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19 January 2006
I've been thinking a lot about history this past week, and about what makes history.
The occasion for my musings is working on the article about the Davis Comic Opera Company for the newspaper (it will be out this Thursday and will actually be two articles, one tracing the history and another talking about what has led up to the decision to dissolve the company).
I began by interviewing the people that I knew best, and the people whose input seemed to be the most necessary to the story.
The story needed photos so I spoke with my friend Stephen, because last I knew he had the company's photos. He directed me to Tom, who now has them, and I drove out to Tom's house and packed the two boxes that contain the 33 year history of the Davis Comic Opera Company into my car.
When I began going through the boxes, I began immediately to make comparisons between writing this story and writing the first Lamplighter history. Allison and I went to the Lamplighters office and were directed to two giant garbage bags tossed in a corner of Spencer Beman's office. In the bags was a collection of photos, newspaper articles, correspondence, accounting records, and a host of things that somebody might at some point have decided to save.
Allison, a trained archivist, worked diligently and when we finished our project, we not only had a published book, we also had organized the garbage bags into such a well documented theatre history that we were able to donate it to the San Francisco Performing Arts Archive (they even held a nice little champagne reception for us to formalize our gift).
Allison would swoon if she could see the boxes that I received from Tom. Not only was all the material--programs, photos, and newspaper clippings--neatly divided into big envelopes, organized by the name and date of the show, but at some point someone had gone through every. single. photograph. and identified it as to date taken, names of people in the photo and name of the show.
As I went through the boxes, so many memories came flooding back--faces, stories, people. Especially the people who are no longer here. Bob Cello, who founded the company; Vickie Krade who died much too young; Carolyn Wyatt, who died of cancer; Susan Wershing (former Rockette, lighting designer, magazine publisher, mother of Ned's best friend) who died in her sleep on Thanksgiving night a few years back ..... too many people gone.
I came across a photo of dear Amy Patten, who was such a favorite around here. After her death, a bunch of DCOC people went to help her kids clean up the house prior to selling it. There was to be a huge garage sale and they were carrying things out to the sale tables when someone was carrying a vase she'd found in the back of a closet out and Amy's daughter let out a shriek and said that the vase contained "mother"...Amy's ashes almost went up for sale to the highest bidder! It's a story Amy would have loved more than anyone.
And then there was a photo of Lenore and Dick. Lenore Turner Heinson and Richard Brunelle posing for a publicity photo for the original show that Stephen and I wrote: The Pirates of Casablanca. Lenore and I were close friends during several years when she was also performing with The Lamplighters and I was her chauffeur, and Dick was the high school music teacher who had Paul, David and Tom in Jazz Choir, for more than one year each. Dick's dream was to take the jazz choir to New Orleans. One of my most favorite memories is going along as a chaparone on that trip.
I've finished writing my article(s) now and as soon as I get all the photos back from the newspaper, I will pack them all up in the envelopes where I got them and take them back to Tom.
But it got me to thinking...what do you do with a history like this? Allison and I had the Lamplighters, which still exists, which funded the publication of both of our books, had a mechanism for marketing them, and still sell the few copies that are left at the store during performance times. The raw materials went to the SF Archives.
What do you do with such a beautifully organized collection when there is no way to write or publish a book because (a) there are no funds to pay for the publication (yes, Mary, I remember Lulu) and (b) even if you got it written, there is no audience, or way to market to an audience even if you had one. There is a limited audience for a history about a San Francisco Gilbert & Sullivan group which still exists; there is an even smaller -- much, much smaller -- audience for a small town community theatre group which no longer exists, even if it beautifully depicts a huge piece of the musical theatre history of Yolo County
There is no "performing arts archive" here in this area. Perhaps the University library might be interested, but I doubt it. One of the women in the company is a professional historian, so I would assume she might have some sort of idea, but looking at all this stuff, and seeing where it has been stored since 1993 makes me realize that the value of "history" depends on the audience.
What I might find interesting or sentimental may have very limited appeal to anybody else--and the potential audience for this stuff around here is dying off. The incoming generation all ask, "Gilbert & Who???"
I knew that there is no such thing as 100% true history, because history is written by the survivors. But now I'm learning that whether history gets recorded at all depends on the potential audience, and I guess it's like the eternal question of whether there is a sound if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear -- if there is no audience, is there really a valuable history, or is it all just sentimental worthless junk?
One good thing -- it's someone else's problem. I have a place to give it back to. It won't go gathering dust in my junk room. My children can feel comfortable at least about this!
This is a great entry.
I recommend it highly.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
This is the tech crew from A Little Night