This is a re-posting of what started out as a lengthy re-cap of Frankie Manning’s 95th Birthday Festival that turned into a public catharsis on Facebook as a series of Notes last summer. Astute readers will note that I appropriated a chunk of my unpublished note for this one. I’m not changing anything other than some minor grammatical edits to make me look like a better writer than I am, so if you’ve already read it, then rest assured, there’s no surprise twist ending in this version. This first note was originally posted on June 8, 2009.
I actually started writing notes after the first time I went up to New York City for meetings, but then Frankie passed away. The possibility of something happening before the event was always in the back of our minds. During our April 20th meeting in NYC, Frankie had been admitted into the hospital. At one point I caught myself considering various contingencies, but stopped. The idea just seemed too overwhelming not to mention too morbid to consider at the time.
And then it happened. A lot of people seemed to be surprised by his death, but for me it happened in slow motion as I got constant updates both public and private until the end. That weekend I wasn’t the biggest fan of the internet because it gave me a more intimate portrait of death than I ever wanted. I won’t go into that much further. We all had our reactions to it, and I’d rather keep mine to myself.
However, anyone who has ever worked on event knows that the month right before it happens is the busiest and most frantic. The April 20th meeting was very much like that. For me it was basically a nine hour marathon meeting that eventually included 17 people in 8 locations straight through 4 cab rides. All this during a miserable stormy Monday where Spring decided to give us a taste of what a small hurricane felt like in the middle of winter.
The only moment that gave me pause was coming face to face with Judith Jamison, the legendary dancer and choreographer that took over the Alvin Ailey Dance Company from its namesake. Co-event director, Tena Morales and I caught a glimpse of her teaching a class during a tour/meeting.
If you were lucky to take a workshop there during the festival, you would realize that that place is as much a shrine to her as it is to Alvin Ailey himself. There’s a great deal of respect for her among the dancers there. So much so that there was a crowd of students huddled around the door to her class as if they could catch an errant bit of wisdom if they tried hard enough. That kind of attention is impressive considering that these people get to see her all the time. Being there in her presence and in that environment at the school reminded me of the great responsibility entrusted to us for this event to celebrate our own fountain of wisdom.
Despite that feeling, at one point in one of our cab rides, Tena turned to me and said “We are totally screwed.” It was just a matter of fact. I didn’t disagree with her. In fact, that she said it out loud comforted me because it told me that she was fully aware of the challenges ahead of us.
At the end of that day, I sat with one of the other event directors, Elliot Donnelly, at a café for about an hour and a half reviewing the million and one things on our to do lists. We came to the very simple but obvious conclusion that as daunting as it all seemed, that it would all get done somehow.
We didn’t have a choice in that respect. The sheer momentum of 1600+ people coming (at the time) in about four weeks guaranteed that something would happen. It may not be what we were envisioning at that time, but it would happen.
Frankie passed away a week later.
I was actually putting the finishing touches on the festival schedule when Frankie’s health turned for the worse that weekend. All communication about the event pretty much stopped for several days after he died as preparations were made for the funeral. I knew the festival would go on, but it had to be re-booted. Not quite from scratch, but everything had to be re-evaluated.
To add more pressure: we were contractually obligated to have a full production meeting with the main venue, the Manhattan Center, two weeks before the event. That was a week after the funeral. After everything seemed to slow for the week up to the funeral, it all went into overdrive afterwards.
As a result, my second foray to New York was no less hectic. I thought I was being clever by getting there the night before this time. However, some changes to the meeting schedule forced me to pull an all nighter at the Tick Tock diner next door to the Manhattan Center after I got there on Thursday night. The whole experience of trying to find wifi and a place to make copies around dawn left me disillusioned about the entire idea of New York as the city that never sleeps.
Still, all this running around on little to no sleep was good preparation for the actual weekend. We had gamed \the festival dozens of times, I had walked through the whole thing in my head several times more, but I still don’t think I was quite prepared for what actually happened.