Curtain Call: Act I Begins

Posted on May 21, 2020

SKyPAC is proud to present a new series honoring our area arts heritage. Each week we will highlight different trailblazers and turning points that have ushered us to the modern day arts opportunities this region now enjoys. We hope you will join us in saying “Bravo!” for the countless lives touched through the arts as a result of the vision and dedication of those documented in the paragraphs that follow.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This quote, attributed to Margaret Mead, hangs on the wall in the home of Regina Newell, an original influencer of the arts and the Capitol Arts Center. It was given to her by the late Mary Frances Willock, who was also an early influencer of the arts here too. Looking back on these years, we will attempt to add to the written history of how this “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” listed below “set the stage” for this area’s regional Arts movement.

Act I

Mary Cohron remembers the first meetings took place in the back of Norman Lewis’ store, the Royal Music Company on State Street, where Regina Newell recalls they met around a formica kitchen table. Cohron said she was recruited by Lewis and that the original members started working as an ad hoc committee in early 1975. Anne R. Johnston (whose vision letter we shared last week) was an early leader in the Arts. She came to Bowling Green as her husband was a Philosophy Professor at WKU and she worked at the Kentucky Museum. Lucinda Anderson, who at the time had recently moved back to Bowling Green from Washington, D.C., said her first introduction to the group came when she attended a meeting at Cohron’s home. Linda Adams, wife of State Legislator Buddy Adams served as secretary for the group. Liz Steen, Mayor Bernie Steen’s wife was among the early advocates as well. Representing the county, Charlie Hardcastle (who at the time was serving as a Magistrate) attended meetings and followed the progress of this community arts center plan. Newell also recalls meetings at the Citizens National Bank second building that Mary Frances Willock arranged.

Cohron also recalled early meetings taking place at the public library. In fact, she said it was at this location that she discovered an interesting connection to one of her fellow organizers. Cohron shared the story about being at the library with Anne Johnston when someone stopped and remarked to Johnston, “You look so much like your grandmother.” Cohron inquired, “Oh, who is your grandmother?” Unexpectedly, it was revealed she was the granddaughter of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The original document provided by the Kentucky Museum states the Bowling Green – Warren County Arts Commission was established in 1976. It was created by an ordinance of the Bowling Green City Commission during Mayor Bernie Steen’s term and Warren County Fiscal Court during Judge Executive Basil Griffin’s tenure. Cohron served as Treasurer for the Commission from 1976-78, during which time the financing was secured to purchase the Capitol Theatre from a company in Georgia.

According to Newell, a number of locations were initially considered for an arts center, including the State Street Baptist Church building that is now home to Anna’s Greek Restaurant. Ultimately, the decision was made to pursue the abandoned Capitol Theatre building primarily because of its downtown location in the middle of Fountain Square and its history as a vaudeville house.

Providing a “glimpse” into how this process unfolded, Newell relayed the story that downtown businessman, Sam Hall, owner of Golden Farley Men’s Shop, arranged for a small group to fly on his plane to Georgia to speak to the owners of the Capitol Theatre, the Martin Theatre Company. The building had been vacant since closing in the early 70’s. Initially, the owner wanted at least $110,000 for the building but eventually agreed to sale for $35,000, which was made possible by a loan by Mr. Ervin G. Houchens (noted in our first Curtain Call feature). Newell emphasized the boldness of making such an offer so far below the requested amount, but in hindsight, it was emblematic of the movement itself, a group of determined individuals who were not willing to take no for an answer.

Though often behind the scenes, County Judge Executive Basil Griffin was always considered a reliable ally for the Arts cause and rallied local political support along with State Legislator Buddy Adams and others. According to Cohron, on Governor Julian Carroll’s last day in office, he wrote a $1 million check in support of the organization to finish the renovation of the Capitol Arts Center. Newell also noted downtown revitalization and tourism efforts proved helpful in attracting the much-needed funds. Barbara English, also an early Arts influencer, recalled community members who were able to “bend the ear” of Governor John Y. Brown to secure funds allocated to the county in support of the project.

While it turned out the work was just getting started, fortunately as the idea of the Capitol Arts Center began to take shape, so too did the group of people rallying behind the cause. By 1977-78 the Arts Alliance (the Volunteer Fundraising Arm of the BG-WC Arts Commission and Capitol Arts Center) was formed with Anna Jo Johnson, Chair; Vice-Chair, Liz Steen*; Recording Secretary, Ann Hocker* (and Publicity Chair); Corresponding Secretary, Billie Dickinson; Treasurer, Ray Buckberry; Jr. Parliamentarian, Regina Newell; Program Chair, Mary Frances Willock* (and Liaison between the Arts Alliance and the Arts Community); Jo Ann Powell, Alliance Program Chair; Jerre Fitts*, Membership Chair; and Hospitality Chair, Lucinda Francis Anderson. Plans were underway for their first membership drive. It is noted in official Arts formation documents that R. Harvey Johnston, III and Ray Buckberry (both Attorneys) crafted and reviewed many legal documents for the Arts.

Remembering this early group of supporters, Charlie Hardcastle, admitted he initially had reservations about the ambitious goals set forth by the group. However it was not long before they not only proved themselves but also won him over. In fact, Hardcastle says he continued to support the organization during his years as mayor and as a business owner to this day. He said he learned never to underestimate this passionate group of people.

“They were determined to make this happen and they found a way to do it,” Hardcastle concluded.

Next week we continue “through the years” with the 1981 opening of the Capitol Arts Center.

WE WELCOME YOUR INPUT: This series is a work in progress based on your feedback and remembrances. If you were involved in area arts efforts and have photos, programs, or other information related to the Capitol Arts Center or SKyPAC, please contact Rob Hankins at 270.904.5004 or email rhankins@theskypac.com.

*Names with asterisk indicate the individual is now deceased.

**The people referenced in this article all served on the Bowling Green-Warren County Arts Commission and Arts Alliance board for various extended terms through the years.

***A special thank you to all those who have helped us in compiling information for this series, including those who have provided first-hand accounts as well as photos, programs, etc. We also extend our gratitude to Jonathan D. Jeffrey, Department Head & Manuscripts & Folklife Archives Coordinator, Dept. of Library Special Collections, WKU for his efforts in retrieving archived material.

****We have made every effort to be as accurate as possible in detailing this information but given the years that have passed and limited sources for verification, we regret any oversights in names or details that might have been unintentionally omitted and/or cited.

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