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Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter by Jason Kersten

Kersten recounts the exploits of Art Williams, a native of Chicago and a master counterfeiter. Art grew up on the south side of Chicago, in public housing where gangs ruled the streets. He tried to keep out of the gangs’ way, mostly by hanging out at Ed’s diner, where his mother worked. It was at Ed’s that Art encountered a man he calls Pete “da Vinci”. It was da Vinci who first gave Art lessons in counterfeiting, including rules to live by: never spend your own bills, find out where your bills are going (the farther away, especially overseas, the better), tell no one (not even relatives), don’t print too much at once, and never reveal who your clients are.

Art went on to run a counterfeiting operation of his own, figuring out what da Vinci never taught him, making great bills and a decent living. He had a girlfriend and a baby but, mismanaging money and a jealous streak cost him his relationship and, when his mother begged him to visit her in Texas, he gave up his life in Chicago and moved there. He even gave up counterfeiting. Instead he started running a new scam with acquaintances, robbing drug dealers of their drugs and money. One of his new friends convinced him to rob a girlfriend’s father’s jewelry business. Supposedly, the old man wanted out and would use the insurance claim to do so. When the deal went down, Art was left holding the bag, and a prison sentence in one of Texas’ worst prisons. Only one of the girls from his crew, Natalie, stayed with him, visiting regularly.

When he emerged from jail, the highly touted “new bills” had come into use. Art and Natalie set to work re-creating the new bills, feature by feature. Utilizing a mix of old technology (expensive printing presses) and new technology (increasingly cheaper and more powerful computers), they defeated all the anti-counterfeiting measures. Security strip, watermark, micro-printing, even the look and feel of the paper. He also took on a new con, going to out-of-town shopping malls with a stack of his own counterfeit 100’s. They’d go into a store, buy a few cheap items with his counterfeit money, then pocket the real change. Store after store, they’d hit the entire mall. Meanwhile, he was breaking several of da Vinci’s “cardinal rules”. They took their scam to Alaska, where Art reconnected with his deadbeat dad, and broke yet another rule. When he brought his father and stepmother into the scam, their lack of experience and greed eventually brought them all down.

Kersten’s book is fascinating, filled with details provided directly by Art Williams. He also has done some brilliant research into the history of counterfeiting. The book moves quickly and lets the reader get absorbed with the story of Art Williams, while never falling too deep into his spell.

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Posted by on June 22, 2013 in Book Reviews

 

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Slammergirls: The Musical

Slammergirls is a musical spoof of 1960’s sexploitation women-in-prison films. It is the story of 6 women, one matron, and one guard in a Georgia prison. It is truly High Camp.

The story is quite straightforward. After an introductory moonlit dance (Prison Ballet), a prisoner named Princess explains how she just can’t help herself, and can’t rely on satisfying herself, so she relies on the male guard (They’re Dreaming Love Dreams). Bonnie Graham, a socialite, is sentenced to prison for allegedly skimming the funds from a campaign to raise money to build homes for the homeless. She encounters Matron Francine or “Frank”, a stereotypical sadistic bitch, who is used to having her way with her “girls”; Grace, a queen bee who relishes making others miserable and using sarcasm to cut them down; Princess, a nymphomaniac who spends a lot of time in solitary (Cell Block Seven); Blair, a former good time girl…eerily represented by a mannequin; and Blossom, an “earth-mother” Pam Greer doppelganger.

Bonnie tells the other girls about her family, her husband Bob, her love of coupon clipping, her role with the charity, and the frame job that sent her to jail. Blossom tells the story of the murder that sent her to jail, and Grace tells of her bust while working as a dominatrix…her client, a judge, sent her to jail to save his neck when caught with her (Locked Up by the Chains of Love). The Matron appears with the rest of Bonnie’s prison ensemble (miniskirts and stiletto’s) and, after a verbal dust-up with Grace, tells the story of her disabling accident when working as a flight attendant (Broken Wing)

After the passage of some time, Bonnie has added “homey” elements to the prison cell and has, in general, settled in to her new life. The Guard enters and gives her a telegram, which Bonnie hopes is from her husband who hasn’t been in touch since she was sentenced. Instead, she receives notification that she has won the “Doris Day Animal Society Sweepstakes”. Unfortunately, her felony conviction makes her prize revert directly to her husband.

Bonnie, who was listening to an Ane Landers letter written by her husband, which tells of his new girlfriend, “Bubbles”, is crushed and expresses herself with (The Coupon Song). The Matron returns and shows the girls that she has had her arm fixed. Clapping her hands proves the miracle…and also sets off a Rube Goldberg style trap which ends up crushing her formerly good arm in the door to the prison cell. She vows her revenge on Bonnie, whom she blames for the accident (having been fooled by Grace).

Blair (still played by a mannequin), hangs herself from despair. The girls carry her out of the cell and dump her body. The Matron tells the girls they will be receiving a new cellmate, and she is very pleased with herself as she knows the new “kitten” will be quite a shock. Bonnie, who has complained of never have been prepared for the hard life of prison, perks herself up with a cheesy saying of her mother’s. Grace finally snaps and initiates a fight. Grace ends up mortally wounded, shocking Bonnie, the two girls express themselves with (I’m Dying [The Dying Opera]). The new cellmate spoken of by the Matron turns out to be Bubbles, Bonnie’s husband’s girlfriend…or ex-girlfriend as she has killed him for dumping her when he came into the windfall forfeited by Bonnie. They decide that they have (Something In Common), the same scoundrel who took advantage of them both. A new prisoner is escorted in…Blair! The girls are shocked, until Blair informs them that it was her twin sister, Claire, who had taken her place in prison for the murder of her husband Bill, hanging herself when she could no longer take it. Blair explains that Claire, (My Better Half) had been fooling around with her husband Bill and Blair shot and killed him. Presumably, Clair thought she would serve Blair’s sentence as a way of apologizing for cheating with her husband. The girls all commiserate on the lousy men in their lives, enumerating (How He Done Me Wrong).

Upset that Princess is still in Cell Block Seven after several months, and worried for her, the girls start yelling for the Matron. She comes over the loudspeaker to inform them that, as punishment for the ruckus they are causing, she is suspending all their nail polish privileges. The ladies feel this is beyond the pale, how will they live with (No More Cherry Red)? Bubbles, ill at the thought of having to give up her nail polish, runs off to the bathroom to be sick. The girls implement “Plan B”, a mission to rescue Princess from Cell Block Seven. Blair lures the Guard into the cell, Bonnie seduces him while Blossom runs out the open gate to rescue Princess. Bonnie sucker punches the Guard with his own baton, just as the alarms sound indicating an escape from Cell Block Seven. The Guard re-enters, promising Bonnie that she will now face a stint in Cell Block Seven. He discovers Princess being hidden behind the girls, and grabs both of them. Princess, who can’t face the thought of going back to Cell Block Seven, pulls out a gun and threatens to kill herself. Everyone races for the gun, which accidentally discharges, hitting the Guard. He dies and the girls state their chief complaint about life behind bars…there are (Too Many Bars and Not Enough Men).

Written by Patrick Cuccaro in the 1980’s, Slammergirls received it’s original run in Atlanta, eventually gathering a cult audience.The parts of Princess, Matron Francine, and Bubbles are all played by one actress. The parts of Grace and Blair are both played by one actress. It was mounted as part of the 2013 Piccolo Spoleto festival in Charleston, SC by Footlight Players, directed by Don Brandenberg. Full Disclosure:I was in the cast and played Grace/Blair in this production. It is a niche show and some people just don’t get it…but it’s a fun romp in a crazy genre.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2013 in Theatre

 

The Killing Fields (1984)

Cambodia in 1975. The country is war ravaged yet, there are brave people everywhere. Four journalists, Americans Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Alan “Al” Rockoff (John Malkovich), Brit Jon Swain (Julian Sands), and Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), dare to risk their lives to tell unadulterated stories of what is really happening behind the front lines. Atrocities committed by both the Communists Khmer Rouge and the Americans and their allies. They use their photographs and interviews with the locals, which Pran translates for Schanberg and the others, to tell truth to power.

When the Americans pull out of Cambodia, Schanberg helps get Pran’s family out of the country. He and the other journalists stay in country to continue their work. They are kidnapped and released and finally flee to the French Embassy. The men spend many days together with others waiting to be evacuated. Eventually, the Cambodians are ordered to leave the Embassy. Trying to rescue Pran, the men are able to scrape together an expired passport, a camera with film, emulsifiers, and a tiny men’s bathroom. They succeed in photographing Pran and getting the pieces together to make it look like he was a British citizen. All goes to plan until Swain is pulled aside and shown that their photograph has turned solid grey. Pran is removed from the Embassy, and straight into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Back home in America, Schanberg send out pleas for information or help to locate Pran to 500+ aid organizations. Pran, meanwhile, is forced to labor in rice paddies under constant guard. An early escape attempt ends in immediate capture. His life would be forfeit, if not for a kindness done by Pran, giving a soldier the hood ornament from Schanberg’s Mercedes. The soldier now convinces the others to leave Pran alive, what he tells them is unknown.  Pran manages to escape, and, in a powerful moment, stumbles straight into a field full of human remains. He is captured by a local band of Khmer Rouge and pretends not to speak French or English. His captor, who has put him to work as a house servant, eventually finds him out. He entrusts his son into the care of Pran, knowing that the Vietnamese are on their way.  Pran takes the boy, a photo of the boy’s parents, some American currency and a hand drawn map, and flees with a handful of other civilians. The group separates and Pran, another man and the little boy are nearly captured by the Khmer Rouge. The other man, carrying the little boy, steps on a land mine. Both are killed, leaving Pran to continue on alone. He eventually makes it to a Red Cross Station in Thailand and is able to reunite with his family in the United States.

Based on a true story, this is a very powerful movie. I will forever be haunted by the image of Pran falling into a pit of rancid water and realizing he is surrounded by the bones of hundreds of people. The movie does clock in at 2 hours and 30 minutes. The first section, showing the horrors of the war documented by the foursome, was perhaps overlong. I can imagine, though, that this section will be more important as more time passes and the story fades in history. If only we were more aware of the mess that war makes of the country where it takes place, and that the best intentions of westerners are not enough to justify interventions like these. Of course, recent history proves that this lesson has not been learned.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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