Two subjects galvanized this year’s Angelina Eberly Luncheon, which benefits the Austin History Center Association, the nonprofit ally of the Austin History Center.
One hot topic was the Driskill Hotel, traditional site of the always gratifying midday event. Leading the public chat about the venue’s rollercoaster past was Monte Akers, attorney and author, whose “The Grand Dame of Austin: A History of the Driskill Hotel” was recently released by Waterloo Press (must be transparent, also the publisher of my two books).
His best anecdote, however, was told off the cuff: Before lunch a lady introduced herself as Helen Corbitt. Could she really be the celebrated Driskill chef who had popularized the cheese soup that we sipped in the lobby? (She died in 1978.) Perhaps it was her daughter? Akers asked around. But the well-attired woman had vanished for a while like a Driskill ghost. Luncheon chairman Charles Peveto put the questions to rest: That was Helen Covert, not Helen Corbitt.
Also on the stage in the banquet room were Luci Baines Johnson and Julian Read. Johnson’s family was closely associated with the hotel. For decades, LBJ held periodic court in the ornate 1886 palace. His daughter told the stories behind the stories, including the fact that LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson‘s first breakfast date at the hotel was later rendered in several conflicting versions by her parents and their friends.
Read, one of the greats of public relations and public affairs, shared a detailed history of the hotel’s modern ownership. Best known in some circles for his work with Texas Gov. John Connally, Read represented the Driskill through several of those owners, all struggling to bring the building up to its historic potential.
The other subject? The association plunged deep into the campaign to give over a portion of the shuttered Faulk Library to the center, which long ago maxed out its storage, exhibition and office space. It would take $11.8 million for critical infrastructure to bring it up to code, then another $3 million for the center to expand into two floors and the basement. For a long while, leaders have endorsed a public-private partnership that could mean little or no cost to taxpayers. Luckily, in the audience this day were Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, as well as former mayors Lee Cooke and Frank Cooksey, all strong backers of the center.
Out into the arts
The Austin spring performing arts season is up and running. We thoroughly enjoyed Zach Theatre‘s staging of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a fluid telling of 15-year-old Christopher’s experiences as he negotiates parents, teachers and strangers through the lens of autism in the United Kingdom. Director Dave Steakley‘s team was particularly good at visualizing the mindset of Christopher, played expertly by Texas State University student Preston Straus. It will be remembered as one of the performances of the season.
We also finally caught cabaret singer Ute Lemper live at UT’s McCullough Theatre as presented by Texas Performing Arts. The modern embodiment of the 20th-century cabaret scenes in Berlin, Paris, New York and Buenos Aires, Lemper can channel Marlene Dietrich and any number of performers set off into the world in part by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, while sharing the theater history in priceless asides. That is not all. Lemper spent a good portion of the show with a pianist and a bass player scatting in high jazz form. Although technically amazing, this style paled in comparison to Lemper’s clear-eyed, clear-edged cabaret. Note of approval: “Mack the Knife” should always be performed in German. Always.
We also stopped by the opening reception for artist Malcolm Bucknall at Wally Workman Gallery. The longtime Austin artist presented exquisite amalgamations of human and animals, of in Victorian or Edwardian dress, as if borrowed from outrageous children’s books from the period. We had a fairly long talk with Bucknall about his time in the U.K., India, Cyprus and ultimately Austin, after his father moved here to start UT’s metallurgy program in 1958. We plan to hear more of these stories at his studio this week.