ritz lobby

Spencer Marsh and Ben McCartney add a jazzy splash to the "Puttin' on the Ritz" event.

I was painting a set for the musical “Cinderella” last spring when Annie Leonard ran an idea by me. What if Knoxville had a variety show to celebrate New Year’s and support the music boosters?

Annie already had talked with Dawn Flattery about it, which pretty much made it a done-deal. Either one alone is a force to be reckoned with. Together, I knew they’d create something special.

I went back to painting alongside some talented young actors who cared not only about being in the spotlight but making Cinderella the best it could be. That got me thinking about what the variety show could add to the community. The more I thought, the more I wanted to be part of it.

Fast-forward to Saturday night, when Dawn and Annie were hustling around the Knoxville Performing Arts Center in tuxes, tending to last-minute details. It was 30 minutes to showtime for “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and not quite an hour until my debut as a stand-up comedian. The butterflies in my stomach needed company, so I wandered to the KPAC lobby for a few meatballs.

The lobby was buzzing. It was probably the warmest place in town on this fridgid night — not just the temperature but the spirit. It was a great cross-section of the community. There were the “usual suspects” who support everything, as well as folks who came for a good time. They’d rub elbows and applaud together before returning to their chilly cars.

My mouth was full of meatballs as my ears were drawn to a jazzy sound. Knoxville High band director Ben McCartney was blowing his trumpet alongside 2017 KHS grad Spencer Marsh on the upright bass. They were incredible together, and I wished they’d do an encore later on stage.

As much as live music stirs my soul, though, this scene also touched my heart. It’s what the event was all about. Ben taught Spencer for a year, but Saturday they performed as partners. They enriched the event and the community.

Soon, Jinni Dingel, another KHS 2017 alum, would start the show with an amazing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Her former vocal music teacher, Jackie Duffy, would later close the show with another show-stopping song. Between their acts, 20 other talented performers sang and danced the night away. I tried to provide some comic relief, though the main thing I added was a few years to the average age of the cast.

Which echoes my point. Young people brought their gifts and hope to that night. More experienced folks didn’t simply do things for these kids, but with them. Even offstage, Ryan Richardson hauled things with a bunch of young stagehands. Adam Darland cooked hors d’oeuvres that KHS students served. Craig Kelley showed off his wood-carving near Brady VanderHart’s artwork.

I’ve already made the mistake of naming some names without mentioning many worthy others. But I avoided another mistake. I almost called it the “first annual” variety show. An event isn’t annual until it’s happened at least twice.

Those tuxes I mentioned were bought, not rented. Here’s hoping they see an encore. Bravo!

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at pfinan@journalexpress.net.

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