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By Jean Metcalfe
"What is SummerScene?" Susan Burchett Miller asked Jerry Abramson when he suggested that she would be a great person to take charge of the SummerScene program when he became the mayor of Louisville.
The conversation took place in 1985 at a coffee given for mayoral candidate Abramson by the person to whom Susan was selling her helium balloon business. Susan had bought the business after teaching kindergarten through twelfth grade at the J. Graham Brown School for ten years, and suffering "classic burn-out."
Discovering that they had both graduated from Indiana University, and that Susan had been a teacher of English and drama, Abramson felt she was a natural for SummerScene.
Susan subsequently volunteered to work in Abramson's campaign because "I realized this guy was fantastic. He was going to be the best mayor the city had ever seen."
She was working in the community relations department at the Louisville Free Public Library in 1986 when, a couple of months into Abramson's term, he kept his "campaign promise" and summoned her to administer the SummerScene program.
Susan accepted the position and, for that first year, continued to work at the Library. But when the WinterScene program of the early '70s was resurrected, Susan left the Library to become the Special Projects Director of SummerScene/WinterScene.
The original SummerScene, a mobile concept, had come about during the administration of Mayor Harvey Sloane in 1974. There had been a dance mobile, a puppet mobile, a drama mobile, a craft mobile and a clown mobile. After Abramson took office and hired Susan, the program was considerably revamped, with the money saved by eliminating the rented vans going to the entertainers.
Said Susan, "The biggest change we made was to hire professional entertainers."
"We also managed to more than double the number of performances that were going out into the community without doubling the size of the budget," she said with obvious pride.
The number of performances increased from about 200 to nearly 600 in the first year. At its peak the performances numbered about 1,000, but a budget cut reduced that number. This year SummerScene presented between 800-850 "Shows-to-Go" and it is expected that the WinterScene shows will total about 300.
Hanging on one wall of Susan Miller's office is a snapshot of Mayor Abramson and Louisville's beloved folksinger Bob Rosenthal, a featured member of SummerScene/WinterScene. They are standing under an arch of colorful balloons and it is apparent they are having a good time.
Susan, Director of Special Programs and Events for the Mayor's office, is a vivacious lady whose love for her job is immediately obvious. She speaks excitedly and enthusiastically about the city of Louisville and her part in making it a fun place to be.
Susan's assistant, Dee Broaddus, who joined the program in 1988, stopped by Susan's office to talk about her role in SummerScene/WinterScene. But first Susan had some words of praise for her assistant:
"Dee runs the program," she said emphatically. "I hire the people, schedule, and after that I don't think about it at all, because Dee takes care of everything. She's the true den mother of this club."
Dee loves her job, and she does it well. The organization of the program and the attention to details are excellent. Even so, there are a few inevitable headaches. A typical one is when a SS/WS performer arrives at a performance site and discovers there are, for example, only three people in the audience. Who you gonna call?
Dee Broaddus. She answers the performer's questions and suggests how they should handle the situation.
Their biggest headache comes with something they have no control over: the weather. Schools are closed, and so are roads. Cars won't start, and people are afraid to drive. Will they go ahead with the performance or will they cancel it? To paraphrase Robert Burns, "The best laid schemes o' Dee and Susan can be totally messed up by an inch of snow."
It is at times such as these that Susan reminds Dee, who has frequently made it known that she loves her job: "Remember what you said." The two women read each other so well that they said the words "what you said" in unison, laughing uproariously all the while. Susan then added her imitation of the theme from "The Twilight Zone."
It it obvious that Dee and Susan make a great team.
Dee seemed at a loss when I asked for examples of funny things that have happened during her years in the SS/WS program. The words "poodles from hell" (coming from Susan's direction) jogged Dee's memory.
"When Christy Clark was here (in the SummerScene program) with the poodles it was hilarious," she recalled. "I think there was a kick-off at the Zoo at one point. And the poodles got away. And they had to chase them all over the Zoo because they couldn't. . . ." The laughter at the recollection stepped on the last of Dee's line, but a mental picture came in loud and clear. Dee hadn't been at the Zoo that day. Too bad, huh, Dee?
Fretting for a moment, both Susan and Dee decided that Christy Clark, of "Christy's Performing Poodles," was a good sport and would not mind their relating the runaway-poodles incident to our readers.
"She sends us pictures on their birthdays," Dee said.
One of the most interesting parts of her job, Dee told me, "is the fact that I make a lot of friends from the performers. So that's really nice. . . . "
"I just like the program. I think it's great to know that it helps people, that people enjoy it, and they look forward to it. . . . so that makes me feel good to know that I'm helping somebody." But Dee is only human, admitting in a good-natured stage whisper that "sometimes it can drive you crazy."
And Dee does enjoy the comments they receive about SS/WS:
"Oh, I really appreciate this."
"The mayor's doing such great work."
"Keep this going."
Said Susan, "It's not easy making a living as a musician in this or any community. That's why I like the fact that what the SummerScene does is provide them with some daytime employment. They are able to set up their nighttime gigs. They can play the clubs, and they can do all of these sort of things, but it's those daytime hours. And that's the other thing about this program, being able to get these folks so that they're making a couple of hundred -- several hundred dollars in some cases -- a week, just during the daytime, that they can make a living, they can stay in Louisville and not have to go to other cities to look for employment."
The major requirement to having a SummerScene show come to a particular site is that it be free and open to the public.
"We reach over 75,000 people," Susan said proudly, adding that the figures are not inflated by counting the total attendance at an event in which SS/WS participates. Only the numbers of people actually in the audience of the SummerScene performers are counted.
"So these are a true, accurate count," she emphasized.
The smaller WinterScene program reaches about 25,000 people.
Susan strives to hire performers who cover a wide variety of entertainment. The 1992 SS program consisted of 21 acts:
Storytelling by Oyo; Mr. Mustache Funny Magic Show; Frazier's Dulcimer Doings; Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers; Junx Marionettes; The Music Makers; Hugh Bir Jr.'s Country Western Show; Bob Holt and Prime Time; The Derby Blues Revue; Marie Augustine: The Song Sampler; Magic and Juggling by Will; and The Jazzy High Steppers.
Also, Bob Rosenthal Folk and Country Show; A Musical Salute to Rodgers & Hammerstein; The Rascals of Ragtyme; The Showtime Seniors; "Let's Get Physical With Poetry"; The Golden Age of Radio; "6 '21": Jim Porter's Louisville; The Russian Folk Singer: Misha Feigin; and Contemporary Gospel Music Show.
The SummerScene and WinterScene Shows-to-Go programs have received many compliments. Typical examples include:
"Many of our retired members anticipate your shows with new excitement and enthusiasm. We appreciate you, your leadership, and progressive attitude." Peggy Birmingham, Lynnhurst United Church.
"The individuals who performed certainly are talented, caring professionals who deserve much gratitude. It is nice that Louisville has organized entertainment available for children in a facility such as Our Lady of Peace to enjoy." Sharon Clare, Our Lady of Peace.
"Many of the children that we deal with are from low income families and seldom get to take advantage of outside entertainment such as this. We are certainly blessed that we can look forward to seeing their faces light up when one of these groups is performing." Eleanor A. Gazaway, Baptist Fellowship Day Care.
"The SummerScene Program is an excellent medium for entertaining while encouraging an audience. The quality of these shows is outstanding. Thank you for your foresight, dedication and generosity in presenting SummerScene and WinterScene. The entire community benefits from the positive attitude promoted by these programs." R.B. Wimmer, Veterans Administration Medical Center.
"Thanks again for such a wonderful program. These talented individuals bring us bright smiles and a warm feeling." Glenda Baney, YWCA Spouse Abuse Center.
"SummerScene makes it possible for non-profit groups such as ours to have high-quality entertainment for special occasions -- something we could not do without the SummerScene Program!!" Pauletta Feldman, Visually Impaired Preschool Services.
The Mayor's WinterScene "Shows-to-Go" kicks off December 1 and continues through January, with eleven acts ready to bring enjoyment to groups in the area:
The Music Makers; A Gospel Music Special; Swing Years Sing Along; Bob Holt and Prime Time; Marie Augustine: The Song Sampler; The Showtime Seniors; The Walker and Kays Trio; Bob Rosenthal Folk and Country Music Show; Gary and Keila Present: "Home for the Holidays"; Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers; and The William Simmons Blues Revue.
Then it begins all over again the first week in June of '93 when SummerScene will be back in full swing, running through August.
In order to extend their reach, for '93 Susan is planning a SummerScene traveling tent, which will be on hand at the city's summer festivals. The tents will contain tables displaying information about various programs, such as the library's summer reading program, and there will be give-away items, face painting, and more. The festival tent will present five separate acts.
Susan told me why performers are interested in being a part of SummerScene/WinterScene Shows-to-Go:
One reason is because they are working for the Mayor of Louisville. For new groups trying to get established, the SummerScene/WinterScene program gives them "the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval," Susan said. "They know that we only hire the best. We only hire somebody that can go out and represent the Mayor . . . and they take it very seriously."
Thirty performances is about the minimum number that a given act will perform in one SummerScene season. Depending upon the demand for their services, an act may do as many as 80 shows. Word-of-mouth is the most common way a performer gets additional gigs.
The Mayor's office frequently get calls from people outside the city who are not eligible for the SS/WS program, but who want to hire some of the players for private gatherings. They respond by sending out descriptions of the various acts "almost daily" and in that way the performers get additional bookings.
Susan further said, "While Nashville is known for country music and Memphis is known for the blues, "Louisville has everything," Susan exclaimed. We cover the whole spectrum, and we've got some of the best performers in every form . . . bluegrass and the blues and jazz and country and rhythm & blues -- all of those. I think that's what strikes me a lot is that we are really lucky."
After I had been shown, from start to finish, how the SummerScene/WinterScene program works, I allowed as how anything that went wrong would surely be caused by (and Susan joined in) "an act of God." We laughed heartily as Susan once again provided a little theme music from "The Twilight Zone."
Said Susan, "I can't imagine this program not continuing, even when Mayor Abramson goes on to become Governor or (she chuckled) Vice President or President or Senator or something. I'm sure that whoever follows him will still appreciate the value of this service to the community."
Susan told me that in her travels to festival conventions such as the aforementioned IFA, she has discovered that no other city has a program like the one in Louisville. She has sent information to other cities to help them start similar programs. She would do more if she had the time, she told me.
People in other cities tell her, "Gosh, that makes so much sense," because it's an employment activity.
"But it's [also] quality of life, it's giving something back to the community," Susan explained.
A virtual public relations dynamo, Susan also coordinates the Mayor's Council of Outdoor Festivals and Events, which they started in January of '89 to serve as an information exchange forum for outdoor festival producers. It brings to the Mayor's office the producers of all the major festivals and events on a regular basis. Susan coordinates the city services (street closings, etc.) for the events, including, among others, the popular Strassenfest, Derby Festival, Dickens on Main Street, Light Up Louisville, and the Mayor's Midnight Special on New Year's Eve.
"I'm kinda like the party person. I just had a wonderful party planned that I worked on. It was going to be a reception . . ." to be held in connection with the Vice-Presidential debate.
Susan showed me a copy of the special invitation that had been prepared for the event. Perhaps it will become a collector's item, she said, since the debate didn't take place in Louisville. But it was apparent that Susan would have much preferred the debate.
Susan also works with the Breeder's Cup when it comes to Louisville, which it did for the first time in '88 and then again in '91.
"We are so lucky to have such a diversity of festivals in this community," Susan said.
It is no wonder that Louisville has been dubbed "Mid-America's Festival City."
Other events that Susan coordinates include the Louisville CityFair, the Mayor's signature festival, which will be held June 11-13 next year. CityFair has become Louisville's largest free downtown weekend family festival, with close to 150,000 attending last year. The Monarchs, Abramson's favorite band (they played at his high school prom), are CityFair regulars, and Hizzoner routinely sits in with the venerable group when they take the stage during "Jerry's Jam."
Susan told me she has a policy of never saying no to someone who comes up with an idea for an event.
"I'm the one who says 'Let's talk about it. Let's see what we can do."
When local bluegrass musician Gary Brewer called her this summer to ask what was happening with the American MusicFest, Susan told him that, for the second year in a row, it would not take place.
American MusicFest was the most recent version of the very successful bluegrass festival held for many years on Louisville's Belvedere. Over the years that original bluegrass festival had branched out to include music other than bluegrass, and there are many who feel it was this change that led to its demise.
Gary suggested that they have a festival of strictly bluegrass music.
Susan and Gary began to brainstorm, and on September 11 and 12 a very successful first annual Strictly Bluegrass Festival was held in Central Park.
Unfortunately Susan wasn't able to attend the festival because she was in Europe, where she spoke at the International Festival Association convention in Rotterdam on the subject of festivals and city cost recovery.
Susan spoke excitedly as she related the story:
"The convention was scheduled the 18th through the 22nd of September, and I was speaking on the 21st. There were 600 delegates from countries all over the world attending . . . And I was supposed to leave the day after Strictly Bluegrass -- the festival that I helped get going -- and then we found out we were going to have the Vice-Presidential debate. I had to move my trip up a whole week so that I could be back a few days before the debate . . . and then they cancelled the debate."
Bluegrass fans will be happy to know that the festival will be repeated in 1993.
A recent bon voyage party for the tall stacks steamboats leaving from Louisville for Cincinnati tested Susan's ingenuity. Jugglers were brought in to carry bright pails of birdseed (100 pounds in all) through the crowd, as an environmentally correct alternative to streamers.
"It's neat having a boss (Abramson) who says 'Do it. Go for it. . . . tell me what I can do to help.' He's very supportive, very encouraging, not just for Summer- and WinterScene, and CityFair, but all of the activities that we do, which I think is what makes Louisville 'liveable, loveable Louisville,'" Susan said with obvious pride.
Although Susan admitted there are days when things "just go crazy" right before an event takes place, it is apparent that she loves her job. She gave high marks to her immediate supervisor, Joan Riehm, Deputy Director of Development. Riehm, she said, is also very supportive of her and the special events she coordinates.
"So you've got another high-ranking person who appreciates the importance of festivals, of musicians and entertainment and fun things to a city, that it's not all just your permanent attractions. . . ."
It was fun talking with Susan. Her bubbly personality was charming and her enthusiasm was contagious.
Every city should have a Susan Burchett Miller.
And that person should have a Dee Broaddus to assist her or him.
And they should have a boss like Joan Riehm to support their efforts.
And the city should have a Mayor Jerry Abramson to motivate its employees and actively participate in the activities they plan.
By the time our interview had ended, Dee had gone to lunch and so had the Mayor. Stephan Miller was patiently waiting to take his wife to lunch. I asked Susan if she would sit for a few photographs and she squealed something about looking a mess (even though she didn't). She hurriedly ran a brush through her hair, straightened her desk, and looked marvelous all the while.
"Wasting all that film," Stephan Miller teased.
As I took my leave, Susan Burchett Miller, Director, Special Programs and Events, Office of the Mayor, took her husband's arm, and together they headed for the a rare lunch together in liveable, loveable Louisville.