My parents, Drs. Presco and Vivienne Anderson, moved to Albany in 1950 from Philadelphia, where they both grew up, when I was two years old. Viv left her job as the first female and youngest Assistant Superintendent of the Philadelphia Public Schools so they could both work at the New York State Education Department. My mom was one in a billion. While some people would say that’s just a son overestimating his mother, anyone who knew or worked with Viv would enthusiastically endorse my sentiments. She was nicknamed the “White Tornado,” a phrase used in a popular TV commercial, because of her beautiful white hair and her ability to take complicated situations and clean them up so that they sparkled.
For me, as a kid growing up in the capital district in the 1950s and early 1960s, there wasn’t really that much to do. The drinking age was 18, so there were a lot of clubs with live music six nights a week, but, other than that, bowling and going to the movies were popular. Saratoga, other than the annual four weeks of thoroughbred racing, had become a pretty sleepy town after the 1951 closing of the casinos. The exception was the Harness track, which was pretty packed and was our destination, quickly reached thanks to the Northway, several nights a week. Despite Albany being the State Capitol, everyone knew that if you wanted “real culture,” you had to travel to New York or Boston.
Viv worked closely with Governor Rockefeller, coordinating the Hudson-Champlain Celebration (1958-60) and on other projects, so when SPAC began to take shape, her reputation as an arts advocate and community leader resulted in her involvement in SPAC from the ground up. The SPAC Gala was one of her most cherished projects, and, as President of the Action Council, she knew it had to be bigger and better every year. My favorite aspects of the gala have always been the different annual themes and the creative setups that patrons bring onto the lawn, including elaborate tables, chairs and even ornate candelabras. I’ve been to many galas in my life, but there is no gala like the SPAC Gala!
My mom’s mission in life was identical to SPAC’s mission: to cultivate, promote, foster, sponsor, and develop appreciation, understanding and love of the performing arts. Through her position in the State Education Department, Viv was able to enhance the role of the arts in the curriculum, knowing that involvement in the arts uniquely contributes to individual growth on emotional, creative and academic levels. She was instrumental in founding the New York State Summer School of the Arts, which Governor Rockefeller instituted in 1971. The ballet, dance, jazz and orchestral studies summer schools have always been housed at Skidmore College. Designed as an intensive pre-professional training opportunity, high school students interact with outstanding teachers including acclaimed performers from the New York City Ballet or Philadelphia Orchestra during the instructional day and attend SPAC performances at night. These students do final performances at the Empire State Plaza and SPAC.
Another of Viv’s beliefs was that the arts are for everyone and that everyone is an artist in some way. She founded the IMAGINATION CELEBRATION and Arts for the Handicapped, and ran these programs through the Kennedy Center in all fifty states and in 17 foreign countries.
In addition to the ballet and orchestra, SPAC was our first real opportunity to see the best rock bands live in concert (our region had no large venue before SPAC). There were countless legendary performances at SPAC, but my favorite was the first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, in 1984. Bruce is legendary for his high-energy, lengthy performances, but when, guitar in hand, he slides across the whole width of the stage and then jumped up on top of the piano to finish “Rosalita,” I was blown away.
My friend Gary Weinlein went to see Janis there when he was 15. During the encore, he rushed down close to the stage and, when Janis took his hand, her ruby ring came off in Gary’s hand. Gary thought he was in heaven, fantasizing about returning it to her backstage, until someone older and stronger snatched it from him and disappeared. Forty years later, Gary is producing “GROOVIN,” a tribute to the great rock music of the 60s and 70s using local performers. That’s the kind of impact SPAC and the arts can have on people.
Congratulations to SPAC for turning 50! Also, a huge THANK YOU to SPAC for the annual May 5k and 10k walk/run that kicks off summer at SPAC. Many bands perform as participants run through the State Park to SPAC and then enjoy arts-related activities on the lawn. Proceeds benefit the Vivienne Anderson Children’s Program, which provides free tickets to performances and pre-show meetings with dancers and orchestra members.