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Richard L. Eldredge

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Denis O’Hayer signs off from WABE: A look back at his 42-year news career

Denis O'Hayer retires
Denis O’Hayer will retire after the WABE’s Morning Edition broadcast on June 22.

Photograph by Mark Hill

Over a 42-year broadcast career—40 of which were spent in Atlanta—WABE-FM Morning Edition host Denis O’Hayer has interviewed presidents, governors, congressmen, mayors, and civil rights icons. With memorable stints at WGST-AM/FM, WXIA-TV 11 Alive and, for the past decade at WABE-FM, O’Hayer’s reporting and reassuring voice have been a daily fixture as we idle in Atlanta’s endless traffic.

But beginning next week, for the first time in four decades, Atlantans will have to navigate the news cycle without O’Hayer’s treasure trove of Atlanta institutional knowledge.

After June 22’s Morning Edition on WABE-FM, O’Hayer will click off his microphone as he retires from daily reporting.

Listeners will still be able to catch O’Hayer, along with Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson and Republican strategist Brian Robinson on WABE’s biweekly Political Breakfast segments airing every other Friday at 7:20 a.m., with extended editions available on iTunes via the Political Breakfast podcast.

Denis O'Hayer retires
Denis O’Hayer

Photograph by Billy Howard

For most of us, the 2015 Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame inductee is as ingrained into this city’s fabric as a Varsity Frosted Orange on a hot summer day and a jackknifed tractor trailer splayed in the middle of Spaghetti Junction at 5:01 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. However, O’Hayer’s original career path was decidedly very different (“I thought I wanted to be an actor,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I very quickly realized I was terrible.”).

In 1978, the Middlebury College graduate landed a job at Atlanta’s WGST-AM, just as it was switching to what would become its iconic all-news format.

O’Hayer stayed at WGST for 19 years, serving listeners in a variety of capacities, including facilitating and refereeing the station’s popular Counterpoint program with liberal columnist Tom Houck and conservative columnist Dick Williams (“I was the third person in the ring,” O’Hayer recalls. “Mostly, my job was to keep the conversation moving, shut up, and let good radio happen.”). He also hosted a weekend gardening show (“a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing”) and from 1991 to 1997, O’Hayer anchored WGST’s daily Sixty At Six news and interview program, where he first bonded with car-bound listeners idling on their way home from work.

O’Hayer then spent a decade on-air as a political and breaking news reporter for 11 Alive News before landing his current assignment at WABE-FM, Atlanta’s National Public Radio affiliate.

This month, during his final vacation break from his morning show duties, the veteran newsman sat down over coffee and scones at Alon’s in Virginia-Highland to reflect on four decades of reporting and the stories that had the deepest impact.

His 1985 spontaneous Ted Turner interview
I was coming out of Colony Square from an interview with actor John Houseman and I literally ran into Ted Turner, who was blowing through the door. I apologized and introduced myself, telling him I had been trying to get an interview with him. At the time, he was trying to buy CBS. I’ll never know what possessed him, but he said, “You got a few minutes right now?” And I’m thinking, “Are you kidding? Of course, I do.” He said, “Get in the car!” He was driving this little Toyota Tercel or something. I hopped in the car. I kept thinking, “What am I going to ask him?!” I hadn’t prepared anything. I was just hoping I had enough tape in my recorder. He was driving and I just started asking him any question I could think of. As luck would have it, he took the 14th Street bridge, where Turner Broadcasting was then located on the other side. The bridge was under construction. Traffic was completely stopped. But I kept firing questions at him. One of my questions got him so mad, he said, “Come here, I wanna tell you something!” So, in order to make his point, I follow him up to his office and he sat me down at his desk and lectured me, basically. Finally, his assistant Dee Woods came in and politely threw me out because Ted was running so drastically behind schedule, due to the traffic and the lecture he was giving me. His schedule was totally screwed at that point. But I ended up with a five-part series with Ted Turner on WGST. That taught me the importance of two things: the value of always being prepared for anything and sheer dumb luck.

His 1996 WGST interview with Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell
On July 27, 1996, security guard Richard Jewell discovered a backpack with three pipe bombs in Centennial Olympic Park during the Summer Games. He alerted police and helped evacuate the area before the bomb exploded. Initially hailed as a hero, the FBI later incorrectly named him as a suspect in the bombing. Jewell sued the AJC and other media outlets. Eventually serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph pleaded guilty in the case.

If I had to pick the story that’s stuck with me over the years, it would be Richard Jewell. After the legal confrontation began, Richard and his attorney came on Sixty At Six with me. I talked to him live in studio for 30 minutes, at least. And you really got a feeling for what this man had been through and how devastating it had been. It’s open to debate whether he was in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. Years later, I was covering the sentencing of Eric Robert Rudolph, and Richard Jewell was there. Neither of us could get inside the courtroom. It was packed, so we were led to another courtroom set up with a screen so we could watch. I ended up sitting on one of the benches directly ahead of Richard. I turned around and talked to him. He remembered me. I knew when he left the courtroom there would be a pack of reporters waiting for him. But I just asked him how he was doing. I decided to leave him alone. It had to be an overwhelming moment for him. Watching him watch the sentencing of Eric Robert Rudolph was something I’ll never forget. I never saw him again.

Accidentally being on the scene during the 2005 Fulton County Courthouse shooting
On March 11, 2005, rape suspect Brian Nichols was on trial at the courthouse when he escaped from custody, grabbed a gun, and murdered Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Sergeant Hoyt Teasley and later, ICE agent David Wilhelm.

This is the only story I ever took home with me. It was crossover day at the state capitol and I was outside downtown with 11 Alive cameraman Richard Crabbe. We were there for what we thought would be a very long day and night covering the legislature. We were coming up from the parking lot onto MLK, walking toward the capitol to our left. To our right, we heard five gunshots. We ran down the hill and when we got there, Hoyt Teasley was dying outside. We didn’t know the people inside had already been killed. All we knew was this poor man is dying in front of us. Richard had to shoot a 360-degree scene. You had the effort to save Teasley and behind us was the parking deck where Brian Nichols had run into. The officers were chasing him. And then there was the crowd control that was happening. It was total chaos. I spent the next 14 hours talking about it on air. I had to completely compartmentalize things. I can still see those people trying to save that poor man. I think about him and the others every March 11.

Denis O'Hayer retires
O’Hayer (left) during the BBC’s visit and joint broadcast with WABE in September 2013.

Photograph courtesy of WABE

Reporting live from the Kathryn Johnston Neal Street shooting in 2006
On November 21, 2006, Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old grandmother and a longtime Neal Street resident, was killed by 39 shots fired into her home by police using a no-knock warrant during a botched drug raid. Three Atlanta Police officers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison and APD’s drug unit underwent a complete overhaul.

In the pre-dawn hours, I was sent out to cover the shooting and as I got a look at the [knocked in] door, some kids from the neighborhood came up to us. It was the way they talked about her. The way they talked about her house. I knew there was something there. I knew I needed to listen to these kids. I called the newsroom and said, “Something isn’t adding up. There are missing pieces here.” Nobody else in the neighborhood would talk. They were petrified. Those kids were the key to that story. The lesson there for me was assume nothing, shut up, and just listen.

The 2010 WABE interview with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall
After a series of investigative reports were published in the AJC in 2009, a GBI investigation found 44 out of 56 APS schools cheated on the 2009 Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). At the time of O’Hayer’s interview, Hall was facing criminal charges, along with 35 APS educators. On April 1, 2015, 11 APS teachers were convicted on racketeering charges. A month earlier on March 2, 2015, before she could stand trial, Beverly Hall died of breast cancer at age 68.

The interview was in-studio and we were both from the northeast and at one point, she took the gloves off and it was on. The idea was not to attack her, of course, but on behalf of the listeners, there were some tough questions I had to ask. Basically, I had to say, “You’re claiming this, and I’m seeing this.” It got really intense. The sad thing is she passed away before we got to a conclusion on that story. It was the AJC’s work, of course, that brought us to that point. But she wasn’t talking to them. I don’t know this for certain, but it’s possible that either she or the people surrounding her thought that because WABE’s license is held by the board of education, she might find a friendlier audience with us. At one point, I had to say to her, “You’re the superintendent. Either you were in on it, you orchestrated it, or you didn’t know. Any way you look at it, this is bad.” There was no good answer there. I always felt the interview we aired would be the first chapter in what would be a series of her public responses. To my knowledge, it’s the only interview she ever did. Given what happened to those students and the lingering effects of that cheating scandal, it was one of the saddest stories I ever worked on.

Denis O'Hayer retires
O’Hayer (right) interviews David Perdue on his campaign bus during his run for U.S. Senate in July 2014.

Photograph courtesy of WABE

On being inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame in 2015
As you know, journalists love to give each other awards. I’ve been given award for saying, “Here’s so and so with a live report.” I don’t submit for awards these days. We’re all in this work together. But that one was different. I remember when I got the call, it felt like the floor had gone out from under me. I know the other names on that list—the Ted Turners, the Margaret Mitchells, and all of the giants at the AJC. Just the list of the folks who were inducted that year with me was astonishing. We’re talking about [Associated Press Georgia political reporter] Dick Pettys, [Civil rights pioneer and PBS and CNN reporter] Charlayne Hunter-Gault and [AJC managing editor and Pulitzer Prize winning author] Hank Klibanoff. When the person who called me told me who the other three were, I remember saying, “So, this is like that Sesame Street game, [one of these things is not like the others]?” If you were to describe my career in baseball terms, I’m the solid player batting sixth in the lineup who hits the line drive, and the singles and doubles, and has a reliably good batting average. Suddenly, I’m being mentioned in the same breath with the Babe Ruths of our industry. I belonged in the audience, not on the stage. I just remember feeling a profound sense of gratitude for all of the people who helped me and took a risk on me throughout my career. The people who opened a door for me and who taught me how to do this job right. I’m just a guy who’s had forty-plus years of tremendous luck, all while doing a job I’ve loved. I’m extremely grateful.

Legendary Atlanta hairstylist Carey Carter’s legacy is laughter

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
Carey Carter (left on bench) and the Carter-Barnes on Paces staff

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

As colleagues and customers reflected on Carey Carter’s life and legacy this week at his salon in Buckhead, one consistent sound served as a fitting tribute—laughter. For more than a half century, Carter lived for two things: to make the world a more beautiful and stylish place and to make others laugh.

The Atlanta hairstylist and co-founder of the iconic 32-year-old Carter-Barnes on Paces salon passed away on January 18 from complications following a stroke. He died at age “none of your damned beeswax!” as he once told me during an early interview 25 years ago.

As one of the city’s most dedicated and successful fundraisers, Carter helped raise millions of dollars for both AIDS and breast cancer research, the arts, and children’s charities. Beneficiaries included Susan G. Komen, Project Open Hand, UNICEF, DIFFA, and the Lyric Theatre. For many years, he also co-chaired Jeffrey Kalinsky’s annual Fashion Cares gala.

Carter was especially committed to raising funds for the Murphy Harpst Children’s Center in Cedartown, Georgia, where a library now bears his name. In 2009, he received the 11 Alive Community Service Award for his work on behalf of the center, which provides residential and foster care for abused and neglected children. As a young child, Carter had been left at a Florida orphanage by a mother who was ill-equipped to care for him; so he knew first-hand how it felt to be jostled from one foster home to another. At the 11 Alive awards ceremony, a tearful Carter pleaded with an equally tearful room to hug their kids a little tighter. “We cannot neglect our children,” he said. “They are the future.”

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
A photo of Carter as a boy hangs in Carter-Barnes co-owner Perri Higbie’s office.

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

Carter arrived in Atlanta in 1962, intent on reinventing himself. “When he left school, he became a hairdresser because he knew that was a way to make money,” says Carter-Barnes co-owner Perri Higbie, Carter’s business partner and longtime friend. “I knew Carey for decades before I ever heard him discuss his childhood.” Higbie has a boyhood photo of Carter hanging in her office. She spotted it one night years ago at his house and asked to make a copy.

Carter quickly got a job doing hair for Rich’s department store and met Mitchell Barnes, a fellow transplanted southerner seeking an art career in the big city. A 45-year friendship and business bond were born. The two worked for Rich’s for more than 15 years, serving as hair and fashion artists and touring the world as stylists for global beauty brand L’Oreal.

“Like every other young stylist Carey helped along the way, I’m a part of his legacy,” says Barnes. “I had the talent but I didn’t know where the hell to put it. Carey showed me. He also told me if I became the ‘artiste’ I said I wanted to be, I’d starve to death. Creatively he drove me to areas I didn’t think I was capable of.”

“He was also the first to say, ‘You’re better at that than me,’” Barnes continued. “There was never any jealousy between us and, in this business, that’s extremely rare. My strength was his weakness, and his strength was my weakness. And we used those talents and abilities and our friendship to build a business together.”

In 1986, when Rich’s was sold and the pair saw the quality of customer service diminishing, they and Higbie (a top Australian colorist who moved to the U.S. in 1984 for a job with L’Oreal) took the plunge and opened their own salon, Carter-Barnes Hair Artisans, at Phipps Plaza in May 1987.

Reflecting from the salon, Barnes recently recalled: “I’ve got ladies sitting here but I’ll say this anyway—we were scared shitless! On the day we opened, we had exactly enough money for one month of payroll. Carey always told me, ‘I’ll go talk us in and you comb us out! I can’t even remember how many times I’ve yelled, ‘Carey Carter, what have you gotten us into this time?!’ But here we are. It all worked.”

As the pair built their business (Carter-Barnes on Paces opened in 1996; the two salons consolidated in that location in 2013), Barnes worked behind the scenes and Carter became the public voice and official wisecracker, providing witticisms to the AJC each Oscar night as Cher debuted fashion faux pas after fashion faux pas on the red carpet.

For me, as a young journalist taking over the AJC’s Peach Buzz column in the early 90s, Carey Carter was reportorial spun gold—he was a raconteur and the king of withering one-liners. He was also a perfectionist, who would leave you laughing after delivering the perfect quote, then call back a minute later, saying, “Don’t use that. Here’s a better one!”

In 2006, I was assigned to cover Carter and his friends as he attended Sir Elton John’s annual Oscar party in Beverly Hills. Stepping out of a black stretch limousine on Rodeo Drive, Carter and his pals were briefly swarmed by the paparazzi, who mistook them for cast members shooting a reality TV show nearby. Sniffed Carter: “Imagine Paris Hilton being more interesting to them than me buying a candle!”

An avid reader, Carter was thrilled when author James Patterson used Carter-Barnes as a plot point in his 2003 potboiler The Big Bad Wolf. The novel focused on a Buckhead socialite who was abducted in the Phipps Plaza parking garage by a Russian sex slave operation while on her way to a Carter-Barnes hair appointment. Carter once recalled: “A while back we had a real client who was mugged outside of Lord & Taylor [at Phipps]. But she told the cops she’d have to file a report later because she didn’t want to miss her hair appointment. When I saw the lady in the Patterson book didn’t show up, I knew I was reading fiction. Russian mob or not, if this woman were real she would have no doubt fought off her attackers and been in our chair on time!”

Carter-Barnes got its biggest national spotlight in 2007, when a pair of platinum-haired young women robbed a Bank of America branch and immediately drove to Carter-Barnes for expensive makeovers. The “Barbie Bandits,” as they were dubbed, were arrested soon after a post-heist celebration dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. The Carter-Barnes surveillance cameras helped nab the duo. “We’ve been on every news show except Nancy Grace!” Carter exclaimed at the time. “Which is odd since Nancy is from Atlanta. But I think you can see she is not a Carter-Barnes customer.”

“I called him the quiet achiever,” Higbie says. “So often, he was the guy behind the scenes making sure the hair and make up were just right or giving that first job to an up-and-coming stylist. He believed in the underdog because he was one. It’s where he came from. We used to joke that he was a therapist who did hair on the side.”

Since Carter abhorred funerals, friends are planning a March celebration of his life, featuring a fashion show with many of the models who once strutted down the catwalk at the philanthropist’s fashion benefits. This time, they’ll walk the runway in his honor. A date and final details are being determined, but festive spring attire will be the requested dress, sans yellow (Carter hated the color since it was routinely used to paint the walls of orphanages and foster care facilities).

This week, as floral arrangements were delivered to his now-vacant station at Carter-Barnes, Carter’s wooden hair clip box sat unused for the first time in nearly half a century. Carter and Barnes had gotten matching clip boxes before their first European tour for L’Oreal.

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died
Carter’s clip box

Photograph courtesy of Carter-Barnes on Paces

“It was his most prized possession,” says Higbie. “The box traveled the world with him, went to every hair show, and sat on his station every day of his working life. Seeing it sit unused now really brings this home for those of us who worked next to him. We still expect to see him pop in at any moment.”

On the Friday before his death, Carter-Barnes staffer Jacklyn Ghali happened to snap a photo of Carter leaving the salon. In the black-and-white image, with his feet pointed toward the door, Carter’s head is briefly turned toward the photographer, ready to deliver one of his acerbic exit lines.

Carey Carter Carter-Barnes Salon died

When legendary Buckhead stylist Stan Milton died in 2008, Carter, who was professionally obligated to view Milton as a competitor, paid tribute to his industry colleague: “Just the name says ‘quality’ to our entire city,” Carter reflected. “Back in an era when hairdressers were typically perceived as just that, he elevated us as artists. His death is a huge loss to Atlanta.”

Those same words apply to Carey Carter, a man who sought each day to leave the world a more beautiful, stylish, loving, and caring place than the one he inherited.

No architect ever loved Atlanta like John Portman

Architect John Portman dies age 93
John Portman outside the Polaris

© 2014 PWP Studios, courtesy The Portman Archives, LLC.

In February 2014, I was working on a story for Atlanta magazine about the grand reopening of the Polaris restaurant, John C. Portman, Jr.’s iconic revolving blue spaceship atop the Hyatt Regency. He was reluctant to sit for an interview on the subject. Finally, after informing his assistants I’d rather spike the piece than write around the building’s architect, Portman agreed to talk.

Sitting in his spare, modernist office overlooking John Portman Boulevard on the fifth floor of the SunTrust building downtown, the architect, then 90, explained, “Usually, after I finish something, I’m done thinking about it. It’ll be like you when you finish this article. You’re on to the next thing, and that’s how it is with building as well. I don’t really dwell on it that much.”

“Architecture is an imposition art,” he continued. “You put it out there and people have to decide whether to like it or not. They don’t have a say so. Architecture gets razed, too. Once you launch it, it has to defend itself. If you’re lucky and you build the Parthenon, your work remains. It’s still there. All I ever wanted to do in Atlanta was create something that would elevate the city and take it to another level.”

Whether he would have liked it or not, Portman, who died December 29 at age 93, and his storied architectural legacy will likely be discussed in much detail Friday during his public memorial service at 12:30 p.m. at the AmericasMart Building 3 atrium downtown. The structure, erected as the Merchandise Mart in 1961, was Portman’s first great success as a young Georgia Tech graduate.

He would go on to develop the multi-block Peachtree Center for the nation’s conventioneers, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Marriott Marquis, and the SunTrust Plaza where his Portman Holdings offices employs a staff dedicated to bringing his structures to skylines across the globe, including Shanghai, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Warsaw, Poland; Mumbai, India; San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Detroit.

Architect John Portman dies age 93
Portman outside SunTrust Plaza

© 2004 Tom Hamilton, courtesy of The Portman Archives, LLC.

But Portman’s career didn’t really reach the launch pad until he put the Polaris and the Hyatt Regency into orbit atop the Atlanta skyline in 1967. The first atrium hotel of its kind was a real roll of the dice. “Were we trying to build a landmark?” asks Mickey Steinberg, the structural engineer on the project in reply to my naïve question. “Are you kidding? No! We had no idea. At the time, we couldn’t sell it. We couldn’t give the thing away!”

Six or seven stories into construction, Portman and company invited hotel magnate Conrad Hilton to lunch atop the Merchandise Mart, certain he would snap up the innovative structure next door.

“We selected the Top of the Mart restaurant because we wanted Hilton to look over and see the construction,” Portman recalled. “He had spent the morning walking around. At some point during the luncheon, he turned to us and said, ‘That concrete monster will never fly.’ I was afraid some of the investors were going to jump off the roof.”

The project was off-loaded to the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt motel airport chain. The structure became a game changer for the brand. “It was an exciting time in Atlanta,” recalled Portman. “It was the launch of a new downtown. We did the Mart in 1961, and all these people were suddenly coming to town and needed a place nearby to stay. We hadn’t built a new downtown hotel in 40 years. But I didn’t want to build just another set of bedrooms.”

The Hyatt Regency’s 22-story atrium also enticed Portman to reimagine the lifts taking guests to their rooms.

“Now that we had this atrium space, I didn’t want the elevators to be in a solid shaft,” Portman recalled. “I wanted to pull the elevator out. I wanted the elevator to be a kinetic sculpture in the space so people could watch this thing go up and down. Not only to see it change positions but to be able to enjoy it from the inside. It was about people enjoying it spatially. I didn’t want people looking at their shoes. The foundation of the entire project was trying to understand how people experience space and how space can have an effect on people. It’s like creating a symphony. You use space as the notes, and then you take people through it. The space becomes not just a box for people, but an event. Any building is just a thing until people get there and use it. Whenever I create anything, I take a holistic approach, everything from the paintings, to the sculpture, to the furniture. You’re creating an environment for people. You can’t get away from the human interface. In the final analysis, it’s about life. It is life.”

Conceding Portman’s success, in 1971, Conrad Hilton erected the Atlanta Hilton across the street, complete with a rooftop restaurant and exterior glass elevators. I baited my reportorial hook to see if Portman would nibble and asked him if he felt vindicated when Hilton constructed his own atrium hotel concept literally across the street, five years after scoffing at his “concrete monster.”

A slight smile crossed Portman’s lips for a second and he told me in his lilting, mannered South Carolina accent, “I was told back in those days shortly after the Hyatt opened here that there was a meeting in New Orleans and Conrad Hilton was quoted as saying, ‘In order to understand the hotel of the future, you’ve got to understand this thing in Atlanta.’ It showed me at least, he was an open-minded thinker.”

Architect John Portman dies age 93
Portman gives a thumbs up as he stands alongside Andrew Young at the opening of 230 Peachtree Street in 2016.

Photograph by Ben Rose

Forced to sell off part of Peachtree Center by the early 1990s due to mounting debt, Portman was able to re-acquire his beloved structure at 230 Peachtree Street in 2015 and immediately began planning his legacy project. In 2016, at the grand reopening of 230 Peachtree Street, now the home of the downtown Hotel Indigo, standing beside friend and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at the ribbon cutting, Portman got misty for a moment.

“Yes, I’m in love with this city,” he told the assembled crowd, as tears welled in his eyes. “As I get older, I find I get more and more emotional.” As Atlantans strolled the mixed-use space for the first time, you felt as if you were walking through a John Portman museum. Portman’s signature touches were evident everywhere: from the namesake JP Atlanta restaurant and the modern silver sculpture named Belle perched out front to the water features, the circles, the sexy curves, the wood and glass elements, the contemporary art, and the show-stopping centerpiece—a sculptural glass staircase in the hotel lobby.

Architect John Portman dies age 93
Portman speaks at the 230 Peachtree Street opening.

Photograph by Ben Rose

As I gazed down on the floating stairs, Mickey Steinberg sidled up next to me. “How do you like it?” he asked, grinning. “I was with him 50 years ago when he built this place the first time! This is really a statement about what Atlanta is going to do with buildings in the future. We used to tear them down. This is more reflective of today. We turned this into something new. But this is much more sophisticated than [the place] John Portman built in 1965. This represents all the wisdom he’s acquired over 50 years. You feel like you’re walking through an art gallery.”

Steinberg says Portman’s unexpected public display of emotion that morning took him by surprise. “I haven’t seen him like that before. This city has a place in his heart. It always comes back home to this. This is where he learned his trade [at Georgia Tech] and where he first started practicing it. He’s had a huge impact all over the world. But this is his home, his heart. For Mr. Portman, this was personal.”

Back in his office on that winter day in 2014, I asked Portman if he planned to look in on the new Johnson Studio redesign of his Polaris space. He shrugged and said, “Probably, I will. But I’m not much of an over-the-shoulder guy. I’m more interested in what’s next.”

But Portman conceded he was pleased that in 2011 his hometown had renamed the stretch of Harris Street outside his office in his honor. Allowing himself a moment to gaze out the window at all he had built, he said, “From the [Centennial Olympic] Park to the Mart to here, we practically own the street! I got to make this statement.” A moment later, he softly added, “This street out here runs through my life.”

Architect John Portman dies age 93
Atlanta’s downtown skyline

©2009 Kinka Wong, courtesy of The Portman Archives, LLC.

As the world stops Friday to honor the life and legacy of John Portman, Atlantans can remember the architect and developer with ease. All we have to do is look up.

Goodbye to the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead and the celebrity gossip I used to uncover there

Ritz-Carlton Buckhead
A T.J. Martell Foundation event at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 2009. The hotel became the Whitley in December after operating as the Ritz-Carlton since 1983.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

It was ground zero for gossip, celebrity sightings, and the city’s social scene. And when you were responsible for banging out 30 inches of Atlanta’s bold-faced names for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s popular “Peach Buzz” column, located on the upper left column on Page Two of the Living Section six times a week, you scoured for scoop 24/7.

For the better part of 20 years, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Buckhead on Peachtree Road was my second office. Just as the denizens of New York City’s Stork Club once smoked and swilled juicy tidbits to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell at his appointed table nightly, I could poke my head inside the right Ritz ballroom and an hour later, emerge with a week’s worth of dish.

On December 1, the Buckhead Ritz’s iconic lion roared for the final time as parent company, the Marriott International renovates the property, readying the Whitley, a more millennial friendly rebrand.

The 22-floor, 510-bed exercise in social finery first opened in Buckhead in 1983. In Ronald Reagan’s America, no brass ring felt out of reach, even if you were taking out a second mortgage to keep your Rolls on the road. More was more and luxury was lucrative as everyone in the country valiantly attempted to emulate the Ewings from Dallas and the Carringtons from Dynasty.

The Ritz Buckhead was once the hot spot for galas and balls. From left: The 1984 Crescendo Ball publicity chair Maizie Hale, Ball chair Carol Knapp, and Tiffany & Co. Atlanta vice president John Tipton.

Photograph courtesy of Maizie Hale

By the time I hit the city in 1990, the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead was firmly established as the preferred sleeping sanctuary for the rich and famous. The hotel’s regal corridors and ornate dark paneled walls, massive fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and marble floors commanded respect. The opulent furniture ordered you to sit up straight. Staff addressed all guests as “ladies and gentlemen.” The valets wore bow ties and top hats. One veteran valet could recall your name and the make and model of your car, even as you idled, waiting to make that left turn from Lenox Road. (If you slipped him a $20, your vehicle was handily stored an elbow’s length away, too.)

I got to know my way around the hotel so well that during the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympics, I wrangled my way into a private Coca-Cola reception and minutes later pulled out the newfangled cell phone I’d been issued for the games and relayed the complete party menu and the closely guarded super-secret identity of the opening ceremony performer (Celine Dion) to my editor downtown.

Understandably, movie stars preferred the pampering of the Ritz, so the hotel’s upstairs luxury spaces were natural locales for countless press interactions. John Travolta told me about the rigors of making The General’s Daughter there. Djimon Hounsou discussed Guardians of the Galaxy and the loss of his Furious 7 co-star Paul Walker. I had a spirited conversation about race and roles for women in Hollywood with The Help actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Seth Rogan chatted about how to make cancer funny. In his suite, director Garry Marshall praised the acting abilities of Lindsay Lohan one afternoon as his wife burst through the door, weighed down with Phipps Plaza purchases. Without missing a beat, Marshall leaned in and riffed, “Looks like shooting starts Monday on Pretty Woman 2!”

Downstairs in the bar, I had scholarly conversations with authors Christopher Rice and A. Scott Berg and learned the limitations of 1960s sitcom syndication salaries when “Brady Bunch” mom-turned-DampRid spokesperson Florence Henderson extolled to me the virtues of the moisture absorption product.

During a Sunday brunch, Food Network phenomenon Paula Deen momentarily excused herself from our table in order to coax a barren lamb leg bone from a carving station server, only to bring it back to the table and gnaw on it mid-interview. When he was launching his California vineyard, The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola threw a lavish five-course media dinner paired with his wines in the Ritz’s famed Dining Room. The man himself, however, was absent. Each member of the media was summoned separately upstairs to his suite for a 10-minute one-on-one with him. And much to the annoyance of her publicist, a breakfast interview once threatened to turn into a lunch conversation as actress Pam Grier traced the real-life inspirations for her gutsy feminist 1970s Blaxploitation characters.

Inside the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

Photograph courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

Under the tutelage of executive chef Guenter Seegar, The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead Dining Room became an international sensation, hiring Shaun Doty and other future Atlanta star chefs. Over the years, the city’s socialites raised millions of dollars inside the Buckhead Ritz’s chandelier-dripping ballrooms for countless charitable causes. The hotel’s New Year’s Eve ball was a particular endurance test as dinner and dancing eventually made way for a post-midnight breakfast buffet. And when live auction bidding occasionally stalled, as it did one night during a Meals on Wheels benefit, the city’s civic minded steel magnolias instinctively knew how to get the money spigots flowing again. As one incomparable ball co-chair once exclaimed into a microphone, “Y’all, our seniors are gonna be eatin’ cat food!” Such quotes became the lifeblood of “Peach Buzz.”

But when the St. Regis Hotel opened its fashionably adorned five-star doors down the street in 2009, it siphoned many of the Ritz’s charitable balls and other events to its freshly painted luxurious digs. That same year, the Dining Room closed and made way for a less rigid dining concept as modern hotel guests rejected the Buckhead Ritz’s staid formalities.

My escort for many memorable evenings at the Ritz was the AJC’s longtime fashion editor Marylin Johnson, who tried her best over the years to teach me which fork to use with what course and to fix my forever-wayward cummerbund. While I was still in journalism school, she was busy interviewing designers Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein at the Ritz and nibbling on the tiny egg salad and watercress sandwiches at the hotel’s fabled silver platter accented afternoon teas.

I rang Johnson up this week to discuss the passing of our old friend. “In Atlanta, you always have to look forward,” she advised. “The Ritz held its own for a long, long time. It was iconic.”

After a brief stroll down memory lane together, Marylin added wistfully, “It was just a magical place. That’s what the Ritz was all about. How lucky were we? It was a fabulous time!”

And just for a moment, we were strolling into one last cocktail reception together as a formally attired server gallantly offered us a final bubbling flute of champagne, complete with a white three-ply blue lion and crown accented Ritz cocktail napkin.

Richard L. Eldredge has been an Atlanta magazine contributing editor since 2010 and is the editor of Eldredge ATL. He began contributing to the AJC’s “Peach Buzz” in 1993 and was its head writer from 1996-2009. 

Jane Fonda’s 80th birthday bash raises $1.3 million for teen pregnancy prevention

Jane Fonda 80th Birthday Atlanta
Jane Fonda grins with a piece of Highland Bakery red velvet cake during her “Eight Decades of Jane” 80th birthday party and fundraiser on December 9.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GCAPP

Back in her adoptive hometown Saturday night and standing in front of a packed ballroom at a benefit for the nonprofit she founded, Jane Fonda inimitably distilled one of the benefits of turning 80: “People don’t want to grope you!” Coming from a two time Oscar-winning feminist trailblazer, the timely punch line brought down the house in front of friends, family, and fans attending the icon’s $10,000 per-couple 80th birthday party raising money for Fonda’s Georgia Campaign For Adolescent Power and Potential (G-CAPP) at the Whitley hotel in Buckhead.

While she doesn’t technically become an octogenarian until December 21, Fonda (who recently settled into a house tucked inside a gated community in Hollywood—“It was my son Troy’s idea,” she says, “At first, I didn’t want to live with a bunch of old farts. Then I realized, I was an old fart.”) said returning to Atlanta to celebrate the milestone was important. “It’s really about the people in this room and the long-term support they’ve given G-CAPP,” Fonda told Atlanta magazine. “I just hope they stick with us because things are very challenging right now. Funds are being cut for teen pregnancy. We had a big uptake of success during the Obama administration. Teen pregnancy rates in Georgia have dropped 66 percent in the 22 years we’ve been doing this work, but things are going to get hard now. The private sector is really going to need to step in to make up the difference.”

Thanks to the generosity of G-CAPP supporters, Fonda is off to a rousing start. The evening raised $1.3 million.

Jane Fonda 80th Birthday Atlanta
Jane Fonda and Ted Turner at her “Eight Decades of Jane” birthday fundraiser on December 9

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GCAPP

Guests, including CNN founder (and Fonda’s ex-husband) Ted Turner, Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, actresses Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener, former CNN president Tom Johnson and his wife Edwina, and Fonda’s children Vanessa Vadim, Troy Garity, and granddaughter Viva Vadim enjoyed an eight-course dinner (one for each of Fonda’s decades) created by legendary Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters. A towering, ornate red velvet birthday cake, created by Highland Bakery cake artist and Food Network favorite Karen Portaleo was the final course.

Also spotted in the crowd was Fonda friend and former Watershed chef Scott Peacock, who drove in from Alabama for the occasion. “Jane and I share a birthday,” Peacock said. “I wasn’t about to miss this. This ranks right up there with the Christmas I spent with her and her family here in Atlanta and Jane cooked collard greens for all of us. She used my recipe and they were amazing. The woman can do anything.”

Jane Fonda 80th Birthday Atlanta
James Taylor and Carole King perform during the birthday bash

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GCAPP

Friends Carole King and James Taylor emerged to sing “Happy Birthday to You” and perform songs from their iconic catalogs, including “So Far Away,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Up on the Roof” (a song written by King and husband Gerry Goffin), and “You’ve Got a Friend” (a song King wrote but graciously allowed Taylor to record first, resulting in one of his biggest hits of the 1970s). Seated next to her “favorite ex-husband” Turner (who chipped in $40,000 for one of the live auction items, an opportunity to have dinner with the actress at her new Hollywood digs), Fonda and her family sang along with the Grammy-winning duo.

Jane Fonda 80th Birthday Atlanta
Oprah’s taped video message (which included a $100,000 G-CAPP donation)

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

9 to 5 co-star Dolly Parton sent along a video birthday greeting (she stayed home to care for her ailing husband Carl Dean) and inspired a sing-a-long in the Atlanta ballroom as she belted out a chorus of the film’s theme song. Oprah Winfrey also paid tribute via video and announced she was sending along a birthday gift to Fonda for G-CAPP: a check for $100,000.

Three set visits for the upcoming fifth season of Grace & Frankie, Fonda’s hit comedy Netflix series with Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, and Sam Waterston fetched $84,000 and two Sundance Film Festival VIP experiences donated by Fonda’s three-time film co-star Robert Redford netted $64,000.

The evening also spotlighted some potential future stars like singer-songwriter and Savannah State University business major Nicholas Cousar, who spoke about his experiences as a G-CAPP PEER UP peer educator.

Jane Fonda 80th Birthday Atlanta
G-CAPP peer educator Nick Cousar gives a speech

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GCAPP

“Young men are often left out of teen pregnancy conversations and they need to be informed,” Cousar told the crowd. Inspired by his peer counseling work in the community, he wrote a song addressing the topic of teen pregnancy titled Risky Business. Recalling his experience performing it for Fonda, Cousar said, “She loved it. I remember thinking if this iconic Hollywood mega star, if she, with everything else she has going on, is devoted to making young peoples’ lives better, then I have to do my part as well. As a college student and peer educator, this program has taught me how to be an effective leader and how to take responsibility for my actions. G-CAPP taught me to never give up on my dreams and that I have the potential to be whatever I want to be. Ms. Fonda, because of you and G-CAPP, I am a better man.”

While the star-studded birthday celebration was filled with lighter moments, Fonda and G-CAPP President and CEO Kim Nolte are acutely aware of the challenges their work faces in a Donald Trump presidential administration and a GOP-led Congress.

“The donors here tonight are supporting Jane’s vision and this work,” Nolte told Atlanta. “We all need to step up. We can’t rely on federal funding. This has to come from individuals who realize this work is incredibly important for our young people and our future. If our economy is going to continue to kick forward, you can’t have a generation having babies as teenagers. They aren’t able to go on and contribute to the economy. But if we can get young people to delay parenthood until they’re in their 20s or 30s, we all benefit. I’ve worked in public health for 30 years and administrations come and go, but this particular administration is taking stronger hits to our institutions. It’s really incumbent upon all of us to talk to our political representatives, get involved, and support the work in the communities we believe in.”

In her birthday remarks, Rosanna Arquette praised Fonda as one of Hollywood’s original silence breakers and a #MeToo movement icon. Indeed, Fonda chronicled her battles with a male-dominated Hollywood in her 2005 autobiography, My Life So Far. But in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Fonda says she sees an opportunity for lasting change in Hollywood.

“I absolutely do,” Fonda told Atlanta. “It’s a historic time. We’re all aware of it, and I’m working with dozens of my fellow actors to help initiate that change. I’m astounded by this new generation of women. They’re fierce and so brave and smart across the board. But we also need to address intersectionality. We have to be aware that what resulted with Weinstein happened because the women were white and famous. We now have to stand up for our sisters of color and our LGBTQ sisters. We’re in this together. And we need to advance the cause to women workers in other sectors. Women farm workers, 7,000 of them wrote a letter to Hollywood women saying, ‘We stand with you, and it’s us too. We understand what you’re going through.’ It’s about building solidarity.”

Remembering Mychael Knight: “Atlanta is the city that has always nurtured me”

Mychael Knight death
Mychael Knight in 2016

Photograph by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Art Hearts Fashion

When word spread Tuesday afternoon across social media of Atlanta fashion designer Mychael Knight’s death at age 39, the city mourned the loss of a cherished creative soul. Former Dave-FM midday host and fashion aficionado Mara Davis booked Knight many times on her radio show to chat about clothes.

“I loved him so, so much,” Davis recalled. “He was on my show regularly to talk awards-show fashion. Mychael was always humble, kind, and passionate. A true talent and wonderful soul.”

The genial designer was also a favorite on B98.5 FM’s morning show with Steve McCoy and Vikki Locke. “When I think about Mychael I have to smile,” remembers Locke. “And laugh. It was a time when I actually watched reality TV. He was a regular on our show, and he had no problem giving me his cell!”

Locke recalled a favorite memory: “I remember going to a charity event at Big Poppa’s house (the ex-boyfriend of Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kim Zolciak-Biermann). Mychael had designed a dress for Jennifer Hudson, I believe, and it was part of the silent auction. The two of us went snooping around the house and when we got caught, both of us just laughed. And that led to a tour from Big Poppa himself! Mychael loved fashion. He loved to laugh. And he loved life. He will be missed.”

In February, the now-Los Angeles resident returned to his adoptive city of Atlanta (Knight was born in Germany and grew up in Alabama and New York before moving to Georgia to attend Georgia Southern University) for a quick business trip and to host a pop-up shop of his latest line at Jackson Charles Home. Back in L.A. the following week, Knight chatted with Atlanta contributor Richard L. Eldredge for our reality TV-themed May issue. He discussed his private five-year battle with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), a condition that had prompted weight loss and left his autoimmune system compromised. In what would turn out be one of his final interviews, Knight remained funny, kind, and forever grateful to the city that launched his fashion career.

It has been a minute, my friend. How is it possible that it’s been 12 years since you were first on Project Runway? So fill us in on everything!
Right?! It has been a minute! I just realized I’ve been here in Los Angeles for two years now. Things are going really well here. Atlanta is and was the city that has always nurtured me, raised me, inspired me, and all those amazing things that helped make my brand. Atlanta is a wonderful city. I had a lot of friends and made a lot of money there. But when it comes to fashion resources, I had hit a brick wall. There was only so far I could go creatively. To be honest, the last two years I was [in Atlanta], I was at a standstill. I needed to grow my business. Things that had always worked for me weren’t working anymore. It was just something in my spirit. To me, Los Angeles is the equivalent to Atlanta in many ways. The women here inspire me by how they dress. L.A. was my next stop, and as soon as I made that decision, everything else just fell into place. I needed to be inspired in a new way, and Los Angeles has done that for me.

How would you describe your new line, Myka@Mychael Knight?
It’s young and easy. It’s what you might find at H&M but the quality is better. Fashion moves so quickly right now. This gives me an opportunity to create a collection every three months. The pieces run between $70 and $170. It’s very reasonable and definitely not my high-end line. But it keeps my creativity moving, and that’s what sparked it for me. With the high-end line, every six months you’re producing a collection. But I end up modifying things so much because I’m re-inspired by something. Myka@Mychael Knight gives me the freedom to design on a whim and move and shake the way I want. It’s a way for me to get dozens and dozens of ideas out there.

Mychael Knight Project Runway
Knight at the final runway show of Project Runway Season Three in 2006.

Photograph by Mark Mainz/Getty Images For IMG

You did three stints on Project Runway. Project Runway Season Three in 2006, where you won the Fan Favorite award; Project Runway: All Star Challenge in 2009; and Project Runway: All Stars Season Three in 2013. What was it about that original experience that proved transformational for you?
What I cherished most was the pure unadulterated raw creativity. I was lucky enough to be on reality TV before its many metamorphoses. It was just about talent. What you saw on your TV is what really happened. It wasn’t about advertisers, it wasn’t about creating something that wasn’t there. It was just about the talent being the talent and making a good show. It wasn’t about all the extras that came about later. They allowed us to just create, and it was so much fun.

I remember covering season three for the AJC, and your fans here in Atlanta just fell in love with you and what you were doing each week creatively. Did that love translate to you when you were in the middle of it?
Absolutely. I felt like Atlanta was cheering me on. Because of that, I was able to connect with people. It allowed me to be a designer. Over the years, reality TV has lost that connection. While reality TV has been around since MTV’s The Real World in the 1990s, it was still kind of fresh and new [in 2006]. There was a connection. There was closeness between each of the designers and the people cheering them on. Now it’s just this corporate thing. It feels very robotic now. I haven’t watched Project Runway in years. I’m blessed to have been on when I was and to accomplish everything I set out to do.

Thanks for doing this.
I’m very appreciative. It’s Atlanta magazine. It’s Atlanta. It means a lot that people there care about me and my work.

Turner Classic Movies celebrates the unseen women behind your favorite films

TCM Trailblazing Women
Host Illeana Douglas and Star Wars: The Force Awakens editor Maryann Brandon on the set of TCM’s “Trailblazing Women.”

Photograph courtesy of Turner Classic Movies

It’s late morning on the set of Turner Classic Movies’ annual “Trailblazing Women” film festival and host Illeana Douglas and Star Wars: The Force Awakens editor Maryann Brandon are deep in a discussion about the blood-spattered violent climax of the game-changing 1967 Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway classic Bonnie and Clyde. Edited by Dede Allen, the explicit scene captured the late 1960s counter-culture zeitgeist while ushering in a new era for graphic violence.

“She just milks that tension,” explains Brandon, who got to know Allen early in her career. “Here’s this happy couple. He’s got these cool sunglasses on and they’re riding off into the sunset. Then she slowly unravels it. The trees rustle. She slows everything down. As an editor, you want the audience going, ‘No, no, no!’ It’s the same reason 50 years later, we slowed down time with Rey’s light saber fight scene in Force Awakens. We wanted to slow it down so the audience can enjoy it.”

Welcome to the fascinating third annual “Trailblazing Women,” a month-long examination of female filmmakers, airing each Monday in October on TCM beginning at 8 p.m. This year Douglas, a producer, writer, actress, director, and granddaughter of Hollywood legend Melvyn Douglas, and her industry co-hosts, including Brandon, Mrs. Doubtfire screenwriter Leslie Dixon, Hustle and Flow producer Stephanie Allain, and legendary One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest editor Lynzee Klingman, are focusing on women who worked behind the scenes on some of Hollywood’s most iconic films, including 1925’s Ben Hur, 1939’s The Women, and 1937’s A Star is Born.

For film fans, “Trailblazing Women” allows viewers to take a fresh look at some of their favorite films through the perspectives of the women who worked as screenwriters, producers, and editors like Dede Allen, who, with their skills and foresight, helped elevate American film to an art form.

“Dede looked at the heart of a scene,” explains Brandon. “She never held back. That voice was going to come out regardless. That’s why I tell young actors, love your editor!”

TCM Trailblazing Women
Editor Maryann Brandon

Photograph courtesy of Turner Classic Movies

Between segments in Turner Broadcasting’s green room in Midtown, Douglas says she’s thrilled to be back for the program’s third year because it gives TCM an opportunity to educate viewers about women like Dede Allen and their immense contributions to the industry.

“The hardest part each year is deciding who to focus on because there are so many great examples of women working behind the scenes,” says Douglas. “This year we opted to focus on female producers, writers, and editors, because they are literally never seen and nobody ever talks about them. But they’ve guided so many of our most iconic films.”

“What I personally love about doing this,” Douglas says, “is that even if you select a film like Singin’ in the Rain, a movie I’ve seen probably 100 times, you get to focus on the genius of the two screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They were literally handed a title and 20 songs and told, ‘Come up with an original story that makes sense, serves all the dancers and manages to have witty dialogue.’ By shifting the focus to the work of Comden and Green, it gives us all a chance to think about the film from an entirely new perspective.”

And editors like Maryann Brandon are taking the life lessons from mentors like Dede Allen and applying them to our modern classics as well. Just as Allen seductively built the tension leading into Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody finale, Brandon used the same technique leading up to the first onscreen reunion of Han Solo and General Leia after nearly 35 years in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Says Brandon, who co-edited the film alongside Mary Jo Markey: “It took us a while for us to realize the power of that reunion. But [Director] J.J. Abrams absolutely knew what the audience expectation was going to be. We knew we had to have those scenes of Leia before she sees Han again. Through the power of editing, we held off bringing them together. And then, when she does finally walk off that ship and sees him, it has real impact. I remember us realizing, ‘Wow, this is going to be powerful.’”

TCM Trailblazing Women
Douglas and Stephanie Allain, producer of Dear White People and Hustle and Flow

Photograph courtesy of Turner Classic Movies

TCM’s “Trailblazing Women” also sheds fresh light on the contributions women had on the dawn of Hollywood—there were more women working as producers, screenwriters, editors, and directors in 1917 than there are working in those same roles in 2017.

Between segments, Dear White People producer Stephanie Allain explains, “Women were the first film editors in Hollywood because it was a job the men didn’t want to do. It was, ‘Go work in the dark and come back with something we can use.’ They weren’t even called film editors. They were called cutters. It’s a tough business. I tell young people, ‘If you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a black woman, prepare to do more.’ It’s about attention to the work ethic. That helps eliminate some of the bias. They see you’ve done the homework.”

“For women who work in Hollywood together, there’s a sisterhood,” Allain says. “We’re already up against the system, the old boys’ network. At this point in my career, I’m calling other women to help me produce. It’s our job to mentor and give the next generation fresh opportunities so we can all move forward.”

TCM Trailblazing Women
Producer Stephanie Allain

Photograph courtesy of Turner Classic Movies

For Limitless producer and screenwriter Leslie Dixon, getting to discuss Dorothy Parker’s screenplay for 1937’s A Star is Born gives her an opportunity to honor an early writing influence. “So many young women wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” she says. “Well, okay, minus the alcoholism. But the reason Parker succeeded at getting more screen credits than William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, who were also big name writers being lured out to Hollywood at the time, is that they excelled at longform narratives and she was such a burst of short nasty wit. It dovetailed better into feature films. She became the go-to person for punching up film scripts.”

Douglas is already mentally planning the 2018 edition of the festival. “I’m really hoping to do female comedians,” she says. “There are so many women, especially in the silent era, who helped to create film comedy, such as [actress, producer, writer, and director] Mabel Normand, who worked with [silent director] Mack Sennett. There’s a through-line there from those silent comedies to today. But I also want to examine the work of Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, and the various styles of film comedy they represented. And I want to spotlight the work of the more modern comedy screenwriters like Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher.”

“From costumers to musicians, we’ll never run out of ideas,” Douglas says. “It’s an opportunity to take a fresh look at these classic films while giving these women some long overdue credit for the impact they’ve had on our industry.”

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed tells the harrowing story of war in Liberia—from women’s point of view

Asha Duniani (The Girl), Shayla Love (Wife No. 1), and Parris Sarter (Rita) star in Synchronicity Theatre’s production of Eclipsed.

Photograph by Jerry Siegel Photography

Between scenes as Michonne on The Walking Dead, actress Danai Gurira has established herself as a groundbreaking playwright. In 2016, her play Eclipsed became the first production to premiere on Broadway with an all-black, all-female creative team and cast (actress Lupita Nyong’o starred). Set near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, the play tracks five Liberian women as they come together “to negotiate power, protection and peace,” and Gurira flew to the war-torn region to interview 30 female freedom fighters during the writing process. This month, Eclipsed makes its regional debut at Synchronicity Theatre. We spoke with the theater’s producing artistic director Rachel May, who also co-founded Synchronicity, about the production’s significance.

What was it about Eclipsed that made you want to host the premiere?
I’ve been tracking this play since before it went to Broadway. About 85 percent of our plays are written by women. But more importantly, we strive to uplift and empower women’s voices. There are so few stories where African women get to tell their own stories without a white person or a man having a say. Danai (whose family is from Zimbabwe) just decided to let these women speak for themselves.

There’s some harrowing material in Eclipsed but it also feels universal. What messages does the play have for Atlantans?
It is harrowing material but the women in the play are as complicated as any of us. They’re broken and damaged and ravaged but they are also resilient and beautiful, loving, and hilarious. There are more than 20,000 Liberian people living in our metro area and there are 60 Liberian churches. We have a partnership with the Liberian consulate. That gives us an opportunity to not only bring authenticity to our actors but we’re able to bring the Liberian community into our theater and present this work to them.

Do you expect Danai Gurira to put down her Walking Dead sword and drop by to offer creative input?
Actress Tinashe Kajese is making her professional directorial debut with this production, and she has a unique connection to Danai: they were in a Brownie troop together back when they were growing up in Zimbabwe. We would certainly love Danai to come by for any reason. Tinashe and Danai have had conversations together about the play. If she’s in town filming and has a break, she has an open invitation.

Eclipsed runs Wednesdays through Sundays now through June 25.

Atlanta reality TV stars: Where are they now?

Tribble Reese
Tribble Reese

Photograph by Derek Blanks/Bravo

Tribble Reese
As seen on The New Atlanta, 2013
Then The self-described “token white guy” in this season-long Bravo series focused on a group of young Atlantans making their mark in the city
On the show’s shortcomings “There was no real storyline for people to invest in. It never felt real, even when we were filming it. I can only imagine how it looked to the viewer.”
Now After returning to Charleston Southern University (where he played college football) to finish his MBA, Reese became director of social operations for a start-up, Social X. “We connect people with fun, unique, competitive games. Our clients are restaurants, bars, businesses putting on events.” —Richard L. Eldredge

Traci Steele
Traci Steele

Photograph by Prince Williams/Getty Images for PUMA

Traci Steele
As seen on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, 2013
Then Steele appeared on the second season of this VH1 series, which follows local hip-hop musicians and their significant others.
Her favorite moment from the show A candid conversation with her son’s dad, DJ Babey Drew. “He finally admitted to cheating on me. [After it aired] my Twitter was blowing up with people who had gone through the same thing.”
Now A regular on local radio station 107.9, Steele will DJ at this year’s Funk Fest and Comedy’s Most Wanted tours. She’s also writing an autobiography—Feifei Sun

Fred Pangle
Fred Pangle

Photograph courtesy of Destination America

Fred Pangle
As seen on Prepper Hillbillies, 2014
Then This short-lived Destination America series focused on Pangle and his coworkers at Moss Pawn, a Jonesboro-based home-security operation that catered to clients wary of “petty crimes to the end of times.”
His favorite moment from the show The look on everyone’s faces when we blew shit up. The directors were mostly hippies . . . One time we shot an exploding target with a caliber rifle, and the director squatted down like he was about to pee.”
Now A firearms instructor and sales manager at Moss, Pangle says his reality days are behind him. “It’s such a hassle—masking everything off so you don’t see logos and trying to remember what you wore a month ago for reshoots.” —Feifei Sun

Lisa Wu
Lisa Wu

Photograph by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Lisa Wu
As seen on Real Housewives of Atlanta, 2008-2011
Then Wu was part of the inaugural cast and remained on the series through season three.
Her favorite moment from the show “In the early episodes, they let us be us. You see me visiting my brother’s grave. It’s not easy being that vulnerable in front of millions of people, but it was me.”
Now Wu has returned to acting and just wrapped filming on an upcoming romantic comedy, Professor Mack. —Feifei Sun

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

The making of Troubadour, Janece Shaffer and Kristian Bush’s 1950s country musical

Troubador Kristian Bush
Janece Shaffer and Kristian Bush

Photograph by Alex Martinez

One day three years ago, Janece Shaffer was breezing through bolo ties and church clothes in the glass cases at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, when she came across rhinestones. Hundreds of them, affixed to the costumes that, for decades, were the emblems of country-western music. Below the painstakingly preserved, retina-scarring outfits once worn by the Maddox Brothers and Rose (billed as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band!”), Shaffer, a playwright and third-generation Atlantan, noted the names of the designers responsible for the explosion of gaudiness: Nathan Turk; Nudie Cohn, also known as Nuta Kotlyarenko; Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein.

How, she wondered, did Eastern European Jews end up creating these bedazzled masterpieces that became synonymous with American country music? In the gift shop, she bought a copy of the five-pound The Encyclopedia of Country Music and began plucking and collecting colorful anecdotes and shiny factoids on the history of genre.

What resulted is Troubadour, a new musical by Shaffer that premieres January 18 at the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer, who has premiered five plays at the Alliance, is perhaps best known for the 2014 hit The Geller Girls, set at Atlanta’s 1895 Cotton States Exposition. Like Alfred Uhry, another Atlanta playwright, Shaffer has carved out a successful niche for herself, thanks to her funny, three-dimensional female characters and romantic stories, often set in the South. Her 2011 play Broke, about Atlantans coping with the Great Recession, was inspired when she saw someone using a $90 corkscrew to open a bottle of Trader Joe’s two-buck Chuck.

Troubadour is set in a dirty Nashville filling station in 1951. Billy Mason, the king of country music in this fictional world, is about to retire. His son, Joe, a musician as well, is figuring out if he has the chops to reinvent the genre for his own generation. Inez, a young songwriter, is Joe’s love interest. But the first character Shaffer put on paper was Izzy, a colorful, if slightly crazy, Russian immigrant tailor with “outlandish ideas about the packaging of country music.” Izzy is inspired, in part, by Shaffer’s study of Nudie Cohn, the Ukrainian-born tailor who created Hank Williams’s signature white cowboy ensemble and Robert Redford’s 100-watt wardrobe in the 1979 drama The Electric Horseman.

Troubador Kristian Bush
Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman

Photograph by Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection

As Shaffer began to flesh out her characters, she moved Billy and Joe’s estrangement center stage, along with Joe and Inez’s love story. There was just one problem: If you’re writing a play about country music, you’re going to need, well, country music. And Shaffer’s facility with words did not extend to scoring. Then a friend mentioned that she’d once sat next to Kristian Bush on a flight and came away with his email address. She gave it to Shaffer. Shaffer, who was familiar with Bush’s songwriting through his work with the band Sugarland, felt he would be an ideal collaborator. But would he be interested in writing songs for a play? Shaffer had no idea.

Shaffer took two hours early one morning to compose her email to Bush. Describing the songs the play—whose working title at that point was Izzy Crazy—demanded, Shaffer wrote, “The authenticity and power of the music—sometimes a tender hymn about faith, other times a bad-ass song that is unapologetic and truth-telling—is pivotal to the success of the story. I know your music and your talent, and I’d love to talk. Right now Izzy Crazy wakes me up, demanding I find some music—the right person to help me complete this world. And I think you’re the guy.”

Troubador Kristian Bush
Kristian Bush

Photograph by Alex Martinez

On the morning Shaffer clicked “send,” Kristian Bush was upstairs in his Candler Park house rifling through his past. A film crew was there shooting a documentary on his career, which began in 1990, back when he was half of the acoustic duo Billy Pilgrim. It wasn’t until 2004, though, that Bush’s career took off, when he, Jennifer Nettles, and Kristen Hall inked a deal with Mercury Records as Sugarland (Hall left the group in 2006), a collaboration that resulted in five hit albums. In 2012 Nettles put Sugarland on hiatus to pursue her solo career and start a family. Bush’s own solo debut in 2015, Southern Gravity, peaked at 16 on the Billboard Top Country Album chart and yielded a top 25 country hit, but the label that released it, Streamsound Records, was on shaky ground. And even though Sugarland was still under contract with Mercury Records for two more albums, Nettles was still too busy to get the band back together again.

“I was in this in-between spot,” Bush says. “And I was intrigued by these characters that Janece described in the email.” Then he Googled her name and read the reviews of her richly drawn Southern characters. “I needed a fresh challenge, and the idea of writing something for the theater was exhilarating but also terrifying. Janece was just inviting me to breakfast. I love breakfast. What could it hurt?” So Bush hit “reply.”

A few mornings later, Bush and Shaffer were sitting at the Flying Biscuit in Candler Park. “Janece just launched right into it, giving me this backstory on these characters,” Bush says. “It was mesmerizing, like listening to a book on tape.” The songwriter started scribbling notes. But he put down his pen when Shaffer got to the part about the estranged father and son. Joe’s struggle—reconciling the pull of family with the pull of your own dreams—resonated with Bush, whose great-great-grandfather was A.J. Bush, who founded the eponymous canned baked bean business. It was always expected that the young Kristian would join the family business, as his father and his grandfather had. Instead, when he was 15, Kristian left home for boarding school, eventually landing at Emory to study creative writing.

When he wasn’t at school, Bush could often be found on stage at Trackside Tavern in Decatur, building a local following with his musical partner Andrew Hyra. “Dad wasn’t a big fan of music as a career choice,” Bush says. His father, Jack Bush, had back-burnered his own artistic pursuits of painting and photography. “My father didn’t get to be what he thought he was going to be in life,” says Bush. “And my brother [Brandon, who has played with Train and Sugarland and who serves as Troubadour’s musical director] and I both jumped on the rocket and did it.”

There were other sources of resentment. After Kristian and Brandon’s mother died, Jack—who was by then married to someone else—did not attend her funeral. Communication between father and son became infrequent.

When Bush left his breakfast with Shaffer that day, he carried in his hand a copy of the script. And in his head was a melody for what would become “From the Father to the Son,” Troubadour’s gospel- and bluegrass-infused opening number. In his car, he pulled out his phone, opened a microphone app, and began singing.

With Bush on board, Shaffer’s initial idea of a play with four original songs “imploded” as the Sugarland songwriter, energized by the idea of writing from the various characters’ viewpoints, began texting the playwright MP3s of his guitar and voice demos. “It’s pretty incredible to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey honey, want to hear the brand-new song Kristian Bush just texted me?’” Shaffer says. Four songs became five, then became six, and eventually became a dozen.

The duo established a strict musical universe for Troubadour: The characters, all singer-songwriters, would need an organic, natural reason to perform the songs in the show. Or as Shaffer describes their pact, “No one would burst into song singing about their breakfast.”

After driving his kids to school, Bush would sit on his front porch, guitar in hand, noodling with chord progressions and melody lines. He’d call Shaffer, and they’d talk through each song idea. “There was a lot of mystery involved,” Bush says. “Janece would tell me exactly what she wanted, but she only told me why the characters would be writing a song at that particular moment, not what to write. Like an actor, I had to crawl into each character’s head and figure it out.”

Bush researched what Billy Mason’s early radio hits from the mid-1930s would have sounded like. He interviewed friends of country music’s iconic Carter Family. He recaptured a 1950s Sun Records Memphis sound for upstart Joe and used the purity of Emmylou Harris’s voice as a template for Inez’s character.

But when Bush sent Shaffer his MP3 demo of “Lucky Tree,” a song performed by Inez at a pivotal point in the show, Shaffer quickly realized they had broken their vow of authenticity and had veered into something more bombastic. Inez had busted out of that dirty Nashville gas station and was now threatening to scale Evita’s balcony to opine, diva-like, on her situation.

Sitting in her car, Shaffer called Bush. “I screwed you up,” she said. When Inez opens her mouth to sing for the first time, it had to feel as authentic as hearing Patsy Cline’s voice for the first time, not the heightened dramatics of a full-throated showstopper. The two spent the next 45 minutes talking through possible course corrections.

When Shaffer hung up, a stymied Bush, a guy who owns a pair of Grammys, went upstairs, grabbed his laptop, and typed “how to write a country song” into his search engine. The top result informed him: “A country song is always plain and simple.”

Two hours later when Shaffer checked her phone, three new Kristian Bush songs were waiting for her, including one titled “Plain and Simple.” Inez’s feet were once again planted firmly in the red clay of the South.

Troubador Kristian Bush
Janece Shaffer and Kristian Bush

Photograph by Alex Martinez

As Shaffer’s original “play with music” blossomed into a full-blown musical, Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth, a longtime champion of Shaffer’s words and a fan of Bush’s music since his Billy Pilgrim days, requested a reading of the work.

In March 2016 Shaffer and Bush joined Booth in the Alliance Theatre studio. A cast of local actors and musicians hired for the day stood ready to deliver her dialogue and his music for the first time.

“You never really know what you have until you hear it out loud,” Shaffer says. “I knew the music was beautiful, but I was sitting there thinking, Please let my script work. Please let this gel together.” When the jokes in the script started landing and the room responded to Bush’s stripped down Americana music, Bush began excitedly kicking Shaffer under the table. By the end of the reading, Booth asked Bush if he might consider adding a curtain call number to the show.

“I was so caught up in the moment, I immediately said yes,” Bush says. “I wasn’t going to tell Susan Booth to hang on while I Googled and found out what a curtain call was.”

“The two of them have a kind of alchemy that defies logic,” Booth says. “Janece describes an emotional moment she wants to create, and suddenly Kristian delivers a song that captures it, and it has all these wide open doors and windows for you to walk through and experience that emotional moment in a deeply visceral way.”

As Shaffer and Bush amped up Troubadour’s central love story between Inez and Joe, Bush’s cellphone rang. It was his father calling from Newport, Tennessee, summoning Kristian home. Jack Bush had just learned he had liver cancer. The singer immediately put his kids in the car and headed west. What followed was a reconciliation. “He worked really hard, and I worked really hard,” Bush says. “For my dad, this was about facing the end of your life and how you handle it. He reached out to me and made space for us to reconcile. I grabbed onto the chance with both hands.”

Now with a solid script and score in hand, Shaffer and Bush’s creative lucky streak continued at auditions in New York, Atlanta, and Nashville last fall. After enduring more than a few mediocre Billy Mason auditions, Radney Foster (one half of the 1980s country duo Foster & Lloyd, best known for the 1987 hit single “Crazy Over You”) claimed the role not long after he walked into the Tennessee Performing Arts Center with his silver hair slicked back, carrying a Bible and a beat up guitar case, and began singing. Likewise in Atlanta, with his burnished baritone, Marietta resident and former The Voice contestant Zach Seabaugh, 18, scored the role of Joe.

Then, on August 2 last year, Jack Bush died. He was 71.

“In many ways, our reconciliation was his last great move as a parent,” Bush says. “We made it right between us.” And Bush got the chance to play his father the songs from Troubadour. They reminded the elder Bush of the music he grew up with in eastern Tennessee. “There are a lot of mysteries about how our lives unfold,” Bush says. “I spent an entire year writing a musical about fathers and sons and dreamers and whether you should follow your dreams. I had no idea I was writing my own story.”

As Troubadour neared rehearsals last November, the musical’s song count had ballooned to 15. Shaffer and Bush have already begun talking about reteaming for a new show. “This has given me a fresh burst of confidence,” Bush says. “Working on Troubadour changed me as a writer. It has reminded me that you can’t escape your own life.”

Now framed and hanging beside Bush’s songwriting desk in Candler Park is some fresh inspiration, a message from a father to a son. Two weeks before his death, Jack Bush spent the night at his son’s other home in Nashville as he sought a second opinion at a nearby hospital. Before he departed, he left a note on the counter for his son: “Kristian, I really hope that your career is rewarding and that it makes you happy. Love, Dad.”


Old Nashville Glam
What characters wear also tells a story, and that’s doubly true for Troubadour, inspired in part by Nudie Cohn and his iconic country-and-western costuming (like Robert Redford’s suit in The Electric Horseman). As costume designer Lex Liang describes it, the characters inhabit a monochromatic world, but that all changes when Izzy shows up. Then, he says, “it’s as though someone turns on the color.” Over the course of two hours, Liang says, he wants the costumes to show the evolution of style and dress in American country music.

Troubador Kristian Bush

Troubador Kristian Bush

This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.

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