News > FeatureTHE POWER WORTHY
That other newspaper, the name of which escapes us at the moment, publishes an annual list of the 25 most powerful people in Central Florida that is, frankly, depressing as hell. It's as chockablock with developers, politicians and high-level business execs as you'd guess such a list might be in a town constantly criticized for lacking any real cultural spark. Are we really so hidebound that the average "player" on such a list is a 57-year-old white guy?
But we also know there's another Orlando out there, one that isn't (always) ruled by the almighty dollar. And it's populated by folks who don't necessarily see it as their mission in life to make that other paper's list; they'd rather live in an interesting, dynamic city than rule in a dull one.
So here's our list of people who wield some measure of influence in that Orlando, or should. We're not saying the other paper's list is wrong; to the contrary, it's all too right. But maybe Orlando would be a little less parochial if a few of the following folks made that annual compendium.
Musician and local band nexus
Let's get it out of the way: Lane Barrington is part of the music/art/performance collective Funbalaya, but we're not going to try to explain the tangled web of bands he's in. We tried once before ["Love your neighbors," Dec. 1, 2005] and frankly, we didn't do it justice. (Barrington was kind enough to excuse the errors, saying they enjoyed it more that way.)
But no band exists in a vacuum (at least, not if they want to play outside their own garage), and we think Barrington's influence stretches beyond his little clubhouse to make Orlando's music scene a better place. It's not like he's the Godfather or anything; he's just there in the middle, leading (perhaps inadvertently) by example. His willingness to take an idea a few steps further into weird, and then another few steps beyond that, puts the zap on the musicians around him, creating a ripple effect of subversive indie-pop that's the antidote to polished, packaged, gotta-get-a-label-deal inanity. Too often, his kind of talent is the province of the bedroom genius, but luckily for us, Barrington seems to have limitless reserves of energy and creativity in his varied guises, he records and plays so frequently that we're sure that ripple will keep spreading.
Executive director, Downtown Development Board
Look at all the construction downtown. There's PremiereTrade Plaza, Tradition Towers, 55 West at the Esplanade, the Paramount on Lake Eola, etc. Everywhere you look, there are condos and various mixed-use high-rises popping up on the skyline or plowing through the mechanization of the city's planning process. And each one has Frank Billingsley's thumbprint on it.
Since 2002, Billingsley has helmed the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and Downtown Development Board, the two entities (both controlled by the city, though the CRA uses some of Orange County's money) that are responsible for downtown's future. True, it's City Council that ultimately signs off on new developments and incentive packages, but anyone who denies the CRA/DDB's influence shaping those decisions behind the scenes isn't paying attention. Whatever happens downtown over the next decade, Billingsley deserves a good chunk of the credit or the blame, depending on your perspective.
Brett Bennett and Sandy Bitman
Owners, Stardust Video & Coffee and Park Ave CDs
How obvious is it to note that the owners of Park Ave CDs (Bitman) and Stardust Video & Coffee (Bennett) are the sort of tastemakers that make Orlando more livable?
It became a lot more obvious to us after Bitman relocated his independent CD shop from the avenue after which it was named and plopped it down half a block away from the independent cinema haven. Though the corner of Corrine Drive and Winter Park Road has yet to morph into a hipster enclave, the new proximity of these two out-of-the-mainstream entrepreneurial endeavors brought into sharp relief just how important Bitman and Bennett have been in helping to keep this city from being swallowed by corporate interests.
A decade ago, a cool record store with a smart staff and a wide-ranging selection was the norm in any city of a decent size; likewise for video stores that specialized in the excellent and the obscure. Now, due to file-sharing sites and years of complete confusion on the part of corporate media conglomerates, stores like Park Ave and Stardust are rare. For these two to be as successful as they are has almost everything to do with the deep love Bitman and Bennett have for their respective products, as well as for the success they've had in fostering relaxed communities of creativity.
Now, if we could just move Will's Pub into that Montessori school ….
President emerita of Rollins College
Serving as the 13th president of Rollins College sounds unlucky, but Rita Bornstein did justice to the school in her 1990-2004 run and carries the distinction of being the first woman in the job. (You can be sure that fact furrowed a few brows among her colleagues.)
When Bornstein stepped down, though, it was with the distinction of having jumped Rollins from No. 6 to No. 2 in the U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of private Southern colleges. The fact that she secured $160.2 million through her Campaign for Rollins is what still makes business leaders seek her out.
Bornstein is still a mover and shaker in Orlando. This month she was awarded the 2006 Women Who Mean Business Legacy Award by Orlando Business Journal and Orlando Regional Healthcare. Currently, she is a George D. and Harriet Cornell Professor of Philanthropy and Leadership Development at Rollins, but her ongoing involvements are many. She's been a board member for United Arts of Central Florida since 2002 and has served on the board of trustees for Advancement and Support of Education since 2003. She's also on the planning committee for the proposed Orlando Performing Arts Center. Her extensive experience and knowledge of philanthropy and fund-raising (she's been referred to in print as a "rabid fund-raiser") has never been so needed as with this pie-in-the-sky project.
President, ACLU of Florida Central Chapter
A shaggy-haired, wild-eyed, ex-televangelist man-beast who served prison time for plotting to have his mistress' husband killed … what's not to like?
But make no mistake: George Crossley, 65, is more than a sideshow. He's amazingly dedicated to the cause, as if running an ACLU chapter with teeth is a form of redemption for his past sins. When Crossley took over as chapter president about a year ago, he characterized the group as a "debating society." And he vowed that would change. "I'm not doing this to win a popularity contest," he told this paper in July. "I couldn't care less. I don't have time to play games."
Now the group actively campaigns against racial profiling, against cops abusing private information, for sex offenders' rights, etc. Gotta love the ACLU for taking on those popular causes.
On the downside, Crossley is prone to overstatement. And at times he abuses his podium by calling press conferences for things that are not press conference-worthy. And then there's that felon thing, which he takes in stride (and we've forgiven him for), but this is Central Florida, after all, where liberals are to be neither seen nor heard. Any excuse to dismiss him is gratefully accepted.
Write Crossley off at your own peril, though. He may be strange, but he's not wrong.
Director of programming, Enzian Theater
If there's one person who can be called responsible for determining the character of greater Orlando's entire independent-film scene, it's Matthew Curtis, programming director for Maitland's Enzian Theater. His artistic sensibility, professional expertise and practically limitless knowledge of the modern-day film market are the irreplaceable resources on which the Enzian relies to set the year-round screening schedule at what is still Central Florida's highest-regarded art house.
In a different community with a longer history of alternative cinema, none of that might seem like quite such a big deal. But Curtis has been picking indie flicks since Enzian was the only venue in town that showed them, meaning our appreciation of the art form has basically grown up on his watch and according to his instincts. (His accomplishments are obvious indeed to those of us who remember a time when it was thought that foreign and otherwise cerebral fare just wouldn't play here.)
He's still more intimately involved in the process than any other locally based programmer, and his influence doesn't end with the features and docs on the Enzian's regular screening roster, extending to the Florida Film Festival and the mini-festivals the theater co-produces to serve the Jewish, South Asian and gay communities.
Also, by shepherding the Brouhaha concept created by Gregg Hale, Curtis has helped shine a light on promising Sunshine State filmmakers many of whom had their artistic temperaments shaped by what they saw at Enzian in the first place. So he's not only established the entertainment options of an entire generation of film buffs, but helped guide their career trajectories as well.
Curtis doesn't always get the films he wants increased marketplace competition and the pragmatism required to program an anachronistic single-screen theater take care of that. But the uniqueness and longevity of his contribution will always be without peer.
If Orlando is ever to become more than a service-industry stopover on the rŽsumŽs of those who want to do something with their lives, it is going to have to wean itself from the tourism teat. It is going to have to provide talented people a reason to stick around other than the Waffle House or Disney. It is going to have to diversify.
With biomedicine still in the hazy future, the best bet for that "something" right now is technology. And while we'll never be Silicon Valley, Orlando is already known as a gaming mecca, thanks to EA Tiburon.
EA is the giant in gaming, with 6,500 employees worldwide. In 2005, the company had revenues of $3.1 billion. By that year they had created 31 gaming titles that have sold more than 1 million copies.
EA Tiburon is one of the company's most important studios; it's where Madden NFL Football, among other sports-related releases, comes from. (EA Tiburon is presently working on their first non-sports title, Superman Returns: The Videogame.)
Locally, EA employs about 700 people. Two years ago they needed programmers so badly that they teamed up with UCF to create the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy to help train them. That's influence the kind that will help make Orlando's future look a lot different than its past.
President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando
Here's the reality that keeps Sue Idtensohn on the march: Just-released statistics from the Orange County Health Department show a 32 percent increase in pregnancies for girls under 15 from 2004 to 2005. No wonder Idtensohn calls abstinence-only education "a bunch of crap." Add this stat to the fact that Florida has the sixth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and ranks 45th in the country in terms of providing contraceptive services to women.
Listen to Idtensohn talk and you'll feel the passion and compassion she brings to Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, where she's been at the helm for eight years. PPGO opened its first facility in 1995 and opened its second in 2005, thanks to $1.8 million raised by private donations. PPGO served more than 26,500 people in Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard counties last year, providing family planning, gynecological exams, treatment of abnormal Pap results, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, a male-only clinic, midlife treatment and educational programs.
PPGO's capital campaign continues, with the count currently at $1.9 million and none of that money has come through federal funding. The funds will be used to open a much-needed facility in Brevard County. After that, it's on to Osceola and Seminole.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush has earmarked $200 million for abstinence-only education in fiscal year 2006-2007. (The previous year it was $135 million; the year before that, $35 million.) This falls at the same time that anti-choice believers continue to push for decreased access to contraception. "You have to be able to give correct information," says Idtensohn.
With her black cat's-eye glasses and Megan Mullally voice, Nancy Jacobson is behind many, if not most of the progressive campaigns, movements and issues in town, and she does it with style. A retired attorney, she's also dedicated to the arts; a longtime supporter of the Orlando Philharmonic and donor to United Arts, she was also executive director of Southern Ballet Theater (now Orlando Ballet). Her credits on paper are impressive she's the Democracy for America volunteer organizer for Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties; she'll serve as state committeewoman for the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee from 2005 to 2009; and she's a member of the city of Orlando nominating board, making recommendations to the mayor for appointments to advisory boards.
But it's her tireless devotion to small-D democracy that wins her a place on this list. Instead of mindlessly serving a party (though she is, obviously, a Democrat), Jacobson focuses on policy, not politics.
Son of God
He's the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and whether you believe in him or not, you'd be a fool to deny the influence he and those who purport to follow him have on all aspects of this city. You see it with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, the vice squad that wants to stop you from seeing too much of a stripper's body or buying that 4-foot hookah at your local head shop. You see it in the vitriolic hue and cry that arises at the mere mention of gay rights. You see it in local politicians who wrap themselves in the flag and talk about following George Bush's plan for America like it was handed down from on high. The bumper sticker says it all: "Save us, O Lord, from your followers."
Not that we blame Big J for the moralists who crusade in his name. Our reading of the Gospels speaks more to helping the poor than telling people what they can't do in their own bedrooms. And there are Christian (and secular) organizations that do their part to help: the Christian Service Center, the Salvation Army, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission come to mind.
But Jesus, if you're listening, we could use a little more divine influence down here. The poor in this town are too often denigrated as nuisances, while there is never any shortage of those who live to stand in judgment, and we all know what you said about that.
President, Full Sail Real World Education
In August 2005, Rolling Stone named Full Sail's recording arts program as one of the top five music programs in the country, right up there with the Berklee College of Music and Juilliard. A month before that, Electronic Gaming Monthly named the school one of country's five best game design schools, and Shift magazine deemed it one of the country's three best new media schools. 2005 was a good year for the tech school nestled in a Winter Park strip mall that began life as a recording studio in 1979.
John Phelps founded the studio, and he made Garry Jones his first hire. In the early '80s, Full Sail added a film program. Since then, the school has also incorporated computer animation, digital arts and design, game development, and show production and touring, as well as a bachelor's degree program in music business.
Full Sail has its critics. Talk to some of the teachers and employees and they'll tell you that it is an expensive repository (up to $40,000 per year) of people who made bad grades in high school. But it also has its success stories. Students from its music department have worked as engineers with huge artists, including Mariah Carey, Nelly and Aretha Franklin. Two of its recording arts students have won Grammys. Film department alumni have worked for George Lucas and David Copperfield, and game designers have worked on such nerd-jock hits as Madden NFL and NASCAR 2003, according to a 2003 profile of the school in the St. Petersburg Times. And in terms of influencing our town, Full Sail employs roughly 1,000 people, putting them into the top 100 employers in the area. That's a lot of economic punching power, not to mention a lot of tech geeks.
And since Full Sail claims an 80 percent placement rate for its graduates, you've got to assume Jones and company are doing something right.
Co-owner, The Social
This town has had its fair share of live-music promoters who have done great things, only to commence a maniacal burning of bridges shortly thereafter. And perhaps one day Michael McRaney will be able to claim a very long list of people that he's stepped on, pissed off, fucked around, looked over and forgotten about.
Right now, however, the list is still short, which allows us to focus mainly on what he does for the Orlando music scene. As co-owner of The Social (a club at which his booking history goes back to the days he was helping out with Sapphire Supper Club shows), McRaney has sharply focused on improving the quantity of noteworthy national indie bands that come through town. Read about 'em on Pitchfork one week, they'll be playing The Social the next.
While the balancing act of being both a promoter and a club owner have recently resulted in an increase of highly profitable (if artistically questionable) bookings, we still have to pinch ourselves when we realize the amount of amazing bands McRaney brings to town. (How excellent a feeling is it to finally be able to see all the bands that used to skip this town on their tours?) Plus, when the good bands don't fit into The Social, McRaney will, through his Foundation Presents company, put them into smaller venues like Will's Pub and Back Booth or the less-cozy confines of Hard Rock Live and House of Blues. He was also one of the primary organizers of the successful Anti-Pop Music Festival last fall.
This is the guy who, in all likelihood, just booked your favorite band to play in town.
Bill & Shari Murphy
Owners, Fairvilla Megastore
Fourteen years ago, a run-down porno theater on North OBT was converted into a dildo shop. So what? Well, when your dildo (and lube and video and magazine and lingerie and condom and pocket pussy) store was the largest in the country at the time and it's smack dab in the middle of one of the most "family-oriented'/Jesus-obsessed cities in the country it's a big deal.
Bill and Shari Murphy have made an awful lot of money pushing pleasure at Fairvilla Megastore, but what's most inspiring about the success they've had is the fact that they haven't had to push too hard. (Ahem.) For all of the palaver about Orlando being a conservative burg, there sure are a lot of people here who like to buy beginner bondage kits; otherwise, the Murphys wouldn't have been able to open an even larger Fairvilla in Cape Canaveral, as well as one down in Key West.
It's the shop on OBT that's the heart of the operation, however, and it stands as proof that we're a town full of normal, healthy, sexual people … who happen to buy our Juli Ashton's Anal Teasers in bulk.
Managing partner, NeJame, LaFay, Barker and Tumarkin
He's short, he's pushy, he's funny, he's impeccably groomed and in this town, Mark NeJame is a player. He's been a high-profile, media-savvy (he was once married to WESH-TV anchor Wendi Chioji) criminal defense attorney for years, unafraid to open his files to local media (us included) when he thinks it will help his client. He defended I-Drive mogul Jesse Maali when the Feds accused him of being a terrorist, and for the last two years, he's had the thankless job of defending city commissioner Ernest Page. NeJame won the protracted battle over Page's disputed, and narrow, 2004 election victory, but for good reason the law was clearly on his side. This year, with criminal charges hanging over Page's head, things might not be as easy. Still, if Page wants someone who can work the cameras as well as the courtroom, he went to the right place.
But more importantly, NeJame is a mover and shaker on the downtown scene. He's not just the majority owner of Tabu which has been open longer than most of Orlando's nightclubs but he's also an advocate for bar owners all over downtown and one of the leaders in the (now on hiatus) push for longer drinking hours. When that becomes an issue again and it will expect NeJame to be front and center, lobbying for the city to treat its citizens like adults.
Director, Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs
You could call Terry Olson the county's "arts czar," but that's silly. There's no denying, however, that the actor/director/administrator is a major player in the arts scene here. Consider some of the accomplishments on his résumé:
1982: Olson's SAK troupe (derived from a "sack full of costume pieces") of improvisational actors began a seven-year run of daily shows at Epcot.
1985: Olson co-founded the professional Orlando Theatre Project that moved in 1996 to Seminole Community College.
1992: The 10-day Orlando International Fringe Festival debuted, organized by Olson, and remains an annual celebration of theater to this day.
1997: He was appointed chairman of the newly formed Central Florida Theater Alliance (now called the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance), resulting in the creation of the fund-raising Downtown Arts District Commission, seeded by a $100,000 donation from both the Downtown Development Board and the city of Orlando, matched by the CFTA.
2001: He was appointed Orange County's first administrator of arts and culture, cultivating the county's support of "cultural tourism."
Olson's position connects him with endless entities related to arts and culture. He's still on the city's DAD board, which just celebrated the completion of the $1.7 million CityArts Factory that will take over the four floors of the building at the corner of Orange Avenue and Pine Street (where OVAL resided). And he and his wife, Robin Olson, continue to annually produce Dickens by Candlelight: A Christmas Carol, in which they both perform.
It's common to run into Olson at local theater houses and art galleries; his personal passion carries through into his professional life.
So … why do we want an 82-year-old jazz guy to have wider influence in Orlando? Because he's a man who knows how to create a scene.
Sam Rivers is a world-class musician and an unyielding individual. He's a multi-instrumentalist known for mad sax chops and intense compositions. He's played professionally since the 1950s with legends such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, T-Bone Walker, Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor. In 1970s New York, Rivers and his late wife Bea owned a teaching studio called Studio Rivbea that was a touchstone for the city's "loft scene," where underground players got together to jam in random venues. Many of that scene's participants, like David Murray, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, are now world-respected musicians in their own right.
Rivers can still pick up the sax or flute and blow away players 50 years younger. At their regular Will's Pub gig, Sam's big band carves out new sonic dimensions from old styles of jazz. A bebop note here, a swing rhythm there, the sounds ebb and flow against the free abyss of improvisation. It's a unique sensation, familiar and new at the same time. The leader taps away at his thigh, thrusting his fist in the air, grinning when he hears something he really likes. Young, floor-gazing hipsters sway back and forth next to middle-aged jazz geeks. No one seems to care about age or social background. The music transcends.
Sam Rivers has again created a scene of sorts; too bad it doesn't extend past the microcosm of a back room of one club for a few hours on Wednesday nights. If it did, the world might be perfect.
Owner, Will's Pub
Will's Pub is not very original; there are no indoor waterfalls (unless the urinal's been kicked in), no elaborately themed lighting system illuminating a glass dance floor: just some beers and some bands. But with last year's talk of Will's Pub closing, we've started to realize what we like most about Will's Pub, and that is Will Walker.
In the 10 or so years he's been running the joint, Walker has transformed it into a place that is as comfortable to sit with a beer as it is to see a band. And by booking acts that he likes, Walker's cultivated a loyal following of patrons and musicians (there's a reason Sam Rivers plays Will's almost exclusively). Performers get a fair cut of the door, and ticket and beer prices are affordable (what a concept!).
You're just as likely to see Walker behind the bar pouring your Tucher as you are to see him next to you in the back room watching the band. Anyone who remembers when Walker was briefly out of the Will's picture when Wednesdays were male revue nights also remembers what a blow it was to the Orlando bar and music scene.
And anyone who's seen Will stumble in at quarter-to-closing time knows that Will believes in what he sells. He's not the type of owner who'll toss you out for puking; he's the kind who'll cuddle up next to you in the stall and fall asleep.
How can a radio station with approximately 37 listeners at any given moment make anyone's list of influential people/things? It can if you stretch the definition of "influential" just a wee little bit to include things that people in Central Florida ought to pay more attention to. So let's do that, because if this thing were a popularity contest, we'd go ahead and give the carrot to Real Radio and buy a lifetime XM subscription.
WPRK is the best radio station in Central Florida, and if you don't listen, you should. You have to travel to Tampa and tune your dial to 88.5 WMNF-FM (or stream it on the web) to find a better station "better" only because WMNF has a measure of professional polish that's lacking at WPRK. It also has better public-affairs programming and boasts a local newscast.
Maybe that's a lot of shortcomings for our version of "independent" radio. But at least WPRK isn't continually dunning you for support; thank the deep pockets at Rollins College for that.
The strength of WPRK isn't only in the selection of music you'll hear, which is broad, deep and without concern for commercial viability (and God bless 'em for that). The station is indispensable for what it represents, which is radio beholden to no one. OK, sometimes when you've heard the same indie song four times in the same day spun by three different DJs, for example, it seems like a squandered opportunity. Why not put on some public affairs programming with balls? (Thank you for airing the Commonwealth Club of California; how about picking up Democracy Now!?)
Still, in a place as slickly and sickly commercial as Orlando, it's just nice that WPRK even exists. So tune it in, right now. Go on, we'll wait.