Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mortgage burning party celebrates end of long road for Theodore Roethke's boyhood home

Theodore Roethke's boyhood home, right, and his uncle's home at left

story and photo by janet i. martineau

Friends of Theodore Roethke today (May 15) announced it has made the final mortgage payment on the childhood home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Saginaw-raised poet. 

To celebrate, the group will host a hot dog roast and mortgage burning party from 1-4pm Sunday, May 25, at that 1805 Gratiot dwelling. The date also commemorates Roethke’s 106th birthday. He died in 1963 and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery.

“This is the realization of 15 years of hard work and fundraising,” said Annie Ransford, president of The Friends of Roethke.  The organization has long struggled to secure the home, which is also the Great Lakes Bay Region’s only National Literary Landmark, and the stone home next to it, which housed Roethke's uncle, Carl Roethke. 

Final payment on the two properties was secured in large part through a generous grant from The Dow Chemical Company Foundation, which supplemented the contributions made by Friends of Roethke members and other donors.

While state and national entities often provide support for educational programming, grant money was not available for the mortgage note, utilities and other necessary maintenance expenses. Private fundraising efforts had been constant, but relatively small, until Dow stepped in.

“Finally, this property truly belongs to our communities,” Ransford said. “Now Roethke’s memory can forever be preserved in this tangible, usable space.”

Last fall, under the DowGives program, more than 100 company and community volunteers also worked at the Roethke Home Museum properties over two days, to paint, remodel and landscape.

“Dow is proud to play a role in helping to secure the long-term future of this important institution,” said Dow spokesman Mike Kolleth, who led the DowGives program for the company. “The Roethke Museum is an important cultural and historical touchstone for the entire Great Lakes Bay region.”

The non-profit Friends of Roethke purchased the two homes and their property in 1998 to establish as a center for the literary arts. Roethke, who was featured on a US postage stamp in 2012, is widely considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. His poems are in virtually every textbook and anthology throughout the world.

Much of his work was inspired by the family’s massive greenhouse business, which once stood behind the two homes.

“Our thanks goes out to the Dow Foundation and the hundreds of members and donors who have contributed to the organization over the years,” Ransford said. “Thanks in large part to the Dow and The Dow Chemical Company Foundation, the museum is in is the best shape that it has been in physically and financially for many years. 

“We have a strong foundation upon which to grow and flourish. We welcome all members of the community to join us in celebrating this next chapter in our development and building our region’s literary heritage.”

The May 25th celebration event is open to the public and admission is by freewill donation. Members of the River Junction Poets and longtime Roethke supporter Rosie King, a poet, will throughout the afternoon read Roethke poems in the backyard.

Salads, a birthday cake and ice cream will be served along with the hot dogs. The mortgage burning will take place at 3pm. 

Friends of Roethke is also embarking on a project to reacquire some of the original Roethke furniture for the 1805 home. Many of its furnishings were sold at auction following the 1997 death of the poet’s sister, June Roethke. Records from the auction sale are no longer available.

We know what furniture was in the home, we just aren’t sure where it ultimately ended up,” Ransford said. “We would be delighted to repurchase the items to help us maintain the historical integrity of the museum.”

Those with information on the furnishings or an interest in joining the group can contact the organization at (989) 928-0430 or via e-mail at

Friday, May 9, 2014

Five actresses set fire to Midland's "The Dixie Swim Club"

Debbie Lake, left, and Denyse Clayton

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

High school days. Career changes. Medical issues. Marriages… multiple ones. Children. Grandchildren. Aging. Breast lifts and implants. Martinis … multiple ones. Petty squabbles. Not so petty squabbles. Hurricanes. Health food. Homemade biscuits…

In two wonderful hours, the five actresses in the Midland Center for the Arts production of "The Dixie Swim Club" will tug at you in every which way in a PG-13 script that delivers the goods on nostalgia, friendship, and life's twists and turns. The show opens tonight (May 9).

The premise of the script is five southern high school friends who were on a swim team together have, each year sense graduation, gathered for an August weekend at a beach cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

In its four scenes we spend time with them at ages 44, 49, 54 and 77.

They are:

-- Sheree, played by Debbie Lake of Saginaw – a health food fanatic and over organizer.

-- Dinah, played by Susie Polito of Midland  – a high-powered lawyer who never saw the need to be a mother.

-- Lexi, played by Denyse Clayton of Midland – a multi-married woman so so in love, with herself.
From left, Polito, Winans-Bagnall, Lake and Clayton

-- Jeri, played by Trina Winans-Bagnall of Midland – a nun without much sense of fashion.

--  Vernadette, played by Jeanne Gilbert of Bay City –  best described as a hypochondriac with out-of-control children.

If you know anything about community theater in Midland, or for that matter mid-Michigan, these are five of the most talented actresses we have. And from the get-go they do not disappoint in this ensemble piece extraordinaire.

Every voice inflection, every body movement, every word out of their mouth is pure character. No one delivers better than the others. Their characters ARE long-time friends and everything that entails. 

And in the final scene, which we will not discuss in this review nor which are we showing in the pictures published with this review (but will publist at the end of the run), they elevate their performances into the stratosphere. 

But, then, everything else about this show is perfect as well.

The script by Jesse Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten is insightful, funny, poignant, filled with solid one-liners, serves up great arguments, is “clean.” 

What we enjoyed the most is whenever one or more of the women is out of sight, she is fair gossip game for the rest gathered on the front porch, which is where all the action takes place. Loving and concerned gossip, of course. Well, sometimes.

Director Adam Gardner's impact is all over the production. Nice tableaus and movement. Swift pacing. Detail, detail, detail. An evenhanded direction of five powerful actresses.

And the set and costuming are a riot of color. Greenish cabin with the orange glow of the sky in the background. Four costuming changes for each woman and in one case more. A wonderfully angled set with several levels.

Even the between-scenes action is fun as the set decorations are changed. A screen is lowered and projected are old-time slides of women's swim teams as well as clever  pictures taken of the cast  indicating the progression of their character's lives.

In watching the show, this reviewer felt the cast members were so into their characters and the whole atmosphere so real that more than once she just so badly wanted to join in on the conversation.

For more pictures:

In a word, Pit & Balcony's "Spring Awakening" is stupendous

Seated center is lead Ben Hendricks and at right with hand up is Nolan Good

review and photographs by janet i. Martineau

Where, oh, where to start with a review of Pit and Balcony Community Theater's production of the musical  "Spring Awakening," opening tonight (May 9).

There are so many avenues to pursue with it. So many.

So we will take the easy way and quote from director Tommy Wedge, who writes in his program notes, "This is not your average musical. It is so much more."

Indeed it is, and we applaud Pit for having the courage to stage this controversial show because the end result is stupendous, just stupendous.

The minimal yet stylistic set…the inventive and eye-pleasing choreography (also by Wedge)…the energetic acting and singing…the costuming and lighting… all just soar and are impossible to describe in words. This truly is one of the most visual shows Pit has staged.

And then there is its topic. In "Spring Awakening," which won eight Tony awards including best musical, 1891 meets 2007. 

Maggie Dehart, left, and Meagan Eager
Its script was written in 1891 by a German and deals with sexual oppression. Erotic fantasies, date rape, child abuse, homosexuality, suicide, abortion,  masturbation .... all there.

No wonder, back then, the play was banned and censored in Germany, New York, England. It is hard to believe it was written in another century because it is still edgy today.

Fast-forward to 2007 when to the play's words was layered on an un-oppressed contemporary rock/alternative music score with song titles like "My Junk," "The Bitch of Living"  and "Totally Fucked." More edginess.

Added to that we see and are asked to buy into a cast dressed in 1890s costuming, dealing with life as it was lived back then with their words, suddenly from  suit jackets pulling out microphones and singing the daylights out of a contemporary world song.

Nothing about this show should work. But it all does. And please don't be frightened by it.

Sitting there, taking it all in, and despite being nearly 70 years old, we flashed back continually to our own youth and sexual insecurities and repressive 1950s society. 

Suddenly we got to thinking, oh we weren't so different after all. We also got to thinking, oh if kids today see this show maybe they won't feel so different either. We got to thinking, oh this is truly what good art does.

Besides, it may call itself a rock musical but the music also is lush and memorable. And beautifully played by the seven-member orchestra.

Ben Hendricks and Meagan Eager are outstanding as the two leads, a young couple drawn to each other in a tragic way. No matter what they sing they nail it.

Nolan Good as Ben's distraught friend raises hair on the neck when he does an intense  meltdown song sequence.

Danessa Hellus and Carly Peil in the song "The Dark I Know Well," about family incest, punch us in the gut.

Ensemble work also propels this production, in particular in the songs "Totally Fucked," "Those You've Known"  and "The Song of Purple Summer."

And all of them, the entire cast, thanks to Wedge's strong directing hand, deliver acting performances that are just as strong as their singing skills.

Whatta show.