27/01/2017 by dmschools.org
John Lloyd Young was back in town this week and, even by the jet-set standards of a guy with his glittering theatrical resume, he was busy while he was here!
The Tony and Grammy award-winning actor (he won for his portrayal of Four Seasons lead singer Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys; his Broadway debut!) who’s here in his role as an ambassador for the Turnaround Arts program that’s in place at five North High feeder schools covered a lot of ground on his return visit.
Wednesday afternoon he was on Capitol Hill to lend his voice to Arts Advocacy Day at the statehouse. Thursday he ping-ponged between Cattell and Oak Park elementary schools.
First thing in the morning yesterday he took a student-guided tour at Cattell which was more like a stroll through an art gallery, so lined are the hallways with student artwork about cross-curricular subjects like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Then, after helping out with the awarding of attendance trophies (almost as tall as a kindergartener!) at the all-school morning meeting in the gym, Young was off to Oak Park to piggyback on a fieldtrip to another gallery, the Des Moines Art Center.
There, Young prodded the docent to explain to the young patrons what the title of Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Automat (part of the DMAC’s permanent collection) refers to since automats vanished from the American scene long ago.
Young does not go through the motions on his visits. Sprawled on the floor with the enthralled 4th graders he snapped pictures of them with his smartphone, thoroughly mingled in their midst. It was a work of art in itself, that scene, a famous actor from all over the world strolling through an art museum with a class of young works in progress whose horizons so far have been limited. The mix of people, place and things suggested that anything is possible. That’s what Turnaround Arts is all about; the notion that, afforded opportunities they would not otherwise receive, kids from backgrounds of limited means and possibilities will get the idea “Why not me”?
Kids, in this case, from backgrounds not too dissimilar from Frankie Valli’s, who grew up poor in Newark in an ethnically diverse neighborhood.
Young himself grew up as the son of a military dad so his family moved around. Childhood stops included Montgomery, Alabama (a landmark MLK city) and Omaha. That’s where he thought of when one of his escorts at Cattell Thursday morning asked him “So, what do you think of snow?”
After returning to Cattell for lunch and drop-ins to some of the classrooms there, the day wound up back at Oak Park for an afterschool rehearsal of The Music Man, a show as seemingly far from Jersey Boys as Iowa is from Newark. But still there were links.
Young told the 3-5 grade thespians that when he adapted his stage role as Valli to cinema, the Clint Eastwood adaptation of Jersey Boys was filmed at the same Warner Brothers soundstage in Hollywood where the film version of The Music Man was shot!
During a brief Q&A that followed the Pandas’ performance of a couple of numbers from their production (which they’ve been rehearsing since last fall and will stage in the spring under the patient direction of 3rd grade teacher Julie Mallas) one of his young protégés wanted to know, “How do you keep from getting shy?”
“Learn your lines cold,” Young told her is the best defense against stage fright. “And when you’re feeling nervous just remember that by speaking loudly you’re doing the audience a favor. You’re helping them understand the story. Pretend you’re trying to get the attention of a friend clear across the playground.”
“How did your career get started?” another wanted to know, naturally.
“When I was a kid in school, just like you guys,” Young said. Which jogged a memory of Mallas’s.
“My first play was in grade school too,” she recalled. “It was Jack and the Beanstalk. I played the golden goose and the back end of a cow.” It gets in your blood.
The DMPS cohort are five of only 64 schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia around the country designated by Turnaround Arts, a public/private partnership coordinated by the President’s Council on the Arts & the Humanities. It was a priority of former First Lady Michelle Obama who had the foresight to transfer the program under the auspices of the privately funded Kennedy Center before her husband left office to ensure that it continues.
As he left Oak Park Thursday afternoon Young said he can’t imagine not returning again.
“As far as I’m concerned I’ll be attached to these schools and these kids forever,” he said. “How could I not be?”