Sometimes in a small town in the upper midwest, it seems on a Friday night that the town has emptied out. The streets are quiet, the bars are empty, and the televisions are silent. The town isn’t really a ghost town. It’s just that between 7PM and 10PM the entire town is at the local high school football stadium cheering on the 11 boys in uniform on the field and the other 50 uniformed boys on the sideline. It doesn’t bother me ; it’s a bonding experience for all generations. But, it can but a damper on the local Friday night art scene. Bringing in an out of town performer is risky and potentially financial suicide for a small performing arts center. And yet, those art loving individuals continue to dream and book the acts.
Here in Hayward, Wisconsin, we are the proud owners of the Park Theatre. Now when I say we, I’m not talking my husband and I. I’m talking about the small non-profit that envisioned a thriving performing arts center resurrected from the old original movie theater. It seats just over 200 and is slowly undergoing a metamorphosis as the money trickles in. Monthly, there are small but perceptible alterations –enlarged stage, new lighting, new sound, a paint job. Occasionally there is a packed house but more often the audience is … intimate. It can seem more like a house concert or a simple gathering of friends than a public performance. And yet, those art loving citizens continue to dream and book outside performers hoping to beat the odds and perhaps even make money on a concert.
Such was the environment a week ago: a football Friday night in the midwest. Not just a football Friday night but a cold dreary Friday night. Don’t worry, cold and dreary does not stiffle the football crowd but it can damper the spirits of the art crowd. On this particular night, however, Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard were in town. For those of you who do not know of Prudence, a beautiful jazz singer and her pianist and accordian player Dan, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. Her voice can be smoky and thick and sultry one moment and silky smooth the next. Close your eyes and you are transported back to the 1930s in line with her songs of Hoagy Carmicheal and Ira Gershwin. Despite the reputation of the performers, it was still a risky proposition to host them on a football friday night in the upper midwest.
I have to admit that I held my breath that evening as I rounded the corner to enter the theater. I was in a “sit in the back of the theater” kind of mood. A “sit quietly and escape from life” kind of mood. I was somewhat worried that based on the size of the crowd I would need to move up front in order concentrate the audience; a request I have heard more than once. Truth be told, I shouldn’t have worried. I probably didn’t even need to sing “Impossible” from Cinderalla all the way to the theater. When I walked through the door, the place was packed. It was close to standing room only. It was then that I realized that our little town and its desire to nuture an arts community is not only succeeding, it is beginning to thrive. Although I doubt I will ever experience the day when athletic events are scheduled around the performing arts schedule, it is nice to know that we no longer need to take the back seat.