiriting actions he has taken in his first term.  I thought there would be protests nearly every weekend to, if nothing else, prove to the narcissistic president that he is not adored and worshipped as he would love everyone to believe.

However, according to a report in the Washington Post things may change if Trump derails the Mueller investigation.

Opponents of the president have been hoping upon hope that the findings from the probe will ultimately lead to the impeachment of the president. While collusion with the Russians may be a more daunting task to prove, obstruction of justice—the crime that eventually brought down President Richard M. Nixon—appears more cut and dry to the resistors.  They are banking on the Mueller investigation as means to truncate Trump’s term and rid the nation of the stain he has imposed on the country and around the globe.

The Post states that tens of thousands of protesters will be storming the streets within hours should the president fire Mueller.

Photo courtesy of The Daily Beast
More than two dozen progressive organizations, say the Post,  have spent the past several weeks lining up what they vow would be an immediate response that would be hard to ignore.

“Using an online portal that links the various groups and their contact lists, more than 140,000 people have registered to begin protesting within hours of Trump's decision, at predetermined locations in more than 600 cities.

The protests are designed to harness what organizers predict would be a wave of nationwide outrage that would follow Trump's action, which Democrats in Congress warn could trigger a constitutional crisis.”

The Los Angeles Times reported  that if Trump fires Mueller before 2 p.m., the demonstrations would begin at 5 p.m. that day. They would begin at noon the following day if Trump were to act after 2 p.m. Organizers in New York already have stockpiled bullhorns in apartments near Times Square, the would-be location of the New York City demonstration.

It is unclear if President Trump will take the political risk of stifling the investigation. Right wing media including Trump-TV (Fox News) have been cajoling him to do so citing flimsy evidence of partisanship among the Mueller team.

Regardless, activists are taking no chances and preparing to unleash the fury should Trump interfere.  It is questionable if Republican members of Congress who insisted early on that the “red line” of stopping the investigation cannot be crossed, will put country over party.  I’m taking bets.

We will wait and see what transpires.  As in the case of  the Resistance to the New Order in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the action here in the U.S. could make for an interesting sequel. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sweet Home Alabama: The Jones-Moore Election

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you…

Since Tuesday night, Democrats all over the country are celebrating the results in Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The victory by Doug Jones over Roy Moore was satisfying on so many fronts, and it’s easy to see why the Dems are giddy and emboldened at his moment in history.  Decency and dignity prevailed in the Yellowhammer State.

Democrats nabbed a crucial Senate seat in crimson red Alabama when no one ever thought it would be possible.  This result will facilitate regaining control over the Senate in 2018, but it is still a daunting task given that many Democrats have to defend their seats in states that went to Donald Trump in 2016.

The effect of the #MeToo movement was evident in the election as women, notably African-American women, put a stamp on this election and repudiated Roy Moore and his alleged sexual misconduct from earlier in his life—a point he steadfastly denies.

The Get Out the Vote (GOTV) effort by the Jones campaign in urban and suburban areas in particular was instrumental.  This should reinforce the criticality of getting the voters enthused enough to vote because no matter what district, there are always Democrats residing in it.  Democratic voters need to be motivated by a quality candidate and an articulate, persuadable message to be delivered by said candidate.

African-Americans, a vital component of the Democratic electorate, came through in this election bigly and carried Jones, a pro-choice candidate, over the finish line. This should have been a no-brainer given Moore’s racism and his nostalgia for the time that families were united when slavery existed.

Add that to the fact that Jones successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen involved in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, nearly 40 years after the crime.

Nonetheless, Democratic candidates must deliver a message to African-Americans that resonate. Never take this voting bloc for granted. And they need to bolster GOTV efforts with that community.

Many Dems are also rejoicing because it brought Trump’s record in Alabama in 2017 elections to 0-2 and depriving him of a “huge win.”  Trump defied advice and got involved in this race by endorsing Moore.  By doing so, it brought back to the surface his own problems concerning sexual misconduct as several women reiterated their accusations.  It was a terrible political miscue.

The upset also smeared egg on the smearable face of Steve Bannon who thought that he is a big-shot powerbroker. He could still be a force to reckon with in 2018, but clearly his stock tanked.
However, before Democrats take their foot off the gas pedal and believe that they can glide into 2018 on a “blue wave,” there are some sobering realities as a result of this election. 

Roy Moore was beyond flawed as a candidate. Even prior to the sexual misconduct allegations including molesting a minor while he was in his 30’s, he was unpopular.  Besides the slavery comment, he had demonstrated his virulent bigotry toward LGBT people and Muslims. Yet, as his wife pointed out, we should not consider his to be anti-Semitic since one of his attorneys is “a Jew.”

Moore’s denials of the sexual misconduct allegations were so unconvincing (similar to Trump’s) that mainstream Republicans scattered to the hills including the state’s senior Senator Richard Shelby.

Moore ducked every opportunity to debate Jones and seldomly discussed specific issues facing the state and the nation without invoking God.

Yet, despite Moore’s deficiencies still nearly half the state’s voters supported him. The sun apparently doesn’t shine everywhere in Alabama as too many preferred a child molester to a Democrat.

But with the historic victory in Alabama on December 12, Democrats should feel elated and confident but should also be mindful there is much work to do.  Good candidates, effective messaging and flawed opponents who receive help from Trump-Bannon will help us take back America.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem Gambit: Why Now?

One would think President Donald J. Trump would have other things on his mind. From Alabama to North Korea, the president has been immersed with these developments. But he also has been preoccupied by the Mueller investigation on possible collusion with Russia to meddle and manipulate the 2016 presidential election.

If his staff had the gall to show him the data, Trump could see now that he has the lowest approval ratings than any other in modern history at this point in his term.  In addition, the sexual misconduct accusations on men across the private and public sector raises once again questions about the president’s own accusers of sexual assault and impropriety, which number at about 15 to date.

This would normally keep a president pretty much tethered to these matters when he is not playing golf or watching cable news.  However, out of left field, it seems, President Trump found still another way to spark controversy, and as has become the norm lately, anger our allies when on December 6, he formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

The move reversed nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and put in place a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to the ferociously contested Holy City.  Rather than being the bargaining chip it once was as a key component of peace talks (now stalled), recognition of Jerusalem is now off the table, and this order brought no concessions from Israel in return.  The U.S. is no longer seen (if it ever were) as an impartial broker of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.  Trump’s action confirms it.

While the Embassy is not actually moving to Jerusalem in the next few years, the decision was condemned both at home and abroad with violent flare-ups taking place in the Palestinian territories that threaten to spread elsewhere in the Middle East.  Why would Trump do this at this time?  I have a few theories—cynical as they may be.  #hocopolitics

►To Distract.  As the Mueller probe moves closer and closer inside the White House and with former U.S. National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn probably already having turned state’s evidence against the president and/or his family as part of a plea deal, things are getting pretty dicey for Mr. Trump.  When the news is not favorable, he finds things to dominate the next news cycle and Jerusalem seemed to have been pulled out of his bag of distracting tricks.

►To reinforce his call for a Muslim ban. As a candidate, Trump infamously announced a “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  He has found a way to impugn the reputation of entire religion based on the actions of a radical fringe.  Trump was fully aware that the controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would fuel unrest in the Palestinian territories, and the footage of burning U.S. and Israeli flags promulgated by the not-so-fake news would lather up his anti-Muslim base to provide additional adrenaline to his travel ban from select predominant Muslim countries, which is still being legally challenged.

►Religious fulfillment. The recognition of Jerusalem was a campaign promise from Trump and a pledge to evangelical Christians. As a matter of fact, the White House explained that this was the motive for the announcement.  With the devout Vice President Mike Pence heading over there, there is some credence to that motive.

►Drill baby drill! This may be somewhat far-fetched but not entirely out of the question. The recognition of Jerusalem could lead to a Mideast oil embargo against the U.S. Already there is some chatter that economic sanctions be put in place against us so this is a possibility.  Should such an action occur, unlikely as it may be,, Trump could use that as an excuse to destroy even more public lands for the purpose of oil drilling.

All, any or none of these reasons may explain why this action took place at this time. But if you have other possibilities, please share them as comments on this post.

Friday, December 01, 2017

My Top 20 Local LGBT Stories of 2017

Below is a subjective ranking (in reverse order) of my top 20 Baltimore & Maryland LGBT stories for 2017.  

These stories were written for the Washington Blade and/or this blogThe full article is linked to each headline.  

A big win for a trans candidate in Virginia provided a spark for Baltimore’s Transgender March of Resilience.
Victorious Danica Roem

Beloved East Baltimore teacher, LGBT ally and GLSEN board member was feted at The Ellen Show—much to his surprise.
Wyatt Oroke with Ellen DeGeneres

Baltimore activist Brian Dolbow for the second year organized a Pride-related event that helped feed the homeless.

On July 6-9 the western Maryland city of Cumberland became the latest jurisdiction to celebrate LGBTQ Pride.

Baltimore Police have not found the motorist who fired a BB gun at a trans woman in Station North.

Leon’s, Baltimore’s oldest active gay bar, celebrated its 60th anniversary.

Some 600 attendees including volunteers participated in the annual AIDS Walk & Run Baltimore on May 7 raising nearly $100,000 to support Chase Brexton Health Care’s HIV/AIDS outreach and infectious disease and case management services.
AIDS Walk Baltimore, gay news, Washington Blade
Volunteers at the 2017 AIDS Walk & Run Baltimore (Photo: Aaron Cahall)

A number of LGBT organizations and leaders blasted President Trump’s ban on transgender service members.

Roland Park Elementary/Middle School recognized for the work being done by the diverse student-run Gay-Straight Alliance. 

A lawsuit threatening to roll back Trans protections in the Frederick County school system was met with broad resistance.

Fred Allen, longtime owner of The Drinkery, died on August 7 at the age of 86.

The Maryland LGBT Chamber of Commerce, bringing together LGBT and allied businesses, professionals and individuals throughout the state of Maryland, debuted on June 14. 

Baltimore Pride’s longest parade marched into Station North where the block party took place for the first time.

Less than 6 months after it opened G•A•Y Lounge closed its doors due to a problem with the contract from the previous owner of the building but the current owners vowed to return at a different venue.

Mark A. Procopio became the executive director of FreeState Justice and Jennifer L. Kent was appointed managing attorney replacing the departing Patrick Paschall and Jer Welter, respectively.
New FreeState Justice Executive Director
Mark A. Procopio

5. Suspect Acquitted in Murder of Baltimore Trans Woman    Shawn Oliver, 46, was acquitted of all charges on Jan. 12 in the murder of Mia Henderson that took place in 2014.
Shawn Oliver was acquitted of all charges in the murder of Mia Henderson.

Following a meeting between transgender rights advocates and Baltimore’s Board of School Commissioners on Feb. 28, a statement pledging support for transgender students was issued in response to Trump administration’s rescinding guidelines issued by the Obama administration in 2016 that prohibited discrimination against transgender students.  
Demonstrators outside Board of Education headquarters.
(Photo by Evan Lori Mahone)

3. Grand Central in Baltimore is Up for Sale

 Grand Central nightclub, a fixture in Mount Vernon for over a quarter century has been put on the market by owner Don Davis.

After a 4-year hiatus, the reconstructed Baltimore Eagle opened.

Police are still searching for the suspect in connection with the murder of trans woman Alphonza Watson, 38, who died of a gunshot wound on March 22.  
Alphonza Watson

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Toby’s Brings Back a Delightful ‘Miracle’

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Forget the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, turkey leftovers, and Black Friday. The holiday season doesn’t officially kick off locally until Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia presents a Christmas musical to put theatre-goers in the right frame of mind.  Believing in miracles doesn’t hurt either.

In Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, their current dose of holiday cheer, Toby’s brings back the successful show from four years ago with most of the talented cast (except for the children) reprising their original roles, not to mention the fact that Director Shawn Kettering and the technical crew return as well. Therefore, they should all be well-rehearsed, and they are. 
Miracle on 34th Street—not the black and white classic Christmas movie from 1947 presented every December on television but a live musical adaptation—plays nicely on Toby’s in-the-round stage.  The book, music and lyrics were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame, debuted on Broadway in 1963 under the title Here’s Love. #hocoarts

No one will compare the music in Miracle on 34th Street with the rich score of The Music Man or many other successful Broadway musicals as few of the numbers in this one are memorable, save for the popular 1951 tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”  Moreover, the first act contains a few dull moments and some quirky songs like “Plastic Alligator.” Fortunately, the drama, tempo and pacing pick up noticeably in the second act with the courtroom scene as most enjoyable.

The strength of Miracle on 34th Street and the reason people should buy tickets the sooner the better rests with its charming and tender family-oriented storyline and the outstanding performances by the cast as well as the work of creative team under the deft guidance of Mr. Kettering, the imaginative choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, and musical direction of Douglas Lawler.

Holiday atmospherics are in place but I prefer to have seen more festive decorations to add to the Christmas flavor. Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins constructed the set, which features a few street lamps on the stage, the entrance to an apartment on a balcony, and views of the New York City skyline shown on panels surrounding the walls of the theater.  

However, what makes the visuals appealing is the seemingly limitless number of set pieces and props employed throughout the show, which add texture to the scenery.  The sleigh on wheels that Santa occupies, for example, is gorgeous, and it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without a little snow.  Lynn Joslin’s spot-on lighting design is critical in the myriad seamless scene changes.

Lawrence B. Munsey designed the authentic 1940’s suits and dresses as well as Santa outfits and other novelty garb thereby lending a realistic feel to this enchanting production.

Set in New York City before and after Thanksgiving in the late 1940s, the story focuses on a white-bearded man named Kris Kringle (played convincingly by Robert Biedermann 125) who claims to be the real Santa Claus.  He brings about a genuine “Miracle on 34th Street,” spreading good cheer and good will among men throughout New York City; encouraging camaraderie between the arch-rival department stores Macy’s and Gimbel’s; and convincing a divorced, cynical single mother, Doris Walker (Heather Marie Beck), her daughter Susan Walker (played on the night the show was reviewed by young Camden Lippert) that Santa Claus is no myth.

"Strong performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see..."

Skeptics saw otherwise, and poor Kris Kringle had to appear before a stern Judge (very well played by David Bosley-Reynolds) at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court to determine if he should be committed to Bellevue Hospital.

As these events unfold, Doris finds her neighbor Fred Gaily (Jeffrey Shankle) an ex-Marine and inexperienced lawyer who develops a father-daughter bond with Susan, falls for Doris and eventually represents Kris Kringle at the hearing, leading to a lovely conclusion.

Mr. Minnick’s choreography is most effective especially when there is a large group on the stage as in such numbers as “Plastic Alligator,” “Toy Ballet,” “My State, My Kansas,” and “That Man Over There” whereby he makes full use of the limited space by devising clever dance steps, plenty of motion and ensuring the dancers are in sync rhythmically.

Jeffrey Shankle, as he often does, delivers a polished, near-flawless performance.  In tuneful voice, he sings “My Wish,” with Ms. Beck and is simply stellar in his solo “Look, Little Girl.” 

Camden Lippert, as Susan, alternates with Lillianna Robinson during the run.  Never missing a line, never missing a cue, never missing a note or a step, Camden demonstrates strong potential in musical theatre. She already has experience under her belt having appeared in Toby’s presentation of Ragtime among other credits.

Russell Sunday plays R.H. Macy, the strict owner of the department store bearing his name. Commanding on stage and with his strong baritone, Mr. Sunday excels in “That Man Over There”—a highlight number during the courtroom scene, which in itself, is a highlight in the show. 

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
As Doris, Heather Marie Beck was well cast and delivers a solid performance.  The part requires proficient acting skills, and Ms. Beck delivers on that front particularly in her confrontations with the characters Susan and Fred.  She exhibits strong vocals in such numbers as “You Don’t Know” and “Love, Come Take Me Again” and the warm duet with Camden, “Arm in Arm.”

Veteran performer Robert John Biedermann excels as Kris Kringle.  He adroitly conveys the sweetness and kindness that all children believe Santa to be.  Everybody roots for him. 

David Bosley-Reynolds hits the mark as Judge Martin Group, delivering well-timed comedic lines. Other notable cast members are Tommy Malek as Marvin Shellhammer whose facial expressions and comedic rejoinders are golden; David Jennings as Mr. Sawyer who also showcases his comedic skills; and Justin Calhoun is particularly strong as the prosecutor Thomas Mara. 

A number of the other performers are called on to play one or more roles as well as being part of the ensemble and do so splendidly.  They include David James, AJ Whittenberger, DeCarlo Raspberry, Tina Marie DeSimone, MaryKate Brouillet, Santina Maiolatesi, Coby Kay Callahan, and Amanda Jillian Kaplan.

The Young Actor Ensemble for this reviewed performance includes: Lily Ulman, Jackson Smith, Hannah Dash, and Jonah Hale.  They all chip in with sturdy singing, dancing and acting.   
It is notable that many of the elements from costumes to props are true to the time period.  On the other hand, there is no attempt to scrub the sexist language in the dialogue and song lyrics, such as the term “little girl” as conveyed to an adult woman. 

As I mentioned earlier, the music does not leave one humming exiting the theater.  But the vocalists who performed the songs and Pamela Wilt’s six-piece orchestra backing them up (Ms. Wilt rotates with Douglas Lawler) does justice to the rather bland melodies.

Strong performances plus a delightful feel-good story (and a scrumptious buffet) make this a seasonal must-see, which will be enjoyed by the young and the young at heart, especially if you believe in miracles.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Miracle on 34th Street runs through January 7, 2018 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online