I grew up in a small town in the southeast corner of Kansas. Iola was the kind of town where everyone knew each other and you could get anywhere in town in five minutes.
Our claim to fame was the “largest downtown courthouse square in the US”, a beautifully cultivated center to the town, lined with local shops and restaurants. My father’s law firm was there, too, which meant I spent much of my childhood wandering around the town square.
A block from the town square was my favorite location in Iola: the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. In the 1960’s our little town (two hours away from any major city in Kansas) had been gifted an incredible performing arts center by a local banker. His will gave instructions that the center be used for the local school district’s arts education programs.
We may have only had a handful of fast food restaurants and shops to visit, along with just a few hangout spots to spend our time, but we did have the Bowlus. And it is magnificent.
I’m talking a state-of-the-art theater that seats 750 people (when I lived there the population of my hometown was 5900), along with smaller spaces, rehearsal rooms, and classrooms. And before I even started kindergarten, the Bowlus had changed my life.
I remember watching a plethora of musicals and plays on that stage before I even knew that the people onstage were actors. I was so hypnotized by what I saw that I was convinced that it was real. My parents explained to me that those people in the community theater productions were the same people I saw in our local restaurants and churches and schools and shops. They were the people we sat next to at sporting events and greeted on the way to work.
That was the moment that I knew I would spend my life onstage.
In elementary school we would trek over to the Bowlus to watch performances. There are too many to name, but each excited me more than the last. Sitting in the dark inside our beautiful fine arts center filled me with excitement. We may have been a simple town in the middle of the country but when those lights went down I was in another world: I was in ancient times with Shakespeare or the magical land of Oz or walking through a wardrobe into the unknown land of Narnia.
It was incredible.
In kindergarten my dad told me a great story. Sometime in the 1970’s a famous magician - Harry Blackstone, Jr. - had come to town and performed his show at the Bowlus.
(You may not know who Blackstone was but take it from me - he is a legend amongst magicians. His father was a famous magician, too, and Jr. had continued the family tradition of classical magic in large theaters around the country. When I was five or six and just getting interested in magic I would raid our local library for anything I could find on the matter. There were just a few books and one VHS tape. That tape was a recording of Harry Blackstone, Jr.’s live show. I must have watched that tape a thousand times.
So now that you understand my adoration of Blackstone, here is the remarkable story my dad told me.)
He explained how in the middle of the show Blackstone had called for several people to join him onstage, including my dad! My dad stood in line with a row of volunteers as Blackstone walked back and forth across the stage, his voice booming to the far corners of the room. Over the course of several minutes, the legendary magician demonstrated the skills of a master pickpocket.
Coins, pens, watches, neckties, belts, wallets, and more were all magically removed from the volunteers’ pockets and - to their surprise - returned with a flourish by Blackstone himself. But! My dad explained how Blackstone had kept him under his spell that night.
“You see, Mark,” my Dad explained, “As he was walking past me on the stage he looked right at me and whispered ‘The next time I walk past give me your watch!’ Then he just kept walking and talking like nothing happened.”
My dad didn’t want the show to fail so he quietly removed his watch and handed it to Blackstone as he crossed the stage. Moments later Blackstone dramatically turned to my father, winked in his direction, and said “And sir, here is your watch!” Everyone in the audience laughed in amazement and my dad returned to his seat.
That was one of the earliest memories I have of understanding what it was like to be a magician. And it was all thanks to the Bowlus.
When I was 8 years old, a mentalist named Craig Karges came to the Bowlus. I’d never seen a mentalist before but it was a life-changing moment. He performed feats so inexplicable that I was convinced he was the real deal. After the show, I somehow got the chance to say hello and he sent someone backstage just to retrieve a business card for me. I kept that card forever, even modeling my first business card off of his.
I saw Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Grease, Shakespeare, and more on that stage. People flew around the stage and witches rose from trap doors. I watched silent films, the symphony, dance concerts, and lectures. Once I even fell asleep at intermission of a show (I was quite young) and woke up with chickenpox.
I performed on the stage numerous times growing up, including as part of the children’s chorus in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in fifth grade. Then came Bye Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game, Aladdin, Kiss Me Kate, and more.
In middle and high school I began taking classes there. I was part of concert band, the jazz ensemble, choir, art, speech, and drama. I competed at state levels in music and acting. We practiced instruments, studied improv, and rehearsed our shows inside those walls.
Speaking of those walls… The hallways between classrooms in the Bowlus were lined with the artwork of past students. A piece was selected each year to join the collection forevermore. The literal legacy of those walls was held in place by decades of students who had come before us.
A few years ago I even achieved a childhood dream and got to perform my show at the Bolwus. I’ll never forget it.
My high school drama teacher encouraged me to pursue theater. I went to Chicago to audition for the University of Southern California’s acting program halfway through my senior year. I got accepted and moved to Los Angeles the following year.
I stuck with my theater degree and eventually settled in Chicago with my wife (also a performer and artist) where I live now. My work is 100% arts-related and my success can be traced directly back to the time spent at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days because I just learned that the school board back in my hometown decided to stop holding arts classes at the Bowlus beginning next fall. I’m heartbroken.
From what I read the decision seems to come down to several factors: safety concerns, educational needs, budgeting, etc. Although the board says otherwise I can’t help but think that the arts is always lacking in support.
You don’t need to hear about the impact the Bowlus Fine Arts Center has on an individual from a full-time entertainer like myself. That should be obvious.
Instead, ask the person who moves to a small town for a new job and gets to see their child perform on a huge stage. Ask the shy kid who, thanks to drama classes, spent their after school hours being onstage instead of being an outcast. Ask my former classmates who are lawyers and doctors and writers and teachers, but owe their empathy and creativity to that space.
As Thomas H. Bowlus wrote in his will, "I have always been dedicated to the proposition that the best tool with which to equip our youth to confront the future is an education, and that such education should include an appreciation of things artistic, musical, and cultural, as well as things academic and scientific. It is to this end that and for such purposes that I dedicate the aforedescribed premises."
I didn’t learn about life from science or math. I learned about life through Shakespearean sonnets and choral music. I found myself in classical texts and theatrical productions. Being exposed to culture inside the Bowlus allowed me to travel to places far from the midwest in my imagination. It’s a hard thing to understand unless you’ve experienced it, but the way I see it is this: the more art you experience the closer you feel to everyone else in the world.
I know those classes will continue at the high school and people back home will still participate in the arts. However, I’m sad to know that those students won’t get to walk those hallways like I did, dreaming of one day being on a stage like that myself. When you get to be that close to the dream it’s much easier to make it a reality.