News Column

The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va., Rob Hedelt column

October 27, 2013


Oct. 27--I HAD one of the most rewarding musical nights of my life recently, basking in the artistry, talent and wit of singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester.

The only thing that made it less than perfect was the fact that it happened at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg.

Don't misunderstand. I've got nothing against the size, the feel and the acoustics of this theater. Indeed, I think it's a small wonder, a perfect venue for seeing a musical act, play or some other sort of performance just off the Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg. Hence the name.

No, what made the evening just a bit less than perfect was the fact that I had to drive over to the Shenandoah Valley--about two hours from Fredericksburg--to have it. Again.

Aside from the newly renovated State Theatre of Culpeper, which has become an entertainment venue in our region, the theater in Harrisonburg is often the only viable option.

I wrote about my first visit to the cool little Court Square Theater in fall of 1999. The place, which is about the size of a small movie hall, started out as the home of the Rockingham Motor Company. It was renovated into a theater in 1998, as part of Harrisonburg's downtown revitalization effort.

I was there in '99 to see another folk singer-songwriter, David Wilcox. He also provided a wonderful evening of unique music.

After that visit, I did a column about how nice it would be to have a theater like that here in the 'Burg, a subsidized venue where we could hear music, see plays or take in other sorts of performances.

As I drove to Winchester's show at the Court Square Theater a few weeks back, on a horribly rainy and foggy night, it underscored the fact that all these years have passed and we've still got no theater of our own.

That didn't dampen the excitement of the evening. Entering the small hall, it was interesting to note that one volunteer did it all: ran the sound system, sold drinks and snacks and then introduced Winchester.

The Louisiana native, who now calls Charlottesville home, is a tall, lanky, graying drink of water, with a smile and sense of humor both best described as wry.

Bob Dylan once said of him: "You can't talk about the best songwriters and not include him."

His tenor voice, warm and sweet like honey, was accompanied by only the acoustic guitar he strummed with his fingers--though that's a bit like saying the Beatles had only a few hits.

Whether light and airy or heavy and biting, his playing hummed with a mastery honed over a lifetime.

As the night unfolded, songs I've become a big fan of--you've heard other artists do versions of his "Rhumba Man," "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" and "Mississippi, You're On My Mind"--sounded better than ever.

Chalk it up to the fact that Winchester is the consummate professional, sharing artfully written material. Or maybe that I was sitting just 10 rows back in a theater where no amplification was necessary, like guests in a friend's living room.

The Arts Council of the Valley, charged with managing the theater as its performing arts branch, made the night happen. It drew fans from as far away as Richmond and, yes, Winchester.

What will it take for us to get something that could operate like this arts council?

Its website says the operation is funded in part by Rockingham County, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the City of Harrisonburg.

So yes, it would take all kinds of partners and players to make this happen.

But if we can have a baseball stadium and maybe even a Legoland--both of which are great--how about our own theater-music venue?

Understand this: Wanting this kind of theater here shouldn't be seen as a snub or a dislike for the local, privately owned venues--mostly restaurants and bars that offer live music--we do have. They're great and much appreciated, as are the summer music series and concerts at the library.

But if we had something like the Court Square Theater in Fredericksburg--like Culpeper has with its State Theatre--we could have nights like the ones I shared in Harrisonburg all the time.

Shows like that, right in town, are infinitely preferable to ones we can enjoy now only by driving an hour or more.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415


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