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  • Uebelhor

We need another princess


September 23, 2009
A few years ago, my brother-in-law, who managed the Palace Theater in Louisville, asked me to help out for a while at the concert hall. I took the job, thinking I would be there only a couple of months, but I ended up staying almost three years and became operations manager of the theater.

My office was just down the hall from the backstage dressing rooms and I had access to, and contact with, all the acts who performed there. I heard a loud noise one day, walked down the hallway and discovered Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull, trying to kick in his dressing room door. He had locked his keys inside the room and was determined to tear the door off its hinges. I was finally able to calm him down, took out my master key and let him and his wife into their room. She apologized for his behavior — he didn't say a word.

Most bands, or celebrities, who perform at the theater stay at their hotels or on their tour buses until three or four hours before showtime, then come in for a sound check on stage and then retreat to their dressing room until the show begins. A wonderful exception to that was Alison Krauss, who, with her whole band, came to the theater early and spent the whole day backstage with us — talking, laughing and mingling with the staff and stagehands. We treated them to lunch — they treated us to many stories about their touring experiences and life at home. (Believe it or not, Alison enjoys playing hard-rock music with her brother.) She had a 2-month-old baby at the time and went on stage several minutes late because she had to breast-feed her baby.

Art Garfunkel was a strange one. We were instructed by his manager not to look at him. If we met him in the hallway and looked his way, he'd pull his coat over his head until we passed. Kind of weird for a man who was about to go on stage where thousands would be looking at him.

After a performance one evening, actor Hal Holbrook, when he discovered that I, too, had a sailboat, stayed in my office until the wee hours of the morning, talking about sailing and crossing the ocean in a small craft, a feat that he had accomplished and valued more than his accomplishments as an actor.

But of all the actors, singers, and rock bands that I met while I was there, one person stands out: Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary.

On the evening of their performance, the trio showed up for a soundcheck about an hour before showtime. Both Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey were quiet, maybe a little reserved, and stayed in their dressing rooms until they were called on stage for the show. But Mary came upstairs early, pulled up a chair on stage left and watched part of the opening act. When I walked by, she was holding a bottle of water and asked if I would get her a cup of ice. When I returned with it, she told me where she was staying and that she wanted to do some shopping for clothes the following morning. She then asked about places to shop near her hotel.

Although she was born in Louisville, she had moved away when she was young, she told me, and knew little about the city. I gave her the names of some shops nearby and she thanked me, shook my hand, and a few minutes later, went on stage.

I never talked to her again — they went to their hotel immediately after the show — and the last time I saw her, she was climbing the stairs by my office, her long, blonde hair flowing down her back, and I watched as she got into a car behind the theater and was driven away.

I remember clearly, thinking that I had met a real princess, someone whose eyes penetrated your very soul when she looked at you, someone who had a gentle way about her that wasn't surprising — I just knew she would be that way — and someone who made a whole generation think about peace, happiness and the respect of each other.

Peter, Paul and Mary entered the lives of people my age, the so-called "baby boomers," at a tumultuous time. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, followed by Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Civil rights, after many were killed and injured fighting for its passage, was becoming law. The war in Vietnam was building, a war that many didn't believe in, and still, years later, are glad they didn't.

It was a time, like now, when there was a lot of friction within the population. But somehow, we were able to refrain from hating each other even though we had opposing beliefs. There was no one like Rush Limbaugh on the radio every day, insisting we hate each other and those we choose to represent us, just because he does. No, when we turned on the radio, we had the soothing voices of Peter, Paul and Mary singing about unnecessary war, but in a gentle and thoughtful way. They never had a hateful bone in their body.

"How many years must the cannonballs fly — before they're forever banned?" the trio sang in "Blowin' in the Wind."

We listened and sang along. And "If I Had a Hammer" captured the mood of the civil rights and anti-war movements, without a hint of hate or violence. I miss that kind of intelligence, kindness and consideration of others that I thought would always prevail after all we went through battling for civil rights. It's hard to believe now, looking back, that we had to fight so hard and long just to give people of different colored skin the same rights we had. Can you just imagine if there were still water fountains in public buildings labeled "Whites Only" and "Colored"? But believe it or not, that's the way it was less than 50 years ago.

I was shocked last week when I learned that Mary Travers had died of leukemia at the age of 72. She was one of those "bigger than life" people who you just assumed would always be around, inspiring others and singing to us in ways not too different from the lullabies we loved as children. Some people used to believe that the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" was about marijuana. But Peter, Paul and Mary always insisted that it was just a song about little boys with big imaginations.

Yes, our princess with the long, blonde hair has left us. She made such a lasting impression on me and thousands of others through several decades, and I wonder if maybe there could be a younger version of her out there somewhere, just waiting for her chance to step up to a microphone.

With all the hatefulness, meanness and hurt that's now being promoted, we could sure use another princess to remind us to be good to each other.

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