Out, Out Dang Spot

North Carolina soprano Jill Gardner’s musical ancestry and training led her to killing the role of Lady Macbeth.

On Friday the 13th, Opera Tampa unloads quite the murderfest with their debut performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. The bloody story of a Scottish nobleman’s immoral rise to power, Macbeth was for Shakespeare, and here, for Verdi, really a story about the greatest force behind the man: his wife, Lady Macbeth. A tough, almost impossible soprano role, Lady Macbeth demands relentless range and dark psychological depth. “There are few singers who can do this role,” says conductor Andrew Basantz. “Jill can.” He means Jill Gardner, a well-loved Southern soprano who is a Puccini girl with a Verdi habit. She performs for her first time with Opera Tampa in this complex powerhouse role.

Here, we talk with her about her upbringing in the tobacco country of North Carolina and how that led to the opera stage and her deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as one of the most loathed characters in the canon.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re both North Carolina girls who experienced an agricultural upbringing. I never worked tobacco, but I did pick peas and butterbeans and shuck corn. You grew up around Tobaccoville, NC, having to pick tobacco in the summer. For people who may not have any idea of the hell that is tobacco farming in North Carolina, especially in the North Carolina summer, paint us a picture of what it was like.

JILL GARDNER: I was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but we moved into my great-aunt’s house who died in 1977, still using an outhouse and drawing her water from a well. When she died, we moved into her house. My dad put in a bathroom, made plumbing. My parents were educators. My dad went on to build houses, but in the summertime for six summers of my life, we raised tobacco north of Tobaccoville in Surry County.

It was a family affair in the fact that our family grew it. My grandfather at that time was very much the patriarch of the family, shall we say. My grandmother and her sisters were the ones to string [the tobacco]. They would hang it in the tobacco barn, but we, the cousins, all the other parts of the family, came together when it came time to pick it. It’s labor intensive. Now, we have machines and all these kinds of things to do this, but it was labor intensive. Very hot, very sticky, that process.

But for us, the cool thing was that it was about family. It was a family affair, and on both sides of my family. My grandparents. I got to know three of my great-grandparents as well, in that good old Southern tradition. That generation especially were total agricultural people, so I truly have those roots. That’s, I think, why I love to garden when I’m not on the road.

CITA: For those of you who don’t know, back in this day when Jill and I were growing up, the fall in North Carolina was when the tobacco cured.

JG: Correct.

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A tobacco field in Harnett County, N.C. (Photo: bumeister1 / Flickr)

CITA: Curing tobacco is the most nostalgic smell for me. When I’m in North Carolina, if I smell tobacco curing—and it doesn’t smell like smoke; it smells like very thick fragrant plant leaves mellowing out—it is the most beautiful smell.

JG: Yes, and growing up in Winston where the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Industry was downtown, that was the joy of going downtown, because the whole town smelled of curing tobacco. In Tobaccoville now, the hometown where I grew up, the last remaining R. J. Reynolds plant is still there, so at certain times of the day, you will still get that aroma, which is what’s very cool too. But I do know what you mean about nostalgia. Southern tradition.

CITA: Southern tradition, honey. Let’s talk about how do you get from Tobaccoville to Lady Macbeth, and I want to say too that a lot of people don’t associate North Carolina with this rich arts tradition, which is amazing if you’re from North Carolina, because in Winston-Salem, up around where you were, and then down where I was in Wilmington, the arts are huge. We have had so much artistic contribution, so much artistic output come from North Carolina that the arts – singing, dancing, music – is as inbred in us as tobacco was coming up.

JG: Correct. Very well said.

CITA: Talk a little bit about from Tobaccoville to-

JG: Lady Macbeth.

CITA: Verdi’s’ Lady Macbeth at that.

JG: That’s exactly right. I guess, to go back . . . my mother’s side of the family was very musical. My great-grandmother was a pianist, and she had several brothers and sisters—one was a violinist, another one played another instrument … I can’t remember now—it eludes me a little bit, but they were extremely musical. My mom was taking piano lessons when I was born, and she said I came out of the womb and went straight to the piano bench. I actually knocked my front teeth out on my great-grandmother’s piano bench trying to get up on that thing.

When I was growing up, she said it was very clear I had this passion for music. Also, in this Southern tradition, we would go down to my great-grandmother’s very often to have family reunions. She had 14 children, two of which died, so she oftentimes talked about the fact that she had her children in quartets. They would go around—they were Pentecostal Holiness people—and they would go around and do quartet singing.

When I would go to my great-grandmother’s, we’d end up in the front living room where the piano was, and there’d be 25 of us in there. On Sunday afternoons after you ate, you’d get up in there, and we’d have “church.” We would sing hymns. I can remember sitting between my Grandmother Teva and my great-aunt Bridget. In the southern tradition, the tenors sang the lead, and the women harmonized with the bass, so I learned how to sing harmony from my grandmother and my great-aunt.

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Jill performing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci at Mill City Summer Opera in 2012.

To fast forward a little bit, it was very clear that music was going to be my passion. I’d studied the violin for five years. I took dance/ballet for almost four years until my body blossomed. [Laughs] You know, we had to move along on that. By the time I got to high school, I was active in my church singing. I did shows in high school like everyone else, but I really didn’t know that I was going to be an opera singer.

Luckily, to go back to what you were talking about, because of the arts history in North Carolina, the North Carolina Arts Council as well as the local Arts Council of Forsyth County are very huge and very instrumental within our state. At that time, my hometown opera company, Piedmont Opera Company, put on productions twice a year. That’s where I saw my first opera, which was Marriage of Figaro.

In my class at that time, one of my assignments was to write a letter, and I wrote—my mother kept this letter after all these years—about having this experience. The last line of that letter says, “I think opera is going to have a big place in my life.”

CITA: How old were you?

JG: I was about sixth grade.

CITA: Wow. So, you were young, but you had—

JG: I made that connection [with opera], but my passion was the piano. By the time I got to high school, I had a little spinet piano in our little 1200-square-foot house, and I would practice four to six hours a day—to the point that my parents at night would say, “Jill, we have to go to bed.” I had this passion for piano, so upon completion of high school, I got a full scholarship to go and study with this teacher who I’d worked with in my senior year, Constance Carroll.

At that time, she was at a private liberal arts college in Shreveport, Louisiana, called Centenary College of Louisiana, so I got a full scholarship as a piano performance major to go to this school. I decided to take a voice minor and formally study voice. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who allowed my voice to train naturally through really good fundamental technique but to address my voice through repertoire.

Mid-undergrad work, I started entering competitions and won. People were like, “Why aren’t you going to be a singer?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a pianist.”

CITA: So then singing was just-

JG: Well, see. I think a part of it, too, is that it was clear that I was a singer, and, like I said, I always sang in church and school shows, and I had leads and the whole nine yards. Maybe it was because of my background; it was never really a thought like so many people have now, because opera is so prevalent in our national scene, to go and be an opera singer. I also think it was because I felt so passionately about the piano, which I still do.

I’m so thankful for my piano background because musically it has given me an advantage to being a singer and to have all of that stylistic and musical history from studying music as long as I did. I take all of that in—particularly to something like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. I have such respect for that music, for his lines and his phrasing and his articulation and the way that he conceives of this music because of my background.

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Jill performing in Tosca at Mill City Summer Opera in 2014.

I also, because of that background, can learn so much of my music myself. I can teach myself at the piano, and many, many singers can’t. When I talk to singers about that, some of them are very jealous of because they would love to be able to do teach themselves their music.

It was in my undergraduate degree where the idea even arose, and so at the end of that degree, I’d gotten into a couple of schools for graduate work in piano, but I really sort of, as we say in the South, had a Come to Jesus moment. I realized, “This is pretty cool, but I think I would really love to study voice.” So, from there, from Louisiana, I decided to move home and attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to get my master’s degree.

CITA: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a highly respected music school. We have a lot of really exceptionally well-trained, very gifted musicians who go through the UNCG music program because it is so well known.

JG: I went there because I knew it was a good school, and by being a North Carolina resident, the tuition was feasible. I also knew I did not want to have a lot of student loan debt. We all have to make decisions as we go down these paths, and it was a really, really, really good decision for me.

CITA: You knew opera was your vocal path?

JG: I knew opera would be my focus, even though I continued to play piano. I’ve now started to do some teaching. That’s what keeps my piano chops up because I can play so much of the repertoire when I am teaching. So, it ended up working out really well. I oftentimes say to younger singers that I meet who I work with through master classes is as soon as you can immerse yourself in a real strong musical background, the stronger you’re going to be from the standpoint of being a singer.

So much of the singing industry now is about how you look, which is important too. I’m not saying it’s not. I think it is important for us to take the responsibility of being physically healthy and able to do anything on the stage from the standpoint of characterization. But, it’s still about the music for me. I’ll never really get to the place to where opera will be just a spectator sport, like a film experience. It’s still about the music for me.

I think for young singers, that’s one of the things that I impress upon them, is to really respect music and work to gain as much musical prowess as you can because that also influences the voice. For me, having had all that background, I think that’s a part of what really has led to my success.

CITA: So let’s talk about Lady Macbeth. This is a tough role.

JG: Oh, my Lord. It’s not for children.

CITA: It’s a demanding role. Lady Macbeth herself, from Shakespeare’s creation to what we’re going to see in your presentation of Verdi’s adaptation of that work, she is a deep, dark character. This really is her play even though it’s called Macbeth and is . . . sort of about him. Do you see yourself as a Lady Macbeth character or was this a stretch for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do, something that you felt that you could come to naturally?

JG: Yeah, well, I guess what I’d say is I went professional as an opera singer in 2005, so I’ve been doing this now for a little over 13 years. It was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be one of the main focuses of my singing career. Not that it’s the only focus; I’ve done French repertoire, German repertoire, Czech repertoire, contemporary operas to last season I did my first Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, which I absolutely love. But, it was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be my mainstay, and so much of that has been Puccini.

I’ve sung almost all of Puccini’s heroines. The one on the horizon will be Turandot, which I think I will do in the proper time and place. Because of that, it was very clear. I sang Traviata, which is probably one of Verdi’s most famous operas, and a couple of years ago, I did my first Leonora in Il Trovatore.

As the voice has developed, it was very clear that Lady Macbeth was a natural role for me to take on, and the beauty was a director that I had worked with in several different Puccini productions was Jay Lessinger, who was the artistic director of Chautauqua opera for many, many seasons.

Jay approached me. We were talking about possibly doing Tosca in Chautauqua, but he said, “What do you think about Lady Macbeth?” You know, those synergistic moments in life when serendipity just drops into your life, and you go, “What do I think about Lady Macbeth? I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, ‘what do you think about Lady Macbeth?’” It was also a wonderful place for me to try it out for the first time. It was a great director, really good conductor too. In preparing it, I knew I could really accept the vocal challenge.

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Jill performing in Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s 2017 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Coming to Opera Tampa, like you said, which is my debut here, I’m really thankful to have had [other chances to play her]… From Chitauqua, I then went to Michigan Opera Theater where I did the role with Bernard Uzan directing and Stephen Lord conducting, which was another huge impetus for me, not only dramatically but musically in growing this role, so that I do feel that I bring to Tampa a really fleshed-out Lady Macbeth. Every role we have continues to grow, but she’s very much a part of Jill and my psyche and my being.

To talk about the character, that’s why they call it acting. Does Jill Gardner have dark sides to her? Oh, my Lord! We all have a shadow side, and I think what I really respect about Lady Macbeth is that even from the story of Shakespeare, she was a woman who had huge ambitions, but at that point in time on our planet in our historical journey of humanity, women truly were not allowed to have any place other than a lesser station in life—and she was born with huge ambition.

Lady Macbeth is as much a yang, fire, male-dominated character as Macbeth is the yin, contemplative, deeply empathetic and psychically aware character. So the conflicts within us, I think, are very real and can be understood in today’s life, in today’s society, because I think a lot of people feel that way, particularly as we grapple with gender identity now. We’re going to that level within the human experience on the planet, right?

CITA: Right.

JG: She was a woman who I think was caught in a body and a societal situation which would not allow her to seek the full fulfillment of her desires and ambitions. Her only object, or her only way to achieve [what she wanted] was through marriage—but not just any marriage; she married this man who was a warrior, a soldier, and, to a certain extent, with aspirations of his own. But given the kind of soul that he was, he just did not have that ambizione, which is the very first word I sing. He just doesn’t have it.

CITA: Which means what?

JG: “Ambitious.” To have this ambitious nature. And so she lives her experience through him. If she could do this herself, she would, but she can’t, so she has to live this [ambition] through him. And the interesting thing about their relationship, I think, is that it is extremely intense. I think it is extremely sexual and therefore power-dominated. Although she’s the more aggressive one in the relationship, it’s not that he doesn’t have these desires, too; he’s just the one to question. He’s the one that has much more of an empathetic sense about ‘what are my choices and what are the ramifications of these choices,’ whereas she doesn’t think about that. She just sees the goal and goes for it.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s upcoming production of Macbeth.

With the presence of the witches and that culture also within the story, for me, I think she’s very much aligned with the witches. I think that she herself is a witch and has spent time within that community of women because that was the only place where they could really revel in and express their power. It’s black magic, or it’s the darker elements, but still they were the feminine elements at that time that could not be expressed or understood. So, she lives there with them, and that’s why I think she has the need and the desire to control and gain what she wants.

CITA: Through the means that she has available to her.

JG: Correct.

CITA: You know, it has always bothered me in the plot trajectory that she goes mad at the end, and people say, “She goes crazy because of guilt.” I’m like, “But there’s been no indication that her character would feel guilty.” In your understanding of her in the context of the play, it’s better for me to understand it as she is mad with frustration, not guilt. That everything that she would have done, or could have done if she had been able to . . . things go so sideways for her and her plans because Macbeth is not her, but he is the only tool that she has.

Now, thanks to you, when I see the play again, I will have a different understanding of what might be driving her psychological madness, which is not guilt or feelings of conscience but a sense of “What could have been if had really been able to control this the way that I had wanted to.”

JG: Well, and also, again, the beauty of this from the standpoint of the operatic tradition is Verdi chose to include the understanding that this woman, because she was unfulfilled, like you say. For me, the reason that she goes mad is because her desires for power and ambition lead her to this psychological breakdown, and it’s not lost on me that the key of D flat, which is the key of her very first aria of ambition—the Vieni t’affretta.

Basically, she’s trying to express her desire for Macbeth to rise to the challenge of power and stance, and to burn within his heart these feelings. Then the key of the mad scene, the sleepwalking scene (and I’d like to say something about that) is also in the key of D flat. So therefore, by the time I arrive at that, I musically, psychically and emotionally understand that I go mad from the ambitions of which I am driven.

Verdi chose that same key to link those emotional responses. I think that the point is, in the somnambulant scene, it’s not that she’s mad; she’s sleepwalking. So these people, when they’re in this state, are awake, and they’re awake in a way, in this kind of dream state, that they never achieved in real life, and so that level of awareness and consciousness is there to help her see what she did.

CITA:. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Macbeth, there is a chain of events set up by witches’ prophecy that arcs toward this sleepwalking scene that Jill is talking about right now where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in the most challenging aria of the opera. Verdi set it up this way.

JG: Thank you.

CITA: When he was writing Macbeth he felt so passionately about Shakespeare, so passionately about this story that he wanted a soprano who was able to sing and pull off a vulgar, brutish tone which was unheard of at this time. So we’re talking about a very historically important aria.

JG: What was very unique about this particular character when he wrote her—and if you talk to Italians or if you work with Italians on Macbeth—many of them believe that there is no redeeming quality about Lady Macbeth at all, and if you’re trying to find it, you’re wrong. I love that. I completely understand that because he wanted to be able to have that mirror between the character and the voice. I think that’s also one of the wonderful things about opera, is that we’re not just dramatically portraying the story on the stage; we’re taking it to a new level by adding the music and the voice, right?

For me, as an American and an American woman, there’s a part of me that wants to find – not that I’m trying to necessarily portray this obviously on the stage – but needs to understand the redemptive quality of why she goes here [to the psychological state of the sleepwalking scene].

CITA: Absolutely. And I think it’s an authentic understanding of the human psyche, not just lady Macbeth as a flat character, that she’s a bad seed who wants too much and ends up creating a body count. She was very frustrated by her circumstance because she didn’t have anything the Thane of Cawdor didn’t have or Macbeth himself didn’t have or Duncan didn’t have.

JG: Because women were nothing then.

CITA: She had no way to be her true self, to act on her ambition as a human being. All she could be was background to Macbeth’s life.

JG: Correct, and like on our planet right now, I can look at that power dynamic and understand and have a sense through the present day of what women in her time period felt—the lack of achievement or position or ascension within the culture, or not even those things, just lack of recognition. So, for Jill at this juncture in looking at this character and also that opera is relevant to our current life experiences, this girl [Lady Macbeth] I can really understand in a personal way what led her to her choices. I’ve thought about killing people, I’ll readily admit it to you! [laughs] Never done it, but I’m telling you, I’ve thought about killing people.

Yet, she not only thought about it; she knew she had to do it to get what she wanted. For example, a modern-day revelation of this kind of character, within our TV series world, for me, is Robin Wright on House of Cards. Not that she doesn’t have power or she’s not a modern-day woman, but it’s very clear, given her position even in that situation, she’s still Mrs. Frank Underwood, and she has to work behind the scenes to get her agenda done. That is similar to Lady Macbeth.

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I also think it’s okay that Verdi thought of this character one-dimensionally because there are a lot of people, and there are characters within the operatic canon too, that are just downright evil. I mean, they are the personification of evil, and that’s okay.

CITA: Evil people make great stories.

JG: But see, evil people are often extremely complex, and some of the most evil men have been the most sexually provocative, hot, wonderful men, so you can understand why women were crazy for them. Now, as women evolve and get more of their equality, their equal station in life, they go,”I don’t need that.” Or “That’s not as interesting to me.” But that’s a part of evolution. That’s a part of awareness.

CITA: Exactly. Exactly.

JG: Anyway, I think that for myself, even though there’s a big part of Lady Macbeth that is evil and one-dimensional, I really try to find the humanity in her mad death.

CITA: The villainy has a complexity to it. The intricacy is in there, which I think would be such a gift to a performer because you really can take the role into any little nuances you want. Or not.

JG: The truth is, you realize that she, in her sleepwalking nature, she’s asleep but very aware and conscious to the psychological decisions and choices that she made. That’s what she talks about throughout that entire aria. It’s the “Out, out, damned spot.” It’s the “Una macchia.” It’s seeing Macbeth. It’s seeing the children that they killed. I think if you make opera cathartic, what we as singing actors or actresses are trying to portray on the stage to the audiences that come and see it, for me, I’m wanting them to see at the time what it’s like for somebody to really have a reckoning with what they did with their life.

CITA: I believe, Jill, that when our audiences are at the end of your sleepwalking scene, they will be at that reckoning. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be able to take them there. We are beyond thrilled.

JG: Well, it’s a terrific cast. I really want to speak to that, too. Mark Rucker returns to Opera Tampa. Mark is a well-loved, well-respected baritone within the opera industry, and this is my first time meeting him and working with him. In addition to being such a terrific singer, he is such sweet and kind man, so we’re having a lot of fun together within the rehearsal process.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s Macbeth.

Our conductor, Andrew Basantz, who I’ve also worked with, is a terrific musician, so I think the Tampa audiences are going to be very happy about that. It’s a very modern presentation. We will be very much in traditional costumes, but it’s a very contemporary, modern set with projections in the back, so I think that audiences who have not seen Macbeth will enjoy that.

It’s Verdi opera at its best. Big choruses. It’s a huge monumental work that’s not often done because of that. So, good on Opera Tampa for bringing it here for the audiences here. That in and of itself is exciting. I hope everyone will look forward to it.

Want to see Opera Tampa’s Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

Some Superheroes Wear SCUBA Gear

National Geographic photographer and founder of SeaLegacy.org Cristina Mittermeier gets real about growing up as a rural Mexican woman to creating the field of “conservation photography” in the fight for sustainable life on Earth. Here, she gives an exclusive interview for Caught in the Act.

On April 3, Cristina Mittermeier appears at The Straz as the final speaker in our National Geographic LIVE! series. She’s tied to the Tampa Bay area because her son is an Eckerd College graduate who recently moved from St. Pete to Miami. Mittermeier, born in Mexico City and moved an hour south as a child, grew up in Cuernacava, close to Ocotepec, a town occupied by indigenous people of Nahua origin. Through an incredible journey she details in this interview, Mittermeier became a world-renowned photographer whose heart-stopping images tell the blistering story of the consequences of climate change and the ultimately hopeful tale of the fragile, unequivocal interdependence of all life on earth. We caught up with her by phone to find out more about her and her work before she meets us At the Water’s Edge for her National Geographic LIVE! presentation in Ferguson Hall.

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Photo: Paul Nicklen

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Your images are so compelling, and your personal story is so compelling that we wanted to start at the beginning. Will you tell us a little bit about where you grew up in Mexico?

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: Yeah, my parents moved us from Mexico City to a smaller town up in the mountains called Cuernavaca, about one hour south of Mexico City. At the time that I lived there in 1976 it was a very small town. There were cows in my neighborhood. I walked to school through cow fields. So I had a very nature, outdoor childhood, but I don’t know where the love of the ocean comes from. I’ve always had this enormous attraction to the ocean. In high school somebody came to my school to talk about careers in science, I had the opportunity to go to a university that had a marine degree program that was called biochemical engineering and marine sciences. I had visions of swimming with dolphins, but it was really office work in aquaculture. So, I went to school to learn how to catch fish.

CITA: Where you grew up in Mexico was a rural life, an inland life?

CM: Very much so, yeah. It was very much part of indigenous communities around where I grew up, so I grew up with a lot of indigenous people that oftentimes didn’t even speak Spanish.

CITA: For those of us who aren’t familiar with this part of Mexico, can you tell us who these indigenous people were and then what the language was that they were speaking and how this influenced you? Because, you would end up pursuing life with other indigenous cultures.

CM: Well, first of all, I was raised by an indigenous woman from the tribe known as the Otomi, which are descendants of the Aztecs.

CITA: Oh wow.

CM: She raised me from the time I was a little girl. She came to work for our family when I was less than a year old. She left after I got married. So, I grew up listening to somebody speak a different language. In the community where I grew up, there were lots of different types of indigenous people and these indigenous communities are living cultures. Anyway, the village that I grew up next to is called Ocotepec. My house that I grew up in was actually on their land, and my parents leased it from the tribal council. So that was really fun.

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Young Vezo fisherwomen on the beaches of Madagascar. (Photo: Cristina Mittermeier)

CITA: What kind of impression did this make on you as a little girl? Was there something in you that knew there was something so special about what you were experiencing?

CM: You know, Mexico still has a very large population of indigenous people of many, many tribes. It is absolutely not unusual to live and spend time among them. I never really thought much about it, but I did learn how to feel comfortable with people that are very different from me. For me, it’s always been really easy to walk into an indigenous community and fall into the rhythms and the fabric of indigenous life, which is much more contemplative. People do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. … Mexico has 10 million indigenous people. I know, even though we’ve been colonized for 500 years so …

CITA: Our colonization story is very, very different because our indigenous people are scattered hither and yon and is such a dwindling population. Even in Florida, the study of our indigenous people is quite devastating; we only have a very small number that are left.

CM: Florida’s a special case because it was initially colonized by Spaniards like Mexico was. The difference between the colonization in the United States, like the colonies, and the rest of Latin America was the Pilgrims brought the wives with them, so they didn’t intermarry with the indigenous population. Whereas, the conquerors from Spain who came to Mexico, they were just warriors, so they quickly started procreating with the local Indian women and created a new race. So to this day indigenous populations are very much intertwined into Mexican culture.

CITA: And your family … did you have a big family where you grew up? Were they responsible for helping influence you on your very interesting life path?

CM: No. I have a very typical Mexican family; my parents are professional, middle-class. My dad is an accountant, my mom has a PhD in Psychology. I am one of five children, so my parents were not particularly outdoorsy, but they were pretty good about sending us out to summer camp. I came to Canada as a teenager to summer camp, and I believe that’s where I really learned to be outdoorsy. To enjoy swimming in cold water [laughs].

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: So, you’re an inland person, you don’t have outdoorsy parents. Were you reading books? How did your mysticism, or your compulsion to be drawn to the sea … how was that sparked in you?

CM: Actually, my dad bought for my older brother a series of books. They were these amazing adventure books written by an Italian writer, Emilio Salgari, who never left Italy, but he wrote amazing adventures about the Wild West of the United States. He specifically wrote a series of books on the pirates of Malaysia. I devoured those books because he wrote with incredible detail about these adventures at sea and these magical, tropical islands where these pirates were having all these adventures. I think that’s a huge influence. Sadly, those books were never translated to English, such a shame.

CITA: Books shaped our entire understanding of reality, that’s why we love animals and the outdoors, because that was always what we were attracted to—far flung adventures with animals.

CM: Because my mother was an intellectual, we had a good library at home. She brought home Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.

CITA: Really?

CM: Oh, yeah. By the time I was 14 or 16, I was reading books like that and it really—I’d say, scarred me and terrified me.

CITA: One of the things that we really like about you is that you live in a lot of different worlds simultaneously. You talk in interviews about being both a scientist and also being an artist. So, can you talk a little bit about how your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your approach to photography?

CM: Yeah. So, I went onto these universities thinking that I was gonna go swimming with dolphins and what they were teaching me, really, were the industrial practices of fishing. So it was very upsetting to me as an animal lover to go on those fishing boats and see all the bycatch: the dolphins, the turtles and all the animals that die so that we can eat fish. I always knew that, that’s not what I wanted to do, but I also knew that, that’s the thing about fishing, especially aquaculture projects—whenever they’re done properly, they are truly the answer to save humanity. And so that was inspiring. [laughs] What was the question again?

CITA [laughs]: How your training as a scientist and as an artist informs your photography.

CM: Yes. So, when I left university, my first job was actually not in fishing but coastal work in conservation. I honestly thought that if you wrote scientific papers that were going to be, just, incredible, people would go, “Of course. This is what we are going to do.” But it takes time, a year or two collaborating with other authors and writing scientific papers that nobody reads. So I was very frustrated. I stumbled upon photography by chance. I’ve always liked art. You know, I was always a doodler as a child, I was painting and doing little crafts and projects. When I found photography, it just became this great outlet to showcase what I thought was really urgent. I’d always have to be informed by science. Photography is a great combination of art, science and conservation. It has to be beautiful. If I’m able to make three or four of those pictures a year, I consider myself really lucky. The photographs have to tell stories. They have to draw people in. When you show somebody a photograph, people are much more likely to want to engage in dialogue in asking you about what they’re seeing, which doesn’t happen with science. So, that was like a big, “Aha!” moment for me.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: How did you find photography? Did somebody just give you a camera? Or, you saw some photographs and thought, “Wow, I’d like to do that”?

CM: My first husband is a collector, and he always has a camera with him to document the data he collects. Very, very early on in our marriage, I was 24, 25 years old. I was literally carrying his camera for him. We were visiting a small village in the Amazon so I snapped a couple of pictures. When we came home, [a museum held an exhibition] on the Amazonian arts, and they wanted images from this particular village. So he sent a box of slides. When we showed up for the opening, on the walls of the building, was my picture. And it was credited to him.

CITA: Are you kidding us?

CM: I know. It was a picture of a man wearing a headdress standing in front of a dark background. I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful. I didn’t know that a camera could do that.” So, I went back to school, I went back to the Corcoran College for the Arts. At that time, I was already a young mother of my two children and then from my ex-husband’s first marriage we had a third one, and you know what? I wanted out of the house. [laughs] I went back to school get away from those children.

CITA: Honey, we hear you.

CM: But that was great, to be able to go back to school to learn a new way of looking at art. I was incredibly lucky, because my ex-husband was president of Conservation International and that was my first job out of university so I met him. When we married and moved to Washington, DC, I couldn’t continue working for Conservation International because there was a conflict of interest.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

But, the CEO of the organization, Peter Seligmann, is a very generous and wonderful man because he allowed me to volunteer. We traveled a lot, visiting a hundred countries … I had my camera, so I could take all these pictures of places where Conservation International worked. I started donating my images to them and then writing an article for them. Over time, they hired me back, and I became the director of visual communication. I basically brought the idea that visuals are really important to conservation. At that time, most conservation organizations didn’t even have a budget for proper visuals. So, I was able to pioneer the idea that people only care if they see something that’s really compelling and beautiful.

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Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

So that was kind of the like, the journey into photography. Then as I became more and more involved in the world of nature photography, I started attending conferences. Hundreds of photographers would go to these conferences—they were interested in talking about filters and about the latest camera. I wanted to know, could we use our images to try to save the places where we were photographing? I was told, “No.” People didn’t want to get in the environmental arguments. So, you know, I said. “Okay, I’m gonna create my own organization” [The International League of Conservation Photographers].

CITA: So, help us understand. This is the 80s, early 90s. What was the driving philosophy to distance yourself as a photographer from conservation? As a photographer, you just document, you don’t get involved?

CM: Well, no … I mean, what I was witnessing was something really interesting. There were a handful of photographers that were making great contributions to conservation with their photographs, like Nick Nichols, who would walk 2000 miles from Cameroon to Gabon following elephant trails to get people to make a national park. He was a nature photographer. Then there were little old ladies at the same conference with their camera, taking pictures of flowers in their gardens. They were called nature photographers. I said, “Well, you know, there’s a huge discrepancy here. This man is actually using the camera for conservation.” So, I coined the term “conservation photography” and I wrote up a peer-reviewed paper about what it is and how it’s different from nature photography. That gave birth to a whole generation of photographers who, today, call themselves conservation photographers.

CITA: That’s extraordinary. Let’s follow up with this idea of visual storytelling: When you’re looking at your images, what makes a picture a visual story? Do you also think about things like tension? Characters? What role are light and shadow playing?

CM: I come from the school National Geographic storytelling, and I’ve had a very close relationship with the director for many years. As the photographer, you had an opportunity to have, maybe, twelve photographs. Eighteen, if your story is really good. In those twelve photographs, you had to tell the whole story. So there’s a narrative that has to be built. You have to have a sense of place; then, you have to establish who your characters are. Then you have to give them a context and some action—then you have to sew some details. So, there’s a methodology for telling stories with pictures, but every single picture has to do a lot of work to complete the story. The best pictures are the ones that can tell the whole story in just a single image.

Those are the ones that become really iconic. If I say, “Vietnam War napalm,” I know the image that’s in your head right now because that is the storytelling image that tells the entire story of how the Vietnam war came to an end. Those images are really hard to make and hard to find.

CITA: You said earlier that you probably end up with three or four pictures a year that meet these criteria. How many photographs do you think you take in a year?

CM: Oh, I take hundreds of thousands, and they say that the better the photographer, the bigger the trash bin. Last year, I probably made two or three images that I really liked. But, there’s one in particular that stood out and that was that photograph of the starving polar bear.

starving polar bear

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

That photograph is one of those iconic images that tells the whole story in one image. Climate change is going to have an effect on wildlife and this is what it’s going to look like. What you want to achieve with a photograph like that is for people to recognize the pain and suffering of this animal, in ourselves. To know that if we don’t do something about climate change, this is gonna be the future, not just for polar bears but for us as well. An image like that, hopefully stops people in their tracks and makes them ask questions that sometimes are painful and difficult to answer, but hopefully creates debate and hopefully becomes burned into peoples consciousness so that, ten years from now when we look back at an image like that, we’re able to say, “Yeah, that photograph helped turn the conversation on climate change and move it into a different direction.” As a photographer, you cannot ask for much more.

CITA: Cristina, that photograph—we’re gonna be honest with you, because we don’t have any separation between ourselves and animals. When we saw that photograph, we were filled with the sense of internal shrieking of despair. We felt overwhelmed that– “My god, this problem is too big. What could we possibly do?” You know, it just feels so inevitable that we’re on the path that this polar bear is already experiencing. So much of your work is about helping people to act, to see these images and to act for change. But, how do you find hope? How do you keep going?

CM: Because I know that we already have a lot of the solutions in place, and the reason they’re not happening is because we don’t have the political will to make them a reality and political will is driven by public opinion. We are engaging a huge number of people in the conversation about what’s happening to our planet through photography. We’re asking people to join the tide, to join the membership [of SeaLegacy.org]. It’s a monthly membership where people donate however much they can. Some people give us three dollars, some people give us a thousand dollars a month. But, that money we’re investing into solutions. Last month we invested thirty thousand dollars in the prototype of a coral reef regeneration unit made out of a special cement that has nano-materials, super high-tech, to regrow coral. So, if it works, we’re going to be replanting a million head of coral in the Caribbean. That’s just one example.

CITA: My god.

CM: I know. We are looking at permaculture that’s revitalizing coastal ecosystems like mangroves and kelp forests, 3D ocean farming, … this is where it all comes together, you know, all those years of studying aquaculture, we now can apply that knowledge to aquaculture in modern times. All of these things already exist, they’re in a book by Paul Hawken called Drawdown which talks about all the solutions to start pulling carbon from the atmosphere. The other thing that people should be talking more about is the fact that there’s already a third industrial revolution happening. Entire economies, the European Union and China have already transitioned their economy into a fossil fuel free economy. They’re transitioning to renewables and here we are in the United States, arguing about pipelines and fossil fuels, you know? Which is the technology of the dying industrial revolution. So, we need to shift the conversation. We need to change the story, and I do that with photographs. We are going to transition.

CITA: That gives us hope, especially here in Florida, as a state surrounded by ocean. Our economy depends on the health of our water, the health of our ocean and on our aquifers and we’re still struggling, you know? In the old industrial revolution, the old political development model, trying to shift our conversation to exactly what it is that you’re talking about. So, to know that on an international level, everything is already in place, it’s like, “Okay, so we just have to get from where we are to where you are.” Which is exciting. This is very exciting.

CM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, there’s a lot of hope when you think that Germany already has thirty-five percent of its entire energy come from renewables. Where I live here, in British Columbia, ninety-five percent of our energy is non-fossil fuel. It comes from hydro-electrics [and other sources]. So, it’s happening. We just need for it to happen faster.

CITA: Alright, so we’ll leave this last question open to interpretation. Is there anything that you ever want to talk about that you don’t get a chance to mention in interviews like this that you would like to mention now?

CM: That’s a very interesting question. Um, you know, I think because we live in the era of the internet, people look at my career and the only thing they see is a highlight reel. They see the successful career, you know, these contributions and achievements. But, behind the scenes, of course, there’s the long journey of the struggling photographer. All the rejections, the letters that you send to editors that are sent back. [My career] hasn’t been free of bumps and I think, to be a successful photographer, I … lost my first marriage, and I feel like I hugely neglected my children.

CITA: Mm-hmm.

CM: Those things are never talked about. It’s never easy to be a woman or a Latina, a minority and forge a trail. So, it hasn’t been without its struggles. It’s wonderful to be in this place where you finally get recognition and get the microphone to share some of these idea, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, to all those new photographers out there beginning their careers and thinking that it’s never gonna happen, you just have to stick with it. Find purpose.

wolves

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

CITA: To your point about blazing your own trail and having to make sacrifices that defy cultural expectations … What would you say to other women who are going to listen to this interview or read this interview, who are thinking to themselves, “I want to do x, y or z. But it’s not fair to my family” or “it’s not fair to my mother,” “it’s not fair to my children.” Or, “it’s not fair to my neighbors,” what would you say about sacrifice?

CM: I think especially for Latina women and for many minorities, as women, we are raised to be quiet, to be obedient, to want to be a good wife. From the time that you’re a young girl, people build this peanut gallery of insecurity in your head. So, when you think, “Oh, I want to be a photographer” your peanut gallery tells you that you shouldn’t, that it’s not for women. What you have to do is, you have to silence your peanut gallery. I imagine my peanut gallery in my head, and I walk up to a cliff—and I shove ’em over. Because if we listen to those voices in our head, we’re definitely going to stay home, afraid of going to the door of adventure and career and- you know, sometimes it’s scary, of course, but I know that when I’m a little frightened, that I’m in the right place. Because, that’s where I make the pictures that really matter to me. As women, we have to learn to silence our peanut gallery.

CITA: Agreed.

CM: I am a Mexican woman from a small town, you know? And I made it happen. I made it work. So, if I can, anybody can.

CITA: We are ecstatic that you’re going to be here and that we’ll get to see you in person with all of the photographs and stories that you’re bringing with Standing At The Waters Edge. We’re really anticipating the talk that you’re bringing here, Cristina. The audiences here are really friendly, they love the Nat Geo series, so it’s going be a very receptive audience. We have great kids who ask wonderful questions at the end. It’s usually a lot of fun for Nat Geo speakers to be here.

CM: Awesome. Well, I can’t wait. I’ll see you there in a few days.

sea grass

Photo from Instagram: @cristinamittermeier

State Thespian Spotlight: Randy Rainbow

Internet musical parody sensation Randy Rainbow launched his life in musical theater right here on Straz stages when he was a high school Thespian.

As many, many, many, many, many high schools in Florida know, this week is State Thespian Week, when almost 8000 students, teachers, chaperones and judges descend on The Straz and elsewhere in downtown Tampa to compete for top distinctions in this distinguished drama festival.

Flashback: 19 YEARS AGO

It’s 1999. President Clinton is impeached, acquitted then cited for contempt of court. The dot-com bubble looks eternal. Joe DiMaggio dies, the Yankees win the pennant and Carolyn Bassette Kennedy and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr., perish in a plane crash. The United States wins the Women’s World Cup (the year we all learn the name Brandi Chastain), and the Dow Jones closes at an unprecedented 11,410. Somebody buys the last New York City Checker cab for $135K at auction. It is the year of the Columbine High School massacre and the highly publicized hate crime against Wyoming man Matthew Shepard. 1999 is the year three white supremacists are convicted of felony murder for the lynching-by-dragging of John Byrd, Jr. Unemployment is at a 29-year low. George W. Bush announces he will run for President.

Yet.

A senior in high school from Plantation, Fla., stands alone on the Morsani stage. He sings his heart out in the number he’s prepared for the Florida State Thespians. He wins for solo musical and, later, with his best friend, an award for comedy scene.

That 17-year-old, defying the world with musical theater comedy, is Randy Rainbow.

Cut to: PRESENT DAY

Randy Rainbow headshot

First of all, Randy Rainbow *is* his real name.

Second of all, we had no idea he competed (and won, of course) during the Florida State Thespian festival when he was in high school until we had to interview him yesterday for The Straz’s “Behind the Persona” feature for INSIDE magazine. Be sure to check out that Q&A in the Spring/Summer issue out in April.

Third of all, when we found out the Randy Rainbow, who just happens to be a superhero of the internet for defying the world with musical theater comedy, played the Straz stages as a 15-, 16-, 17-year old theater kid and winning, we had to write this blog.

“When I used to do theater competitions, we would do district and state, they were held in Tampa. Florida is where everything started for me,” Randy says, “so it has a special place in my heart.”

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Randy Rainbow comes full circle when he returns to The Straz as an international internet sensation with his hilarious one man show on April 13 .

As it turns out, his time as a Thespian competing against other state actors and meeting other theater kids at The Straz changed his life. “That was a major part of my [early experiences as an actor]. That’s where I came out of the closet, as a matter of fact. At Tampa, at state competition. How appropriate.”

Like many kids who are different, Randy survived school bullies, sharpening his comedy and musical theater chops to get through and graduate to pursue his dreams. In the meantime, Thespians and his annual high school trip to the state drama festival gave him something to look forward to where he was among friends doing his favorite thing in the world.

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Ok, so this isn’t from when Randy was in high school, but it’s pretty cute. (Photo from Instagram: @randyrainbow)

“Yeah. You grow up, and it’s hard to find other drama nerds, really. So once a year, to gather with hundreds of them, I just remember, it was just ecstasy,” he says. “It was so exciting to have other like-minded people nerding out on theater. That was such an important time in my life. I still have such amazing memories of it, and it had such an impact on me. It was joy, absolute. Just … joy.”

Randy Rainbow, like so many artists, took his life experiences and the history he was born to and made his art. Now famous for his political musical parodies as a “woke show queen, comedian, actor, songstress, active-isht, Internet Sensation and TV Personality” [his Twitter description], Randy finds himself able to do something, to speak out and show up politically in visible ways.

But would he consider running for office?

“Hell, no. Let me stick to my comedy.”

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If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere

Musicians and actors who make the leap to Broadway

Kill Bill super-assassin Uma Thurman skillfully executed a Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman in November 2017, as did rock ‘n’ roll superstar Bruce Springsteen in September, when he broke box office records and added Boss of Broadway to his long list of artistic credentials with his show Springsteen on Broadway. Michael Moore, political provocateur and filmmaker, took to Broadway in August with The Terms of My Surrender, his one-man limited engagement.

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Fania Borach, known professionally as Fanny Brice, circa 1920. (Photo: George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress)

Local lore has it that the American crossover star phenomenon started around 1910 with Fanny Brice (the “Funny Girl” later played by Barbra Streisand), who made it on Broadway then took to Hollywood and radio. Brice set many precedents in her career, and this notion that performing artists launched a career in one field and conquered the next challenge as they gained success laid the foundation for stars to take the Broadway Challenge: they might be good singers or actors, but can they handle the greatest test of all, the demands of performing live at the epicenter of theater?

Take, for example, multi-platinum crooner Josh Groban, who debuted in the 2017 surprise hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and walked away with a Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen donned the glass slippers for Cinderella, and teeny-bopper heartthrob Nick Jonas took over for Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Probably one of the best musical vehicles for pop singers is Chicago, and that cast has welcomed Ashlee Simpson, Sofia Vergara, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson and R&B superstars Brandy and Usher, among others.

In March, Deborah Cox, the Grammy-winning and multi-platinum recording artist, takes on the role of Rachel Marron in the musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston from diva-to-screen-siren crossover Hollywood hit The Bodyguard. Cox, who made her Broadway debut in Aida, started her career as a backup singer for Celine Dion and eventually made a place for herself on Broadway. She also starred in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway and at The Straz in 2013.

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Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron, with Jaquez André Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera in The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cox, who proved her versatility on screen, stage and in the recording studio, continues to join the rising ranks of performers blurring the lines between “what kind” of star they want to be. With Springsteen’s success on Broadway in basically a troubadour stint and Kinky Boots inking Panic at the Disco! frontman Brandon Urie and Scissor Sisters rocker Jake Shears to rack up ticket sales, there’s certainly a safe bet for a box office draw of known names and faces in new territory. For Cox, of course, there’s the added pressure of stepping into some mighty big Whitney Houston-sized shoes. “I want to make sure that [Houston is] represented right. I know what the expectations are. …That’s pretty much what I’m going in there to do – give it my all, really make this show a huge success because the show deserves it. She deserves it. Her legacy deserves it,” Cox said in a 2016 interview with app.com.

To catch Cox* as Rachel Marron, get tickets for The Bodyguard playing in Morsani Hall March 20-25 here.

*Deborah Cox is not scheduled to perform at the Saturday matinee or Sunday evening performances.

Lady with the Million Dollar Smile

Diamond Teeth Mary sparkles as part of the Straz Center’s Rock the Riverwalk local musicians’ hall of fame.

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Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

We’ve had a lot of legends grace the stages at The Straz. Around Tampa, we’ve been blessed with our own backyard musical demigods, many of whom people don’t realize grew up, lived or died right here in the Cigar City.

When it came time for us to plan something cool to commemorate our local artists for the Straz Center’s 30th anniversary season this year, we looked to our in-house musical legend Maggie Council di Pietra to help us compile a sample of some of the Tampa area’s famous and infamous musical lights.

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Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Among these, we find the inimitable “Diamond Teeth” Mary, Mary Smith (half-sister to blues legend Bessie Smith), who found her way to Bradenton in 1960 after several successful years as a circus acrobat and, later, as a performer in the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The story goes that she stole a diamond bracelet from her abusive stepmother, disguised herself as a boy and jumped a train in Huntington, West Va. to run off and join the circus. The diamonds, which she initially sold off one by one to pay her way in life eventually made it into her teeth when she was a singer. As Mary tells it, she ended up selling the diamonds to pay for medical bills, right before she was rediscovered by a folklorist and immortalized by the Smithsonian.

“Mary was incredible,” says Dr. Blues, who worked with Mary to produce her album Walking Mary’s Blues. “She performed with Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati in 1954. She was a big deal. She had a great sense of humor and was always telling stories, though I never heard one about stealing the diamond bracelet from an abusive stepmother. She did sell them to pay for medical bills, though.” When Dr. Blues met Mary, she was substituting aluminum foil and Polygrip for her shiny smile, but some blues friends chipped in and got her diamond teeth back for her last tours. “I think it was cubic zerconia, but still,” says Dr. Blues, “the ‘diamonds’ were back eventually.”

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Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Mary Smith died in 2000, a beloved member of the Tampa area blues community. Below, you’ll find a reprint of the memorial Straz Center grant writer and local legend Maggie di Pietra (who consulted for the Rock the Riverwalk exhibit) published in the St. Petersburg Times.

To see the rest of the people highlighted in the Rock the Riverwalk free exhibit, visit the Straz Center and cruise by the grassy knoll between the river and Morsani Hall.

Riverwalk collage

 

Diamond Teeth Mary
Remembering the ‘Queen of Blues’
________________________________________
by Maggie Council di Pietra
The original article appeard in the St. Petersburg Times April 28, 2000. Copyright © 2000 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
________________________________________

One thing is for certain, people in this area will never forget Diamond Teeth Mary.

We in the Tampa Bay area were lucky to share Diamond Teeth Mary’s last years.

When she died at 97 earlier this month, the memories flooded in.

Folks remembered her birthday parties at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, which drew crowds of blues enthusiasts, players and performers. Or her appearances at the Silver King Tavern in St. Petersburg.

Mary once sat in at the Silver King with showman James Peterson during a late-night set. She sang so well that Peterson, with a new battery pack on his electric guitar rig, went down on Central Avenue, lay down and stuck his feet in the air while he played, still able to hear Mary from inside.

Where blues rang out in Tampa Bay, Diamond Teeth Mary wasn’t far away.

Now, a party has been planned to celebrate Diamond Teeth Mary’s life and spirit. She pretty much planned it herself.

Harmonica growler Rock Bottom, a close friend of Mary’s for 20 years, explained that “Mary didn’t want a funeral but she wanted a party. She outlined the whole deal, down to the red beans and rice and stuff.”

Mary wanted it held at Skipper’s, and she wanted people who knew her to get together and play. Not like a series of band showcases. More like how it used to be, playing on someone’s porch.

“There’s no structure,” says Bottom. “That would be the music biz, and this is a memorial for Mary, and never the twain shall meet.”

The music industry was never kind to Diamond Teeth Mary, but she managed to perform and make a living for 85 years without its help.

Mary Smith McClain started her performing career when Billie Holiday was in diapers and Robert Johnson was a toddler. But her Cinderella story of running away from home in 1915 at age 13 to escape an evil stepmother had no prince charming; it was Mary’s own skills as an acrobat and singer that enabled her to survive.

By the time Muddy Waters and B.B. King were born, Mary Smith had years under her belt as a dancer and acrobat for the traveling minstrel/medicine shows across the Chitlin’ Circuit and had started to sing. Medicine shows, which were popular roughly from the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, were traveling troupes featuring free entertainment interjected with pitches for ointments and tonics — the same format adopted later by television, which played a huge role in the medicine shows’ loss of popularity by creating stars that many people could see at once.

Mary’s talent for drawing a crowd earned her a place with the best of the shows. She traveled in troupes like Irwin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show and for 11 years as part of the infamous Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Mary was commonly promoted as “Queen of the Blues” on the same bill with luminaries such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ray Charles.

Life on the road for black performers wasn’t exactly limousines and room service in those days. Often the troupes had to travel miles out of their way just to find a place where they could eat or sleep, only to be relegated to the back yard.

One of Mary’s contemporaries was Bessie Smith, who was a big sister figure for Mary until her death in 1937 in an automobile accident. In an interview in the early 1990s, Mary remembered seeing Bessie lying on a stretcher on the hospital floor. She lay there so long, Mary said, that her blood clotted on the floor. Although Bessie Smith was a huge star, a black woman in a hospital couldn’t expect to get immediate attention.

Along the way, Mary became known as Diamond Teeth Mary for the diamonds she lodged in her teeth. Mary knew how to play an audience as well as tell a story, and the survivalist persona she had crafted was well-honed.

Why the diamonds? Some said they were an on-the-road hiding place for diamonds from a bracelet her mother had given her. In other stories, the diamonds were from a necklace she stole from her abusive stepmother. In another interview, Mary said, “All the singers were doing stuff like that [then], with gold in the 1940s. I did diamonds, just to have something to make me stick out.”

During some of the leanest years, the diamonds were replaced for a while with tinfoil. In a recent interview, Mary’s caretaker said that Mary’s mother had come down with cancer, so Mary had her teeth pulled and pawned the diamonds to pay for her mother’s care. Later in Mary’s life, some Tampa Bay friends helped her have new diamonds installed.

Diamond Teeth Mary was booked at the old Palms Club on U.S. 301 in Bradenton when she decided to retire there in 1960.

It was the end of one era for Mary, but the beginning of another. She married Clifford McClain, her second husband and followed him to church. Mary moved her genre of focus from the blues to gospel music, which she claimed she had never sung before 1964. Mary became a star at church, singing Precious Lord and Amazing Grace, while falling into relative obscurity as interest waned in the blues.

In the late 1970s, when the blues was enjoying a resurgence of interest, Mary was “discovered” by folklorists who invited her to perform at the Florida Folk Festival. Her performance there brought down the house and earned her an invitation to a performance at the White House in 1980.

Why didn’t Diamond Teeth Mary record when all her contemporaries seemed to be doing it? She somehow evaded the recording studio in favor of live performances for decades. Some said it was her temperament; Mary liked to work things on her own terms and burned her share of bridges along the way.

University of South Florida anthropologist Maria Vesperi received an NEA grant in 1982 to archive some of Diamond Teeth Mary’s performances and stories on video. Vesperi offers another view: “Mary was a country person. She had the opportunities, she was sought after, but she didn’t want it — didn’t want the city life that went with being a recording star at that time, to have to live in an urban area. She liked being on the road.”

Vesperi tells how Mary’s occasional outward prickliness was explained to her one time by Johnny Morgan, who owned the Stuffed Pepper on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, one of the few blues venues around the bay area in the early 1980s. “It’s a survival strategy — it’s a defense. Johnny said he would have to look her in the eye and say, “Mary, you got paid.’ At her age, she never knew when her next gig would come up, and she took every gig for all its worth.”

Mary liked the attention she got from singing in church. “She’d been kicked out of several churches by the time I met her,” says Vesperi. “She was a genuinely spiritual woman, and it meant a lot for her to have a church. I believe it was a tough time for her, that the other church ladies didn’t like her singing in bars.”

But Mary thought of it as a mission. Who needed to hear God’s word more than those sorry souls hanging at bars? And Mary would work a little church into her blues — for free. Others who knew Mary also cite her struggle with a personal, internal conflict between religion and blues.

The 18 hours of video funded by Vesperi’s grant have never been edited. The reels were shot by nationally known cinematographer Nick Petrick, digitized last year for protection and archived at USF. Vesperi is seeking funding for post-production work.

The juke joints and dance halls Mary had played for black customers in earlier decades gave way to international audiences at festival stages, blues bars and even Carnegie Hall.

Mary never had any children, so there were no close kin around during her later years. It seems the blues community in Tampa Bay was her adopted family.

In 1996, local blues luminaries put on an all-star jam/concert to raise money for Mary, whose apartment had been damaged in a fire. Acoustic blues guitarist Roy Bookbinder helped Mary get a working telephone, and Rock Bottom and his friend St. Petey Twigg took Mary — wheelchair and all — on tours of Europe.

Traveling with Mary was an experience for Rock Bottom. “The first time she went [with St. Petey Twigg] to Sweden and Norway, she left all her Norwegian money, which was a considerable amount, in the trash in her hotel room. When presented with the money, and asked if perhaps she’d forgotten it, Mary angrily replied, “Don’t give me that gumbo money. You’re not gonna fool me. I want dollars!’ Mary was paid in U.S. dollars for the remainder of her tour.”

Locally-based blues diva Sandy Atkinson met Mary late in her life. About six years ago, Atkinson had just moved to the Tampa Bay area and was thinking maybe she was too old to pursue a lifelong dream of a career singing the blues. Then she saw Diamond Teeth Mary perform one night at the Ringside in St. Petersburg, and it gave her the chills. “Here I was, 40 years old off to see the wizard and there was this incredible woman onstage. She was just bouncing all over that wheelchair, and I had to go up and shake her hand.”

Atkinson wrote a song and recorded it on her latest CD called She Rocked, a tribute to Mary and how she influenced others with her tremendous energy and distinctive style.

School-Girl Crush

The Straz Center’s 96-year-old volunteer extraordinaire, Margaret Goodson, dishes on her love of Forever Plaid.

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Caught in the Act writer Marlowe Moore Fairbanks interviewing long-time Straz Center volunteer and Plaid fan Margaret Goodson.

There are certain things people just know about Tampa:

Cigars.

Cuban sandwiches.

Sports.

Magic Mike.

And Margaret Goodson.

If a place is lucky, it will have one spectacular person so ingrained in its culture and identity that you can’t separate the two. Margaret is that person for us. Everybody knows her, everybody loves her—and Margaret loves The Plaids.

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Margaret keeps this photo on her desk here at The Straz.

Margaret turned 96 a few weeks ago, and she’s been with The Straz longer than almost anyone. She’s volunteered here for 30 years, doing all kinds of jobs to help save us time and money (hey, we’re a non-profit!), even stepping in to “play” the washed-up Little Orphan Annie character during a photo shoot for our Forbidden Broadway ad campaign years ago.

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Margaret posing as Little Orphan Annie for a Forbidden Broadway advertising campaign. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It was here in the Jaeb Theater many, many moons ago when Margaret, coerced by a friend, attended Forever Plaid for the first time. “I can’t explain what happened. It was the songs, the show … and four handsome young men helps. I was hooked. I fell in love,” she says.

“I’ve had a school-girl crush on The Plaids a long time. Ever since the beginning. I’ve seen them everywhere I could—two times in Las Vegas. Once in Orlando. When the show is here I see it as many times as I can,” Margaret says, quickly acknowledging she could be considered a Plaid groupie. “Everybody who knows me knows Forever Plaid is ‘my show.’ It’s not like I like this one actor or have a crush on one character in particular. I love The Plaids no matter the show or where I see them. Although, I think Jinx may be my favorite character. He’s funny. And cute.”

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Our 2018 cast of Forever Plaid. That’s Jinx on the far left, followed by Sparky, Smudge and Frankie. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

We’ve produced Forever Plaid a lot over the years although the last time the quartet graced the Jaeb was 2008. Margaret is pretty much the only one with exclusive “Plaid privileges,” and, inevitably, she ends up becoming a fixture of the show’s run. “When the show is here, The Plaids find out I’m a fan. I get to go to the cast parties and help decorate the stage before shows and things like that. Whenever they’re here they accept me as part of the players. They know they can’t go onstage before I meet them.”

As a Forever Plaid aficionado, Margaret sees the show in a bigger picture. “There’s so much to the show. All the songs are good songs. There are hilarious moments. Everything that’s good is in Forever Plaid, and we can use a little bit of goodness in this country right now. I believe in this show. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m crazy about it,” she says. “I hope I can instill a rebirth of the show. I think this is what people need right now.”

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Plaids from a previous Straz production wishing Margaret a happy birthday.

Margaret said it, so it must be so. The world needs Forever Plaid. Get your tickets here.

Would You Look at that View?

Astronaut Terry Virts and the Sunrise Over Earth from Space

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Photo: Terry Virts

Enya’s lilting, lovely Gaelic song “Storms in Africa” drifts in a slow, spiraling melody—perfect for floating in a clear bubble in space while watching the sun spill molten light across the Earth’s bold blue horizon and into the infinite blackness of space. From this bubble, it’s easy to see Earth’s distinct atmosphere and climate converge into swirling, sparking storms curling along the landscape.

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Sunrises and sunsets show details in the atmosphere. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

So did astronaut Terry Virts enjoy this view with Enya’s soundtrack playing aboard the International Space Station. Inside the Cupola, a seven-windowed compartment he designed and installed, akin to a ball turret on a fighter plane, Virts took more than 300,000 photographs. Many are sunrise and sunset photos, he will no doubt confess, when he comes here Jan. 16 for his lecture about this experience, A View from Above.

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Oh, hey Florida! (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

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Photo: Terry Virts

Imagine being able to see the watery green glow of the aurora borealis swimming below you but above the Earth, the overhead view of the perplexingly precise Egyptian pyramids, city lights of Calcutta exploding against the darkened backdrop of night. Virts experienced these awe-inspiring sights daily, taking more photographs in space than any other astronaut.

From the Cupola, Virts held “a front row seat to creation,” as he tells it. He took this once-in-a-lifetime role very seriously, capturing footage for A Beautiful Planet, the IMAX film narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, his lecture, social media and his book, also titled A View from Above.

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Virts inside the Cupola. (Photo: National Geographic Live)

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Virts looking up at Earth with all seven Cupola window shutters open. Despite the orientation of this photo, the Cupola is actually on the bottom. (Photo: NASA/National Geographic)

With as humbling and miraculous as his day-to-day job was during his mission on the International Space Station (ISS), the constant reminder of his separation from home, in time, wore on Virts and the crew. All the astronauts on this ISS expedition, though of differing countries, were Earthlings trapped in a capsule within sight of their home planet and no way to connect to it. “About halfway through my mission,” Virts wrote on his blog entry “Relaxing in Space” (12/2/17), “the Russian psychologists sent my Cosmonaut crewmates some ‘sounds from Earth,’ like waves, rain, birds chirping, a busy café at lunchtime, etc. Those sounds quickly became a favorite way for my whole crew to reconnect with Earth; everyone loved them, Americans, Italians, and Russians. I fell asleep to the sound of rain for about a month.”

Virts retired from NASA in August 2016, launching a new career as a lecturer and educator. He appears at The Straz as part of the National Geographic Live series, the first speaker of our season. To get more familiar with Virts before you come to his talk, follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

For tix to his lecture, get ‘em here.

Antarctica

We wanted to personally interview Terry for this blog, but he was indisposed doing adventurous stuff in Antarctica and couldn’t talk with us by our deadline. And we thought it was cold last week in Florida. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)