“Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” –George Bernard Shaw
I used to have a dream about the downtown neighborhood where I grew up in Suffolk. With its stately old houses fallen into disrepair, I imagined creative types moving in, fixing up the buildings, repairing porches, planting gardens and establishing an artists colony of painters, potters, poets and guitar pickers.
I had the dream, but I didn’t have the courage to be the first one in. By the time Suffolk High School in the heart of that neighborhood closed in 1990, I no longer even had the dream, and no one else did either. It looked like the only dreams that would be coming true in downtown Suffolk were bad ones.
But Betsy Brothers and Barbara McPhail were not content to see their town and their high school building simply fall apart or fade away. As leaders of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, they became the catalysts for a resurrection project that is the cornerstone of Suffolk’s downtown revival—the renovation and conversion of the Suffolk High School building into the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.
“It’s very sad to see a place that’s so dear to you,” Betsy Brothers said in a recent conversation, “when you see the broken windows. Along with other structures, I remember saying so many times, ‘it’s amazing what’s happened to our town. Why don’t people care any more?’ It was beautiful, and it went on a rapid downhill roll for more than a decade to the point where downtown, Main Street particularly, was a dilapidated, unloved place. It was shameful.
“I’ll never forget a friend of mine whose family has been here for several generations said to me, ‘Betsy, you don’t understand that the average person doesn’t care. We’re not all hung up on that.’
“How can people feel that way? When they ride down streets that used to be filled with beautiful buildings and homes and dignity, and see boarded up, decrepit structures everywhere, how can you not care? It says a whole lot about who we are, especially those of us who have any kind of roots here. It’s an amazing mentality.”
Suffolk High School was built in 1922. It has the classic appearance of that era, an imposing yet inviting design that looks like a school ought to look. But when the city closed it in 1990 and dispersed and consolidated its students with those of Suffolk’s other high schools into two new faceless facilities, there was apparently no plan for what would happen to the historic structure. The other three high schools became middle schools, but SHS was left to sit empty and unloved. Rodents, birds and vagrants took up residence, and the building began to disintegrate from within. In 1996, city council invited the public to discuss its future.
“I have a letter that we sent out through the historical society,” Brothers told me. “It says, ‘On Wednesday, August 7, 1996, Suffolk City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the renovation and reuse of Suffolk High School.’ That’s when Barbara and I got proactive, and they had a study done. The city was talking about putting the health department and social services in there. We asked to see the plans and it was basically putting cubicles all over the place, destroying the interior integrity. That’s when we really got on a mission.”
The historical society had already formed a “Save Suffolk High School” committee, and Brothers and McPhail spent the next two years “going to council, going to the mayor, doing our homework and trying to get them interested in how important it was.”
In 1998, city council appointed a task force, chaired by Brothers, to develop a plan for the building.
“Dana Dickens was mayor,” she remembered. “Myles Standish was city manager and Steve Herbert was assistant city manager; Tom Woodward was on council. I think they were the ones who pushed for this task force. Prior to that there had been two other committees, but they just fizzled and never came up with a plan.
“The first few months when our committee met, we talked with lots of different people. Our goal was to come up with what Suffolk needed the most—what can we use this large building for to serve Suffolk’s needs?
“Two things came out of that: large spaces for large gatherings, wedding receptions, banquets, dances. The next thing was cultural opportunities. Since we had the theatre in the building, we could really expand on performances, and also have places to teach crafts and individual arts. We had no place, like so many cities, where there’s a place you can go to start learning, for example, the performing arts and end up doing it in the same place on the stage.
“We went to the city with our plan, and I’ll tell you something—this is a huge part of why this has worked. During the years when all this was going on, the planning stages, they totally stayed out of it. [But] they let us be totally involved with all the city meetings. They gave us the respect and the opportunity for the private sector to step up and do something. They supported us 100%; I have never seen anything like it. Without that public-private partnership, this would have never happened.”
Michael Bollinger knows a little about dreams himself. Hired last year after a nationwide search to be the first executive director of the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, he’s been living his dreams since studying at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster College in St. Louis.
“When I got out of college,” he told me recently, “I started my own theater a month after I got out of school. I had it for seven years—I never made a lot of money, but I always made enough to pay for it.”
While many of his classmates went off to New York or LA, or began the gypsy life of actors and actresses looking for the next role, Bollinger “figured out early on that the one who runs the thing is employed the longest.” So he looked for a place to run his own show:
“I thought, what do you need? You need people, you need a space, and you need a demand…and hopefully not much competition for what you’re doing. I went to all these resorts thinking they’ve got space and they’ve got people.
“The manager of the Marriott Tan-Tar-A Resort in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, was the first guy to actually listen to me. He said, ‘Let me show you something.’ And as we’re walking towards this room, he opens it up, and it’s an Olympic-size skating rink. And he says to me, ‘Can you turn this into a theater?’ I looked at it—at one end there was a natural balcony. And I said we’d probably put the stage under that ‘cause that could be a second level for the performing space; and we’d have to put up portable walls, and we’d build a little thrust theater. And that’s how it turned out.
“It was a good deal because it was my financial risk—I had enough money to get me through rehearsals and the first week of performance before we had to start covering payroll. But they gave me housing, they paid the insurance and utility bill on the facility; they gave us two meals a day.
“This was 1978, and the article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat said, ‘$35.00 and a Dream.’ Well, I had the dream, and the $35.00 was what the actors got paid. But they had free meals, they were at a resort, they could go swimming, they had a Jacuzzi. It was summer and it was all college kids mainly.
“The first season I borrowed money from my parents and I hocked up the one credit card I had—I think it had a $600.00 limit. We lived in the other half of the skating rink. I built 12x12 rooms that on the outside were just studs, but on the inside were paneling and carpet.”
In 1980, he heard that the Lyceum Theatre, an equity company two hours away in the tiny town of Arrow Rock, was looking for a director. Despite the fact that he was only 24 years old, he got the job, and for the next five years he ran both. After he sold the resort playhouse, he continued at the Lyceum for another 20 years, expanding its audience, enlarging its program and increasing its offerings.
“It was really out there,” he laughed. “When I got there in 1980, it said ‘Population 81.’ And I filled out the census, and—I’m dead serious—a year later, I was driving into town and the sign said, ‘Population 82.’
“It was sort of a mini-Williamsburg, a real historic town, about a dozen historic buildings restored, antique shops, a couple of bed and breakfasts—really picturesque.”
But after 25 years, he decided it was time for a new challenge:
“I’m more attracted to starting something from zip than I am something that’s been going on.”
So, after spending his whole life in Missouri, Michael Bollinger pulled up stakes and moved to Suffolk in the spring of 2005.
“Here’s what I was most interested in,” he explained. “First there’s the whole mission of the Center: art classes, summer arts camp for kids; those things are very important. For me, it’s not that we’ve got a ballroom for wedding receptions or that we’ve got beautiful galleries for receptions or meeting rooms. I am not personally interested in being a convention hall renter, but I understand that we have to have that to help pay the light bill for the arts.
“To me, the mission of the Center is to provide and expose and give people the opportunity to have experiences in the arts. Whether it’s art classes, dance classes, art gallery displays—those are serving the mission, to offer year-round art classes for kids and adults, to offer year-round exhibits in the art galleries, to develop school programs. Now, for me, there’s the opportunity in the theatre, which is my background; I am really proud of the first season. There’s a little less theatre than I would really like, but I think that it’s a really diverse first season. We’ve got names that people will recognize, but then also a lot of the names that people don’t recognize aren’t just run of the mill acts.
“So that’s now, a very eclectic and attractive performing arts series. We tried to make an effort to assure that none of these people in our season can be seen anywhere else in Hampton Roads this year, at least to my knowledge. I thought it was really important to show that we can do our own stuff. Down the road, I really would hope to add a live theatre component—and I’m not talking amateur.
“With the continued and expanded public-private partnership, the Center can not only serve its mission within the city of Suffolk, but I think it can also pull in to Suffolk.”
I graduated from Suffolk High School in 1970. Because my family lived two houses from the school’s campus, much of my teenage life was centered there. The tennis courts where I spent my summers were behind the school, Birdsong Recreation Center where I spent my winters playing basketball (and stole an occasional kiss at school dances and proms) was across the street from it.
I happened to run into Betsy Brothers soon after learning of the effort to turn the school into an arts center. I told her, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
Shortly thereafter I got a call asking me to serve on an “alumni committee” to help with fundraising for the project. A couple of years later I was asked to serve on the SCCA Foundation Board of Directors. I went into the school building for the first time two years ago, just as renovations were beginning. I was surprised at how badly the place had deteriorated. The renovation work was going to involve much more than I had imagined.
Work began in August, 2004, with the original estimated completion date February, 2006. But surprises loomed at every turn, the structure needed even more shoring up than originally thought, and plans were altered along the way. The building was finally ready for occupancy in mid-July, but final tweaking continued through August.
The first arts camp was held last month, the first wedding reception and class reunion came off with no major glitches, and several live performances have broken in the Birdsong Theatre. But the gala grand opening is set for September 30th, with a performance by Dionne Warwick. From there, the Center goes full speed ahead with a 55-performance season packed into the next eight months. And there’ll be lots of arts classes, parties, dances, exhibits and more. A beautifully appointed restaurant will open later this year on the first floor.
For a Suffolk High graduate like me, it’s a joy to see the old building brought back to life in such a glorious fashion. The auditorium where I graduated, where I attended so many assemblies, plays and performances—the stage where I first performed myself—has been transformed into the 500-seat Birdsong Theatre, with state of the art lighting and sound. The dank and dusty “old gym,” where classes long before mine played basketball and kids of my era had 7th grade phys ed, is now a grand ballroom, its entrance foyer enhanced by a mural depicting the city’s history, conceived and painted by a classmate of mine who’s now an artist himself, Chip Wilkinson.
The classrooms that hold so many memories—many not necessarily related to academics—have been restored and refinished, turned into galleries, music rooms, meeting rooms, dressing rooms, dance studios and the like. My 10th grade English classroom is now decked out like it would have been in the 1920s.
The front steps, once a focal point of student life, now have the names of educators from throughout the city and county inscribed on their risers. The interior stairways and hallways look more or less the same, but brighter, crisper and more vibrant, alive again with the sounds of activity. There’s a magnificent fountain out front where I once ran a spray-painted “We’re #1” flag up the old flagpole after we won the state basketball championship.
I asked Michael Bollinger what prompted him to leave a solid, steady job that he obviously enjoyed and move halfway across the country to take the reins of a new, unproven operation.
“I always fancied myself like the underdog,” he replied. “When I was playing army, I liked to be on the south, not because of the slavery thing, but because no one else wanted to be on that team. My theater at the lake—here I was, this middle class boy hocking as much as he could and taking a calculated risk knowing he’s got to start paying the payroll, which it barely did. And then taking over the Lyceum Theatre which was out in the middle of oinking nowhere, I always felt like that was kinda the underdog.
“The Suffolk Center is definitely not the underdog in terms of the building. This is a $20 million project; it’s a nice facility. However, I seriously had somebody ask me this several months ago: ‘You guys still have well water down there, don’t ya?’ So it’s sorta looked at like it’s way far away and kinda backwards; and we don’t have a track record for any of the arts like Norfolk does. So in that way, maybe we are the underdog. That was my reason for taking the job.”
And how does Betsy Brothers feel now that her dream is a reality?
“We worked with the architect so much,” she said, “but that still doesn’t prepare you. I think it’s more beautiful than most of us expected.”
Does she have any more preservation projects up her sleeve?
“I’m ready to go to the senior center and the pottery studio,” she laughed. “I think I’m gonna have my first martini ever at the bar when it opens!”
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.