Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dispatches from the Sunshine State 2 - Sending In the Clowns

After our long drive down the Eastern Seaboard from Washington, DC, we had a couple of days to decompress in Gainesville before setting off on a ten-day excursion through central Florida and along the southwestern Gulf Coast to the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades (by far the edgiest edge of America I have encountered to date). The first leg of this new journey took us south from Gainesville, across the western edges of the Ocala Scrub, and then down along the central ridge of peninsular Florida to Lakeland. This is, perhaps, my favorite area of Florida. Certainly it is the area I know best. I have been traveling these highways and byways over the past four decades. There have been changes, of course, but for the most part the landscape is as I remember it.

Located approximately half way between Tampa and Orlando in what was once the heart of Florida’s citrus belt, Lakeland is the home of Florida Southern College which my wife and I attended as undergraduates. The first order of business on this road trip was attending the homecoming celebration marking the college’s 125th anniversary. Founded in Orlando as the South Florida Seminary, in 1885, it morphed into Southern College when it moved to Sutherland (now Palm Harbor), and then briefly to Clearwater, both on the Gulf Coast. It finally moved to Lakeland in 1922 and was renamed Florida Southern College in 1925. Frank Lloyd Wright was invited to the campus in 1936 and returned to Taliesin to design his “Child of the Sun,” a complex of eighteen campus buildings, twelve of which were completed before the architect died in 1959. The West Campus of Florida Southern College now constitutes the largest concentration of Wright-designed structures in the world and his only college campus (see my posting of March 28, 2009).

Our visit in Lakeland afforded us an opportunity to spend time with old college chums, some of whom I had not seen since I left Lakeland upon graduation in December 1973. It seems strange to walk around campus now and look at the young students and recall when we wandered these walkways years ago looking at the old folks coming back to visit. I am reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne returning to Bowdoin College, his alma mater, for a commencement ceremony in 1852. “All my contemporaries have grown into the funniest old men in the world,” he told his wife Sophia. “Am I a funny old man?” I wonder if these kids look at us this way.

Many of us were members of The Vagabonds, the college theater troupe, and this homecoming was particularly bittersweet. We celebrated being together again after all of these years, but we also returned to mark the passing of Mel Wooten, our director and mentor during the beginning of our budding thespian careers. Some of us have continued in the theater and others have chosen different career paths, but we all owe Mel no small measure of thanks for turning out the way we did. There was a brief and touching ceremony dedicating the theater lobby in Mel’s honor after which we all went inside to share recollections of our time on that stage and our fond remembrances of our departed friend. Some of the current Vagabonds were there and treated us to a sampling of their impressive talents as we looked at each other and wondered if we were that good way back when. There was laughter and music and I can’t help but think that Mel was looking down on all of us with a big smile on his face.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening - certainly for me - was when Robert MacDonald, a brilliant and gifted concert pianist who has been artist-in-residence at the college since 1963, stepped down to the stage to play Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music. I have known Bob and his wife Ingrid, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, since the time I first set foot on campus back in the autumn of 1969. I developed a close and lasting friendship with them and their daughter Sona during the time we spent together in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s. Sona is now a wonderfully talented and successful actress in Vienna where her folks first met as students in the late 1950s. I have listened to Bob play this particular song since he and Sondheim first worked together many years ago, and I think of him every time I hear it. It is a song of anger and regret, but not when I hear Bob play it. So, when he sat down to the small upright piano on stage - a far cry from the Bosendorfer grand piano he is accustomed to playing - and his long, graceful fingers tinkled out the first notes, I knew I was going to hear him play it again. I have to admit that my eyes turned a little misty as a flood of memories came rushing back. When I first met Bob he was in his late 30s, a young and vibrant presence . . . a veritable force of nature. Now, having turned 80 just ten days ago (Sondheim turns 80 tomorrow so the song was quite appropriate on that score as well), he seemed much frailer than I remembered from the last time we saw each other six years ago; a reminder that none of us are as young as we used to be. That all changed, however, when he sat down before the keyboard and all the power and muscle of his immense talent overshadowed the passing of so many years.

Today I turn another year older . . . on the cusp of sixty. . .not quite there yet but getting closer every day. It was nice to be able to spend my birthday here in Lakeland among so many fond memories and in the company of friends who figure prominently in them. Thinking of that song as Bob played it last night, I have no regrets about growing older. So what if some look at me as the funniest of old men?

There ought be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. On a personal note: I sang that song (Bill Dake on piano, fantastic job) at our frat at our first Hawaiian Luau (circa Spring 1973), I was sitting on the floor singing (with eighty people in the room), and brought tears to several co-eds. It didn't hurt that I had seen it performed on Broadway the winter before (on a Mel Wooton Broadway Winterim). In particular, I had hit a hard cord with audience viewer Melissa Fields who broke into massive tears -- I gave her a long hug. It stuck me hard that such a song could move the emotions so readily. Music and words are indeed powerful stuff. Back to Robert McDonald -- I've been at Loca Lee Buckner Theatre circa early '74 when I heard Bob play it. It was magical then, and I'm sure just as now. What a rare treat you had Steve to hear it again.

    McDonald has amazed me with his God-given gift many times to the point where I would often say to myself, "How lucky I am to be here listening to this magnificent Robert McDonald piece -- this is where I'm suppose to be in place and time...a gift from the gods (or God)."
    Robert is the best version of what he does. He feeds your heart and soul at the same time.

    ....and don't get me started on Ingrid -- she is a marvelous dynamic person in her own right. What a magnificent couple.

    ...And Mel Wooton -- hey I'll start crying if I write something here. He was a second father to us all.