Today, hundreds of people will gather at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster, Indiana, to hear a baldish twinkly-eyed, fifty-ish fellow with round wire glasses, read stories related one way or another, to Christmas. Over the years, he’s read a half dozen Truman Capote stories, Jean Shepherd's perennial favorite, "A Christmas Story," a few by David Sedaris, and many others, including a terrific story he wrote, "Christmas with Larry Flynt." This year, it's Truman Capote's “Jug of Silver.”
"Everybody has a great time," says John Cain, who's been hosting this event and reading stories for the past 20 years."We actually start with wine at 11 a.m.—that's when we open. We all laugh a lot. I really enjoy it because I get to pick the stories and nobody tells me what to do".
Obviously, nobody needs to. Besides being a witty raconteur, Cain is an excellent performer. South Shore Arts Christmas Readings Through the Ages are often sold out weeks before the show. The word is out: it's a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and contribute to a very good cause.
Executive Director of South Shore Arts, John Cain, hosts this event that raises money, to share the surprise and magic of art with as many people as possible. By all accounts he's doing a fabulous job—more than 28,000 children and youth participated in South Shore Arts’ "everykid" program last year. More than 400 other art classes were offered, and then taught by area artists in the three South Shore Arts centers in Crown Point, Hammond, and Munster.
Cain, who wins big-time awards as an arts administrator, also curates fascinating art shows. He has been executive director of South Shore Arts since 1993 and the Northwestern Indiana Symphony Orchestra since 2008. He's a fine actor, and hopes to someday reprise the role he played four years ago as Truman Capote. Day-to-day he runs these $2.5 million dollar operations serving as kind of a year-round Santa for many area artists and lots of folks trying to figure out where they fit into this crazy world.
I met him years ago at a dinner party and thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. He's smart and witty—the kind of delightful, funny person who knows something amusing and thoughtful about whatever the heck you might be talking about. You wouldn't at first think of him as someone who raises money and runs a major organization—but it's impossible to think of anyone who'd be better at his job. An accomplished and talented artist and performer is not usually as good at crunching numbers and maintaining fiscal order and responsibility as he is at being an artist. John is the rare manager of an arts organization who never loses sight of the bottom line. “We all know that John is hilarious,” one long-time board member explains, “but when it comes to money, John is deadly serious.”
"I was so lucky to get this job 20 years ago," he says. "It was the chance of a lifetime. If I weren’t doing this, the only thing I’d probably be qualified to do is wait tables, because I like eating in restaurants and like being waited on, so I think I’d be good at it. I could anticipate people’s wants and desires." See? That's his funny take on it. But how did he get from "wherever" to here?
How does a kid grow up knowing his life's work isn't to hunt and kill wild animals, but to paint their pictures on the walls of caves? Or show others where the pictures are? Or how to mix paints? Or make up a song about the hunting trip? Or a play about the chase? Or, in Cain's case, raise lots of money so that others can share their gifts? Where does the inspiration come from?
John Cain grew up in small-town America—Gary, Indiana. "My father grew up pretty poor," he says, but notes that there were some educated, bright people in his family. Both his parents graduated from Horace Mann High School in 1946, when it was one of the top-rated high schools in the country. His dad came back from the army, went to Northwestern on the G.I. Bill, and worked as an industrial engineer. "My mother smoked and drank and talked on the telephone," he laughed, but made it clear that both parents' love of theater and music influenced him.
When John Cain grew up as an only child in the1950s, he ran and played with the rest of the neighborhood kids, but there were hints of something special out there (and in there)—somewhere.
There was his family: "I was lucky that two generations earlier, my forebears had left the farm, achieved a certain level of education and aspired to worlds beyond themselves. It was because of their aspirations and what attracted them in life that I was exposed from an early age to the arts. It was because my parents liked witty, fun people who drank a lot that I grew up to be a witty, sometimes fun person who drinks a lot.
There was theater: "The lady across the street was big into community theater in Gary. She played Agnes Gooch in “Auntie Mame” in the ’50s. She also taught elementary school and my mother took me to see the Christmas play in her classroom. She gave me the scenery to take home afterwards. I played with it all winter long."
There was musical theater: "My parents took me to Chicago to see “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” “The Sound of Music.” We always sat in a box at the Shubert Theatre." He remembers his mother tying one of his father's belts around his waist so she could hold on as he leaned way over the side of the box.
At home, the little boy relived the moments over and over. "We had this record player in the rec room that looked like Henry Higgins’ gramophone. My father played the original cast albums and danced around the room. Sometimes, I joined him. His favorite was 'Get Me to the Church on Time.'"
There was music: Cain learned to play the piano and the violin and sang in a children's choir. "I played all of my mother’s Barbra Streisand albums over and over." Cain sang along with her, and Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and Vicki Carr. "It was the same with my father’s Ella Fitzgerald records. I knew the lyrics to every song by heart. I still have those records and play them from time to time."
There were objects of art: "My life was utterly transformed by my first visit to the Art Institute. It was a school field trip, and I was mesmerized by the Impressionists, the Picassos, the Matisses, everything. I started buying as many of those postcard reproductions they sell in the gift shop as I could afford. I started an album of them, going back on the train time and time again to acquire more. I also bought the tiny reproductions they sold of Mayan pottery figures, Aztec gold, and African bronze amulets. I still have those too."
And then there was Uncle Rob. "His greatest work of art was himself," says Cain. "He was quite brilliant, very theatrical and rowdy, with a great sense of humor, and I had the feeling that I was being allowed in on his jokes."
Cain's mother's uncle lived outside Cleveland in a neighborhood built on the estate where John D. Rockefeller spent his boyhood. Uncle Rob's world was a lot different from working-class Gary, Indiana. "Uncle Rob was a Noel Coward sort of figure, witty, urbane, threw his head back with rollicking laughter, and threw fabulous parties. He and his 'friend,' as we called him back then, traveled extensively."
"They had amassed a magnificent collection of antiques—18th and 19th century American and English furniture, 19th century French paperweights. Everything arranged just so. I loved going to their house because I loved being around adults in general, more so than children, was used to being around people who drank and laughed. Also, more than anything, I loved things. Although I wasn’t allowed to touch anything at Uncle Rob’s, I didn’t mind. I just liked standing in the middle of the room and admiring everything around me."
Cain went to college in Ohio because Uncle Rob was there. "He belonged to the Cleveland Playhouse Club, so we’d go there for dinner and go to the plays and then go back to the club afterwards. I got to meet the actors and directors and Uncle Rob would invite them for lunches and dinners. We drank vodka for lunch and scotch for supper. We napped a lot."
And also Truman Capote: Cain was inspired by Capote's writing years before he played him in a local production of "Tru," four years ago. "Why do I like Truman Capote? Seriously? Do I have to spell if out for you? Let’s see . . . he was odd looking, he liked rich people, he was bitchy, he was a brilliant artist, he came from a semi-dysfunctional home (I know, who doesn’t), he drank too much . . . have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, he was gay! Do you see any similarities here? If it weren’t for Truman Capote—well for that matter, if it weren’t for Truman and Judy and Cole and Noel and Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood and Cecil Beaton and Tennessee Williams, just to skim the surface—who would I be? It takes a village, you know, and a very cosmopolitan one at that, to raise a gay child."
Cain studied theater and voice in college, and like many of us graduated without a clue as to what to do. He recalls his situation in "Christmas With Larry Flynt," (check it out online at www.nwi.com/prime) a wonderful story he wrote and read in 2001 in which he describes one interminable period in summer stock theater.
“I knew that a life in the theater would be hard, especially in the beginning, but this was already too much. By the time that dreadful summer was over, I knew I’d made a huge mistake, that the suffering life of an actor was not for me. I didn’t tell my parents right away that all that money they’d spent on my studying the Stanislavsky method of acting for four years had been a waste. I thought it would be more merciful if it should dawn on them slowly over time. Maybe when I was 50 I’d tell them I’d changed my mind and wanted to pursue something else.”
Cain goes on in the story to describe his subsequent job working as a publicity assistant for "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt's new publication, "Ohio," which never succeeded. He gradually made his way back to Northwest Indiana where he worked in local theater and opened an antiques shop and art gallery.
Eventually he was asked to direct the Northern Indiana Arts Association (NIAA), which has since changed its name to South Shore Arts. "Everything has changed since those days," he says. "Society has changed, and NIAA was a very social organization back then. When I came to work there in1993, we needed a social conscience, and we needed to create excitement. There was a new board willing to create a new mission, one that was much more sensitive to what comprises our community—our region—as a whole.
"We had been a little too heavy on affluent white people. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am personally very fond of affluent white people, have been all my life, hang around them all the time, but when you’re being scrutinized by potential funders, particularly the kind with public dollars, you need to be more inclusive. All of these words—inclusive, underserved, diversity—became part of our vocabulary. "
He says it used to drive him nuts when he'd write "underserved" in a grant proposal and the computer software would wonder if he meant "un-deserved."
"Lord, no," he says.
Cain says his days vary: "I do a lot of writing. I’m on the move. Lately, I’ve been
helping the Miller Beach Arts and Creative District as a member of its board. The arts and artists were always a big part of life in Miller, and there’s still so much potential there to use the arts to rebuild the community. When I was growing up in Gary, my mother and I drove out to the beach every summer day while my father was at work, and on the weekends, he came too. I met my first visual artist there, a friend of my mother’s, who lived on the beach and taught me how to paint like her."
He says he does a lot of meetings. "You have to in order to engage people, make them interested in the organization and its needs. And I socialize. Lunches at Giovanni’s, dinners at Gamba, I tell people that I drink for a living, and I’m not exaggerating."
Is it harder than it used to be to raise money for the arts?
"There is plenty of money if you know how to ask for it, it’s just not coming from the same places. Fundraising is a much more sophisticated undertaking these days. People go to school and get degrees in what I do. I, on the other hand, have always flown by the seat of my pants. But there’s an adage in fundraising that still holds true: people give to people, not to things. In other words, it’s all about relationships, so I try to keep making friends, keep maintaining friendships. It’s exhausting being nice all the time, but I have very few friends who don’t give me money."
Years ago, when our ancestors settled small towns, many thought there should be more to life than working from dawn `till dusk. They started bands and art museums and theaters. They funded libraries and schools. They wanted their kids to know something of the complexity of human vision and desire. John Cain thinks our schools are offering fewer of these options all the time, but arts organizations, like South Shore Arts, are expanding, trying to fill the gap.
"The arts have emerged over the past ten years as one of the region’s most positive aspects of life," he says, "and I don’t see that ever going away. People are expanding their horizons all the time, and the boundaries that separate us from Chicago are blurring with every young artist who graduates from Columbia or the School of the Art Institute or wherever they study and in whatever discipline. It’s all one metropolitan region. But it’s a vast region, so we still need arts locally to make it accessible to people and we need quality arts to make it worth their while."