‘Crankies’ are coming to Estes Mill
‘Awhat?’ is the response I’ve most often gotten when initiating a conversation about “mountain crankies” recently. There has been a resurgence in recent years of this very old form of entertainment. “Crankies” were, in fact, one of the first forms of moving picture entertainment. Probably drawing on European puppet traditions (including shadows) and “scroll technology” the crankie would be both a local entertainment and travel the world in the pre-cinema years. Essentially it involves an unraveling story that is pictured on a thin paper scroll which is ‘cranked’ from one spool holding a scroll to a second spool. This occurs in a box of varying size (think TV size as being average) which is backlit, originally by candles.
The entire story might be contained within this scroll or some of it might be moving background as shadow puppets or other props are used to add to the story. Usually a narrator tells or sings to accompany the tale, lending to an authentic live experience. Possibly other musicians or sound effects are used for dramatic effect, allowing the crankie to draw the audience in. The name “mountain crankie” possibly developed because they might have been seen in the mountains as another form of handmade entertainment and storytelling that persisted after movies and TV were developed.
I’ve been communicating via the computer with perhaps the top artist in the country in this rare, unique medium. Her name is Katherine Fahey, of Baltimore, and she uses many techniques in her art with an emphasis on paper cut figures! Largely because of Katherine the Baltimore Crankie Festival is in its eighth year and sells out each of the four nights it runs. Katherine’s art and the medium is so unique and well-suited for storytelling that Baltimore (already an artist community) has taken to it and now has several talented artists making crankies. Similarly Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Ithaca, N.Y., and several other locations have had ‘Crankie Festivals’ in recent years. Indeed there have been two made here in Rappahannock – one larger one for a Thousand Faces performance recently and one by Frank Stocton, performed to live music by me and Forrest Marquesse.
This article has been relegated to an unfurling story with this announcement! There will be an evening at Estes Mill (Apple Atcha Cider and the future Appalachian Dulcimer Museum) of crankies featuring Katherine!
Let’s call it the Rappahannock Crankie Box Event – Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. It will also feature a new locally made crankie by Linda Heimstra. Linda and I conceived this one a while back and have been waiting for a good time to show it. It’s actually a winter-themed traditional song made into a crankie, so perfect timing. There appears to be a small buzz here already about the show so my hope is to make it an annual event, spawning more local involvement. It also appears that all crankies that are shown by Katherine that evening will have local musical back-up. It quite seems that this art form is right up Rappahannocks alley.
Some of Katherine and Dan’s (her assistant) crankies may be seen online on YouTube. While these are impressive they are even more so in person. You get a feel for the real analog nature and human feel of the performance. This is a true short motion picture, performed live like a play with all the variation that live performance might entail. Tickets can be purchased at Estes Mill with a limited number being issued. After each crankie there will be a short informal discussion of artwork and story. Snow/ weather date will be the following Friday, Feb. 10, same time. Hope to see you at this show. It'll be memorable!