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An Act To Follow

Street Theater An Idea That's Due For A Revival In Downtown Hartford

May 14, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

This may push the press's fascination with minor anniversaries to a new low, but bear with me. It was 40 years ago that a group of youthful pranksters dumped soap suds into the fountain on Constitution Plaza.

A half-dozen teenagers were caught white-handed (one was holding an empty box of laundry detergent) at the late-night prank and taken to the Morgan Street pokey. Though the night security guard instructed his dayside counterpart not to turn on the fountain, the fellow couldn't resist.

The Hartford Times reported the next day that "a gentle westerly wind wafted gobs of white stuff over the plaza."

The sudsy six were charged with fourth-degree foaming or something, but the case was laughed out of court. The real importance of the event was as a precedent.

It was the first public act of a group of young zanies that would blossom a decade later into a marvelous, if brief, period of street theater, improvisation and outdoor art in Hartford.

City leaders encouraged them. The arts, along with the new Civic Center, were part of the strategy to revitalize downtown.

Three decades later, there's another effort to revive downtown. The "Six Pillars" are about finished and Toronto planner Ken Greenberg was in town last week to begin updating his 1998 plan. It is essential that the arts folks take part in the planning, that we again create an atmosphere for all kinds of public art.

The fun in the '70s began with the Knox Foundation, headed by architect/activist Jack Dollard. Knox funded such things as Peace Train, creator of the Fiddle Contest; Camp Downtown for kids; and the restoration of an antique carousel for Bushnell Park. New arts groups formed as the decade progressed, thanks in part to federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act grants. CETA funds helped start Real Art Ways, Artworks Gallery and the Artists Collective, among others. As federal expenditures go, I'd take this over the war in Iraq.

But the really inspired anarchy of the time came from an offshoot of Knox called Sidewalk Inc. Founded by Tim Keating, Ann Kieffer and Bob Gregson, Sidewalk quickly became known for what Gregson called "art attacks," improvised outdoor performances of every kind.

A van would pull up in front of a building and two dancers in evening clothes would jump out and begin a waltz or rumba. A dozen participants would do sidewalk sculptures with folding chairs. A skywriter would write something over downtown. A ballet dancer would leap out of a clump of bushes and perform. A bridge of balloons would appear over a downtown street. Artists performed skits in fountains. There was other wild stuff, such as Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture, aka the rocks. I love it/them.

There was zero chance that this foment could continue for very long, and it didn't. "We pushed the envelope until it broke," Gregson once explained. By the early 1980s, money was drying up and there were other windmills at which to tilt.

So, Peter Pan married Wendy and the story ended. Many of the artists from those days have gone on to remarkable careers. Keating works on production design in Hollywood, Mark-Linn Baker and John McDonough became TV stars, Peter Waite is a major painter, Michael Smith (Baby Ikki) is a performance artist, etc.

Outdoor art didn't fade away with Sidewalk; in most respects there's more of it. Former Northeast Magazine editor Lary Bloom started a marvelous "Art For All" project that brought, among other things, my favorite outdoor sculpture, Elbert Weinberg's "Pickles & Palm Trees" in the park in front of the State Armory building.

The Greater Hartford Arts Council has followed this with its own program, and in the past five years has placed 20 outdoor pieces in the city, with more coming. The council also has a busker program, supporting musicians and jugglers on the downtown plazas - this apart from its main job of supporting the city's outstanding institutional arts community.

Then there's ArtSpace artist housing, Hartford Blooms, Monday Night Jazz (coming back to Bushnell Park) and a bunch of other stuff. In short, we've got about everything BUT the kind of madcap improv that Sidewalk provided. The time may be right to bring it back.

I discussed this ast week with Bob Gregson.

Gregson, who got his start as the teenage leader of the "Soapy Six," went on to become an artist and one of the state's premier event and performance impresarios. He's done New Haven's International Festival of Art and Ideas, New London's OpSail and scores of others, and is the creative director of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism's Tourism Division.

"In the '70s, everyone was so desperate to do something. We were young and needed a forum; the city was the forum. It was risky, fun and surprising. It was a way to take negative energy and express it as positive."

He said there are a lot of creative young people around today who could and should make art on the streets. "They shouldn't reproduce the '70s stuff but rather find out who we are now." He said funders should support outdoor improv. "It doesn't have to be huge, but it ought to be there."

He's right. The Sidewalk pieces were fun, challenging and also good business. Here's why. Anchor events, such as First Night or the Fourth of July fireworks, are essential, but bring people downtown for just one day. The idea that fun could break out at any moment encourages people to be downtown all the time, lest they miss something. That spontaneity was what worked in the 1970s.

An idea for a new artsy lark in downtown? Well, the 1966 bubble incident became a minor urban legend, and was talked about for years. "We could have a Constitution Plaza Bubble Festival," Gregson mused, with everyone blowing bubbles, "bubble boy" races, bubble gum contests and a high school band playing, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."

Where are the suds of yesteryear?

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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