Tuesday, June 21, 2011

AM101: Learning Municipal Ropes

Fifteen days to Stoptime: www.stoptimesaratoga.com

I began a post titled “How Did I turn into Joe Glaser?” in early April. I was stewing about staging Stoptime. How did I get myself into this—spending days calling people I did not know, trying to convince them to perform in or publicize Stoptime, asking them to push it to the top of their To Do list, waiting for call backs and emails that never arrived.

Given my minimal managerial skills in arts management, I wished I could operate more like Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s long time manager. Armstrong hired him in 1935 in order to free himself from mobster managers. His partnership with Glaser lasted until Glaser’s death, a year before Louis’s. Armstrong liked leaving all the business to Glaser; content to request cash as needed or wanted for personal expenses. Joe Glaser and Associated Booking Corporation arranged most of Armstrong’s bookings from then on. This is the standard arrangement; the artist hires a professional to manage his public life. Or the opposite, the astute manager finds the client. There was a bit of this in the way Glaser and Armstrong hooked up. The point is that professionals don’t manage themselves.

Creating a festival has been at the heart of my exploration of the music and life of Louis Armstrong since I started my study last August. Arranging and promoting the event meant I’d need to keep Louis Armstrong on one shoulder and wrestle with Joe Glaser on the other, hard as that would be. So here I am, understudying Joe Glaser.
I’m enrolled in the pre-requisite AM100: Learning the Municipal Ropes.

Looking through my log, I realize I’ve been at this since February. By then the idea of performing on CDTA buses was long gone, this brainstorm replaced by the appeal of a Louis Armstrong Festival in Congress Park. The first inkling that this might be complicated came in January. A Planning Committee member said I’d likely need a permit from the City of Saratoga Springs, a statement I ignored for a month.

I met with Greg Dixon at Chamber of Commerce on February 4. He confirmed the need for a permit for any event happening on city streets. He gave me a copy of Request for Permit and said it must be filed with the City’s Accounts Department. The permit was simple enough, except for the insurance clause. I filled out the form, left this line blank and went to the  Accounts Office.

Whoa! Seemed I was missing crucial steps and signatures, and the big red flag, that insurance rider. Accounts directed me to Kevin Veitch, Code Enforcement, Department of Public Safety. I called him, left a message; he called back, left a message, repeat this three times. A week later I tried the direct approach.

The Public Safety Department (where you pay your parking tickets) is on the second floor, up a very STEEP linoleum staircase near the Broadway entrance to City Hall. You also must pass through the metal detector. In the office, two women behind desks looked up, expecting the usual, “I’d like to pay a parking ticket.”

Instead I asked for Mr. Veitch. “Do you have an appointment?”

“No, but would you check and see if he has time to see me?”

Pretty soon, she escorted me into his office. I knew that Louis Armstrong needed to be in the first sentence I uttered.

“A Louis Armstrong Festival, that’s a great idea. I love Louis Armstrong.” Kevin Veitch, a hitter and winner. He followed his affirmation immediately with, “I’m not the one to give the stamp of approval. My territory is the city streets of Saratoga not Congress Park, that’s under the jurisdiction of Department of Public Works, downstairs, same entrance as Police Department.”

Veitch was full of good ideas. He suggested city street locations popular for public events and how and where to distribute posters. He reminisced about his father playing the horn, that Louis Armstrong music was a staple throughout his childhood and adolescence. He offered to walk me down to Public Works and introduced me to several people before leaving for lunch. Immediately the clerk informed me that I was in the wrong place. Since I wanted Stoptime to be in Congress Park, I needed to go there to see Betty French at Canfield Casino, manager of the Congress Park Calendar.

Congress Park is a several block walk south from City Hall. The day was cold and it was lunchtime. I congratulated myself on meeting the agreeable Mr. Veitch. Thinking I was on third base, I put off the trip to the casino. And then somehow it was near the end of March.

The insurance and permit hurdles were still in my path, I could put off a visit to the Casino no longer. The front entrance to Canfield Casino contains historical information on the building and on Saratoga history. The building looks much the same as in its heyday as a gambling casino in the late nineteenth century. Today it is a popular spot for weddings and receptions.

Betty French’s office was nowhere to be found. The attendant stationed near the front door instructed me to go around to the ramp entrance on the side. No one was in the office, but in a large hall to the left I found a woman arranging stuff on tables. She told me Betty French was busy giving a tour; I should wait in the office.

One look around French’s office convinced me she ran a tight ship. Ten minutes later she appeared. Though I did not have an appointment, she was willing to speak with me, but I needed to wait until she had made notes and filed her papers. Then she turned her full attention to me.

It hadn’t dawned on me that renting the Casino is a big job, a steady stream of weddings throughout the year, booked solid summer long. I gave her the Stoptime spiel, how wonderful it would be to celebrate Louis Armstrong in Congress Park. Her warm smile turned quizzical when I mentioned July. She politely and firmly said, not possible in July, busiest time of the year.

By now I’d convinced myself this event would come off in Congress Park in a spectacular fashion, the City would surely love it. I was silent in my downcast state. Then she asked, “What day of the week is July 6?”

When I said Wednesday, she brightened. “Oh, that’s possible, it’s the weekends that are booked with weddings.” She checked her calendar, blank on July 6. She inked me in. “You have to get insurance. Every private event in the Park requires a one million dollar limited liability policy holding the city blameless.” I’d heard this before; Greg Dixon had mentioned the policy was relatively inexpensive for a single event, around $200. Shocked at that figure, by then it sounded quite acceptable. I was glad to find the way to forge ahead. She looked up the information for that she frequently handed out to mothers-and-fathers-of the-brides. “Yes, around $200,” she confirmed and gave me her source, a crucial aid.

K&K (with a slogan We Take Fun Seriously how can I possibly go wrong?) issues policies on-line, a seemingly straightforward path. Actually, I needed people help to guide me through the process, especially after reading the disquieting news that the fee for my event is $383.  It’s a PUBLIC event, the voice explained when I called, a big difference.

I filed out the form but could not push myself to push the pay by credit card button. Another month passed. Yikes! On April 21 I pushed the button, obtained my certificate. Another week passed before I made the right contact in the Accounts office. I went in and paid the $50.00 fee. The certificate pictured at the top of this post does not, unfortunately, render the beautiful embossing of the City Seal, the spot where Stephanie Richards, Accounts Department Assistant, made it legal. Done! Done! Done!

I went back to Louis Armstrong land, contacting participants for the event. At least by then Horns on the Hudson had committed so I’d stopped worrying about an improvisational Louis Armstrong jazz event with no jazz band.

I found more City business I needed to attend to. A member of the Planning Committee had volunteered to make sandwich signboards to place in the Park on July 6. Permission for sandwich signs also requires a permit. Back to Public Works. I didn’t mind, because I had another item on my agenda.

Truly, what I most wanted was an okay to play Louis Armstrong music on the Carousel in Congress Park from 5 to 8 PM. Someone on the Planning Committee had dreamed this one up, a fine way to have Louis Armstrong with everyone during the event.

I met with the Commissioner’s assistant. I mentioned the sandwich sign permit. She said that would be easy, the fee, fifteen dollars. I Then I broached the idea of Carousel playing “Hello Dolly” and so forth for three hours. She did not say anything for a while. Then she mentioned that I could rent the Carousel for the event. No good, I explained, politely. I was already way over budget and, more importantly, the point of Stoptime is the invitation to the public, nothing about it is a private event.

She was concerned whether Louis Armstrong’s music would be appropriate for children. She had a point there. I knew I’d have to leave out some of my favorites, particularly, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.” Then, suddenly, she said, “Well, I can ask.” She disappeared into the Commissioner’s office and was gone less than a minute. “He thinks it’s a great idea. Bring your music CD in and we’ll  give it to the audio person.” Another YES! Despite the snarl of regulations, every city employee I’d met cared about this project and how to make it happen.

June arrived; Betty French left a message on my phone: “Are you still planning to have an event in Congress Park on July 6? It’s on my calendar, but you must get the insurance and certificate.” I called her to say I’d filed it with Accounts over a month ago. I should have figured that did not mean the news would be passed along. French was happy to hear Stoptime was happening, but she still needed me to to sign the Agreement for the Use of Congress Park. So, certificate in hand, I went to the Casino; we completed that piece of business.

Another dangler was the sandwich sign boards. Someone from Public Works had called saying I had to list exact locations in Congress Park ON THE PERMIT in order to issue it. I went in and did that and was told now it would go back upstairs to Kevin Veitch as he had to okay it. I figured was once he had signed it, I’d receive a message.

Two more weeks passed, nothing on the sign boards. Time to go see Mr. Vietch again. That was good because I needed his approval on installation of Everyday Rags, my buttoned together handkerchiefs hanging from poles that I planned to place throughout Congress Park. I’d debated simply arriving early with ten poles, fifty-six handkerchiefs hanging from each. With the aid of a few strong-armed helpers we’d drive them into the ground. BUT…the city might balk, even though after removal there would be no trace. I’d crossed all my t’s, dotted my i’s, so better to go for this last approval.

I went into my appointment with Mr. Veitch in Public Works Department with a photo of one pole with handkerchiefs that I’d installed in my garden. He smiled and said he thought this would be fine, just be sure and tell Betty French about it. As for the sign boards, he and his assistants hunted all over the office to find the missing request. But find it they did, he signed it and again walked me down to Public Works to file it and make sure I was given a copy.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll go see Betty French again. Now I’m sorting through all my Louis Armstrong songs to choose twenty-one for the Carousel CD. This is very difficult to do. As soon as I decide it is final, others crop up. Winnowing the list is the best “chore” that Stoptime has created.

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