Frogmen Trainer Becomes Prince to Little Mermaids

The true tale of a dream that could only happen in Florida.

In a certain well-known story playing at The Straz this July, a certain red-headed mermaid desperately wants to become human. In Florida, however, there are certain humans who desperately want to become mermaids.

And, because this is Florida, they can.

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“Mermaid Taylor” image courtesy of Andrew Brusso.*

One hour north of Morsani Hall burbles and gurgles one of the greatest, most famous natural wonders in all of Florida, the glorious Weeki Wachee springs. That’s saying something considering this state also harbors the Everglades, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, as well as supports the motley assortment of wild panthers, bear, boar, alligators, pythons, manatees, crocodiles, sawfish and bison in the same state. Yet, Weeki Wachee resides, funneling 117 million gallons of cool spring water every day from depths so extreme the bottom has never been found.

So, it should feel somewhat appropriate that, in 1949, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II looked out across the evocative, blue expanse of Weeki Wachee springs and said something like, “hey, I bet I can build an underwater theater and have a mermaid show.”

This man, Newton Perry, cleared the rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars from the spring, built an 18-seat theater in the lime rock six feet underwater, then launched what would become one of the hottest tourist spots in the nation only a few years later, thanks to the corps of pretty girls in bikini tops and shimmering, half-body tails. In the 1950s, Florida was miles upon miles of expansive wilderness threaded with a handful of dirt roads – almost the opposite of what we see today – but the allure of a teenager in a bullet-bra bathing costume eating a banana underwater drew carloads of curious tourists to the underwater marvel.

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Mermaids took ballet classes to improve their performance in the water in 1960 (L) and Elvis Presley’s visit to the park in 1961 (R). Check out more historical photos on Weeki Wachee’s Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings.

Perry figured out how to hide slender breathing tubes amid the underwater scenery so the performers could have access to air during the run of their shows and stunts. The mermaids did not (and do not) have an easy job despite appearances and air tubes. In a current sometimes strong enough to knock off a cinched SCUBA mask, holding their own and holding their breath while creating the illusion of gliding and floating gently through enchanting waters requires the strength, stamina and skill of a competitive athlete.

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Susan Backlinie, known for her role as Chrissie Watkins, the first victim in Jaws, is a former Weeki Wachee mermaid. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

In the sixties, American Broadcast Company (ABC) bought the spring, tipping the scales toward international fame. They upgraded to a 400-seat theater and made the attraction a bonafide springs-and-mermaids theme park. Whereas the Weeki Wachee mermaids had been local gals, under the ABC banner women from around the world auditioned for the show of a lifetime as a swirling, twirling mermaid performing eight sold out shows a day. During this heyday, Weeki Wachee boasted 35 mermaids on the payroll, with many of them living in special mermaid cottages on site. They were, and some argue still are, Florida royalty.

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Buccaneer Bay Waterpark, located inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

Today, Weeki Wachee springs exist as a state park, full of family-friendly activities – including the beloved, often sold-out daily mermaid shows. They have a full roster of mermaids and two princes that you can read about online if you want current information. If you have a little starfish who needs to practice writing and penmanship skills, the mermaids and princes are happy to receive Tail Mail letters from fans and the mer-curious (under 17 years old only, though). Weeki Wachee holds junior mermaid camps, too, and even a “Sirens of the Deep” adult mermaid camp for those people who want to unleash their inner merperson. That’s the upside. The downside is that the camps for both little and big humans are sold out through October 2017.

After 70 years, Newton Perry’s post-war Florida mermaid dream still ignites the imagination and affirms a more uplifting, charmingly literal interpretation of “swimming with the fishes.”

Thus, common Jamaican crab wisdom holds: it is better, down where it’s wetter.

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*New York-based photographer Andrew Brusso grew up on Anna Maria Island. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Surfer, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Golf Digest and other notable publications. He joined the 2008 effort to save Weeki Wachee springs by photographing the mermaids pro bono for a fundraising calendar. He’s been photographing them for the annual calendar ever since. To see his extraordinary work, visit andrewbrusso.com.

Local Profiles: Sculpting Out a Future

Jim and Joan Jennewein helped shape the Straz Center in more ways than one.

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YES! by Martin Eichinger is a bronze sculpture that was a part of the original Performance In Sculpture exhibit in Morsani lobby.

In the spring of 1981, a young visionary architect named Jim Jennewein walked across a scraggly five-acre parking lot alongside the Hillsborough River. In his mind, he built a future performing arts center for the people of Tampa Bay. The plans, drawn up by the firm in collaboration with a Canadian team led by Arthur Nichol (who was responsible for the National Art Center in Ottawa), advanced to the final round of consideration for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center project.

By June 1981, the competition stalled out in a two-way tie, requiring then-mayor Bob Martinez to break the draw. He announced McElvy, Jennewein, Stefany and Howard would be the architects with Jim named architect of record. The Straz Center began, slowly, to materialize.

Jim, the son of the great sculptor C. Paul Jennewein, grew up in an environment that nurtured the process of creating three-dimensional art. For Jim, that process included making buildings. His father, whose famous Art Deco sculptures include the Spirit of Justice in the United States Department of Justice and her counterpart, Majesty of Law, created several pieces of distinction for national buildings. Jim’s likeness stands in sculptural from (from the neck down) in the passageway to the White House library, a distinction that happened when his father found himself in need of a male model for the commission.

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C. Paul Jennewein’s Spirit of Justice and Majesty of Law in the United States Department of Justice.

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The Noyes Armillary Sphere, by C. Paul Jennewein, in Meridian Hill Park. It suffered serious damage and is thought to have been removed for repair sometime in the 1970s. Its whereabouts are presently unknown.

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C. Paul Jennewein designed the large circular discs with eagles and fasces on the pylons of each pier of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. (Photo: Flickr user hwro)

Jim and his wife Joan are long-time Tampanians with an equally long track record of community involvement, engaging from the nascent stages of Straz Center planning and staying involved as donors, patrons and members of the Opera Tampa League to this day. Joan, in fact, holds the title of one of the longest-standing members of the Opera Tampa League Board and served as the Opera Tampa League chair from 2008-2011. Both Jenneweins lend their talents and experience in other areas including art preservation and land conservation.

Humble and likeable, the Jenneweins downplay their own involvement in The Straz, and, like many long-married couples, genially share sentences with Jim often reaching to Joan to supply details of their great stories of family, life and work.

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Joan and Jim Jennewein pose next to The Ballet Dancer in Morsani lobby. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The Jenneweins’ inherited interest in sculpture served the Straz Center several years ago when Jim, a member of the National Sculpture Society board (NSS), pitched the idea of doubling The Straz’s spaces as a sculpture gallery. The idea flew, with Jim paving the inroads to build a partnership between the performing arts center and the NSS. The partnership marked the first time the NSS branched out to a community. The stunning sculptures in the Morsani Hall lobbies, The Conductor and The Ballet Dancer, represent two of the permanent works in this otherwise on-going, revolving exhibition. The works, unlike in a museum, are for sale, and The Conductor was purchased and donated back to the Straz Center, but anyone can buy the other sculptures.

“The sculptures here represent the first continual NSS show outside of New York City and Brookgreen Gardens [one of the largest outdoor sculpture gardens in the world],” says Jim. A new set of sculptures arrived in October 2016 and are on display along the Morsani mezzanine balcony.

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More sculptures from the original exhibit. L to R: Lift Her With Butterflies by Angela De la Vega; Heinrich by Wayne Salge; Ascent by Leo E. Osborne; Dancer by Olga Nielsen.

For 34 years, Jim and Joan have been part of the Straz Center family, part of the first generation of Tampanians to believe in a place to build, share and exchange culture and do the work investing time and resources to make it happen. They have been shaping and sculpting the success of the Straz Center as it, like an evolving work of art, changes shape to meet the growing needs of the Tampa Bay community.

“We are so lucky,” says Jim.

“That’s right,” Joan says. “To have been involved as much as we have, as long as we have. It’s a great place.”

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Guests at the opening reception for the exhibit. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Interested in knowing more about how the Straz Center launched the massive overhaul of downtown Tampa? Check out this recent article by Richard Danielson for Politico Magazine, “How Tampa Turned a Dead Zone into a Downtown”.

Honor Thy Father? It’s Complicated.

Many of us observed Father’s Day last Sunday, which prompted us to take a broad sweep through some canonical plays to see how fathers and fatherhood fare. The answer: not good. In fact, it’s so bad it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. So, let’s take a look at some of the Great Theater Works centered around father characters. Then we have a suggestion.

I. Greek and Roman

Well, there’s Oedipus, a play that sets the bar pretty low for father-son relationships. In this play, Sophocles, the famed dramatist, writes a queasy tale that starts with a father, Laius. According to a prophesy, Laius is going to be killed by his son, who will then marry Laius’ wife, the boy’s mother. Why would anyone believe this information? But, he does. So, when Laius’ son Oedipus is born, he orders a servant to kill the child. The servant can’t, Oedipus is raised in secrecy, and when he becomes a man, Oedipus is accosted by a rude traveler on a road, whom, in an altercation, he kills. That rude traveler is Laius, his dad, but Oedipus doesn’t know that. He marches on to Thebes and marries the queen, his mom, but he doesn’t know that, either. In fact, the only people who know what’s going on and witness this slow-motion train wreck are the audience. That’s what kind of sicko Sophocles was—we have to sit there with the Big Secret and watch this grody love triangle unfold. Woe is us. And you know what? None of this would have happened if Laius, the father, had made one or two other, more intelligent choices.

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Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (Václav Jindřich Nosecký, Michael Václav Halbax)

So, flubbing an attempt to kill your child and getting killed instead is pretty bad. But what about a father who unknowingly eats his two sons at a festival banquet? Yep, that happened. In Roman playwright Seneca’s gorefest Thyestes, two dads, who happen to be twin brothers, get tangled up in a father-son nightmare that makes Oedipus look about as dramatic as a public service announcement. Atreus, who is super evil and wants revenge on his twin brother, orders his sons to lure that brother, Thyestes, to Atreus’ house under false pretenses of reconciliation. There is to be a feast. Atreus then kills Thyestes’ sons, chops them up and serves them in a stew, which a drunken Thyestes noms on until the next dish is the two boys’ heads on a platter and the awful Atreus reveals the origin of the mystery meat. (Makes Quentin Tarantino look tame, right?)

Understandably, Atreus’ sons develop somewhat loose moral compasses and end up with their own tragic plays. One of those sons, Agamemnon, sacrifices (read: murders) his daughter for the gods and exacts an overall dismal attempt at setting a good example for his remaining alive children. However, they do love Agamemnon enough to avenge his death after he’s murdered (notably, by his wife and her lover), which we think proves the child’s bond to the father, however questionable he may be in his own decision-making abilities.

Which brings us to

II. Shakespeare

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Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert.

Where to start, where to start. Look in any of the folios with dramas involving families, and you will find Shakespeare’s consistent typecasting of dads as either prideful punks or ghosts. Either way, these characters tend to care most about their honor and legacy, and the kids (and sometimes the wife) are plagued with ill-fitting assignments in duty fulfillment often involving murder. To save time, we’re looking only at King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, but you can have your own fun with Hamlet, the King Henry plays and The Tempest.

In Lear, the titular king decides to retire, divvying his kingdom among his three daughters. The catch? The spoils go to whoever displays the most love for him. Oh, the narcissism. Anyway, the one who won’t play along with his enormous ego game (naturally, his favorite daughter) gets disowned while the two remaining treacherous daughters conspire to murder Lear, who eventually dies of grief after his faithful but disowned daughter is hanged. In this play, the prideful punk becomes a ghost by the end, and we have another dad whose self-serving decisions ended up creating a chain of events that killed his children.

Ergo, Romeo and Juliet. The crux of the play rests in the bad blood between the patriarchal lines of Montague and Capulet. You know this story, so you can go with us to the quick summary of “more prideful dads, more dead kids.”

We are starting to feel like a broken record, so we’re happy to jump to

III. 20th Century America

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Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two major father characters emerged in plays that continue to get lively productions years after year: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These figures stand on either end of the dad spectrum, with cotton-magnate Big Daddy filling the overbearing paterfamilias role and traveling salesman Willy carrying the torch of fathers portrayed as ineffectual leaders psychologically desperate for success—theirs and for their children. Both fathers share an idealism built around a man’s success and the promise of what he can build and become, often to the detriment of other family members (so that much stayed the same from the Greco-Roman template).

The same goes for the repressed and oppressed character of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, as his two sons struggle for his approval and love—which he can not give, thanks to his own painful back story involving murder, prison and the social captivity of black men. Troy also dies at the end, like Willy Loman, with a passel of unresolved family issues and a plague of emotional consequences from key bad decisions.

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Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival, in the film adaptation of Fences.

In all three of these dramas, sons seek an acknowledgement of love from their fathers who cannot or will not give it. Frankly, it’s a sad and infuriating commentary on emotional ineptitude that paints a rather depressing picture. Eugene O’Neill somewhat breaks from tradition in Long Day’s Journey into Night with the father James Tyrone, who is an unpretentious former actor with seemingly typical father-son power struggles amid a family stricken with an opioid-addicted mother and a weakness for whiskey. In fairness, the bad parent in that play is the mom, and we could certainly do a replay of this blog after Mother’s Day looking at mother figures in drama, who enact their fair share of emotional dishonesty and murder to ruin their kids’ lives.

The standout play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, has no father in the dramatis personae. He dies before the play starts, and it is his life insurance check that brings the financial windfall that can change the life of the Younger family. All of the events that unfold sprout from his last gift to them, and, although circumstances prevented him from giving them what they wanted in life, he may be able to help them achieve their dreams in death. Although that interpretation may sound positive, that’s kind of a tall order for one man. So, even though he’s never in the play, it is, to some degree, a play about a father’s responsibility to his family—questioning the impossible expectations placed on men in a competition-based patriarchal culture.

But what about dads outside of the heteronormative patriarchal culture of toxic masculinity, you ask? Well, that brings us to

IV. Fun Home

We can’t say too much here because Fun Home runs this season at The Straz as part of our Broadway series, but it reached such massive acclaim because it is a compelling story about a daughter’s unique interpretation of her life with her dad. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve been paying attention to patterns in this blog on father characters, you can probably guess how this musical unfolds.

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From Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, from which the musical was adapted.

However, we can say this musical—based on illustrator Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name—examines a daughter’s relationship with her closeted father who runs a funeral home. This story depicts gay characters struggling in similar themes from the above list, which forces us to see what is universal in a writer’s struggle to understand herself/himself in the family context. It’s also really, really open in discussions about the daughter’s exploration of her own sexual identity and how that is reflected in her father’s struggle with his own sexual truths. So, that facet of the father is new and refreshing though it seems to circle the same drain of a dad’s inability to express himself emotionally.

V. Final Analysis and Suggestion (Said with Love)

So what is up with all this shade thrown at dads in drama? Are fathers really unbending tyrants of their own universe? Or, failing that, destined to chase the illusion of power and condemn their families to suffer their own shortcomings? Seems a rough assessment, though our cruise through these major works casts fathers in a rather unflattering light. (Daddy Warbucks somewhat excluded.)

As they say, the winners write the history books. Perhaps, in this case, the children write the manuscripts. What struck us in this broad review was how much the dramatic canon needs Good Dad, Solid Dad, Emotionally Grown Up Dad, and Dad with Admirable Character—all the multiple facets of fatherhood everyday dads represent. We were a little shocked and sad about the two-note roles recurring throughout our short sample for this blog though we can see, especially in the 20th century work, the resounding agreement of how important fathers’ words and deeds are to the development of a child’s identity. Let’s get some fresh interpretations on this important figure, shall we?

Admittedly, we passed over the comedies, mostly because it’s hard to find a famous stage comedy about a father, though we would be happy to hear if you know of one we overlooked. Got a thought about fathers in drama or an insight into a play or musical not mentioned in this blog? We want to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.

The Straz Center Stands with National Endowment for the Arts

The FY2018 federal budget proposes to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Here’s a brief look at the creation of the agency and the reasons why a national investment in the arts makes dollars and sense.

“The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear – to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
–from National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008

During the desultory years of the Great Depression, 10,000 of the 15 million out of work Americans were artists. Through New Deal programs such as the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, these artists recorded, documented and produced the bulk of American cultural achievement and historical record of the time. While this social program provided a historical precedent for federal support of artists, the nation’s leaders began to see America’s need to make a commitment to the bountiful creative expression of such a diverse and talented society without a socio-economic agenda. The time had come for America to put its might behind its artists, the very citizens who created the nation’s cultural heritage.

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On Sept. 29, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, the legislation creating NEH and NEA, into law. (Photo: http://www.neh.gov)

The National Endowment for the Arts, then, emerged as this commitment to the exaltation of the spirit produced by American artists. In his remarks at the signing of the arts and humanities bill in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted that to make America great, the fed needed to support the arts:

Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. … What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.

While the NEA more or less weathered the culture wars headed by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in the ‘80s and house speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the NEA’s unfortunate position as an easy target for political posturing continues to undermine the agency’s mission as set forth by LBJ.

On May 23, 2017, only a year and a half after the 50th anniversary of the agency, the current president released his budget proposal which outlines his plans to eliminate funding the NEA altogether. He is the only president in history to propose zeroing out funding to the nation’s cultural agency.

Congress ultimately approves or rejects the proposed line items, and Congress gave the NEA a $2 million boost for FY2017—a smart move considering the NEA helps an industry that generates $742 billion to the national economy. So, the people have an extraordinary opportunity to respond on behalf of preserving the NEA by contacting their members of Congress.

(Don’t know your member of Congress? Find her or him here. Don’t know what to say? Americans for the Arts created an easy online form.)

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Third-generation Montana rancher Wallace McRae was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the NEA. (Photo: Tom Pich)

The NEA was a simple solution for the questions of how to preserve the many splendid cultural traditions of this nation and continue to nourish the creative soul of the country. Creating it demonstrated a stunning act of faith in humanity after the harrowing tumult of the early 60s and the American entrance into the Vietnam War.

NEA grants, while supporting high-profile artists and organizations, mostly support rural and inner city areas that lack the economic infrastructure to provide arts development for their people. The bulk of the grants go to small and mid-sized organizations. These grants help foster economic growth and community pride. People understand that arts nourish the greatness of their hometowns as well as their country as a whole.

As for the controlling-government-waste-by-cutting-arts-spending argument, it doesn’t hold. As of now, the NEA gets $150 million in funding (.003 percent of the total budget) yet supports an industry of nonprofit arts that return $9.6 billion in federal taxes. That’s a massive ROI.

In addition to the big business of arts funded partly by NEA grants, the National Endowment for the Arts serves as both repository and springboard for American arts, with some of the nation’s most renowned and gifted artistic geniuses and organizations participating in its development, implementation and execution. The first year of grants included Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Choral Society and to the New York City Opera to expand a training program for young singers and aspiring conductors. Over the years, the NEA supported American giants like the Joffrey Ballet and Dizzy Gillespie as well as hometown folk artists like cowboy poet Wallace McRae and programs like the Rural Arts Initiative and Arts Education Partnership. In 2016, the organization announced its new focus on contemporary authors for the NEA Big Read program and was nominated for an Emmy for its digital story series United States of Arts.

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When Black Violin performed at the Straz Center in 2015, they also did master classes and other outreach in the Tampa community. Pictured here is their stop at St. Peter Claver School.

The NEA’s support helps the Straz Center deliver our Cultural Intersections program, a multi-disciplinary series of artists who use traditional, authentic artistic disciplines to transcend cultural boundaries. The NEA makes our work in this endeavor possible, opening our stages in recent seasons to such phenomenal artists as Black Violin, Parsons Dance Company, Celtic Nights, tabla master Zakir Hussein and others. This program includes an outreach arm which also sends our Cultural Intersections artists to the community in master classes, lectures and school visits with subsidized tickets for underserved K-12 students.

As the NEA says, a great nation deserves great art. A great agency doing good work at a great financial return deserves the nation’s support. In the immortal words of this country’s first president:

The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.
–George Washington

Want more info? The NEA produced this online fact sheet for simple answers to FAQs.

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So, Who is this Tony Person?

The 71st annual Tony Awards air June 11, 2017 from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The ceremony honors achievement on Broadway for the 2016-17 season, and we’ll certainly be tuned-in and on-edge as they announce the big winners. Like us, perhaps you’ve wondered “why are they called the Tonys?” We did some research, and the answer uncovered a rather fascinating story.

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Actress and director Antoinette Perry, c. 1910. (CSU Archives—Everett Collection)

Let’s start here, at the American Theatre Wing.

Actually, that’s not the beginning.

Let’s start here: 1917, and America is about to enter World War 1.

Somewhere in New York, seven established women in theater meet to discuss how they could provide war relief. If they could provide aid, what would they do? What did they have to give?

They form the Stage Women’s War Relief, an organization that raises more than seven million dollars for the troops and sews countless articles of clothing for soldiers. They become one of the most significant relief organizations in the world.

The war ends, life goes on, yet here comes World War II looming on the historical horizon. By 1940, the Stage Women’s War Relief revamps with an extra personality in tow: Antoinette Perry.

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Stage women’s war relief poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918. Depicts a woman on stage, throwing off her cloak to reveal a white volunteer’s uniform.

You can see where we are going, yes?

They regroup and form the American Theatre Wing, which sponsors Stage Door Canteens throughout the United States and in London and Paris. Theater stars work the canteens as wait staff and dishwashers, also putting on shows and other entertainment to keep up the troops’ morale. Money from a movie made about the canteens funds the production of touring hit shows for the troops. On the home front, the Wing’s Victory Players inspire civilians and their “Lunchtime Follies” entertain defense plant workers.

By the end of that war, Antoinette Perry is the driving force of the American Theatre Wing and spearheads the American Theatre Wing Professional School, a rigorous veterans’ art program to train anyone who served in the Allied Powers stagecraft and theater performance. Students include Charlton Heston, George Burns, Geraldine Page, Pat Hingle, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Tony Randall, Bob Fosse and many, many more notable notables of stage and screen.

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On June 28, 1946, just a few days before her 58th birthday, Antoinette Perry suffers a devastating heart attack and dies. She and others had decided that American theater needed a set of awards dedicated to honoring excellence. For Antoinette’s service to her country, to Broadway and to the theater community as a whole, the new award was named after her.

The night of the first award ceremony, a small dinner banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a presenter handed out an award, calling it a “Tony.”

The name stuck, and that’s why they’re called the Tony Awards.

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During the first two years, there was no official Tony Award. In 1949 the designers’ union sponsored a contest for the award. The winning entry, a disk-shaped medallion designed by Herman Rosse, depicted the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other. It continues to be the official Tony Award.

Want to know what Antoinette Perry was doing before World War II? Trust us, you’ll want to know. Get the scoop from a Playbill interview with her daughter, Margaret, in 1998. For the Tony Awards’ history of Perry, check out their bio by Ellis Nassour.

 

Tricking Nazis

How artists in a top-secret U.S. Army unit pulled the ultimate fast ones on Hitler

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4th Platoon, Company D was the first group of Ghost Army deceivers to go to work in Normandy. They arrived eight days after D-Day.

In 1943, the good guys in the Great War needed to start thinking outside-the-box if they were going to beat the Axis powers crawling over Europe and Asia.

Thus the creation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army,” a top secret U.S. Army special force of 1,100 men. Their mission: stage a bunch of fake but convincing maneuvers to fool the Germans into making bad decisions.

We’re talking about inflatable tanks and rubber weaponry here. Sound effects of gunfire. Flash canisters to mimic artillery. Elaborate stagings of entrenchments that, upon close inspection, were nothing more than collapsible props and P.A. systems. (P.A. systems with a 15-mile reach, yes—but still a giant speaker.) At a distance, however, these scenes appeared to be well-fortified American troops riled and focused for victory. They were distractions from real missions happening elsewhere; they were designed to spread wrong information and confound enemy plans.

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The Ghost Army’s trademark tool of visual illusion was the inflatable M4 Sherman tank. Fully inflated, it was 18’4” long, 8’3” wide, and 7’9 to the top of the turret. It took 20 minutes to inflate.

Often, soldiers in the Ghost Army were tasked to frequent local bars, order food and play “loose lips” to spread false information to spies or Axis informants.

And you know what? It worked.

The reason why such a far-fetched plot to deceive and dis-inform the enemy was so successful resides in the gut, grit, training and talent of the men who pulled off such believable illusions.

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Each halftrack, equipped for sonic deception, carried 800 pounds of audio equipment capable of playing a half hour show from a wire recorder and projecting the sounds as far as 15 miles.

Among those 1,100 soldiers were some of the greatest artists, lighting designers and sound designers trained in American university fine arts programs. Some of the 23rd would become the great marketing masterminds to steer the post-war boom. When America needed people who could break the tactical rulebooks and re-write the art of war, the government called on its most creative citizens. Notable operatives in the Ghost Army included fashion designer Bill Blass, painters Ellsworth Kelly and Art Singer, and photographer Art Kane.

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Two Ghost Army artists sketching inside a bombed out church in Trevieres in August 1944. At least half a dozen Ghost Army artists painted or sketched the badly damaged church.

The only military unit specifically dedicated only to deception, the Ghost Army served a singular, successful purpose in WWII. Their “traveling shows” of military might or of convoys deployed to front lines that didn’t exist threw the Germans off their game. The deceptions saved countless American lives.

The Ghost Army’s last and most successful performance, Operation Viersen, tricked Hitler’s army into thinking two divisions (some 40 thousand men; remember, there are only 1,100 men in the Ghost Army) were at a specific position on the Rhine River. When the Germans advanced on the illusion created by the Ghost Army, the real army of soldiers crossed several miles away, suffering almost no casualties or resistance.

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A hand-drawn map of Operation Viersen, taken from the US Army’s Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special troops, a document that was classified for many years.

To this day, there is no evidence that the Germans ever figured out a deception unit was operating against them.

The missions, by their nature, drew enemy fire though no one in the Ghost Army was ever issued a real weapon. What stood between these men and live rounds from German soldiers were set pieces—usually the cache of inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes. Not all of the soldiers in the Ghost Army survived. Many were wounded. Their status and missions remained classified until 1996 in case the same tactics needed to be deployed against the Russians during the Cold War.

In 2013, a documentary about the dramatic, dangerous stagecraft of the Ghost Army premiered on PBS in honor of Memorial Day.

For all of those who served, and for those who gave their lives, we honor you.

A Million Little Peaces

The performing arts and conflict resolution

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Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Emily Koch as Elphaba in Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If the folks at (TITLE) for Dummies® or the Idiot’s Guide™ to (THIS THING) ever wrote a how-to guide on building a better world, certainly there’d be a chapter or two on the performing arts.

Much has been said on the value of elevating culture and artistic achievement as hallmarks of a civilized society (such as Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College after the death of great American poet Robert Frost). We’ve also come to understand the correlation between depriving people of the arts and higher rates of crime, lack of critical thinking skills and violence.

Mounting research proves that engagement in the performing arts improves children’s overall well-being. With the music, dance and theater, they get better cognitive abilities and higher-level emotional development plus experience with problem-solving, conquering fear, collaborating, effectively communicating and accessing creativity to imagine better outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, engagement with the performing arts allows children to develop a critical aspect of their humanity: empathy. And now we have the neuroscience to prove it.

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Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings because we can recognize our own—sort of an I-can-see-myself-in-you situation that breaks down the barriers of self and mistrust that often perpetuate never-ending conflicts.

The performing arts allow us to see things differently, to learn viewpoints of people who are different from us and to see ourselves reflected in the artist’s work, often to some revelatory effect. We learn a little something new about ourselves and our world either by watching in an audience or by performing in a show. These are all good things.

Human beings have four basic psychological-emotional needs: belonging, freedom, fun and a sense of inner power (like accomplishment and recognition). When those needs aren’t met, we experience inner conflict first, then we extend that outward—how far depends on our own emotional intelligence. Some of us are emotionally intelligent enough to resolve the inner conflict well; in the extreme, that inner conflict turns into some man taking over a country by murdering entire sects of other humans. Oh, what a place the world would be if we handled our disputes and conflicts with dance battles such as this:

As humans, our other great pull is to make sense of the world, of our inner worlds and the world happening around us. At its core, art is about the human spirit making meaning of the human experience.

Thus, the performing arts attend to our most powerful psychological and social needs, which makes the arts ideal for conflict resolution—or, at the very least, a non-threatening way to broach tough topics and uncomfortable truths. Music, dance and theater can be very safe avenues to confrontation, building empathy and creating the kinds of conversations that can turn conflict into an opportunity for a community to grow in a positive way.

Around the world, people turn to the performing arts to help them access the often easy-to-see, difficult-to-cross bridges between people on opposing sides of a conflict.

In the greater Boston area, a group of artists, educators, public service providers and academics created Violence Transformed, an initiative to respond to violence in the area, give a voice to victims of violence and try to find ways to prevent violence from happening in home, at school and in the community. Initially a one-time art exhibit, Violence Transformed has grown in the past ten years to become a multi-media event with workshops, exhibits and performances throughout the year. In Papua New Guinea, Seeds Theatre Group works to address the frightening amount of violence against women by engaging communities in theater. In 2014, the company collaborated with UNICEF Pacific for the #ENDviolence against women and children initiative with a music video that went viral. In Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective has been working since 1977 as a group utilizing the performing arts as a community resource to address and confront violence and empower residents of all genders to change their situations, especially in desperate neighborhoods in Kingston.

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We hosted a World Cafe discussion during the It Gets Better residency in March 2017.

Here at The Straz, we’ve collaborated with the It Gets Better Project to address violence against LGBTQ youth (read about our work in this article in the Florida Diversity Council newsletter) and supported veteran PTSD recovery through visual art and movement workshops.

As we move, socially, into more interaction with technology and social media than in actual conversations and person-to-person experiences, we see a growing national discussion about the need for activating empathy—even Forbes magazine published an article examining how lack of empathy damages the reputation and impact of business leaders. Empathy, the article notes, is the strongest skill in successful leadership performance.

From a performing arts perspective, what looks like a world in a million little pieces could be a world in a million little peaces:

“. . . Conflict simply exists as a natural part of life. It is what people in conflict do with the experience that determines whether it will be constructive or destructive.”
–from The Art in Peacemaking: A Guide to Integrating Conflict Resolution Education into Youth Arts Programs