I have enjoyed recalling and writing about our trek to Virginia so much that the tale seems to have reached “epic” proportions (in keeping with “Bill’s Blog Baroque”?), so I believe I will break the concluding portion down into two (manageable) parts: the first ending with the performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg in Lynchburg—the second closing with the last day of the trip itself.
At the end of the last post, I left our merry band of travelers on the road to Lynchburg. When I travel, I shut down my computer at home (it’s rewarding to do without it for a time), and aside from Betty’s cell phone, I’m pretty much out of touch with folks I’ve been in touch with regarding where I’m going to be while traveling (how’s that for a classic sentence—and paradox?). This was the case with Kenny Rowlette, the man who had extended the invitation for us to give a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg, in Lynchburg, sponsored by the National Civil War Chaplains Museum—and set it up.
I’d enjoyed exchanging letters with Kenny before we left for Virginia: a man who wears many “hats,” not only as Director of the Chaplains Museum, but Special Projects Coordinator at the Liberty University library, and overseeing other campus projects, it seems, as well. However, I’d somehow lost contact with him up to the time Betty and I left home. On our way now to Lynchburg for that evening’s performance, I realized I did not know the exact time and place set up for an afternoon rehearsal.
I had received a letter in which Kenny spelled out a number of arrangements he’d made regarding publicity—only one of which actually materialized: a phone interview with Casey Gillis, a feature writer for Lynchburg’s The News & Advance, the result of which was a handsome article, “Reading of Lynchburg couples’ emotional Civil War era love,” in which Casey quoted very engaging portions of the script—so “choice” I thought she might have contacted Dallas Shipp, the actor who would play Charles Minor Blackford, and the only person to whom I’d sent the script. When I thanked Casey for the article, she said she’d taken the quotes directly off the CD I’d sent her—a labor of love I truly appreciated.
Here’s a portion of her article in which she quotes Susan (a moving scene in which Susan goes to Charles’ law office when he’s “off to war” and no longer in Lynchburg), the music from the score that accompanies that letter, a poster advertising the performance, and Kitty and Dallas again.
A WRVL radio host named Mark Douglas contacted me just before we left for Virginia, saying he’d like to do an interview for the “upcoming production,” but I had to respond saying we would be “in the air” (literally: our 6:00 AM flight from San Francisco) at the time he proposed. Consequently, I was more than a little “up in the air” when it came to publicity (how many people had received “word” of the event and how many might actually show up?), along with the rehearsal time and place for that evening’s performance. It turned out that Kenny had contacted Kitty Petruccelli, and we were to meet him at 5:00, in front of a large white building with pillars (the Student Union), after procuring a parking pass at the Visitors’ Center. So we were set on that score.
I had also written Greg Starbuck, Executive Director of the Historic Sandusky Foundation, which had commissioned the Love Letters of Lynchburg piece, and CD—and my sister Emily, her husband Doug, my wife Betty and I agreed to meet him at the Sandusky house, and then all have lunch together. Greg is a “good guy,” good musician (banjo and mandolin), and good company. Even though he was busy preparing to defend his M.A. thesis (“Hearth & Home: The Civil War in Three Virginia Communities”—Lynchburg, Winchester, Petersburg) just two days away, he made time for us, and took us to an excellent restaurant, The Crown Sterling. Here’s a photo of Greg and me that day, and also one of me holding a sword that belonged to Charles Minor Blackford, taken on a previous visit to Lynchburg.
Seated in a cozy warm wood ambiance at The Crown Sterling, near a splendid fireplace, we got caught up on recent activity, Greg having produced and directed a film, Hunter’s Raid: The Battle for Lynchburg—one which had been honored with three regional Emmy awards. Sandusky is a stately Federal Style brick edifice that “may well be Lynchburg’s most historic house” (it was once the “centerpiece” of a 1,200 acre plantation)—a home that landed in the hands of Major General George Christian Hutter in 1838; only to be given up, involuntarily, in 1864 (when Sandusky had its “fifteen minutes of fame”) to Union General David Hunter (notorious for the burning of Virginia Military Institute) during the Battle of Lynchburg (about which Chalres Minor Blackford had written a book!), a battle that lasted for two days, Confederate General Jubal Early having pulled off a ruse, running trains in and out of town, and fooling Hunter into thinking a “large body of troops” had arrived to defend the town—Hunter withdrawing.
Greg, a man of many talents, also produced a CD called Lynchburg Melodies: History of the Hill City in Song, as well as appearing on another CD, Vaughn & Starbuck: Songs of the Civil War Era, on which he plays banjo, mandolin, and sings, alongside Jerry Vaughn’s voice and guitar. Greg was also, at the time of our visit, involved in preparing a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Lynchburg. Catching up on all this, I was sorry in a way that we had not had more time at our disposal to take a leisurely stroll through the Sandusky house (the windows of which and parlor carpet had been recently restored), then to explore the Visitor Center, its patio also recently restored. But it was great to see and have lunch with very convivial Greg—and, as we left, he said he would be present at the performance that night at the Tower Theater, which cost millions to build, he said, boasting 640 seats, a balcony and orchestra pit, catwalks, a fly tower, and over 12,000 square feet of backstage and support area. Here are two photos of this excellent theater (the largest, most expensive “house’ I’ve ever played in):
We were on our way, but in the rain again, and there’s a saying in Virginia, “When it rains, people just don’t go out.” I hoped that wasn’t true. We easily obtained our parking permit, from a very pretty, gracious, smiling young woman who seemed a Southern prototype, and we pulled up, as instructed, in front of the large white building with pillars. It was not long before Kenny emerged in the rain beneath an umbrella, a genial figure, and escorted Kitty and me to a room set aside for rehearsal. Em, Doug, and Betty would bide their time until show time—which meant at Starbuck’s.
Dallas Shipp was waiting for us, a young man every bit as personable as he’d appeared in a couple of YouTube videos I’d seen (O Brave New World of social media, when you can “meet” and learn quite a bit about someone before you fly 3000 miles to participate in a production and encounter that person in the actual, non-virtual world; seeing the videos, I’d decided Dallas was just right for the role of Charles Minor Blackford). Kenny left us to rehearse, saying he’d be back at 6:30 to take us to dinner before the performance. That gave us an hour and a half, so we chatted a bit, and then jumped right into a run through on the script, which went swimmingly, with ease and perfect timing. Dallas had obviously given much thought (and practice it seemed) to the script, and the exchange between the letters of Charles he read and those of Susan read by Kitty was perfect—and the blend of what they read with the music went as well as I’ve ever been able to bring it off.
Before we started, I told Dallas I was of the “Miles Davis School” of performance: find the best people and just let them do their thing, without interference or even “instruction.” The actor who had played Charles in California, Taelen Thomas, does one-man shows of everyone from John Steinbeck and Jack London, to Teddy Roosevelt and Leonardo de Vinci, and has a powerful voice. Dallas is of a milder disposition, and had an interesting “take” or interpretation of a section of the script which Taelen renders in disgust and anger: a scene in which Charles Minor Blackford returns to Fredericksburg and the home in which he grew up, after the dreadful battle there, only to find that “the Yankees had been up in the cuddy of the house and taken out barrels of old letters which were scattered all over the yard; among them I found a letter from Light Horse Harry Lee [Robert E. Lee’s father] to my grandfather. The whole house was covered with mud and blood and it was hard to realize it was the house of my childhood.”
Dallas felt Charles would not feel anger at this point so much as sadness, and he played the role that way—which was an interesting “twist,” and made me realize—even though I am no stranger to theater productions (I’ve had two plays I’ve written performed on stage)—that a variety of interpretations are possible given any particular role, that each actor brings his or her own reading or rendition to the part. In that rehearsal room, we seemed to “sail” through Love Letters of Lynchburg, in “one take” (as they say in the recording industry), and we sat and chatted and, in general, got to know not only the piece we would perform, but each other well by the time Kenny showed up and we set out to eat.
Kenny took us to a custom-made sandwich shop called Panera Bread, independent of the Liberty University campus but obviously popular with students. I settled for a Greek salad (love that lamb, cucumbers, Feta cheese, and Kalamata olives!) and we chatted about this and that (Kenny is a “Kentucky boy” and had some good tales to tell about growing up there—and we also talked music a bit). After, I rode with him (Kitty went in Dallas’ car) and Kenny took me on a quick tour of Liberty University (which, impressive as it is, seemed a “work in progress” with regard to building projects) before we arrived at the Tower Theater.
The theater is truly impressive with its splendid architecture, 640 seats and giant stage. We were met by a woman who would handle sound and lighting, and I was filled with delightful anticipation until I looked up at that stage (sets for Mary Poppins, in production, in place, but in no way compromising what we would do). I was filled with expectancy until I noticed that two microphones on stands were set in place down front, but … no piano! I felt as if I might have a heart attack on the spot. Love Letters of Lynchburg is a play for two voices accompanied by a complete musical score which has been performed by piano, bass, and flute—but this night by me on piano alone.
“Wh-wh-where’s the piano?” I asked the woman in charge.
“No one requested a piano,” she replied, in a voice that was decidedly official.
I pictured myself sitting in the front row, watching and listening to Dallas and Kitty read the lines in the script without a stitch of the musical backing I had painstakingly put together to flesh out the piece—and I thought of committing seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide, or harakiri) on the spot, although I lacked not only a piano but a good sharp samurai sword as well. Kitty spotted a piano behind a curtain, just off to the right of the stage facing front, but it was “wired” for sound for the Mary Poppins production, and the woman told us in no uncertain terms, “Do not touch that piano!” The stage area was monstrous (“over 12,000 square feet backstage”), and she marched us for a stretch that seemed like an extensive wilderness hike, all the way back to the Green Room, where we discovered an upright Kawai piano, which we wheeled back through the wilderness and to the front of the stage, off to one side of the microphones. It was hardly the Grand I had anticipated (and had asked for), and I had to tilt the angle so that I could see Dallas and Kitty, the audience, and the keyboard and score all at the same time. I also had to find a bench (but NOT the Mary Poppins bench, oh no!), and had to roll up my wet (the rain, remember?) outdoor all-weather coat to sit on, adjusting it for a height at which I felt comfortable playing.
But we were in business—sans Japanese ritual suicide. And the performance went as the rehearsal had gone: swimmingly, beautifully, pace, timing, execution, emotion—all! Dallas and Kitty were at one with the roles, the exchange of letters was quite moving, and I played some not too bad piano, if I do say so myself.
Here are photos of Charles and Susan in “real life,” as they looked in 1861, when the Civil War began:
Before we started, I did give the audience (not all 640 seats filled, by any means, but a substantial group for a rainy night such as Virginians are reported as not going out into) some background information on the letters they were going to hear (the “state” of Charles and Susan’s life when the war began—a couple much in love and five years into marriage), and seeing Greg Starbuck in the audience, I introduced him and thanked him, publically, for having made Love Letters of Lynchburg possible in the first place. The audience was respectful, attentive throughout the performance, the applause sounded (and felt) good, and several members expressed their appreciation after.
Kitty, Dallas and I had our pictures taken out in the lobby, with Kenny, and with Greg, and we even received our due portion of the “gate” (although Kitty would have to wait a space of time for recompense for her train trip). Rather than leave to head back to Charlottesville right away (as I thought we would need to do), Doug, Em, Kitty, Betty and I decided we had time for a celebration beer (or two), Dallas and Greg Starbuck in agreement, Kenny declining on the ground that he was a Baptist and thought it best to go straight home. The rest of us “repaired” to a lively student hangout (the name of which I forget) at the campus edge, and enjoyed lively conversation that covered a wide range of subject matter, and beer (I had Guinness).
I felt great (emotionally, not just chemically) on the ride back to Charlottesville and The Comfort Inn, because I felt our “gig” had–in spite of the initial piano crisis–come off, unfolded, just as I’d hoped it would. It was a thrill to think that we had brought this performance to the very place, Lynchburg, in which half of the letters (Susan’s portion) were written, and also those of Charles in a metaphorical sense, for his share could not have been composed without his “home,” and those he called his “household gods” living there throughout the war years, in mind.
Love Letters of Lynchburg ends with a humorous account, on Susan’s part, of her having been sent to Charlottesville by Charles, at the time of the fall of Richmond. She wrote him: “And of course, My Dearest Husband, just what I told you when you insisted upon my leaving Richmond to come to ‘safety’ here in Charlottesville would happen has happened, and what I ran away from I ran into. When the rumor reached us that Union soldiers were coming down from Waynesboro, everybody set to work to prepare for the raiders by hiding everything of value. I first stored away the hams I brought away from Richmond in a safe place in the cuddy of Mr. Minor’s house [her sister’s husband, a professor of law at the University of Virginia]. We waited for the Yankees all day most anxiously, indeed in a state of wild excitement. I took our silver sugar-dish, cream pot, bowl, forks and spoons and put them into the legs of a pair of your own drawers from a trunk, tying up each leg at the ankle and buckling the band around my waist. They hung under, and were concealed by my hoops. It did well while I sat still, but as I walked and when I sat down the clanking destroyed all hope of concealment. Of course the ridiculous side of the situation struck me and I could not restrain my laughter, which sister said was very unseemly at such a time. But I could not help it. It was partly nervous, but there were many amusing scenes, as you can well imagine, and what is amusing will amuse me, you know? … [pause] … whatever the surroundings.”
And Charles responds with: “Left alone here in Richmond, I have missed you and your ‘counsel’ very much, especially following father’s death. Now, I have no one but you with whom to confer and upon whose judgment I can safely rely … [pause] … The streets are full of scared people, ladies and gentlemen, all in great distress, but all powerless to accomplish anything … [pause] … I hope to buy those hooped skirts you liked, with my last Confederate dollars … [substantial pause] … I just learned about the surrender at Appomattox. I’ve got a forty-two mile hike, alone, to Lynchburg, sleeping on the ground or in barns or sheds, but if I can get just one post-war legal case there, I can earn half a dollar and we can buy the first herring and slice of cheese we’ve had in four years … [long pause] … You’ve claimed that my letters to you are much superior to yours in every respect, and will be of more interest to our children because they describe ‘active operations,’ while yours are confined to the more limited circle of domestic life; but many such letters as I have written will be written by many persons, while there are few, if any, contemporaneous accounts of what took place at home and how people lived and thought during the long, dark days of this dreadful war. I am amused at what you say about our great grandchildren laughing at our long and loving letters. Well, let them laugh, but if they are only half as happy in their married life as their great grandparents, they will be far more fortunate than most people.”
It’s a perfect ending to what I felt had been a perfect night (with just the one, temporary. mishap—the piano crisis). I had hoped, here, to post photos my sister Emily took of the performance, but she is (by her own omission) the procrastinating type, someone who doesn’t get around to sending out her Christmas cards until April—so I have yet to receive the photos.
One quick “pitch”: the Love Letters of Lynchburg CD (with the original cast) is available for purchase at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm.
Once back in Charlottesville, we dropped Kitty off at the side entrance of Lloyd and Ashlin’s home (after having the inevitable embarrassment of not being able to find Park Street again, at least for a while, when we reentered the city). We promised to pick her up early in the morning so she could catch her 8:30 AM Amtrak train back to Massachusetts—which we managed. Doug and Em would be heading north again themselves the next day, Thursday, so we planned to spend Wednesday at Monticello, which we did.
I’ll end there, with a small, mysterious visual enticement to (I hope) future reading—a sort of “Preview of Coming Attractions”: a “historical sketch” of Monticello I found in a book, Anti-bellum Albemarle, my father showed me when I was a teenager, and the same of a relative’s, Peter Minor’s, home Ridgway—with “Tom” himself, as represented in the well known Rembrandt Peale painting which serves as frontispiece for another book, Jefferson’s Albemarle, between the two.
The mystery of these “illustrations” will be cleared up next post—so stay tuned!