Woody Guthrie’s music still rings true on his 100th birthday

July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old on July 14. Because the folksinger died of a neurological disease in 1967, at age 55, many people now know little about him besides his most famous song, This Land is Your Land.

It is a wonderful song that would make a good National Anthem. It is less bombastic than the unsingable Star Spangled Banner, more aspirational than America The Beautiful and less presumptuous than God Bless America.

In fact, Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land in 1940 because he got sick of hearing Irving Berlin’s God Bless America on the radio. He disliked the song because he thought God had already blessed America with beauty and abundance, and it was every citizen’s responsibility to care for and share it.

Guthrie originally called his song God Blessed America, and the chorus ended with the words, “God blessed America for me.” After writing the song, though, Guthrie set it aside for five years. When it was finally performed, Guthrie had changed the title and had rewritten the chorus to end, “This land was made for you and me.”

As referenced in the song, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was a rambler who roamed America — from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — collecting folk tunes and writing more than 3,000 songs.

Guthrie had three wives and eight children, including folksinger Arlo Guthrie. He was mentor to other folksingers, including a young Bob Dylan, who said of Guthrie’s songs: “They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.”

The Oklahoman became a well-known troubadour during the Great Depression, spending a lot of time with people who had been thrown into poverty by the Dust Bowl and economic collapse.

A 1939 song romanticized the gangster Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd as a modern Robin Hood. It includes these lyrics, which still ring true:

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six-gun,

And some with a fountain pen.

Alarmed by how unrestrained capitalism had failed so many Americans, Guthrie also feared the right-wing power then rising in fascist Spain and Nazi Germany. His guitar displayed the slogan, “This machine kills fascists.”

Like many people during the Great Depression, Guthrie held strong leftist sympathies. He wrote a folksy column, called Woody Sez, for communist labor newspapers, but lacked the interest or discipline for ideological politics.

When attacked by conservatives, Guthrie replied with a joke: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.” In reality, he was more of a populist troublemaker who wrote what he saw and enjoyed tweaking the rich and powerful.

Guthrie also was something of a patriot, capitalist and person of faith. He served in World War II. He wrote some of his most memorable songs — Pastures of Plenty, Roll on Columbia, Grand Coulee Dam — during a month-long government job promoting the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest. He said Jesus Christ was one of the two men he most admired. (The other was humorist Will Rogers.)

It is always easier to dismiss someone because of who or what he is than to listen to what he has to say, especially when his message is uncomfortable.

Guthrie got a close-up view of how the American dream became a nightmare for many people during the Great Depression. That view shaped his vision of this nation and its promise for true greatness. His lyrics seem appropriate again today, as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class shrinks.

While extolling America’s natural beauty, This Land is Your Land is really about how inclusiveness and the promise of shared prosperity are what make the United States special. This land is not just for the rich, but for everyone. It wasn’t just made for me, but for you, too.

The little-sung last verse — the one we were not taught in elementary school — is especially poignant as we mark the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth:

In the squares of the city / In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office / I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.


words and music by Woody Guthrie 
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin'  -  I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side  .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Chorus (2x)

©1956 (renewed 1984), 1958 (renewed 1986) and 1970 TRO-Ludlow Music, Inc. 
(BMI) Source: Arlo.net, The Official Arlo Guthrie Website.

Off the Clock, Kentucky’s new chief appeals judge is all rock ‘n’ roll

July 7, 2012


Glenn Acree, who plays bass, keyboard, harmonica and sings with the band Off the Clock, was struggling through a late-night gig last Saturday at the Parlay Social nightclub on Cheapside.

His voice was shot from an outdoor concert the night before at Keeneland, where temperatures in the 90s had sapped the 57-year-old musician’s strength.

Besides, it had been a stressful week: His high school baseball coach and another mentor from his youth had both died.

Oh, and he had been sworn in as chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

That’s right: When he’s not wearing a black robe and helping decide some of Kentucky’s most complex legal cases, Acree is wearing jeans and covering classic rock ‘n’ roll.

“I kind of tried to keep this extracurricular activity of mine a secret, because you don’t know how people will react,” Acree said. “But golf could never do for me what music does for me. This is a complete release.”

Occasionally, Acree will be onstage and an attorney who has practiced before him will come up with a strange look on his face and say, “Aren’t you judge …” Acree said. “Sometimes it’s people I know really well, and they didn’t know I did this.”

Musical talent runs in Acree’s family. His father “could pick up anything and play it,” he said. His uncles, Rollin and Johnny Sullivan, became Grand Ole Opry stars as the comedy duo Lonzo and Oscar. His nephew, Jordan English, is a rising professional singer and songwriter.

Acree joined the Army after graduating from Metcalf County High School in 1973. When his hitch was up, he went to the University of Kentucky and considered medicine, journalism and history. He spent a semester playing keyboard for the Kentucky HeadHunters, but he never wanted a music career.

Acree earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Maryland and was planning to go for a doctorate when his brother-in-law suggested law school instead.

Acree spent a decade with the Lexington firm McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, where Terry McBrayer became a mentor. He then did a variety of legal work with partners and on his own.

Among his clients were the state Realtor and homebuilder associations. Their conventions would sometimes end with Acree pulling out his guitar to entertain. “It was a nice tool for me to have to get to know my clients on a different level,” he said.

Word of Acree’s talent got around. In 1999, a friend asked him to perform with other amateurs at a benefit for Kentucky Children’s Hospital. “I said I couldn’t play in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know who weren’t drinking,” he said. But he did, and the audience approved.

Then Acree discovered his brother-in-law, Victor English, was a good singer and guitarist. They formed Off the Clock with friends. Their wives, Lisa Acree and Susan English, joined in as singers.

Benefit concerts led to paying gigs at bars, clubs and events, including Alltech’s annual international symposium. The band practices each week at Acree’s house and plays a gig or two a month. Other current band members are Pat Hanna, Phil Simmons, Bobby Zimmerman and Mike Marsh.

“None of us does it for the money,” Acree said. “At our age, if you gave us roadies, we’d do it for free.”

Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed Acree to a Court of Appeals vacancy in 2006, and he was elected to the post soon afterward. On June 5, Acree’s colleagues elected him to a four-year term as chief judge. His first day on the job was July 1.

Acree knows two other Kentucky judges who play music on the side: Jeffrey Walson, a family court judge in Clark and Madison counties; and Steve Wilson, a circuit judge in Warren County, who for many years was lead singer with a band whose name always makes lawyers chuckle: Skip Bond and the Fugitives.

Wilson was one of the first people to congratulate Acree on his new job, but the call included a warning: “Just because you’re a judge, don’t be so highfalutin that you quit playing music.”

There seems little chance of that happening. “I don’t want people to think I don’t take this work seriously just because I have so much fun playing music,” Acree said. “But most people say, ‘It humanizes you, judge.'”


Get musical instruments out of closet, into schools

April 25, 2012

Will Lovan knows he is fortunate.

When he wanted to learn to play the trumpet, his parents bought him one. After all, Joel and Tracy Lovan were brass players in high school and college, and Joel, now retired, was band director at Crawford Middle School.

Lovan, above, was talented enough to get into the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School, which enabled him to join the award-winning Lafayette Band. The sophomore is now an all-state trumpeter and plays in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.

But he knows that other aspiring musicians are not so fortunate, including many kids who live near his home in North Lexington.

So when Lovan, 16, was looking for a service project to organize and lead as part of the requirements to earn his Eagle Scout rank, he had an idea: Why not urge people to donate unused musical instruments to the elementary schools that feed into Bryan Station High School?

“My goal is to get more kids involved at an earlier age,” Lovan said. “And to get the instruments that Bryan Station needs to have the kind of feeder system Lafayette and Dunbar have. Even if they’re beat-up instruments, we can have them fixed.”

Lovan and fellow members of Troop 282 will launch the instrument drive Saturday by distributing flyers in several Lexington neighborhoods. He also is appealing to parishioners at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church, which sponsors his troop, and members of his own church, Crestwood Christian.

Instruments can be dropped off at any of three music stores: Don Wilson Music, 275 Southland Drive; Fred Moore Music, 443 South Ashland Avenue; and Hurst Music, 101 North Mount Tabor Road. Or contact Lovan at (859) 559-1077 or WLovan@gmail.com to have an instrument picked up.

Cash donations to pay for replacing pads, corks and missing parts on donated instruments can be made to the Will Lovan Instrument Drive at any Central Bank branch.

Even before he launched the instrument drive, Lovan was given two flutes and two clarinets. He soon hopes to have a basement full of instruments so Shaun Owens, Bryan Station’s band director, and Michael Payne, the assistant director, can have them reconditioned. Then they will join the inventory of loaner instruments for students at the 10 elementary schools and five middle schools that feed into Bryan Station.

Owens said he was thrilled when Lovan approached him with the idea.

“The fact that he was willing to make this happen here meant a lot to me,” Owens said. “He is a Lafayette student, and there are students in Lafayette’s feeder pattern that are just as needy and just as deserving.”

But Bryan Station’s service area has a larger population of students with economic circumstances that might prevent them from becoming involved with music.

“A lot of these kids may be afraid or hesitant to do it because they know that Mom or Dad don’t have the money to go get them an instrument,” Owens said. “We want to make sure every kid who wants to do this has the opportunity to experience it.”

Students who can’t buy an instrument can rent one from local music stores, but some kids can’t even afford that. For them, Bryan Station and its feeder schools don’t have enough loaner instruments to meet the demand.

Owens said he sometimes must use a lottery to lend popular instruments in elementary schools. If a student ends up with his second or third choice, the desire to learn might be diminished.

“I want to make sure those kids are immediately successful,” he said. “If they don’t get that immediate feedback, they’re more likely to give up.”

School music programs teach students music, but, more importantly, they teach life lessons: dedication, practice, teamwork and striving to be the best you can be.

Lexington has been home to many of Kentucky’s best high school bands and orchestras for decades, so Lovan knows there must be a lot of old instruments gathering dust in people’s homes.

“I hate to see an instrument sitting in a closet being unplayed,” Owens said. “It would be much better in the hands of a young person who could make wonderful music with it. You never know what kind of difference you could make in their lives.”


Singing with John Jacob Niles gave Jacqueline Roberts an inside view of folksinger’s compositions

April 23, 2012

Thomas Merton, the author and Trappist monk, right, visited with John Jacob Niles, singer Jacqueline Roberts, right, and accompanist Janelle Dishman at Boot Hill Farm near Lexington in 1968 shortly before Merton's unexpected death. Niles set many of Merton's poems to music he wrote with Roberts voice in mind. Photo by Helm Roberts


He was a famous folk singer and ballad composer, hoping to make another mark in music before old age caught up with him. She was a singer and a restless young mother, yearning to use her musical talent and training for something more than directing a church children’s choir.

John Jacob Niles and Jacqueline Roberts met in 1967 and were close collaborators for the rest of his life. Their dozen years together defined the last chapter of his career and charted the course for hers.

“My career became the music of John Jacob Niles,” said Roberts, 78, who lives in Gratz Park and is an active vocal coach.

Niles was a major influence on the folk-music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Now his music is experiencing a revival of its own, with the 120th anniversary of his birth on April 28, 1892.

Jacqueline Roberts with her E dulcimer, a copy of one used by longtime music partner, balladeer John Jacob Niles. Photo by Tom Eblen

A record label in New Mexico just released recordings made in 1952 of Niles performing his songs in the high-pitched, theatrical voice that was his trademark. In Lexington, several well-known performers will appear in a tribute concert, A Celebration of John Jacob Niles, May 2 at the Kentucky Theatre.

Niles’ best-known songs — I Wonder As I WanderGo ‘Way From My Window and Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair — have become folk standards. But classical singers focus on the art songs he wrote in the years before his death in 1980 at age 87.

Many of those art songs — including 22 based on the poetry of Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton — were the product of Niles’ collaboration with Roberts and piano accompanists Janelle Pope Dishman and Nancie Field.

“These are some of the strongest songs of his life,” said Ron Pen, a University of Kentucky music professor and Niles biographer. “And they were written specifically with Jackie Roberts’ voice in mind.”

Roberts, a native of Russell in Greenup County, earned music degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Miami University in Ohio. After she and her husband, architect Helm Roberts, moved to Lexington from California in 1966, she got a job directing the children’s choir at Second Presbyterian Church. Professionally, she was bored stiff.

Roberts had met Niles at Christ Church Episcopal after she performed his song The Little Familyat an Easter service. Soon afterward, Roberts decided to give a recital at Second Presbyterian. On an impulse, she called Niles to ask what he would suggest she sing.

Niles invited her and Dishman out to his Boot Hill Farm off Athens-Boonesboro Road and made some suggestions. Then he asked them to try out one of his Merton songs to see how it sounded. “Apparently, he liked what he heard,” Roberts said.

On the day of Roberts’ recital, Niles and his wife, Rena, walked in and sat in the front row.

Roberts and Dishman started driving out to Boot Hill each Tuesday and Thursday. They would arrive at 10 a.m., work with Niles for two hours on his latest composition, then have a glass of wine and a sumptuous lunch prepared by the Nileses’ cook, Mary Tippie Mullins.

“For me, it was a gift from heaven,” Roberts said. “I had a 3-year-old, and I was just glad to have someplace to go twice a week.”

The young women helped Niles explore new facets of songwriting. Those sessions led to performances at parties the Nileses gave at Boot Hill for their eclectic group of friends. Then, Niles asked “the girls,” as he called them, to accompany him and his wife on concert tours all over the country, which Roberts did for a decade. In 1970, Field succeeded Dishman as the accompanist.

Jacqueline Roberts, left, Nancie Field and John Jacob Niles perform in concert at Transylvania University in 1975. Photo by Helm Roberts

Niles was a controversial character. The way he borrowed and blended folk ballads into his own compositions irritated some academics. Many people were put off by his big personality, quirky voice and dramatic performance style, which included playing large dulcimers that he would embrace on stage like a lover.

“He came off as an arrogant person, and I was told that my career would never go anywhere if I worked with him,” Roberts said. “Well, that was all I needed. I respected him. I didn’t care what the community thought of him.”

Roberts said the John Jacob Niles she knew was nothing like his public persona. He was patient and kind; an excellent musician and a well-organized composer. The greatest reward of their collaboration, she said, was being able to help shape songs literally as they were being written.

“It was like seeing something being born,” she said. “I saw him in all his moods. I saw him cry when he was touched by the music. I saw him proud when a composition was finished.”

One of their most special times came in 1968, when Thomas Merton left the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County and traveled to Boot Hill Farm to listen to them perform musical interpretations of his poetry. Although Merton’s 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was an international best-seller, Roberts had never heard of him.

The Catholic monk arrived wearing jeans, work shoes and a sweater. “I thought he would be in a long robe and a hat,” Roberts said.

Merton, she said, didn’t seem to know what to make of Niles. “I think he found him to be a funny old man,” she said. But he liked what Niles had done with his poetry. As Roberts sang, she saw tears in Merton’s eyes.

Merton made a second trip to Boot Hill that year. Roberts said she thinks there would have been many more visits had Merton not died in an accident soon afterward while attending an interfaith conference in Thailand.

Over the years, Roberts became close friends with “Johnnie” and Rena, a Russian émigré who supported her husband’s career as faithfully as Helm Roberts supported his wife’s. Despite a busy practice in architecture and city planning, and the pressures of helping raise two sons, Helm Roberts photographed and recorded many of her performances with Niles.

Helm Roberts, who died on his 80th birthday on Aug. 26, is best known for designing the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort — a giant sundial that points to the name of each fallen soldier on the anniversary of his death.

Pen, the biographer, said Jackie Roberts made a huge contribution to the last chapter of Niles’ career. Their collaboration “sparked his imagination,” he said. “It gave him the will to keep writing at a time when most people retire.”

Since Niles’ death, Roberts has been a successful musician and a valuable resource for singers and scholars. “She has an interpretive knowledge of these songs that is really special,” Pen said. “She is a very informed singer and a master teacher.”

Roberts is often sought out by singers who want to know more about Niles’ music and how to perform it.

“Occasionally, throughout history, a few composers have been able to collaborate with a performer in a special way, to have the luxury of trying out material and writing for a specific voice,” Pen said. “This was one of those relationships.”

A Celebration of John Jacob Niles

Who: Hope Koehler, The Reel World String Band, soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble, Tedrin Blair Lindsay and James Douglas.

When: 7:30 p.m., May 2.

Where: Kentucky Theatre.

Details: Tickets $20, $5 with student ID.

Call: (859) 685-1030 or Multigramproductions.com

Want to hear John Jacob Niles?

L.H. Dupli-cation, a New Mexico record label owned by Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, has just issuedThe Boone-Tolliver Recordings, 13 tracks of Niles performing his music at his Boot Hill Farm on Athens-Boonesboro Road. Niles first issued the records on his own Boot Hill label in 1952, and they have been out of print since. More information: Ahawkandahacksaw.net

Singer Jacqueline Roberts, left, accompanist Nancie Field (and before her, Janelle Dishman) made twice-weekly visits to John Jacob Niles' Boot Hill Farm near Lexington for two-hour work sessions. "The girls," as Niles called them, helped him as he composed. Photo by Helm Roberts.



Built by slaves, sanctuary could have new future

February 29, 2012


One of Lexington’s most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it.

The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. A final agreement must be approved by Central Christian’s leaders and congregation, said James Hodge, a church trustee. He declined to disclose the purchase price or terms.

William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building’s amazing history two years ago.

The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.

First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.

In 1833, Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. That same year, he moved his congregation to the corner of Short and Deweese. Construction of the present building began about 1850. Ferrill died in 1854, and his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners. The sanctuary was completed in 1856.

Ferrill was a powerful preacher who baptized thousands. Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.

First African Baptist Church added a Tudor-style addition and a columned portico on the sanctuary in 1926. The congregation moved to Price Road in 1987 and sold its historic building to Central Christian. A child-care center now in the building would be relocated if the sale is approved, Hodge said.

Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation’s proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs.

The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program.

“It’s something we would certainly consider,” McCorvey said. “I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It’s certainly worth preserving.”

Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.

Yvonne Giles, who started the Isaac Scott Hathaway museum of Kentucky black history, is on the foundation’s board. The building could eventually house that collection and host a variety of cultural programs, Thomas said.

The 10-member board includes Dan Rowland, a UK history professor; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK’s vice president of community engagement; Urban County Councilman Chris Ford and architect Van Meter Pettit.

First African Baptist Church leaders support the project, and several were among about 50 people who attended a fund-raising reception Saturday at a home near Nicholasville. The event included a string quartet that played classical music by black composer William Grant Still.

“Fiscally, we’re in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure,” Thomas said of the foundation’s ambitious fund-raising goal. “To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it.”

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Don Wilson, Lexington’s music man, turns 90

March 8, 2011

Strike up the band: Lexington’s music man will be 90 years old Thursday.

Some people remember Don Wilson as the drum major of the University of Kentucky Marching Band. He and his oldest daughter, Donna, were the baton- twirling stars of the halftime show from 1949 to 1955.

But Wilson’s most enduring legacy might be the generations of children in Central and Eastern Kentucky who got the chance to play in a school band or orchestra because his store rented or sold them an instrument and kept it repaired.

“I’ve had a great life,” Wilson said last week as we sat in his office at Don Wilson Music Co. on Southland Drive and paged through a thick notebook of photos and newspaper clippings.

It all began when Wilson’s parents gave him a saxophone for his ninth birthday. By the time he was old enough to play in his high school band in St. Joseph, Mo., he had discovered another talent.

Wilson soon became the band’s drum major. He thought he was pretty good until he went to Kansas City and saw another drum major wow the crowd with baton twirling.

“I went home and taught myself to twirl a baton,” he said. “I wore the grass off my folks’ yard practicing.”

By the time Wilson graduated, he was the state champion drum major and baton twirler. He went on to perform with the band at what is now Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Wilson spent World War II touring the South with an Army band, playing three parades a day and four dances a week. Each military band picked one member to be trained to repair everyone’s instruments. Wilson was chosen.

After the war, Wilson decided he could make more money fixing horns than playing them. So after further training, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Lexington, where her brother lived. Wilson became the repairman at Shackleton’s music store.

The director of UK’s marching Wildcats soon found out about Wilson’s baton-twirling past. He asked him to become the band’s drum major, even though Wilson wasn’t a student.

Wilson might have been the band’s oldest member, but he was always being upstaged by the youngest. By the time she was 7, Donna Wilson was wearing the grass off her folks’ yard. She became as good a twirler as her dad.

“She stole the show,” Wilson said. “I became known as the father of the little girl.”

The Wilsons accompanied Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s UK football team to the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl. It was quite a run. Donna returned for an encore during her years as a UK student. She is now retired in Florida.

Wilson spent his free time for the next three decades performing with American Legion and Oleika Shrine bands. “Every vacation involved a parade,” daughter Peggy Wilson said. “Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., and I don’t know how many he did in Chicago.”

After Don Wilson worked 10 years at Shackleton’s, the store decided to get out of the band-instrument business. So Wilson opened his own store with borrowed money and help from Mary, his wife of 64 years, who died in 2005.

Sales and repairs were important, but the key to Don Wilson Music Co.’s success was horn rentals. Instruments are expensive, and parents are hesitant to buy them until they are convinced their children will stick with band.

“He always rented good-quality instruments in good repair, which we needed to make our bands great,” said J. Larry Moore, director of the Lafayette High School Band from 1973 to 1980. “He and Mary supported us any way they could.”

Arthritis ended Wilson’s baton-twirling career long ago, but he comes to work at the store every day. Peggy Wilson runs the business with help from her brother, Gary, and several longtime employees. Another sister, Sally, lives in Georgetown.

“This is his baby,” Peggy said of the store that has played such an important role in Kentucky’s school band tradition. “We have kids come in all the time with a parent or grandparent who says, ‘I got my instrument here, too.'”

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Renovated downtown school ready to put on a show

February 15, 2011

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, a fixture in downtown Lexington for 98 years, is inviting the community to see its $12 million renovation and expansion.

The school will be a stop Friday night during Gallery Hop, with an exhibit of student art chosen from the region’s Catholic schools. Then, on Feb. 24, Sts. Peter and Paul will launch a monthly concert, “Series with the Saints,” in the school’s elegantly restored 250-seat theater.

The first concert in this series is special: a recital of songs written by the late Kentucky folk music legend John Jacob Niles in collaboration with Thomas Merton, the famous author and Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown until his death in 1968.

The recital, “Written in the Stars,” will feature mezzo-soprano Sherri Phelps and pianist Rachel Taylor, with special guest Jacqueline Roberts, who was Niles’ performance partner from 1967 until his death in 1980.

Using Merton’s poetry, Niles wrote 22 songs specifically for Roberts’ voice, seven of which are included in this recital. The show will feature photographs, audio and video recordings about Niles and Merton, with commentary from Roberts.

“In many ways, this is an evening to honor Jackie,” Phelps said. “She’s the primary source for the material, and she has been passing on the performance practices, teaching them to me.”

Both Phelps and Taylor have doctorates in music. Taylor teaches piano at Eastern Kentucky University. Phelps is an opera singer who has performed throughout this country and Europe. But this material, which blends Niles’ folk music with Merton’s poetry, has special appeal for them.

“When I was studying at Juilliard in New York, this was the only Kentuckian’s music I ever heard at the school,” said Phelps, a Morgantown native. “I felt a special need to champion this music.

“And Thomas Merton is so intimately connected with Kentucky’s Catholic heritage,” she said. “This is the only song cycle he ever collaborated on with a composer.”

This spring, the recital will begin a national tour with a performance at Mission San José in California.

Phelps said Sts. Peter and Paul’s restored W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Theatre will be the perfect place for the show’s premiere. It is a large but intimate space with great acoustics and lighting, and a new grand piano. It is a hidden gem on the second floor of the school that serves students from throughout Central Kentucky.

The original school was built in 1913, on West Short Street between historic St. Paul Catholic Church and the Lexington Opera House. In a major commitment to downtown, the school has been more than doubled in size, with a new classroom addition and gymnasium, said Jeanne Miller, a school parent who helped to organize the project.

So far, the school project has attracted 550 donors, including the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, which helped to restore the theater. Alltech donated science labs, and the Knights of Columbus helped pay for the gymnasium.

The 1913 building was carefully restored to make it modern, while retaining its original architectural beauty. Sts. Peter and Paul reopened in August with 490 students in grades one through eight at the renovated Short Street campus and younger children at a school beside St. Peter Catholic Church on Barr Street.

As with the new gymnasium, now used by many Lexington youth teams, Sts. Peter and Paul wants the renovated theater to be well used. Children from nearby Harrison Elementary School and residents of Ashland Terrace retirement home have been brought in to see school performances. The school also is partnering with Lexington Children’s Theatre, its neighbor across Short Street, on a summer theater camp.

“This was such a community space in the early 1900s,” Miller said. “The goal is to recreate that today, to make it not just an asset for the school but for the entire community.”

  • If You Go

    Gallery Hop at Sts. Peter and Paul

    What: Catholic Schools Invitational Art Show

    When: 5-8 p.m. Friday

    Where: 423 W. Short St.

    ‘Written in the Stars’

    What: Recital of John Jacob Niles/Thomas Merton songs by Sherri Phelps and Rachel Taylor

    When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24

    Where: Sts. Peter and Paul School, Little Theatre, 423 W. Short St.

    Admission: $8 adults, $5 students

    More information: Stspeterandpaulschool.org

March Madness Band raising money for Texas trip

February 14, 2011

The MMMB is GTT.

After two years of entertaining crowds at just about every parade and festival in Lexington, the March Madness Marching Band is going to Texas.

The wacky ensemble has been invited to perform March 11-13 at Honk! TX, an annual festival in Austin that brings together 20 community bands from across the country.

“The people who organize Honk! had seen video of us, and they just emailed out of the blue and invited us to come,” said Lori Houlihan, the band’s founder and drum major.

There is a benefit show Feb. 19 at Buster’s Billiards & Backroom to raise money for the trip.  But there is no shortage of enthusiasm from the band’s approximately 70 members, who range in age from 14 to 75.

Lexington is famous for its top-notch high school marching bands, whose young members dazzle audiences with their musicianship and precision routines. “This is a whole different thing,” said Houlihan, who has a son in the Lafayette High School Band.

Instead of kids trying to act like adults, the March Madness Marching Band is about adults acting like kids – and enjoying every minute of it.

“It has given me a whole new lease on life,” said Sue McKaig. She proudly notes that, at age 65, she is the oldest of the “hoop girls” who march alongside the band doing choreographed routines with decorated Hula Hoops.

While a few band members are professional musicians, many had not picked up a horn since high school as they pursued careers as librarians, engineers, hairdressers and accountants.

Houlihan organized the band in 2008 for Lexington’s Christmas parade and the launch of Local First Lexington, an organization that encourages people to patronize locally owned businesses. When the band won the parade’s top prize, Houlihan and her recruits realized they had created something that resonated with both the community and band members.

“As soon as I walked in, I knew these were my people,” said Sarah Wylie VanMeter, who teaches visual arts technology at the University of Kentucky.

VanMeter, 31, grew up in Cynthiana, where she was in the Harrison County High School Band. When she moved back to Kentucky from San Francisco a few years ago, the March Madness Marching Band reminded her how much she missed playing the Sousaphone.

The next Christmas, her husband, Griffin, surprised her with one – a brass relic covered with dents that he found for sale on eBay.

“I’m just a band geek, and proud of it,” VanMeter said. “So here I am.”

The band’s most memorable performance so far may have been last April at the Creative Cities Summit. As attendees from across the country chatted at the opening reception in the Lexington Center’s ballroom lobby, the band suddenly burst through the doors playing full-tilt. Anyone who thought they had come to a sleepy horse town got a loud wake-up call.

Along with all of the positive attention the band has received, it also has heard from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which claims ownership of the words “March Madness.” The NCAA isn’t happy, but it has not taken legal action to force a name change.

The musical soul of this colorfully costumed band is Tripp Bratton, a percussionist who teaches music at Berea College. He arranges the band’s music, taking care to make parts fit the varying musical skills of the members.

“I try to play up our strengths and hide our weaknesses,” Bratton said after one of the group’s Sunday afternoon rehearsals at the Mecca Dance Studio on Chair Avenue, off South Broadway. “I aim for accessible craziness, creative madcap.”

In addition to parade tunes, the band performs choreographed theatrical numbers. For Austin, the band is working on a piece inspired by an episode of the TV comedy The Simpsons that riffed on the movie Planet of the Apes and David Bowie music. Or something like that. It is energetic and entertaining, with a heavy drum line.

Like the other bands performing at the Honk! TX festival, the March Madness Marching Band isn’t about musicianship and precision. It is about fun, community and the pleasure of performing. Oh, and not taking yourself too seriously.

If you go

What: March Madness Marching Band benefit show

When: Feb. 19, 8 p.m.

Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

Appearances by: March Madness Marching Band, Rebel Without A Cause, FUMA, Prefab Rehab, Gail Wynters, Rakadu Gypsy Dance, Sabi Diri, Hallwa, Chip Chop, Amalgamation Fire Nation, Holler Poets.

Cost: $15, ages 18 and older.

More information and tickets: M-M-M-B.com

Click on each thumbnail to view complete photo:

Here is a video about March Madness Marching Band made by the group’s “cruise director,” Jennifer Miller:

UK’s Porgy & Bess: great sets, even better music

January 29, 2011

I’ve never been to an opera before where I wanted to applaud for engineers almost as much as singers and musicians.

Friday was opening night for University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of the classic George and Ira Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The show was professional-level outstanding, as UK Opera’s productions usually are. The large, all-African American cast drew from UK’s students and faculty, as well as those from Kentucky State University in Frankfort. They were backed by UK’s terrific orchestra.

What makes this production unique, though, are high-tech stage sets developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. Brent Seales, the center’s director, worked with Atlanta-based set designer Richard Kagey to create something theaters have been trying to do for years: image-projection sets good enough to enhance a show rather than distract from it. Click here to read a column I recently wrote about the project.

After watching the opening-night show, I was pleased (and relieved) to see that the sets were as good as promised. After UK’s production ends, the sets will be rented by The Atlanta Opera, and other opera companies also are interested. More importantly, UK hopes to commercialize the technology for other applications in theater and beyond.

In the photo above, the cast took a bow Friday night. After the show, below, Kagey gave a backstage tour to show UK Opera supporters how the system works.  The video images shown in the last photo helped make for a realistic hurricane scene.

If You Go

‘Porgy and Bess’

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

UK collaboration creates high-tech ‘Porgy & Bess’

January 22, 2011

When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.

They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.

Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.

These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.

“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.

Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.

“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.

“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.

To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.

Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.

As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.

The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.

Three-year collaboration

McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.

But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”

McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.

“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.

McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.

McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.

After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.

UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.

“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.

While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.

“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.'”

  • If You Go

    ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera

    When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

It’s curtains for drama teacher and her team

January 16, 2011
A tearful Cindy Kewin is given flowers Sunday at the end of the last performance of her final production. Photo by Tom Eblen

A tearful Cindy Kewin is given flowers Sunday at the end of the last performance of her final production. Photo by Tom Eblen

You may remember a column I wrote earlier this month about Cindy Kewin, who was staging her last production after 27 years as the drama teacher at Lafayette High School in Lexington. She will retire in June. Also calling it quits are her production team for the past 20 years: musical director Debby Owen and choreographer Luanne Franklin.

The last performance of their last musical, Bye Bye Birdie, was Sunday afternoon. Their productions have developed a reputation for exceptional quality over the years, and this one certainly lived up to the standard. Bravo!

Cindy Kewin, left, Debby Owen, center, and Luanne Franklin join students to sing a few bars of a number toward the end of their last show Sunday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cindy Kewin, left, Debby Owen, center, and Luanne Franklin join students to sing a few bars Sunday near the end of their last show. Photo by Tom Eblen

It’s ‘Bye Bye’ for Lafayette drama teacher and team

January 7, 2011

Lafayette High School drama students this month will present the musical Bye Bye Birdie. But it just as easily could be called Bye Bye Cindy, Debby and Luanne.

That is because this will be the last show for Cindy McLendon Kewin, a Lafayette alumna who retires in June after 27 years as the school’s drama teacher.

Also leaving the stage will be her close friends, musical director Debby Owen and choreographer Luanne Franklin. Since 1991, they have helped Kewin produce shows several notches above typical high school musicals.

“I have season tickets to Broadway in Chicago, but some of Cindy’s productions rival the big-time productions,” said Diane Massie, a Lafayette classmate of Kewin who now works as an advertising executive in Chicago.

Massie is coming home for this last show, and so are many others. More than 40 of Kewin’s former students will appear in one Bye Bye Birdie number. Three will sing, and Franklin, who owns a dance school in Paris, will dance.

“I can’t believe Mrs. K is retiring,” said Brance Cornelius, a former student who lives in New York and has been a professional stage actor for a decade.

He and others describe Kewin as having the special magic that makes a teacher great. Strict but approachable, she can be both a taskmaster and a friend. She sets high standards and motivates students to achieve them.

“She expects the best of her casts, and because it is obvious how much she cares about the shows, her casts deliver their best,” Cornelius said. “Debby is still one of the best musical directors I have had to this date, and Luanne can make any non-dancer look like Gene Kelly or Vera-Ellen.”

Kewin caught the theater bug as a Lafayette student under drama teachers Thelma Beeler, who was there 29 years, and Bob Gardner. Kewin’s first acting role was in a Beeler production of Bye Bye Birdie.

I must admit to having some inside knowledge: Kewin was a year ahead of me at Lafayette. She was editor of the school newspaper the year before I was, but I always knew that drama was her first love, especially after I watched her act in a production of Lil’ Abner — while holding a live pig.

After graduating from Asbury College, Kewin knew she wanted to be a high school drama teacher. When Gardner changed jobs in 1983, Kewin begged the principal, Dwight Price, to let her succeed Gardner. Her first show was Bye Bye Birdie.

“I get teased at Lafayette reunions,” she said, “because I never really left.”

Excellence was always her goal, Kewin said, but it became easier to achieve after she recruited Franklin and Owen, whose children were in her shows. Franklin’s daughter Lyndy eventually made it to Broadway as assistant dance captain and the understudy for several roles in A Chorus Line.

“That first year, we realized there was a chemistry among us,” said Franklin, a Lafayette alumna who also studied under Beeler. “Cindy has always been generous to give us a lot of creative license. We just play off each other, there is so much mutual respect.”

In addition to their own friendships, they value those they have made with students. “We build very special relationships with these kids,” Franklin said. “The learning is more than just music and dance and acting.”

After staging 23 shows together, they have many favorites — Footloose, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Hello Dolly! among them. The 2003 production of Honk! was special because their students performed it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

And then there was The Sound of Music. In the final scene, the student actors climbed a re-creation of the Alps on stage. Kewin’s husband, Kevin, helped build all of the shows’ sets.

“This has kind of kept us young,” Owen said of the 20-year collaboration. “Next year, we won’t know what to do with ourselves.”

Kewin’s successor hasn’t been named, but she hopes it will be Katie Franklin (no relation to Luanne). The 24-year-old Lafayette English teacher is Kewin’s assistant for Bye Bye Birdie and will direct the senior variety show in the spring.

“I hope I’ll be able to live up to her standard,” Katie Franklin said as I talked with them after a rehearsal last month in Lafayette’s darkened Beeler Auditorium.

“You had better,” Kewin told her with a smile, “or I’ll kick your butt.”


‘Bye Bye Birdie’

When: 7 p.m., Jan 13-15, 2 p.m. Jan. 16

Where: Beeler Auditorium, Lafayette High School, 400 Reed Lane

Tickets: $12 reserved, $10 at door

Ticket information: (859) 489-8572

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

2010: My Year in Pictures

January 2, 2011

As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.

Wrapping up the old year, preparing for the new

December 30, 2010

I have been using some of my 2010 use-it-or-lose-it vacation time during the past couple of weeks, so I haven’t been in the paper much.

But I got up early this morning to be the guest of Mick Jeffries (above) on his Trivial Thursdays show on WRFL.

For those of you unfamiliar with WRFL, that’s Radio Free Lexington, 88.1 on the FM dial, the University of Kentucky’s eclectic, student-run radio station. (WRFL broadcasts from the basement of the Student Center in  space formerly occupied by the University Bookstore, where my father was the manager for many years. This is a small town.)

And for those of you not familiar with Mick — photographer, writer, graphic artist, disc jockey, trivia buff and all-around good guy — I always refer to him as Lexington’s unofficial Commissioner of Fun. That’s because whenever I run across something fun happening in Lexington, he’s usually in the middle of it.

This morning, from 7 to 9, Mick played an assortment of music while we talked about trivia associated with Dec. 30, how 2010 played out in Lexington, local culture and happenings and whatever else struck our fancy. If you have two hours to kill, you can download the podcast here.

I will be back in the paper, and online, this weekend. I’ll have a year-in-review slide show of my favorite photographs from 2010, as well as an interview with the new mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer. He talks about how he and the new mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, need to get Louisville and Lexington to work together more for the benefit of Kentucky’s economy. I’ll also have a blog post from Sunday afternoon’s inaugural ceremonies for Gray and the new Urban County Council members.

I hope you are thinking of your New Year’s resolutions. One of mine is to write more on this blog than my three or so newspaper columns each week. See you in 2011!

Goodbye Kodachrome, and thanks for the memories

December 7, 2010

The roll of Kodachrome had been in my desk for so long, I had forgotten what pictures I took with it, or when. The yellow-and-red cylinder became a symbol of mystery and procrastination.

I knew I needed to have that slide film developed, especially after Eastman Kodak announced in June 2009 that it would stop making Kodachrome because almost everyone now uses digital cameras.

Then I heard that the last Kodachrome lab in America — Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan. — would stop processing it at the end of this year. If I wanted to relieve my guilt and solve this mystery, it was now or never.

What were these pictures? They must have been important; otherwise, I would have used a lesser, cheaper film.

When Kodachrome was introduced in the 1930s, it was the first widely available color film. It remained the gold standard for decades. “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!” Paul Simon begged in his 1973 hit song, which praised the film’s qualities:

You give us those nice bright colors.

You give us the greens of summers.

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.

By the 1970s, though, Kodak’s Ektachrome was almost as good, required less light and was cheaper and easier to process. Many professionals switched to Fujichrome Velvia in the 1990s. Color print film got better and better. But until advances in digital photography made 35mm film all but obsolete, many photographers still reached for Kodachrome.

I took Kodachrome on my first trip to London in 1992, where I made a picture of a Horse Guard so crisp you could count the stray strands of horse hair on his helmet. When I covered the 1994 Olympics, Kodak was a sponsor, so there was plenty of Kodachrome. It was perfect for capturing Norway’s breathtaking winter beauty.

Some photographers are nostalgic about film. Not me. I love digital photography: It is easier, cheaper, more versatile, makes better pictures with less light and is instantaneous. I would never want to go back to film.

As a roving reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s, I liked shooting photographs to accompany my stories, but it was a pain. I didn’t have a darkroom, so all I could do was put exposed film on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and hope for the best.

Photojournalism was then done mostly in black and white. Even when I shot color, it was rarely Kodachrome. It was too fussy. Kodachrome required abundant daylight, precise exposure and special processing. If the film was not kept cool and developed promptly, the color quality suffered.

I saw that firsthand when Dwayne’s sent back my Kodachrome, which, it turns out, I had shot in early 1998, just before moving back to Lexington from Atlanta. The pictures were faded, which seemed appropriate given how much had changed in those dozen years.

There were several pictures from my older daughter Mollie’s 16th birthday party. She is now 28 and married, as are several of the giggly girlfriends who were with her that day.

Most of the pictures were from a going-away party my boss gave for me at her cabin in the north Georgia mountains. I had many good friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they and their now-grown children came to send me home in style.

The digital revolution that made Kodachrome obsolete also radically changed the newspaper and advertising businesses. The Journal-Constitution has been hit especially hard. Its newsroom now has fewer than half the 500 journalists who were there when I left.

As I looked at my faded party pictures, I counted the friends who have since retired, taken buyouts or moved on to other careers. Like my Kodachrome, today’s Journal-Constitution is a pale reflection of what it was then. But times change, and we must change with them.

Thinking about those days prompted me to search for more memories. In one box of old photographs, I found several unprocessed rolls of less-fussy black-and-white film. At least I had taken the time to label most of them.

Some were pictures for newspaper stories I wrote in the 1980s. Somehow, they never made it to the bus station. Two rolls were labeled “Shannon 1987” — the year my younger daughter, now 23, was born.

I must get them developed. One of these days.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Lexington tourism officials look beyond WEG

November 15, 2010

The people who market tourism and conventions for Lexington think the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will be a gift that keeps on giving. But here’s the challenge: How do we take advantage of the many lessons learned from the Games?

David Lord, who will retire March 31 after 17 years as president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been thinking a lot about that. His biggest lesson from WEG was the value of having shared community goals — and a firm deadline for accomplishing them.

“Can we embrace that, so the next time we’re looking at something like a new farmers market location it doesn’t take 20 years?” Lord said. “When it comes to something we’re excited about like the Distillery District, does it have to take another 20 years?”

The Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street is slowly turning long-abandoned distilleries and run-down industrial buildings into nightclubs and arts and entertainment venues. Lord, who studies these things, thinks the Distillery District has huge potential because it reflects Lexington’s unique heritage and culture — and because it isn’t so much designed for tourists as for local people.

When such places become popular with locals, tourists like them better than artificial “tourist districts” because they are authentic. The same thing applies to impromptu restaurant districts popping up downtown, such as Cheapside and Jefferson Street.

“I love watching what is happening on Jefferson Street, which is not a planned development,” Lord said. “The synergy of those little places playing off each other is wonderful.”

Lord said Lexington should consider what other quality-of-life improvements could have similar “crossover” potential for locals and tourists alike. Those could include more events and festivals, such as the successful Spotlight Lexington concerts downtown during the Games. They also could include more passive recreation facilities like the Legacy and Town Branch trails.

Lexington could also do more to promote and develop the assets it already has, Lord said. Those include such things as the Woodsongs and Red Barn Radio shows staged downtown weekly. Or things as simple as Central Kentucky’s network of scenic country roads, which are becoming increasingly popular with cyclists who travel from all over the country to ride them.

That kind of thinking is important because tourism and conventions are big business. State officials estimated they were worth $1.66 billion in economic impact for Fayette County and $2.4 billion for the Bluegrass region in 2009.

Lord and his colleagues also have a few other ideas about how Lexington can build on the priceless international exposure and momentum from the Games:

Make Lexington more beautiful: Tourists may come primarily for horses, bourbon, history and the scenic beauty of our countryside, but when convention planners look at Lexington, “the look of downtown becomes the primary decision-making factor,” said Dennis Johnston, who oversees convention sales for the bureau. “The downtown streetscape project we just finished is huge, but it’s only a start.”

Continue to improve the look of downtown: This involves a lot of big issues, from better architecture to historic preservation to public art. It also includes small things, from the artistic quality of temporary banners to cleaning up litter, an issue recently taken on by the new Keep Lexington Beautiful Commission.

Create more public-private partnerships: These are for everything from improving downtown to staging big events like WEG. “If we didn’t have a strategic alliance with Alltech, the state would be having a lot of bake sales to pay off the Games,” Lord said.

Capitalize on the $30 million worth of Games-related improvements at the Kentucky Horse Park: This can attract more and bigger equestrian events. The park has huge potential as an economic engine for the region.

Capitalize more on the horse industry and the ways it is changing: The Thoroughbred racing business is struggling, but the Horse Park and Lexington are well-positioned with the growing popularity of other equestrian sports.

“That could be a saving grace 20 years from now,” Lord said. “And maybe one of these days there will be a place where (a visitor) can actually ride a horse.”

The Chieftains & friends boost Haiti aid effort

October 5, 2010

Pearse Lyons was a busy man when the earthquake shook Haiti in January; he was running a global biotechnology company and getting ready to host the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

But Lyons was shaken, too. After flying down to see the devastation for himself, the founder and president of Nicholasville-based Alltech decided the best thing he could do for Haiti was to create jobs to help the long-impoverished nation build a sustainable future.

The company started a Haitian fair-trade coffee business, adopted a school and worked with the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program to create a children’s choir, bringing 24 children up to sing at the Games.

If there was any doubt that Alltech’s Haitian Harmony project has taken on a life of its own, you just had to be at UK’s Singletary Center on Tuesday night when the world-famous Irish band The Chieftains and their musical friends from Ireland, Lexington, Nashville, New York and Canada joined with the singing Haitian children for a benefit concert that rocked the house.

“When you get an invitation like this, you can’t refuse,” said Paddy Moloney, who has led The Chieftains for nearly a half-century. “This was our way to help. The thing hasn’t gone away; (Haiti’s) just as bad as ever.

“It’s a pity we didn’t have another day to rehearse so we could have done some Haitian music,” Moloney said, adding with a wink: “But it was a hell of a show.”

Lyons said Moloney and friends agreed to donate their services after Shane Ryan, who owns Lexington’s Castleton Lyons farm and Europe’s biggest discount airline, Ryanair, agreed to fly The Chieftains over from Ireland on a private jet. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who performed at the Games’ opening ceremonies, returned from a gig in Florida to join the benefit.

“We had a meeting of the Irish minds,” Lyons said, adding that his brothers John and Lorcan helped with the arrangements. The Chieftains got to see the Games’ cross-country competition Saturday before a private dinner downtown with Ireland’s equestrian team.

“The hospitality has been just amazing,” Moloney said.

The concert raised more than $53,000 from donations and sales of tickets and Haitian coffee, but Lyons said the most important thing was raising awareness of the project.

The children’s choir returns to Haiti on Thursday, and Lyons and UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey have been thinking the same thing many others have: How will these children ever be able to cope back home after having such an amazing trip?

“I have a personal responsibility for these 24 children,” Lyons said. “There’s an outpouring of compassion for these children, but at the end of it we have to give them a future. They will have an education. We will follow through.”

There is talk of scholarship funds for them and others, of a traveling choir and ways to expand the concept to other Haitian schools, but nothing has been decided. With this concert and others, Lyons hopes to have recruited lots of help.

“The audience was really with us,” Lyons said, “and that was the important thing.”

Equestrian Games’ opening day is a hit

September 26, 2010

Note: Because of newspaper deadlines, this column was filed Saturday night before Opening Ceremonies began. For a full report on that, click on these links for stories by Rich Copley and Linda Blackford. Click here for a photo gallery.

The first day of WEG was a WOW.

That seemed to be the consensus among locals, visitors, athletes and officials at Saturday’s opening of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

The weather was perfect. The crowd was large, but never uncomfortably so. The facilities were beautiful, the pavilions were impressive, the events ran smoothly, the glitches were minor and everybody seemed to be having a good time.

I took the LexTran shuttle to avoid traffic. It was a quick and easy ride from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park where there was … no traffic. In fact, Iron Works Pike was so clear I couldn’t believe how many people I saw in the park.

Even for those who didn’t attend the reining competition, the only event Saturday, there was plenty to see and do. The Horse Park has been transformed into a horse-themed world’s fair, with exhibits and horsemanship demonstrations at the Equine Village, more than 300 vendor booths and pavilions and the impressive Kentucky Experience and Alltech Experience complexes.

“It has exceeded my expectations, even though I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Doran Bradford of Lexington, who was there with his wife, Anne, and their two young sons. “We’re having a good time.”

A Chinese vaulting competitor sat beside the Bradfords at lunch and told them all about her sport. “That was really neat,” he said. “I’ll probably be more interested in these sports now after coming out here.”

The Kentucky Horse Park drew rave reviews from some international equestrians. Having all of the venues in one place is an advantage over previous Games, although they noted the park’s size makes it a challenge to navigate.

“It’s a fabulous facility, but it’s huge,” said Francesca Sternberg, a reining rider from Great Britain who will be competing Sunday but spent Saturday taking her children around the trade fair. “The show grounds are outstanding. They’ve done an impressive job.”

Many international teams had golf carts and bicycles to help them get around. For spectators, though, the Games mean a lot of walking — and dodging golf carts and bicycles. (Some shuttles are available for elderly and disabled visitors, but you can’t bring a bicycle into the park.)

“It’s a fantastic place, and the people are so nice — friendly and helpful,” said Jenny Champion, who had hoped to be on the New Zealand endurance team but ended up coming as a spectator. “The park is so big you need a map.”

But Eduardo Tame, a Mexico team official and tour operator, complained that the prices he had to pay for buses, hotels and other necessities for the 120 people he brought to the Games were outrageous.

“I have been to every Equestrian Games and Olympics, and this is the most expensive of all of them,” he said. “I’m really surprised with these prices.”

Spectators complained a little about food prices but noted the food was quite good and prices weren’t out of line with other special events. The main food tent, staffed by Rotary Club volunteers from across the country, had so many food and checkout stations that there was rarely a line.

“I’m genuinely delighted to see everyone’s hard work coming together,” said Alltech President Pearse Lyons, the driving force behind the Games, who spent the day greeting visitors at the 4-acre Alltech Experience.

“This has all been in my head so many years it’s nice to see it happen,” added his wife, Deirdre, who designed much of the Alltech Experience.

The Kentucky Experience pavilion also was a big hit, as much with Kentuckians as with those from elsewhere. Visitors could hear bluegrass music, see exhibits about all parts of the state, sample Kentucky’s “unbridled spirits” — bourbon and wine — and sit behind the wheel of a Corvette.

“People keep asking, ‘Can I have it?'” said Coni Sheppard, who was watching over the Bowling Green-made sports car. “I tell them that, for $75,000, I’m sure they can fix you up.”

“These Games are going to be wonderful for this state,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, who toured the pavilion after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and joined Beam Global Spirits CEO Matt Shattock in dipping souvenir Maker’s Mark bottles in red wax.

“What fun!” Roger Leasor, the president of Liquor Barn, said as he wandered the trade fair. “I’ve always liked being in places where you hear a lot of languages and accents, and now you can do it in Lexington — at least for the next 16 days.”

Sixteen things to do during the 16 days of WEG

September 22, 2010

The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games promise to be much more than the Olympics on horseback. Get ready for an international festival and non-stop party in our backyard.

So, here are 16 things you should do during the 16 days of the Games:

1. Watch the opening ceremonies

The Games officially begin Saturday evening in the main stadium with a 2 ½ -hour show that has 40 acts and a cast of 1,500 people and 200 horses. If you don’t have tickets, WLEX-TV will have live coverage at 7 p.m. Headliners include Muhammad Ali and Wynonna Judd; opera stars Denyce Graves, Cynthia Lawrence and Ronan Tynan and an ensemble from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Plus a 100-piece orchestra debuting British composer Jamie Burton’s “World Equestrian Games Fanfare.”

2. See the best of something familiar

The reliable crowd-pleasers of equestrian sports are jumping and cross-country riding, as Kentuckians who attend the annual Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event already know. Those events and the 100-mile endurance race should draw big attendance to the Games on the first two weekends.

3. Try something new

Want to see horses and humans do things they don’t even dream about at Keeneland? Buy tickets to vaulting, which is human gymnastics and dance on the back of a moving horse. Or reining, where riders in Western gear guide horses through spins, circles and sliding stops.

4. See para-dressage

This is the first time human athletes with physical disabilities have competed in a World Games. Cheer them on; you may be amazed by what they and their horses can do.

5. Learn more about horses

The Equine Village showcases the variety and complexity of American horse culture. There will be exhibits, performances and demonstrations involving every kind of horse you can imagine, and many you can’t. This is likely to be one of the Games’ most popular venues.

6. Have the Kentucky Experience

Much of the Kentucky Horse Park’s grounds has been turned into an international festival, and the Kentucky Experience pavilion gives visitors a glimpse of the state’s highlights. You can dip a Maker’s Mark bottle in red wax, sit behind the wheel of a Corvette, listen to all kinds of local music and learn things about this state you probably didn’t know.

7. Have the Alltech Experience

The Games’ title sponsor, which does nothing in a small way, has a four-acre pavilion showcasing its products and global initiatives, which include trying to solve hunger, climate change and disease. After seeing the science exhibits, enjoy Alltech’s Bourbon Barrel Ale or Dippin’ Dots ice cream. There is a special kids’ area that includes penguins and petting sharks from the Newport Aquarium.

8. Eat, but not like a horse

There will be much good eating at the Games, from gourmet dinners cooked by celebrity chefs to special concession-stand fare. The Games are being catered by Patina Restaurant Group, which operates many high-profile venues around the country. “We’ve been sampling some of the concession food and it’s off-the-charts,” Games CEO Jamie Link said this week.

9. Shop non-stop

The Games’ trade show will have more than 300 merchants, selling everything from sportswear, jewelry and art to that custom-made saddle you have always wanted.

10. See the unexpected

Many sponsors and vendors have set up cool exhibits to showcase what they do. Among them: the UK solar house, which was displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Rood & Riddle pavilion, which showcases the high-tech Lexington horse hospital and will have speakers including Hall of Fame jockeys Pat Day and Chris McCarron.

11. Enjoy the Alltech Fortnight Festival

This statewide concert series during the Games is jam-packed with talent: Loretta Lynn, Charlie Daniels, Tony Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and many more. The Chieftains will perform a benefit concert with a Haitian children’s choir.

12. Take in the Spotlight Festival

Downtown Lexington will be rocking from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day during the Games with food, arts and crafts vendors and concerts at Cheapside and Courthouse Plaza. Entertainers include bluegrass legends J.D. Crowe and Sam Bush.

13. See horse art

Horse Mania was just the beginning. Equine art of every variety is on display around town, most notably at the horse park’s International Museum of the Horse, the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum.

14. Check out alternatives

HRTV is presenting its own International Equestrian Festival, with exhibits, vendors and speakers at Lexington Center. And a few miles up I-75 from the horse park is the Georgetown Equine Expo.

15. Soak up color

Spend some time just walking around the horse park or downtown and taking in the scene. Introduce yourself to visitors and ask them what they think of Kentucky.

16. Say farewell

Singer Lyle Lovett will headline the Games’ closing ceremonies on Oct. 10. Although less elaborate than opening ceremonies, it should be another good show. By then, we’ll all be exhausted — but at least a little sorry to see the non-stop party end.

Equestrian Games reach the home stretch

June 21, 2010

After years of talk and preparation, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games begin in only 96 days. Are we ready?

The short answer is no, but we seem to be getting there.

With revenue below projections, Games organizers are scrambling to sell more tickets, get creative with sponsorships and trim operating costs.

As part of a major ticket-sales push, title sponsor Alltech has created a toll-free line — 1-888-934-2010 — where people can get ticket information from Alltech employees, who know more about the Games than the average Ticketmaster operator.

Alltech President Pearse Lyons recently launched the Commonwealth Club, which offers perks to people, companies and groups that buy at least $10,000 worth of tickets. They will get special-access credentials, straw hats and hospitality in a VIP area at Alltech’s pavilion.

John Long, chairman of the Games and CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said tickets to event finals are selling well and should sell out before the Games. But sales aren’t so hot for many preliminary competitions. Long said additional ticket options and packages will be announced during the next two weeks.

“I want to be able to look out and see not one seat empty,” Long said Thursday as festivities were beginning at Cheapside Park to mark 100 days to go. “We’re looking for ways to sell every single ticket.” Failing that, organizers plan to build fewer temporary seats at some venues.

Games tickets aren’t cheap. They might be an especially hard sell to average Kentuckians who know little or nothing about such equestrian sports as reining, vaulting and dressage. This isn’t basketball or Thoroughbred racing, after all.

Figuring out a way to get more local, paying customers into the stands might be the Games’ biggest challenge. But organizers stress that the atmosphere at the Kentucky Horse Park will be more like an international festival than a horse show.

For those just wanting to take in the scene without having seats to an event, daily grounds passes are on sale for $25 — free for children 12 and younger when accompanied by an adult.

The economy has made it harder to attract sponsors, Long said. For example, who would have thought three years ago that the Games couldn’t attract an automobile company sponsorship? Still, Long insists, 90 percent of the sponsorship budget has been met.

Part of the problem with ticket sales, Long says, is that people are waiting until the last minute. He also says European sales will pick up after World Cup soccer is over. We’ll see.

City officials are scurrying to finish street repairs and new sidewalks to handle the people expected to flock downtown to dine, drink and attend Spotlight Lexington events at venues such as Cheapside, Triangle Park and Courthouse Plaza.

Since the completion of the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion, Cheapside has become the place to be downtown. The Thursday Night Live event put on by Downtown Lexington Corp. and Central Bank is drawing several thousand people each week — three or four times the crowds of previous summers.

In addition to the Spotlight festival, Alltech last week announced some big-name talent that will be joining regional performers at its Fortnight Festival during the Games. They include the Vienna Philharmonic, Little Feat, Tony Bennett, The Temptations, Chubby Checker, Marvin Hamlisch, the Beach Boys and Charlie Daniels.

I have never been to a World Equestrian Games, but I have covered the Winter and Summer Olympics and two World’s Fairs. There is always a lot of scrambling in the final weeks to make everything work, but it usually does.

I don’t think most people here have a sense yet of just how big a deal these Games will be. International events like this always seem to have a transformative effect on the place they are held. That’s hard to appreciate until long after the event has come and gone.

“In the end,” Long said. “I think Lexington and Kentucky will emerge from this with a sense of confidence that we were on the world stage for 16 days and we pulled it off.”