The Lights on Main Street

If you make it on Broadway,
do you have an obligation to care
about the dying farming town
where your father grew up?
William Ivey Long believes you do.

Through the open back door of the old bungalow, the rain is falling in sheets, the kind that would make a night out at the theater in a fancy dress less appealing. But there are no Broadway shows here, no movies either. No malls, no department stores, no restaurants serving foie gras or even Filet O’ Fish. Only the land and the buildings on it, and the people who have tended it for 10 generations, and that still means everything.

William Ivey Long ’72, gentleman farmer of this northeastern North Carolina town, takes the rain as just another design element in this little production, the mud that his guests would have to tread through nothing more than a doable inconvenience, rather like a loose string on a hem. He’s dressed more like a Dockers ad – khakis, white button-down – than as the four-time Tony-award-winning costume designer for which he is best known, and the surprising truth is that Long is more folksy than he is Fierstein.

Yes, he owns homes in Massachusetts and Manhattan, has fabulous friends named Wasserstein and Stroman. But the 48 Broadway shows he has outfitted are nothing so special as this weekend’s Ivey-Long family picnic. Chicago, The Producers – even Hairspray – are far less compelling stories than the ones set on this little rural stage five miles south of the Virginia border.

Only one stretch of pavement shines brighter than the Great White Way for Long, and it is Main Street in Seaboard, North Carolina.

“Come,” he says from the back stoop, with whirling dervish energy, “we’re going to see the farm.” His blonde ringlets dampen from awning runoff, casting him in a Li’l Abner light. Guests stand in the kitchen, from New York and Atlanta and just down the road, nibbling on breakfast ham biscuits and looking from one person to the next, looking ’round for umbrellas that are not near and down at shoes not fit for such tramping. A handful of friends and cousins find Long harder to resist than the weather, and they follow him out of his bungalow and onto the wetness of the land and the grassy, sloshy, makeshift driveway. They’ll do more than walk his 500-acre soybean and cotton farm down the road; en route, they’ll pass the three other homes he owns in this 700-person town, the storefront he bought and then donated to become a doctors’ clinic, and the abandoned building – now his, too – where his father was educated. That high school saved William Long ’32 from a life of farming in Seaboard. And now his eldest son is trying to save the life his father escaped.

So if the younger Long’s friends and relatives get a little mud on their shoes over the next two days, well, that’s just all the better for the Long story, and that of Seaboard’s, to stick in their memories.

Connected by the stage

If not for Bernice Kelly Harris, Harvey Fierstein would have looked less ravishing as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. If not for Harris, UNC’s Memorial Hall, the old Playmakers Theatre and a host of other campus buildings would lack the careful hands their restorations now enjoy. And if not for Harris, who did nothing more than teach a young man how to write plays while he was still a teenager in a still-thriving farming town, a wheelchair-bound young woman named Lucy Martin might never have uttered a word in her whole life.

Harris was a gifted writer who in later life wrote plays, short stories and seven books, many about life on eastern North Carolina farms. But in the mid-1920s she was a schoolteacher when, while earning a teaching certificate at UNC, she stumbled into a playwriting class given by Frederick Koch, the founder of Carolina Playmakers.

Soon, her students at Seaboard were learning not just the anomalous high school subjects of elocution and Greek – this was the 1920s in the rural South, after all – but writing full plays. Her first playwriting student was William Long, the youngest of 11 and the ninth generation of a farming family. He was “totally captivated and enraptured and hooked,” William Ivey Long says of his father. He wrote a play that was accepted at Chapel Hill and performed by Playmakers and then earned the first scholarship in playwriting at UNC. He stayed for his undergraduate years, earned a master’s in 1940, joined the Carolina Playmakers and met his future wife, Baltimore native Mary Wood ’40, also a Playmaker. Together, they settled into a life of playwriting and theater in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Manteo and Rock Hill, S.C.

“Daddy was a little farm boy,” Long says, “and then Bernice Kelly Harris changed the direction of the entire family.”

Long, 56, believes fully in connections like this. “I think they are dropped in front of you for a reason,” he says. Indeed, all the threads of his life and that of his two siblings – Robert, 52, who is a world-renowned theater design consultant based in Chapel Hill, and Laura, 47, who helped found a one-of-a-kind acting troupe for the handicapped – run through the fabrics that clothed their parents’ lives. All three children grew up on stage, performing in the summers in The Lost Colony by Paul Green ’21; their father was the outdoor drama’s technical director and then director for 22 years and their mother played Queen Elizabeth. As a toddler, waist deep in fabric remnants and props, William grew up, literally, in a stage-left dressing room at Raleigh Little Theatre while his father was technical director there-the family lived there for a time when housing was hard to find and harder to pay for. A few years later, when the elder Long returned to UNC to teach and work with Playmakers, William tinkered with scraps from costume designer Irene Smart Rains’ creations.

In 1954, the family moved to Rock Hill, where William Long began the drama department at Winthrop College and Mary Long taught at Rock Hill High School. Bobby and Billy, as their boys were known, spent their grammar school years and their adolescence at the now-defunct Winthrop Training School, the principle teacher-training facility in South Carolina, where the learning was experimental, classical and, by the brothers’ accounts, magical – not unlike the effect Harris had on their father.

“We were provided with young student teachers who were doing their very best, giving us all they could,” said Robert Long ’73. “It worked to grow up in Rock Hill, South Carolina.”

Their parents’ respect for education was so impenetrable that they placed all of life’s misfortunes in its hands and stepped back to see its phenomena at work. But by the time Laura was 5, William and Mary Long began to see signs that her mental development was lagging. They took her to Duke “because, as everyone in the South knows, that’s ‘mecca’ for medicine,” explains William with rueful sarcasm. After three days of tests, Duke recommended institutionalization.

“The doctors said, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ ” he recalls. “And my parents announced to them, ‘Well, thank you very much, but we are educators, and we are not going to abandon her.’ ”

Laura, who the family later learned was only mildly retarded, learned to read and can write phonetically. Although the part of her brain that governs rational thought never fully developed – she will accept $2 in change for a pack of gum paid for with a $20 bill – “she has the vocabulary of a graduate student,” William says. She also has a memory for people and places and things that surpasses all of her family members’.

So it wasn’t a surprise in 1997 when Laura convinced Candy Clapp Randall ’80, a former writer for the sitcom “Three’s Company” and the tourism director for the city of Rock Hill, to lobby her colleagues at the Rock Hill Parks and Recreation Department to begin a theatrical performance troupe for the handicapped. The Merry Pranksters was born.

Lucy Martin, a wheelchair-bound actor who can move nothing but her head, never spoke until she joined the Pranksters, Robert says. Now she memorizes and performs lines in the once-yearly shows. It’s a gift that’s courtesy of Laura, who also works part time at McDonald’s and has had a part in every production the Merry Pranksters has performed, often as the lead. (She still sings in the choir in The Lost Colony every summer, where William is entering his 18th year as production designer and 34th associated with the drama.)

“Laura is a phenomenon,” says William. “I mean,” he adds, with great, throaty, self-implicating laughter, “she was not the oddest one in our family.”

Billy, Bobby and the search for permanence

“I was bossy,” says William. “I was hyper-frenetic as a child, and no one could stand being around me. The biggest comment I heard all my life was, ‘Billy, calm down and be yourself.’ Well, I was being myself. Robert, however, was always calm.”

“I think,” Robert says to his brother, “we were so much happier when you were smiling than when you weren’t, that we did what was necessary to try to keep you happy.”

“But I mostly wasn’t,” William says, and then he stops himself. “No – I was always just frustrated. I was always designing things. I used to design houses and villages, whole towns with bricks. Remember all the little towns?”

“He would make the castles and live in the castles,” Robert says, “and I would make the merchandise shop. I would be the shopkeeper. And he would be the king.”

Ask the Brothers Long what they were like when they were children, and they’ll tell you they were exactly as they are today. In temperament, they could not be more different. Their inner demeanors are even reflected in their outward appearances: William’s exuberant locks, apple cheeks and more expansive, stocky build; Robert’s whispering and receding hair, his economical frame. But in their respect for the lifeline of their parents’ ancestry, and in the bond they share as brothers, no stitch is tighter.

“We grew up in a rut,” Robert says, in a soliloquy more endearment than complaint. “Our parents were schoolteachers, and in the summers, we all did The Lost Colony. Other people were going to the Grand Canyon or going to expos. And one day a year – because we worked six nights a week in Manteo – one day a summer we would take this excursion up to Williamsburg. It was the only place we really knew.”

“So, of course we were going to go to school there,” William says. “We thought it was very wild.”

For all of William and Mary Long’s connections with Chapel Hill, to go to the College of William & Mary, in Colonial Williamsburg, was at once familiar and exotic for the brothers – especially for William, who felt his mother’s passion for history deeply. (In her retirement, Mary Long spent a decade traveling in South Carolina and producing oral histories, which she turned into the beloved public television program, “Mary Long’s Yesteryear”, still used today in classrooms.) Those things that were permanent in their lives happened not for two-hour flashes on a stage, but in car trips to settle four generations of family estates throughout their youth: a drive to western Carolina here, a journey to eastern Tennessee there. William and Robert say their parents never bought a piece of furniture in their lives. Everything they had was wonderfully old and storied.

So it was that William majored not in theater but in history. Perhaps some part of him knew he was destined to find his way back to the stage – if behind it, designing costumes – but William seemed always to be grasping at the world outside as well, for something lasting and grounding, and certainly for the connections between all knowledge. “The idea of man’s place in the universe,” as he puts it.

“A lot of people hate the word history,” he says. “But they don’t realize that it’s living. To think that you learn something – no, no. You learn the process for learning. You learn how to learn. The college motto was ‘That the future may learn from the past.’ That’s a pretty good guiding focus for anybody’s life. That’s the opposite of stuck in the mud.”

William did end up in Chapel Hill for graduate school in art history, on a three-year Kress Foundation fellowship for an experimental, skip-a-step doctor of fine arts program. Things didn’t go quite as he had planned.

First, the author and playwright Betty Smith, with whom William lived on Rosemary Street for two years, and whom he adored, died three months after she was taken to a nursing home in Connecticut by her family. Smith, who had written A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943, was 76, and William had been her de facto caretaker, making her favorite “red Jell-O” and seeing that she had what she needed. William, who still speaks bitterly of the time, felt Smith had been “taken away from me.” Upon leaving, he took the sign that hung out front – “Betty Smith, 315 “- as a reminder.

William wasn’t finding fortune smiling on him academically, either. According to Robert, who transferred to UNC after two years of undergraduate study at William & Mary, William was an “earnest student,” well on his way to becoming a historian, when his thesis adviser ran off to Italy, promising to continue advising from afar.

“Not a word from her,” Robert says. “He was lost, trying to get this thing out, got depressed, cashed in the fellowship and went to Florence to just explore.”

With nothing left for him in Chapel Hill, and despite coursework that would have been ample enough to earn him a master’s had he not been bound to the experimental DFA program, William left behind his history studies.

“It’s an interesting thing,” William says. “It’s the only thing I’ve never completed in my life.”

When he returned from Europe, it was to go to Yale to study for a master’s in theater production design, where he roomed with Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. He also gave in to his extraordinary talent in costume design and, after graduating, moved to New York to apprentice under designer Charles James. It was a thankless position, but it got him places. By 1978, he was designing for Broadway. He won his first Tony Award for best costume design just four years later with Nine and won three more times: in 1992 for Crazy for You, 2001 for The Producers and 2003 for Hairspray. He has been nominated on four other occasions.

His skills weren’t limited to theatrics, though he also designed the costumes for Las Vegas’ Siegfried and Roy. Mick Jagger was a client during the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour.

Robert, too, moved to New York. As he had at William & Mary and UNC, he had followed his older brother to Yale for graduate studies. But tracing William’s footsteps had to end sometime, and while at Yale, Robert discovered a different behind-the-scenes approach to working in theater: designing and restoring the buildings in which they are performed.

Forging his own reputation in the midst of the shining orb that is his famous, boisterous brother was important to Robert, who was the first Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UNC’s dramatic arts department. Certainly, he has earned it; as a principal consultant for the Connecticut-based Theatre Projects Consultants, he’s worked on buildings as varied as the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the National Ballet School in Toronto. He’s also on the team that is designing the new cultural center at ground zero in New York. But, he says, “I hope that’s not what I’m remembered principally for.”

Robert is most proud of what he’s done and is doing for the University, including the past renovation of the Center for Dramatic Arts and current projects to revamp Memorial Hall, Gerrard Hall, Hill Hall and the historic Playmakers Theatre. The latter is perhaps the most poignant; it’s where his parents met.

“It’s very special for me,” he says. “And I hope the University will be realizing the value of my special connections to all of this for years to come.”

While Robert’s work has the feel of legacy to it, the products of William’s flashier career are less lasting. For a man so in love with history, there’s a mighty letdown after a costume, custom made by hand, right down to the dyeing of the shoes to match, loses its necessity after a Broadway show closes, especially when he brings so much of his flair for historical research to each show’s wardrobe.

William was in his mid-40s with a solid Broadway reputation when that sense of incompletion, of having lost sight of all those connections he once treasured so dearly, came screaming back to him.

“Everyone has to get a foothold on what means something to them, career-wise,” he says. “Once you stop clawing your way, then you can look to your left and to your right and behind you. I had tunnel vision.

“But,” he says, “when it happened, it really happened. I just realized, as in The Wizard of Oz, that there is no place like home. I just called up my cousin, Anne-Marie, and I said, ‘Let’s go to Seaboard. I have to buy a house.’ ”

The train stops here

One hundred and fifty people are crammed into William Ivey Long’s bungalow on Main Street in Seaboard for the “plantation breakfast” portion of this weekend’s festivities, but this is just the warm-up. Tomorrow, Sunday, is the main event: the sixth annual Ivey-Long family picnic for 500 people on the back lawn of Long’s 1900 pre-fab home next door.

That’s the residence Long bought, sight-unseen, in 1998, with his first cousin in tow, the building he has lovingly restored and filled with those pieces of furniture from his youth, and scads of pictures from generations of Longs before him, and a mint-condition pie safe that belonged to Col. Thomas Henry Long – one of the few possessions that survived a fire while “Colonel Tommy” was off fighting in the Civil War. Whenever one of his myriad distant cousins can’t wrap his head around how he’s related to this quirky big-time New York costume designer with the laugh that sounds like the drum section of a marching band, Long shows them the pie safe.

Tomorrow, American flags will drape across porches, fried chicken and potato salad and caramel cake will be on hand, a bluegrass band will play, and everyone in attendance will receive a T-shirt with Old Glory on it and the words: “Seaboard Summer 2004.” At the check-in table, guests will write their names on tags that say things like, “I am a descendant of William Jackson Long” or “I am a descendant of Frederick Millard Long and Verda Laura Ivey Long” or “I am a friend of the Ivey-Long family.” Monstrous flower arrangements, delivered in a refrigerated Mack truck, will be on every table in the home and even in the Port-A-Potty.

Tomorrow, in other words, is the day for William Ivey Long to once again become that little boy feverishly building a village. But this time, it’s not about playing the king. It’s about living history.

The Longs’ parents died within six weeks of each other, the same year William bought the house down the street from the one in which his father grew up. The best way he could think of to deal with his grief was to make his father’s memorial service a celebration of his life and legacy. (Their mother, who was buried in Manteo, is celebrated on the coast with a smaller fete of 60 people each Fourth of July, her favorite holiday.) So that year, on his father’s birthday, July 2, the first family picnic was held with all of 60 people. The next year it got a little bigger as a few more cousins were connected back, and the next, and the next, until it soon became clear that this was about more than fried chicken.

There was something about saving a dying farming town named, ironically, after a now-defunct railroad; one that had lost all the bustle it had had when his father lived here, one that was hurting, as all small North Carolina towns built around farming are. Something about a family owing the roots of its success to this place, and then coming back to preserve it. That’s why he bought the 500-acre working farm the same year, and an empty downtown storefront and, for $200, the dilapidated and abandoned Seaboard High School building. When he reads Women’s Wear Daily in the evenings at his unofficial residence in New York (for census purposes, he is a resident of Seaboard), the stories about the plight of cotton farmers struggling against cheaper imports from abroad mean something to him, and his place in the universe becomes a little clearer.

“If you don’t attack it, and try to put yourself in front of the moving train of fast-decaying opportunities. … I mean, you have to do that,” he says. “There is no other option.”

He formed the Eastern Seaboard Trust, a nonprofit board made up of Long and various other officials from the state, including John Wilson, the mayor of Manteo and a family friend, and Norma Mills ’86, former legal counsel to state Sen. Marc Basnight.

Together, they started using their connections: a call to N.C. Central University’s urban planning department resulted in undergraduates there coming out and surveying the town; another call to N.C. State’s College of Design, and more than a dozen graduate students suddenly started driving out to tiny little one-square-mile Seaboard on a regular basis, holding town meetings where a surprising 100-odd folks came out to voice their opinions on what they wanted for the town.

Then, last fall, the same architecture students started using their grit to turn Long’s storefront into a doctor’s clinic, the one thing the town wanted more than anything else. The students didn’t just design it; they’re building it, and it will be operated by the same physician whose father designed the 1950s gymnasium of the high school just blocks away – which the town, with help from the trust, hopes to renovate and turn into a Boys & Girls Club of America.

And then there is the auditorium of the high school. “Emotionally,” says Long, “this is where my father created his first plays,” and certainly, he’d like to see the theater become a part of Seaboard. But when you come in and buy up a few properties, he knows you have to tread carefully.

“It’s not my vision, what’s happening in Seaboard,” says Long, who drives himself down from New York in his Suburban at least every six weeks. “I’m an enabler by profession. I’m backstage, I’m in the basement, I’m painting shoes in the backyard. I’m dedicating myself to the bigger picture. I want it to be the town’s vision. But my search for permanence, for legacy, has found its place in restoring houses, in restoring towns. Because it lasts.”

Long says he’s a “Pollyanna,” that he wakes up each morning like a baby waking up to the world for the first time, and it’s easy to believe this when you stand in the zone of his frenetic energy and witness that same frustration, and exhilaration, that he felt as a child, of wanting to learn and know and do everything at once.

But Long is no fool. In his quest to save Seaboard, to rewrite history, he has to put on a show. He has to make people believe it’s worth saving, especially the business leaders and politicians who have become part of the Seaboard audience each summer. That’s the reason for the hayrides. The book signings and giveaways by local authors. The historical marker honoring Bernice Kelly Harris erected last year. That’s why he speaks in the same reverent tones about his good friend, playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, as he does Carroll Bass, a Rock Hock melon farmer from Edenton.

Doesn’t everyone have a Seaboard in their past? Put the right costume on the situation, and doesn’t everyone relate?

“Part of the joy is that more and more cousins want to come every year and spend the weekend back in Seaboard,” he says. “Well, that’s the master plan. Because if you come here and spend a night or two nights, and you wake up and have coffee and sit on the porch and rock, well, then you want to be involved. Who knows what they might do in the future with Seaboard? See? Who knows?

“The main thing is to expose it as an extraordinary place,” he says, lowering his voice to a secretive whisper. “The truth is that it’s an ordinary place. It’s like thousands of other little towns. But ordinary is fabulous in this situation, because it’s where you’re from.”

Copyright 2004 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, November/December 2004