The advent last summer of the Midtown Farmer’s Market, which sells fresh local produce every Tuesday afternoon on the site of the former vice-epicenter King’s Inn on Broadway, planted a seed on a depressing stretch of Broadway, a seed that a few weeks ago led to a second, spectacular blooming — the erection of a European spiegeltent, a kind of traveling tent festooned with mirrors and fancy wooden carvings. The San Severia, as the Kingston structure is called, isn’t really a tent, with its wooden roof, but it’s similarly portable and just as charming, with its array of beveled mirrors and velvet-canopied booths. It’s also the venue for performances by some of the region’s leading musicians every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon throughout the summer.
Overnight, it seemed, someone had solved a perennial problem — how to liven up and attract people to Broadway. One recent Saturday night around 10 p.m., curious to find out what this magical, circa 1890s mirage was all about, a friend and I stopped in. (Normally we would be bee-lining our way home through this part of Broadway.)
The Old Double E, an old-timey band featuring singer Earl Walker Lundy and Ed Butler on guitar and banjo, John Adami on mandolin and guitar, and Colin Brown on bass, were just finishing up their last set. Friendly faces greeted us — Bob and Josie Airhart, who donated the tent, as well as Kerry Henderson, who programmed the music, and his wife, Bex. A bevy of children, the progeny of the two couples, raced around. A few fans clapped to the music or danced and several couples sat in the booths lining the side walls. Lit by old-fashioned globes hung from the ceiling, the cheerful scene was reflected in the beveled, art-nouveau-style mirrors behind the bar and inset into the thin columns what I imagined the old steamship passenger cabins were like. Hand-painted flowers adorned the white wooden ceiling and snaked down the walls in arabesques, which were further embellished with elaborate wooden carvings.
Out front, beyond the sets of double doors, a food cart served German-style flatbread sandwiches. Andrew Chase said he had spent a year in Germany and got hooked on flammkuchen, a kind of German-style pizza. He and co-owner Josh Painter, Culinary Institute graduates, had both worked at an Alsatian bistro in New York City before quitting to start their food cart business a month ago. A desolate part of town with as bad a reputation as anyplace in the Hudson Valley had been transformed into an oasis of music, stimulating conversation and delicious food.
The Kingston Festival of the Arts, which will culminate on Aug. 24 with city-wide performances and art events but in the meantime has found a home at San Severia. It turns out the San Severia summer performances were not the result of extensive planning but were born after two men with separate visions for Kingston and a personal commitment to make it happen met at a KUBA meeting and got to talking. Bob Airhart is managing director of Kingston-based company Spiegeltent Productions and is partnering with the Belgian company that owns the tents to place them at festivals and other events throughout the U.S. He decided to donate one of the tents to Kingston this summer as a community space, supporting the city’s embrace of local agriculture and its arts and culture.
Kerry Henderson, a professional opera singer who co-founded the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice four years ago, set his sights on Kingston as the perfect place for a Festival of the Arts. Henderson, in partnership with Gloria Waslyn, who has experience organizing corporate events and presents her four blue-and-gold macaws at various festivals and environmental-themed events under the rubric Parrots for Peace, are renting a gallery space at 296 Wall Street as headquarters. This summer the festival is scheduled for only one day, Saturday, Aug. 24, but Henderson plans to extend it to 11 days in 2014.
In May, Henderson erected a banner at his gallery storefront space, sent out a call for participants and ideas via Facebook, and attended his first KUBA meeting. Familiar with the Spiegeltent summer program at BardCollege, which he always thought would be the perfect venue for a chamber opera, he instantly warmed to the idea of using the smaller tent in Kingston for summer performances after meeting Airhart.
The performances debuted on May 31 with improvisational, genre-breaking band The Repeatos, veterans of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. They were followed that weekend by Lady Esther Gin, a drag comedy cabaret act, and the Old Double E. Studio Stu, interpreting the Door’s “Crystal Ship” and other classic pop tunes with his single string bass and loop machine, played on June 6, followed by Passero, which performs modern interpretations of world music, and Ladybird, whose music is eclectic, from bossa nova to the blues. On Sunday afternoon Waslyn’s parrots and Princess Wow! and Prince Pow Wow, a couple who play music and dress up themselves and the audience with hats, boas, and other sartorial accessories, entertained kids; Belgian waffles were served from a food truck.
Henderson, who sends out weekly e-mails of the upcoming week’s schedule with brief descriptions of the bands, noted that the summer’s offerings will also include classical music, jazz, klezmer, dance parties, singer-songwriters, you name it …
As a resident of Uptown Kingston, Airhart wanted to give Midtown a boost. “Bob could have put the tent on the Senate House lawn or in the Rondout but he wanted to change the face of Midtown and help make the Midtown Farmer’s Market a destination,” said Josie.
Airhart worked in theatrical production in Brooklyn before moving to the Hudson Valley 11 years ago, where he was employed as director of theatrical productions at Bard before quitting a year ago to work full time at his company. He sees Kingston as a test model for erecting spiegeltents in cities all over the country to supplement farmers’ markets and cultural events.
Airhart works closely with Liliane and Rik Klessens, the third-generation Belgium owners of the spiegeltents, many of which were built by Rik’s grandfather at the turn of the last century. San Severia, built in 1890 in Gent, Belgium, was designed to travel to different festivals, where it would serve as the venue for social events accompanied by Belgian waffles, frites and beer. All of the woodwork, mirrors and paintings are original; it’s one of just a handful of authentic spiegeltents that still exist.
San Severia consists of parts that fit together like a puzzle and when dismantled are transported on a 53-foot trailer. (Airhart relies on skilled “tent masters” from Belgium to do the work.) To protect the structure from the weather and also for security, San Severia is nestled into a canvas-roofed box with sheet metal walls; a trailer housing two rest rooms with running water is fitted into the back of this steel envelope. Airhart, who moved the tent up from Miami, also oversees the spiegeltent at Bard and one other, which is currently at a music festival in Tennessee.
While no food or alcohol is served at the tent’s bar yet — Maria Philippis of Boitson’s is in the process of obtaining the permit for a beer and wine bar — a food cart is on the premises. “Part of my idea is to provide opportunities for businesses in the region,” said Airhart.
Besides the performances, Josie Airhart has arranged other events. Yoga classes taught by Stephanie Bifolco will be offered every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. starting June 11. Groups of students from GeorgeWashingtonElementary School, which the Airharts’ children attend, are booked for visits, with a presentation on the tent’s history and construction. “We are open to working with groups in the community, such as local churches,” said Josie, noting that rental rates would be on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorly funded nonprofits.
Airhart emphasized that San Severia builds on the current viability of Midtown. “There are people making money here and paying taxes,” he said. “What’s missing is the perception [of this].”
Henderson, who lives in Phoenicia with his family, is excited about Kingston’s possibilities as a lightning rod for high-quality and experimental arts. “I’ve traveled around the world a lot and seen how festivals revive cities,” said Henderson, a native of New Zealand who got his start at the Australian Opera in Sydney and has performed extensively in Europe and the U.S.
A particular influence is the Spoleto Festival in Melbourne, which he experienced in his first professional job as a soloist in his early 20s. “It was so frigging exciting,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just one event, but many events happening simultaneously, from street performances down by the waterfront to a gigantic opera to a cutting edge performance in a black box theater to a restaurant with a flamenco guitarist. The idea of curating the entire city is fascinating, and Kingston is ripe for it.”