I was raised as by parents who worshipped Culture, which mostly meant that I was dragged off to a variety of museums, symphonies, ballets, operas, poetry readings and the like far more than anyone I knew. I loftily claimed that I was a Philistine and none of this acculturation would stick. Hah. Although I managed not to subject my children to the rigors of Children's Symphonies, Great Books and the obligatory piano lessons and water-painting classes, somehow all that exposure has led me to a lifelong love affair with museums, symphonies, ballets, etc. HOWEVER...I tend to prefer moderate doses of all of the above. Much as I love the MFA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Met, they are all multi-day affairs to walk through, and much more to appreciate their collections. That's why I'm introducing you to the Rhode Island School of Design's little jewel of an art museum. It is a perfect size. (Beware, they are expanding, so this might not be true by 2011.) The collection is astonishing, as befits America's premiere art school: there might be only one example of each major painter, sculptor, textile artist, silversmith etc. but the example will be superb. My friends from Major Museum Cities all wax poetic about RISD, and you will, too. There is also a very fine children's program, in case you want to emulate my parents' child-rearing practices.
The literature tell us that Blithewold, a 45-room Bayside mansion built in the early 1900's in the style of a 17th-century English manor house, is decorated and furnished to give visitors a notion of the gracious summer lifestyle of a bygone era. But the true treasures aren't the beautiful tea sets and period furnishings -- they are the specimen trees, shrubs, and flower gardens which fill the surrounding 35 acres. The Great Lawn alone is ten acres, stretching from the marble terraces to Narragansett Bay. Roughly a mile of paths wind through the various formal planting areas, the "bosquet" with its fountains, the water garden, the rose garden, the bamboo grove, and the Enclosed Garden.
In each season of the year, Blithewold has something special to offer the visitor (especially the visitor interested in the more than 500 species of woody plants and hundreds of perennials and annuals). However, for true spectacle, it's hard to beat Daffodil Days, when literally thousands of daffodils bloom in profusion. The photos below were taken on an overcast day...just imagine them in bright sunlight!
Mansion and Gardens open mid-April through mid-October, Wed-Sun 10:00 to 4:00, and most Monday holidays. Grounds and Gardens open daily 10:00 to 5:00. A unique cell phone "tour" allows the visitor to get additional information of various garden elements.
Admission $10; seniors and students $8, under 17 and Blithewold members, free
During the course of the summer, DePasquale Square -- located just off Atwells Avenue in the heart of Federal Hill, Providence's Italian section -- often features selections from opera (as well as big band and other music) performed just adjacent to the fountains. Several restaurants located on the Square have sidewalk tables available for music-lovers. If you order a Prosecco and an antipasto and close your eyes, you'd believe you're in Italy! A lovely evening out. Free, other than the cost of food. In the summer of 2008, most of the performances were moved to St. Ann's Park, at Charles and Branch Avenues. It isn't quite as romantic a setting (a number of arias were interrupted at one concert when a phalanx of fire trucks drove past), but it is still a lovely way to pass a pleasant summer evening.
There are numerous fine churches in the Providence area, but since I am an Episcopalian and have an affiliation with the Cathedral of St. John (which happens to be ideally situated close to the train station, the Roger Williams National Monument, and parking!) of course I am going to encourage you to come and worship with the Cathedral family.
A Rite One service of Holy Eucharist is held at 8:30 AM, and the Rite Two service (with music) is at 10:30. There is coffee "and" following each of these services in the Synod Hall, located at the ground level -- the Cathedral itself is on the second floor, so please be aware that you will need to climb some steps to get to the worship space. Take a little tour afterwards with the Dean, who will point out the Waterford chandelier, the Tiffany and LaFarge windows, and the fabulous silver crucifix and candealbra on the high altar. There is even a communion set from Bishop Samuel Seabury, dating to 1791.
The historic cemetary includes the grave of a famous British spy. See if you can find it!
Update in June 2012: the Cathedral suspended services on April 22. We are hoping that, with the arrival of new Bishop W. Nicholas Kniseley in November, it will reopen but the telephone is disconnected and there is no clergy presence.
On a sultry summer day, there is nothing quite like the ride on the Looff Carousel at Crescent Park, East Providence. First of all, it is FAST -- you are going at such a clip that, even when you're leaning off your plunging horse, it isn't always easy to grasp the brass rings and pitch them into the gaping mouth of a painted clown who is the recipient of everything but the cherished golds (they merit a free ride). It has that marvelous calliope music (theoretically played on the extravagant organ situated on the side of the central mechanism), and with sixty-two horses and four chariots, there is almost never a long wait to ride. The gentlemen who operate the carousel always use their bell to kind of play along with the calliope, as well as alerting you to the impending end of the ride. But let me tell you, after a couple of dizzy trips, you'll be cooler and happier and much more childlike than you were only moments before. For seventy-five cents, I can't think of a better deal!
In the summer of 2009, Blount (a famous seafood purveyor and boat-maker) opened a new version of the Clam Shack right next to the Carousel. This is definitely worth a visit. I had to gulp at paying $20 for a lobster roll but trust me, it was LOADED with lobster meat and absolutely delicious.
This is a favorite family spot. When my boys were young, we "adopted" the eagle on top of the carousel -- meaning that we paid for the restoration, but the boys always thought it meant it was OURS and every visit required us to crane our necks to see the proud bird presiding over all the fun.
At the other end of the seniority spectrum is Providence's Black Repertory Company, which is only about a decade old. The theatrical space is interesting, with several restaurant-style booths behind a small seating area. The front of the house contains a bar and tables which abut the big plate-glass windows looking onto Westminster Street, which is becoming quite an evening mecca with interesting shops, a great restaurant (L'Epicurio, just across Freeman Park from BlackRep), Tazza for live music, etc. Most of the shows staged are by African-American authors, or feature actors of color. Some of the best shows include exceptional music -- "Lady Day" was one of my favorites. Like many other local companies, BlackRep runs from roughly October to May.
Updated December 2010: Black Rep has gone into receivership. The assets are being purchased by another arts organization, so something great will be opening at this site -- stay tuned.
Let's take a little road trip for our third theater. We're going to head south of Providence to the East Bay community of Warren, where the 2nd Story Theater occupies...you guessed it, the second story of a former restaurant on Market Street. (There is a wonderful new dining experience called the Downstairs Bistro on the first floor, open for pre-theater dinners and post-theater desserts and nightcaps.) Artistic director Ed Shea was long a Trinity Rep company member. He has built a remarkable group of essentially volunteer actors -- if they don't have day jobs, they certainly "moonlight" as waitstaff at the Bistro! -- and puts on an intriguing line-up of shows, somewhat contrapuntal to the other local offerings. As he put it recently, Trinity was doing a three-hanky "Our Town" and the Gamm was doing four short plays on torture, so he opted for "A Flea in Her Ear" which left audiences almost literally rolling in the aisles. In addition to the standard season, Ed runs something called the Short Attention Span Theater during the summer -- typically one-acts and sketches, mostly humorous, just the kind of fare to keep people happy. NOT handicapped accessible, as you must climb the stairs. Excellent value for the ticket price.
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience the Bay is via kayak. In the upper Bay, there aren't generally large waves, so paddling around to explore the Hurricane Barrier, the rivers where WaterFire takes place, and the little marinas around the Hot Club are all easily accomplished even by novice kayakers. Unfortunately, unless you happen to bring your own kayak along, you'll be denied the pleasure; virtually all the kayak rental firms are further south and getting back to the capitol city would be quite a lengthy paddle. I'm providing a link to the Rhode Island Tourism site which lists numerous rental agencies. See you on the water!
We needn't rehash my youthful distaste for all things cultural; suffice to say that I've managed to grow up, and now find myself eager to pay tribute to Muses of all varieties. So what might a music-lover do in Providence -- other than making a bee-line to Boston, which has a world-class symphony not to mention two excellent music schools whose concert series often leave me salivating -- to keep the mind alive? Fear not, intrepid music-loving traveler! We can offer quite a decent little symphony orchestra, although the number of concert dates may leave something to be desired. It has improved drastically over the past twenty years, to the point where, all too often, our premiere musicians are getting swiped to play at Tanglewood, leaving us with the second string. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in Providence on one of the evenings (Thursdays and Saturdays from October through May) when the Rhode Island Philharmonic is holding forth at the Veterans' Memorial Auditorium; when the Rhode Island Pops is entertaining during the summer at many different venues or at various special events during the year (including a new collaboration with the Providence Performing Arts Center), do yourself a favor and support the Home Team! Some rush tickets are available, as are student discounts.
Dance aficionados are fortunate that Providence is the home of the Festival Ballet, whose creative director, Mischa Djuric, has created an exceptionally fine company of young dancers, some of whom have come up through the Ballet School which is shares space with the Ballet's East Side office and studio space. Major productions, mounted three times a year, use the Veterans' Memorial Auditorium space downtown, as does the traditional "Nutcracker." But the company uses its Hope Street studios for the justly famous "Up Close, On Hope" series which permits you to be literally within arm's reach of the dancers. The quality of the dance -- often including world premieres of commissioned works -- is very good. Moreover, the audiences are treated to wine and goodies at intermission, sponsored by local eateries and wine shops. It gets quite convivial and intimate, and for my money is one of the real treasures in our city.
But wait, there's more! The Rhode Island College Dance series brings companies from all over the world to Roberts Hall. I've seen a marvelous Cambodian troupe, lots of modern dance, and some classical ballet. Good stuff, plus there's plenty of free parking at RIC.
While the other fine arts are represented in Providence, there is a plethora of great theater available. Oh, it isn't New York, but there is usually enough going on so that you could see a different production every weekend. For Part 1, I'll start with the Dowager Duchess, so to speak, the oldest and in many respects the best, Trinity Repertory Company. Trinity was founded thirty-five years ago, and during some portions of its tenure, managed nearly to bankrupt itself and lose many subscribers. Under the steady and talented hands of Oskar Eustis (now running the Public Theater in New York) and now Curt Columbus (late of the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago), Trinity Rep has become an urban icon. Its shows generally pack the house -- 94% average attendance -- and garner glowing reviews. A few years ago, Trinity partnered with Brown University to create a graduate program in theater studies. The influx of talented young people not only augments the resident company during the school year, but also provides grist for Trinity's summer theater-in-the-park series. Trinity's season is generally a mix of the standard repertoire, a musical, and one or two new plays, plus the big Dickens holiday money-maker which is re-imagined on an annual basis.
Every December, the City of Providence brings out Tony Lepore, its most famous police officer (now retired for almost three decades) to direct traffic at the intersection of Westminster Street and Dorrance Street, just a block or so from City Hall. Using his whistle and a lot of body English, he manages to snarl things up for blocks -- but it is the festive season, and most people are smiling and laughing at the antics. Don't miss him!
In 2010, from December 10 through December 24, Tony will be directing traffic at various Providence intersections between noon and 1:30 PM: Weybosset & Dorrance (12/10, 12/13, 12/24), Broad & Sackett (12/14, 12/15), Smith & Academy (12/16, 12/17), Thayer & Angell (12/20, 12/21), DePasquale & Atwells (12/22, 12/23). It is DEFINITELY worth a trip to see the Dancing Cop in action.
I love to take visitors to Tony's Colonial, one of (at least) three famous groceries-cum-prepared foods places on Federal Hill, the heart of Providence's Italian community. Trendier folks like Venda Ravioli, just down Atwells Avenue; a lot of locals enjoy Roma, which is just across the street. But Tony's is my favorite, not only because I love the selection of imported Italian delicacies -- especially olive oils, pastas, sauces, desserts, and fresh meats, cheeses and olives -- but because the array of pottery, kitchen gadgets, hanging strands of woven garlic, and other goodies make me want to linger well after I've gotten my capicola and Castelvetrano olives! I like the staff there, too. And one more big plus: there is parking in the lot immediately adjacent to the store, which is great because the Hill is always jammed.
At the heart of Providence, you will find Burnside Park -- girdled by the business center on one side, City Hall and the Biltmore Hotel on another, the former train station on the third, and the Federal court house and post office on the fourth. During the winter months, people will be skating at the Bank of America Rink. During the warmer months, however, the action moves to the middle and further end of the park, where a Farmer's Market is held on Fridays from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM (don't miss Cutie-Pies, a booth with a wonderful assortment of tasty homebaked goods) and where arts programming keeps the place bustling during many noon hours and on weekends. For example, Jump! (a local youth dance company) has been performing during the summer of 2008, using both the steps of City Hall and the magnificent Bagnotti Fountain as their stages. Buskers set up in various corners of the park, and thanks to the combined generosity of RIPTA and the Downtown Improvement District, there are now very comfortable bistro tables and chairs which can be repositioned so you can dine al fresco while watching a performance. Stop by and while away a pleasant hour.
The Boston Red Sox have a AAA-analog in Pawtucket, Rhode Island: the Pawtucket Red Sox, a/k/a PawSox. And McCoy Stadium is one of the nicest places imaginable to see a baseball game. Intimate space, a lovely long grassy walk out to what passes for the Green Monster, courteous players who will autograph things lowered to them in bleach bottles which have a side cut out to hold autograph books and memorabilia. Also, it still is quite inexpensive to take a family out for a night at the ballpark, even if you're buying franks, ice cream and beverages for the entire crew. (Try it at Fenway, and you have to take out a home equity line.) The PawSox play 72 games at home between April and October. No summer is complete without at least ONE game.