As Wharton Center celebrates its 40th birthdayThe tenth Anniversary season, it reminds me of how the history of arts and music writing at the Lansing State Journal relates to the opening of this wonderful performing arts center.
It was in July 1982 when I called Mike Hughes, the entertainment editor at LSJ, to see if I could write music criticism for the paper.
Always an incoming and positive observer of the world, said Hughes, “Sure. The Wharton Center will open in September, and we have no one to cover them. You’re a tenant!”
I was shocked and surprised. I approached LSJ a few years ago, but this editor made it clear that my writing was too loud for Lansing fans.
What I didn’t understand when Hughes hired me so quickly was that I would be a freelance writer. I will pay you through the article without any long term contract. This translated into the fact that at any time, if at any point I didn’t like my writing, if it was Hughes or LSJ in general, all they had to do was stop calling me.
Hughes gave me a tour of the editing room. It was messy and exciting. Computers were just installed in writers’ desks, next to old typewriters with rolls of paper instead of loading individual sheets of paper.
There was still a tape machine standing there broadcasting the news stories and a police radio screaming stillness and robbery. The back room was full of large easels where workers composed the pages for each daily paper, using razor blades to cut stories to fit between advertisements. And there was a large library (or morgue in newsroom parlance), filled with passages (previous articles) organized into categories.
The newspaper was a great team of enthusiastic, high-energy news junkies. I got to know photographers, editors, columnists, sports writers, and more. We all helped each other LSJ was an afternoon paper at the time. I hit the streets in the noon or so and couldn’t wait to run to the store to see my name printed.
My first paid article was a review of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, its first at the newly built Wharton Center. No guidance was given regarding the length or style of the review.
So, of course, I wrote a very long article with fully packed paragraphs. What actually appeared in the newspaper was about a third of the article I wrote.
The perfect man in my thirties told Houze that if he was going to edit my business in this way, he shouldn’t bother putting my name on it.
Instead of promptly firing me for my gullibility and daring, he patiently told me newspaper articles were printed in small columns that required text in short sentences and small paragraphs. And a 12-inch column (about 250 words) was all they could print. It got me down in size, but gently.
But it was still hard for me to be brief. Shortly thereafter I wrote a review of the Lansing Opera production. It was a 17 inch pillar. The design guy told me he only had 12 inches of space. I told him that would be impossible. I couldn’t write about music, groups, singers, orchestra, chorus, costumes, and more at 12 inches.
He brought me back to his planning board, showed me the space and said, “Listen Ken, all I know is that I have a 12 inch hole on the page waiting for your story and nothing more. I don’t know anything about opera, so I’m going to cut five inches of the story from the bottom to fit the space And I bet you don’t want me to do that. So, edit your own story! “
He taught me a lesson I will never forget.
Another lesson I haven’t forgotten was from Hughes. I started with LSJ before PCs, the Internet, and email attachments. I had to run to the LSJ building on Lenawee Street and write my stories on site. I didn’t know anything about computers or technology.
Since I was a new writer, I struggled in the early days with a lot of my articles. During this struggle, I inadvertently erased my entire article, which took me about an hour to write, simply by touching the wrong key.
I was crazy with anger. Hughes ran toward me and said, “It’s all in your head. Just sit down at the computer and retype everything again. It’s all there.” Of course he was right.
Soon I was asked to review musicals and then plays. Later, I wrote articles on travel and culture and even columns related to job interviews and employment – using my knowledge from my day job.
I’m always amazed that many people I meet think I’m a full-time writer at LSJ. I feel like what I love most about writing about the arts is that I’m not a full-time writer.
I write about my favorite hobby and lifelong interest alongside my full-time job as an Executive Research Consultant. They complement each other, making my life richer and more interesting.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned about writing in the State Journal was about deadlines. In many areas of life, deadlines can be negotiated. With a newspaper, there comes a time when the button is pressed and the presses start rolling. It is better to have your story on the page. This deadline cannot be changed.
When I started, interviews with celebrities scared me terribly. I will never forget my first encounter with jazz singer Cleo Lynn. She got what I believe to be her home phone number in San Francisco (there were no cell phones at the time).
A smoky female voice answered, and asked, “Cleo Lin, please.” She replied, “This is Mrs. Lin.” At the time I was speechless. My mouth was open, but no sound came out. Those who know me know how rare this is. I was a true fan and at this moment, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Finally, the conversation started and the phone call went quietly.
Interviewing musicians, artists, singers, authors and public theater continues to be a great excitement for me. I’ve always been interested in backstage stories, and now I’m hearing about them from people who’ve tried them firsthand.
Although I have interviewed Renee Fleming, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennett, Mel Turmy, Doc Severinson, Lily Tomlin, Leonard Bernstein, James Galloway, and dozens of others, some of my most memorable conversations have been with young artists who are just beginning to get a taste of Success .
A young artist texted me at 3 in the morning. I called the next day and asked why he was texting in the middle of the night. He said: How do I sleep and all my dreams come true?
One of the defining moments of my career was when Jerry Lewis starred as the devil in Damn Yankees at The Wharton Center.
I made a good presentation of the program and the next day I got a call from the State Journal saying that Lewis had called me and wanted to talk to me. I couldn’t believe it. “No, he did. This is his phone number.”
I called back Lewis, who said he just wanted to thank me for the review. I told him this had never happened to me before.
Lewis said, “We live in difficult business. I feel that when someone does a good job, they should hear about it.”
Lansing is a great place to write about culture and the arts. Surprisingly, this medium-sized city has such high quality theater and music available at reasonable prices. There are summer music festivals, concerts for MSU College of Music, The Wharton Center, and Lansing Symphony, many small concerts, and tons of theater.
The world of art journalism has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, due to changes in the print media, the magazine does not publish nearly as many cultural stories as it once did, which follow national trends.
Although I still regularly write stories about music and theater for LSJ, it was less than 40 years ago. But there are still plenty of great artistic stories to cover in Lansing and most of these stories are backed by local artists and musicians.
For the past 40 years, I have enjoyed telling the stories of Lansing’s successes. This article is not a swan song, I still plan to continue covering the Lansing State Journal of the Arts. Also, you can enjoy my blog, Glickarts.blogspot.com.
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