“Thalian Association, may I help you?” the gruff but kind and distracted voice answered the phone. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be a life-changing phone call. It was the summer I turned 13, and in my stammering, little girl’s voice, I asked if I could be one of the people who moved things on and off stage. I was so nervous I couldn’t remember the words “running crew” or “stage hand.” To his credit, Sam Garner didn’t laugh or correct me. He asked me a few questions about how old I was; if I had any experience with theatre; was I taking drama in school? After giving me directions to Thalian Association’s office, he assured if I came to see him, “we could find something for you to do.”
The next day I chained my bicycle in front of Thalian’s office on 2nd Street, below WAAV radio. With the help of WAAV’s Don Ansell, Thalian Association just had brokered the deal to begin managing the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center. Not only did I work backstage on every Thalian Association show I could for the next few years, but with Sam Garner, I helped pack up the office for the big move down 2nd Street.
What I learned in the course of all these events was the man on the phone was the exact man I would encounter every day: If I wanted to learn, he was willing to teach. He had a tremendous store of knowledge and experience to draw from and was ready to share with anyone, especially young people. At a time in life when people really want to dismiss others as too young to do, to know or to understand, it is rare but very important for youngsters to have an adult who can say, “Yes, let me take the time to show you.”
That summer and the year that followed was one of the most pivotal points of my life—when a world I had dreamed of opened up to me and became real: Tennessee Williams, Beth Henley, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim, Kaufman and Hart, Shakespeare, Andrew Lloyd Webber … the watchwords of my faith took shape before my eyes. Suddenly, the people who made the magic happen were not far-away gods, but mortals that would let me in on their secrets, and be, even peripherally, one of them.
Jason Aycock walked out on the main stage of Thalian Hall last Thursday night at Star News’ Wilmington Theatre Awards and announced Sam Garner had passed away that morning. I was startled. To me, he seemed immortal.
Sam moved away close to a decade ago, but looking around the audience at Thalian Hall that night, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people, like myself, had gotten their start with Thalian Association Children’s Theater during his time here. Or as a very nervous adult, walked into their first audition. Or, too scared to be on stage, tried their hand at props or costuming. How many people were there because Sam said “yes”?
Meditating on that loss—that transition—I was hit again with the news that Michael Caliva passed away last weekend. I got an e-mail directing me to Hannah DelaCourt’s piece in the Star News about Michael, and was halfway through reading it when Jock walked in the door. I couldn’t even greet him properly; all I could say: “Michael Caliva died!”
“What?” Jock asked in confusion.
I repeated myself.
“But he was the picture of health—and younger than me!” Jock stammered.
Actually, Michael was five years older than Jock—but no one would have guessed it from looking at him. Michael Caliva arrived in Wilmington around the same time Jock did. Michael bought a beautiful historic building at 9 S. Front St. that needed some love in a part of town that had great potential but had fallen on hard times. Thus the birth of the Caffe Phoenix—a restaurant that became an institution unto itself. Guided by Michael and Deborah, his partner in life and love, the Phoenix blended a big-city sensibility about food with a rotating gallery of visual art and the Calivas’ interest in people. It was beautiful, compelling, and it was in many ways the tipping point: Inspired by their success, others began restoring buildings and opening businesses that five years earlier would never have raised funding or succeeded. I adored the Phoenix during the Calivas’ ownership (they later sold the restaurant), and spent much of my young life fantasizing about belonging somehow to this special downtown world of artists and actors and writers.
Naturally, I would live downtown in a renovated artist’s loft above a store or restaurant. So I rode my bike around, picking out buildings I wanted to restore, and spent days imagining and drawing out improvements I would make. All romance aside, whenever I saw Michael and Deborah, I always saw the same thing: two of them working hard. Whether it was at the restaurant, painting the outside of another building they owned on Front Street, moving construction materials, or picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot, they always modeled that success was dependent not just on a dream but on the sweat that made those dreams come true. It wasn’t a lesson they preached from a podium at $100-per-plate power breakfasts; it was one they lived and demonstrated every day for more than 30 years. How they did this, while managing to raise a family at the same time, blows my mind because I know how time-consuming small-business ownership is. More so, I understand the pressure, frustration and schedule-destroying world of historic renovation.
When the bookstore was looking for a new home, I floated the possibility by Michael of buying the Caffe Phoenix building. He sighed and shook his head, telling me he had too much in that building—too much of him—to let it go then. I understood what he meant. I feel the same way about the house I grew up in on Market Street, which I am currently trying to renovate for a B&B. Everywhere I turn there is not just my blood, sweat and tears, but the ghosts of happy memories and struggles overcome. That house is built on hard work, and so was the Phoenix.
Where are the plaques for these two men—Michael Caliva and Sam Garner? I tumbled and tumbled this question in my head. It took a while but finally I realized: We are the commemoration. Our lives honor their contributions. Holding out a hand to the person behind you who is trying to figure out how to take the steps toward the dream … that’s what Sam Garner and Michael Caliva taught me.
Walking down beautiful Front Street, looking up at the lovely buildings preserved, filled with thriving businesses, that is the recognition for which Michael worked.
A memorial for Sam Garner has been scheduled for Feb. 25, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. at TheatreNOW, located at 10th and Dock streets.