Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Oh, the Places We [Would Like to] Go!

 Written July 202

We both enjoy watching live performances.  Plays, concerts, talks events with real, three-dimensional people doing their unrecorded thing in front of other sentient beings. And these shows are even better in venues whose architecture, interior design and history compete for your attention with the presentation itself ­ – or at least give you something to look at and talk about before showtime and during intermission.  On the east coast New York’s Carnegie Hall and Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial are such places.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie built his eponymous Hall at the request of his new wife, Louise Whitfield – a singer with the Oratorio Society of New York. The building was architected by William Burnet Tuthill who had never before designed a concert hall. And is made up of three structures arranged in an "L" shape: an eight story rectangular building, a sixteen-story eastern wing and a thirteen-story southern wing – each with its own auditorium. Total seating is 3,671. Tuthill chose the style from the Italian Renaissance – adding the elegance of the Victorian age. The interior contains a marble foyer with great slanting arches in the ceiling and doors, plus corner columns with intricate carvings. The brick exterior gives the building a reddish hue. At the cornerstone laying in 1891 Carnegie presciently proclaimed, “it is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country.”

The Bushnell was built in Connecticut’s capital city in 1930 by Dotha Bushnell Hillyer as a "living memorial" to her father, the Reverend Dr. Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) – minister, theologian, philosopher and civic leader, and as "a gift to the people of Connecticut." In a fortuitous piece of market timing Dotha sold her stock in December of 1928 in order to begin construction in 1929. Designed by the same architects who did New York's Radio City Music Hall the 2,800 seat Mortensen Hall has a Georgian Revival exterior and rich Art Deco interior.

An 187-by-40-foot hand-executed oil painting is suspended from the roof by numerous metal supports – the largest ceiling mural in the U.S. The work of Barry Faulkner of New York City, it was painted in panels, and took five months to complete, including three months to trace out the design. When it opened the Bushnell Auditorium was heralded as a "beacon of hope," in the midst of the Depression.

For school children bused in for forced culture (as we both were) the seemingly enormous edifice engendered a sense of awe, and a feeling that whatever was happening on the stage was massively important, even if we did not understand what, how or why.

Of the two of us only Jim has gotten to Carnegie Hall* – but not by practicing. And our cultural tastes as adults did not bring us to the Bushnell that often – the smaller, more intimate Hartford Stage Company and the performances therein were more our style. Nonetheless, we appreciated the beauty and importance of these structures. So in our new hometown of Santa Fe we look for likewise historically and culturally significant examples of auditorium architecture – along with something entertaining to watch within them.

Probably the best known of which is Santa Fe Opera – in a more normal summer a destination for tens of thousands of music aficionados, as well as fans of the physical building itself. TIME magazine called the complex “one of the handsomest operatic settings in the Western Hemisphere.” And Washington Post dubbed it a “shining white cloud in the red hills.”

SFO was founded in 1956 by New York based conductor John O. Crosby on a seventy-six acre piece of real estate located on a mesa seven miles north of the Santa Fe. (“The best view in town,”according to our realtor.) At the time the property contained a guest ranch whose visitors included musical luminaries such as Fritz Reiner and the married duo of soprano Lily Pons and conductor André Kostelanetz. Its previous incarnations included pinto bean plantation, mink ranch, and pig farm. The grounds have since grown to 150 acres.

In addition to the acquisition of the land, and the construction of the first concert hall, Crosby served as General Director until 2000, as well as the first principal conductor. Its initial season began July 3, 1957 with Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

There have been three theaters – each located on the same site with the audience facing west toward a horizon of sunsets and thunderstorms visible throughout many productions when no backdrops are used. It seats 2,128 plus 106 standees. The roof structure consists of front and rear portions supported by cables and joined together with a clerestory window – providing protection from the sky, but with the sides remaining open to the elements. Not complete shelter however as we observed at a concert by Rene Fleming in August, 2019 – one of five performances we have seen there, as well as one visit each for an open-to-the-public backstage tour, and a costume and prop shop sale.

If Santa Fe Opera marks the beginning of the city’s modern artistic identity, Saint Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art is the centerpiece of the state’s emergence as a world class art market.

In 1912 Santa Fe declared itself the “City Different” and embarked on a campaign to become THE premier southwest arts and local culture tourist destination. Five years later NM Museum of Art opened on the northeast corner of Santa Fe Plaza – the first building in the state dedicated to the various forms of creative activity, with galleries, reception areas and a theatre made specifically to promote the state's rich heritage to visitors and locals alike.

Drawing inspiration from the churches that were built in New Mexico when Santa Fe was the capital of the colony of New Spain, and using modern construction materials, architects Isaac Hamilton and William Morris Rapp designed the structure – a blend of Pueblo Revival architecture with Native American and Spanish Colonial design styles – as a larger version of the New Mexico Building (“the Cathedral of the Desert”) they had made for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego .

The auditorium seats 450 in its wooden church-like pews under rough-beam vigas protruding from irregular walls decorated with a series of murals depicting Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Santa Fe. Events we have seen there include the public lectures presented by El Ranch de las Golondrinas (our volunteer gig), concerts by the Santa Fe Community Orchestra, and the annual Gustave Baumann Marionette Christmas Show.

We have however attended only one function at the city’s other noted downtown performance venue, the Lensic Theater – and oddly enough that was an opera, albeit on big screen HDTV.

According to its website, “built in 1931, The Lensic is more than a theater to the people of Santa Fe. For most of the 20th century, The Lensic was a place for a first kiss in the balcony, a grand silver screen in the midst of the Depression, a vaudeville venue where the community could see the singers, actors, dancers, and comedians of the day..a place where magic happened,” all thanks to Syrian immigrant Nathan Salmon. 

Born Na’aman Soleiman in July 1866, Salmon migrated to New York at age twenty-one. For three years he traveled the roads of southern Colorado and the Southwest, selling goods from a wagon until a snowstorm stranded him in Santa Fe with with just twenty-five cents to his name. After pawning his watch to wire a friend for a loan, he resumed business as a “cart peddler” with enough success to purchase a dry goods store in town on San Francisco Street.

With further prosperity he bought property throughout Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In spite of the Great Depression, he announced on March 27, 1930, plans for a “Spanish-style” theater just up the street from his first brick and mortar business – with the latest projection and sound equipment offering live performances and “talkies” to Santa Fe’s 11,000 residents. “I made all my money here and I wanted to give the people something to show my appreciation,” he explained.

Salmon hired one of the best theater designers of the day, Boller Brothers of Los Angeles and Kansas City, to construct what he labeled the “wonder theater of the southwest.”

Ground was broken in September, 1930, and Salmon offered a $25 prize for an appropriate name for the new theater – Spanish preferably, or, if not, one incorporating the initials of his six grandchildren. The winning combination came from Mrs. P. J. Smithwick, whose acronym “Lensic” not only combined the desired initials (for Lila, Elias John, Nathan, Sara, Mary Irene, and Charles,) but also suggested the “lens” of a movie projector and the scenic splendor of the theater’s interior.

The movie house opened June 24, 1931 with a marquee that changed four times a week – three shows daily with ticket prices from twenty-five to seventy-five cents. But as the city and country grew, other entertainment options became available. And the evolving technical requirements of 20th century performances soon outstripped the capabilities of the old Lensic. In the 1990s, while managed by United Artists, the theater stopped hosting live events, and in 1999 it closed its doors altogether.

Four years prior to the Lensic’s birth, down the road in Albuquerque, the KiMo Theatre was opened by Italian immigrant Oreste Bachechi, another highly motivated entrepreneur from humble origins, whose businesses grew from a tent near the railroad tracks, to a liquor dealership, grocery store and Bachechi Amusement Association, which operated the Pastime Movie Theater (demolished and now the site of the State theater.) In 1925, Oreste decided to achieve his true dream – building his own stage and screen theatre with a unique look that fused the spirit of Native American cultures with the sleek stylized geometric forms and man-made materials in vogue at the time. He dubbed the resulting architectural style “Pueblo Deco.” Like Salmon, Bachechi also called upon Boller Brothers to implement the project. The name “KiMo” is a combination of two Indian words literally meaning “mountain lion” but more liberally interpreted as “king of its kind.” Like its Santa Fe cousin the KiMo fell on hard times and had to be saved from the wrecking ball by the city of Albuquerque in the 1970s.

Back in Santa Fe the Lensic was reborn under the leadership of Bill and Nancy Zeckendorf, members of a distinguished New York real estate family, who moved to here in the 1980s. Working with local performing arts groups, the city government, individuals, and business leaders, they raised over $9 million and incorporated the theater as a nonprofit.

The Lensic is now home to more than 200 events annually, including original presentations, education and outreach events, and a host of other concerts and events featuring acts from close to home and around the world. Among them “The Met: Live in HD,” whose November 23, 2019 broadcast of Akhnaten by Philip Glass brought us to the venerable pseudo-Moorish, Spanish Renaissance 821-seat venue for our only visit thus far. But the world will reopen, and we will return.

Just as we will go back to the Santa Fe Playhouse, which we originally sought out in hopes of replacing the Hartford Stage Company void in our lives. “Santa Fe is a music town, not a theater town,” we were told by several people, most memorably at a Santa Fe Opera pre-performance talk for “The Thirteenth Child” – a show we went to see solely because its director, Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak had been the artistic director of Hartford Stage from 2011 to 2019.

Santa Fe Playhouse, “the oldest continuously producing theater west of the Mississippi,” was founded in 1919 by Mary Austin (1868-1934) – well-known social activist, prolific novelist, poet, critic, playwright, and essayist. In 1918, she was drawn to Santa Fe by the town’s growing reputation as a center for artists, writers, and intellectuals, along with her confidant Mabel Dodge Lujan, who later settled in Taos. Austin’s home in Santa Fe, Casa Querida (“Dear House”) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “contributing building” in the Camino del Monte Sol Historic District in the southeast corner of Santa Fe, south of the Santa Fe River.  From 1912 to WWII the area was home to a nationally known colony of artists, many of whom (like Mary Austin) built their own Pueblo Revival adobe houses. Helen Hunt starred in a 1989 adaptation of Austin’s essay collection, “The Land of Little Rain,” for the PBS American Playhouse series.

In 1919 Austin started a small acting company called The Santa Fe Players, “to celebrate and preserve the rich texture of the unique culture of Santa Fe through live theater.” In their first year they presented three plays on February 14, and three others on May 13 at the newly constructed St. Francis Auditorium – whose architect, John Gaw Meem was an actor in at least one of them. Three years later the group incorporated and performed in various temporary venues around town, such as tents at the rodeo grounds, and under makeshift shelters on the Plaza.

Then in 1964 they renovated an old livery stable in the historic Barrio de Analco – the second oldest district of European origin in Santa Fe after the Plaza – making it into a permanent theater space which they renamed “The Santa Fe Little Theatre.” The first placard was hung over the door in 1983 to establish what became, and continues to be, the “Santa Fe Playhouse.” “Carrying on the tradition of our progressive founders, the Playhouse produces exciting plays each year including contemporary, classic, and eclectic theater,” among them the annual production of “Benchwarmers” – eight original ten-minute plays written, directed, and acted by local Santa Fe artists. With only one prop – a park bench.

Casts sometimes include Actors Equity members – but also former New York and Hollywood stage and screen professionals, as well as graduates of the now-defunct Santa Fe College of Art & Design. The setting is intimate, e.g. the two lighting and sound people work their way through the entry line of theatergoers in the lobby to climb up a wall-attached metal ladder to their overhead work area. And the audiences are much, much smaller than at Hartford Stage – you literally can count the number of seats while waiting for the show to begin. Which does give you something to talk about – since the design and architecture is basically non-existent compared to that of the other venues discussed herein.

But live plays performed before small audiences, at a former livery stable, in perhaps the second oldest European community in the United States, on a limited budget, in an avowed “music town” is kind of what regional theater is all about – and clearly gives Santa Fe Playhouse the cachet to be included as one of the City Different’s premier performance spaces.

* Jim’s one visit to Carnegie Hall was during a four day business trip to New York City in the 1990s. The concert experience was memorable. But not as notable as what occurred outside at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 57th Street earlier that morning. We were dedicated recreational runners at the time. So even with morning February temperatures in the low thirties Jim went out for a jog around 6:30 a.m. clad in shorts, long sleeve tee shirt, knit cap and gloves. As he passed in front of the music venue to which he planned to go later that evening he looked up to see an unimaginably glammed up woman wearing a short fur jacket, micro-mini skirt and precipitously high stiletto heels standing at the corner staring back at him. When he got next to her she looked at him and said, through bubble gum scented breath, “ain’t youse cold?” Jim wittily responded, “aren’t you?” “Yeah,” she replied, “but I ain’t gonna be here long.” And at that moment a black limo with tinted windows pulled up, and she turned away and slid into the awaiting back seat.

Lesson learned – always dress for the occasion.

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