Arts and Culture in Delaware
The small state of Delaware, surrounded by larger states and several large cities, may not be the first place art lovers look. Despite its diminuitive size, however, Delaware has much to offer in the fields of ballet, opera, symphony, theater, film, and other art forms.
People seeking symphonic music, opera, and ballet do not have to look hard for it in Delaware. Thanks to industrialist Alfred I. du Pont’s love of music, the Tankopanicum (an Indian word for the Brandywine Valley), an amateur orchestra he created around 1900 later morphed into the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, one of the state’s mainstay cultural institutions. Appearing in three distinct venues—theGrand Opera House and the Gold Ballroom of the du Pont Hotel in Wilmington, and the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover—the orchestra presents distinct musical series, including classical and chamber music, and "Lollipops," Saturday afternoon productions for kids and their parents. The earliest ancestor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra,
Larger states would envy Delaware’s ballet riches. The state has two major companies, First State Ballet and Delaware Ballet, both in Wilmington. First State Ballet, which performs primarily in the Grand Opera House, offers full-scale productions of classical and contemporary ballets, such as Carmen,The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Delaware Ballet, a smaller company founded in 1971, is noted for its outreach to schools and students, and its performances at assemblies, pageants, festivals, community events, and even nursing homes.
Mid-Atlantic Ballet in Newark is located about 15 miles southwest of Wilmington. Founded in 1997, Mid-Atlantic Ballet characterizes itself as a "pre-professional ballet conservatory" whose classical ballet training is based on a judicious combination of English, Russian, and American training philosophies.
The state’s only professional opera company, OperaDelaware in Wilmington, was founded in 1955 and is the 14th oldest opera company in the United States. Serving patrons in four states, the opera mounts two full productions each season of such classics as Tosca and The Barber of Seville, and also offers"Studio Series," intimate, cabaret-style presentations where patrons can sip wine and listen to arias by aspiring singers.
In Rehoboth Beach, on Delaware’s southern shore, the South Delaware Choral Society presents two concerts per year, one in spring and one at Christmas. Although the concerts usually present classical compositions, the society will occasionally delve into Broadway tunes and other non-classical music. It also frequently joins forces with other regional choral groups and orchestras.
Coastal Concerts in Lewes, a few miles northwest of Rehoboth Beach, is a volunteer group of classical musicians noted for its annual series of five Saturday concerts. Established in 1999, Coastal Concerts is noted for its policy of free admission to concerts for youth ages 10 to 18.
Delaware’s small population cannot support as broad a museum landscape as its neighboring states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. But it holds its own when it comes to its most important museum, the private, nonprofit Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. Established in 1912 by friends and associates of the late artist Howard Pyle, the museum, which became a repository of Pyle’s art, later was tremendously enriched by the donation of industrialist Samuel Bancroft’s collection of pre-Raphaelite art, the most extensive in the world outside of the United Kingdom. Its notable American Art collection, dating from the 19th century on, includes works by Raphael Peale, Winslow Homer,Frederic Church, Edward Hopper, and Robert Motherwell. The Howard Pyle & American Illustration collection not only contains pieces by its namesake, the greatest in state history, but also works by some of Pyle’s greatest students, including Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Frank Schoonover.
In Dover, the Biggs Museum of American Art is a relative newcomer, having been established in 1993. The museum preserves both fine and decorative arts, with its strongest collections focusing on paintings from Delaware’s Delmarva Peninsula, including works by Gilbert Stuart, the Peale family, and Albert Bierstadt. Works by illustrator Frank Schoonover and pieces by sculptor Hiram Powersadd another dimension to the collection. The Biggs Museum also preserves the works of colonial cabinetmakers and has one of the best collections of silver work in the United States.
For music lovers, the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover has records, "talking machines," and other memorabilia from the Victor Talking Machine Company on display, going back to the late 19th century when Americans were dazzled by the notion of a machine that could play back recorded songs, music, and voices.
Founded by Henry Francis DuPont in 1951, the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate possesses one of the nation’s most important collections of Americana. Exhibits include antique furniture, paintings, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and glass in over 175 period rooms and several galleries. The 1,000-acre (405-hectare) estate, located in the town of Winterthur, also features a garden and library.
Few Delaware musicians have made it to the top rank. The state’s small size and proximity to major cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have tended to draw local talent away to greener pastures. Two of the best known names in the state’s musical history were not originally from Delaware, but still left their mark: The legendary jazz band leader and singer Cab Calloway retired to Wilmington (where the Cab Calloway School of the Arts was named in his honor in 1994), and died in Hockessin, a nearby suburb, in 1997.
In the mid-1960s, the great reggae artist Bob Marley moved near his mother in Wilmington, and worked a short time as a lab assistant at chemical company DuPont and as a worker on the assembly line at Chrysler. Although Marley was still a decade away from his greatest fame, he had already formed the band that would later become world famous as The Wailers.
The East Coast’s biggest free jazz festival is the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, which has been held every year since 1989 at Rodney Square in Wilmington. The weeklong festival is named after jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in an auto accident at age 26 after having played with such legends as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fats Navarro.
Folk music thrives statewide, thanks to Delaware Friends of Folk, a non-profit organization that stages concerts, coffeehouse events, and monthly "pick-ins" statewide, where folk music fanciers can gather, play, and listen. The group also sponsors the Delmarva Folk Festival in early fall, an annual event since 1991.
One of the state’s biggest supporters of pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, and indie music is the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach, a restaurant perhaps most famous for its Delaware Music Festival, an annual event since 1991. The free festival hosts up to 30 Delaware bands, presenting them on two stages. Musical styles are all over the map, ranging from indie rock to electronic to cover tunes. The Rusty Rudder sponsors other festivals throughout the year, including Popfest, Jamfest, andChickfest.
The state is also home to the Music School of Delaware, founded in 1924, which serves residents in a four-state area. The publicly funded school employs nearly 100 music teachers who offer instructional programs for people of all ages and levels of musical skill. The school, which has campuses in Wilmington and Milford, has an ambitious recital program that offers more than 75 performances per year.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
Delaware has a thriving theater scene. The state’s preeminent theater company, the Delaware Theatre Company, was founded in 1979 and is a linchpin for revitalization efforts along Wilmington’s riverfront. The company has mounted more than 150 productions in its history, running a gamut fromShakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night) to classic (Antigone) to dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird, Come Back Little Sheba, Oleanna) to seasonal (A Christmas Carol). The company offers fall and spring classes, the one-day Summer on Stage course for children 8 to 15, low-cost matinees for schoolchildren, and its Totally Awesome Kids and Pro-Actors programs for developmentally disabled and at-risk children.
City Theater in Wilmington touts itself as "Delaware’s Off-Broadway," presenting risky, "barrier-breaking" works designed to excite and challenge audiences. Begun in a bar in 1993, the company now works in the OperaDelaware Studios Black Box Theater, a handsome waterfront location.
Another Wilmington institution is the Wilmington Drama League, which since 1933 has involved thousands of actors, directors, set builders, makeup artists, musicians, costume designers, and children in presenting works from such disparate playwrights as Oscar Wilde, David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, and Anton Chekov to Edward Albee, William Shakespeare, Neil Simon, andTennessee Williams. The league also presents an annual one-act play festival and even hosts an annual battle of the bands where local rock and pop ensembles vie to be Wilmington’s best-loved band.
The DuPont Theatre in Wilmington offers "Delaware’s Broadway Experience" in the form of such gems as A Chorus Line, The 39 Steps, Hairspray, URINETOWN the Musical, and Stomp.
Since 2003, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival has been putting on July and August productions of the Bard’s most famous works at Rockwood Mansion Park in Wilmington.
Movies have been filmed in Delaware since 1899, when A Whipping Post, The Lock-Step, andSuckling Pigs used the state as their backdrop. Sixteen major movies were filmed in the state between 1899 and 1912, an impressive sum for a small state. In more modern times, the most notable films shot in the state include Beloved (1998), the film that firmly established Oprah Winfrey’s acting bona fides, and 1989’s Dead Poets Society, considered actor Robin Williams’ finest dramatic work and which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. The 2006 romantic comedy Failure to Launchbrought actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Zooey Deschanel to Delaware for filming. Other notable contemporary films shot in the First State include The Fugitive (1993) with Harrison Ford andTommy Lee Jones, and Twelve Monkeys (1995) with Bruce Willis.
Delaware was the birthplace of several notable film and TV actors, including Valerie Bertinelli, who achieved fame at the age of 15 for her role as the younger daughter in the 1970s TV series One Day at a Time. Another well-known TV presence is Yvette Freeman, best known for her role as nurse Haleh Adams in the long-running NBC medical drama, ER. Douglas Hutchison played a corrections officer in the hit movie The Green Mile (1999), and has appeared in several popular television series, including The X-Files, Lost, and 24.
Ryan Phillippe started out on the TV soap opera One Life to Live, then later established a solid movie career, appearing in such films as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Crash (Best Picture of 2005), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Teri Polo appeared in the television political drama The West Wing, and also in two hit movie comedies, Meet the Parents (2000) and its 2004 sequel, Meet the Fockers. Judge Reinhold, Jr. has appeared in several popular movies, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Beverly Hills Cop, Ruthless People, and The Santa Clause.
Elisabeth Shue started out making TV commercials but soon graduated to movies, first appearing in the 1984 hit, The Karate Kid. Her later film credits included Back to the Future (parts II and III),Leaving Las Vegas (which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress), and Woody Allen’sDeconstructing Harry. She more recently appeared on TV in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Sean Patrick Thomas enjoyed leading man success in the teen romance Save the Last Dance (2001), and later was a regular cast member on TV’s crime drama, The District (2000–2004). Estelle Taylor(1894–1958) was one of the silent movie era’s biggest stars, appearing in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic,The 10 Commandments as Moses’ sister, and as Lucrezia Borgia in the 1926 Warner Brothers Vitaphone "talkie" of the same name.
Delaware has an extremely thin resume when it comes to noted authors and writers. Its greatest literary light was Robert Montgomery Bird (1806–1854), a medical student who dabbled in playwrighting and later went on to become the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He was also a landscape artist of considerable talent, and was later found to have been a pioneer in the study of "sun painting"—what would later come to be called photography.
There have been several novels that have used Delaware as a primary or secondary setting. They include A Gentleman’s Game (2001) by Tom Coyne, about an aspiring golf pro’s stint as a caddy at an exclusive Delaware country club, and A Light in the Forest (1953) by Conrad Richter, a juvenile about a young white boy, captured as a baby by the Delaware tribe, who must now return to his white birth parents. Most famous of all is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1823), the first of the epic "Leather Stocking Tales" stories that described the wars between white settlers and the Iroquois Indians.
Illustration seems to have been Delaware’s strength. Howard Pyle (1853–1911) became America’s most famous illustrator of children’s books during his career, and was teacher and mentor to some of the country’s best artist-illustrators, including Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. (The Wyeths, one of American history’s greatest artistic families, originated in Delaware.)
Two generations later, Delaware-born Robert Dennis Crumb, pen name R. Crumb, became one of the icons of the 1960s counterculture with his underground comic book art that introduced such subversive characters as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and his Keep on Truckin’ comic, which introduced a new generation to "trucking," an old, very odd form of walking, as well as a jazz-derived admonition to "hang in there."
HANDICRAFTS AND FOLK ART
The Delaware Folk Art Collection is a permanent display at the Blue Ball Barn in Alapocas Run State Park in Wilmington. The exhibits are wide-ranging, from Root Cultures, a collection of art by Native Americans, Early Europeans, and African Americans; to Fine Folk Art, pieces by untrained artists attempting to mimic fine arts styles; to Salvage and Outsider Art, pieces composed of discarded and unusual materials.
-World Trade Press