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Opinion

The Prizery, an institution worthy of pride and support

SoVaNow.com / March 07, 2013
Some time back, someone told me he was asked, “Why waste your time on the Parsons-Bruce Art Association or Destination Downtown? You get nothing from them.”

It made me recall why I am here. In 1968, I had been in Vietnam for a few weeks flying helicopter gunships from an LST. I had pretty much decided to make the Navy a career. Then we learned of the third public assassination — I think it was Robert Kennedy. I thought the whole world had gone stark raving mad. Here I was over here fighting the war and there was no one watching the store back home. I decided not to stay in the Navy. I decided, “I’m going to go home and be a citizen.” And that’s what I’ve tried to do for the last 40-odd years.

So what would be a good answer to the question above? How about “What kind of world do you want to live in?” And “Are you willing to trust others to provide that world?” Because I can promise you that you won’t be satisfied with the result.

What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of town or county?

When volunteering at The Prizery, it always did my heart good to hear out-of-towners I was showing around say things like, “We don’t have anything like this back home.” They just can’t believe that a little town like ours could have a jewel like this. The facility was produced by the exceptional generosity of the owners and the dedication and hard work of a cadre of believers. As one of them said, “When we started, we had no idea how we would get it done. We just started working on it and things happened.” Seven million dollars of grants later, you see what we have.

What do we have? I have guided the South Boston Lions Club’s James Bland Memorial Music Contest for the last nine years. I am not one of the artsy type, but the opportunity to have our youth perform in the Chastain Theater compelled me to try to find ways to pay back Chris Jones and the institution.

What is the Theater? It is such a gem that it prompted Elvira Green, one of our Bland Contest judges, a mezzosoprano retired from the New York Metropolitan Opera, and now Artist-in-Residence at North Carolina Central University, to whisper to me “I just wanted him to see this hall,” referring to another Central music professor she had brought with her. This was, and is, part of a dream of mine to spur a collaboration between Central and The Prizery.

A Danville music teacher has pleaded with me not to encourage the Danville Lions Clubs to have a Bland contest — she wants her students to be able to perform on The Prizery stage, playing, or being accompanied by, the 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand. She calls it “a mini Carnegie Hall.” It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them. RIGHT HERE IN SOUTH BOSTON!

One of our Bland contestants won three years in a row. Her mother sent me an e-mail: “Alex was singing a song this morning — a beautiful song. She said ‘I wish I could sing it at The Prizery.’” She couldn’t because she had finished high school, making her ineligible.

A professional came here from Italy to sing. After spending a miserable day, pushed and pulled and prodded by airline, limousine, customs, TSA personnel, she arrived in what defined an ill mood. She told Chris Jones, “I will sing for X minutes.” Chris replied, “Your contract says you will sing for Y minutes and that is exactly what you will do.” She went onstage in a great grump. She began singing and she fell in love. The ambience, the sound, qualities of the room that I, as a nonprofessional, cannot know, the fact that the proximity of the audience to the performer creates an intimacy like performing in your own living room — all these things so affected her that they almost had to drag her off the stage. She would have sung all night!

I am in love, also. This is a difficult letter for me to write. My wife thinks I’m crazy. She doesn’t understand how a concept can make me tear up. In a similar context, I have said “If you have never had a musical performance move you to tears, then we don’t have a common vocabulary.”

Are you immune from falling in love with The Prizery? I was told of a friend of mine denigrating The Prizery. He didn’t see how it has anything to do with him. And he’s a graduate of one of the leading liberal arts colleges in America. And I know that he has a heart. Imagine my disappointment.

Studies indicate that, when Walmart moves into an area, prices are depressed approximately 18%. That means that, even if you never step into the store, Walmart has lowered your cost of living — or raised your standard of living — approximately 18%. Similarly, if you never set foot in The Prizery, your life is positively affected. I have known people who decided to move to Halifax County because of the Prizery.

Victor Davis Hanson wrote of how the liberal arts have fallen on hard times. Many refer to them as liberal arts “electives.” “Why do we cling to the arts and humanities in a high-tech world in which we have instant recall at our fingertips through a Google search and such studies do not guarantee sure 21st-century careers? ... But the liberal arts train students to write, think and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make — or demand from others — logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by ... In such a climate, it is natural that once again we are hearing talk of cutting the ‘nonessentials’ in our colleges such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt and Chopin ...Without citizens broadly informed by humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cellphones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below lacks understanding of the present complexity and the basic skills to question what they are told ... The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves ... Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way tweeting cannot. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad ...”

Ask the Halifax County Historical Society whether they value The Prizery. Ask the Halifax County Little Theater. Ask fans of jazz, bluegrass, classical, real country music, and other music — music actually worth saving in this era of the worst music ever.

Without Carroll Headspeth and Spurgeon Compton, the story of Halifax County’s linchpin role in the American Revolution likely would have been lost. Without the efforts of Doug Powell and others, the story would not be so accessible to all of us here. RIGHT HERE IN HALIFAX COUNTY! Without The Prizery, where would they have put the Crossing of the Dan exhibit?

I know that I don’t have to go through a lengthy process to make you understand that Michaelangelo’s David belongs at Annapolis and West Point because it was David “at the moment he decided to fight.” Does The Prizery have nothing to do with you? Does the fresco ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have nothing to do with all of us? There is a fresco that is part of a wall in the Prizery. Perhaps Bob Cage is not Michaelangelo, but the Robert F. Cage Art Gallery houses exhibits Halifax County would otherwise never see. Perhaps Halifax County will never produce a Michaelangelo, but The Prizery has the only public pre-school arts program in Virginia.

The fact that The Prizery has so many supporters — across all lines in Halifax County — speaks to the universality of the level of vision of Halifax County citizens. The fact that it was accomplished here speaks to the fact that South Boston has always been too big for its britches. We have always thought and done things too big for a little town like ours to imagine we had a right to think and do.

The Prizery has fallen on hard times. What can you do? My suggestion to you would be to think about what kind of a world you’d like to live in.

William Buckley called The Lives of Others the best movie he had ever seen. It depicts life in Berlin in 1984 under the infamous Stasi secret police. It deals with a Stasi officer assigned to listen in on the lives of a playwright and his lady and his friends. Over time, the officer doing the surveillance undergoes a “convulsion of the soul ... permitting the playwright life, though without his martyred lady.” Buckley recalled Lenin’s reluctance for his subjects to listen to music, feeling that it made them “soft.”

Why would we want our admirals and generals and SEALs and Marines to know anything of history? Our musicians to know any math? Our doctors to be able to converse and to appreciate music? I know you know. Otherwise, you would not have read this far. And I know that you do appreciate The Prizery, even as much as you deny it. I know that “The better things in life,” “The human spirit,” “The American spirit,” are not just empty phrases to you. I know that you don’t believe that autotune, reality TV, and shouting bad verse represent the zenith of our societal aspirations.

The Prizery didn’t have anything to do with me, either — until I realized that it does. If you don’t know anything about The Prizery, call me at 575-7265 and I will come and pick you up and take you on a tour of The Prizery.





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