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June 16, 2003
Expanded series brings diverse acts to Athens
By Joseph Hughes

Summertime in Athens means many things to many people.

For Ohio University students taking classes, it means a relaxed environment, where learning takes center stage. For the University's faculty and administration, it means for many a brief respite before the fall rush begins. For the community, it means finding time to spend with children home from school, taking advantage of the warm weather.

Each represents a different cross-section of the community; however, each is often united in their love of the arts - and sometimes-fanatical quest to enjoy the region's myriad cultural offerings. Thanks to the greatly expanded Under the Elms arts series, each of these groups can now come together in Athens, enjoying an unprecedented collection of performances.

QuoteThe Concerts Under the Elms on the College Green have been a community tradition since the 1940s. This summer, however, these Wednesday evening events will have some friendly new neighbors.

Tuesdays will be a treat for area film buffs, as Movies Under the Elms debuts. The variety show will never be the same after Arts Under the Elms on select Thursdays, as local and regional acts combine with family offerings to entertain what promise to be large new audiences.

Throw in some popular children's television figures such as Elmo and Clifford the Big Red Dog and you'll quickly see why author John Villani told USA Today that Athens was one of his top 10 small arts towns in America. Best of all, each Under the Elms event is free.

"One hears very often, 'There's nothing to do in Athens,'" says Director of Public Occasions Gretchen Stephens. "One of our goals was to negate this attitude by offering people the chance to see some of the wonderful artists and entertainers we have. We strived to have as many art forms as possible and to provide something for everyone."

Stephens is quick to point out that such a large undertaking wouldn't be possible without the formation of a broad coalition of area groups. Under the Elms is sponsored by the Athens Independent Restaurant Association, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Athens Center for Film and Video, the Office of Public Occasions, Ohio University Dining Services, Summer Sessions, College of Fine Arts, School of Music and Vice President of Student Affairs as well as WOUB Public Television and Radio.

Major support for Under the Elms comes from Pepsi-Cola, the Ohio University Employees' Credit Union and from a grant from the City of Athens and the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're thrilled that we were able to form such a strong coalition throughout the University and community for this pilot project," Stephens says. "I would guess that it is one of the largest groups coming together to provide benefits to the students, faculty and surrounding community in recent Athens County history."

Sally Dunker is the executive director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a group that seeks to promote the area throughout the region. "Anytime there are more things going on in the community, you have the opportunity to attract people from outside the area," Dunker says. "Under the Elms builds on the area's already strong reputation for diverse arts and cultural offerings.

"Under the Elms represents an expansion of a traditionally very strong event, so we already see great built-in appeal for the offerings."

Perhaps the strongest established link between the University and the surrounding area has been the Communiversity Band, which has led Concerts Under the Elms for over nearly 60 years. This Wednesday, the group comprising community members, University students, band directors and music teachers, as well as alumni and faculty will entertain audiences for five successive summer Wednesdays.

"I think the concerts one of the really important cultural events in southeast Ohio," says Director of Bands John Climer, who has led the Communiversity Band since 1994. "There's a true spirit of togetherness between the community, students and faculty."

Diversity amongst the Communiversity Band and its sizeable audiences warrant the collection's creativity. Under the Elms visitors could find traditional marches, stunning soloists and Broadway show tunes in each performance.

"Under the Elms exemplifies the best of the community band movement across America," Climer says. "It has had such a strong presence for years. I'm glad to see a recent resurgence in bands like ours nationwide."

Another intriguing feature of the Concerts Under the Elms is the band's frequent guest conductors. This summer, Director of Bands Emeritus Ronald Socciarelli headlines an impressive trio of visiting maestros.

Beginning Tuesday, June 24, celluloid celebrants throughout the region will be able to enjoy the Movies Under the Elms. Classics like The Birds and The Magnificent Seven are sure to make this new take on the walk-in movie a hit.

Two days later, on Thursday, June 26, the Arts Under the Elms series begins. Each performance is geared toward a wide audience, with family acts, local artists and regional performers headlining. Visitors to these shows will see acts ranging from juggling to jazz, poodles to pianos and comedy to country music.

An added feature to four of the five Arts Under the Elms evenings are appearances by famous television characters like Elmo from "Sesame Street," Arthur and Sister Bear from "The Berenstain Bears." WOUB Public Television and Radio are sponsoring each visit.

Ohio University English professor Mimi Hart is one-third of The Local Girls, a trio famous for their tight harmonies, jazzy arrangements and spirited performances. Hart, whose group will perform July 24 at 8 p.m., has been looking forward to the summer series.

"I'm very excited about Under the Elms," Hart says, "not only as someone who is lucky enough to get to sing at home on a summer's night - with and for family and friends - but also as a member of the community. I know the other Girls are happy to join the party and we look forward to our evening and other evenings with many additional performers!"

Ohio University Dining Services will cater both the Movies and Arts Under the Elms evenings. Members of the Athens Independent Restaurant Association will provide picnic meals available for purchase at each Concert Under the Elms - more evidence of the collaboration, says Association President Jon Sparhawk.

"It's a great thing for us to be able to cooperate with the University," says Sparhawk, owner of The Oak Room and Toscano's. "I think it's the start of something great and I like the spirit shown between the townspeople, businesses and University."

While Under the Elms is a sizeable program, there are other cultural items of note taking place around the area this summer. For instance, the Ohio Valley Summer Theater will present two shows, "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Annie."

The Ohio University School of Music will present "Opera Italiana" on July 11-12 at 8 p.m. in the Ridges Auditorium. The Kennedy Museum of Art's exhibit, "From the Background to the Foreground: The Photo Backdrop and Cultural Expression," runs through August 3. The museum is also sponsoring the "Midsummer Evening with the Arts," the second-annual ice cream social with the Dairy Barn, held on Friday, July 25 from 5-8 p.m.

Under the Elms, says Hart, is a welcome addition.

"I love the scope of the program," Hart says. "With movies, concerts and more, I think it will become a real social nexus for our region. Summer is such a fun time in Athens, anyhow. Now, not only will there be parking but there will also be something wonderful to do when you've parked!"

Joseph Hughes is a writer for University Communications and Marketing


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