One came to the arts through his career, another changed careers to commit to the arts, a third juggles a career and arts volunteering, but all three 2010 Heart of the Arts Awards honorees have enriched the cultural landscape of Broome County.
At a press conference this morning (Oct. 1) at the Broome County Arts Council’s downtown Binghamton office, council Executive Director Sharon Ball and board chairman Fred Xlander announced that this year’s HOTA Awards will go to veteran union stagehand William “Billy” Carroll; Lou Ligouri, executive director of the Endicott Performing Arts Center, and Pam Ondrusek, president of the board of directors of S.R.O. Productions III. Also nominated were René Neville, artistic director of Dance Stories, and DJ and children’s entertainer Johnny Only.
BAMirror asked each honoree how he or she got into the arts, and why.
“I’ve been involved in performing arts almost all my life,” Ligouri said, citing junior high and high school choruses and a musical theater debut as “First Cockney” in a Union-Endicott High School production of “My Fair Lady.” “Our high school music instructor was Ruth Hughes. She encouraged me to continue with music and musical theater. She was a great teacher, and she gave me the confidence I needed to continue to perform on stage.
“At the same time, it was the mid ’60s, and the folk music revival was at its peak. … Some of my high school friends owned guitars, and soon I was drawn by the music to buy my own guitar. I taught myself to play using a Peter Paul & Mary song book, and I’ve enjoyed playing and singing folk music all my life,” added Ligouri, who needs little persuasion to join local folk favorite Cobblestone Crossing on stage whenever the quartet plays at EPAC.
Ligouri performed with his church’s theater group, “The St. Anthony Players,” when he was younger but drifted away from live theater when it conflicted with his jobs in insurance and later banking. But, in 1993, when the Players were resurrected to celebrate the church’s anniversary, he joined in. “I met many wonderful performers, and my love for theater began to grow once again. I met Patrick Foti there, and when he became director of The St. Anthony Players, I became his assistant director.” In 1998, a group of people who met through the Players decided to buy the dilapidated Towne movie theater on Washington Avenue in Endicott. They asked Foti and Ligouri to spearhead the renovation and operation of the theater portion of the building.
During the first five years of its existence, the Endicott Performing Arts Center operated totally with volunteers, but in 2003, Ligouri and Foti were asked by the EPAC board to become fulltime employees, the former as executive director and the latter as artistic director.
“There are many reasons why I do what I do,” Ligouri said. “I love music. It moves me emotionally. I truly enjoy the creative process. … Collaborating with (Foti) to produce the hundreds of shows here at EPAC has expanded my creative efforts in many areas. I believe in theater education and participation for young people because it offers them the opportunity to learn invaluable life skills in areas such as creativity, self-confidence, self-discipline and communication. It helps young people understand the importance of team work, practice and that there is no substitute for hard work. I enjoy using whatever talent that God has given me. And truly, I do enjoy the applause.”
For Pam Ondrusek, the roar of the crowd is better heard from the wings. Except for an occasional walk-on, she has always been a behind-the-scenes person. Unlike Ligouri, she had little exposure to theater as a youth, and she also was shy, so she never thought about working in any capacity with a theater troupe.
Enter the late Michelle Harter Tully, who had just started the theater program at Maine-Endwell High School. She knew that Ondrusek could sew and asked her to make Jesus’ costume for a production of “Godspell.” Ondrusek, then in her early 20s, took the costume to a rehearsal and was instantly captivated by “all the stuff that went on.”
Ondrusek, who had discovered that “watching the creative process is magical,” then started volunteering for Tully’s S.R.O. Productions (now S.R.O. Productions III). She found herself doing a little bit of everything organizational – taking ticket orders, running the box office, managing the house, eventually producing shows. “I’m not an artistic person, but I did whatever they needed,” she said. By putting on her “work persona” – she’s in human resources and administration at JCPenney – she overcame her shyness enough to “run meetings and such, but not to perform.”
Although she’s been on the S.R.O. board for 20 years, she retains a sense of wonder about the performance process. “In theater, you can see smiles on faces; you can watch it come together. You say it isn’t going to happen and then …,” she said recently. “Being part of a group like SRO is very rewarding, watching them perform and transform into something special.”
Ondrusek, who also runs the volunteer usher program at The Forum for Broadway Theatre League, said she was stunned to learn that she would be a HOTA recipient. “It took me a minute to take it in. I felt incredibly honored just to be one of the nominees, but to actually be one of the winners, voted on by the arts community, gave me such a sense of happiness. I cried.
“To me, the award is for the accomplishments of SRO. Not having a permanent space, we struggle to get a show up. A great example is ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ (presented Sept. 17-19 at Union-Endicott High School). The set was transported from our warehouse space to the school on Saturday, Sept. 11. We had a day to build it and have it ready for the cast on Monday. Monday night was the first time the cast had worked on the multi-level set, with props, set pieces, costumes, lights and an orchestra. I am so proud of what everyone — the cast, musicians, techs, etc. — did in four days. They are the ones that deserve this award; I’m the one behind the scenes to help keep them on track.”
Lou Ligouri and “Billy” Carroll also believe that they should be sharing their honor with colleagues.
“To me, the Heart of the Arts Award is the arts community’s way of recognizing those who have made a difference,” Ligouri said. “Recognition is something that all artists need and want, and I think that recognition from one’s peers is the highest form of compliment that anyone can receive, and, in that regard I am deeply honored and gratified to have been nominated.
“At the same time, my years in the arts community have shown me that there are many people in our community who could and should be ‘Heart of the Arts’ award winners. I see them daily here at EPAC. These are people who are not only artists, but also people who work behind the scenes in so many different roles helping to facilitate the presentation and production of art. They are our volunteers. These are people who find great satisfaction in helping to present the finished ‘product’… and they do so without remuneration or public recognition in many cases. They are the lifeblood of the arts community.”
Or as Carroll put it, “It’s nice to be recognized for what I do, but it is a team effort. I can’t do it all by myself. I do rely on my fellow stagehands to provide their expertise in the theater or at the Arena.”
Carroll cut right to the chase when discussing his entry in the arts world. “To be perfectly honest, it was my mother’s boyfriend, John Perriccio, who got me involved with the performing arts 30 years ago. He was the local stagehand union president at the time. It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”
In those intervening decades, Carroll said he has enjoyed providing a service in the community and doing work needed to hold events at the two county-owned performance spaces, The Forum and the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena. Besides, he added with his typical sly humor: “It doesn’t hurt to get paid for our services.”
But underneath that cavalier attitude is someone willing to go the extra mile because he knows how much his expertise is relied upon. Carroll has given up some leisure activities to make himself more available to performing arts groups. “I feel like I need to be there. Shows go a little smoother when I’m there,” he said. “I don’t think about the lost sleep when a show is being mounted.
“The whole bottom line,” Carroll said, “is I just care about what I do.”
About the awards and the ceremony
The BCAC created the annual Heart of the Arts Awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2004, inviting the community to select and celebrate individuals who have made significant contributions to the arts in Broome County. The 2010 awards ceremony, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, in the recital hall of The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, with STAR 105.7’s Joshua B as host.