A who's-who of Orlando's arts scene assembled last Saturday night (Aug. 28) in the Bob Carr auditorium for the annual Red Chair Affair, the unofficial kickoff of the local cultural season. With an oversold audience of 2,100 in attendance (including several dozen VIPs who dropped $225 apiece to binge, booze and bid on auction items) the Orlando Ballet jeté-ed, Orlando Gay Chorus belted, Emotions Dance emoted and Brian Feldman ... sat in a red chair, again.
And I was nowhere to be seen.
For the past couple years I've brought you backstage bulletins from the Red Chair gala, for which I served as stage manager several times. This year I decided to step away and let someone else experience the "joy" of executing an insanely complex production with essentially no rehearsal time. From what I'm told by John DiDonna, the evening's director, George Hamrah of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater was a more than able replacement.
Instead, I was on the east side of I-4 taking a march down memory lane, all the way back to middle school. If you missed radio station WMMO-FM's (98.9) free outdoor concert featuring '80s Brit synth-pop super-duo Tears for Fears, you must have been the only one. It looked and felt like the entire population of Orlando (excepting those at the Carr, natch) converged in front of City Hall along the fenced-off empty block that supposedly someday soon will hold the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The Boschian vista within the viewing area is best described as a claustrophobic cross between a Lollapalooza concert and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant city plus a pungent aroma that is uniquely Orlando.
I had to wedge my way into the throng, arriving five minutes before the band's scheduled start time and about 40 before they actually began to play. The crowd around me had apparently been imbibing sponsor-sold Bud and Jack for about four hours. While I wouldn't say the demographics here precisely coincided with the Glenn Beck carnival that was occurring simultaneously in Washington, D.C., the audience around me consisted of white people of every color, most with children in one hand and cigarettes in the other. They cheered lustily for the recently returned Marines whom were awkwardly ushered onstage as well as the young girl who warbled through "The Star-Spangled Banner," only forgetting a few lyrics. No one seemed to find it the least bit odd that tight-shirted girls were passing out "Dan J. Newlin: attorney at law" business cards in bulk or that there was a deranged man dancing inside a private suite that was facing us on an upper floor of the Grand Bohemian Hotel.
The crowd also didn't show much interest in the band that they were willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to hear. I'm no diehard TFF fan — you won't hear me wondering why they didn't play the instrumental obscurity "The Working Hour" — but I was delighted they started off with a haunting choral arrangement of the Donnie Darko-popularized "Mad World" (which they later repeated with original instrumentation). I'm also happy that they played hits "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and the Beatles-esqe epic "Sowing the Seeds of Love" early in their 70-minute set. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who reunited in 2000 after an acrimonious 1991 breakup, were charming together, chatting between songs and quipping, "Apologies to anyone who bought tickets on eBay."
Then Tears for Fears made an ill-advised midset digression into midtempo material, and the only number that roused the crowd was a waltzing tribute to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." The obstructed sight lines, the comically malfunctioning Jumbotron and the wholly inadequate amplification didn't help. Many around me were continuously vocal about their disinterest in hearing anything but "Shout," until the anthem made its inevitable encore appearance.
As I fought my way out of the poorly designed exit and began the 20-minute trudge past Thornton Park (the closest free parking I could find), I had a thrillingly terrifying revelation: While Orlando's elites were sneak-previewing the arts, I was receiving an eyeful of what could come in next decade in an all-too-plausible situation. Imagine, the devil's-advocate-architect inside me demanded, if the plans for the elaborate Dr. Phillips facility were scrapped and instead a permanent outdoor stage was built for a fraction of the cost, accompanied by well-regulated vendors, terraced viewing areas and proper crowd-control infrastructure. Part of the millions in savings could be put toward an ongoing series of free public concerts, with the space otherwise available for bookings. The rest of the cash could support grass-roots arts groups or be directed to resuscitate arts education.
I'm not saying it could ever happen, but I can guess what the majority of last Saturday's squashed multitude would vote for if they "let it all out."firstname.lastname@example.org