Warner Oral History: Vital Arts Organizations of 10591

In a week when American arts institutions were feeling very threatened by President Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts, a half-dozen local leaders of arts institutions got together for the latest culture-themed Warner Library Oral History session.

Björn Olsson of the Tarrytown Music Hall was in attendance, while jazz entrepreneur Mark Morganelli had to duck out early to take care of the myriad miscellaneous matters required to get his new Jazz Forum Arts venue up and running in a month as planned.

Four came on behalf of the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center: the founding couple and the two directors. When poet Margot Taft Stever moved here from D.C. and “didn’t find the kind of environment I had hoped to find from a writing standpoint,” she created one. The saga of the Writers’ Center features the feat of saving the Philipse Manor train station in the late 1980s. With the help of her lawyer husband, Donald Stever, Margot was able to negotiate with the Transit Authority to secure the neglected venue in their neighborhood as a home to the reading series that started at the library in 1983. The building hadn’t been a station since the ‘70s, serving instead as a ratty hangout for teens who spray-painted the walls. Within the chestnut-paneled room, you can still find some graffiti, preserved on purpose to retain the building’s history.

Mark Morganelli

Mark Morganelli

“We’ve had world-class writers come to this space and they stand in front of the fireplace and look across the river and say it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever read in in my life,” Donald Stever said of the cozy room with a view like no other. Though the seating is limited, and only one workshop can meet at a time, it’s the intimacy that makes this center so special and helps new, emerging and established writers form lifelong supportive bonds. “Our students are extremely dedicated,” said program director Jennifer Franklin. “Once they sign up for a class they continue.”

“Art is not frivolous, and it’s not trivial, and it’s not extra. It should be integrated into a whole full life experience on the planet. It’s what makes life worth living…” —Mark Morganelli

Olsson recounted another epic story of a local couple saving a space against all odds. In 1980, Helen and the late Berthold Ringeisen – who had already done something spectacular in creating Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory in Tarrytown  – couldn’t bear the thought of the landmark 1885 theater getting demolished as planned. They were able to secure a loan thanks to the graciousness of Tarrytown Savings and Loan banker Stephen Byelick, who died in 2015 at the age of 90. It was a deal that would never fly nowadays, but Olsson said Byelick, who knew the couple, figured, “’I know they’d rather forage for food than not make a payment.’”

For 20 years, the Ringeisens, who already worked full-time (he was a professor, she ran the school and taught music), ran over to let performers in and clean up when the night was over. They maintained the whole operation with only volunteer help. Their daughter Karina, a dancer, who grew up napping in the hall seats, started volunteering with her husband Olsson. Their roles grew. Now he’s the executive director overseeing an annual budget that has grown from $130,000 to $4 million. They’ve been able to hire staff and put money desperately needed into the sagging infrastructure. But you never want to go too far, said Olsson. “There’s something about these old theaters… People just love to come here.”

One of the theater’s first regulars was Morganelli, who ran a 25-year jazz series there showcasing the likes of Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, and more. He also started an arts series in Pierson Park, back when that too was a “tattered gem.” He now hosts an eight-week summer series in the same, beautifully renovated, park, and for two years has been preparing his new endeavor. He and his wife, Ellen Prior, moved from Dobbs Ferry to Tarrytown where they will live upstairs from their new 100-seat jazz club on Dixon Lane. As the rule goes, it indeed took twice as long and twice as much money as they anticipated.

“Art is not frivolous, and it’s not trivial, and it’s not extra. It should be integrated into a whole full life experience on the planet. It’s what makes life worth living… Love, and music and art, and great food and wine and the scenery and looking out on the beautiful Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hudson River. What could be better?” Morganelli said.

If you have old pictures of the Tarrytown Music Hall, they would love to see them. Please share: bjorn@tarrytownmusichall.org. Stay tuned for our next session!

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