As Wharton Center celebrates its 40th anniversary season, it reminds me how closely my arts and music writing history at the Lansing State Journal is linked to the opening of that great performing arts center.
It was July 1982 when I approached Mike Hughes, entertainment editor at the LSJ, to see if I could have a stab at writing music criticism for the paper.
Hughes, always the exuberant and positive observer of the world, said, “Sure. Wharton Center is opening in September, and we don’t have anybody to cover them. You’re hired!”
I was shocked and surprised. I had approached the LSJ a few years earlier but that editor pronounced my writing far too high brow for Lansing audiences.
What I didn’t understand when Hughes hired me so quickly was that I would be a freelance writer. I would be paid by the article without any long-term contract in place. This translated to the reality that any time, if Hughes or the LSJ in general, did not like my writing, all they had to do was stop calling me.
Hughes gave me a tour of the newsroom; it was chaotic and exciting. Computers had just been installed at the writers’ desks, next to the old-fashioned typewriters outfitted with rolls of paper instead of hassling with loading individual sheets.
There was still a tickertape machine standing there spitting out news stories and a police radio screaming out static and robberies. The back room was filled with large easels where workers composed the pages for each day’s paper, using razor blades to cut the stories to fit in between the ads. And there was a sizeable library (or morgue in newsroom parlance), filled with clips (past articles) organized into categories.
The paper was a great team of high energy, enthusiastic news junkies. I got to know the photographers, editors, columnists, sports writers and more. We all helped each other. The LSJ was an afternoon paper back then. It hit the streets at noon or so and I couldn’t wait to run down to the store to see my name in print.
My first paid article was a review of a Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert, its first at the newly built Wharton Center. I was given no guidelines as to the review’s length or style.
So of course, I wrote a very lengthy piece with fully packed paragraphs. What actually appeared in the paper was about one-third of the article I had written.
The idealistic 30-something me told Hughes that if he was going to edit my pieces like that, he should not bother to put my name on them.
Instead of firing me on the spot for my naivete and audacity, he patiently told me that newspaper articles were printed in small columns which necessitated text with short sentences and tiny paragraphs. And 12 column inches (about 250 words) was about all they could print. He knocked me down to size, but kindly.
But it was still difficult for me to be concise. Soon after that I wrote a review for a Lansing Opera production. It was 17 column inches. The layout man told me that he only had space for 12 inches. I told him that would be impossible. I couldn’t write about the music, sets, singers, orchestra, chorus, costumes and more in 12 inches.
He took me back to his layout board, showed me the space and said, “Listen Ken, all I know is that I have a 12-inch hole on the page waiting for your story and no more. I don’t know anything about opera, so I’ll just cut five inches off the story from the bottom to fit the space, and I bet you don’t want me to do that. SO, EDIT YOUR OWN STORY!”
He taught me a lesson I would never forget.
The other lesson I never forgot was from Hughes. I began with the LSJ before personal computers, the internet and email attachments. I had to run down to the LSJ building on Lenawee Street and write my stories on the site. I knew nothing about computers or technology.
Since I was new writer, in the early days I struggled with many of my articles. During such a struggle, I inadvertently erased my entire article, which took me about an hour to write, simply by touching the wrong key.
I was crazy with rage. Hughes ran over to me and said, “It’s all in your head. Just sit down at the computer and rewrite the whole thing again. It’s all there.” Of course, he was right.
Soon I was asked to review musicals and then plays. Later I wrote travel and culture features and even columns concerning job interviewing and hiring – using my knowledge from my daytime job.
I am always surprised that many people I meet think that I am a full-time writer for the LSJ. I feel that some of what I love most about writing about the arts is that I am NOT a full-time writer.
I write about my favorite hobby and lifelong interest along with my full-time job as an executive search consultant. They complement each other, making my life richer and more interesting.
Maybe the most valuable thing I learned writing for the State Journal was about deadlines. In so many areas of life, deadlines can be negotiated. With a newspaper, there is a time when the button is pushed and the presses begin to roll. Your story better be on the page. This deadline can’t be changed.
When I began, celebrity interviews frightened me terribly. I will never forget my first one with jazz singer Cleo Laine. I was given what I believe was her home phone number in San Francisco (no cell phones back then).
A smoky female voice answered, and I asked, “Cleo Laine, please.” She responded, “This is Ms. Laine.” At which time I was speechless. My mouth was open, but no sounds came out. Those who know me realize how rare this is. I was a real fan and in this moment, I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Finally, I began the conversation and the phone call went swimmingly.
Interviewing musicians, artists, singers, authors, and general theater people continue to be a great thrill for me. Backstage stories have always intrigued me and now I get to hear about them from the people who experienced them firsthand.
Although I’ve interviewed Renee Fleming, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Doc Severinsen, Lily Tomlin, Leonard Bernstein, James Galway and dozens of others, some of my most memorable conversations were with young artists who are just beginning to taste success .
One young artist texted me at 3am. I called back the next day and asked why he was texting in the middle of the night. He said, “How can I sleep when all my dreams are coming true?”
One special moment in my career was when Jerry Lewis starred as the Devil in “Damn Yankees” at the Wharton Center.
I gave the show a good review and the next day I received a call from the State Journal saying that Lewis had called and wanted to talk with me. I didn’t believe it. “No, he did. Here is his phone number.”
I returned the call to Lewis, who said he just wanted to thank me for the review. I told him that that had never happened to me before.
“We live in a tough business,” Lewis said. “I feel when someone does a good job, they should hear about it.”
Lansing is a wonderful place to write about culture and the arts. It is surprising that this medium-size city has such high-quality theater and music events available for reasonable prices. There are summer music fests, MSU College of Music concerts, Wharton Center, Lansing Symphony, various small ensemble concerts and tons of theater.
The world of arts journalism has changed. Sadly, because of changes in print media, the Journal does not publish nearly as many cultural stories as it used to, which follows national trends.
Although I still regularly write stories about music and theater for the LSJ, it is far less than 40 years ago. But there are still plenty of great arts stories to cover in Lansing and most of those stories are powered by local artists and musicians.
Over the past 40 years, I have relished telling the stories of Lansing’s successes. This article is not a swan song, I still plan to continue with the Lansing State Journal covering the arts. Also, you may enjoy my blog, Glickarts.blogspot.com.