But Who’s Keeping Score? Film Composer John Williams Wins 2016 AFI Life Achievement Award

Never has a film composer won American Film Institute’s esteemed Life Achievement Award. Until now.

When you live in Florida, you spend a lot of time on boats. At beaches. It’s challenging to float along in the peaceful lull of Gulf tides and not, at some point, hear it.

Da dum.
Da dum dum.

The first chilling, paralyzing, swim-ruining notes of Jaws.


We feel certain people in water everywhere feel the same, even if that water is a man-made lake in Michigan. You don’t need salt water or sharks, you just have to have seen the movie at some point in your life. Or, at the very least, to have heard the music.

Such is the genius of John Williams, the composer whose first collaboration with then-unknown director Steven Spielberg redefined the suspense thriller, thanks largely to the fact that the real threat in the film isn’t the shark at all — it’s the feeling we get when we hear the music. You can watch the movie without the sound and the effect is meh.

But, listen to the first :38 of the theme song on YouTube and see if you don’t get a little case of the willies.

On June 9, 2016, American Film Institute (AFI) awarded Williams their Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor for a career in film. This was the first year — out of 44 — the accolade fell around the shoulders of a composer.

Composer John Williams

Composer John Williams

Williams, who turned 84 this year, raised most of us, giving us the emotional landscape of the most visible, commercially successful, culturally imprinted films of the past 40 years: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Superman, the Star Wars franchise, Schindler’s List, the Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park and three Harry Potter films. In sum — there’s a great chance any given working-age person in America can hear the first strains of “Indiana’s Theme,”  “Harry’s Wondrous World” or the “Imperial March” and feel some inscrutable stirring of the soul.

Williams, despite his 50 Oscar® nominations, five Academy Awards®, 22 Grammys® and 21 honorary degrees, still works in relative obscurity, seven days a week, on a 91-year-old Steinway piano. As of right now, he’s booked solid into 2019, when Spielberg’s fifth installment of Indiana Jones is set for release.

An intuitive composer, Williams typically talks with directors to get a sense of the film though sometimes he works from a book or script. He begins to tinker with note motifs — think the 2-note motif of Jaws or the five-notes of Close Encounters — working and re-working the tonality until he feels as if the notes speak the theme. In interviews, Williams describes his work as the “musical grammar” of a film, and these early, simple themes develop into massive forces of character every bit as integral to the success of a film as the human actors. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg credit Williams with the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones because the vitality and connectivity of the music imprinted a generation and bound it to the films.

Composer John Williams with Director Steven Spielberg

Composer John Williams with Director Steven Spielberg

Orchestrations follow the initial note themes, once directors accept where Williams is taking the scenes emotionally. In “spotting sessions,” Williams and the director watch a rough cut of the film, determining where music goes and what the music — like any other character — does in the scene. Eventually, an orchestra performs the music on a scoring stage while a cut of the film rolls on a regulation movie screen so the musicians, Williams, the director and producer can follow the synching of the music to the film. After that, Williams is usually nominated for an Oscar®.

John Williams bow

John Williams takes a bow.

Williams’s innate, operatic ear for transcribing the sensation of human emotion into music creates, from a sensory perspective, a three-dimensional experience of a two-dimensional art form. In fact, we tried to listen to John Williams music to write this blog (a playlist that began with “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), but the music rendered us unable to do anything but conjure a mental mash up of every HP we’d seen (*cough* all of them). The instrument he chose to simulate the flight of an owl is a miniature upright piano of sorts called a celesta, whose sustain pedal blurs the tinkling notes until the listener feels a sense of swirling down, like a bird feather floating to the ground.

Sir Howard Stringer, chair, AFI board of trustees, explained in a press release that “John Williams has written the soundtrack to our lives. Note by note, through chord and chorus, his genius for marrying music with movies has elevated the art form to symphonic levels and inspired generations of audiences to be enriched by the magic of the movies.”

John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award

John Williams with the AFI Life Achievement Award

If you missed AFI’s broadcast of AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN WILLIAMS, an encore presentation will run on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, at 8 p.m.

You can listen to AFI’s Williams playlist on Spotify at https://open.spotify.com/artist/3dRfiJ2650SZu6GbydcHNb.

Treasure Hunt: The 20-Year Search for the Lost Lines of Tampa’s Cuban Playwrights

Show @ Círculo Cubano copy 2

Show at Circulo Cubano.

In the early 1990’s, a young professor in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University happened to join a walking tour of Ybor City with renowned local history experts, Dr. Gary Mormino and E.J. Salcines, during a small gathering of peers at the University of South Florida.

The tour concluded in the ornate theater at Centro Asturiano, one of the many Ybor City social clubs and mutual aid societies, a relic of the turn-of-the-century heyday of Ybor as a cigar boomtown. As Dr. Mormino launched into his explanation of the Spanish history of the club, E.J. Salcines leaned to the ear of the young professor.

JoyceBabyCermeño+EmilianoElChavalSalcinesP.P.T_1 copy

Joyce Baby Cermeño and Emiliano El Chaval Salcines.

“I grew up in this theater,” he whispered, voice full of nostalgia and mischief. “This was our life.” Under the script of the formal lecture, E.J. Salcines, sotto voce, wove an enchanting picture of growing up in the rich culture of Ybor City, an anomaly in the American South—a thriving, interdependent, multi-immigrant society devoid of racial violence despite the ethic discrimination of the times. He shared colorful anecdotes of music and theater, of seeing Placido Domingo’s parents perform on the very stage of Centro Asturiano.

The young professor, Dr. Kenya Dworkin, whose dissertation concerned the Cuban identity between colonial rule to the first republic, fell under the spell.

“The idea that the Cubans here were continuing the tradition of Cuban-style theater from the island, adapting it and presenting it to the local community fascinated me,” says Dworkin. “But I knew nothing about it.”

CastofItCan'tHappenHereRehearsal copy (1937)

Cast of It Can’t Happen Here rehearsing in 1937.

She returned to Pittsburgh with a new intellectual curiosity on fire: given the importance the Ybor City cigar workers played in Cuban independence, what about Cuban theater of Tampa? The cigar workers organized that, too. What were the plays like? Who was writing them? What did they say about the people, the times?

She needed artifacts, evidence.

Surely, somewhere, someone had a stockpile of manuscripts from this creative outpouring of Cubans in Tampa.

She searched. She found nothing.

Then, Dworkin stumbled upon one other scholar—just one, out of the entire United States—who cared enough to peep into the cultural history of Ybor City, one of the most fascinating social experiments of the American 19th century.

Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor for Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, was directing a major national research project: Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage of the United States. He had one reference in his book.

Martí-Maceo Theater Circular 1940 copy

Martí-Maceo Theater circular, 1940.

Dworkin eventually learned through E.J. Salcines that the New Deal Works Project Administration funded one Spanish-speaking theater company through the Federal Theater Project, and that company came from Cubans and Spaniards in Tampa/Ybor City and performed at Centro Asturiano.

“Then I discovered from looking into this group that at the Library of Congress there was a small collection called the Fernando Mesa Collection. In the Mesa collection, I found several photographs and paraphernalia. Mesa was a Tampa native and very involved. He had a collection, so I thought he was dead,” says Dworkin.

Manuel Aparicio copy

The Centro Asturiano made history in 1936 when the WPA Federal Theater Project opened to the public under Manuel Aparicio, noted actor and director.

On summer break from the university, Dworkin traveled to Tampa on the trail of the missing manuscripts and in search of anyone who could fill in the gaping holes on the subject. She remembered visiting the offices of La Gaceta, the oldest family-owned, minority-owned newspaper in the country, on her tour with Gary Mormino, so she stopped in. Unannounced.

“The editor ended up being very charming, but at the time he gave me that ‘go away little girl, you’re bothering me’ attitude. Put his feet up on the desk. I thought, oh my gosh, this isn’t going to go anywhere,” says Dworkin. “Then I mentioned I was in Washington at the Fernando Mesa collection. All the sudden his eyes opened, he put his feet down, and calls out to his secretary, says ‘Call Fernando Mesa, someone wants to talk to him.’ So—to my shock—Fernando Mesa was alive.”

Dworkin’s sincere fascination on the subject of their plays and theater works led Mesa and Salcines to trust her enough to let her into the real world of Tampa’s Cubans. She was allowed into the men-only cantina at Centro Asturiano to hear the tales of Ybor’s golden age of cigar workers and their social contributions as actors, singers, dancer and playwrights.

Salvador Toledo & Chela Martínez 1948_1_1 copy

She found herself the lone female in the Saturday Cuban/Spanish coffee klatch and the Sunday Sicilian coffee klatch. “I was one of the boys,” she says, “and in time they would say anything in front of me.” Eventually, she met the wiliest rooster of them all, the local legend Salvador Toledo, who was the most prolific of all the Ybor cigar worker playwrights and a great comic actor. After coming around for years and immersing herself in the community, Dworkin found herself with a proposition to become a permanent part of the family. Toledo, at 88 years old and a widower, offered her a marriage proposal, which she respectfully declined.

SalvadorToledo+HisFumas copy

Salvador Toledo and his fumas.

“I felt more at home there [in Tampa] than anywhere on earth except maybe New York. I fell in love with the people who were resilient. Inspirational. By the time I started hanging out at the cantina, I was already obsessed. I was truly fascinated by their stories, and no one had paid attention to them except Nicolás.”

From 1995-2008, Dworkin gathered evidence. She collected hours and hours of video and audio interviews, photos, whatever she could get her hands on. In an unmarked folder at USF, Dworkin finally discovered what she’d been after: manuscripts of the plays. Despite what she knew after the hours of interviews—that there had to have been hundreds and hundreds of plays—the folder contained a mere seven scripts. “It was a disappointing yield,” she says.

Familia Tinguillo1947 copy

A page from the script of Familia Tinguillo, 1947.

During the years, Dworkin found other plays tucked away in suitcases or stashed as afterthoughts in homes in West Tampa and Ybor. Her book took shape, the names of people and their creative contributions to the soul of their American life inked into the pages of history.  But where were the rest of the manuscripts?

Dworkin’s big break came when word arrived that a trove of artifacts from the Cubans was in the Circulo Cubano, the Cubans’ mutual aid society and social club. But before she could mine the archives, another scholar intercepted the works, retained them at his house and withheld access to certain people working on Cuban identity—especially in regards to race and class. Dworkin and her book, stymied by professional rivalries, sat idle for 10 long years.

1942-cuban-club-show(Robertson&Fresh)www.floridahist ory.orgeventscuban-club-theater copy

The audience at a show in the Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club), 1942.

Patience proved her virtue. The professor eventually bequeathed the stash of Cuban cultural artifacts to USF’s Special Collections. Finally, Dworkin was able to see what he’d been hiding. “I found out he’d turned in the theater material to USF,” she says. “I was in Tampa last August and September [2015], and that’s when I found the major stash. But, I’ve been unable to finish my book for 20 years.”

Dworkin found 47 physical plays in the USF stash which she says “is very incomplete” due to the appearance of a register book listing an additional 81 plays by Tampa Cuban playwrights. The sheer volume of their work—mostly slapstick comedies mixed with social commentary, explorations of their new American identities, racism and their perspectives of salient issues like the atomic bomb and the plight of black Cubans in Havana—speaks to the surfeit of Cuban creativity in Tampa and the cultural need to express and share in their artistic talents.

“At the time, there was no art person to archive what they were doing. They didn’t see the value the way I do, looking from a historical perspective. The plays were lowbrow, farce . . . something ‘the workers’ did. The performances were ephemeral, many scripts were handwritten. Making plays was part of their everyday life. Little did they know how valuable it would be later,” she says.

Un blackout en Ybor City pg-1

First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.

Un blackout en Ybor City pg-2.jpg

First pages of the script of Un blackout en Ybor City.


But the value, in time, rose to the surface. Years ago, Dworkin came to Tampa to give an intimate talk at USF about her research, to read letters penned by Tampa Cuban and Spanish actors to Roosevelt to not disband the Federal Theater Project. She pulled her favorite letter from the bunch and read it. From the silent crowd, a man stood and said, “That was me. I wrote that letter.”

“I have to honor their memory,” Dworkin says. “What they did here is a tremendous value as a window into a community. They lived a curriculum of culture, supported all the other social clubs and their art. They want to be acknowledged for what they did and for the value of the role of theater in this community.”

Dr. Dworkin’s book, tentatively titled Before Latino: How Cuban Theater in Tampa Shaped an American Immigrant Society, will be the first of its kind to document the excitement and value of the performing arts to our Cuban community of Ybor City.

Kenya C. Dworkin

Dr. Kenya Dworkin


If you have artifacts to share with her—programs, photos, manuscripts, anything—or if you are interested in having her tell more stories of her adventures with the colorful characters of Ybor City with your group or organization, please contact Dr. Dworkin at kdworkin@andrew.cmu.edu.