September 15, 2010

Looking Back a Quarter Century

In 1985, I arrived late one September evening in a 1964 AMC Rambler loaded with everything I thought I would need for the next few years.  It wasn't quite everything I owned; but at 21, I didn't own a lot to begin with.  So I left boxes of books at my dad's house, and my winter clothes at my mother's.  I had clothes, a few favorite books, my guitar, and a component stereo system. 

I had to get off I-95 around Stuart to take the Turnpike down to Palm Beach Gardens because the interstate wasn't finished.  And I hadn't realized just how big the state was; when I finally got to Boynton Beach, it must have been after 10 pm.

For the first couple of months, I stayed with my grandparents.  It was my grandmother's invitation that brought me down; I had been studying acting in New York, and auditioning without much any success.  I had decided that it wasn't a matter of talent; I had plenty of that.  But so did every other actor in The Big Apple.  It was a numbers game, really; the jobs went to the actors with the best resumés and the best connections; often with emphasis on connection.

I had only done a couple of professional gigs around South Jersey, at all two of the professional companies that existed there at the time.  That didn't include working at the Brigantine Haunted Castle.  The rest of my resumé was community and college theatre, and that didn't impress anyone.  I had no connections because I hadn't done enough work to make them.

So my grandmother is talking about the vibrant local theatre scene, and particularly this acting workshop she found, led by Bob Carter, who had studied with Lee Strasberg.  I was, at that time, studying at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York. 

It occurred to me that there had to be less professionally trained actors in South Florida than New York; and here was a place I could continue studying the same techniques.

I got a job, I found an efficiency, and found my way into the local theatre scene.  In 1989, I realized that there was a higher demand for production, and moved to the wings.  I still performed occasionally onstage until 1994, when I decided it was time to fish or cut bait. I've been working full-time in theatre ever since.

Florida has changed, and not just the theatre scene. 

Urban Renewal
In 1985, people were afraid to go into downtown West Palm Beach.  I remember trying to get a friend come and see me in something at Actors' Rep, two blocks south of Clematis Street.  "Isn't that, you know, down town?" she said.  "Isn't that dangerous?  People get shot down there!"  But we knew that Clematis Street was going to change.  We desperately tried to keep that theatre going, despite low attendance and evaporating support.  Florida Rep, which operated out of the space where the Cuillo Center is, wasn't in any better shape.  both companies closed in the early 90s.

There's theatre downtown again, but it's all "new growth."  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  And the two companies - Palm Beach DramaWorks and Florida Stage - are everything Actors' Rep and Florida Rep were not; well managed, well funded, with the resources to ensure that every production is at least as well-produced as the one before it.

While the Kravis Center certainly drew in people, it can't get all the credit; the Downtown/Uptown project, an urban redevelopment program, cleared the field for the Center, literally. It bought up the entire ghetto and bulldozed it, intending replace it with shops and restaurants and living space.  Which eventually happened, although the original team went broke after leveling most of downtown.  Kravis Center didn't have to revitalize a slum, it just had to lure developers into an area prepped for re-development.  For a while, the Kravis Center dominated the landscape.  Eventually, the re-development did happen; it's called CityPlace.

The Broward Center for the Performing Arts revitalized downtown Fort Lauderdale beyond any question.  It stands over Esplanade Park, where the people gather once a month for a Jazz Festival along the river, and wedding occur at least weekly along the Riverwalk. Himmarshee Village is home to thriving restaurants and clubs.

Actors' Playhouse did much the same thing for Coral Gables.  Once home to dozens of wedding shops that closed up at 5pm, the theatre started drawing crowds in the evening.  Restaurants now make up most of the businesses, along with galleries and high-end shops.  When I started working there in 1999, the meters and garages stopped collecting at 8pm.  Now the meters are twenty four hours, and the garages are attended until at least 1am.  Harder on the consumer?  Perhaps, but it's an example of the revenue streams that open up when the arts come to town.

The Beach
Spring Break was still going strong in Fort Lauderdale when I moved here.  It was painful to watch the city fathers kill their biggest tourist draw of the year, erecting fences and barriers to limit views of the beach - and to keep drunken college students from stumbling into traffic on A1A.  I suppose it was necessary, but it's allowed South Beach to overshadow the place "Where The Boys Are."

25 years ago, beach access came to mind before sand, when talking about south Florida beaches.  It's still an issue in spots, but now global warming and rising oceans tend to dominate the conversation.

Getting Around
I-95 was completed a few years after I arrived; a few years later, when they started to resurface the older parts of the interstate, Tri-Rail was started, in an attempt to lower dependence on driving down the highway.  No one was sure if the system would have a life beyond the project, so no track was laid, inexpensive stations were built, and the even the trains were those used by another system that promised to buy our trains when and if Tri-Rail was disbanded.  While it hasn't really reduced traffic to a noticeable degree, no one is talking about closing it down, either.

Traffic is heavier. And where it used to really tail off in the summer, it's now merely dipping from "awful" to "really bad."  And the vehicles have gotten BIGGER, due largely to the fact that SUVs were exempted from emission control and fuel economy standards, so the automakers pushed them over more logical choices.  Of course, this as more than doubled fuel prices over the last twenty years.  If we'd stayed the course of smaller and more efficient cars, it's very likely we'd be paying less than two bucks a gallon.

Stormy Weather
The day before Hurricane Andrew hit, I was walking into the Florida Professional Theatres Association yearly meeting.  It was a networking/mass audition event, and it was held in West Palm Beach that year.  As I walked in the door, I found my boss, Louis Tyrell, standing with David Arisco of the Actors' Playhouse in Kendall, and a future boss.  They'd just heard the hurricane was going to hit us.

I went and secured the theatre as best I could; the following Monday I wrote Florida Stage's first hurricane plan, so we wouldn't have to figure it out in an emergency again. 

I took my supplies - a milk crate full of canned goods and a gallon of water - over to my friends' house.  We listened to the radio and played poker until the wee hours.  The next morning, the first stories creeped out.  And I looked at my milk-crate and realized how massively unprepared I had really been.  This was underscored in the following weeks, as I drove truckloads of relief supplies from the staging area at Palm Beach Fairgrounds down to the relief station at Metrozoo.  You couldn't see the house that were left standing, because the debris was piled so high.  And if it hadn't been for the convoy, I'd never have found where I was going.

I was working for Dave Arisco when Katrina and Wilma hit;  the theatre was largely undamaged, but in the aftermath of Wilma we lost a weekend of GREASE because the entire region was without power.  And even when we got power back at the theatre, most of the traffic lights were still out.  Still, we were lucky that time.  During Andrew, the old Actors' Playhouse lost their roof, and a lot of their subscribers lost their homes.

But on a personal level, I was prepared; I had packed my fridge and freezer full of ice, I had an assortment of food, and a proper camp stove.  We had a gas grill out back of my apartment building, and I set up a tarp for shade.  The building was fine, but for the lack of power.

Sunshine State of Mind
I've now lived and worked all across South Florida, from Jupiter to Coral Gables.  When I moved here in 1985, I thought I'd build my professional resume for a few years, and then move back to New York City.  But when I visit there, I am overwhelmed at how gray it seems to me.  Even the drabbest corner of South Florida is ablaze with color and life; and nature hasn't been buried under yards of concrete, despite the best efforts of our various county commissioners and state representatives to allow that to happen.

I've met fascinating people, from all walks of life; artists and writers and lawyers and politicians and yes, famous actors. I know this place, and how it was shaped, and why it's  like it is.

I've lived here over half my life; I am a South Floridian.

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