The threat to Austin Musical Theatre and the passing of Austin storyteller and artist Helen Handley
AMT Deadline: Nov. 18
Time is running out for Austin Musical Theatre. As noted in last week's Chronicle, the company has suspended operations and is under the gun to raise $500,000 by Nov. 18 in order to complete its current season with productions of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella and Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. As of press time, some cash had been raised (enough to pay the laid-off staff back wages) but not enough yet to relieve the fiscal crisis -- this, despite a front-page story in the daily letters to the editor, and numerous appeals on television and radio. Why this should be is baffling to me.
Quick refresher: Prior to AMT's debut in 1997, the classic Broadway musical had all but flat-lined in this city. There were occasional revivals by what was then Live Oak Theatre, Zilker Theatre Productions, and some area universities, but the quality of these productions varied wildly from show to show, and no one was mounting old-school musicals on the scale of -- not to mention with the skill of -- Broadway or touring companies. Then, enter Scott Thompson and Richard Byron with their Mickey-and-Judy dream of starting a professional musical theatre company in our town. During one of the worst ice storms in recent history, they managed to craft a Peter Pan that blew the roof off the Paramount.
Thompson and Byron delivered on their dream, not just that time but 15 times. Every show they staged was nothing less than slick, stylish, visually engaging, kinetically captivating entertainment, and frequently they transcended that, as with spectacular efforts such as My Fair Lady. Moreover, AMT enriched this city immeasurably, helping revitalize the Paramount, providing a new level of musical training for Austin's youth, and giving us a kind of theatre that wouldn't have existed here otherwise.
Now, I don't want to suggest that 500K isn't a lot of cash, especially in the current economy. Still, it seems a pittance considered in the light of what AMT's 15 productions and academy have added to Austin and the fact that, when AMT goes away, it goes for good. Austin had nothing like AMT before Byron and Thompson came to town, and it won't see anything like it again when they go. You won't see touring productions of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon being booked into the Paramount to fill the gap or other theatre companies starting to mount works by Lerner & Loewe or Cy Coleman on the scale of -- or with the skill of -- AMT. This is it.
AMT is still scrambling to survive. Though Executive Director David Jenkins and AMT parted company earlier this week, Thompson and Byron, along with board members and other volunteers, are launching a fundraising phone-a-thon this week. We spend a lot of time in Austin talking about not wanting to lose the things that make this city special. AMT isn't the only company that made Austin's arts scene dynamic and worthy of national attention, but it was certainly one of them, and it deserves a second life.
To help Austin Musical Theatre, call Artistic Director Scott Thompson at 428-9696 x301.
In Memoriam: Helen Handley
If the term "born storyteller" deserved to be applied to anyone, it was Helen Handley. From the moment she arrived in this world on March 3, 1912, she was surrounded with material: Her family line included a great-great-great-grandfather who scouted and surveyed land for Stephen F. Austin. Her father, lawyer Sigismund Engelking, was so passionate about Shakespeare that he would deliver the Bard's words standing on his dining-table chair. The family horse -- named Romeo, naturally -- would clamber up the back porch steps every afternoon to satisfy its yen for peach cobbler. Helen's pedigree entitled her to become a San Antonio debutante -- Queen of the Horse Chestnuts in the Court of the Trees -- a role for which she always claimed to be ill-suited and at which she fumbled spectacularly. What else could she do but tell stories? When she died Tuesday, Nov. 5, at the age of 90, Helen Handley had spent a grand lifetime spinning yarns about her life and sharing them from the stage. Her one-woman show Lie Down and I'll Put A Little Something Warm Over Your Feet was a sweet success of Eighties Austin theatre, which Handley played across Texas and New Mexico, and even in Scotland at the 1983 Edinburgh Festival. When she wasn't onstage, Helen wrote books, painted, and took photographs. She is survived by four children, Bill, Mia, Lynette, and Ted Mather, from her first marriage to Austin lawyer Edward Otis Mather, and by her second husband, Ollie Handley, whom she met when one of her sons married the daughter of a retired Marine. She fell for the father of the bride, and so she wed him, using their romance as the basis for her play The Long Geriatric Honeymoon, which they performed at Hyde Park Theatre and elsewhere. In the beautifully written obituary that ran in the Austin American-Statesman, Molly Ivins noted that Helen "had not an ounce of snobbery but remained hopelessly well-bred all her life." Friends will gather to tell "Helen stories" later this month. Good night, Helen, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep.