"Something to be proud of"

Jeff Herman, Suzanne Modigliani and Mary Kate Bluestein: Photo by Ralph Stewart
Jeff Herman, host for the Chilmark Community Center's 50th anniversary party, catches up with Suzanne Modigliani, left, and Mary Kate Bluestein. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Whit Griswold - July 13, 2006

In the 1950s the summer crowd in Chilmark was a rag-tag mishmash of social misfits and outcasts - intellectuals, artists, and a smattering of old-money bluebloods - who were either unwelcome at the private down-Island clubs or had no interest in them. It was a long drive, and you had to dress up and play by the rules - just what so many people came to Chilmark to get away from.

The up-Island summer community was private, in its own way, but also intimate. Everyone knew everyone else, it seemed, and shared most everything. There was plenty to do, if you were resourceful and liked to be outside, but there were almost no organized activities. People sailed, fished, and walked the beaches during the day, and played cards, or board games, or read at night - all either with family or a few close friends.

John Maloney: Photo by Ralph Stewart
John Maloney read four of his poems about Chilmark's last 300 years.

There was the Chilmark Tavern, in the building that now houses the Cornerway restaurant, but it was used primarily by Islanders for cribbage and infrequent community meetings when the days shortened up and the wind blew from the north. In summer, some seasonal folks dug for the oyster and dove for the clam at the occasional square dances, with caller Curly Carroll accompanying himself on fiddle, but the building was dark and empty most nights.

In the mid 50s, the Town Affairs Council (made up of year-round and summer folk) decided that the town needed a space where townspeople - seasonal and year-round - could get together in the evening for some fun, some socializing, maybe even some culture. Roger Baldwin donated a cow pasture at the west end of South Road, and by 1956 Herbie Hancock had built a building big enough to hold six or eight sets of square dancers, and maybe a couple of hundred for a movie, a lecture, or a Hootenanny. If you lived up-Island, the new Chilmark Community Center was probably where you learned Wimoweh and Freight Train. For most of us it was enough to sing along amiably; for a few of the more talented among us it was the launching pad for successful careers as musicians.

At first most activities were at night, but soon enough a weekly softball game caught on, and then a nature walk. Next came a pottery class, maybe, or was it some other field game? It's all a bit murky, looking back that far.

David Modigliani: Photo by Ralph Stewart
David Modigliani showed his film that captured the Community Center's first 50.

What's clear as a bell, though, is that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Center, and that called for a celebration. Once again the Town Affairs Council stepped up, and the result was a wonderful, warm evening 10 days ago at the Center.

Jeff Herman, aided by dozens of helpful volunteers, welcomed a couple of hundred Chilmarkers, real and virtual, into the building at a few minutes past six. True to the Center's style, his remarks were informal and brief.

Leading off for the evening's featured performers was John Maloney, who read four of the poems he wrote for the town's tri-centennial celebration in 1994. After a couple of quips to relax the audience, he brought the room to attention with his commanding delivery and powerful imagery. On the page, Maloney's poems can be both direct and delicate. When he reads them, they become urgent and intimate.

Next up, ready to move Maloney up a base, was David Modigliani, who started at the Center as a camper as a three-year-old, became a counselor when he was 11, and stayed at it until he was 18 - a typical track for many Center kids. Modigliani wrote poetry as an undergraduate at Harvard, but now he is focusing on playwriting and screenwriting as part of a three-year fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. How fitting that his first completed film was a 30-minute tribute to the Chilmark Community Center, called "Barefoot at Beetlebung: The Center Through Fifty."

To capture the Center's essence, Modigliani interviewed dozens of people who have been directly connected to it - campers, parents, directors, board members, teachers, neighbors, and friends. They all spoke with open affection for the Center. Some saw the organized chaos of mornings at the center as an invitation to experiment, which helped them develop self-reliance. Others praised the ease with which people mixed at the Center - people from different backgrounds, different generations, different everything.

Next to family, for many the Center was the most important part of summer in Chilmark. As John Maloney put it in the film, "The Center is perfectly named: it is in the center and it becomes the center."

Modigliani's film appealed to everyone. It was sentimental without being over-sensitized, poignant without being pregnant. After the early-evening showing the audience stood to applaud - not only for the film, it seemed, but also for the institution it portrayed. In producing the film, Modigliani enlisted friends on the Island and off to write the score, run the cameras, edit hours of film down to a tight half hour. Chief among them was Andrew Fischer, director of photography.

When the applause died down, people started to move out the back doors, to cross the basketball court on the way to the dinner tent that occupied deep right-center field. True to the Center's spirit, someone dug a basketball out of the bushes and a little one-on-one broke out under one of the baskets while people moseyed across the court.

Maloney and Modigliani had set the table for the evening, and now it was up to the Scottish Bakehouse to drive the runners in. The tent filled and folks got right down to catching up and enjoying some feel-good food. The clatter was relaxed, the mood decidedly casual. You could actually hear the up-beat tunes that Jeremy Berlin provided on his electric piano. It was the start of another summer season, and people seemed completely pleased to have their feet back on the scruffy, welcoming grounds of the Center once again, back in the community.

Even after 50 years, there is an organic feel to the Center, as if it just kind of happens, the way so much of Chilmark just happened back in the day, without committees and business plans and neighborhood associations and such. Of course many people have worked long and hard over the years to create a community place that is still casual, still friendly, still inspiring in its own way. As Ozzie Fischer said in the film, "Well, it's something to be proud of. I'm sure of that."