A fond look back at the Sandpoint arts scene

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When I joined the Bee staff in 1983, it was to be responsible for a then-new facet of the growing newspaper. Pete Thompson was publisher, and his son Jim was active in advertising. The “Spotlight” was a special edition full of ideas in décor, living in general, with a recipe page and articles covering the high country North Idaho scene.

It continued for a couple of years and eventually segued into the main body of the newspaper — hence giving me a cooking page, then a gardening page, and finally a busy society/arts page which kept my fingers working the keyboard for years to come.

It was during the wonderful rising arts scene in Sandpoint — Marilyn Sabella’s Holly Eve; Pend Oreille Arts Council — then headed by fireball Ginny (Robideaux); the “Panida Moms” beginning the rescue of the grand old theater; and people like Judy Heraper, Natalie Ednie, Bobbie Huguenin, Sydne van Horne and a host of others working singly and together for the ultimate establishment of The Festival — that I became the arts editor.

Such a plethora of artistic talent in such a small venue is still mind-boggling, and I not only was able to meet, write about, and become friends with such lights as Bonnie Shields, Janene Grende, Gabe Gabel, Ward Tolbom, Doris Adams, Betty Billups. Katherine Haynes, Diana Schuppel and Bob Lindemann — to mention only a few, and musicians like Beth and Cinde, Peter Lucht, Rafael, Michael Seward, Tom Newbill, “Neighbor John” Kelley, Doctor Music, Charlie Packard, The Monarch Mountain Boys — Ray Allen and Scott Reid, and my all-time fave “Little Davie Gunter.”

The Festival was amazing. Of course, it started out as a classical venue, up at Schweitzer. It has now turned into an all-interests entertainment, but during that early heyday I reveled in the classics, especially enjoying the opportunity to hear, write about, and ultimately meet and socialize with the visiting artists — such as peerless pianist Paul Hollander at a post-concert party at the Herapers’. Too, I was happy to become friends with maestro Gunther Schuller, and be able to enjoy a few visits with his lovely wife — a brilliant pianist in her own right, whose untimely death saddened us all.

The inspiration for today’s nostalgia came from a column I wrote in August 1992 of an interview with Tony Bennett. I ran across it the other day and went absolutely hysterical at my opening paragraph. I’m repeating it for you today, 24 years after the fact.

“Tony Bennett looks good. He looked especially good for our interview on Friday, tanned and fit in shorts and an open shirt which exposed a chest crisply haired with salt and pepper. His hair too, is grey-shot with black, and other than that small concession to senior citizenship he hasn’t a wrinkle or sag.”

(Did that sound mildly licentious?) Anyhow, the picture that I took of him — and featured with the column — was much more friendly and handsome than the “official” one shown above.

The interview — more of a chat, really — covered Tony’s background growing up in Queens, N.Y., son of a widow who worked as a seamstress to keep food on the table for her three children; then, the “remarkable man” who took the young boy under his wing — taking him to plays, concerts, museums and art shows. “I could have been growing up on the streets” Tony said, “but he gave me this priceless gift.” The encouragement and example the man left, even after he moved away, inspired Tony to become the person we still revere today. I mentioned the genuine affection that the public held for him. This pleased him, and he said that the thing that “made him determined to sing ‘til he couldn’t push out another note was ‘that love’.”

I was able to interview and spend time with many great FAS entertainers — some of whom I kept in contact with for a period of time. Mason Williams was one of them — his “Classical Gas” is still a knockout. He sent me an autographed album of that classic.

Dear old Bill Monroe conducted our interview in his old vintage baby-blue Cadillac in back of the Festival tent. He talked with love of the South, the “old music” he feared was fading away and was a true and gracious southern gentleman.

Other meetings for other happenings — such as Winter Carnival — brought about chats with some stand-outs. One such was Jack Hemingway and daughter Mariel, conducted at Connie’s Lounge over beer and Cougar Gold cheese. He was polite and a bit stand-offish; she was lovely, friendly and outgoing — gone now, what a shame.

Frank Bonner — the hapless “Herb” of “WKRP in Cincinnati” — was actually a relation of the founder of Bonner County, leading to his serving as Winter Carnival marshal one year. He said that though he loved his role, it had spoiled his chances of being a serious actor since he would always be considered a comedian — so he decided to be a good one.

Did I ever mention that my very first interview took place when I was just 17 years old and working part time at the Coeur d’Alene Press? Dick Button had just won the World Figure Skating Championship and was in Cd’A for some reason — I was the only one around so got the job. Perhaps that’s the beginning of the setting of my path.

I think, after all the wonderful, meaningful people I’ve been blessed to cross paths with through the years, that the most memorable was Mme. Anna Chennault. The wife of Gen. Claire Chennault of the famed Flying Tigers pre-and during World War II; her husband had passed away and the Flying Tigers had transformed from a war machine to a business, which she ran. She was speaking at the Spokane Club — of which I was at the time the public relations director, and we hit it off. She actually asked me to consider working for her — but I was a young divorcee with six children and an overseas venue was not to be in the cards; Ces’t la vie. We exchanged Christmas cards and an occasional letter for about three years until I moved on to other things — one of which, ironically, was a snapshot of the future: A special contract feature for the (then) Spokesman Review, for their Sunday supplement — A 25th anniversary story/history of the Spokane Symphony. These things took place in the ’60’s, during which I lived and worked in Spokane.

Ultimately, in 1980, I bought property in Sandpoint, and began the final leg of life’s journey in this beautiful place. So far, it’s been a great ride: over 86 years long! Am I lucky, or what?

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at bcdailybee@bonnercountydailybee.com or by phone at 208-265-4688.

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