Tifton Gazette

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September 2, 2012

Montgomery, Ala.: Considering famous folks in new ways

TIFTON — Hey good lookin’. What you got cooking? may swirl in your head when you think of Hank Williams, but visit his Montgomery, Ala., hometown and so will much, much more.

I focused on six famous folks when I visited for several days: Hank Williams, Rosa Parks, William Shakespeare and Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.

Robert Trent Jones too. Remember him?

Several hours are easy to enjoy in the Hank Williams Museum, singing his songs in your head, listening to 16” discs, spun at 33 rpms from inside the disc to the outside.

News to me, even after a childhood playing vinyl discs on the phonograph. Hank’s records on display were his eight syndicated radio shows from 1949—“The Health and Happiness Show.”

The sponsor was Hadacol with Dudley LeBlanc. Cough medicine with alcohol. Tickled me because Mobile, Ala. was recently selected by the World Leisure Congress as the international site for the Sept. 7-12, 2014 gathering of 2,000 experts shaping leisure activities as the means to just that—health and happiness.

Wonder if they’ll journey from the Mobile meeting site to listen to Hank’s archived shows?  Bit of a stretch, maybe, but I’m a believer in intentional travel with a purpose. Making connections on the road.

I did some personal musing too watching the April, 1952 TV show Hank did with Kate Smith. Told myself it was familiar, certain my parents would have watched with little girl me in the room.

Everybody wonders in this museum how Williams could have died at age 29 in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac convertible. The car’s on display and next New Year’s Eve and Day are the 60th anniversary of his death.

If you prefer birthday celebrations, go to Montgomery for the Sept. 15 party honoring Hank William’s Sept. 17 birth date.

Go anytime and pretend you’re with him if you have a hot dog at Chris’ on Dexter Avenue. Serving dogs all the way since 1917, and stories abound about Williams writing songs at the lunch counter.

Dexter is a name that matters in Montgomery, for the avenue and the history, and Shirley Cherry taught me lots of it.

She’s the energetic historian and tour director at the Dexter Parsonage Museum on South Jackson Street. Ask for her tour.

Cherry offered positive, forgiving perspectives, big broad views connecting dots on the tour I joined through this parsonage where young Martin Luther King Jr. with his wife Coretta lived with their little children from 1954–1960.

Her passion for the story of Montgomery in those years is wrapped around this philosophy: “We must take time to teach the children history.”

She does that now from a museum perspective, and she did so for 31 years as a schoolteacher, much in Rhode Island. Skilled bringing life to the lessons.

Rev. Vernon Johns for instance, pastoring the Baptist church years before Dr. King, “opening the doors, breaking down some barriers” Cherry said.

“He was a Greek and Latin scholar, graduate of Oberlin College and Virginia Theological Seminary.”

Johns self-taught nature growing up too poor to go to school, learning to read while plowing, influences Cherry’s Dexter Parsonage Museum teaching too.

“Without a Dr. Johns, there could not have been a Dr. King,” she suggests.

Expect her to show you photos of people affecting the dozen ministers who lived in this parsonage, and snippets of their place in this history. Cherry pays attention to what visitors have to say too.

One day a woman visiting sat down right there,” Cherry said pointing to a chair at the dining room table, “and told me her grandfather was the one who arrested Rosa Parks.”

Since Cherry’s great-grandfather Fred Daniel was the first one arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott, triggered by that arrest, history wraps around a lot of facts and emotions on this tour.

    I advise allowing enough time to reflect in the meditation gardens before more Montgomery exploring, whether you follow my famous folks concept or another trail.

Plenty of thoughts to think throughout the Rosa Parks Library & Museum. Six distinct ways and places to do so.

This is an engaging place, far more than exhibits with history panels to read. Everybody starts together in small batches, seated in a stark room with black and white portrait photos, names and bits of their personal history in the civil rights movement in Montgomery.

Glad I recognized some, surprised how much I didn’t know when the lights dimmed and three film screens filled with more people, telling their real stories.  

 Just enough information and emotion to absorb and up go the lights, door opens and we enter what feels like a city street with a theatrical back-lighted bus.

With audio and visual, we stand, watching the Rosa Parks story unfold inside that bus. Her weariness, the bus driver’s consternation, fear, anger, dismay, surprise in the passengers.

Well done as documentary. No strident statements. Nothing like opinionated cable television talking heads. And so the museum galleries continue: interactive, thoughtful, lots of video, documentary, interviews and real-life recollections.

Surely fodder for me to wonder what I would have done had I been there in 1955. Or what I ought to be doing today.

Top of my list for a return visit will be the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine, a 22-minute virtual bus ride in the new children’s wing about other people making a difference with their choices and behaviors in the Rosa Parks style.

The Bard was my next person of history, figuring in solid reasons to holiday in Montgomery.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival calls itself a producing theater, not merely a presenter, and they do so on a lush campus: 250 acres of park, pond with swans and two theaters.

Joyous to audience-member me: the big one is a 792 seater, preferable to gargantuan cavernous theaters.

The big part you can’t see, only the theatrical results--- three stories of fly space to handle spectacular sets and a deep, deep stage.

Then there’s the Octagon with 262 seats. I pretended I was in England at The Globe.

A family by the name of Blount spent $21.5 million to create these theater spaces and more to move the Alabama Shakespeare Festival from Anniston to Montgomery in 1985.

Story goes they traveled the world studying fine performance halls to determine how these should be shaped.

Sets are built here, costumes designed and constructed, props created and catalogued for re-use. Directors audition professional Equity actors in New York, sometimes Atlanta and other regional theater locations.

So what’s to see soon? “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” on Saturdays in October, and “A Christmas Carol” late November and December.

Open 2013 with “Macbeth.” Or pick the Feb. 8 opening night of “Ethel” about jazz singer Ethel Waters and then the closing night Feb. 9 of “Macbeth.”

That kind of combo theater is another charm of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Mix Shakespeare scripts with others.

Maybe go in the spring for the Southern Writer’s Project to hear new voices, and regional voices, all in the English-style settings.

Robert Trent Jones, or his reputation, helped me figure out where to stay: the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa, one of eight Alabama hotels on the golf trail named for the legendary designer of more than 500 courses in America and worldwide.

This is not Bobby Jones of Atlanta fame although the two men worked together designing the Peachtree Golf Club right after World War II.  

The Renaissance is downtown, perfect for non-golfing me to explore Montgomery.

 

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