It's tempting to think that Orlando's arts community has "arrived" when Bravo, pay-TV's "film and arts" network, drops in to produce a short but sure-to-flatter profile. And that's just what happened last week when a New York-based crew and a Los Angeles-based correspondent converged for two days of filming that will spotlight five of Central Florida's cultural anchors. The results will be beamed to 31 million households across the country next fall..
But more to the point is that Bravo's visit represents a marketing coup by the local cable operator, Time Warner Communications, which broadcasts the network here. (The area's second-largest cable operator, TCI, does not carry Bravo.) It was TWC division president John Rigsby who put the bug in Bravo's ear. And since the commercial-free Bravo is funded by the local cable systems that pay to carry it, there was more than a little willingness on Bravo's part to follow through. Thus did Orlando join the cities profiled on Bravo's "ArtsBreak" alongside such cultural magnets as Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Kansas City, Kan., and Omaha, Neb.
"Some of it is marketing," concedes John Andres, the producer-director who has worked on more than 20 "ArtsBreak" segments. "Part of our story has to be about how corporations use the arts." Among those interviewed for the cultural connection: Rigsby, a trustee of United Arts, the organization that coordinates fund raising for the major arts institutions, and who is leading United Arts' current fund drive.
Also noteworthy is the fact that correspondent Penny Stallings is not a first-time visitor to the area. While working as co-creator, writer and producer of the short-lived Nickelodeon/ABC series "Hi Honey, I'm Home," she lived in Orlando for a year in 1992. Her impression: "I thought this was one of the coldest, most soulless places I've ever been in. We were miserable. Now, we were all New Yorkers, too. [But] if it hadn't been for the barbecue place that we went to" -- Bubbalou's on Conroy Road -- "we would have just really expired of depression."
She left this time with a different impression. "I had no idea any of this was here," she said after conducting interviews that focused on the Orlando Opera Company, Enzian Theater, Maitland Art Center, Orlando Museum of Art and the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival. "It seems to me that this city -- in fact, probably more than any other city we've visited -- is more serious about having the arts represented. "I'm ashamed at myself for never finding it."
She might be even more ashamed, given that while living here Stallings also was a cultural correspondent for the esteemed "MacNeil Lehrer News Hour" and, at the time, saw Orlando's uniqueness only in the topless clubs that line South Orange Blossom Trail. "They were not happy with that idea at all," she says of her editors. "I did pitch it, though."
One can just imagine civic boosters cringing. But there's no need to fear the portrayal this time. Indeed, the five groups chosen by Bravo to be featured in the segment, which Andres says will run 15-16 minutes, are safely diverse. But apart from the maverick Enzian, they might as well have been hand-picked by the mayor's office. Where were the cutting-edge electronic musicians who formerly drew an international crowd to the late-night dance revolution downtown? Where were the painters and performance artists whose unique stamp on the club scene is indelible?
"Frankly, I didn't really know about them, and that's probably my responsibility as much as anything else," says Andres. "There's been a lot of cities -- Oklahoma City [for example] -- where the major focus of the city was based on the community artists, what's going on with the guy who's painting on the corner. So it really varies. Here we probably started with a list that was more a corporate line of thinking. It probably started there, and therefore ended there as well."
He adds: "We still are making a TV show. That's my job -- to make sure what we're picking works for television. We're not doing a strict documentary. If we were doing a documentary on the arts, we probably wouldn't pick -- in any of the cities -- many of the groups we've gone to."