Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”
The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts sudh as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.
As reported in the New York Times, Bloomberg Philanthropies is putting $43 million into small and midsize arts group in seven new cities, including Austin.
“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the Times.
The other cities new to the project are Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. Already, the program has given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
By invitation, the arts groups are offered unrestricted support up to 10 percent of their budgets along with management training.
We’ll update this report when names of the local arts groups are revealed.
Notes on Austin Opera‘s recent production of “La Traviata.”
• Just as with Austin Symphony‘s concert that included Beethoven‘s Fifth, the opera company can fill a house with a favorite. Yes, just as patron Robert Nash said as he passed me going in, this was something like my 5,000th “La Traviata,” but who is counting? I like a full, enthusiastic house and a fresh interpretation of a classic.
• Every “La Traviata” is about Violetta, the fallen woman who finds love, abandons it in sacrifice, then dies. Yet everything about this production at the Long Center for the Performing arts centered expressly on Marina Costa-Jackson, who could fill an sporting arena with her charisma, her nuanced acting and her gorgeously tawny voice. She now moves up to spot No. 2 after Patricia Racette on my list of favorite Violettas.
• Every conductor from here on out must be considered a candidate for the position of Austin Opera artistic director. That’s not the official line, but it’s customary. What can we say about Steven White, who conducts around the world including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York? Judged by this one show, his sound is clean, unassuming and solidly in support of the artistic whole.
• While we loved the whirlwinds of activity elicited by stage director David Lefkowich, as well as the simplicity of his intimate scenes, we were of two minds about the costumes, sets and lights. The first act was appropriately suggestive of a bordello with a hint of luxury, each subsequent scene looked more and more bleak, less and less polished.
• Alfredo is, by nature, a pallid character. And that’s the way tenor Scott Quinn played him from beginning to end. Even during scenes of rage or regret. Germont, on the other hand, offers a mature range of responses. Although he looked young for the role of Alfredo’s father, Michael Chioldi proved forceful, then dignified, although he was less convincing as he warmed to Violetta.
Austin Art League
They have been meeting for more than 100 years. The Austin Art League started regularly examining and discussing art in social settings in 1909. They continue to do so.
During a light luncheon at Tarry House, a private club in Tarrytown on a former estate that belonged the Reed family, they covered a multitude of subjects, but got down to business handing out scholarships to Austin Community College art students Apoorva Jain and Laura Bauman. A third recipient of the $1,500 grants was not present.
They can do so because, a few years ago the group sold a collection of art that they owned, but had been closeted at the Austin History Center for decades. That secret stash brought in $200,000, part of a story I want to tell in full.
In the custom of legacy women’s clubs, members have at times been identified only by their husband’s names, at other times by their given first names and married last names. Looking over a list of first 100 or so presidents, I spied some social celebrities right off: Mrs. Walter E. Long, Mrs. Harry Bickler, Mrs. T.P. Whitis, Mrs. R.L. Batts, Mrs. T.S. Painter, Mrs. Z.T. Scott, Mrs. Fred. S. Nagle, Mrs. Austin Phelps, Mrs. Martha Deatherage, Mrs. G. Felder Thornhill III, Mrs. D.J. Sibley, Jr. and Mrs. Frank Starr Niendorff.
We did not know accomplished artist, teacher and administrator Leonard Lehrer, but he spent his last years in the Austin area. He died on May 8.
Lehrer was a founding trustee and current honorary member of the International Print Center New York and emeritus professor of art from New York University, among other titles. His art was the subject of 48 solo exhibitions and multiple group shows. His work is in the collectcions of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Library of Congress as well as other museums and private collections.
Lehrer studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught or led programs at the Philadelphia College of Art, University of New Mexico, University of Texas at San Antonio, Arizona State University, Columbia College Chicago and New York University. His last position was a director of the printmaking convergence program at the University of Texas.
A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. June 2 at Thurman’s Mansion in Driftwood.
Billy Harden, co-founder of Spectrum Theatre Company, died early Tuesday of colon cancer. He was 64. An actor, producer and educator, Harden appeared in many shows with Spectrum, ZachTheatre and permutations of Austin Playhouse.
“(I’m) wrecked today at the loss of Billy Harden,” posted Laura Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse, on social media. “I met Billy when I was 12 years old and for 30 years he served as an unparalleled example of kindness and integrity. … I’m grateful to have known him and so saddened by his loss.”
Harden earned a doctorate in educational leadership and served as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator. He was former head of school at Goodwill Industries Charter School and assistant principal at the Austin School District’s Alternative Learning Center.
Among his memorable performances were multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts include roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and many more.
“Billy was such as sweet soul,” posted actor Felicia Dinwiddie on social media. “And so talented and surely he will be missed. … He has taken his final bow into the hands of the Lord.”
“Billy F. Harden was present from some of the earliest parts of my venture into this industry,” posted actor Vincent Hooper. “A constant source of wisdom, experience, kindness, and support; Billy was always such a positive presence to have around. You could always find him involved in something bigger than himself.”
Harden served as executive director of Spectrum, Austin’s leading African-American theater company, founded by Harden with Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson.
“There’s an old gospel song that says, ‘May the work I’ve done, speak for me’,” Stinson said. “Although Billy is now safe in the arms of Jesus, his works will continue to speak. I will truly miss my dear friend of 33 years. We have shared the stage many times, often cast as husband and wife. In fact, Billy would sometime introduce me as his ‘stage wife.’ So as your friend, castmate and stage wife, I say, ‘Take your rest my friend.'”
“Margaret was an amazing person who took the school to heights James and I never imagined,” said Larry Connelly, Armstrong’s surviving husband. “James was always so proud to have his name associated with such a great organization.”
“Her imprint will be forever on the Armstrong Community Music School, the staff that followed her vision wholeheartedly, and the faculty that shared her mission of service and excellence,” said Rachel McInturff, the director of the school’s finance and administration. “Her wisdom guided many. Her laughter uplifted all. She will be deeply missed.”
Perry originally trained as a harpsichordist and played with various baroque music groups. She served for several years as pianist for Houston Ballet. Although she taught piano privately for decades, she was know to the larger arts community as lecturer and arts educator.
Perry served on numerous boards of directors before and after the founding of the Armstrong School in 2000. At the time, it was the only American community music school established by an opera company. She one numerous honors and was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2012.
Jeff and Gail Kodosky, Laura Walterman,Austin Gleeson and other benefactors have established the Margaret Perry Endowment Fund which has already attracted $200,000 and is managed by the Austin Community Foundation.
A memorial concert at a time to be determined will feature music only, no speeches or photos, followed by a reception.
This is a developing story. Check back for more details.
Austin theater veteran Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson died at home Friday of a heart attack. He was 82.
“Ken died here on Gault Street sitting in a red swivel chair in front of his computer and TV,” said longtime friend and housemate Maggie Cox. “Two of his dogs were in his office with him.”
According to his friends, Johnson came to Austin from Port Arthur in 1965. He transformed the community theater troupe known as Austin Civic Theatre into Zachary Scott Theatre, which is now Zach Theatre. Johnson named it after an Austin-reared stage and movie star who died in 1965 and whose family had been prominent in the city through several generations.
Johnson had long runs as the director of at least two other groups, Center Stage and Hyde Park Theatre, and he participated in the revival of the Paramount Theatre. Johnson wrote many plays and screenplays, most notably “Jesse’s Closet,” his stage drama that he adapted and directed for the screen.
Tempestuous and sometimes controversial, Johnson kept close a coterie of theater friends. Cox worked with him in various capacities for decades and invited him to share her home during his later years. She said that Johnson raised the general level of quality in Austin theater, including at what would become Zach.
“His abrasive nature was like a grain of sand in an oyster shell before he left,” she said. “Strong management practices after that helped propel Zach Theatre toward the grand theater it is today.”
Dock Jackson, a Bastrop public servant who worked with Johnson mainly in the 1970s, praised his skills as director, producer, writer, theater owner, actor, singer, set designer, costume coordinator and master carpenter.
Jackson: “There wasn’t anything he didn’t or couldn’t do in the theater.”
Johnson worked energetically until the end. He eagerly took to YouTube and created many short films for that format.
We just read that Harvey Schmidt, co-creator of “The Fantasticks,” the longest running musical in history, has died at age 88.
The last time we chatted with Schmidt, a former Austinite who attended the University of Texas, he was in town in 2010 with his lyricist, Tom Jones, to toast the 50th anniversary of his hit, which ran for nearly 42 years at the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village — 17,162 performances! — before closing in 2002. It returned in 2006 at the Theater Center and ran until its New York total since 1960 reached 21,552.
Word Baker, who directed the show, also attended UT.
In Austin during the 1950s, Schmidt and Jones were part of the Curtain Club, the extracurricular drama group started by critic and scholar Stark Young in 1907. Both “The Fantasticks” and their much less successful “Celebration” relied heavily on their theater historical training at UT.
Two more of their best remembered Broadway shows were “I Do! I Do!,” a two-actor musical about love and marriage that was mostly a showcase for Mary Martin and Robert Preston, and “110 in the Shade,” based on “The Rainmaker.” Their major musicals have been revived here periodically. More evidence hometown loyalty: The Paramount Theatre was one of the few in the country that ever exhibited the ill-fated 1995 movie adaptation of “The Fantasticks.”
Here’s a snip from something I wrote back in 2010 before the UT event: So just how did “The Fantasticks” get its start in Austin? The composing pair closely studied the source material, Edmund Rostand‘s “Les Romanesques,” with (UT professor and director) B. Iden Payne and witnessed multiple student versions of the story about parents who bring their children together by pretending to keep them apart. They collaborated on deliriously popular student revues at UT and creative projects in New York before “The Fantasticks” took off, boosting the careers of Jerry Orbach, Robert Goulet, Glenn Close, Rita Gardner, Richard Chamberlain, George Chakiris, John Davidson and others. (The book to read is “The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America’s Longest Running Play” by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas.)
This is what I wrote afterwards: We witnessed history. Oct. 15, on the first night of the University Texas’ celebration of the 50th Anniversary of “The Fantasticks,” a perky set of undergraduates performed a sharply contoured revue of songs by Texas exes Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. The portfolio included fewer than two dozen from the composing team’s 1,000+ songs, written over the course of 60 years. Yet it polished up rare gems, like alternative versions of the “I Do! I Do!” title song and the duo’s work as UT students and cabaret composers during the 1950s.
At the end of the show, Schmidt and Jones, now in their eighties, met at the piano. They sang four short songs, but — oh! — it was well worth witnessing the composers of America’s longest running play jazzing it up for the crowd. Two instant hits were “Mr. Off-Broadway,” their self-descriptive salute to the movement they helped popularize, and “Freshman Song,” the first they ever wrote together, 60 years ago for a wildly popular UT student review. How many can say they have witnessed the crowning of such a career at one’s alma mater?
The song’s shy, hopeful lyrics set loose the waterworks for the assembled guests, mostly alumni who packed the weekend of performances, panels and parties. The subsequent reception outside the Brockett Theatre was like old home week for seven decades of theater and dance students.
The eldest member of the Curtain Club d — which predated the drama department — spoke of joining in the early 1940s. She was the picture of grace and eloquence.
The next morning, UT playwright Steven Dietz delivered a philosophical keynote speech about theater preparing us “to be.” Texas Performing Arts director Kathy Panoff, with help from music director Lyn Koenning, interviewed Schmidt and Jones for a delightful hour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Both Texans retain a ready wit and literate array of references.
Playwright Kirk Lynn and arts editor Robert Faires then led a discussion of how new work changes theater, dance and training. The panel linked choreographer Kitty McNamee, playwrights Robert Schenkkan, Kim Peter Kovac and Carson Kreitzer. They made a convincing case for the act of making something from nothing.
Costume designer Susan Mickey helped me corral a raucous crew of talents: Bruce McGill (“Animal House,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance”); Todd Lowe (“Gilmore Girls,” “True Blood”); and Brian Danner (Los Angeles fight director). We discussed whether a university arts education was worth nothing – or everything. Other talks and demonstrations honeycombed the Winship Building before a performance of “The Fantasticks.”
Maurice Peress, music director of the Austin Symphony from 1970 to 1972, died on Dec. 31. He was 87.
An assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Peress conducted the first performance Bernstein’s “Mass” at the Kennedy Center. The multi-media masterpiece is slated to be performed in Austin this June in celebration of “Bernstein at 100,” to be led by Peter Bay.
A professor and author, Peress was director of the Kansas City Philharmonic and conducted internationally with the Vienna State Opera, Prague Spring Festival and all over China. He also conducted key productions of Bernstein’s “Candide” and “West Side Story.”
He taught at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and he led the Queens College Orchestra.
His 2004 book, “Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African-American Roots,” was widely praised.
Before coming to Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas, Peress conducted in Corpus Christi. For a while, he was music director in both cities. He led UT’s University Symphony Orchestra. In Corpus, he put together an annual opera, staging rarely performed works such as Hector Berlioz‘s “Beatrice and Benedick.”
Concerned with widening Texas audiences for classical music, Peress produced a series of televised “Concert Talks.” His Austin Symphony programs did not shy away from Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and other composers that have fallen out of favor at times with the ensemble’s chief backers.
“His innovative and exciting concerts have inspired new enthusiasm within the community,” Jane Sibley, then president of the Symphony Society, told this newspaper in 1971 when Peress was signed to a three-year contract. “Needless to say, we are delighted that he is pleased with Austin and has agreed to another three years.”
Nevertheless, Peress, citing an overburdened schedule, announced his resignation at the intermission of the orchestra’s last regular subscription concert in 1972.
American-Statesman Amusements Editor John Bustin wrote of that concert: “It was, in every sense, a thrilling performance.”