Ideas: June 2007 Archives

Just as Alex Ross was surprised in a recent New Yorker piece to find good orchestras West of the Hudson River, John Berendt, a former editor of Esquire magazine and author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," was surprised to learn some years ago that New York hadn't yet cornered the market on (God love 'em) America's freaks, weirdoes and whackjobs.

The book, published in 1994, was a phenomenal hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible four years. It brought Savannah to the forefront of American consciousness, it changed Savannah's tourism industry forever (the city rakes in about $1 billion in tourism dollars annually) and it introduced everyone, thanks also to Clint Eastwood's really awful but no less charming and colorful movie, to Savannah's litany of off-kilter characters.

An inventor who strings a vile of poison around this neck and who could spike at any time the city's water supply; a road-rambling country diva who knows every single song by Savannah tunesmith Johnny Mercer; a ne'er-do-well con artist and attorney who covers his bad-check-writing tracks with oodles of charm; and a black transsexual by the name of The Lady Chablis who's fond of "hiding my candy."

The book is arranged around these and more: a voodoo priestess, a bevy of bedecked black debutantes, the Married Women's Card Club, a gay redneck gigolo. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which we refer to around these parts simply as "The Book," has it all, including a mystery: It follows the eight-year trial of Jim Williams, a flamboyant antiques dealer, and Berendt's aristocratic and axiomatic protagonist, charged with killing his as-cranky-as-queer lover.

It's a great book, the stuff of fiction. In fact, a novelistic approach is certainly what Berendt was aiming for. In the tradition of Capote's "In Cold Blood," Berendt, as he confessed after the book's publication, did a tidy job of "rounding the corners" of inconvenient facts, which we can take as fertile ground for heightening the sensational elements of his story, such as the "Greek chorus" of characters, as the book jacket speaks with reverent literary delight.

What I'm getting at is this: As New Yorkers, Berendt, and Ross, express in their writing a gee-whiz attitude toward things they don't expect to find outside New York. I don't believe they meant to do this, but this tone of voice is ultimately patronizing even when its positive (Ross's praising of Midwestern arts groups) and entertaining (Berendt's focusing on a small Southern town's charming though no less marginalized and sad oddballs).

What's worse, though, is that such writers are missing what's really going on in the American Outback. As Joe Nickell notes, the question Ross is missing is what the Indianapolis Symphony is doing for the city of Indianapolis. In his quest to tell a story about Savannah (the subtitle is "A Savannah Story"), Berendt succeeds -- wildly and with wonderfully wry humor and often nail-biting suspense -- in telling his particular view of Savannah, but fails to capture Savannah as it is experienced by the people living here.

Berendt lived here for all of six months.

Let me say that again, with feeling -- six months.

I've lived here for six years. The Savannah I know is unlike the world represented in The Book. I simply don't recognize it. What Berendt did well was tap into the North's long-standing fascination with the South -- its claim to good manners, its gestures of grace and romantic "Gone with the Wind" gentility. As the North became less industrialized, more suburban and less connected, residents of the North -- they're called Yankees here; I'm one of them -- have developed over time a longing for the appearance of simpler times, which are associated with the South and its grand manors, folk customs and cultivation of hospitality.

But zippity do dah, it ain't.

Berendt also taps into an implicit condescension among outsiders that Savannah, and by proxy the South, is not equal in terms of culture. And by culture I mean not just art, literature and the life of the mind; I mean freaks, weirdos and whackjobs. Pointing out that Savannah has characters isn't much of a revelation to those who live here. Eccentrics live here, eccentrics live in New York, eccentrics live pretty much everywhere. The Lady Chablis pales in comparison to Divine (does anyone remember the ending to John Waters' "Pink Flamingos"?).

Berendt was bedazzled by the Lady (and let's face it, who wouldn't be?) because Berendt loved the delicious contrast between Chablis' ribald humor (her memoir is titled "Hiding My Candy," i.e., her penis) and Savannah's genteel grace, which was a contrast made entirely out of Berendt's imagination. He doesn't realize the socioeconomics of political power, race and class in the South, combined with a fiercely protected (sometimes at the point of a gun) sense of individualism, have conspired to create a climate rich in eccentricity.

Eccentrics thrive here in part because they are alienated and made voiceless by a cabal of (mostly white) power brokers who reinforce the status quo. Over the decades, those who didn't fit in or who were actively barred from the American franchise (as all African Americans were for generations), people, I think, tend to go crazy. The societal pressures to maintain a sense of individual decorum in the North don't exist in a South that institutionalized segregation for more than a century. As long as you didn't cross the color (or, let's not forget, class) line, you could be as odd, deranged or sociopathic as you like. Even homosexuals, like Jim Williams and his dead hustler, didn't have to live in the closet as long as the closet was inside, not in public.

That's what Berendt missed. Unfortunately, writers like this are blinded by what they think they already know about the American Outback, which is too bad. There's more out here (good and bad; for better and for worse) than you think.

June 27, 2007 1:00 AM | | Comments (6)

It was during a recital by super-diva Isabel Bayrakdarian, perhaps one of the best known voices in the world thanks to her soaring soprano contributions to the soundtrack of "The Lord of the Rings" and to a recent dance club hit called "Angelicus," that I learned what might have gone wrong with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra.

By the time Bayrakdarian performed at the Savannah Music Festival this past spring, the orchestra, then the most important cultural institution in this historic city for almost half a century, had been bankrupt with no sign of re-forming for almost five years.

During intermission, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a former member of the symphony's board of directors. At the time, she knew me, but I didn't know this woman personally. I knew her by reputation only. She is a prominent figure in Savannah's cultural and philanthropic circles. I'll call her Linda.

As Linda and I gabbed about festival performances past, present and future, the topic of conversation turned to the lost symphony, as these conversations often do in the wake of the its 2003 Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which required complete liquidation of assets, with no chance of reorganization under legal protection. At one point, Linda made a comment that illuminated one of the key reasons for its collapse.

"My social life was ruined," Linda said.

June 20, 2007 4:40 AM | | Comments (6)

Attending the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Theater and Musical Theater was a defining event for me.

Before that fortnight, "arts journalist" was not really a tag I used. If I had to describe myself, I would call myself a writer, leaving out adjectives because I was pretty eclectic in the writing that I did. By day, I'm a textbook writer, writing curriculum content and training materials for the hospitality industry. I also do a great deal of freelance writing ranging from business writing to ghost writing to theater reviewing to performing arts articles to book reviewing.

While arts writing--whether it was about books, theater, or other performing arts--was my passion and my love, it was (and is) the least lucrative of the writing that I do. I write about the arts to feed my soul and I write about everything else to feed my family.

The Arts Institute, however, transformed much of the way I approached what I do as well as expanded my view of what is happening in the rest of the country. For years, I had been awed by what I saw theater doing in my community. Every year there is a new organization, many of them doing stunning work. While some people complained that resources were being spread too thin, most groups have thrived and audiences have grown. People have begun to speak with pride about the arts community in our town--even though few outsiders would ever think of arts and Lansing, Michigan in the same sentence.

I learned that throughout the country, arts communities were experiencing similar growth. More and more people are creating art with less and less money. In fact, if the people who spoke at the Institute were representative, it seemed that the arts communities in smaller cities were much healthier than those in large metropolitan areas that depended on big budgets to be successful. Perhaps that is because it becomes more about the business than about the art. More likely, though, the answer is far more complicated.

I returned home with a renewed enthusiasm and a determination that I would be an arts advocate both in my hometown and wherever else I wrote. Too many exciting things are happening to have them be ignored or go unchronicled.

There are exciting stories taking place in small cities and towns across the country. It is a testament to people's need for art and their need to create. I'm looking forward to helping to tell these stories.

June 14, 2007 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)

I was a poor graduate student studying Shakespeare's comedies, sitting in a muggy apartment in Cincinnati, and probably smoking an "ultra light" cigarette, when I got the call. "It's so beautiful here," she said. "You would love it, John. They have seashells in the sidewalks."

My future wife, Gretchen, had just won an audition with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Now, flushed with that post-audition glow, she was falling in love with this old port city's 18th-century architecture, stately squares, live oaks, Spanish moss and penchant for decorating concrete with oyster shells. Like many old cities in the South, it was all about the charm.

Over the next year, we would end up living in two different cities, but we felt it was worth it. The disproportion of the number of orchestral musicians in the U.S. to the number of jobs for them is huge. When you win one, you don't turn it down, no matter how meager, which this was. Besides, Savannah, situated on a bluff on Georgia's subtropical coastal plain, and affectionately nicknamed the Hostess City, was 20 minutes from the beach.

Three years later, facing a $1 million-plus deficit, the management for the Savannah Symphony Orchestra stopped operations. Within days, there was talk of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning complete liquidation of assets. A month later, there were pleas to the "community," meaning the city's "patron class," to give $450,000 to bail out the SSO. By April, it was over.

The SSO's collapse was one of six orchestra bankruptcies in 2003, many resulting from shockwaves still reverberating through the post-September 11 marketplace. San Jose, San Antonio, Tulsa, Colorado Springs and South Florida all saw their orchestras fall apart. All, however, have reformed in one way or another. All, that is, except the Savannah Symphony.

Such is the life of art in the American Outback, the area of the country between the Boston-New York-Philly-D.C. megalopolis and the cities along the West Coast. As the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I have witnessed numerous occasions when artists pour their hearts into something just to see it misunderstood, undervalued or taken away.

But a life in the arts here -- whether doing it, observing it or consuming it -- is not all tragedy. There are enough TV news anchors lamenting the decline of high culture to last a long, long time. Here in "Flyover," we don't do that. Instead, we look at the arts in the American Outback as they really are, and what they really are is far more complicated than you'd think.

June 13, 2007 9:00 AM | | Comments (3)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Ideas category from June 2007.

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