As the Wharton Center turns 40e anniversary, it reminds me how much my history of art and music writing at the Lansing State Journal is tied to the opening of this great performing arts center.
It was July 1982 when I approached Mike Hughes, entertainment editor at LSJ, to see if I could try writing music reviews for the paper.
Hughes, always the exuberant and positive observer of the world, said: “Of course. The Wharton Center opens in September, and we don’t have anyone to cover them. You are engaged!”
I was shocked and surprised. I had approached LSJ a few years earlier, but that editor said my writing was way too brainy for Lansing audiences.
What I didn’t realize when Hughes hired me so quickly was that I would be a freelance writer. I would be paid by the item with no long term contract in place. This translated into the reality that at any time, if Hughes or LSJ in general didn’t like my writing, all they had to do was stop calling me.
Hughes showed me around the newsroom; it was chaotic and exciting. Computers had just been installed at the writers’ desks, alongside old-fashioned typewriters fitted with rolls of paper instead of the hassle of loading individual sheets.
There was always a ticker standing there, spitting out news and a police radio screaming static and theft. The back room was filled with large easels where workers composed the pages of each day’s newspaper, using razor blades to cut the stories between advertisements. And there was a sizable library (or morgue in editorial parlance), filled with clips (past articles) organized into categories.
The newspaper was a large team of energetic and enthusiastic news enthusiasts. I got to know photographers, editors, columnists, sportswriters and more. We all helped each other. The LSJ was then an afternoon newspaper. It hit the streets around noon and I couldn’t wait to run to the store to see my name printed.
My first paid article was a review of a concert by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, its first at the new Wharton Center. I was given no direction as to the length or style of the exam.
So of course, I wrote a very long article with well-filled paragraphs. What actually appeared in the newspaper was about a third of the article I had written.
The thirty-something idealist I told Hughes that if he was going to edit my plays like that, he shouldn’t bother putting my name on them.
Instead of firing me on the spot for my naivety and daring, he patiently explained to me that newspaper articles were printed in small columns, which required text with short sentences and tiny paragraphs. And 12 column inches (about 250 words) was about all they could print. He knocked me down at the waist, but gently.
But it was still difficult for me to be concise. Shortly after, I wrote a review for a production of Lansing’s opera. It was 17 column inches. The modeler told me he only had room 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, “Look Ken, all I know is I have a 12-inch hole on the page in waiting for your story and nothing more. I don’t know anything about opera, so I’m just going to cut five inches from 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 that I will never forget.
The other lesson that I have never forgotten is that of Hughes. I started with LSJ before personal computers, the Internet, and email attachments. I had to run to the LSJ building on Lenawee Street and write my stories there. I didn’t know anything about computers or technology.
Since I was a new writer, at first, I struggled with many of my articles. During such a struggle, I inadvertently deleted my entire article, which took me about an hour to write, just by hitting the wrong key.
I was mad with rage. Hughes ran up to me and said, “It’s all in your head. Just sit down at the computer and rewrite the whole thing again. Everything is here. Of course he was right.
Soon I was asked to review musicals, then plays. Later, I wrote articles about travel and culture and even columns about job interviews and hiring – using my knowledge from my day job.
I’m always surprised that many people I meet think I’m a full-time writer for LSJ. I think what I love most about writing about the arts is that I’m NOT a full-time writer.
I write about my favorite hobby and lifelong interests, as well as my full-time job as an executive search consultant. They complement each other, making my life richer and more interesting.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned while writing for the State Journal was about deadlines. In so many areas of life, deadlines can be negotiated. With a newspaper, there is a point when the button is pressed and the presses start rolling. Your story better be on the page. This deadline cannot be changed.
When I started, celebrity interviews scared me terribly. I’ll never forget my first with jazz singer Cleo Laine. I was given what I believe to be his home phone number in San Francisco (no cell phone at the time).
A smoky female voice answered and I asked, “Cleo Laine, please.” She replied, “This is Mrs. Laine.” At that time, I was speechless. My mouth was open, but no sound came out. Those who know me know how rare it is. I was a real fan and right now I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Eventually I struck up the conversation and the phone call went off without a hitch.
Interviewing musicians, artists, singers, authors and theater people in general continues to be a great pleasure for me. Behind-the-scenes stories have always intrigued me and now I hear about them from the people who have 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 have been with young artists who are just beginning to taste success. .
A young artist texted me at 3 a.m. I called back the next day and asked him why he was texting in the middle of the night. He said, “How can I sleep when all my dreams come true?”
A special moment in my career was when Jerry Lewis played the devil in “Damn Yankees” at the Wharton Center.
I gave the show a good review and the next day I got a call from the State Journal saying that Lewis had called and wanted to talk to me. I do not 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 had never happened to me before.
“We live in a tough business,” Lewis said. “I think 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-sized city offers such quality theater and music events at reasonable prices. There are summer music festivals, MSU College of Music concerts, the Wharton Center, the Lansing Symphony, various small ensemble concerts, and tons of theater.
The world of arts journalism has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, due to changes in the print media, the Journal no longer publishes as many cultural stories as it once did, which follows national trends.
Although I still regularly write music and theater stories for LSJ, it’s been well under 40 years. But there are still plenty of great artistic stories to cover in Lansing and most of those stories are brought to life by local artists and musicians.
For the past 40 years, I’ve loved telling Lansing’s success stories. This article is not a swan song, I still plan to continue with the Lansing State Journal covering the arts. Also, you can enjoy my blog, Glickarts.blogspot.com.