Past, Present & Future

The 2019 D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition honors Opera Tampa’s dedication to nurturing new artists. On a more personal note, the competition represents Opera Tampa League Board Chair Gina d’Angelo’s commitment to continuing her parents’ love of music through philanthropic support.

Dr. George and Mary D’Angelo

When Straz Center donor and Opera Tampa League chairperson Gina d’Angelo was in college, a fortunate series of events led to her parents hosting a dinner party for Luciano Pavarotti at their home in the hamlet of Erie, Penn. Tasked with pressing the wrinkles from the famed tenor’s tux, Gina and her sister Joanne set to their chore with giddy delight. Joanne, an actress, knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a costume when she saw it.

She pulled on Pavarotti’s tux, brandished its white handkerchief, then launched into her best impression, small white flag a-wave, as though she stood on the stage at La Scala.

Pavarotti and Gina at a D’Angelo dinner in Erie, Penn.

As charismatic and larger-than-life as Pavarotti was, it wasn’t the two D’Angelo daughters who were most enamored with the Italian singer — that was George D’Angelo, the girls’ father, who happened to be Erie’s homespun impresario and a devoted fan of fine music and inspired artists. Dr. D’Angelo, a heart surgeon, also presided over the Erie Philharmonic and had befriended Pavarotti’s manager in the hopes of convincing him to get Erie on Pavarotti’s performance calendar. A few years passed until, one day, Dr. D’Angelo received a call.

“Pavarotti’s going to be singing in Cleveland on Friday,” the manager tells him. “If you want him on Sunday, he’s yours.”

That’s how Joanne D’Angelo ended up in Pavarotti’s tux while the rest of the house was in a tizzy getting ready for the post-concert reception for the world’s greatest tenor.

“It’s funny,” Gina remembers, “because when you host an event like that, everybody comes through the front door. My parents were very social, and because they were such lovers of great music and subscribers to The Met, we had quite a few singers at our house in those days. But Pavarotti — he came through the back door, through the kitchen. He started talking to the cooks, tasting the food. He was just a normal guy. A pretty large normal guy.”

George D’Angelo came to his appreciation of the arts through Gina’s mother, Mary. “It all started with my mother,” Gina says. “She was classically trained. She had a beautiful voice. She first got involved with the Erie Philharmonic, eventually convincing my dad to get involved as well. Those initial investments of time grew into so much more.”

Mary D’Angelo with daughters Gina and Joanne

The D’Angelos ultimately funded the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Eventually, they saw the need to take an active role in developing new talent, so the couple conceived of and created the annual D’Angelo Young Artists Competition in Erie, awarding the winners substantial prize money and a performance opportunity.

When George D’Angelo passed away in 2014, Gina felt a profound sense of responsibility to live up to and honor the example her parents had set as contributors to their community. “I thought, if my dad could be a surgeon working 18- hour days and be president of the philharmonic as well as giving to so many other charities, then I can do that, too,” says Gina. She became the chair of the Opera Tampa League in addition to her full-time job and various other obligations, deciding, last year, to revive the D’Angelo Young Artists Competition for Opera Tampa. “I think Dad would be proud of me. I contacted the winners from when we hosted the event in Erie. I asked them, ‘what did winning the competition do for your career? How did it impact your life?’ The responses I got convinced me we needed to bring it back.”

Dr. George D’Angelo with Pavarotti

This season, Opera Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary — an auspicious milestone for enacting the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition. Purely a competition for upcoming singers, this event demonstrates Opera Tampa’s unwavering commitment to finding operatic talent and developing their careers. The winners receive prize money to further their studies and careers and also earn the opportunity to perform in an Opera Tampa production. “For me, bringing back the competition is an extension of what my parents did. Mom and Dad instilled in me that giving back is just what you do. I am trying to live by their example,” says Gina.

The D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition finale takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4 p.m. in the TECO Theater. Winners will be announced, and prizes awarded. To see these upcoming opera stars, rsvp@strazcenter.org.

 

We Know the Mission

Straz Salutes is an organizational mission to make sure our military and veteran communities know they have a place at The Straz. We provide tickets, outreach programs and presentations for military, veterans and their families.

We’ve always had a soft spot for military, veterans and their families, which is why we’ve offered discounted tickets for our armed forces guests for years. Since 9/11, the country as a whole has seen more wounded warriors return home with visible and invisible injuries sustained in the line of duty. Since we regard our military with the utmost respect, we, like most civilian organizations, needed some first-hand guidance about how to say, ‘hey, we’re here for you in more ways than just tickets’ and still honor the warrior’s code of stoicism regarding pain.

We know people in the military and their families have chosen a tough path. It is our earnest desire to demonstrate that the performing arts can allow safe passage back to self and home.

We call our initiative in this endeavor Straz Salutes.

Cast of Diavolo’s The Veterans Project in rehearsal at The Straz.

As more research and media emerged explaining the positive effects of the arts for PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), we realized we had a duty to implement greater efforts to build stronger ties to our military community. Simultaneously, we explored national movements in arts and healing as well as worked with a creative arts therapy network for PTSD and TBI, Creative Forces, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs.

Soon after, the Straz Center community engagement department began direct efforts to initiate visual art, performance collaborations and community conversations with our military community. The Straz received a grant from Creative Forces to launch the VetArtSpan project with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The project, spearheaded by our community engagement specialist Fred Johnson, resulted in the VetArtSpan website that includes podcasts, a visual art gallery, helpful information for civilians. The VetArtSpan project culminated in a live performance of veteran artists at The Straz on Aug. 30 this year.

Local veterans and dancers work together to create a meaningful and memorable performance with Diavolo.

These efforts—discounted tickets, our education from national organizations, direct community involvement as well as military-themed programming—converged into a united push to bridge any gaps between us, our military and their families. The different prongs needed unification under one initiative: thus, our over-arching program, Straz Salutes, was born.

The sum of our efforts to reach, meet and support the whole scope of the military community, Straz Salutes appears on the 2019-2020 season in many forms. Our Straz Salutes logo denotes specific performances relating to or of particular interest to our military community, including the United States Air Force Concert Band on Oct. 26 and longtime veteran advocate and country music star Aaron Tippin on Oct. 22. Our ongoing community engagement efforts resulted in some spectacular collaborations, most notably the Diavolo Veterans Project and the Medal of Honor visual art exhibit.

Veterans and dancers from the Tampa Bay area participated in a few weeks of intense dance training with Diavolo earlier this year.

Diavolo, a performance art group based in Los Angeles, made an open call for local dancers and veterans in the Tampa Bay area to participate in a two-week intensive to create a dance to be performed in Diavolo’s Oct. 25 show in Morsani Hall. The piece, A Long Journey Home, held to a demanding 5-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule, and is slated to be the centerpiece of their eye-popping Straz Center program.

At the beginning of October, we unveiled our newest exhibit on the Riverwalk which features the visual art of students from the tri-county area who participated with us as part of the Medal of Honor convention being held in Tampa this year. The kids were given a virtue of the Medal of Honor—”the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force”—to depict upon a coin. The top seven artworks were reproduced physically and now hang upon the panels of the Riverwalk gallery to coincide with the Medal of Honor convention Oct. 22-26. The community engagement department also sent Fred Johnson, himself a veteran and artist who is heavily involved in the Diavolo project as well, to MacDill Youth Center to teach bucket drumming for the children living on MacDill Air Force Base.

Diavolo’s The Veterans Project aims to exemplify strength and emotion through it’s unique dance techniques.

Alice Santana, acting director for the community engagement and education programs, envisions growing more community partnerships through Straz Salutes, formally and informally. “Our job is to accomplish the goal of making sure our military and veteran community feels 100% welcomed here. Straz Salutes is also about equity. If we have something going on in these walls that can help these families get their minds off the past, current deployments or the strains of military life, we want them to have access to our performances, our programs, our campus. We are approachable, we’re open to suggestions and we are continually looking for input from active military and veterans on what we can do better,” she says.

Don’t miss our Straz Salutes performances and events this Oct. For tickets and more information, visit strazcenter.org

Set in Stone (and Bronze)

This week we unveil the new collection of sculptures in Morsani Hall.

For quite some time, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with the National Sculpture Society (NSS) in New York City thanks to a very special couple who has been with The Straz from the beginning. Well, even before the beginning since Jim Jennewein—The Straz connection to the NSS—was one of the original architects of our campus.

He and his wife Joan stayed involved with us all the years after, she on our Opera Tampa League Board and both as patrons, donors and overall genuinely lovely people who appreciate art in all its forms. The newest collection of sculptures, unveiled in Morsani Hall this week, stand in honor of the Jenneweins’ dedication to sculpture and art and their decades-long connection with the Straz Center.

The juried exhibit, Performance in Sculpture, invokes both literal and abstract notions of performance, resulting in some provocative works that are definitely worth a gander before your next show. We decided to use the blog this week to talk about what we love about a few of the new pieces, then you can go see them for yourself with the rest of the collection.

PUMA                                                                                                                                                                                    By Kristine Taylor                                                                                                                                        

WHAT WE LOVE: We’re cat people. We’re performing arts people. Which means we tend to think of cats as the embodiment of dance, music and theater rolled into one majestic creature. Kristine Taylor’s exquisite bronze likeness of the only big cat native to North America captures the artistic essence of puma concolor, a.k.a. the mountain lion or cougar (in Florida we call it a panther). The delicate point of the paw conjures a dancer’s leg, the arced body from tail to nose reminds us of a ligature in music and the potential energy—the cat is about to strike—creates quite the dramatic moment.

MARIAN ANDERSON                                                                                                                                             By Meredith Bergmann 

WHAT WE LOVE: Well, what’s not to love about Marian Anderson? One of the greatest singers of all time, Anderson’s contralto stirred the soul whether she was performing arias or spirituals. “Movement” is the word we think of when we think of Marian Anderson- her voice moved people, political will and social justice. Meredith Bergmann’s sculpture, while seemingly a static statue at first glance, reveals the swirling, sweeping grace not only of the woman herself but of the kinetic force she brought to the times in which she lived.

GOSSIP                                                                                                                                                                            By David Richardson                                                                                                                                        

WHAT WE LOVE: We are almost as big a fan of humor in fine art as we are of cats, and that’s saying something. David Richardson’s delicate and deliciously witty quintet of chickadees appears as unassuming art for the bird lover until you take a look at the title. Gossip suddenly transforms the seed-eating five into a cabal of possible frenemies. Now, the artwork begs the questions what are they talking about? What did that one chickadee do? Does this work answer the riddle of when do birds become catty? And that’s the kind of thinking we admire in fun visual art.

DRUM HORSE                                                                                                                                                            By Kathleen Friedenberg                                                                                                                          

WHAT WE LOVE: Of the 13 new works, Kathleen Friedenberg’s opus to the grand military purpose of the drum horse represents the classic Western European sculptural style. (There is another beauty recalling the traditional Greco-Roman style, but you will have to go see that one for yourself.) We note, off the bat, the sense of purpose charged in the horse’s gait, the diagonal lines of his legs contrasted by the ramrod straight posture of the soldier he carries. In bronze, this sculpture acts especially reflective both physically in the material’s sheen and metaphorically: Friedenberg notes that this sculpture emerges from her memory of growing up in England; it is, literally, the artist’s reflection of a time gone by. We also adore the meticulous detail work of the subjects, from the saddlecloth to the parallel “manes” on the soldier’s helmet and on the drum horse.

We hope you find even more to love about the new works in our Performance in Sculpture exhibit. There are nine more pieces besides these to enjoy, each with its own sense of awe and multiple points of contemplation. If you really love them, you’ll be happy to know each is available for purchase, with a portion of the acquisition price going to the Straz Center to support our mission.

The collection may be viewed by patrons attending performances in Morsani Hall. The collection may also be viewed by special arrangement during non-performance times. Contact the Straz Center’s director of guest services at 813.222.1062 for more information.

Let’s Get in Transformation

The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 29 on Friday. We’re celebrating with a free concert in Maestro’s Restaurant featuring incredibly talented local artists of mixed abilities. Let’s meet a few.

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On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law acknowledging the right of access and inclusion for people with disabilities. That monumental, historic demonstration of America’s commitment to equality turns 29 years old this Friday, and we are rolling out the red carpet with our friends from the Mayor’s Alliance for Persons with Disabilities and the Hillsborough County Alliance for Citizens with Disabilities to throw a party.

Part One: Let the Shameful Walls of Exclusion Finally Come Tumbling Down

In his public remarks that day, President Bush exhorted the world’s governments and directed American citizens to “let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

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President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the White House South Lawn on July 26, 1990.

After a brutal history of cloaking disabilities in shame and ostracism, America made a pioneering effort with the ADA to bring citizens with disabilities into the fold both socially and economically. It was supremely successful, driving business and leading to social improvements that benefitted everyone. Today, we have large print, automatic sliding doors, access ramps and beeping crosswalks thanks to the ADA. The notion of “disabilities” is being eclipsed by the understanding of “different abilities.”

Many years ago, as leadership at The Straz searched for ways to expand our own efforts at inclusion, we held a community round table to ensure we were doing our best to make the performing arts accessible for all. We made some great friends and partners during this process, one of whom is Brenda Clark, the project director and employment services coordinator for the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at the University of South Florida.

If you come to the get-together Friday (the first part of the celebration is at the John F. Germany Library across the street starting at 3:30 p.m.), there’s no doubt you’ll see Brenda. Enthusiastic, excited about ways to implement inclusion and accessibility and a lot of fun to be around, Brenda worked with the Straz Center’s Acting Director of Community Engagement Alice Santana to hold the first-ever performing arts component of the annual ADA celebration.

Part Two: TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion

This year, the annual ADA anniversary celebration, titled TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion, takes place in two parts at two locations—The John F. Germany Library and the Straz Center—and features artists from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

FCIC_Transformations_Invitation_FINAL (003)

“Our event is also partnered with Arts for All, which is a statewide visual arts competition,” says Brenda. “We’ll announce the awards with a first, second and third prize. The John F. Germany Library offered to host a gallery of the visual art. We thought, ‘This is so great! Let’s see what else we can do.’ It was my wildest dream to showcase our local pool of performing artists, and I wanted the performing arts involved so badly. When we met Alice, everything started falling into place. The Straz is so professional. It’s real. It’s not something that someone is doing as a handout. So, at the concert at The Straz, we’ll have a dance troupe. We have singers. We have a classical pianist. The Straz is providing an accessible stage, lighting, sound and Fred Johnson will emcee. We’re just super, super, super exited about it. I may be more excited than anyone.”

The celebration concert at The Straz starts around 6 p.m. We have a full roster of performers including drummers, spoken word and sign language performance artists. We thought we’d introduce you to a few to give you a taste of the awesomeness that will be this Friday night event. The entire 29th anniversary celebration of the ADA is called TRANSFORMATIONS: Building a World of Access and Inclusion and is entirely free. All are welcomed and encouraged to attend.

MattWeihmullerPerformance
MATT WEIHMULLER, jazz musician

“I will be presenting my ensemble as a jazz quartet, comprised of myself on saxophone, along with a rhythm section which includes, piano, bass, and drums. We will perform music that is representative of traditional straight-ahead jazz. We’ll also play my own modern interpretation of the genre in an original composition titled “Dots On a Page.” It means so much to me to be able to share this musical composition because I get to present it to an audience which the piece was intended for, and this is the ultimate goal of any performer.

I wrote the song “Dots On a Page” as a tribute to learning braille music. As a visually impaired musician, it has always been my goal to continue to champion the cause of braille literacy. Braille is made of a six-dot system, so it seemed appropriate to name my composition “Dots On a Page.” Performing music is freedom to me because playing jazz, which is an improvisational artform, means that there are no barriers for creativity. I hope I can inspire others through performing music to have the same outlook I try to have each day, to be able to turn any disadvantage they may have into an advantage through their disability.”

Stephanie
STEPHANIE SLAGLE, singer

“I will be presenting two of my favorite musical theatre songs for my performance: “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.

This performance is special to me for many reasons. The Straz Center itself is special to me; I have many beautiful memories of seeing shows at The Straz, and I’ve performed here for an All State conference in the concert choir and participated in a couple of Patel Conservatory’s summer classes. Being here to help celebrate the ADA 29th Anniversary is amazing! The ADA is so important because it gives opportunity and support to people who need it. When I give my performance, I want it to be representative of the amazing things the whole community can do for people—those with disabilities and those that have helped them grow to success beyond their wildest dreams.”

Johnathan Davis
JOHNATHAN DAVIS, pianist/vocalist

“Johnathan is so grateful for the opportunity to perform at The Straz! Although he is autistic and blind since birth, he has developed his talent and loves to share his gift. His joy in life is making people happy. He does this through his music. Johnathan is an accomplished pianist/vocalist and will hopefully touch the hearts of our guests at this special event.” –Cheryl Worsham, Spokesperson for Johnathan Davis

The Can Do Man

Mural artist Eric Hornsby, known as esh, has put his work on The Cube in the Jaeb Courtyard for a few years. Now he gathers some of the area’s premier mural artists to open a brand new Art on the Walk exhibit during our Open House Party on Oct. 6.

Eric painting_collage

Eric “esh” Hornsby in action. (Art/photos: Eric Hornsby)

Caught in the Act recently sat down with aerosol artist (a.k.a. medium of choice is spray paint) and friend of The Straz Eric Hornsby to find out more details about his story, his artistic process and the upcoming Art on the Walk exhibit that features him and other great Tampa-area mural artists Eddie Rivera, zeros, the Capco crew and reda3sb. Together, they’re installing panels of mural art inspired by people and places of Tampa during our annual free festival, the Open House Party, on Oct. 6.

Woman with gharial

Woman with gharial (Art/photo: Eric Hornsby)

Eric’s roots in Florida go deep, starting when his family moved to Thonotosassa from the northeast after his grandfather, a retired New York police officer, bought a mobile home park in that rural area of Hillsborough County. “I have to give a lot of props to my Uncle Joe who passed away two, three years ago,” Eric says. “He had a canoe, and we didn’t even have to ask, we’d just borrow it. Literally walk five miles with the thing on our back to the lake and paddle out. I was a nature lover from the go. Living like Huckleberry Finn out there for real. We made homemade bows and arrows; we’d just camp out and cook anything we shot. We ate all that stuff. I used to swim from Sargent’s Park to Morris Bridge, that part of the Hillsborough River, for the adventure of it. Alligator-infested water,” he laughs.

Eric’s upbringing in the Florida woods led to his first career in the wilderness, first as a canoe guide, then as a park ranger, then to his job as an on-site land manager for Hillsborough County’s conservation department. Wild as he was in this career, he kept returning to his first love: art. Mostly self-taught by emulating manga, cartoon styles and comic books, Eric’s artistic style, a mash up of those styles with lurid nature symbolism, evolved. He wanted to be a professional artist, and the time came for him to put up or shut up.

disco melon ball collage

Mystery of the disco melon ball (Art/photos: Eric Hornsby)

“I read a book by Tim Ferris. Somewhere he says, ‘if you’re not doing the things you love …” essentially meaning if you’re not choosing the life you want, you’re living a false life. I was like, ‘I can’t live a false life!’ It really hit me hard, so I started moving from point A to point B, reading a lot of books to motivate me to do what I wanted to do,” says Eric. He dropped down to part time and focused on becoming a professional artist.

“Eat, Sleep, Hustle,” or esh for short, emerged.

To hear Eric speak more in-depth about his transformation and about when you can meet him and the other artists at The Straz, plug into Act2, the Straz Center’s official podcast. Our interview with Eric goes live on Thursday, 9/27/18. During the interview, we discuss his work outside of The Cube, including the paintings and murals pictured above.

We’ve included a few favorites from The Cube that you may remember below.

Cube_Threepenny Opera_Pirate Jenny

The Threepenny Opera-inspired art by Eric Hornsby.

Cube_Wicked

Wicked-inspired art by Eric Hornsby.

Cube_Rent

RENT-inspired art by Eric Hornsby.

Cube_Curious Incident

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime-inspired art by Eric Hornsby.

Come meet Eric at our Open House Party with the other mural artists (samples of their art pictured below) and remember to catch his interview on Act2.

Sample_zeroes

Art on the Walk exhibit artist: 20-year street art veteran, zeros.

Sample_JP Parra and Vanessa Parra

Art on the Walk exhibit artists: Capco mural team, Juan Pablo and Vanessa Parra

Sample_Eddie Rivera

Art on the Walk exhibit artist: Tampa graffiti legend Eddie Rivera

Sample_Reda

Art on the Walk exhibit artist: International artist Reda3sb

Sample_eric hornsby

Art on the Walk exhibit artist: Eric “esh” Hornsby

The Art and Work of the Contortionist

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A contortionist, posed in studio, ca. 1880. From the George Eastman House Collection.

First, let’s dispel the double-jointed myth. Joints don’t come in multiples; however, they do come with what science dubbed hypermobility or joint laxity, both terms for people who can stretch and bend naturally farther than anyone else at the cocktail party.

In certain cultures, or in certain eras – such as the heyday of the American circus at the turn of the 20th century – hypermobility offered a ticket to elite schooling, training muscles, ligaments and bones to configure into impossible-looking shapes, with body parts of all sorts touching each other in some wild game of solo Twister.

The contortionist, the old saw goes, is the only professional who really knows how to make ends meet.

Contortion came to the west from the east during the weird days of colonialism, when European men wrote the narrative of “exotic orientals” and festishized flexibility. Contortionists found work in circuses, in freak shows and wowed their Puritanically-influenced counterparts with what appeared to be a “born that way” aberration of body mobility. What the narrative omitted included the cultural tradition of contortion schools in China and Mongolia as well as the yogic traditions of India that codified a strict curriculum of training, breath work, strengthening exercises and spiritual discipline. That discipline and training required years, starting in childhood, eventually incorporating a fluid artistry to create a serpentine dance of the human body. Contortion emerged, in its home turf, as an exquisite commitment to the belief that the human body is limited only by the smallness of the mind.

Contortion as an art form requiring study and practice caught on in western civilization, leading to a cadre of contortion professionals who continued to try to educate the public about the fact that they looked like rubber people not because they were rubber people but because they spent hours a day, day after day, year after year, training their bodies to put their feet next to their ears. Apparently, other public misconceptions this group faced were assumptions that they had access to special treatments that would give them flexibility advantages. Perhaps they soaked in special Chinese oil or bone-softening chemicals. Ted and Jean Ardini, well-known Australian contortionists, penned an article for Acrobatics magazine in 1971 attempting to stop, once and for all, the outlandish questions spectators asked contortionists about how they could do what they do: “The answer to all the above questions and others too numerous and ridiculous to mention is DEFINITELY NO.” No exotic salves, no chemical baths, no secret elixirs, no sleeping in a bathtub filled with oil. The disappointing truth, the Ardinis revealed, was that contortionists “were all people, quite normal people, who enjoy our work.”

As a rule, the greatest contortionists still hail from Mongolia, a country so steeped in its monopoly on exceptional training that Cirque du Soleil hires Mongolian contortionists almost exclusively. The trainer for their acclaimed water show O is Angelique Janov, a former student of Tsend-Ayush, arguably the most influential contortionist of the 20th century. The magnificence of the cultural heritage imbued in contemporary training inspired a steering committee of Mongolian nationals to nominate Mongolian contortion for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage in 2011. The organization has yet to add it although remains flexible to the idea.

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The art of contortion is believed to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices and poses imitating animals. (Photo: Christine Schindler)

China, too, continues to turn out unforgettable contortion artists who work in the country’s legendary acrobatic circuses that perform all over the world. With its origins in traditional Buddhist Tsam dances and influenced by Buddhist animal poses, contortion reflects its spiritual roots in modern performances. Audience members who know what to look for have a greater appreciation for performance as art versus mere spectacle.

In America, contortion stayed within its prescribed circus limits even though the performers themselves knew they were operating at a physical and artistic level often under-appreciated by general circus-going folk. Because of well-founded concerns for animal welfare and a growing shift in tastes for the American public, the circus entered a new era, and the term “circus arts” began to float in the mainstream. Silks, aerialists, strongmen/women – and contortionists – now find themselves on the cusp of widespread acceptance of their disciplines as performing arts instead of gewgaws in a traveling show. In metropolitan areas, studios offer contortion classes and workshops. In recent years, the profession formalized, hosting a regular International Contortion Convention. The last one took place in Las Vegas in 2016.

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The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China.

You’ll have a chance to exercise this new appreciation for the artistry of contortion at
China Soul: The Martial Artists and Acrobats of Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. The show features the beloved favorites of the art form from one of the most well-known acrobatic troupes in China: juggling, gymnastics, Shaolin kung fu and, of course, a handful of people bending to the will of their superbly-trained hypermobility.

 

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

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Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

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Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

parking lot

Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

Groundbreaking

The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

opening_TBO

Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

View from river

“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.