1986: A Look Back

”What could be more hopeless than a madwoman, marrying a drunk?”

That colorful quotation is the first sentence in the novel ”Curranne Trueheart,” by novelist Donald Newlove. It was one of many works of fiction by Newlove which was partly or entirely set in Jamestown and in Chautauqua County. I’ve been reading about Newlove and his writing, recently, in a remarkable place: it was in a scrapbook, which was made up entirely of articles written by me, and published in this newspaper during the year 1986.

What has driven me to examining my past creations has been a relatively new entry in my typical year. Allow me to explain.

Beginning in 2012, I was asked to perform the play ”Love Letters,” by Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney. The purpose of the performance was to raise money, to support the scholarships which are given to young students in the visual and performing arts, by the Chautauqua New York Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. Some people came to the play because they wanted to see it, and some came because they hoped to see the critic fall on his face and show that he didn’t practice what he preached. For whatever reason they came, they helped to fund the scholarships, and that is what matters.

”Love Letters” is a rare treasure among plays, in that it is intended to be read aloud, rather than performed with costumes and everyone’s lines memorized. Staging and memorizing a full-length play, typically requires about five weeks of work and rehearsal, and I do not have that much time to commit. When the actors sit and read, while wearing the same costumes throughout the evening, the performance can be put together in a small fraction of the time.

The performance brought in a nice sum of money to help fund the scholarships, so in 2013, they asked me to do a similar performance with a second play by Gurney: ”Ancestral Voices.” That earned some money to help students as well, so this year, when they asked me to perform in a third Gurney play – ”The Dining Room” – I jumped at the opportunity.

The down side of committing the time to such a project, is that it allows no time for the many hours which typically are invested in writing this column. Last year, when confronted by the problem, I decided to write that week’s column by pulling off the shelf in my home, one volume of the scrapbooks which my wife created, for about the first decade after I began writing this column, in 1980, and discussing and evaluating the difference between Chautauqua County arts in the past, and those today.

I don’t doubt that some readers didn’t enjoy looking at a year of local arts from more than 20 years ago, but none of them took the time to say so, while quite a number of readers wrote or phoned to say how much they had enjoyed the column, so I decided, when I was invited again to perform, that I would repeat the custom. If you enjoy it, I’m glad. If you don’t, turn the page, and look again next week, when things are back to normal.

1986

It’s amazing how different so many things were in 1986. At my age, that date seems relatively recent, although realistically, it was more than 25 years ago. I wonder what we can learn from the lessons of the past.

That year was a year of substantial change at Chautauqua Institution. The number of operas performed there had shrunk from seven per year to four, for example. Chautauqua Opera, under the leadership of Cynthia Auerbach, then a stage director for New York City Opera, produced ”The Rake’s Progress,” and ”Daughter of the Regiment,” followed by ”The Mikado,” and ”Il Trovatore,” which brought a new perspective to the art form, rather than just re-doing the crowd’s favorites. Stephen Smith, a singer who had begun his career as a member of the young apprentice artists’ company which had been pioneered by Chautauqua Opera Director Leonard Treash, returned to Norton Hall to sing the lead in ”The Mikado.”

The Cleveland PlayHouse, which had repeated each year’s complete season on the Norton Hall Stage, had been ousted several years earlier. Many readers were still unhappy with that, in 1986, and worried that the entire artform of theater was being subtly cast off.

At first, the Cleveland company was replaced by The Acting Company, a traveling troupe made up of theater students at the Juilliard School, in New York City. As is always the case with college theater – even that from a school such as Juilliard – their choices were made based on teaching the young actors specific things about their art. Whether their performances were entertaining to the audience was not nearly as important.

In 1985, Chautauqua ended its association with that troupe, and began their own program, combining education for young actors with performances to entertain and inspire those who had chosen to summer at the Institution.

That year, the director of the new company, Michael Kahn, brought to Chautauqua a production with no fewer than four successful film stars involved, of Tennessee Williams’ classic play ”The Glass Menagerie.” I believe that production is still the best I’ve ever seen of that brilliant play. It starred Oscar-winning actress Teresa Wright as Amanda, Tom Hulce, who had fired up Broadway in ”Equus,” then headlined the blockbuster film ”Amadeus,” played her son. Melissa Gilbert, who grew up before our eyes on the television series ”Little House on the Prairie” played her daughter, and Mark Arnott, who back then had recently had a leading role in a film called ”Return of the Seacaucus Seven,” which had won him a large following among grown-up film lovers, played the Gentleman Caller.

Kahn decided that the secret of success at Chautauqua was to sprinkle his casts with film stars, but in 1986, when he staged a production of a play called ”Key Exchange,” starring Jennifer Beals, then just finished portraying the lead in the film ”Flashdance,” he learned that Chautauqua audiences would show up to see famous actors, but wouldn’t hesitate to complain loudly, if they thought the performance didn’t meet their standards.

Lecturers at Chautauqua that year included Fred Rogers, of the television series”Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Education figure Albert Shanker was here, as was Gloria Steinem, and honored journalist Harrison Salisbury. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who had written many books on the subject of death and dying, dared to suggest that one day humanity would look back on the AIDS virus, which was killing vast numbers of people around the world, as a blessing. She said it would separate what she called ”the wheat” in our society, who would react with compassion and in support of ending the plague, from ”the chaff,” by which she said she meant those who would react judgmentally and with cruelty. Some we agreed with, others we did not do so, but we learned from each of them. New York critic Mel Gussow brought fascinating views of my own profession, and drew a large crowd to the Amphitheater.

A week of lectures centering on China, which back then we were intent on calling Red China, included much information about life there, including the fact that the film ”Rambo” was the top earning film of the year, in that country.

The Monkees and Miami Sound Machine performed on the stage of the Amphitheater that year, as well.

In Niagara County, that year, the State of New York was experimenting with the idea of Artpark, a state park devoted to bringing elements of the arts to our half of the state, which were enjoyed in the eastern part of New York. In 1986, I reviewed a performance of ”Die Walkure,” the second of four operas in composer Richard Wagner’s famed ”Ring Cycle.” Performed in the beautiful Artpark Theatre, on the lip of the gorge through which the Niagara River flowed turgidly, below the falls, it was like standing beside the Rhine itself, where that operatic cycle begins.

Taking the children to see art being created and to listen to stories being told and to outdoor performances of plays written for children made me feel better about state taxes, than did other things for which that money was spent.

The Palace Civic Center, which had not yet had its renaissance, to become the beautiful Reg Lenna Center for the Arts, presented a national touring company’s production of ”A Chorus Line,” and two performances by the National Shakespeare Company: ”Romeo and Juliet,” and ”The Taming of the Shrew.” Sadly, despite its prominent name, the National Shakespeare Company was an under-funded and not very gifted company which gave productions of Shakespearean plays which left young audiences wondering what was so special about this Bard guy – a terrible waste.

The Western New York Chamber Orchestra existed in 1986, but under its original name, the Chautauqua Chamber Players. That year, flutist Susan Royal, who I believe still performs with the orchestra, performed as a guest artist with the Erie Philharmonic, under Maestro Walter Hendl, who was its artistic director, in those days.

Operatic tenor Douglas Ahlstedt – a graduate of Southwestern Central School – performed a concert for the Jamestown Concert Assn., highlighted by Aaron Copland’s ”Old American Songs,” as well as a segment in Swedish, of songs by composer Hugo Alfven. Also, that year, Ahlstedt performed the male lead in ”The Italian Girl in Algiers,” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, opposite Bradford Native Marilyn Horne.

Speaking of opera, my writing for that year includes a review based on a visit to New York City, of a performance by soprano Louisa Jonason, who now teaches in the opera program at Mercyhurst College, in Erie. That year, she was headlining at New York City Opera, singing the lead in ”Madama Butterfly,” by Puccini, a role which had become almost a signature performance in her career. The article includes a statement by me about the difficulty of spending $30 or $40 for a ticket to a Broadway show. Since that ticket would cost roughly five times that much today, it is a lesson – about something, anyway.

Still on the subject of opera, in that year, area resident and artist, the late Maritza Morgan was asked to translate the children’s story ”The Cunning Little Vixen,” from the Czech, in which it was created by author Rudolf Tesnohlidek, into English, so that the opera which had been created, based on the story, by Czech composer Leos Janacek, could be widely performed in our country, and elsewhere, where singers who could perform fluently in Czech were hard to find. Ms. Morgan went on to create a best-selling story book, based on her translation, which included her sensitive paintings of the human-like animals who make up the story.

A resident of Jamestown for 30 years, Joseph Micciche had retired to Florida by 1986, when he was cited by celebrated composer Gian Carlo Menotti as one of the American composers of opera whose works deserved to be produced and performed. Menotti was speaking during an interview on PBS television.

The composer specifically named the opera ”The Young Pioneers,” by Micciche, and referred to ”The Life of Abraham Lincoln” and ”America,” a history based on the life of Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the continents of the western hemisphere.

One of the highlights of the year in 1986 was a joint performance at the Palace – now the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts – by the Chautauqua Chamber Singers, the Jamestown Choral Society, the Erie Philharmonic Chorus, and the Chautauqua Chamber Orchestra, of J.S. Bach’s ”B-Minor Mass.”

Another highlight was a performance in Jamestown Community College’s Robert L. Scharmann Theater by a locally-formed mime troupe, which called itself MUTUUS Mime.

A third highlight was a production at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, of the wrenching modern play, ”Agnes of God,” by John Pielmeier. A leading character in the production was a psychiatrist, who is portrayed as suffering from a personal prejudice which should have excluded her from treating the young woman who is the title character. The role was played in Jamestown by Helen Merrill, who thrilled local audiences and this critic with a performance which was truly stunning.

The production was directed brilliantly by Harriet Smith Warren, the actress from the company of the Cleveland Play House who left that company, along with her husband, George Warren, and accepted the leadership of the Little Theatre of Jamestown, which is now the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown. I credit Mrs. Warren for having taught me more about the theater than all the other classes and experiences in my past. She always said, when her productions were reviewed, she always hoped that she would not be named, or at least that no discussion of her role in the production would be made.

”Honey, if the critic notices the director’s contribution, the director is probably directing with ham hands,” she often told me. ”You want your audience to believe what your actors are doing, not to admire how you got it out of them.”

Speaking of LBLTJ, that year saw a performance by Tim Newell, of Westfield, who recently played the lead in the Gurney play, in which I performed last weekend. The critic – that is I – gave hearty praise to Newell for his portrayal of Mammy Yochum, the scrappy little mother of the hero of the musical show ”L’il Abner.” If you remember the cartoon strip on which that show is based, you’ll understand immediately why Mammy was portrayed by a man, and the actor made her a person, and a major part of the production, not a pantomime to be laughed at.

I started this column with a quotation from the novels of Donald Newlove, and he made a return home to our city, which he always called ”King James,” in his novels. We did an interview with him at the Book Store, which used to be located on East Third Street. What a loss for humanity, it is that so many bookstores have been allowed to close and so many libraries are neglecting their responsibility to be the champions of books, not the executioners.

While I was interviewing Newlove, a woman stepped up and reminded him that he had once sent her a telegram which said, ”A handsome man will pick you up this evening at 8:00. ” It was signed, ”Fearless Fosdick.”

Among Newlove’s discussions about his books in Jamestown was a famous scene in ”Sweet Adversity.” The joint protagonists of that novel were Theodore and Leo, a pair of conjoined twins, who were permanently locked to one another, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. The two begin a career as ambulance drivers, although only the twin on the left could actually drive.

Driving down English Street, in Jamestown, the ambulance loses its brakes, with the twins at the wheel, and it roars down the hill, through multiple intersections, and finally runs out of steam next to Jamestown High School. Newlove had taken his wife to see the path of that rushing trip, and if you haven’t been in that neighborhood in a while, it might be worth dropping by. Newlove’s wife found herself aghast.

Isn’t it remarkable to examine what was, and the imagine what could be, and what might have been? I hope you’ve enjoyed it, at least as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Winks

The film ”Monuments Men,” is a recently-released successful film, starring George Clooney. The film deals with a real-life organization which was created by the U.S. and our allies to deal with the fact that Hitler and his Nazi forces were conducting a campaign to either steal the world’s great works of art and place them in their own private collections, or to inspire their enemies to destroy the great cathedrals, palaces, and other historical sites, by storing weapons in them, or using them as sniper posts. The Monuments Men were charged with rescuing as much as possible of Western Culture.

Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery has recently issued a press release, saying that three of the actual Monuments Men went on to become administrators of the Albright-Knox. If you see the film in the future, you can imagine Buffalo’s role in the events on the screen.

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On Friday, the Buffalo Philharmonic will perform a concert, as a benefit for the preservation of First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, and the E.B. Green Tower. The performance will be in the church, which is located at One Symphony Circle, directly across from Kleinhans Music Hall, where they normally perform.

Admission is $40. To purchase tickets, phone 885-5000 or take your computer to this address: tickets.bpo.org/. Tickets are expected to sell out, so advance purchase is advised.

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The Kavinoky Theatre invites you to attend the beautiful and historic Saturn Club, 977 Delaware Ave., in Buffalo, for a fundraising event called Kavinoky Kavalkade. The event will take place April 5, beginning at 7 p.m.

Enjoy the atmosphere at the beautiful club, and feast on complimentary hors d’oeuvres and wines. Participate in the silent auction, to purchase such rare opportunities as four nights in a luxury villa, in Bourdeaux, France, four nights of skiing at Whistler Resort, in British Columbia, and tickets to the final round of the 2015 Masters Golf Tournament.

To purchase tickets to the event, phone 829-7668.