“Another op'nin', another show, in Philly, Boston or Baltimo',
“A chance for stage folks to say hello, another op'nin' of another show.”
No, it's not Philly, Boston or Baltimo'. It's right here in Charleston and — can you believe it? — it's the 36th Spoleto Festival USA.
Founded by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, it was his plan to make Charleston the U.S. venue for his Festival dei Due Mondi (the Festival of Two Worlds), a New World edition of the arts festival he founded in 1958 in Spoleto, Italy.
Why Charleston? The story is that Menotti was enchanted by Charleston's Old World charm, its quaint streets, its historic (though then somewhat shabby) Dock Street Theatre, its churches, its appreciation for the performing arts, its first rate symphony orchestra. It was, he said, just what he was looking for.
Menotti, however, was not what everyone in conservative-minded Charleston was looking for or enchanted by. His flamboyant lifestyle, his arrogance, his open homosexuality, his obdurate, my-way-or-the-highway negotiating stance, his seeming indifference to festival budget deficits, turned off not a few early supporters. This led, in 1993, to his angry severance from the festival here.
Fortunately, Menotti's persona did not turn off the ones who really counted in 1977. I will name just three, though there were of course many more than three principal players in the drama that put Spoleto USA in Charleston.
First, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. I doubt that anyone other than Joe Riley could have sold Charleston on Menotti. Not then, and perhaps not even now. But Joe had a vision. Actually, he had many visions, and Spoleto as a catalyst for local arts is but one of those brought to fruition during his long and remarkable administration.
Before Spoleto, there was only one thriving theater group in Charleston, the Footlight Players. Now there are ... how many? A half dozen, surely. There were no more than, say, three or four first-class restaurants in the downtown area, and relatively few respectable bars. (Have you seen upper King Street lately?)
Spoleto brought to town a host of world-class performers, playwrights and musicians. Ella Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller spring quickly to mind. It showcased, early in their careers, current superstars in the performing arts including Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax and Renee Fleming.
More, Spoleto introduced Charleston to — dare I say it? — monied visitors “from off” who came here for the festival, liked what they saw, bought houses and invested in new businesses. More than a little of the prosperity that has turned Charleston, once a city “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash,” into what it is today is owed to Spoleto and to a young Mayor Joe Riley who had the courage of his convictions and persevered when others might have turned away.
Second, Ted Stern. President of the College of Charleston, a retired Navy Captain, an unabashed optimist, a genial hail fellow well met who was nevertheless a bulldog when it concerned something he thought important for his beloved adopted city, Ted threw his formidable fund raising weight and organizational talent behind the mercurial Menotti. It's hard to imagine a festival here had Ted Stern not been aboard from its very launching.
Third, Peter Manigault, my old boss at the Charleston newspapers. A lover of the arts and a man who believed it to be a fundamental part of a newspaper's mission to enrich the cultural life of the city where it published. He invested barrels of ink, tons of newsprint, and not a little of his own time and money to promote the festival. He hired noted New York critics like Robert Jones (who later settled here) to review Spoleto productions. Behind the scenes, always behind the scenes, Peter worked tirelessly to make Spoleto USA succeed.
Not every Spoleto offering this year or any year is everyone's cup of tea, and certainly not mine. What it and its companion Piccolo Festival (which includes local talent) offer, however, is a 17-day celebration of the performing arts — sometimes riotous, sometimes outrageous.
To a greater extent than many might realize, Menotti's dream and those who helped it become reality have made this city we all love into a great place to visit, to live, and to enjoy.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.