You Know This Wise Guy

Chazz Palminteri took a moment of his childhood and parlayed it into the cultural phenomenon known as A Bronx Tale. We’ve seen him in The Usual Suspects, Bullets Over Broadway, Analyze This and as a cop, mobster or some form of tough guy in a ton of other film and TV roles. We caught up with Chazz on the phone in December to interview him for the “Behind the Persona” feature of INSIDE magazine and talk about the musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale coming to The Straz Jan. 29. [Note: Chazz isn’t in the musical but he did write the book and DeNiro directed.] During the conversation, we uncovered what he thinks is the greatest acting work he’s ever done—which happens to be a little film that not many people know about. And, shockingly, it’s not A Bronx Tale.

We published the whole interview on Act2, our official podcast, this week, and we’d love for you to hear the wealth of stories Chazz brought to the conversation.

For this blog, though, we’re going rogue. We’re going first person.

Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Hello, Strazzers. Marlowe Moore here, the senior writer for The Straz and normally the anonymous voice of this blog on behalf of our favorite performing arts center. I decided to step out from the fourth wall on this occasion because my conversation with Chazz revealed the kind of tales and insights that performing arts nerds like myself die a thousand deaths to know.

With Chazz, I died two thousand deaths—first, when he shared the anecdote about the time Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, husband of Marilyn Monroe and my personal writing hero) gave him writing advice; second, when he disclosed that he believes his greatest acting work was his role as the father in Dito Montiel’s shattering and extraordinary film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

In 2014, I met Dito Montiel at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference, which, by the way, happens to be one of the dopest writing conferences in the country. I went, not because I am dope but because I am frugal. SIWC is also in the sweet spot budget-wise for nonprofit mavens like myself. If you’re a writer, a dope person or frugal, you should check it out.

I had no idea who Dito Montiel was, but screenplay writing happens to be my favorite form, and Dito was slated to talk about how he managed to land A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints in Hollywood. I found a seat in the small classroom, then a shaved-head, thick-shouldered New Yorker ambled through the door, taking a small space on the side of the room. “Hey, everybody. I’m Dito,” he said. “I’m not really sure I’m qualified to give this workshop, but here goes.”

Dito and Dwayne Johnson filming Empire State.

Often gazing at his shoes or shifting his eyes toward the doors and windows, Dito unfolded his life story. A kid in Queens. A bad neighborhood. A best friend. An affront by a rival gang member. A baseball bat.

Dito got out. He wrote. He played music. He kept his head down after his boy got a life sentence and found a way to Los Angeles. But he lived with the ghosts. To make peace with them, he doodled a graphic memoir during a day job in an audio lab. He titled it A Picture Guide of Saints.

“This is really good,” a friend told him. “Hey, did I ever tell you I know Robert Downey, Jr? Bob? I think I could get this to him. This is the kind of weird shit he loves.”

The doodles made it to Bob. Bob made it to Dito. They became friends. In 2001, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Dito’s memoir of his friends in Astoria, gets published. In 2006, RDJ—along with Sting and Trudie Styler—produce the film.

“A lot of it was luck,” Dito told us during the workshop. “Bob and I are weird in the same way. It just worked out. I didn’t even know how to write a screenplay. I thought the ‘EXT’ for exterior shot meant ‘exit’ like the character was leaving the scene. I didn’t know. But I wrote the screenplay. I directed it. Things went from there.”

I realized at the end of the workshop that Dito Montiel is, by nature, a shy guy. I don’t believe he meant for the big take-away for screenwriters to be “hope you know a random person who knows Robert Downey, Jr.” Although, I do believe that’s probably honest writing advice. I think he wanted with his whole heart for his story to be known because he had—in his heart—a debt to pay to a friend he loved. In the weird way stories work, it found its way because Dito wouldn’t give up on it.

If you know anything at all about Chazz Palminteri and how Robert DeNiro ended up making A Bronx Tale into a film, you’ll understand why Chazz fell in love with A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

After the conference, I went home and checked out A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints from the public library. I was expecting the typical Mean Streets tropes, but this movie is different.

In the film, Robert Downey plays the adult Montiel with Shia LaBoeuf playing the younger Montiel in Queens during the flashback sequences. Antonio, Montiel’s best friend who ends up with life in prison, is played by Eric Roberts, whose acting in this film is The Pope of Greenwich Village-level. Just stellar. The young Antonio acting opposite LaBoeuf? Channing Tatum. Tatum, whose performance skills I’d just studied intensely in multiple viewings of Magic Mike and knew from his work in the Step Up franchise, changed my life. The fact that he can take himself to the place he had to go to for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints makes me even angrier about Jupiter Ascending. Nobody better talk junk to me about Channing Tatum’s acting skills. Nobody. We just need Dito directing every time I guess.

Dito’s foil, his antagonist, his god and his oppressor take the form of his emotionally complex father Monty, played by Chazz. “I’ve done 60 movies,” Chazz told me, “and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is one of my favorite all-time movies. I think it’s probably my best performance,” Chazz told me.

Hands-down I think it’s Palminteri’s best performance, and I believe his work as Sonny in A Bronx Tale is so sublime his gestures alone should win an Oscar. But what he does as Monty is whatever actors do when they go to that place beyond performing. When Monty enters the scene, my heart races, my blood pressure spikes, I feel so much loss for Dito that I can barely keep my seat.

The film conjures the thing we never talk about when we talk about tough guys, when we glorify their violence in films: that boys get sucked into a world that buries love in anger so thoroughly that, as men, they cannot function for their confusion about how to care for themselves and the people they love. “At the end of the film,” Chazz said, “when my voiceover is talking about, ‘Don’t worry, Dito. Antonio didn’t have anybody [to care for him]…’ Oh. I think about it even now, and I can cry.”

Which is precisely what I did at the moment Chazz refers to here. For reasons I still struggle to articulate, my natural reaction to the conclusion of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was to run in the bathroom, shut the door, fall on the floor and bawl. I lived alone at the time, so I had no reason to do any of those things. I could have cried in bed, but I was running from or to something that I needed to experience privately despite the fact that I was already alone; I don’t know. Dito—and Chan, and Bob, and Chazz and Shia—made me look at something so deeply sad about men trying to love in their culture of violence and being oblivious to the fact that they were trying to love at all that stayed with me all this time. There is something about men’s love and the debts they feel towards each other that I don’t understand. Dito’s story cracked some understanding inside of me, and I believe that’s what art is for, why we doodle our ghosts into existence. I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had a few moments to talk about it with someone in the film.

Please see Chazz in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Then check out the interview with him on the podcast. And see A Bronx Tale the musical. Chazz promised you’ll love it.

Here We Come a-What-ssailing?

We carol. We wassail. Well, we used to wassail; but, we still carol about wassailing. Why? And what is a wassail, anyway?

The Wassail Bowl by John Gilbert, 1860

The performing arts are such an integral part of the holiday season that we hardly even remark about how much this time of year we spend going to shows, singing with family, performing in church, singing in temple and holding community Kwaanza song and dance events. Singing, dancing and acting go hand-in-hand with this season.

One holiday performing art form that goes way back is caroling and its companion, wassailing. Interestingly, the whole shebang that we know as Christmas caroling started in medieval France and England with a court dance—the “carole.” The dancers would respond in a refrain to a song-leader’s verse, creating a call-and-response singing dance. Think “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”/”Fa la la la la …” and you get the picture. In time, dancing fell from the tradition, but roving bands of singers remained.

However, it’s worth noting that the whole shebang as history knows it started with the pagans dancing and singing around stone circles for the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 22nd-ish. These praise songs, also called “noels,” happened for the pagans for all the seasons, not just winter, although noels in winter survived with great notoriety.

As Christianity took hold of the Western world, especially in Italy, nativity plays started around the winter solstice and used songs to deliver part of the storyline. The idea was that the audience would sing along, and the popularity of the nativity play spread throughout Europe, birthing many of the carols we know today. By the Victorian era, celebrants took to the streets to sing carols in public

Enter, “Here We Come A-Wassailing!”

Among the leaves so green, folks needed a toast. Because let’s face it; if you’re out in the cold singing, there’s a good chance somebody’s packing a toddy. In Old Norse, this toast was ves heil, and passed through Middle English as waes haeil, both meaning “be healthy” to wish someone well before a drink. The phrase morphed into wassail, eventually settling into a verb meaning “reveling with booze” though the connotation of wassailing is somewhat more elegant than, say, a similar thing happening at Gasparilla. Or maybe not … some historians point to the enthusiastic wassailing of the 17th century that led British and American Puritans to ban carols and, well, celebrating Christmas at all. Obviously, that went over like a lead sleigh.

A king being presented with a cup of wine and the salute Was hail.

We get eggnog from early wassail, the noun form, meaning “a spiced yuletide beverage for celebrating Christmas in particular.” Another cool, weird morph from the early wassailing days is what we know of as the Christmas bonus and tipping our supers, mailperson, and other people who provide services to us throughout the year. Back in the wassailing heyday, the drinking carolers and others in the serving class carried clay boxes; the wealthy were expected to share their bounty during Christmastide and so deposited money into these boxes. Ergo, “Boxing Day” evolved in Canada on Dec. 26 (the giving of Christmas boxes of money and such to workers) and our current practice of the Christmas bonus.

Though wassailing with traditional wassail has become almost obsolete in our modern holiday traditions, drunken singing of carols is alive in well in many homes and neighborhoods throughout the land. Elsewhere, celebrants in more reverent and wholesome practices still participate in caroling though that formal practice is fading as well. It seems that as humans change the way we live, we adapt our caroling and wassailing with us.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too.
This blog goes on holiday next week
but we’re sending you
a Happy New Year,
We send you a Happy New Year!

And Now, a Few Words about Hamilton Tickets …

The first words are “wait for it …” as in “we still have no idea when single tickets will go on sale.” The second is “yes,” as in, “there’s a best way to get the best seats at the best prices and that’s strazcenter.org.” Otherwise, you might get sucked into a bad situation by ticket brokers and scalpers.

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Strazzers, we’re in a cutthroat game of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the precious few golden tickets that are left for our regular Broadway season. We’ve had a ton of new subscribers because of the Hamilton Effect. By “a ton,” we mean thousands—which is an extraordinary place to be in as a performing arts center. We are beside ourselves with glee at the new faces and families who will be joining our beloved Broadway faithfuls this season.

However, we also know that this windfall of incoming Strazzers means that unauthorized ticket brokers/scalpers are already setting up websites with fake tickets hoping to get the single ticket buyer to pay astronomical prices for tickets that may or may not even exist.

Don’t fall for it.

So, let’s make a few things really, really clear because we do NOT want you getting ripped off or put in an unpleasant situation once you get to your seats and discover people with trackable Straz tickets are already sitting there.

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GROUND RULES:

1. ONLY BUY FROM STRAZCENTER.ORG, FROM A HUMAN BEING IN OUR TICKET SALES OFFICE, OR BY CALLING 813.229.7827
A generic Google search will list ticket broker/scalpers first because they have the $$ to buy AdWords to be first on the search. We have patrons who think these are legit sites, buy tickets at obscene prices, then encounter problems once they get here with suspicious tickets. Don’t even search. Just s-t-r-a-z-c-e-n-t-e-r-d-o-t-o-r-g and get in a virtual line to wait for your turn to buy. Or call us and wait your turn. Or visit us and wait your turn. The point is: we have the real goods, we have the lowest ticket prices. Always.

2. WE ARE THE AUTHORIZED SOURCE TO SELL TICKETS.
If you’re somewhat confused right now because you already found Hamilton tickets to The Straz online, then we need you to know that you are the exact person we are trying to help. There are no tickets available to the public as of today. Trust us. We talk to the show’s producers all the time, and we are waiting to find out the on-sale date. The reason why the on-sale date is so guarded is to protect the buying public from scalpers and brokers. Again, buy directly from The Straz. If you don’t trust your internet skills, come down here when the tix go on sale. We’d love to see you, find out how the kids are doing. We love y’all.

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Okay. So, let’s say you’ve got Hamilton fever so bad you gamble big on buying from an unauthorized source. What’s gonna happen? Well, you’ll pay out the nose. Then, you’ll be in a situation where we can’t help you because the tickets you’re holding are not from us, your authorized and totally willing concierge ticket service. That means we have no ways to refund, relocate or replace. With outside tickets, there’s also no guarantee that you’ll be admitted. It’s just too much to risk, and we cannot be any plainer about how it pains us for you to be unhappy and there’s nothing we can do about it.

We can avoid all of this if you purchase tickets from

www.strazcenter.org
• 813.229.7827
• Or visit our friendly staff at the Ticket Sales Office, a.k.a. box office.

Good luck. And look, as soon as we get the word that tix can go on-sale, we’re gonna tell you asap. Don’t wait to buy your show tickets this year. We mean it.

May the odds be ever in your favor and the force be with you.

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Dogs of The Straz

In honor of National Take Your Dog to Work Day on June 22, we’re introducing you to some of the pups of The Straz.

Pet Sitters International launched National Take Your Dog to Work Day in 1999, right as American culture reached its tipping point about pooch pets, launching us precipitously over the edge of dog ownership to being owned by dogs, buying them clothes, shoes, strollers, insurance and even animal companions of their own. Eighteen years later, NTYDTWD is going strong. Part of the point of this day of observance is to raise money for local animal shelters and some companies have raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years of bringing their four-legged loved ones to the office.

Even though we’re a humans-only workplace, most of us believe dogs are people, too. Shadows, soulmates, BFFs, fur babies–whatever you want to call them, dogs play a huge part in the lives of The Straz’s many dog people. Here are a few of our “Straz Dogs” and the heartwarming stories of how they ended up with their humans.

 

Rocha

Meet puggle Miley and hound-mix Whisky, boos of Marisol Rocha, our catering sales administrative assistant. Miley loves car rides and treats. Whisky, rescued from a shelter, also loves treats and enjoys watching television. Marisol and her husband bought Miley as their wedding present to themselves for an insta-fur-fam, and the three words they use to describe her are “loving, very hyper and demanding.” Whisky, a fine specimen of hound-dog style, is “loving, over-protective … and clumsy.”

 

Tellier

This ridiculously adorable lil dude is Jackson Browne, a Chiweenie (chihuahua-dachshund). He owns our collaborative piano specialist Sarah Tellier and starred as Toto in the Patel Conservatory’s production of The Wizard of Oz last week. A true performing arts dog, Jackson is “loving, dramatic, and super social,” says Sarah. “I found Jackson after a day at the beach, and after finding out he had no chip over the following weekend, decided to adopt him! We instantly bonded, and he’s been a sweetheart ever since he came home.” Jackson loves his doggie blanket and cheddar cheese more than anything in the world. (Other than Sarah, of course.)

 

Fairbanks

Senior writer Marlowe Moore Fairbanks got a friend request from this dude on Facebook in 2015, which she naturally accepted (actually, it was his foster mom who had set up a page for him). Marlowe had been stalking him for six years online, watching him never get adopted from a no-kill shelter in North Carolina. When her dog died, she needed a new bro, and so she drove to North Carolina and came back to Florida with Guster Hambone Moore Fairbanks. The three words that describe his personality are sweet, sweet and sweet. He loves running in the woods and is prone to dancing when excited enough. His two favorite things in the world are cat food and getting towel-dried.

 

DiPietra

Love bug of the year goes to Michael “Mike” DiPietra, compadre of Maggie DiPietra, the Straz Center grant writer. Mike is a special breed of Golden Retriever/Unknown/Possible Moose Involved (“he’s all legs,” Maggie says). Recognizable for his chill, patient personality and his expressive eyebrows, Mike was all but guaranteed a home with Maggie after her husband brought home a pic of him as a puppy with a little cast on his hurt leg. He was the last un-adopted kid in his litter—well, until Maggie saw him.

 

Darby

Here is our resident Ears McGee, production manager Shannon Darby’s squeal-inducing buddy Haggie. Shannon saved Haggie from a kill shelter ten years ago, giving this “five kinds of hound dog” a pampered life of working hard to be spoiled rotten. “He thinks he is human, of course,” says Shannon, “and that we are the suckers.” Shannon reports Haggie’s greatest loves in life are rolling the ball down the driveway so Shannon can toss it (like a reverse-fetch) and sniffing diverse and inclusive amounts of poop. Haggie has a cat. His name is The Blot.

 

Potter

Miss Bedroom Eyes here is Harper, the dog-child of our senior marketing manager Caitlin Potter. Caitlin, who admittedly was not enthusiastic about adopting a dog, took all of about forty seconds to turn into a hard-core dog person whose life was drastically re-organized around the needs of this loyal, energetic and gentle girl. Caitlin and her husband adopted Harper from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay last year. Harper’s two favorite things in life are catching a frisbee and eating, which now happen to be Caitlin’s favorite things, too.

 

Siegler

The winner of our Most Magnificent Ears award goes to this booger, Zobi Thaddeus Siegler, the pup of our theater managing director of education Audrey Siegler and her husband, Gerard, who is our director of production services. When asked for three words to describe Zobi, Audrey said “hyperactive, disgruntled, emo.” Also sounds like a dog made for a life in the performing arts. The Sieglers fostered Zobi then adopted him from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, and this adorbs terrier mix now has all the treats he can handle and a fine set of human siblings.

 

Douglas

Goofus here goes with LeeAnn Douglas, our marketing director of digital and experience marketing. This is Moose, and this is the face of a certified mama’s boy. LeeAnn adopted Moose, a regal chow-coonhound blend, from Humane Society of Tampa Bay. His two favorite things in the world are his green ball and LeeAnn. Three words that describe this pretty boy? “Smart, shy and loud,” says LeeAnn.

 

Denison

It’s hard to believe this t-shirt wearing snookums passed out in a bag of Christmas presents was found abandoned on a hiking trail in California. But, that’s where Brent Denison, our ticket office customer service manager, found him. Eden Topaz is a piebald dachshund making the most of his loving new home. Brent says Eden is comical and friendly, with his two fave things in the world being eating and rides in the car. Totally legit.

 

Livesay

This yin-yang super duo of Jack and Star keep plenty of drama in the life of our VP of Education Suzanne Livesay. Jack, a Golden Retriever, is a pedigreed boy and Star the Australian Shepherd was part of a BOGO deal at the breeder. “After having her in our lives for more than two years, we now know why she was ‘free to a good home,’” laughs Suzanne. Star’s favorite pastime is licking everything and Jack is completely unsurprising as a Golden: he loves people and the attention of people. The pair balance each other out—Jack’s friendly to Star’s awkward, his loving to her neurotic, his goof to her quirk. It’s like a very furry PB&J.

 

Piazza

Mookie “The Puppy Boy” Piazza has the full-time job of keeping tabs on our rap-loving, wrestling aficionado Jeanne Piazza, our program manager. “I gotta little of this and a little of that,” says Mookie about his heritage. “I think I am part Lab and part Staffordshire Terrier, which is a fancy name for a pit bull … don’t judge, we’re very misunderstood.” Jeanne and her family rolled up to the free adoption weekend at the humane society, adopted Mookie, then promptly spent three hundred bucks buying this #luckydog one of everything. “The two things I enjoy most,” Mookie says, “are pretending I am a lap dog and jumping in the water … sometimes when I’m supposed to be just strolling along the river.” Mookie’s big secret is that he is a huge fan of show tunes—which surprises no one at The Straz.

 

Gecan

 

This is a big week for Maggie Gecan, who celebrates her two-year adoptiversary with our senior marketing manager of events Sarah Gecan. Sarah, who can now count herself among the proud survivors of a Lab/Catahoula puppyhood, adopted Mags from New Horizons dog rescue. “Maggie is cuddly, goofy and energetic,” says Sarah. Maggie’s two favorite things in the world are taking hikes and playing with her neighbor dog friends.

 

National Take Your Dog to Work Day is fun but also a good reason to check with your local animal shelter about what they have on their “wish list,” or ongoing greatest needs. This year, the Straz Center’s staff donated food, toys, towels, treats and bedding during a Wish List drive for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. You can usually find a shelter’s wish list on their website.

A Real American Story: Tampa’s Fortune and a Tale of Straz Land

historical marker

PROLOGUE:

JOSE PERFINO
EL INDIO
A CUBAN PIRATE
KILLED 1850

MR. HUBBARD
A CUBAN PIRATE
FOUND DEAD IN WOODS
JUNE 18, 1850

Just beyond these square chunks of gray granite nestled amid the carpet of dead leaves in Oaklawn Cemetery lurks the city bus station. People get on and off the buses. The buses heave, sigh, trundle into traffic. Beyond the bus station, cars streak across I-275 shuttling between St. Pete and Orlando, yet only several yards away from Mr. Hubbard and El Indio, a gleaming alabaster mausoleum looms. It’s the final resting place of an important man; that’s plain to see. This smooth rock shrine houses the remains of Vincente Martinez Ybor, patron of Ybor City, cigar boss and wealthy entrepreneur whom local history remembers as a man who charted the course for one of the most promising money-making multi-cultural cigar cities of the United States.

Between the pirates and the man who invented Ybor City rests yet another humble granite marker, about the size of a medium Amazon delivery box, of another Tampa entrepreneur who cultivated fruits from her large parcel of land next to the Hillsborough River, made pies and sold them to any one of the 6,000 people who called Tampa home back in her day.

This marker says

TAYLOR
FORTUNE
1825-1906

She shares the space on the granite’s face with her husband Benjamin; yet, if you dig, you won’t find their remains. Not under that marker, anyway. Their bodies are somewhere else in Oaklawn, cast into that nebulous, undocumented section of history called The Slave Section.

Even though neither one was a slave.

Not when they died, anyway. Which brings us to the start of our story. But you will have to stop and sit awhile, if you want to know what we just found out about Fortune Taylor and what she has to do with The Straz.

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In the mid-1800s, there was a white couple named Howell using slave labor in South Carolina. Two of those enslaved people were a man and a woman. They loved each other.

Their names were Benjamin and Fortune.

The Howells moved to Hernando County to set up an orange grove, bringing Benjamin and Fortune with them. The end of slavery arrived in 1865. So, by 1866, Benjamin and Fortune had left the Howells in their rearview mirror and staked out a new life for themselves in a desolate, cattle-rustling, drunk and disorderly town called Tampa. For the Taylors, it was freedom. They went to the courthouse and married as free people.

fortune taylor marriage license

Fortune and Benjamin’s marriage license in the bottom right corner, deciphered below:

To the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the County of Hillsborough and the State of Florida. Whereas Benjamin Taylor, a Freedman and Fortune Taylor a freed woman have applied as one to join them in Marriage, And whereas they have lived harmoniously together as man and wife for several years. I have this day joined the above named Benjamin Taylor and Fortune Taylor in the bonds of holy Matrimony, according to the Act of the Legislation of the State of Florida passed as it’s late Session.

(signed) F Branch
Local Elder of the M. E. Church [South]
Tampa Fla
5th May 1866

They knew the land. They knew work. They knew how to use both to grow things that made life and money. On January 20, 1869, Benjamin filed a claim to homestead 33 acres next to the Hillsborough River. Benjamin and Fortune took to their land to make life grow: peaches, guavas, oranges. The ownership of self. Of land. Of labor.

The future looked like acres of sweet, delicious fruit. They survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the ensuing epidemic of Reconstruction Republicans who came shortly thereafter to enforce the post-Civil War policies of the federal government. But what is a Reconstructionist to a human being who survived enslavement to become a successful citrus farmer? Not much.

Then, Benjamin died. Late in 1869, less than three years after their wedding day, Fortune Taylor found herself widowed, newly free and now head of almost three dozen acres of land as an African American woman almost as far South as you could go.

But Fortune was fortune. She was an entrepreneur, too, beloved by her community, and anointed with a high title. Maybe she wasn’t a patron, or a tabaquero, or a mayor or city councilman—all of those titles were denied her because of her gender and skin color—but in her life, in her circumstances, in her neighborhood, they called her Madame. She earned that respect for building something meaningful and dignified in Tampa during a time when the town itself was struggling to be something more than a chaotic river outpost.

So, the woman with the baked goods, the woman with the land, was known around Tampa as Madame Fortune Taylor, by white and black alike. Remembered as a “short, stout woman,”* Madame Fortune Taylor donated some of her property to start St. Paul’s, the second oldest church in Tampa today. Another section she sold to Mayor Edward Clarke so he could develop a subdivision in 1878.

The road leading from downtown Tampa to her homestead? That became Fortune Street—the same one that exists in downtown Tampa today. Take Fortune Street to Doyle Carlton to the door of the Patel Conservatory and you’ll be on Madame Fortune Taylor’s old orange groves. We’d like to imagine she’d be happy with the legacy of her land becoming a place for arts education for kids, as she was known as someone who loved and was loved by children.

street sign

Take Fortune Street all the way to the end in the other direction and guess where you’ll be?

At the bus station that lurks right next to Oaklawn Cemetery. Somewhere, in there, she and Benjamin watch us now, pulling their names from the shadows of history into the light of our present day. They were not pirates; they were not slaves. They were builders and survivors, creators and lovers, free people with an important story to tell.

 

 

EPILOGUE:

Ersula & Gloria

Ersula K. Odom and Gloria Jean Royster, active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society.

So, we wish we could tell you that we came into this amazing story on our own through our own coolness and research into Straz land history, but we did not.

We’re riding the coattails of people like historians Fred Hearns and Canter Brown, men who have dug, fought for and unearthed exquisite stories from African-American history, Tampa’s in particular, and who have been writing and speaking about Madame Fortune Taylor for years. We also relied heavily on Lucy Jones’s 2007 article on the history of the Fortune Street Bridge in Cigar City Magazine, and tampapix.com’s history of the bridge as well.

But, none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for two important women working with Tampa’s history now:

We came to know Madame Fortune Taylor through two incredibly cool ladies, writers, researchers, and performing artists themselves, Gloria Jean Royster and Ersula K. Odom, who are active members of the Friends of Madame Fortune Taylor society. They contacted our executive administrative assistant extraordinaire, Patricia Griggs, to ask if The Straz would be interested in sponsoring the banner for the Fortune Taylor Bridge dedication ceremony on May 20, 2018—since we now sit on part of Madame Fortune’s estate.

Patricia 1_edit

Executive Administrative Assistant Patricia Griggs’ office overlooks the Fortune Taylor Bridge and most of the Taylor homestead. Today, we know the Taylors’ land as the area roughly from I-275 at the river to the Patel Conservatory.

We loved Gloria Jean and Ersula so much we brought them into our offices for an exclusive interview about the Fortune Taylor Bridge, their research into Madame Fortune Taylor and the kind of connection historical information awakens in people living today.

You can hear the highlights of that interview on Act2, our official Straz Center podcast, going live on our Soundcloud station May 10. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

The dedication of Fortune Taylor Bridge takes place Sunday, May 20 at 10 a.m. on the east bank of the Hillsborough River. You can keep tabs on this tale by following Fortune’s Friends on Facebook.

Madame Fortune Banner Art

We also wish we could tell you we know all of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story, but we do not know that, either. Some years have been lost, and some land transactions can’t be proven without records.

However, thanks to many devoted researchers working with spotty, racially discriminatory records that excluded so many valuable members of society, a skein of Madame Fortune Taylor’s story exists today. The Straz knows more about itself because of their efforts.

We would also like to thank David Parsons and Todd Ciardiello, librarians at the John F. Germany Library next door, who helped us tremendously in tracking down photographs and information from the Florida history archives. We used photos from the Florida Memory Project and the Burgert Brothers Collection from the Germany Library’s digital archives.

If you have any information on what happened to Madame Fortune Taylor from 1878-1885, please contact us. We are also looking for photos and for any transactional records about her selling her land after 1885.

*this quote is from Canter Brown’s oral history interview of Dr. Robert W. Saunders, Jr.

State Thespian Spotlight: Randy Rainbow

Internet musical parody sensation Randy Rainbow launched his life in musical theater right here on Straz stages when he was a high school Thespian.

As many, many, many, many, many high schools in Florida know, this week is State Thespian Week, when almost 8000 students, teachers, chaperones and judges descend on The Straz and elsewhere in downtown Tampa to compete for top distinctions in this distinguished drama festival.

Flashback: 19 YEARS AGO

It’s 1999. President Clinton is impeached, acquitted then cited for contempt of court. The dot-com bubble looks eternal. Joe DiMaggio dies, the Yankees win the pennant and Carolyn Bassette Kennedy and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr., perish in a plane crash. The United States wins the Women’s World Cup (the year we all learn the name Brandi Chastain), and the Dow Jones closes at an unprecedented 11,410. Somebody buys the last New York City Checker cab for $135K at auction. It is the year of the Columbine High School massacre and the highly publicized hate crime against Wyoming man Matthew Shepard. 1999 is the year three white supremacists are convicted of felony murder for the lynching-by-dragging of John Byrd, Jr. Unemployment is at a 29-year low. George W. Bush announces he will run for President.

Yet.

A senior in high school from Plantation, Fla., stands alone on the Morsani stage. He sings his heart out in the number he’s prepared for the Florida State Thespians. He wins for solo musical and, later, with his best friend, an award for comedy scene.

That 17-year-old, defying the world with musical theater comedy, is Randy Rainbow.

Cut to: PRESENT DAY

Randy Rainbow headshot

First of all, Randy Rainbow *is* his real name.

Second of all, we had no idea he competed (and won, of course) during the Florida State Thespian festival when he was in high school until we had to interview him yesterday for The Straz’s “Behind the Persona” feature for INSIDE magazine. Be sure to check out that Q&A in the Spring/Summer issue out in April.

Third of all, when we found out the Randy Rainbow, who just happens to be a superhero of the internet for defying the world with musical theater comedy, played the Straz stages as a 15-, 16-, 17-year old theater kid and winning, we had to write this blog.

“When I used to do theater competitions, we would do district and state, they were held in Tampa. Florida is where everything started for me,” Randy says, “so it has a special place in my heart.”

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Randy Rainbow comes full circle when he returns to The Straz as an international internet sensation with his hilarious one man show on April 13 .

As it turns out, his time as a Thespian competing against other state actors and meeting other theater kids at The Straz changed his life. “That was a major part of my [early experiences as an actor]. That’s where I came out of the closet, as a matter of fact. At Tampa, at state competition. How appropriate.”

Like many kids who are different, Randy survived school bullies, sharpening his comedy and musical theater chops to get through and graduate to pursue his dreams. In the meantime, Thespians and his annual high school trip to the state drama festival gave him something to look forward to where he was among friends doing his favorite thing in the world.

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Ok, so this isn’t from when Randy was in high school, but it’s pretty cute. (Photo from Instagram: @randyrainbow)

“Yeah. You grow up, and it’s hard to find other drama nerds, really. So once a year, to gather with hundreds of them, I just remember, it was just ecstasy,” he says. “It was so exciting to have other like-minded people nerding out on theater. That was such an important time in my life. I still have such amazing memories of it, and it had such an impact on me. It was joy, absolute. Just … joy.”

Randy Rainbow, like so many artists, took his life experiences and the history he was born to and made his art. Now famous for his political musical parodies as a “woke show queen, comedian, actor, songstress, active-isht, Internet Sensation and TV Personality” [his Twitter description], Randy finds himself able to do something, to speak out and show up politically in visible ways.

But would he consider running for office?

“Hell, no. Let me stick to my comedy.”

randy for prez

School-Girl Crush

The Straz Center’s 96-year-old volunteer extraordinaire, Margaret Goodson, dishes on her love of Forever Plaid.

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Caught in the Act writer Marlowe Moore Fairbanks interviewing long-time Straz Center volunteer and Plaid fan Margaret Goodson.

There are certain things people just know about Tampa:

Cigars.

Cuban sandwiches.

Sports.

Magic Mike.

And Margaret Goodson.

If a place is lucky, it will have one spectacular person so ingrained in its culture and identity that you can’t separate the two. Margaret is that person for us. Everybody knows her, everybody loves her—and Margaret loves The Plaids.

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Margaret keeps this photo on her desk here at The Straz.

Margaret turned 96 a few weeks ago, and she’s been with The Straz longer than almost anyone. She’s volunteered here for 30 years, doing all kinds of jobs to help save us time and money (hey, we’re a non-profit!), even stepping in to “play” the washed-up Little Orphan Annie character during a photo shoot for our Forbidden Broadway ad campaign years ago.

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Margaret posing as Little Orphan Annie for a Forbidden Broadway advertising campaign. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It was here in the Jaeb Theater many, many moons ago when Margaret, coerced by a friend, attended Forever Plaid for the first time. “I can’t explain what happened. It was the songs, the show … and four handsome young men helps. I was hooked. I fell in love,” she says.

“I’ve had a school-girl crush on The Plaids a long time. Ever since the beginning. I’ve seen them everywhere I could—two times in Las Vegas. Once in Orlando. When the show is here I see it as many times as I can,” Margaret says, quickly acknowledging she could be considered a Plaid groupie. “Everybody who knows me knows Forever Plaid is ‘my show.’ It’s not like I like this one actor or have a crush on one character in particular. I love The Plaids no matter the show or where I see them. Although, I think Jinx may be my favorite character. He’s funny. And cute.”

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Our 2018 cast of Forever Plaid. That’s Jinx on the far left, followed by Sparky, Smudge and Frankie. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

We’ve produced Forever Plaid a lot over the years although the last time the quartet graced the Jaeb was 2008. Margaret is pretty much the only one with exclusive “Plaid privileges,” and, inevitably, she ends up becoming a fixture of the show’s run. “When the show is here, The Plaids find out I’m a fan. I get to go to the cast parties and help decorate the stage before shows and things like that. Whenever they’re here they accept me as part of the players. They know they can’t go onstage before I meet them.”

As a Forever Plaid aficionado, Margaret sees the show in a bigger picture. “There’s so much to the show. All the songs are good songs. There are hilarious moments. Everything that’s good is in Forever Plaid, and we can use a little bit of goodness in this country right now. I believe in this show. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m crazy about it,” she says. “I hope I can instill a rebirth of the show. I think this is what people need right now.”

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Plaids from a previous Straz production wishing Margaret a happy birthday.

Margaret said it, so it must be so. The world needs Forever Plaid. Get your tickets here.