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Dave Wood's Book Report, May 27, 2009

Normally, the way it works is that first you read the book, then you see the movie and then you complain the movie is nothing like the book. (See Ernest Hemingway and "The Sun Also Rises.")

Well, today, I'm going to do it differently. A while back, I watched Twin Cities Public Television's "On the Road" with Channel 2 Almanac host Cathy Wurzer.

Wurzer's fetchingly friendly and articulate and in this show she hops into a vintage Cadillac in Pigeon Falls on the Canadian border and drives all the way to La Crescent on old Highway 61, stopping off here and there and telling viewers what used to be.

The creamery in Barnum, the Watkins building in Winona. She interviewed folks along the way who remembered what used to be.

What caught my attention was Emil Liers, the otter man from Homer.

I remembered him from grade school when he came with his trained otters all the way to Western Wisconsin to do a convocation at my school. Wurzer stopped off at what used to be his otter "ranch" and interviewed a neighbor who told Wurzer that once an otter bit Emil's nose when he tried to kiss it.

I also learned that this fellow became an adviser to Walt Disney, etc. It's those kind of details that made the show fascinating.

I was hoping Wurzer would stop at a warehouse outside Minnesota City and tell us all about the famous supper club that used to be housed there. It was called The Oaks and the Winona Republican Herald which I delivered printed the menu each year when the Minnesota Gourmet Association held its annual meeting there.

Alas, I missed that part of the program, probably because I had to retreat to the kitchen to make a bologna sandwich.

I wanted badly to see it because my father used to play the slots at the once-famous night club, until Gov. Luther Youngdahl made them illegal.

So I ordered Wurzer's new book, a companion piece to the TV series, "Tales of the Road: Highway 61" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95).

And sure enough there was a sizeable chapter on The Oaks Nite Club and its famous chef, Walt Kelly. I learned that it boasted the longest bar in Minnesota.

I could picture my father seated at it, with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in front of him. And I wondered why Gov. Youngdahl didn't close down the bar, too, as long as he was at it. What happened to the Oaks? Wurzer asked Chef Kelly's son, who still lives nearby. TV did it in.

Chockful of color and black and white photos and a satisfying amount of detail, this is the kind of history that's meaningful and accessible to all.

You don't have to remember old 61 to learn a lot about the state of Minnesota, where nothing is allowed, except the inability to spell "night" correctly.

Want to learn all you need to know about the man who wrote "Beale Street Blues"? Read a remarkably detailed book, by David Robinson, a book that's not only biography but perceptive history of race in America, "W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues," by David Robinson (27.95).

Talk about serendipity. On Saturday morning, I watch Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Karl Malden in "On the Waterfront."

In the afternoon, the mailman brings me a copy of a book just out last month, "Kazan on Directing," edited by Robert Cornfield, foreword by John Lahr and preface by Martin Scorsese (Knopf, $30).

You'll recall Kazan directed that movie and a number of other classics like "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "Death of a Salesman."

Editor Cornfield has culled from Kazan's journal entries a most insightful book about Kazan's studying acting at the Group Theatre and going on to become a preeminent director of actors.

Kazan gave Karl Malden his first acting job who returns the compliment with a dust jacket blurb:

"Elia Kazan was an inspiration to me. No one understood the complexities of American theatre and film the way he did. His riveting book is Kazan talking to us -- pushing us, lifting us, motivating us. Every student of stage and film should read it."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.