Historic Theatres and the 21st Century Community

Pabst Theatre

Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre

(NOTE:  Two weeks ago, I presented the keynote address to the 40th annual meeting of the League of Historic American Theatres.  The following is an excerpt from my remarks – given from a personal perspective – about why these places mean so much to me and other Americans.)

It is an honor to be here with so many individuals who work day-in and day-out to ensure that America’s historic theatres have a bright future.

I think of your work – in part – as a form of storytelling, and I am so grateful for the work you do to tell the story of your special places.  Our efforts to identify and mark who we are is not only important to our history and our understanding of that history, but also to our understanding of the issues we face on a daily basis.

The places we choose to preserve around the country tell us a great deal about who we are as a people.  Historic theatres are often beloved landmarks in our communities – places that matter – and we honor people when we save and reuse the places they love.

“This Place Matters” is a program we’ve used at the National Trust for the last decade to allow everyone to identify the places in their communities that are important to them.  To many individuals in countless communities, the theatres you love and care for clearly matter.

Historic theatres not only serve as a place to tell stories to the public – through movies, plays, and music – but they also tell us what we value as a people and the stories we want to share together.  These places speak of the type of vibrant economy and sustainable jobs – the type of future – we want for our citizens.

In a recent study by the Knight Foundation, their Soul of the Community project found that

1) social offerings,

2) how welcoming a place is to others,

3) and physical beauty

perform key roles role in attracting people to a place.  In fact those things don’t just attract people to a community; they help them form an attachment to that place.

It turns out that attachment to place is an important indicator of how economically successful a community will be.

Just as actively engaged employees are more productive and committed to the success of their businesses and organizations, highly attached residents are more likely to actively contribute to a community’s growth.  Your work in saving, reusing, and re-energizing America’s historic theatres – places that attach people and place – is key to the future of your communities.

It is no longer enough just to save a place we value.  We also have to sustain them and re-weave them into the tapestry of our 21st century communities.  I believe we do that best when we use places such as our historic theatres to tell a broader and richer story, that reflects the lives and stories of all Americans.

Like many of you here, I have my own personal story about a historic theatre.

Bearden-Brown House

Bearden-Brown House in Franklin, TN

My story takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, a small town about 20 miles outside of Nashville.  Both my parents were raised in Franklin, and I went there often as a child to visit my grandmother.

My grandmother had a wonderful way with words, and I’ll never forget the times she told me to “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!”  Come to think of it, “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental” could easily be the goal for our historic theatres!  My grandmother believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop, and so my father went to work as a young teenager – at the Franklin Theatre.

Franklin Theatre

Franklin Theatre (Historical Photo courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Franklin & Williamson County)

For decades, I heard stories of my father’s job – taking tickets, making popcorn, and serving as the back-up projectionist.  The theatre’s marquee was first illuminated on Franklin’s Main Street in the summer of 1937, inviting the public in to laugh, cry, and dream.  Money was scarce, so my father appreciated the opportunity to see the current movies without having to pay for a ticket.  Like many of his friends, he walked away from the theatre with a lifetime of memories.

The Franklin Theatre was one of the landmarks of this small Tennessee community.  But over the years, it suffered the same fate of many theatres struggling to survive in the world of the Cineplex.  Bad remodelings and time eventually took their toll on the movie house, and the doors closed in 2007 under the pressures of rising rents and the trend toward mega-theaters.

Franklin Theatre 1970s

Franklin Theatre in the 1970s (courtesy of the Heritage Society of Franklin & Williamson County)

That’s when the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County stepped in. Rather than lose the heart of Main Street, the nonprofit preservation group bought and rehabilitated the historic landmark. After three years of work – and an investment of more than $8 million – the historic Franklin Theatre re-emerged better than ever.

In his 80s, my father liked to connect with Mary Pearce and Rick Warwick at the Heritage Foundation. He attended the relighting of the marquee in 2010.  Knowing of his love for this special place, my wife and I bought a seat in his honor as part of the restoration campaign.  On a trip to Franklin just a couple of years ago, we toured the restored interior and showed him his name among the patrons of the restoration.

Tom Brown at the Franklin Theatre

Tom Brown at the Lighting of the Marque at the Franklin Theatre

The new Franklin Theatre continues the cherished tradition of showing movies, but also adds a new dimension to Main Street – live music. With a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, and undeniable charm, the Franklin Theatre is destined to be an entertainment and cultural icon for years to come.

Restored Franklin Theatre

Grand Opening of the Restored Franklin Theatre (photo courtesy of the Heritage Society of Franklin & Williamson County)

My father passed away just two months ago at age 90.  Hard-of-hearing, he was never able to take in a new movie or show at the Franklin Theatre.  But he was so proud that the place he loved as a child – and the place where he and my mom went on dates after the war – had a new life and proud future.

And I have taken up his passion.  Just two weeks ago, my wife, son, and I saw a total of five different movies over three days at the AFI Docs Festival at the historic Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. It is a theatre as much the life blood of our town as the Franklin Theatre is to my parents’ community.

Why is all of this important?  Because identity is important.

Old places embody our identity – both our personal identity as well as our civic identity.  Historic places like the Franklin Theatre or the Silver Theatre also create a sense of continuity and variety that helps people feel more balanced, stable, and healthy.  And they help us remember.

By saving and reusing these wonderful community landmarks, we can do our part to ensure that all of our citizens can see themselves and remember their stories in the work we do….

Let’s take a few minutes and consider why these places that we love so much point the way forward for your communities. And let’s do that by thinking anew about historic preservation.  Today’s work in saving the things people value in their communities is not your father’s (or mother’s) preservation.  We no longer have an exclusive focus on museum-like restorations.  Instead, we speak to the need to reuse and recycle what we have.  We speak to the need to use preservation to build sustainable communities.  When you look up the definition of sustainable, it is about creating enduring value.

Preservation today is more about the future than it is the past.

Economic vitality which comes from preservation is directly linked to progress.  Contrary to popular perception, change is constant and important to our work as preservationists.  Buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods all change. So do historic theatres.  Progress is key to our work, because “Successful preservation makes time a continuum.”…

When thinking of preservation, many see a narrow set of interests focused on architecture.  But as Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for the New York Times, has said,

A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark. Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.

Americans care about the loss of places they love – the places that provide them with emotional resonance and a sense of continuity. In your community and in the work you do, we can choose to focus preservation on people…their memories…and their future.

More to come…


Long Hot Summer Days

This seemed like an appropriate tune to feature on a weekend when the temperatures have approached 100 degrees, and the heat index is off the charts.

I’ve loved Sara Watkins’ version of this John Hartford tune since she released it on a solo album.  Here she plays it with her old band mates from Nickel Creek.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins at Red Wing Roots Festival 2015

If you want to hear Sara play this by herself, with a little Hartford-like foot-tapping rhythm thrown in, take a look here.

Enjoy…and stay cool.

More to come…


Rainbows, Moon Shots, and Wild Walk-Offs

Nats Rainbow

Rainbow at Nats Stadium – proving it is a beautiful evening for baseball

In the past eight days I’ve been to Nats Park three times.  And each game has been wacky and wonderful, in its own way.

I wrote about the “Rainbow” game in the title last Sunday, when my friend Dolores McDonagh and I watched Tanner Roark (our #4 starter) pitch masterfully for eight shutout innings, and Stephen Drew (remember that name) come in and smash three doubles to contribute to the win.  So what does Drew do for an encore?  Immediately catches some sort of flu and is out of action for six straight days.  (But keep remembering that name.)

I also took one of my older score books to the game last Saturday.  In looking through that book at the clinching game in 2012 (for the division title), and some other 2014 games, it brought back good memories of even-numbered years for this ball club.  A nice start to the week.

On Wednesday, Andrew and I met at Nats Park after work to catch the Nats vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Since our Claire has moved to LA, she has gone over to the dark side, so we promised to troll her from the game.

And it didn’t take long for the Nats to strike – and for us to get in our gloating texts to Claire.

In the first inning, Bryce Harper hit a tater that almost landed in the Navy Yard.  He scorched a home run into the far upper deck down the right field line that got everyone excited.  It was the first of four home runs in what was an 8-1 Nats rout of the Dodgers.

But surprisingly, Harper’s moon shot wasn’t the most exciting play of the game.

That honor belonged to Trea Turner, who stole home when Danny Espinosa was caught in a run down between first and second.  Turner inched down the line and then turned on the afterburners.  The park went wild.

Andrew and I almost went hoarse from chanting N-A-T-S Nats! Nats! Nats! Woo!!  (We do sit in section 313.)  Gio even pitched well and got the win.  It was the club’s first win since last Saturday, my last day in the park.  Maybe I was on to something.

So when I arrived at Nats Park last evening on the hottest day of the summer (heat index somewhere north of 100 degrees), and with the Nats having lost on Thursday and Friday, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My friend Rich Turner joined me and I brought along another old score book that I had “semi-retired” because it wasn’t very good at recording wins.

Score Book getting ready to go to the trash

(By the way, I did rescue this from the trash…which enabled me to use it last evening.)

Mad Max Scherzer pitched another masterful game, with 10 swinging strikeouts against the Padres in seven innings – striking out the side in his final inning. His only flaw (natch) was giving up a 2-run homer in the first. But the Nats offense went missing for much of the game, with Bryce Harper having an especially difficult game.  I turned to a fellow fan who was scoring the game in the 8th and said that at least Bryce couldn’t get the third out in this inning – since he was up second in the order.  (Bryce had made the final out in his first three plate appearances, each time with men on base.)

After Jonathan Papelbon escaped a ninth-inning mess of his own making (natch), the bottom of the 9th arrived with the bottom third of the order in line to hit.  Luckily, that includes Anthony Rendon, who lashed a solid single to put the winning run on base with no outs.  Danny Espinosa struck out (reverting to his former bad habits).  Next Stephen Drew (remember that name) – available for the first time in six games due to that flu – pinch-hit in Papelbon’s spot.  All he did was mash a triple off the wall between center and right, bringing a streaking Rendon home with the walk-off win.

Three-for-three.  What a wacky, wonderful week.

Do the Nationals want to give me free season tickets?  I have the score book to vouch for my good luck!

Score book walk-off

Score Book for the walk-off

Go Nats!

More to come…


It’s a Beautiful Day for Baseball

Baseball(Editor’s Note:  Before I begin this post, I want to wish my sister Debbie Brown Crocker a wonderful 60th birthday today.  She’s the best.  Period.  Debbie has a wonderful spirit – just like our Mom – and holds the family together in ways large and small now that both our parents have passed away.  Have a great day, Debbie.  Love you – DJB.  Now, back to the regularly scheduled entry into the More to Come… online journal.)

Just before the beginning of each Nationals baseball game, the announcer booms, “It’s a beautiful day for baseball.”  It doesn’t matter if it is 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity.  Or if you’ve just endured a 71 minute rain delay, as was the case last evening at the old ballpark.  Our Nats take the “any day at the ballpark is a great day” approach to life.  And hey, I’ll buy it.

Last evening, our home field announcer may have even known what he was talking about.  After a severe thunderstorm (we had hail in Silver Spring), the air cleared out, the humidity dropped, a slight breeze kicked in, and…it was beautiful.

Oh, and we had a fantastic double rainbow to enjoy for about 15 minutes over the right field/first base stands.

See, even God is a baseball fan.  She loves it and wanted to add her handiwork last evening.

Nats Rainbow

Rainbow at Nats Stadium – proving it is a beautiful evening for baseball

I haven’t written much about the Nats this year, because – frankly – I haven’t wanted to jinx them.  They snuck in a bit under the radar (if that’s possible for a team that has won its division two years out of the past four).  The Cubs and Mets were all the rage.  The Cubs are good, but wake me up when they win something.  And hey, I told you last year that the Mets were going to rue the day (year) they burned out all those promising young arms.  If you want the exact quote, here’s what I wrote during Game 1 of last year’s World Series:

Let me see, where have I heard, “This is a talented young team with a great pitching staff who will be good for a long, long time”?  Oh yeah, that would be the Nationals.  Be careful, Mets.  Stuff happens.

But the Nats have played more consistently than the Cubs, and yes indeed stuff has happened to the Mets.  No gloating…it was just as plain as the nose on your face.

Last evening was a perfect example of why the Nats are doing so well.  Their #4 starter – Tanner Roark – just pitched 8-plus innings of 5-hit shutout baseball, and the bullpen did its job in the 9th.  Daniel Murphy – the MVP of the first half in all of baseball in my opinion – is nursing a sore leg, so his replacement – Stephen Drew – only comes in and hits three doubles.  Zimmerman is out (again) with an injury, and his replacement – Clint Robinson – is mashing the ball.  Only a diving catch by the stellar Pirates outfield kept him from breaking open the game earlier in the evening.  Danny Espinosa is finally playing the position he was made for, and his hitting and aggressiveness on the base paths have been something to behold.  Anthony Rendon, who has been so-so this year, clobbered a home run.  All-Star Wilson Ramos should start doing Lasik surgery commercials.  If Bryce ever starts playing like BRYCE, watch out.  Strasburg and Roark have stifled a red-hot Pirates team, and today they get to face Scherzer (just another National League All-Star).  This is fun.

But remember, it is only July.  Things can happen.  Injuries definitely happen.  (We’re only a Ramos trip to the DL to having José Lobatón – of the .191 batting average – behind the plate every day.)  So I’ll enjoy what we have now, and see what happens.

Anyway, I have two games this week – one with Andrew to see the Dodgers.  (We’re going to troll our Dodgers fan Claire during the game!)

It’s a beautiful day for baseball!  Indeed!

Go Nats!

More to come…


Red Wing Roots Music Festival 2016 (Or “Thank God for Sierra Hull”)

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull at Red Wing Roots Music Festival – July 8, 2016

Everybody experiences growing pains.  Even music festivals.

2016 was the fourth year for the Red Wings Roots Music Festival held in the beautiful Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Virginia.  Hosted by the Steel Wheels, this regional Americana and roots music gathering in the Shenandoah Valley has been eclectic from the beginning, and not all the musical acts have been of the same quality.  But the festival had maintained a nice balance between audiences that were there to party and have a good time and for those who came to listen to some of the country’s best acoustic musicians. (Chris Thile, Sam Bush, I’m With Her, Tim O’Brien, Jon Jorgenson, Claire Lynch, Sarah Jarosz, Del McCoury, and Darrell Scott all showed up over the first three years.)

But with the ominous warning on the front page of this year’s festival guide that there would be more “plugged in and turned up” bands, a shift was clearly underway.  Friday’s lineup confirmed that approach…and the balance between the different audience shifted.  Not for the better.

I can take electric guitars and drums with my roots music, but the result better be worth it.  We arrived on Friday in time to catch the end of what appeared to be an energetic set from Front Country, with spirited vocals from Melody Walker.  Our real goal was to hear the full set of mandolin phenom turned thoughtful adult musician Sierra Hull.

Sierra Hull at Red Wing 2016

Sierra Hull with Justin Moses at Red Wing 2016

I’ve heard Hull play over the years at Merlefest, beginning in her mid-teens, and she always had the chops to play amazing bluegrass and traditional music. She was the first bluegrass musician to win a Presidential Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music.  Her first album post-Berklee hinted at some new directions, but it wasn’t until the recently released Weighted Mind (produced by Bela Fleck) that she came into her own and broke away from the “I can play incredibly fast and clean bluegrass” camp.

At Red Wing on Friday, she and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz (recommended by no less a talent than Edgar Meyer) displayed her stripped down music, often featuring just the mandolin or octave mandolin and bass in songs and tunes both beautiful and complex.  The duo was expanded on about a third of the set to include dobro and banjo player Justin Moses, which allowed Hull to showcase more of her traditional chops (on the tune “Bombshell” for instance, which closed out the set).  Her “Black River” video is a great example of the direction of her new work.

Hull’s 75 minute set was the highlight on Friday, which was otherwise filled with forgettable music (with the exception of Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens).  The biggest disappointment was The Steep Canyon Rangers, who have left their smartly crafted bluegrass songs to become a noisy party jam band.  Too loud, too much smoke, too many flashing lights, too much dancing around the stage by the fiddle player.  Please.

So expectations were low for Saturday.  Thankfully, the musicians more than beat that low bar.

Don Flemons

Don Flemons at Red Wing 2016

First up was Don Flemons.  A founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons was the consummate old-time entertainer in the style of Uncle Dave Macon and other pre-WWII acts.  His work digs…

…deeply into ragtime, Piedmont blues, spirituals, southern folk music, string band music, jug band music, fife and drum music, and ballads idioms with showmanship and humor, reinterpreting the music to suit 21st century audiences.

He had the crowd in the palm of his hand after the first song and never let up.

Don Flemons at Red Wing 2016

Don Flemons wows the crowd with his brand of old-time music

So that was a satisfying start to what ended up being a very nice day of music.

The next true revelation was Mipso, a North Carolina tradition-based band that writes and sings very smart songs with contemporary themes.  Mipso’s four members – Jacob Sharp (mandolin), Joseph Terrell (guitar), Wood Robinson (bass), and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle) – sing beautiful harmonies around intricate tunes and rhythms.

Mipso 2016

Mipso at Red Wing 2016

In both theme and temperament, the (band’s recent) album finds an interplay between the sunrise and the twilight – a tug-of-war that’s itself an old-time tradition. From “Eliza,” a lively waltz-time romp, to “Bad Penny,” a surrealist dream sequence with an Abe Lincoln cameo, the album revels in the seesaw spectrum of experience and memory, where technicolor carnival hues blend with grown-up sadness and the whispers of ghosts. Mipso’s color palette, like its soundscape, is radically inclusive.

“We come from a place where traditional music is a living, changing thing,” fiddle player Libby Rodenbough said. “So we feel like having an ear for all kinds of stuff is not only true to ourselves, it’s a nod to the tradition.”

Take a listen to “Bad Penny” and you’ll get a feel for the dark Southern Americana where this band – playing music that sounds like the 1920s and 1930s but with themes as relevant as today’s headlines – resides.  (And to keep the surreal vibe going, it is recorded in a Colorado canibas factory.)



Chris Smither

Chris Smither


Tony Furtado

Tony Furtado at Red Wing 2016

The rest of the day’s music continued at this high level.  Chris Smither combined wonderful fingerstyle guitar with well-written songs (and a beautiful cover of “Sitting on Top of the World”).  Multi-instrumentalist Tony Furtado – supported by mandolinist extraordinaire Matt Flinner – had the crowd in awe of his instrumental talents, especially on slide guitar.  And finally, the host for the festival – The Steel Wheels – put on their usual high energy show and added a few friends to the mix.

Hull and Moses

Sierra Hull and Justin Moses trade dobro and octave mandolin licks at Red Wing 2016

We headed out satisfied, thanks to Saturday’s wonderful music (and Sierra Hull’s beautiful set on Friday).  Let’s hope that for the 5th Red Wing Roots Festival next July, we’ll see fewer plugged in bands and more of the incredibly talented acoustic  musicians who have made this such a wonderful way to spend a summer weekend.

More to come…


Gratitude Turns What We Have Into ENOUGH

Kefa Cafe

Kefa Cafe in Silver Spring, MD

Among the institutions in our community of Silver Spring, few are beloved as much as a small coffee shop run by two sisters who left Ethiopia in the 1980s to escape violence and political upheaval.  Lene and Abeba Tsegaye – with the help of their brother – established Kefa Café in 1996.  In a recent Washington Post article celebrating the reopening of the shop after a fire, Lena said the two sisters,

“…wanted their independent coffee shop to be a place where people talked to each other, not just another cafe where people buried their noses in laptops.” There is no WiFi at Kefa, named for the southwestern Ethiopia province where, the 9th-century legend goes, a goat herder named Kaldi saw his animals become so energized after eating coffee beans they couldn’t sleep.  “There is a history about coffee,” Abeba said. “It’s not just about getting caffeinated. People make big decisions around coffee.”

The title comes from a sign they recently posted in their window, in celebration of their 20th anniversary in Silver Spring.  I love that thought: Gratitude turns what we have into enough.  These two sisters – who endured 200-mile treks across deserts and waist-high grass to escape political violence, entry into a new country as immigrants, and a fire that closed their shop for months – have taught so many of us who know them well or on just a casual basis about what gratitude really means.

They also posted another sign with a quote about gratitude from an inspirational writer:

“When we become more fully aware that our success is due in large measure to the loyalty, helpfulness, and encouragement we have received from others, our desire grows to pass on similar gifts.  Gratitude spurs us on to prove ourselves worthy of what others have done for us.  The spirit of gratitude is a powerful energizer.” – Wilferd A. Peterson

Gratitude is more than simply saying thank you, but that’s a good place to start.

Abeba at Kefa Cafe

Abeba’s welcoming smile at Kefa Cafe

Thanks to Lene and Abeba for being you. Thanks for a country that welcomes others to its shores to share in its freedom and bounty. Thanks, as well, to each of you, dear readers, for your interest and support.  Have a wonderful July 4th weekend.

More to come…