It’s a delicate maneuver to book a charity’s client to speak at a benefit event. After all, they usually are not practiced public speakers. And without the intervening filter of an edited video, pathos too easily could turn to bathos.
Yet nonprofits are taking that chance more often. In three recent and very different cases, it was extremely effective.
For instance, during the “Words of Hope” dinner for Caritas, one could hardly beat the soaring but grounded rhetoric of Lynn and Tom Meredith, winners of the Harvey Penick Award. Their message of inclusion, collaboration and innovation as part of Austin problem-solving should be distributed to everyone who shares a love for this city.
Yet it was formerly homeless client of Caritas who also held the hundreds of guests in her spell. She grew up in an abusive household and married into one. Her life on the streets included acts which she now cannot bear to mention. For the first time in her long life, she lives in a safe, clean place of her own, thanks to Caritas and its partners. Powerful stuff.
Similarly, at the “Building Healthy Futures” luncheon for Aids Services of Austin, a parade of speakers and videos briskly and efficiently made the case for the nonprofit’s efforts to end new HIV cases in the coming decade or so. Nobody harnesses the power of numbers and graphs like this group, which recently opened its one-stop ASA Moody Medical Clinic.
All this was upstaged by two women — one transexual — who told their contrasting life stories linked together by HIV status. They were identified as Foxy and Charlotte. The first described her life on the streets — euphemistically a “social worker” — with trenchant wit. The other was quiet, serious as she talked about the special challenges for her family.
Lastly, the “Imaginarium” for the Thinkery always promises a circus-like offering of educational entertainment. Thus we witnessed the vintage tools of the Daniel G. Benes Science Show and the electrifying — up to a point — Tesla coils of Arcattack. (Repetition does not always increase attraction.)
Again, it was two Thinkery clients, Kendall Farr and Caleb Farr, who, through clever videos made the best case for the hugely popular outfit formerly known as the children’s museum. (At least I assume the Farr siblings are Thinkery regulars.) These bantering kids dressed scientific costumes are so talented, let’s hope they continue to show us exactly what it means to teach and to please.
During easily the best Jewel Fashion Luncheon ever for the Women’s Symphony League, former “Project Runway” host Tim Gunn met briefly with fans in a side room, then spent a full hour on stage sharing life stories — including his reasons for leaving the show — with several hundred transfixed guests at the Hyatt Regency Austin.
After a lovely, truncated fashion show staged among the lunch tables with apparel from Neiman Marcus, Austin singer, producer and radio host Sarajane Mela Dailey asked Gunn questions. As she does in performance, Dailey waited — alert and alive to possibility, without stealing focus — until it time came to pose each adroit query with just the right tone.
Dapper and open as always, Gunn spoke on four topics.
His youth as he studied classical piano, while planning to become an architect. How e dropped out of architecture school to study painting, then was forced to take a sculpture class that turned out to be his 3-dimensional métier.
His time as a teacher and administrator, brought into the Parsons School of Design to head the fashion program, only to find it was “not a design school, but a dressmaking school.” He radically restructured the curriculum and a signature fashion-show benefit in order to prepare the students for the real world, where they would be expected to be entrepreneurs who could think critically and handle any design puzzle. How dare he? “You’ve got to tell the truth.” He also introduced to much resistance mannikins that were “gazelle thin,” which not only helped students design for real clients, but also foreshadowed the variety of model shapes on “Project Runway.”
The early days of “Project Runway,” when he was highly skeptical of the reality contest until he learned that they would be using actual designers, not people off the street. He wasn’t supposed to appear on camera. When they asked Gunn to ask questions of the designers in the studio while they, he expected that his part would end up on the editing floor. After all, this is what he did with Parsons students without calling attention to himself. Of course, with Heidi Klum, he became the unquestioned costar of the show and a role model for all teachers.
The end of his time on “Project Runway” began in the spring. The new season was ready to go. Then he and Klum found out through young relatives by way of social media that the show was headed back to Bravo, its original home, from Lifetime. After a period of silence from the networks, their agents informed them on an offer of 60 percent less salary than they were making before. To the Bravo execs, these two idols were “old and stale.” So Gunn and Klum accepted an offer from Amazon to create a new fashion show. Details to come.
The Austin Book Arts Center didn’t ask for $50 million.
Or $5 million.
The backers of this group that engages folks in the art of making books — no, not bookmaking, that’s something else — requested a total of $15,000 to help them move from their studio at the undone Flatbed Press building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to new digs.
Aided by the deliciously dry humor of leader Mary Baughmam, formerly a conservator at the Ransom Center, the center’s benefit at the Austin Central Public Library was an endearingly grassroots affair.
Library system Director Roosevelt Weeks welcomed the casually attired band of adults and children. Soothing music, scrumptious sandwiches, lively activities — they all combined to make one linger and contemplate the gifts this group has already given our city.
And how one can help the center reach its modest goal.
Crusading for a time when the rate of new HIV cases in our area drops to zero, AIDS Services of Austin ceremoniously unveiled its new one-stop ASA Moody Medical Clinic on Cameron Road on Monday.
Generously supported by the Moody Family Foundation — which recently made the critical differences for major projects by the Contemporary Austin – LagunaGloria, Waller Creek Conservancyand Pease Park Conservancy — the clinic is aimed at the 7,000 people in our area already with HIV, including the 20 percent who don’t know it yet. Still others may use it during the HIV prevention process.
Surrounded by ASA staff and volunteers, dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Council Members Greg Casar, Ora Houston and Jimmy Flannigan applauded the nonprofit’s progress on what 30 years ago seemed like an impossible campaign to fight AIDS and help those living with it. Now ASA employs 70 people, many of them at the Cameron Road location, as well as at a dental clinic and remote prevention sites. A new one is planned for the area around Airport Boulevard and Springdale Road.
One of the most impressive sights hidden from the public at the Cameron Road HQ is ASA’s food bank, which began with distributions from the trunk of a car, and now looks like a miniature but substantial version of Capitol Area Food Bank.
Over the years, the American-Statesman has covered much more than the players on the field during UT Longhorns football games. For this feature story on the spectacle of the sport, published Sept. 13, 2003, I was embedded with the Longhorn band.
The marquee players soaked up the lights center stage — um, midfield — while a cast of supporting players turned Royal-Memorial Stadium into a multi-ring circus.
Competing for our attention were thundering, rhythmically driven musicians, cannon-blasting Texas Cowboys, Bevo-braving Silver Spurs, complementary Orange and White cheerleading squads, aerobically charged Poms dancers, war-painted Hellraisers, goodies-hawking vendors, silent but omnipresent event staffers and security guards, run-like-a-bunny equipment kids, harassed game officials, dozens of sub-coaches and more than 80,000 chanting, stomping, finger-pumping Orange Bloods.
Austin’s longest-running, most spectacular theatrical event? The University of Texas Longhorns’ home football games, of course.
Theater, you say? Both forms of entertainment feature players working from a script — intermittently improvised — in a specialized building that separates the primary actors from the spectators. Both depend — to one extent or the other — on music, dance and visual overload to enhance the enthusiasm of the audience. And, by any standards, UT has turned the spectacle of sports into an art form.
This super-saturated color and pageantry, separate from the drama of running and passing plays, downs and scores, is carefully sketched, choreographed and executed six times each fall in Austin. Opening night this year was Aug. 31 and the run continues today.
The theatrical event starts more than two hours before kickoff, if you don’t count the all-day tailgate fiestas that trail down San Jacinto Boulevard and Trinity Street, or the even hardier partiers who arrive days early to park their recreational vehicles in the lot near the LBJ Library and Museum.
At the Alumni Center and other controlled-access venues nearby, private receptions with live music — and important for many adults: legal alcohol — rim the stadium to the north, south, east and west in anticipation of the game. And that does not count the mini-bacchanals in the private stadium skyboxes.
Streams of orange surge through the streets near the arena, joining into mighty rivers before they empty into the boiling cauldron of rust, pumpkin and tangerine inside Royal-Memorial Stadium. More than an hour before the show — sorry, game — the cheerleaders bound onto the field, barely noticed by the conversing fans.
Six enormous versions of the historical Texas flags ripple in the wind, only a few of the many banners to be unfurled. In addition to multiple Lone Stars, there are flags for all the teams in the Big 12, orange and white streamers that spell out T-E-X-A-S or bear the likeness of Bevo and, of course, the largest Texas flag in the world, unfurled just before kickoff by the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity.
The stadium is only half-full when the Jumbotron scoreboard “fires up,” as they say in the sports biz, more than an hour before the first opportunity for any player to score. Over the course of the next few hours, we’ll see distracting weather reports, advertisements, player introductions, replays and an animated Longhorn that resembles a quicksilver version of the mythical Minotaur with a horned head and the exaggeratedly muscular body of a male human.
The players warm up by turns on-field, a practice not unlike the theatrical trend in the 1960s and ’70s when actors and technicians made their pre-show preparations in full view of the audience.
Charismatic hawkers in black-and-white striped uniforms infiltrate the stands, barking their water, peanuts, cotton candy and such. The Silver Spurs service group leads the tranquil Bevo to his patch of turf near the south end zone, where curious children are allowed to approach . . . but not too close. Size-wise, Bevo is a monster of a bovine.
Security guards and other staff make their presence known with crossed arms and quizzical frowns that turn into polite graciousness the minute anyone needs help. The elite Texas Cowboys, the counterparts to the Spurs, but dressed in leather chaps and black hats, roll Smokey the Cannon onto the north end zone. By now, the painted hellions known as the Longhorn Hellraisers spirit group have parked themselves behind the Cowboys, starting their own cheers (if you can call their banshee yells cheers).
A uniformed honor guard advances stiffly with the Texas and U.S. flags. The New Mexico State players stream onto the field to scattered huzzahs and boos. They partake in ceremonial chest-beating, as if to ward off the orange-clad demons that surround them.
It’s 30 minutes before kickoff and the sold-out stadium is still far from full. Sable, titanium and purple-gray clouds roll in from a tropical depression that has advanced on the stadium. Mist turns into sprinkles that eventually become a light but steady downpour.
Already one aspect of sporting events is appreciated: the ability to move around, to visit the facilities or purchase refreshments at any time. To a critic trained to sit through five-hour operas and suppress the urges of nature, this comes as a relief.
Exactly 19 minutes before kickoff, the rigorously disciplined Longhorn Band marches into the stadium, making a robust sound echoed by the crowd, which is finally on its feet. Lights glint off the brass. Big Bertha, the oversized drum, is wheeled into the arena like a captured elephant in a Roman victory parade.
“All these games are scripted,” says Chris Plonsky, UT women’s athletic director and an attentive student of sports-as-theater. “We borrowed from everybody to create a five-hour show. The result is a festival atmosphere like nothing else.”
Curtain time: A restless crowd gathers outside the igloo-shaped exit from the field house. Clapping turns rhythmic. The Hook ‘Em hand sign wags through the stands. The band bangs out the fight song. A lone baton twirler seems lost in the pandemonium. The faces of the rich and powerful glint in the blue light of identical televisions in their private boxes.
On-field, Lance Armstrong, guest star, is introduced with his football-helmeted son. The stadium hushes for the national anthem, then “Texas, Our Texas,” the lyrics helpfully provided by the Jumbotron. Then the big, big Lone Star flag comes out.
The patriotic display warms the heart of this native Texan, but what must the New Mexicans think of the imperial pomp?
The Texas players finally burst onto the scene in full force, emerging from a cloud of stage fog. All the actors converge at midfield, with a space carved out for the coin toss.
The game? The main plot is already well-known.
For home-team fans, the first hour was cursed with opening-night jitters that seemed to presage tragedy: The highly ranked Longhorns failed to score a single point while the New Mexico State Aggies protected a 7-point lead. Then, well into the second quarter, Texas’ Selvin Young returned a 97-yard kickoff for a score, and the crowd went bananas. They found little to complain about for the rest of the game. Offensive, defensive and special-teams squads scored, bringing the final tally to 66-7.
After almost every score, the cannon blasted, the band pounded and waggled, and the cheerleaders back-flipped as many times as there were Longhorn points scored on the board. The halftime entertainment, led by three band conductors on ladders, seemed fairly tame after all their previous activity and the formations were not clear from all points in the stadium. The last 10 minutes of halftime proved the only quiet period of the game, because New Mexico State did not send a band and there was no replacement entertainment.
No matter: time for 10 minutes of reflection on this sensation called Longhorn football. The monumental show has lasted almost as many seasons (110) as the 10 longest-running Broadway musicals put together (124). It has everything a theater-goer could want, plus something rare for the arts — a clear winner at the end of the evening. Luckily, for the vast majority of fans, that winner was Texas.
The Nettie Benson Latin American Collection is a University of Texas treasure you should get to know better.
Founded almost 100 years ago in 1921 with the acquisition of Mexican historian and bibliophile Genaro García‘s library, it grew vastly under the direction of UT professor Carlos Castañeda — partial namesake for the Perry-Castañeda Library — then under historian Nettie Lee Benson. For decades, the Collection has been the finest and most complete library of its kind in the Americas.
When I did research there in the 1980s for my doctoral dissertation, it was referred to by scholars as the “Library of Congress for Latin America.” Sort of like the Ransom Center across campus, its leaders had collected so many books, manuscripts and other objects in its chosen fields, people travel from around the world to visit it.
Crucially, it houses materials that back up some of what was lost in the recent fire that gutted the Brazil Museum.
The Collection, as well as its intimate partner, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, are now receiving more attention locally.
At “An Evening for Discovery,” a recent benefit dinner at the AT&T Center, I ran into many old and new friends, including Maria Cisne Farahani, the woman behind Fara Coffee, which benefits workers in her native Nicaragua (we talked about the brisk change in political will in that country); Monica Peraza, who updated me on the latest at the Long Center, where she now captains the board of directors; attorney and event host Becky Beaver, who is becoming one of the Benson’s most eloquent promoters; Leslie Montoya, a local Univision reporter; Ernesto Rois, who is in the medical parts business (I don’t think that’s the right term, but you understand); and Adriana Pacheco Roldán, a scholar who, with FernandoMacias-Garza, gave $50,000 for an endowment to kick off the Benson’s centennial celebration.
“They didn’t just save our building,” says Austin attorney Laura Fowler about the firefighters who responded to the conflagration at the old Millett Opera House on June 16. “They saved our treasures.”
A sprinkler system also did its job, but Fowler, who advises the foundation board that leases the building to the plush Austin Club, wanted to thank all the firefighters and police officers who made sure the fire, set by a persistent arsonist, did not produce casualties or more loss of property, including old paintings and decor.
The occasion for the public recognition last week was “Burning Down the House,” a cheekily named fundraiser at the Austin Club for the foundation that recently purchased the historic structure on East Ninth Street from the Austin school district.
By way of marvelous coincidence, the builder of the 1878 structure was Charles Millet, the city’s first volunteer fire captain, who as alderman argued strenuously for fire safety standards. It served many functions, including offices of the Austin Statesman.