No Business Like Show Business

Springfield arts critics get panned—again

Illinois Times  

July 28, 1978

I once asked Alan Anderson, the transplanted New Yorker who was editing Illinois Times, what was the biggest adjustment he’d had to make to life in a smaller city. Easy, he said, He’s never before had to worry about meeting on the street people he’d written about. 

 

Originally published as "There's no business like show business." I wrote about the Muni Opera here. I wrote about the dilemma of the local arts critics here.

 

"I would like to see the State Journal-Register be big enough to praise all those connected . . . and promote Muni by deleting such articles in the future." That extraordinary plea was voiced on May 23 by Dorothy Knous of Petersburg in the letters-to-the-editor columns of the SJ-R. The cause was a review by that paper's Steve Slack in which he said that watching the Springfield Municipal Opera's production of "Brigadoon" was "like observing potatoes being riced." Ms. Knous stoutly defended the Muni Opera. The company “gives great pleasure to hundreds of people”—faint praise, considering that the number of people who attend Muni productions is in the thousands annually. The performers are mostly amateurs "who give their free time and work very hard in extremely warm weather." Just about everybody at Muni works for nothing and some (might we deduce Ms. Knous herself?) drive in from as far away as thirty miles. "Amateurs need a pat on the back—not a put-down," she insists, and criticism a la Slack "promote(s) ill will and destroy(s) the confidence" of the players.

 

Ms. Knous, in common with most local arts enthusiasts, wants the local press to suspend their usual journalistic standards in the interests of advancing their cause. Arts people typically call this being a "good citizen." But the role of booster suits the press badly. It is a role better left to chambers of commerce, bank presidents, or politicians, who daily indulge in the small hypocrisies required of the role and for whom the occasional lie thus poses no ethical pain.

 

A good local critic, naturally, will not go to the Muni Opera expecting to see shows of Broadway quality. He or she must judge a local production against the standard of the best such local companies can stage; indeed, Slack compared the latest show and found it wanting in terms of the standards of the Muni itself, which he said is "capable of better." Finding the balance point between criticism and condescension isn't easy; the New York Times principal drama critic Richard Eder notes this week that his job is like working in a coal mine, because "The work is done in the dark, it is done alone, and the roof keeps falling in. "

 

Of course, what Ms. Knous wants is not the invocation of appropriate standards but their abandonment. She advises the SJ-R, "Don't take the word of just one person." How then, one might ask, is the press to review performances? Pass out ballots in the box seats? Have a show of hands? Resort to an applause meter?The word of just one person is the essence of criticism; anything else is not criticism but public opinion. Knous suggests, none too helpfully, that the paper "print some comments from the public who faithfully attend and continuously support the Muni Opera productions." Aside from the fact that such opinions beg the question of quality, the scheme flounders on the assumption that aesthetic judgments (at even this low level) are collective. It is not true that the more people like a show the better it must be; in fact, it means only that it is more popular. The two are usually confused.

 

Slack's pan of "Brigadoon" neatly illustrates one of the dilemmas of journalism. Say what the people want to hear and your wisdom will be sung from the church steeples. Take one step off that worn and muddy path however, and you 're either unqualified, ignorant, or (my favorite) biased. Is there anyone in our city surprised that no one from the Muni Opera or the Theater Guild or the Springfield Symphony ever writes in demanding that the press not take the word of "just one person" if that one person has praised one of their productions? It is not the method but the result they quarrel with. Heads you win, tails I lose. The next time the SJ-R raves about a Muni show, I think I'll write a letter to the editor demanding that the paper print some comments from the public who faithfully stay away from and couldn't care less about the Muni Opera productions—just to restore some perspective, you understand.

 

So I repeat, for anyone who's interested, that it is not a journalist's job to make organizations like the Muni Opera look good; that is their job. We are not press agents and we are not shills, and to the extent that we allow ourselves to be used as either our performance should be panned too, because, unlike the theater, amateurism offers journalists no refuge from the obligations of the profession. In the meantime, whenever we see a bird with a red wattle and brown feathers that goes "gobble-gobble-gobble" we will continue to call it a turkey. ●

SITES

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INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

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McLean County Museum

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A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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