A rare night at the theater

It had been ages since I attended an Austin Playhouse play.

disgraced-8Ayad Akhtar‘s “Disgraced,” which explores what it means to be Muslim and American in the 21st-century, proved a good second excuse — along with the Austin History Center Association‘s Angelina Eberly Luncheon — for breaking early from our beach vacation.

It starts as a polite party. It ends in emotional and intellectual devastation.

One can find direct precedents in Yasmina Reza‘s “Art,” Mart Crowley‘s “The Boys in the Band” and T.S. Eliot‘s “The Cocktail Party.”

Family-style versions of the dramatized social patterns include Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County,” James Goldman‘s “The Lion in Winter” and several scripts by Terrence McNallyLanford Wilson, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.

Here, the ebb and flow of power and ideas is managed by director Don Toner. As a longtime — now distant — observer of the scene, I was particularly gratified to see the latest chapters in the evolution of J. Ben Wolfe and Michael Miller‘s acting careers. Somewhat new to me was the spot-on Molly Karrasch. In smaller roles, Harold Fisch and Crystal Bird Caviel lent the cast needed contrasting voices.

Alas, it ends today. See Andrew J. Friedenthal‘s alert review for the Statesman here.

Letter from Surfside Beach

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Since 1963, we’ve spent time each year at Surfside Beach, Texas. From 1994 to 2015 — that’s 22 years! — we also hosted an epic annual party there called the Winter Reading Week. This year, Kip and I took just our dogs, Lucky and Nora, and some supplies. A few people, including my mom, visited briefly. Otherwise, it was us, the wind, the waves and a lot of reading. Plus a little cooking, eating, drinking and movie watching.

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I got through three months of The New Yorker back issues. But my concentration fell on five books.

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The most satisfying was Kirk Lynn‘s “Rules for Werewolves,” a novel told in dialogue and inner monologue about a pack of suburban runaways who turn out to be more canine than one might expect. It’s rich with insight. See Joe Grossalert feature story on the author. TV series in the making?

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I also finished Andrew J. Torget‘s “Seeds of Empire,” which emphasizes how cotton economy and culture dictated the interactions of the Spanish, Mexicans, Native-Americans, Anglo- and African-Americans in Texas in the early 19th century.  A worthy complement to Sven Beckert‘s magnificent “Empire of Cotton.”

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I finally dove into John Graves‘ classic “Goodbye to a River,” a lyrical account of a canoe trip down the upper-middle Brazos River before some of this gorgeous stretch of Texas waterway was dammed. Should be an inspiration for “Texas River Tracings: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot.”

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I sat next to Louisa Hall at the Humanities Texas Winter Book Fair for three hours. I was charmed, not only by the author, but by the premise of her novel, “Speak,” set in six different places and times. Like Lynn, she teaches at the University of Texas.

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The inimitable Eddie Wilson recommended David Richards‘ memoir, “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” as an introduction to Austin political culture in the 1970s. It’s pretty cool. Just in time for my story about the impact of the 1970s on Austin culture.

Hey, if you missed it while I was on vacation, my book, “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories,” was the subject of a Statesman Shots podcast with Tolly Moseley and Omar Gallaga. Keep track of where you can buy the book at this Facebook site.

Austin Food + Wine Festival Kick-Off

The fifth annual Kick-Off for the Austin Food + Wine Festival served several purposes. It promoted the fact that tickets for the fest, coming April 22-24, are now available. The tasty event also re-introduces the food press to the festival organizers and a few chefs, including charismatic Fort Worth-based Tim Love.

IMG_1695Additionally, it attracts some pretty people, who always seem to show up at Austin events these days, no matter their roles.

Also to the point, the Kick-Off showcases some food and drink. In this case, the host eatery, Love’s Lonesome Dove at Colorado and West Fifth Streets, did itself proud with richly stuffed crab and onionskin-thin charcuterie slices.

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Catherine and Shane Stiles

I caught up with food writer Mike Sutter of Fed Man Walking and got to know Catherine and Shane Stiles of much-admired Stiles Switch BBQ, as well as Carmen Valera, Diane Vasquez-Valera and Juan Valera of Tamale House. (Juan actually works for TxDot.)

My newsroom colleague Addie Broyles has already profiled the Tamale House family, or I’d jump right on it. Instead, Peruvian-born-and-reared Juan and I plan to meet to chat about his lifelong interest in Latin American cuisine. Story or no story.

And the gold star goes to …

The silver star for identifying the site of this historical image — published with a story about Austin Community Foundation enabler Fannie Gray Leo — goes to a caller who said it looked like the Austin Country Club when it was located off East Riverside Drive.

Fanny and Jack Christmas 3332 2668The gold star goes to history advocate Lori Duran, who has documented the country club’s past and who compared this image to others in her archive. On key: The HVAC ducts.

A Night with Spectrum

Guests filled the seats of Austin Playhouse at ACC Highland for Spectrum Theatre Company‘s largest benefit to date. Backers of the African-American troupe didn’t stop with food, drinks and chat. Billy Harden and company put on a full show, themed to the life and works of the late Boyd Vance, an irreplaceable performer and director who championed black theater in Austin for decades.

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Jim and Melody Wyatt at A Night with Spectrum.

Also, the night’s songs, speeches and scenes previewed Spectrum’s upcoming season, which includes Regina Taylor‘s musical, “Crowns,” August Wilson‘s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flannery‘s sweet Caribbean tale, “Once on This Island.”

Among the distinguished presenters were Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb, Six Square cultural leader Lisa Byrd, playwright and actor Eugene Lee and Statesman editorial writer Alberta Phillips Bledsoe. The local performers were no less stellar, including Pam HartJacqui CrossJanis StinsonJudy Arnold and a host of other talents.

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Spectrum Theatre Company’s ensemble in “It Don’t Mean a Thing” at the end of Act 1 of A Night With Spectrum.

I was particularly impressed with young Cameron “Mercury” McKnight, who nailed the tough “Ms. Roj” monologue from “Colored Museum.” It’s clear that Spectrum is nurturing new talent as well as providing roles for established artists.

A word or two about the host company, Austin Playhouse. It’s thriving in a nifty home Don Toner built in the shell of old Highland Mall. His daughter, Lara Toner, is doing a terrific job as artistic director and she told me about smart ongoing partnerships with Austin Community College. She reports that the group’s current show, “Disgraced,” about a Pakistani-American lawyer and his artist wife host an intimate dinner party, is taking off. Hope to see it before it closes.

Marriage at last!

Taken from my story in the American-Statesman:

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Forrest Hooper, 83, right, and William “Bill” Lavallee, 88, got married on Aug. 1 after 59 years together.

Early on June 26, 2015 — the day that the crucial U.S. Supreme Court decision was announced — their phone rang and rang.

A voice crashed over the line, “You guys can get married!

William “Bill” Lavallee drowsily replied, “We can’t afford to get married!”

Two days later, friends of Lavallee, 88, and Forrest Hooper, 83, picked them up from their South Austin apartment to obtain a marriage license. The merry troupe arrived at the Travis County offices bristling with official papers collected over the couple’s 59-year partnership.

“The clerk just said, ‘Yes, here you go,’” Hooper recalls. “All these straight couples were cheering for us. One woman came over in tears and hugged us.”

From the archives: Austin’s battle over Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Seven years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968, there was no public monument to his legacy in Austin.

No statue. No park. No school. No street. No community center.

Although it was relatively painless and inexpensive in April 1975 to change much of East 19th Street — the part that runs through East Austin from Interstate 35 to Ed Bluestein Boulevard — into Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the battle for public recognition was far from over.

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For more than a year, a group called the West 19th Street Association fought the extension of the name change past the Capitol Complex and University of Texas campus to North Lamar Boulevard. Leaders of the group said that it would cost businesses to change their signs, letterhead and advertising. It would also impinge on property rights and promote an alternative historical legacy.

Charging racism, critics begged to differ. Multiple petitions, lawsuits and harsh words followed.

Until the late 1880s — in keeping with the original plan to name Austin’s east-west thoroughfares after trees — it was called Magnolia Street. The road long supported businesses on both sides of East Avenue, the predecessor to Interstate 35. Although East 19th was not as active as East 11th or 12th streets, it boldly intersected the six square miles of the city’s Negro District as laid out in 1928.

In March 1975, representatives of the Austin Black Assembly, which met weekly in Texas Rep. Wilhelmina Delco‘s offices on East 12th Street, petitioned the Austin City Council to honor King by renaming 19th Street after him. According to the Rev. Freddie B. Dixon, then senior pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, some opposition arose from both the white and the black communities. Documented in a 2010 letter, Dixon recalled feeling misled by the City Council, and he shared his misgivings with J.J. Seabrook, president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson University.

On April 10, 1975, the day when new Council Member Emma Lou Linn — only the second woman elected to the position in Austin history — was sworn in, MLK sign opponents clashed.

According to an American-Statesman story by reporter Mike Kelley, protester Howard A. King said he would instead file a suit to have a street named for a Native American. And he wouldn’t stop there. King: “It is accepted that Austin has more minority groups than major, crosstown arterials.”

There was some concern over the cost — $40,000 to $200,000 for renaming the exits off Interstate 35. “Dr. King’s full name is so long, the highway department reported, that a much larger sign and support will be necessary.”

There was even mention of naming the new MoPac after King.

Still, the Council voted 4-2 in favor of the 19th Street name change. Mayor Roy Butler and Mayor Pro Tem Bud Dryden voted no.

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Almost immediately, signs east of Interstate 35 were switched out.

Why not west? Some supporters of the name change felt the abrupt stop at the freeway was patronizing.

On May 1, 1975, Seabrook rose to make his plea to complete the deal. One white citizen held up a sign calling on the council to “Preserve 19th Street!”

After Seabrook suddenly crumpled in pain, Linn administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. At age 76, Seabrook died later that day of a heart attack.

On May 6, 1975, the Austin Citizen newspaper announced that the “West 19th Street Association” had been formed. Marion B. Findlay and Harris Johnson led this group.

“The sole purpose of our association is to oppose changing the name of any existing street in Austin without of the consent of the property owners concerned,” Findlay said. “Those who allege other motives are themselves furthering the prejudices they profess to condemn.”

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A protester at the May 1, 1975 City Council Meeting.

The Association employed all sorts of delaying tactics, including a referendum petition and judicial action. Meanwhile, the Austin Black Assembly pointed out that the City Council had, since 1965, adopted at least 58 resolutions calling for name changes.

“That tactic worked in yesteryears, but today they cannot change the minds and will of black people, because we will fight for what we think is right, fair and just, until death,” the Assembly proclaimed in a stinging Nov. 7, 1975, press release. “J.J. Seabrook was a black man who weathered many storms caused by such people. He died fighting for recognition of a black man’s contribution in this bicentennial year.”

In June 1976, the Association tried to use a 1929 law to assert that the city had no right to control the destiny of West 19th Street.

Findlay: “We, the property owners, own 19th Street, not the city.”

But Assistant City Attorney Don Wolf disagreed: the law gave the city “rights, privileges and easements on those streets that all cities have over their streets.”

The city won. Decades later, in 2010, peacemakers from East and West Austin joined to honor Seabrook by renaming the MLK Street bridge over Interstate 35 after him.

“I’ve worked on racial reconciliation in the city for years,” said Joseph Parker, Jr., senior pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. “So I think this is just a first step in the process, but it’s not an end. You can symbolize bridging East and West Austin, but there needs to be more than a symbol.”

Matthews & Metz at 100

Rounding out our reports on Austin gems that celebrated their centennials this week, Matthews and Metz elementary schools proved that too much of a good thing is still a good thing.

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JoAnn Tamez and Carlos Galvan at the 100th Anniversary of Metz and Matthews elementary schools. (Tamez attended Metz.)

The crowds for their joint birthday parties at the Austin History Center overflowed the main assembly hall to fill the corridors and lobbies where the excellent “Making the Grade” exhibit explains Austin’s schooling past. Choirs sang theirs school songs as well as the state’s dusty, old anthem, “Texas, Our Texas.” Dignitaries, such as former Austin school district superintendent Pat Forgione, spoke about the role of public schools in the city’s making.

Matthews, built at 906 W. Lynn St., provided education for better-off Anglo children who lived west of Shoal Creek and east of the Great International and Northern Railroad, in what is now called Old West Austin and Clarksville. Metz, 804 Robert Martinez, Jr. St., served working class Anglos and a few Latinos in lower East Austin. When Zavala Elementary School was built just a few blocks away in 1936, most area Latinos were steered in that direction. That trend was reversed as the neighborhood changed again.

Yet as archivist Molly Hults ably demonstrates in “Making the Grade,” this story isn’t just about de facto or de jure segregation. The fluid histories of Austin schools overlap and generate unexpected currents and eddies. I hope the Center makes a book out it.

LBJ Letter to Coretta Scott King

In a letter that reveals his warmth and solicitude, President Lyndon Baines Johnson wrote to recently widowed Coretta Scott King about her grief and the grief of a nation.

60C251B0-15EA-45E8-B5CD-F8482B576269In the note dated April 5, 1968, Johnson writes, “We will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King’s legacy and trust to us.”  Johnson also wrote of his determination to find King’s killer.

“This is the president of the United States reaching out to a widow of the most famous civil rights leader and one of the most important figures in latter part of 20th century,” says Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library“The very person, Johnson, who partnered on that movement is reaching out to his widow at a very sensitive time.”

The letter goes on display for the first time, along with an epic charcoal drawing by Brian Washington at the Library on the University of Texas campus on Jan. 15 in commemoration of King’s birthday.

Here’s what the Library staff reports about the letter’s provenance:

“Mrs. King kept the letter until 2003, when she gave it to the singer, Harry Belafonte.  In 2007, Belafonte considered auctioning the letter.  The King family objected, the auction was canceled, and Belafonte and the King family reached an agreement.  In 2014, Belafonte gifted the letter to his half-sister, Shirley Cooks, who sold the letter at auction in March 2015 for $60,000 to a private collector. The letter from Johnson to Mrs. King will make its public museum debut on January 15, 2016, at the LBJ Library. It has been donated to the Library by a private collector for the permanent collection.”

The small exhibit continues through April 1o.

Shudde Fath’s 100th Birthday Party

“If you dropped a bomb on this place,” said Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, “you’d wipe out the entire progressive movement in Austin.

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Shudde Fath and Brigid Shea at Shudde Fath’s 100th birthday party.

Political fire, college spirit and fond regards for civic activist Shudde Fath warmed her 100th birthday party at the University of Texas Alumni Center.

Indeed, the place was packed with politicos, organizers and grassroots followers of the woman who helped spearhead causes from civil rights to ecological awareness and consumer protection. You can read all about her accomplishments and life in a long profile by reporter Marty Toohey and yours truly.

“I’ve often said that every day is a blessing,” Fath said after dinner. “I can’t believe I’ve accumulated 100 years of days!”

Sharp, funny and feisty, she thanked by name most of the influencers in attendance, but said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett couldn’t be there.

Lamar Smith is my Congressmen these days,” she sighed. “He doesn’t believe in climate change and it goes down from there. I still claim Lloyd as my Congressman.”

She left the youngsters in the house with a final tip: “You gotta give a damn about something, then do something about it.”