Cool Stuff

Oh Tannenbaum

The Christmas Tree Kerfuffle that arose with the installation of a non-traditional 17′ tall cardboard art sculpture in the Grand Arcade on the Asbury Park Boardwalk has received national and international attention. It was only natural that ArtsRule would want to explore the genesis and impact this art has had from the perspective of the three individuals responsible for its creation.

The GIVING TREE in the Grand Arcade
Art as tradition
"NJ Mourns Tradition" - NY Post

This is a wide-ranging conversation that took place on December 16th 2021, with Jenn Hampton, curator of The Wooden Walls Project and gallerista of Parlor Gallery and two of Asbury’s own from the art community with us, your Arts Rule hosts Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino. The artists, Porkchop (Michael LaValle) and Brad Hoffer, designed and installed the cardboard Christmas tree titled THE GIVING TREE for developer Madison Marquette. Located inside the Grand Arcade on the Asbury Park Boardwalk, the tree has created quite the buzz. Touching upon art, developers, city government and the role they all play in defining an arts-centric city, it’s clear that there is no straight path to becoming arts-centric. Serendipity plays as much a role as planning. Take a listen, and if you’d prefer to watch the interview, it’s available here on our Vimeo site.

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What's the Story about a Tour?

“I don’t consider tour-guiding an art form.  However, I do consider story-telling an art form.” – Kathy Kelly, owner Paranormal Books and Curiosities

When traveling to a new city, Mike and I often stop at the Visitor Center and ask about a walking tour to get a lay of the land, see those ‘particular to the area’ sights and listen to the tour guide take us through the history.  Walking tours are much like the shared experiences of movies and theater, the information is better assimilated in a group, the diversity of strangers heightens the excitement of a new experience.  Our tours have been memorable from the Big Onion Original Multi Ethnic walking tour in NYC winding through Chinatown, Little Italy and the Jewish neighborhoods of my parents.   Or around the canals in Amsterdam where marijuana wafted from the cafes and we learned of squatters who took over an abandoned building and legally got to keep it because the owner had long neglected it.  Or on a boat trip up the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, which hasn’t changed all that much since the Vietnam War period, with homes perched on poles and fishing, washing and bathing all still daily activities on the banks.

 

Our own city of Asbury Park has weekly tours in the downtown for the public given, with flair, by Kathy Kelly, owner of Paranormal Books and Curiosities and her band of tour guides.  She came into town in 2008, opened her book store dedicated to all things off-beat and otherworldly and has become a force of nature ever since.  She has learned that “everyone craves and enjoys losing themselves in a story that connects them to the past and to other people.”

When I asked Kelly whether she would consider her very popular ghost tours an art form, she explained, “Many tour guides are great and proficient, but some elevate that to something different.  In the case of a ghost tour, the guide needs to do more than just relate a narrative, or exchange dates and times etc. He or she needs to connect with the audience, use voice, mannerisms, words and tone to create an experience that enthralls, entertains, but also makes them lose themselves in that experience.  The tent poles of a story can be told by anyone, but it takes more to make people step outside themselves and let themselves get lost for a few minutes in a fantastic tale.  Someone who can do that is an artist.”

 

Ghost tours cater to the occult, revel in crimes and spirits, and are ideally suited for a night on the town.  Historic tours highlight architecture, changes in city landscape and the politics behind statues and public art.  Building tours celebrate the grandeur and scope of the structure.  Walking tours cover ground and the participation is felt in the company of others.  Mural tours cover graffiti, and large and small wall art in public and hidden outdoor spaces.  National Park tours can be found in the obvious but also in New Orleans and Boston Patriot’s Trail.  There are now tours for every niche imaginable, in a large way, these cater to vibe of a place, showcasing a landscape and imparting ‘personal’ knowledge.  There is always something to see.

 

In Seattle recently, our Food Tour guide for Pike Place Market, Chef Eric, was a great help in encouraging our tour group to frequent the generous stalls he had given us tastes from, what a natural selling tool and synergistic.  He was also a chef himself, a long-time resident of Seattle and an outgoing personality, enjoying himself as well as his guests, bringing out stories from them as well.  The participatory nature of his immersion into Seattle history while we were standing in the middle of the Market on a sunny morning was infectious. The value-added nature of the tour was evident, he even guided everyone to other tours, or restaurants he personally recommended in any price range or neighborhood.  Kelly also uses her tours to encourage her guests to return, to other tours or events, like the upcoming Krampus Festival she started.  Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure from pre-Christian Alpine folk-lore, rewards the good and punishes the bad children around the Christmas holidays and has grown in stature in the US as family fun.

 

In Cleveland, we were guided by a very helpful Visitor Center representative to experience, a spectacular art museum (free), a cemetery with the largest Tiffany window in the US and 2 walking tours.  What made these tours special was that the tour guide was aided by actors in period costumes, at 2 stops along each tour.  Portraying famous city residents who invented, developed or were influential in shaping the city, these additional characters made the city’s history come alive in the first person words of those who had ‘lived it’.  Tours give life to the history, helping those in attendance experience the city through the eyes of the guides.

 

New York City’s Up Close Broadway Tours during the pandemic started back outdoors and were in operation even before the theaters re-opened.  Of course, an ex-actor, John, gave our tour to a group of theater lovers and out of towners desperate for something related to their beloved Great White Way.  Who knew how many theaters there were on 42nd street?  Or the actors who were most notable of their times?  And what about those developers who designed the spaces to their audiences preferences – a roof top petting zoo and clever interior routes to make the best use of the busy street’s entrances and exits.  We were unexpectedly immersed, on the busy sidewalks, and we never walked more than around the block.  This tour guide made his talk into the artform of a great storyteller, WE were breathless when he was done with his 90 minutes.

Kathy Kelly (center) during Krampus event
Visitors touring during Krampus

Is having tours good for a city?  Kelly has no qualms, “It is always a positive.  Ghost tours are history tours in disguise.  By telling the private history of a place, they remind people that other people lived and prospered, and lost and died in that place. Our market base is not locals. It has always come from all over the tristate area.”

Your city’s features, history and charm can be wrapped into an enticing story that can make it a destination and benefit the economy. The art of storytelling can be found within the ambassadors that are your tour guides.

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Why Mike and Nancy

We live in a bubble here in Asbury Park. Since 2009, we’ve tried to be a part of the art and cultural “scene” in the city, specifically by opening up the first movie theater since Walter Reade came into town. And we worked at it, day and night. Pretty much everything we did revolved around the theater and casting a wider net to attract more people to the movies. We never realized what impact we were having on the community until we’d found that people would recognize us as “the movie theater people” and comment about how much they loved the theater and enjoyed the films we showed.

In the 10+ years that we participated in the arts and culture of Asbury Park, then expanded to Bradley Beach, we witnessed some great events, some not-so great events and how the arts color community.

Once the pandemic descended on the world and everything shut down, we became a world with less art – or in some cases, no art. Artists tried to pivot to express themselves during lockdown without a live audience. Funding dried up as it was diverted to other priorities. The arts have always struggled with funding – patrons, sponsors and grants have, up to now, underwritten the cost of public art. But with a pandemic, those same funds were being needed to keep people alive and businesses open, very little is left for the products of the imagination, the heart-felt talents and the manifestations of sensory perception that pour from artistic endeavors and fuel the soul.

We witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of a heath emergency lock down on the arts since our Cinemas were among the first businesses to shut down, and the last business to reopen. As we have moved on from being owners of an arts establishment, we have a unique perspective to view what makes an arts community “tick”, grow, thrive and survive because we did it. We believe we know the questions to ask, the people to seek out and the cross section of individuals who can give us an understanding of what can help rebuild the foundation of an arts community.

Why is this important?

The recent 20th anniversary of the world trade towers terrorist attack puts the re-opening of Broadway into perspective. Back in 2001, Broadway was closed for only three days after the tragedy that shattered NYC. The theaters suffered well beyond those three days, but audiences eventually returned. The pandemic event of 2020 with over 600,000 fatalities has a much longer tail with audiences still staying away from theater, movies, concerts and other indoor events. But they ARE returning slowly, just not in the numbers needed for many businesses to cover their costs, let alone be profitable.

Arts speak the truth in ways humans understand viscerally. Even though it may not seem important to your daily life, the arts are economic engines of many cities – driving tourism to appreciate the arts, employing many and stimulating the economy. Business flourishes in such an environment. While the loss of arts, culture and entertainment is highlighted most noticeably in metropolitan areas such as New York or Los Angeles, it is also the life blood to small cities like Asbury Park. Examination of the success stories and best practices that have come through these hard times may be most needed in the future. We look forward to sharing what we find with you.