We Lose an Old Friend: Don Sanders, Houston Music Legend

Don Sanders, songwriter and singer, died Saturday from the combined effects of frontotemporal dementia accompanied by ALS, a very cruel combination in the Alzheimer family of disorders. It was a final irony on his career that his death was big news in the Houston Chronicle, a paper that had paid him little attention during his most productive years.

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Don Sanders, July 1, 2012, during a visit to Lake Jackson.

I met Don Sanders just after enrolling at the University of Houston in 1961. Don came there from Jones High School in Houston. I arrived from Galena Park.

We had both been accepted into the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, the forerunner of today’s Honors College. We had several classes together each our first two years and a weekly colloquium in the junior and senior years.

Don was a sharp kid. He had an acerbic wit and a green corduroy suit that he wore almost every day of our freshman year or, who knows, he may have owned several. But I doubt it. He didn’t come from the kind of family where the kids had more than one suit. The suit was in the style of his heroes the Kingston Trio.

Don played guitar and banjo and sang folk songs that were beginning to pick up in popularity in the early sixties. We learned from Don about hootenannies, the Limeliters, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Joan Baez. As Don became an accomplished musician, he sang with beautiful control and a great range. Early on, he was always high pitched and his voice could be irritating at first. The beauty and finesse of his vocal performances I heard thirty years later were shocking to me at first.

But Don was so much more than a folk singer. He wrote songs, performed on stage, did comedy, wrote a novel or two (never published as far as I know), performed for children, and wrote probably tons of poems. Apparently, even more than those things, he inspired other people to do their best work. Some of them are names you probably know very well. He was a regular at Houston’s Anderson Fair and on KPFT.

I wasn’t in touch with Don after college. His music scene was not one that I fit into and I was busy with the kind of boring white collar jobs he was intent on avoiding. His astonishing career is fairly well covered in the Houston Chronicle article. There is also an interview in the Houston folk music oral history archive.

Don and I were in touch again after Hurricane Ike in 2009 when he performed at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston as a benefit to help rebuild the facility that had been severely damaged in the storm. In 2012 he asked if I could help him with some memories from our college years for the personal memoir he was writing. I wondered whether it would still seem like a friendship after all those years pursuing our very different lives. But we found a lot of joy in our conversation that day, July 1, 2012.

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Visiting with Don in 2012.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much I could offer to fill in the cracks in such a creative life as his. We reminisced about the day in November 1963 when we went to his house near the runways of Hobby Airport (it was Houston International then) to see if we could see John Kennedy on his arrival in Texas. There were several of us from University of Houston and we did, indeed, get to see the president and first lady, two days before he was killed in Dallas.

Three or four of us stayed over at Don’s house that night. His mother made breakfast for us and as we prepared to make our way back to our morning classes at UH, Don called out, “Charles, Tom: come and see these guys. I have never seen anything like this. They are going to be big.” So we rushed in to see the image of the Beatles performing on tape on the Dave Garroway Show. You could have fooled me. Although I became accustomed to and learned to love the Beatles later, I really didn’t get what was so special then. But Don had the ear for it. This was several months before they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and took America by a storm.

My regret today is that I did not pay more attention to an old friend as he struggled to make it in the music world. He apparently inspired others and they did the things they had to do to have fame. But Don wanted something else. He wanted peace: peace in the world and peace in his own life. Staying in Houston was his gift to America’s new great city.

Don came back to visit Lake Jackson again in the summer of 2013 when I invited him to see our Brazosport Center Stages production of Les Misérables. He had kind things to say about our local production.

I went to see Don at his home in the Heights a few weeks ago. By then, his disease had greatly diminished his ability to communicate. We spoke a few short minutes and he told me had to go somewhere which was highly unlikely. I held his hand and told him I would try to return when he had more time to talk. But I knew he was uncomfortable with the visit and I really doubted I would be returning.

Sunday morning, I received the email announcing his passing.

“The Music Man” Opens to Full House at The Center

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Close to four hundred packed into the Freeport LNG Theater at The Center for the Arts and Sciences last night to see Brazosport Center Stages’ production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” Director Wes Copeland tried his hand at a summer musical for the first time and did himself proud.

There were the usual outstanding music and acting performances that you can always expect from Brazosport Center Stages’ productions. What pushed this one over the top was dance. Melodie Steiner took a few trained dancers and a lot of other people who seldom even try a two step on a Saturday night and brought the stage to life with the art that doesn’t get much mention in community theater productions. Of course, there were a few really good ones, dance majors who are off from college for the summer. But most of the folks on stage learned their steps during the last few weeks from Melodie, a local dancer and dance teacher. Now you should call her choreographer, too.

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Of course, there was the music man himself, Tony Stewart, an Angleton ISD choir director. And would I ever be able to convince you that Angleton ISD librarian, Rachael Welsh, played the role of Marian, the librarian? They were exceptional.

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And no report on this show would be complete without noting the comic talent of the Pick-a-Little Ladies and their own dance instructor, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, played by the inimitable Judi James. She was suitably imperious for her role as the First Lady of River City and plenty funny for the folks who came to see The Music Man do his magic with the children of River City.

42469947455_154ddd2768_kJudi is second from left in the above photo. You won’t want to miss her performance.

There are five more shows: tonight at 7:30, a Sunday matinee (July 15), and another round of three performances next weekend.

Make your reservations at The Center ticketing website.

76 Trombones: The Music Man Tickets Are Now Available

The summer musical is always the big event for Brazosport Center Stages. This year it is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man and tickets are now available to members and the general public for the July 13 opening in the Freeport LNG venue in Clute.

Brazosport Center Stages last presented The Music Man in 1990. Director Wes Copeland thought it was time to do it again and proposed it to the Center Stages season committee and they agreed. It is now in rehearsal.

The Music Man is one of America’s favorite musicals with lots of kids, marching bands, patriotic tableaus and colorful costumes. Six performances are scheduled in the Freeport LNG large theater venue:

  • Friday, July 13, 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, July 15, 2:30 p.m. (matinee)
  • Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, July 22, 2:30 p.m. (matinee)

I suggest getting your reservations as soon as you can. Summer shows at BCS typically sell out and this show has a lot of kids on stage which means lots of grandparents in the audience. ACT NOW.

If you come from Houston, head south on Highway 288 and take the Oyster Creek exit in Lake Jackson. Turn left (east) and proceed three miles on Oyster Creek (which becomes College Drive) and The Center will be on the left in front of the Brazosport College campus.

My son played Tommy Djilas in 1990. He is now 46 with three kids of his own. His oldest son could play Tommy Djilas now. Cheryl costumed the show for director Maureen Denver and is assisting Tina Gray in costuming the current edition. Those costumes have been carefully stored and preserved from 1990 and are ready to use again – if anyone will fit them.

See you at The Center.

On a More Positive Note: Our Legacy of Hope

Growing up in Jacinto City, Texas, I was well within the urban lasso of Houston, yet I was insulated from its cultural amenities by barriers of transportation and income. Downtown Houston was a 30 to 45 minute bus ride from Jacinto City with lots of stops along the way for pickup and dropoff. We could do a few of the things that were free such as the zoo, the public parks, the art museum, and the free concerts at the Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park. But those were rare occasions and I grew up without an ear for good music, with the barest exposure to the visual arts, and no experience with drama beyond the plays I saw on our high school stage.

My participation in the arts did not improve much as an adult after moving into the city proper and having a better income of my own. This reduced the impact of the barriers of distance and income but did not eliminate them completely.

Interior of the Freeport LNG Theater in the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences
Interior of the Freeport LNG Theater, one of the venues where Brazosport Center Stages performs in The Center

Then, in 1982, we moved to an exurban area of Brazoria County – south of town, Lake Jackson. We were far enough removed from Houston that its urban amenities were virtually out of reach. For the kids in the poorer homes in our area, they were distant dreams if they were dreams at all.

But not long after arriving here, we learned that the performing and visual arts were available, affordable and a quick three mile drive down Oyster Creek Drive to the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences.

My posts have tended to dwell on the things we have done wrong politically, socially and economically and continue doing wrong. Those things form the basis of the pieces carrying the title Our Bitter Legacy. But, of course, there are some things we are doing right. The Brazosport Center for Arts and Sciences is one of them. It argues for recognition that we are also at work on our legacy of hope.

Continue reading “On a More Positive Note: Our Legacy of Hope”

Opening Night at BCS

20180423-IMG_7579.jpgSharon Barnes as the proprietor of Hattie’s Restaurant. 

Brazosport Center Stages opens The Little Theater’s Production of Hamlet tonight in the Dow Arena Theater. The play will run two weekends. Reservations at The Center for Arts and Sciences.

I have seen several rehearsals. The only big disappointment is that Sharon Barnes starts singing “How Great Thou Art” as she works alone in Hattie’s Restaurant but stops when the New York director, Lauren McTeer played by Laura Woodson, enters.

Somebody may slip Laura some money to get her to miss her entrance so Sharon will have to finish the song.

The Brazosport Center Stages Production of The Little Theater’s Production of Hamlet; Some Photos from the Rehearsal

My personal archive of theater shots is on Flickr. Please feel free to go there and have a preview of the The Little Theater’s Production of Hamlet. It opens tomorrow night, April 27.  I am still “in the darkroom” with the photos I took at the Monday rehearsal, so check back occasionally to see if I have posted more of them.

As a preview for your preview, here is Laura Woodson, playing a New York director gone to West Virginia to take Shakespeare to the boonies. Please, Will, tell me why we are doing this to ourselves?
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