Love Letter to BilltownAug 01, 2021 12:45PM ● By Linda Roller
Filled with music, theater, and art year-round, Williamsport has become a destination for people who love the arts, and a magnet for those who are artists in every medium. The downtown has several galleries, music flows from restaurants, and the streets themselves are the canvas. The parking areas are crowded as events are well attended at the Community Arts Center, and the art overflows into the streets every First Friday. It may seem like a town that has blossomed overnight, but in August, Lycoming Arts celebrates its sixtieth anniversary. And, as one of the primary forces that changed the look of Williamsport forever, First Friday celebrates twenty years of art in the streets.
It certainly didn’t look and feel like a town that had any art when I interviewed for a job at the old Williamsport Area Community College in 1981. At the same time, a young art instructor also moved to Williamsport to raise a family. Judy Olinsky was a woman always in love with art, and recently we talked about the 1980s in Williamsport, and how the initial appearance was a little deceiving.
“The people were wonderful, but the town was sad,” Judy says. “The art was there, but not ‘public’.” It was hidden, not seen in the streets, not widely advertised. The town was facing many challenges in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arson was a presence. Several churches and many buildings burned, and the fear of older churches being torched led congregations to organize overnight sentries.
Judy sums up what happened next. “In 1993, we were at a crossroads—whether our town was going to live...or die.” It sounds stark, but Judy was not the only one who felt that Williamsport was on the brink. Years of policy by a state court system that believed drug offenders and addicts could be helped by removing them from cities to smaller towns—a fresh start—had resulted in a population large enough to attract the very dealers they had been sent here to escape. The big city problems of drugs, crime, and decaying neighborhoods threatened this little city. Longtime residents were looking to move.
Balanced against that was a major investment in the downtown by the Pennsylvania College of Technology and by the Williamsport Foundation. The Foundation bought the old Capitol Theater and brought it back to former glory. By adding major upgrades in space and sound quality, the Foundation created a regional mecca for performing arts. The Community Arts Center opened in 1993.
Then, “confronted with the loss of a ‘small town’ way of life, some of our citizens decided to do something,” Judy says. “We looked at the experiences of other towns in decline that had reclaimed their future. A large group came together on a Saturday afternoon and asked the question, ‘What do we want to see in our future?’ We dreamed a little dream.”
Luckily, there were many people dreaming, and there had been groups of people who had always believed in the power of art. The arts had long had a home in the area.
“The music tradition in Williamsport was always strong,” Judy states. “And there was both a college performing art tradition and local theater.” Groups like the Repasz Band, Gesang Verein Harmonia, both founded in the 19th century, along with the Williamsport Symphony, and the strong programs in the Williamsport schools, had quietly made a fertile foundation for this dream. In 1960, a group of people from Lycoming College and the community met and recognized that the arts needed a voice in the area. With the founding of the Williamsport/Lycoming Arts Council in 1960, they began to “get the word out” about what was available here. Many of the founders were lifelong volunteers promoting art in the area. They loomed large in the Williamsport I eventually discovered under the gray exterior—Dorothy Maples, Freddie Kisberg, Robert Bowers, Hugh MacMullan, and others. Debi Burch, now president of this organization (the afore-mentioned Lycoming Arts), added more names to my memory, including Eva Archer and Daphne Hill. It was all volunteer and operated on a volunteer organization’s budget. The Festivals of the Arts and the sponsoring of special exhibits were vital to the region. The work done cataloging and preserving the works of local 19th century still life painter Severin Roesen was nationally recognized.
“The downtown businesses brought music into the restaurants,” says Debi Burch. “Places like Franco’s, DiSalvo’s, the Bullfrog, along with established restaurants like the Old Corner and the Herdic House—they made room for music and events and supported us. Because of these businesses, and the CAC, people came downtown in the evenings.”
But how to take all this energy and transform a city? It takes cooperation and a plan. And there was a plan tailor-made for this dream: the Main Street Program, a federal initiative to revitalize communities. In 1994, “dreamers” Penny Vanderlin and Judy Olinsky had contacted Steven Capelli, who was then the Williamsport Community and Development Director. Getting the city government to support this initiative was an important component of bringing the town back. By 1997, the Main Street Committee was established as a sub-committee of City Council. It was a team effort. “Lycoming Arts was the ‘Chamber of Commerce’ for all the organizations,” Debi Burch adds. Lycoming Arts, in concert with foundations and government, began to write the grants and look for the kind of money that would take the vision out into the streets. By 2000, they were moving to a regional event, as Dale Wagner founded the Susquehanna Valley of the Arts.
The result was an explosion of events. The Community Theatre League opened downtown in 1999. Within a year, the Uptown Music Collective was established and holding concerts in the city. The First Friday committee was established, culminating in the initial First Friday in March of 2001, under the umbrella of Lycoming Arts.
It wasn’t long before First Friday asked muralist Michael Pilato to join us for a public art forum on murals and to create Lycoming County: Inspiration the Mural. Because the mural planned to show Williamsport’s history, many different groups became involved in funding its creation. The Chamber of Commerce and Our Towns: 2010 were lead partners in the mural project, and held a major fundraising party called Mural Madness where over $40,000 was raised. Suddenly, the art was on the streets, pouring out of businesses, and filling the downtown. Michael Pilato caught that energy. The result of this forum is the large mural next to the Bullfrog, and across from the Community Arts Center. Now, the art was on the street, for everyone, all the time. It was the mural and the energy in the city that led Mark Winkleman to buy the industrial complex west of the downtown district and create a space for artists and craft people to create—the Pajama Factory.
The women who worked on that project enjoyed the experience so much that they wished to continue having “fun with art.” That fun has become a committee in Lycoming Arts dedicated to supporting new public art, often created by Lycoming County artists-in-residence, and to promoting walking tours designed to view these local treasures.
Galleries opened downtown, at first three student galleries, but followed by traditional galleries with shows and exhibitions. With the help of Lycoming Arts and the focus of First Fridays, the audience for galleries, shows in coffee houses, and just spending time with art became part of the Williamsport experience. The streets of Williamsport no longer looked boarded up. The downtown was alive, first with art in the windows, followed by retailers and others looking to serve the public that had returned. And the art doesn’t stay in the downtown or stay with established artists.
“Lycoming Art is a three-legged stool,” Debi explains. It needs to travel. It does, through outreach. The “Only Love” mural, a forty-foot public art piece inspired by a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, is a great example. In production throughout 2021, it’s been a collaboration between Williamsport Area High School art students via a grant the school district got from First Community Foundation Partnership. It will be installed at Firetree Place, a commercial building near the downtown, later this year.
The pandemic brought First Friday, but it reopened in May of 2021. Shanin Dougherty and Beth Amanda, current chairs of First Friday, extend an invitation to the big anniversary celebration on August 6. Although every month of First Friday is different, with its own theme, this one is truly special. Fourth Street will be closed from Market to Hepburn, along with Pine Street. There will be vendors, exhibits, and live music, including a reunion of Clyde Frog—a group formed under the Uptown Music Collective. As Shanin says, “You never know what you’re going to find at First Friday.” But it’s a guarantee. It will be a party fit for a FFAT City!