Centennial celebration: Columbus leads nationwide observance of Tennessee Williams' 100th birthday

February 26, 2011 8:54:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


On a March Sunday one remarkable century ago, in a small Columbus hospital -- not far from where the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center and Museum oversees the west end of Main Street today -- a baby boy came into the world without any of the fanfare that will attend the 100th anniversary of his birth. 


No doubt his parents, Edwina and Cornelius Williams, and his grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin (rector of nearby St. Paul''s Episcopal Church) were delighted. But who could know the newborn would eventually go on to put two Pulitzers and a Tony Award on his mantle, to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom, to live out his life in troubled brilliance? Who could know he would become Tennessee Williams? 


On the weekend of March 24-27, Columbus will lead the nationwide observance of the centennial of Williams'' birth. The city''s red carpet is ready. 


"''The Year of Tennessee'' has brought great attention to Columbus," said Nancy Carpenter, interim executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Our office has fielded calls from travel writers, scholars, visitors and, of course, followers of Tennessee Williams." 


In fact, articles in The New York Times and The Commercial Appeal will be published soon about the centennial, and visiting journalists have been discovering Williams'' birthplace. 


At the end of his stay in Columbus, The Times'' writer likened Columbus to "finding a pot of gold," relayed Carpenter. He cited its people, architecture, food and history, all of which could fill articles of their own.  




Generous gift 


The scope of the Golden Triangle commemoration is far-reaching, with a Big Band concert, play performances, a movie screening, birthday reception, historic plaques, a gala and an afternoon with Southern Literary Trail scholars. 


Much of it is thanks to a $15,000 donation from an anonymous donor. 


Brenda Caradine is chair of the annual Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes Committee, which joins the CVB, Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, Mississippi University for Women and Columbus Arts Council in presenting the four-day celebration. 


"My eyes filled with tears when this generous person was listening to me at lunch one day about my concerns that we have an appropriate celebration for Tennessee Williams ... and this person pulled out a checkbook. It made an enormous difference in the quality of the celebration itself."  


"Diverse" aptly describes the slate of festivities planned. 




Big Band concert 


On Thursday, March 24, prepare to dance the night away with Gill Harris and the Big Band Theory. Musicians from the Golden Triangle, Los Angeles and Chicago will perform a concert featuring known favorites of Williams, including "If I Didn''t Care" and "Danny Boy."  


Proceeds benefit preservation of the playwright''s first home, the former St. Paul''s Episcopal Church Rectory, now the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center at 300 Main St. 


Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert at Trotter Convention Center are $10, $100 for a reserved table for up to 10, or $5 for balcony seating. 




Lunch and a play 


March 24-25, actors from the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival in Massachusetts perform "The Strangest Kind of Romance," a one-act play by Williams. It begins with lunch at 11 a.m. at The Front Door/Back Door Restaurant, 400 Main St., followed by the play at 12:30 p.m. at the Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St. Tickets are $15 (students $10). Or, take in the play only March 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the arts center for $7.50.  


The play''s central character, Little Man, has never loved anything or anyone except the cat who shares his room in the broken-down boardinghouse in a factory town. Though he''s pursued by his landlady, Little Man feels a closer bond with his feline roommate. 


Tickets for these events are available at the arts center, 662-328-2787. 




Happy Birthday 


Saturday, March 26, Williams'' 100th birthday, will be filled with festivities from morning to night. 


All day long visitors can enjoy free cake and punch at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. Tour the newly-renovated home between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. 


A movie screening at 11 a.m. of "The Loss of the Teardrop Diamond" at Malco Cinema in Columbus will feature director Jodie Markell in a Q&A afterward.  


Markell made her film, starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Ellen Burstyn and Ann Margaret, from the last screenplay written by Williams before his death in 1983. Special refreshments will be provided by the CVB. Admission is $5. 


At 2 p.m., historic plaques will be unveiled at Trustmark Bank, 624 Main Street, the site of the original hospital where Williams was born, and at St. Paul''s Episcopal Church, 318 College St. 


The day culminates with a party as the Columbus Arts Council hosts its annual spring gala at 7 p.m., with themes inspired by Williams'' best-known plays. A silent auction, live music by Big Jim and the Hot Shots, food and libations are included in each $40 gala ticket. 


Contact the arts council at 662-328-2787 for tickets. 




Fashionable Sunday 


The commemoration concludes Sunday, March 27, at 2 p.m. with a very special presentation sponsored by Mississippi University for Women and the Southern Literary Trail -- "Amanda/Regina: Fashioning Southern Women for the Broadway Stage." 


This afternoon at St. Paul''s Episcopal Church offers a unique glimpse into the remarkable women who inspired two of the greatest roles for actresses in theatrical history -- Amanda in Williams'' "The Glass Menagerie" and Regina in Lillian Hellman''s "The Little Foxes."  


Local, regional and national scholars share the true dramas of Williams'' mother, Edwin Dakin Williams of Columbus, and Hellman''s grandmother, Sophie Marx of Demopolis. 


Steve Pieschel of Columbus will discuss Edwina''s social life in Columbus before and after her marriage, and some of the houses she visited and friends she made, said Bridget Pieschel, coordinator of the afternoon''s event and reception.  


Other presenters, including the Southern Literary Trails'' William Gantt, will offer insight, including the staging and costuming of the characters. For more information about this free program, call 800-327-2686 or 662-241-6125. 




New Orleans bound 


As part of the Southeast''s celebration, a contingent from Columbus and Mississippi will travel to New Orleans March 20 to join the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in hosting a reception honoring Tennessee Williams at the museum on Poydras Street.  


"Steve Pieschel will serve as our scholar as we discuss Edwina Dakin Williams, Tennessee''s mother, who was quite the Columbus socialite," said Carpenter.  


The event''s menu has been inspired by references found in vintage newspaper clippings about local fetes during the Williams'' time in the city. 


With the 71st annual Spring Pilgrimage beginning March 28, centennial visitors have plenty of reasons to take their time in Columbus after celebrating one of America''s literary icons -- a master of words and insight, whose earliest influences trace here, to the banks of the Tombigbee. 


For information about local celebration events, visit muw.edu/tennesseewilliams/schedule, or contact the CVB at 800-920-3533.  


Learn more about the Southern Literary Trail at southernliterarytrail.org

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.