A Tribute to Spoleto and Ted Stern

A Tribute to Spoleto and Ted Stern

by President P. George Benson

Each year, Spoleto Festival USA draws tens of thousands of visitors to Charleston, brings priceless national and international exposure to our region, and provides a substantial boost to our economy. And what’s good for Charleston is good for the College of Charleston.

As I write this, Spoleto is enjoying another successful run and is on pace to set a record for ticket sales. This year’s festival kicked off on May 24 with a musical performance in the Cistern Yard – the same place where opening ceremonies were held for the inaugural Spoleto Festival on May 25, 1977.

But the College is and always has been much more than a venue for Spoleto events. Though it is not widely understood or recognized, the College was critical to the establishment and early success of the festival.

Former College president Ted Stern knows this better than anyone. While serving as both president of the College and chair of the festival’s steering committee in the late 1970s, Ted was in a unique position to marshal the resources of the College to support what was then a fragile start-up organization.

President Ted Stern at a press conference introducing Spoleto Festival USA in 1977; in the background (l to r): Gian Carlo Menotti (festival founder), Christine Reed (festival general manager) and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

“There would be no Spoleto if it wasn’t for the College,” says Stern. “It was the cement that put the whole thing together.”

Even the annual dates of the festival – 17 days in late May and early June – were selected based on the College’s academic calendar. Holding the festival between the College’s spring commencement and the beginning of the summer semester ensures that the College’s residence halls and historic homes are available to house festival performers, artists and production crews.

For a time, the College and Spoleto were practically one entity. Before it had its own headquarters building to call home, Spoleto was run out of the President’s Office in Randolph Hall. The festival later moved to Wentworth Street in what is today the location of the College’s N.E. Miles Early Childhood Development Center.

Stern and his staff devoted a considerable amount of time, energy and resources to the planning and day-to-day operation of the festival. So much time, in fact, that Stern recalls some members of the College’s Board of Trustees at the time being concerned that he and the College were devoting too much time and too many resources to the festival.

Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden says Stern and others, such as Mayor Joe Riley and festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti, had a vision of what the festival could become over time, and they recognized what that would mean to the city and the College. Despite criticism and naysayers, they held fast to this belief.

“I think it’s clear that the festival would not be in Charleston were it not for the College of Charleston,” Redden says.

The relationship between the College and Spoleto has had, like any other relationship, its ups and downs over the years. I’m pleased to say that today it is as strong as it has ever been. This is due in large part to the College’s unwavering commitment to support and nurture the assets of Charleston, of which Spoleto is a gem to be treasured and protected.

Months before the curtain rises on the first production of the festival, the College is deeply involved in planning and coordination with Spoleto.

There are literally hundreds of our students, faculty, staff and alumni involved in all aspects of the festival each year – from stage production and performances to administration and venue and housing logistics. Our Office of Business and Auxiliary Services oversees many of these details and works hard to avoid conflicts between festival activities and College functions.

Faculty and students from the School of the Arts produce and perform in various musical and theatrical productions, including the popular Early Music Series and Young Artists Series.

The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art develops and organizes festival exhibitions. Our faculty also teach special courses that explore festival programming and offer students unique opportunities to interact with festival artists and performers.

College facilities, such as the Cistern Yard, Sottile Theatre, Robinson Theatre and Simons Recital Hall, serve as primary performance venues. In addition, the College provides rehearsal space, practice areas and dressing rooms before and during the festival.

Our arts students receive real-world education and training through internships, fellowships and apprenticeships with Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto. And many of our graduates have gone on to work for Spoleto and the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which produces the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

One example of the cooperation and mutual respect that exist between our organizations was evident during the 2010–2011 renovation of the Sottile Theatre. Spoleto generously helped
fund the renovation and provided invaluable input and technical expertise. The results are a visually and acoustically attractive performance venue.

More than any other unit of the College, our School of the Arts has benefitted most from the success of Spoleto. The festival was instrumental in the early development of our fine arts program, which evolved into the school we have today. Our many connections to the festival help in the recruitment of students and faculty to our arts programs.

School of the Arts Dean Valerie Morris and her team have developed such an excellent working relationship with the festival and the city that it is not unusual for her to receive a last-minute call to supply students, technical experts or other resources to support a festival event. She always comes through.

All of this synergy exists today because Ted Stern was willing to take a risk and put the College’s support behind an untested idea with enormous potential.

Given the success of Spoleto over the past three and half decades, it’s hard to imagine that it almost never happened. Not long after planning for the first festival got under way, a series of unfortunate events, including the resignations of two key festival organizers, nearly caused the festival to go under.

Mayor Joe Riley, who was then serving his first term in office, turned to Ted Stern and the College to rescue the festival. And it wouldn’t be the last time that Stern would be asked to navigate the festival through a rough patch.

Stern, who will turn 100 on Christmas Day this year, would remain closely involved with Spoleto, including service as president of the Spoleto Foundation. He still carries the title of chairman emeritus.

He is quick to deflect credit for his role in helping to establish Spoleto, preferring instead to shine the light on others and on the College as a whole. But Mayor Riley said it best in 1985, when he described how Stern saved Spoleto: “I returned to the business of the city and members of the committee returned to their own responsibilities. Ted, however, was the one, 24 hours a day, who had the complete responsibility of the festival and the enormous ability to pull it off. … Without Ted Stern, there would never have been a festival in 1977 – or any other year.”