Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Get up, get out and get moving

From Irish pipes to paintings to parades, Montgomery County loves Labor Day weekend.

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Dancers Maggie McNamara of Rockville, (left to right) Corinne Ducey of Silver Spring and Megan White of Germantown, all students at the Culkin School of Traditional Dance, prepare the Labor Day festivities.
Forget cleaning the house, clipping the dog or caulking the tub; it’s time to the labor and savor this three-day weekend. Instead of sitting at home watching reruns of ‘‘Top Chef;” check out Glen Echo Park, where a mix of Irish music and fine art will be far more entertaining. After performing in plenty of other places, Irish musicians and dancers will return to the park. And best of all, the 11 acts have partnered with the park’s venerable 37th annual Labor Day Art Show.

Just a few months ago, the park’s event planner Donna Barker, preparing for the usual throngs coming to eye and buy at the non-juried art show, thought it might be time to up the artistic ante during this Saturday through Monday event. And she figured with the Irish Inn just steps away from the park and a cadre of musicians playing there weekly, it was a match made in venue heaven.

From the onset, guitarist Zan McCleod was happy to play with his trio and persuade old-timers — his words — including Brendan Mulvihill and Brian Gaffney to come on board. Sean Culkin, who also helped with the planning, will bring students from his Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance. Beginners to advanced Irish dancers promise to jig, reel and pound out the beat while performing the hornpipe – think River Dance. For a more soothing sound, Sue Richards will play contemporary and ancient tunes on the Celtic harp. The Rockville resident also will offer historical Irish tidbits including the story of Turlugh O’Carolan, a 17th century Celtic harpist who contracted smallpox and went blind. But with the luck of the Irish and the help of a generous patron, he was given a servant and a horse and was able to travel through Ireland creating tunes and performing for wealthy patrons.

Richards takes her instrument on the road as well. The musician spent this summer playing and teaching in Montana, the wilds of Maine and Fairbanks, Alaska.

No matter the locale, ‘‘Irish music speaks to a lot of people,” she deadpans. This jet-setter squeezed this summer stop at Glen Echo into her rigorous schedule; but beginning the fall, her two-decade old group Ensemble Galilei will begin a national tour.

While it took Richards some time to find her Celtic harp connection, Culkin was hooked on Irish dancing by age 6. His Irish immigrant parents made sure he was as much Irish as he was American. The Silver Spring resident continued dancing while attending college, but then took a 10-year flight-of-male-fancy including trying out law school; it didn’t fit. In 1995, with River Dance mania exploding on the scene, he was invited to teach Irish dancing in Glen Echo Park. Timing was everything.

‘‘I was like a surfer. I hit the wave,” he says.

Still, Culkin remembers wondering if anyone would even show up to his first class. He need not have worried; some 20 eager students were ready and willing. Now his school has about 400 regular students. With studios in Bethesda and Silver Spring, the schedule is so booked that there’s no longer time to offer adult beginner classes. Culkin notes that his adult class ranks third when competing with groups throughout North America.

While Culkin may have been all Irish all the time, McCleod took a more sequential route. For about a decade, he performed in rock bands, then played bluegrass and finally took up Irish music. A few months ago, he traveled to Jamaica to play in his son’s reggae band.

‘‘I can play anything,” insists the Potomac musician⁄teacher⁄instrument repairman and tuner.

McCleod admits that coming to Glen Echo will be a challenge. Whereas Irish bands enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s, now audiences are interested in paying for big-name stars. And with the prevalence of Irish bands willing to work for $50, he says the business of making a living performing Irish music isn’t easy. He hopes this Labor Day Weekend will help bring the Irish back to Glen Echo.

Show and sell

With the return of the jigs and jingles, it might be easy to neglect Glen Echo’s annual art show on view in the Spanish Ballroom. But as the oldest continuous park event, it has an enormous following; a couple of thousand people attend each year, coordinator Nancy Long says.

With the park’s checkered past – Black people weren’t allowed to use the park until 1961 – the idea of an all-inclusive art show is significant. It was juried the first year, but by the second, it had evolved into a community art show with anyone willing to pay a registration fee able to show work, Long explains. The Glen Echo resident has worked on the show since its inception. She believes the caliber of work has improved over the years, with local stars such as Walt Bartman often exhibiting at this Glen Echo Park fundraiser.

In the early days, it was small — mostly painting and prints. Now the show includes three-dimensional works along with photography.

Long advises patrons interested in buying art to come to the opening night reception on Friday in the Spanish Ballroom; that’s when a lot of the work gets sold. Each year, she says, like a kid in a candy store, she can’t wait to search for a favorite piece to buy.

The 37th annual Labor Day Art show and Irish music festival will be held at Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Saturday through Monday, noon to 6 p.m. An opening art reception is planned in the Spanish Ballroom on Friday, 7 to 9 p.m. The Zan McCleod Trio will perform. Admission to all events is free. For a schedule of events, call 301-634-2231 or visit

Peoples’ Parade starts at 1 p.m.

With upwards of 10,000 folks lining East Diamond Avenue each year, the City of Gaithersburg’s 69th annual Labor Day Parade is a suburban showstopper. And it’s the gargantuan helium balloons that people love best, insists Britta Monaco, the city’s Public Information Director. They may not be as big as the one’s in the Macy’s Parade, she modestly concedes, but along with the Celebrity Head TV Stars including Lucille Ball and Bill Cosby marching down the parade route, big abounds. This rain or shine event also will include the Chinese Tai Yam lion dancers, African drummers and dancers, the usual assortment of clowns and testosterone driven big machinery. Marching bands from Quince Orchard, Gaithersburg, Watkins Mill, Seneca Valley, Rockville and Clarksburg high schools will make their parents proud.

Free parking is available in the Olde Towne Garage, at the corner of Olde Towne and South Summit Avenue. Handicap parking is available behind the Victor Litz Store on the north side of Diamond Avenue and behind the Shell station on South Summit Avenue. A shuttle bus will be provided from the LakeForest Shopping Center transit station to Gaithersburg Middle school being at noon. For information, call 301-258-6350 or visit

All aboard

The National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville will host ‘‘Trolleymen at Work” from Saturday through Monday, noon to 5 p.m. The 1948 film ‘‘It’s A Big Job” explores the life of a trolley man in Los Angeles, before freeways put the vehicles out to rust. After World War II, the labor market boomed with employers searching for ways to entice workers, including movie shorts. This film, produced by the Los Angeles Railways, offers a glimpse into a trolley man’s life from being hired to learning to drive the vehicle. The movie will be shown on the hour. The museum is located at 1313 Bonifant Road, Colesville. Admission is free. Call 301-384-6088.