Colorado Contest Maven Hits Pay Dirt: Jell-O

The Jell-O Lady

High above Times Square, in bright letters, we see the intimate thoughts of regular folks-intimate thoughts about Jell-O. “I make Jell-O gelatin shimmy, shake, and jiggle just for fun. It makes me giggle,” wrote one Joan Verdeal of Arvada, Colo.

It’s part of a contest. Those who entered were asked to explain why Jell-O makes them “smile more,” in 75 words or less. The grand prize winners got to meet Bill Cosby. The runners-up got their name in lights over Times Square, alongside their writing. Reached by phone, Mrs. Verdeal, a 68-year-old mother of five grown children, said she wasn’t aware her name was up in lights over Manhattan.

She said she enters contests as a hobby and wins something in one out of every 15 she enters. “I do a lot of rewriting,” she said. ” A lot! You can spend three days writing one 25-word entry, sometimes more.”

Last May, Mrs. Verdeal won a trip for two to New York in a contest sponsored by Equal sugar substitute-but it was “a trip from hell,” she said. Mechanical problems with the plane. Taxi strike. Cold rain. Dirty looks from Al Gore’s Secret Service detail in the hotel lobby.

Mrs. Verdeal wasn’t exactly thrilled to be talking to a reporter. About 30 years ago, she said, she won a contest that allowed her to go on a grocery-store shopping spree, and the woman from the Rocky Mountain News got it all wrong.

“The reporter who wrote the story,” said Mrs. Verdeal, “she made me sound like somebody in tennis shoes racing through the store. That just wasn’t how it was! I saw a headline in the paper, ‘Woman Goes Berserk in Supermarket,’ and I thought to myself, Oh, the poor thing. And I read the article and I realized- My gosh! That’s me! Oh! “

Mrs. Verdeal said there was nothing “berserk” about her performance that day. In fact, she was methodical. She even made prior arrangements with the meat department to have a turkey and a roast ready for her to pluck on her way by. And when she was done with the spree, she still had time to spare.

-Andrew Goldman

No Jazz Fest This Year

Guys,

I know you’ve been talking about it since November-$268, round trip! Everyone’s gonna be there! Terri, Kari, Kristy, Brimley, Big Money, Spanker, Jeeker!-and you need to know if I’m in. But I don’t think I’ll be going to Jazz Fest this year.

The thought of flying into New Orleans on a Thursday night, dropping the stuff off at the condo and immediately hitting the bars (Mermaid Lounge!) until 3 A.M., then having a couch nap, waking up woodless at 9 A.M., mouth full of sawdust, empties everywhere … slurping some frozen daiquiris at Daiquiris, dragging myself to the fairgrounds by noon, and it’s smoking hot on that field, 11 stages of continuous music, jazz and blues and zydeco and don’t forget the gospel tent, and we’re eating crawfish Monica and fried po’ boys and jambalaya in a paper bowl, washing it all down with Miller Genuine Draft … the sorority girls from Tulane and ‘Bama, the old-timers in Hawaiian shirts and shades, women in bikinis riding the shoulders of topless men, ambulances at the edge of the field, the lines, the folk artists in lawn chairs with their folk art, 80,000 people sharing 600 Porta Pottis cooking in the sun all day … alligator sausages, the whole ritual of getting lost and looking for the group’s decorated pole … keepin’ up the good mood, stokin’ the old enthusiasm, mushrooms, beer, ecstasy, beer.

Then what? It’s 7 P.M. We’re filthy. Drive back to the condo , take a nap (“mergin’ with the couch”), a shower, cram ourselves into a restaurant and it’s off to Fat Harry’s, Tipitina’s, and we’re all doing that dance, the White Man’s Overbite, where you bite your lower lip and don’t move too much, get that second wind, hit that biker bar the Dungeon (opens 4 A.M.! dude! ).

The Meters! The Neville Brothers! Dr. John! It’s 5:30 A.M. and Smilin’ Myron are still playin’ on Maple Street, everyone’s sweatin’ and spent, body shaking from lack of sugar, pop 15 milligrams of Vicodin, ahhhhh … but here come the spicy-chicken-gumbo squirts… look into a red plastic cup filled with butts and tobacco juice and get ready to do it all over again on Saturday and Sunday … but only after those big bowls of chickory coffee.

Can’t do it, guys. Call me a dick, but I’m not going to Jazz Fest this year.

-George Gurley

The Real World: Auschwitz

Irene Zisblatt didn’t tell her children until they were 13 and 11 years old, respectively, that she was a Holocaust survivor. “I didn’t want to place that burden on them,” she said in an interview, just after the Paris Theater premiere of The Last Days , James Moll’s emotionally wrenching documentary about the final year of World War II at the Auschwitz concentration camp. “And my son is still in denial. Until tonight.” She pointed at her 41-year-old son.

“Or tomorrow,” said the son, who had just seen his mother relive the Holocaust in The Last Days prior to a reception at the Plaza Hotel.

Mrs. Zisblatt-a 68-year-old-blonde woman from Czechoslovakia-was one of five people gathered in the room who lived through the horror and emigrated to America in 1947 and 1948. The others were Representative Tom Lantos, 71, a tall, white-haired, 10-term Congressman from south of San Francisco; Renée Firestone, 74, a cherubic lecturer with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; Alice Lok Cahana, 70, an introspective artist from Houston; and Bill Basch, 72, a gregarious Los Angeles businessman.

They were originally filmed telling their stories by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Later, thanks to a $1.5 million donation from the Kenneth and Evelyn Lipper Foundation, Mr. Moll, the director, began to fashion a film out of some 50,000 individual interviews. He focused on a group of Hungarian Jews at the war’s end. All of them have powerful stories-but perhaps Mrs. Zisblatt’s is the one most people will remember from The Last Days .

“My mother gave me five little diamonds when we were separated at the camp,” she said. “To use if I needed to trade for something.” In the film, she recalls hiding the gems in her mouth during inspections. Whenever the soldiers checked the mouths of the prisoners for gold fillings, she would swallow her diamonds and retrieve them later from her own excrement. Today, they are mounted on a silver teardrop pin, which she wears on a thin chain around her neck.

Renée Firestone, who breaks into a ready smile, has also been working for the Shoah Foundation since it started in 1994. In The Last Days , she calmly questions Dr. Hans Munch, an acquitted Nazi war criminal who performed chilling experiments on her beloved sister, Klara. Everyone who sees the film wonders how she kept from attacking him.

“It’s not about fighting,” she said sweetly. “It’s about closure.”

These days, Mrs. Firestone, a former fashion designer (“my picture was once in every window of Macy’s”), lectures on tolerance. She’s even pen pals with a neo-Nazi skinhead incarcerated in Texarkana, Tex. “It’s a tight facility,” she said.

Mrs. Zisblatt also knew the horrible Dr. Munch.

“I recognized him,” she said, with a shiver, “when I saw the first cut of the movie. We called him ‘the Bloodsucker.’ In December 1944, we were on the tables, being experimented on. They were taking our blood, Jewish blood, and sending it to the German front. I can still remember the bodies-they were like zombies.”

The group seemed to agree about most things-but they were split on Roberto Benigni’s movie, Life Is Beautiful .

“I thought it was brilliant,” said Representative Lantos. “It’s a fable after all, and much of history has been communicated that way.”

Mrs. Firestone vehemently disagreed: “It’s not that it makes the Holocaust a joke, but it could never have happened, hiding a child in the camp. He should have gone into hiding in Italy with the little boy.”

Bill Basch, who remembers Auschwitz acutely (“Hunger is an awesome pain,” he said as trays of petits fours passed by), shook his head. “There is comedy in life,” he said. “I was very moved.”

Alice Cahana, red-haired and careful, was probably the quietest in the group. At one point during the reception, she mentioned that she was about to have her 70th birthday. “I never thought I’d live to 17, forget 70,” she said. In The Last Days , she revisits Auschwitz and recalls leading prayers in the latrine. “It was the one place the soldiers wouldn’t go,” she said, “because the smell was so terrible.”

-Roger D. Friedman