Basic Caponata

Not long ago a friend said that he who ate the first eggplant was much more courageous than he who ate the first oyster. (Yes, they were both guys; Urk, the Australopithecus I channel to know such things told me so). Oysters, after all, are mere mollusks while eggplants are noxious nightshades. Since eggplant must be gussied up quite a bit before I’ll make a meal with it, I agreed with fervor. Fortunately, the eggplant, like Cher, has so little character that it’s a pliable basis for dozens of really good dishes such as this Sicilian nosh which itself has many variations, served hot or cold, as a side or a spread. A friend makes vegetarian muffalettas with it, and while purists may wail, there’s nothing to stop you from using caponata instead of olive relish on a meat muffaletta. It’s simple to make, keeps well, and the flavor improves with age. This recipe makes about a quart.

Peel and cube one large eggplant, stew in olive oil with a finely-minced clove of garlic and about half a cup each of chopped celery and sweet onion. This is one of the few recipes you’ll find me recommending a sweet onion; caponata is a sweet/sour concoction, and I prefer to use vegetables and dried fruit for the sweetness instead of sugar. You’ll add maybe a rind of smoked sweet red pepper (a ripe pickled cherry is a nice touch, too), a scant handful of chopped olives and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to round out the (somewhat) savory elements along with a jolt of strong red wine for both you and the pan. For out-and-out sweetness, use a half cup of dried fruit, figs being excruciatingly appropriate, but don’t let that stop you from using the raisins, dates or apricots you have on hand. A heaping teaspoon of capers (the eponymous and therefore compulsory component) gives enough salt. and a measure of herbal vinegar will set the tartness. With seasonings you’re on your own, but don’t use too much of anything; let the meld define the flavor.

Armand Coullet: Mississippi’s Premiere Impresario

On Saturday, March 17, 1951, the stage of Jackson’s Civic Auditorium supported a cast of players the likes of which never had nor never again would tread the boards in the capital city. As the very Devil himself, Charles Laughton led Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Sir Cecil Hardwicke in a surprisingly successful enactment of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”. The review in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“‘Don Juan in Hell’ a Big Hit Here”) states that the Jackson audience was thrilled with “Agnes Moorehead’s amazing transformation from a woman of 77 at death to a lady of 27 in Hell”, adding that “Laughton stated categorically that he is not ‘the beefy bird of comic strip fame.’”  One year later, a Time magazine article stated that the production’s tour had amassed gross profits of more than $1M.

The Jackson performance was engaged by a man who recognized not so much a shy hunger here as an earnest yearning not only for literature, but for music, for lights, for the engaged delight of people in a body, the laughter, the suspense, the applause: Armand Coullet, who provided the city with over three decades of entertainment.

According to Jacksonian Harry Brown, “About a decade after H. L. Mencken declared the South ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Armand Coullet arrived on the Jackson scene to do something about it. He quickly established himself as the city’s resident Frenchman, a position he proudly made the most of and which of course carried a certain primacy in cultural affairs. Mr. Coullet was actually from Algiers. but that was certainly close enough for Jackson society of the day. And he became the town’s impresario, bringing notable entertainers and productions not only to Jackson but to other cities in the region. The Coullets—his wife Magnolia was an accomplished vocalist as well as being Chair of Foreign Languages at Millsaps, and his son ‘Tink’ went on to the Broadway stage and beyond—were welcome in the very highest social circles, and Armand was a highly valued addition to any gathering. He naturally had an approving and charming eye for the ladies, but of course all with courtly decorum.”

Camille Saint-Saëns

Armand Coullet was born in 1899 to a well-to-do French family that had relocated to Algeria shortly after France conquered the North African country in the early 19th century. His father was a French civil servant. He attended public schools in Algiers, graduating from the French Government School of Topography. He also graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts with the Premier Prix in violin, conducting and orchestration. Advanced study in conducting and orchestration was completed with composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns, and and was later assistant to Saint-Saëns as concert master of the North African Symphony Orchestra.

He continued his violin studies in France at the Conservatoire de Paris; when Armand completed his musical training, his father and mother, Eugene and Marguerite, presented him with a fine violin made in 1667 by Francesco Ruggieri, who served as an apprentice in the workshops of Stradivarius. Coullet played first violin in the Opera House in Algiers for two years and directed his orchestra in the city’s leading hotels. He also served three years in a field artillery unit of the French Army during World War I.

Coullet came to the United States in 1924. In an interview fifty years later, he recalled, “The only thing I had was my violin and $27, but I had the world by the tail. When I got off the boat, there was an agent standing there who sked me in French if I played the violin. He gave me a job right there on the spot with the Boston Little Symphony.”

As concert master of the Boston Little Symphony Orchestra, Coullet traveled with the Chautauqua Tours, and for the next several years, he conducted his own orchestra in various New England resorts and spent a year as first violinist in the Roxy Theatre Orchestra in New York City. He first came south with various road shows and located at Palm, Beach, Florida with his own orchestra. He opened and directed the Academy of Music in West Palm Beach, with a faculty of 12 and an enrollment of 140 students. While in Palm Beach, Coullet regularly heard residents’ complaints about the town’s lack of theatrical offerings. Together with a local theater owner and three partners, Coullet contacted New York producer Lee Shubert and convinced him to send a touring company of “George White’s Scandals” to Palm Beach. The show was a hit and Coullet was bitten by the promoting bug. The itch would last the rest of his life

The devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that practically destroyed West Palm Beach ended Coullet’s career there, and he went back to New York. While there, Hazel Chisholm, who was then working for Jackson radio station WJDX, called him to come to the city. When he arrived in the Jackson, he gave his two weeks’ notice his first day at the station. “I saw the town and thought, ‘Oh, my God,” Coullet recalled fifty years later. “It was so primitive. They had streetcars being pulled down Capitol Street by mules. I knew the town had potential, but potential was for the future. I wanted to leave immediately.”

But he was persuaded to stay, crediting his decision to the kindness of his employers. It was 1928, and in those days radio stations provided their own music. Coullet conducted a 14-piece orchestra for WJDX. He originated special instrumental and vocal programs in classical, semi-classical and popular music. He also met a young lady, Magnolia Simpson, from Madison, Mississippi, who was later to become Mrs. Coullet. Magnolia, Mrs. Sarah. B McLean, and Coullet broadcast every Sunday afternoon from the old Century Theatre the highly successful “Rice Dream House” program, sponsored by Rice Furniture.

Fellow musician and ofttimes traveling companion Muller Adkisson remembers, “During the Depression Armand played violin in the WPA orchestra and he said that’s what kept them going, what put food on their table. He had married Magnolia at some point in there. She taught both voice and Latin at Millsaps College. Later she taught German. WJDX’s original studio was in the Lamar Life building in one of the upper stories under the clock tower. Later when the Heidelberg Hotel added the upper six stories to their 12-story building, they added two stories that weren’t accessible by the elevator. WJDX moved there.”

In 1935, Coullet was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and in 1937 he originated the All-Star Series (now a part of the Jackson Music Association). Coullet also found a theatrical vacuum in Jackson similar to the one in West Palm Beach so he again contacted Schubert, who persuaded New York agencies to place Jackson on their lists; it was a natural stop between Memphis and New Orleans, he reasoned with them.

“Because of union rules traveling shows could only travel so many miles a day,” Adkisson said, “so Armand was often able to bargain them down, get shows here, even though Jackson audiences weren’t that big and couldn’t afford the big shows. But often because of the rules somebody would call him up and say, ‘We have to have a show in Jackson, what can you pay us?’ And he got a lot of good shows here that way.”

His first Broadway production in Jackson was “Blossom Time” in 1935. Coullet later said, “(Being an impresario) might sound romantic and fascinating to some people, but it is hard work and full of worry.” After swinging the deal to bring “Blossom Time” he said he got the stage hand bill and it scared him so much he almost backed out.

Many names headlined his shows through the years: Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, Nelson Eddy, Bette Davis, Grace Moore, the Don Cossack Chorus, Bob Hope, Marion Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Joseph Szgeti, Fritz Kreisler, Richard Crooks, Albert Spalding, San Carlo Opra Company, NBC Opera Company, James Melton, Gladys Swarthout, Signumd Romberg, Nadine Conner and Guy Lombardo. His encounters with famous performers were brief, and he said, “you’d have to see them more than I do to feel that you know them.”

For over three decades, Armand Collet Associates sponsored shows in 15 cities and 12 states and across the South from El Paso to Birmingham, but beginning in the mid-1980s, Coullet limited himself to the presentation of Broadway theatre in Jackson and only a few other Southern cities. Included have been: “Hello, Dolly!”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Zorba”, “My Fair Lady” (which ran for seven weeks), “Mame”, “Cabaret”, “1776”,  “Your Own Thing”, “I Do, I Do”, “George M” and a sneak appearance by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Coullet said he considered bringing the Beatles to Memphis in 1966 the crowning glory of his career, but his role in the Fab Four’s appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum can’t be substantiated.

“The big ones carry me,” Coullet once said, referring to smash hits such as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly,” but he had his share of bombs. His biggest bust as a promoter was “Cabaret,” here. Coullet considered Grace Moore and Liberace his most glamorous stars. Liberace sold out twice.

“Armand always said how surprising it was to think of the large number of elderly women who came to Liberace’s performances,” Adkisson said. “It was a matter of sex appeal, or what they thought was sex appeal, since of course he was gay. Anyway, Liberace would invite the women in the audience to come backstage after the performances, and he’d wink and mug, and say, ‘Oh, what is your name, darling?’ and the woman would say like ‘Mary’ or something and Liberace would go, ‘Oh, my dear Mary!’ or something. Armand said the first time Liberace appeared in a city he might make a little money for his appearance, might even lose a little, but Liberace would come back two years later and the promoter would make a big profit. That was Liberace’s modus operandi, that he could tour successfully all over the country because he felt a responsibility to the local promoter. Armand had Liberace here three times with sold-out houses. The little old ladies would like up and Liberace would take an hour or more to schmooze with them.”

Even after decades living in Mississippi, Coullet retained his French accent. “It’s the one thing I’m stuck with and can’t lose,” he once said. “I’m not trying to lose it. It’s my natural way of speaking. You must realize that when I first came to this country, the only words of English I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I had to learn English by myself. I would read the newspapers and, when I found a word I didn’t know, I would write it on a little piece of paper and tack it on the wall. I’d see the word every day until I learned it, then I’d take it down. By that time, there would be 10 or more new ones.” Muller Adkisson recalls that when Coullet promoted shows in New Orleans and south Louisiana, he would give the promotional commercial in English, and then he would give it in French. “Of course people flocked to the shows because they loved hearing the promotions in their everyday speech. ”

In his last published interview, in May, 1977, the 79-year old Coullet, preparing for an upcoming season which was to include the touring company of the Broadway production of Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” as well as “My Fair Lady” and “Same Time Next Year”, said, “In this business you can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re dead. It took me 40 years to build up the following I have. There’s no retirement for an impresario. I’ll be retired when they put me in a pine box. Sure, I’ve slowed down a little with age, but not so you can tell. You can’t kill a good Frenchman.”

Coullet died New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Coullet (r) with Nelson Eddy

The Man That Painted Banner Red

It was in the spring of the year in the dear long ago. There had been a long dry spell and the farmers were well up with their work, but, complaining as to the weather quite a number were gathered in town. A dark heavy cloud was seen rising in the west and about noon a nice refreshing shower fell to bless and benefit these sons of toil.

In the afternoon the village of Banner was filled with happy farmers. The postmaster, Esq. Brower, and myself were sitting in the post office looking at the throng around Frank Brantley’s grocery. The dingy old gallon pot was sitting on a stump in front of the grocery, well filled with red liquor and surrounded by a happy crowd, all in a merry mood and still partaking rather freely.

All at once a young man stepped into the post office and asked if there was any mail for John Martin. He was rather small, with light hair and a few strangling red hairs on his upper lip and chin. Brower, after a careful look, told him there was no mail for John Martin. He said then, “I am a stranger here. This is the first time I was ever in Banner. I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie creek; I am a fighter from the east. I have often heard of Banner and I have come over to-day to clean her up and paint Banner red. I understand you have some fighters here and I would like to meet them. I tell you I am a fighter.”

He pulled from his ponderous pocket an old-style, iron-barrel pistol, with tube and hammer on the top and said, “You see this. I am going to have some fun this evening. The first man that bristles up to me, I’m going to down him.”

He walked nimbly across the muddy street to the stump and gallon pot, introduced himself to the crowd and took a drink of the liquor. A dispute between the Van Winkles and the Hardins soon resulted in a general fight. The men were all in their shirt sleeves and most of the young men and boys were barefooted. The men engaged in the fighting were old Carter Van Winkle who had a small lumber stick in his hand and he knocking the Hardins right and left, when he was modestly confronted by John Martin who asked, “Who are you and which side are you fighting? I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie. Did you ever see me turn loose in Banner? If not, look out!”

He thrust his old pistol into Van Winkle’s face and pulled the trigger, but the pistol snapped and Van Winkle struck him over the head with his stick and brought him to his knees. Martin galloped across the muddy street on his all-fours with Van Winkle striking him with the lumber stick first on the right and then on the left side as he crawled across with his pistol in one hand and his hat in the other.

Just as he crossed the street Van Winkle left him and returned to the general fight. Martin dragged himself into the post office all covered with blood, handed his pistol and hat to Brower and called for a doctor. The little Banner doctor examined him and found that he had received a downward lick on the side of his head that pealed the scalp his forehead back beyond his ear.

“Fix it quick doctor I want to get away from here.” The doctor took two or stitches, brought the edges of the wound up together, tied a few bands across. Brower handed him his hat and pistol; remarking as he did so, “This is hell turned loose in Banner, is it not?”

“No,” said the little doctor, “he is the man that painted Banner red.”

“Let me out of here,” said Martin and he slipped out, took through the woods to the south of Banner and that was the last seen of Martin, the Fighter from Butta Hatchie that painted Banner red.

(Signed, The Rambler, The Calhoun Monitor, Pittsboro, MS, Aug. 18, 1904)