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Conference & Stage Expo
For the Record

Opening Night for the 2002 USITT Conference & Stage Expo was held in the distinctive atrium space at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency. The hotel's guest windows blew out during Hurricane Katrina.

Photos/Tom Thatcher

by John S. Uthoff
USITT President


Memories of the Big Easy!

As I sit at my computer to compose this month's column, I can hear the litany from CNN describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the United States Gulf Coast seven days and eight hours ago. Though many of the reports concentrate on the chaos and flood waters that engulfed New Orleans, the damage was widespread in at least three states and affected several more. The slide shows on show widespread destruction. The human tragedy far exceeds the physical damage of the storm.

I have many ties to the devastated area. Not only was New Orleans the site of the 2002 USITT Conference & Stage Expo, the Gulfport Region was briefly under consideration for 2008. Two of my first cousins and their families have lived in New Orleans for years. One lives in a shotgun house near the river and the other near the New Orleans Museum of Art. They both escaped by visiting their mother in Iowa, but I suspect their houses did not and are flooded. Several students from Manhattan, Kansas, had started college in the New Orleans area but have suddenly changed their plans, for at least a semester. One of my colleagues of nearly 30 years had retired to the area. I was so excited to hear that all were safe.

My memories of the 2002 Conference & Stage Expo reflect a New Orleans that, at present, no longer exists. I spent most of my time at the Superdome and the Hyatt. Both are now in shambles.

But the New Orleans I remember most is not the French Quarter and the crowds of people celebrating Mardi Gras there.

Instead, I remember standing on Lee Circle watching the parades with Leon Brauner, Chris Kaiser, and my wife Linda. All of us were buried in beads thrown from the floats. The bands, the music, the art, the antiques, the houses of the Garden District, the live oaks at City Park near the New Orleans Museum of Art, and quiet walks in the parks and by the river are what I remember.

Of course, one of the highlights of our visits was always the food - that wonderful seafood that was available all over in New Orleans ranging from oysters on the half shell to the wonderful, but expensive, service at Emeril's. I enjoyed the trips with my cousins to those out of the way restaurants the locals frequented - many with only about a dozen tables where the owner called them by name and gave us extra treats.

Those of you that participated in the conference remember the sessions about the floats and the Graveyard/Spook Tour that were unique to New Orleans. Many of those activities were developed with the help of our colleagues and friends from the area. There is much theatre available in New Orleans. It may be different than what many of us do, but it was vibrant, colorful, and full of life.

It is hard to believe that, for the moment, it is all gone. As I sit here, most of the citizens of New Orleans, except for a few holdouts and the deceased, are gone. The last 10,000 are under orders to evacuate. At this moment there still is not an accurate estimate of the human cost of this storm.

The dikes are being repaired and, when New Orleans is drained, there may finally be an accounting before the rebuilding and reawakening begin. In the meantime there is still a job for all of us to do. If you have not participated in the human drama left by Katrina, find a way to help now. If nothing else, at least try to donate to the efforts to help the people displaced by this storm. Please donate to your favorite charity to help all the families and friends in need.

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The jester greeted those entering Stage Expo at the Louisiana Superdome in 2002.