Photo by Lesha Patterson (a recently transplanted NoogaYorker photographer)
The birth of a new science is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. When did natural history—amateurs collecting specimens in the countryside—become biology? No one knows a date, but at some point in the 18th or 19th century the dilettante with a butterfly net gave way to the professional in a lab coat.
It’s possible, just possible, that the much-beloved pastime of tracking transplants to and from Chattanooga may be undergoing just such a transformation from hobby to science. Who among us has not dabbled in collecting quasi-genealogies of newcomers to the Scenic City or of Chattanooga expatriates in the big world outside? With no thought of transcending such amateurish pursuits, I recently stumbled into a line of inquiry that may give unexpected insight into the seemingly random comings and goings from our fair city.
After moving from Chattanooga to New York City in 2010, and then moving back in 2011, I began to suspect the existence of a new hybrid, neither Chattanoogan nor New Yorker. Indeed, I suspected myself to be one, having left my wife and daughter in New York and now going back and forth frequently. So in the same spirit as the amateur botanist of the 19th century whose carefully gathered plant and animal specimens eventually formed the basis for the systematic science of biology, I humbly—and with tongue only partially in cheek—offer the following field reports on a potential new species ... the NoogaYorker.
Two New York Actors in Chattanooga
During my first year in New York City, I visited Chattanooga several times to meet with clients and see family. It occurred to me that I might be considered a NoogaYorker, but that limited back and forth hardly seemed to justify the idea of a location-based hybrid identity. When we needed a new apartment at the beginning of year two, idle fancy grew into a wild surmise. The apartment we found and sub-let was owned by a family that had moved from Manhattan to Chattanooga within two weeks of our migration in the opposite direction. We didn’t know each other until becoming landlord and tenant.
Kate Forbes and Stevie Ray Dallimore were accomplished professional actors in New York City. Kate grew up in Chattanooga, but had not lived here since leaving for college. In 2010, they founded the Muse of Fire project in Chattanooga, which teaches playwriting to middle school students and produces the resulting one-act plays with adult actors. They also teach acting classes at UTC, a new venture for Stevie Ray but familiar territory for Kate, who has taught acting at New York University, Fordham University, Lincoln Center and The Public Theater.
More interestingly for my NoogaYorker hypothesis, both continue to act in New York City and elsewhere using Chattanooga as a home base. Stevie Ray has had recent movie roles in “Joyful Noise” and “American Reunion” and has filmed scenes with Harrison Ford in the science-fiction film “Ender’s Game,” slated for a 2013 release. Kate played a major role in a regional theater production of “The Crucible” at the Hartford Stage. She actually had to turn down roles in two plays because of obligations in Chattanooga, including finishing up an audio book of Appalachian folktales that she has produced using a MakeWork grant. Kate has recorded over 150 audio books and has won national awards for her work.
The couple relishes their ability to bring their New York energy and ideas to Chattanooga and said they hope to be part of creating more professional theater opportunities here.
“This feels like a place that’s ripe for creation, for making things happen,” said Stevie Ray. “We’ve been able to come and make things happen here. People are very excited about what we’re doing.”
The roster of former Chattanoogans in entertainment includes familiar names such as Samuel Jackson, Usher and Leslie Jordan, as well as others that don’t get as much ink in Chattanooga, like The Lady Bunny (birth name: Jon Ingle), one of the country’s best-known drag queens.
“It cannot be denied that this city has produced literary artists, visual artists, performing artists,” said Kate. “So there’s something going on here that’s right. It’s just that they have to leave here to make a living. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way for them to come back and work?”
Rum Sunday: 20-Something Chattanoogans in New York
Still, before professional entertainers can come back to Chattanooga, there’s just no other way to become a successful professional than to leave the city. It’s no surprise to find fledgling entertainers from Chattanooga trying to make it in New York. But the size of the Chattanooga expatriate community—including many holding dual citizenship in the New York theatre community—is astonishing.
Eric Grimm, a manic and flamboyant 2008 graduate of the Center for Creative Arts (CCA), counts at least 30 Chattanoogans in his own circle. Most are 20-something students and recent graduates working their way up in their fields, including my daughter Alexandra and her friend Su Hendricks, CCA alums who just graduated from New York University with acting degrees. Some already have significant early successes, like Trent Cresswell, a Sarah Lawrence student who last year had a staged reading of one of his plays at a professional theater.
The smaller 30-something cadre, with a few more years in the city, are even more accomplished: Canedy Knowles (daughter of two more NoogaYorkers, Rex Knowles and Sherry Landrum, who lead the Actor Training Program at Chattanooga State) is a working actor; Steven Malone is music director for the Broadway musical “Newsies;” Steven Rummer works in marketing for Dreamworks.
Grimm is a prolific organizer of social events, like the weekly Rum Sunday salon that meets at a walk-up rum bar in the East Village and the annual Memorial Day Fish & Grits party to introduce Yankee friends to the tradition of Southern hospitality.
Rum Sunday itself is very hospitable, with its own unique and quirky traditions. Grimm introduces everyone and invents all the facts in their fully fictionalized biographies. The drink is always communal bowls of rum punch. Rum Sunday virgins pick the first round, and the second round is chosen by rock-paper-scissors. After every round, Grimm unbuttons one button. Several times a night, a bathroom becomes a photo booth for as many people will fit. The first Sunday of the month, the dress code is black tie.
The New York Pizza Dept. in Hixson
Even more than Rum Sunday draws Chattanoogans in New York, a new pizza joint in Hixson is becoming a magnet for New York transplants in Chattanooga. The New York Pizza Department opened its doors in March.
As in New York, the NYPD serves both slices and whole pies. The pizza is made entirely in house using family recipes from Uncle Sal’s pizzeria on Long Island and ingredients from New York suppliers. “We have everything except the water, which is 10 percent of the taste of New York pizza,” said Kurt Cilen, who came to Chattanooga in a sales position with PlayCore. His brother Eric relocated this year to help create the restaurant.
“Living here five years, I may have met three New Yorkers,” said Kurt. “Within the last two months of us being open, I think I’ve met 500 that I had no idea were actually here. They all come in to say, ‘I’m from New York, I’m going to tell you how good your pizza is.’
“The majority of people from the South look at New Yorkers as a bunch of tough guys, but in actuality, they’re really truly family people,” he added. “Ninety-five percent of the people I meet from New York are the most lovable, caring, family-oriented people I’ve ever met.”
The Cilen brothers’ grandmother came to New York from Turkey, via Russia and the Ukraine, fleeing war and looking for a safe place for her children. Kurt’s father learned English as a teenager in New York pool halls, playing with champions like Fat Cat Willie Mosconi, who had a cameo in the 1961 film “The Hustler.” At 17, he started as a stock boy in the parts department of Manhattan’s Mercedes Benz dealership. Fast forward a few decades and their father owns an auto parts wholesaler in Fort Lauderdale and is investing in his sons’ New York pizzeria in Chattanooga.
After just two months in business, the Cilen brothers are already launching expansion plans. The first restaurant will more than double in size this summer. They plan three more suburban locations and eventually a downtown flagship that will be not just a restaurant but also a “unique pizza experience.”
“Take Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and imagine pizza instead of chocolate,” said Kurt. “The kids will absolutely love it.”
NoogaYorker Field Research Gets Strange
My NoogaYorker field research has taken some unusual turns. As the deadline for this article approached, I made an unexpected research trip to New York Pizza Department (two slices, very tasty). On the way, at a time of day when I would normally not be in my car listening to the radio, I heard an interview on WUTC-FM with Chris Grabenstein, a New Yorker who spent his teen years in Chattanooga, went to college at UT in Knoxville and returned to New York for good in 1979.
His best-known mystery series features John Ceepak and Danny Boyle, two cops solving murders in a kitschy Jersey Shore beach town. (Think pastel police cruisers and lots of fried food.) When I tracked Grabenstein down, he said, “My high school friends point out that all my rides [the Ceepak series titles come from amusement park rides, like Tilt A Whirl and Whack-A-Mole] are named after ones we used to go on in Lake Winnepesaukah when I was a kid. Not intentionally, but it seems like in my subconscious they are. We used to go there on school trips when I was in elementary school on Signal Mountain.”
Even more synchronicity/research showed up a few days later: The cover photo for this article was taken by Pulse photographer Lesha Patterson in New York City, not because The Pulse sent her on assignment, but because she just moved from Chattanooga to New York to pursue her dream. Yet another Pulse alumni, Jennifer Grelier, the paper’s former advertising designer, preceded her by nine months.
Some NoogaYorkers are more Yorker than Nooga, having long left Chattanooga behind for the Big Apple. These Chattanoogans have become more or less natives in their adopted hometown of New York City, and rarely, if ever, reappear on the local scene save for a rare family reunion. Even then, they slip in and out of town quietly.
Like so many, these NoogaYorkers were drawn to the city for its renown as the arts capital of the world and are notable for both their achievements as well as their close relationships and concentrated migration. This small gaggle of Chattanooga actors, playwrights and entertainers include four top acting talents who graduated from Hixson High School in the early 1980s, studied theatre together at UT, and launched a dramatic group assault on New Yorker soon after.
Actor, director and playwright Anthony Patton, who is now director of operations for Ballet Hispanico in New York, still recalls the period with excitement. Patton and his brother, Jon Marc, along with Don Stephenson and Patton’s future wife, Leigh, were all stars of Hixson High’s drama department who took their high school productions seriously.
“Graduating from Hixson High School culminated for us with a very special show in drama of Bernard Pomerance’s play, “The Elephant Man,” Patton recalled. “After graduation, Leigh and I joined some fellow Hixson alumni to study theatre at UT, where there was a professional theatre company. Along the way, Leigh and I fell in love there. After a brief trip up to New York City to secure an apartment, we came back to Trinity Lutheran Church in Hixson—where I attended and my mother, Janet Patton, had started a community theatre and we had many friends—got hitched, then loaded up the Volkswagen Dasher and, joined by my brother Jon Marc, headed up to the Big Apple to seek our fortunes.”
Almost right away, Leigh was cast in the lead role of a new play at the 13th Street Repertory in Greenwich Village. That next year, a play Patton had written about racism, “Old Flames,” in which Leigh played one of the lead roles, got picked up by a producer for a year-long Off-Broadway run. Jon Marc, who is a singer/songwriter, lent his music to the show. Stephenson and his then fiancé, Emily Loesser, whom he’d met in New York acting class, and another Hixson High drama alum, Theron T. Hudgins, had been a part of the very first workshop. “An amazing first few years,” Patton recalled. “We were very fortunate.”
There were many other success, Patton said, but the demands of a new family led him into nonprofit arts administration and his wife, who is now a teacher, back to school. The couple have two daughters, Amanda, 12, and Charlotte, 8, whom he said are both “native New Yorkers with, we feel, some smiling, Southern grace abiding.” Because their families also migrated away from Chattanooga, they have less reason to return, but Patton said he keeps track of the happenings in town through friends and news reports.
Stephenson went on to higher visibility as an actor. A song-and-dance man, Stephenson’s goals were never vague—he was headed for Broadway. Since arriving in New York, he has been a cast member and star of a number of Broadway shows, including “Titanic” and “The Producers,” as well as appearing in Off-Broadway productions, touring and regional productions. Stephenson’s resume also includes numerous film and TV credits. On the silver screen, he has appeared in such movies as “Little Brother” and “It Had To Be You.” On the small screen, he has appeared in soap operas (“Another World,” “All My Children”), the dramas “Law and Order” and “Now and Again,” as well as commercial work. Stephenson is married to Emily Loesser, daughter of famed Broadway composer Frank Loesser, perhaps best known for “Guys and Dolls.”
For those following in their footsteps, Patton recommends education and a preemptive strike. “If you’re considering taking the Big Leap, looking back we’re glad we’d visited first,” he said. “You need a plan and some connections. We also feel taking time to create a supportive environment for yourself in the city is supremely important. Read all you can, especially The New York Times, cover to cover, every day—and you can on the subway!”
More Field Research is Needed
My field observations seem to confirm the existence of a new type of hybrid identity in which individuals live in and fully identify with two distinct places. Increasing hybridization can be expected, although surely only a mad scientist would envision eventual replacement of all Chattanoogans and New Yorkers by hybrid NoogaYorkers.
Unfortunately, I believe all of these synchronicities I was obligated to report may reduce the possibility of scientific acceptance of the NoogaYorker hypothesis. Meaningful coincidences are, well ... meaningful and all, but so-called “science” has no use for them!
This lack of scientific acceptance comes at a particularly sensitive time, as hybrid populations in New York and Chattanooga show definite signs of growth, but follow no discernible patterns. I have also received unconfirmed reports of additional hybrids: ChicagoNoogans and NoogaLaskans. And as Volkswagen’s German employees return to the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg after several years in Chattanooga, we can expect to see the appearance of Wolfsburger-Neue-Noogans—or perhaps Chatta-burgers. Only time will tell.
OK, I’m not sure I can call this stuff research, and I’m pretty sure it would be impossible for another researcher to duplicate in order to confirm my observations. The academic field of NoogaYorker studies is in its infancy, of course, and foundation grants will surely be difficult. The only certainty is that further field research—especially in Germany—is urgently needed, although The Pulse seems reluctant to fund that particular trip. So I appeal directly to my research subjects: If you think you may be a NoogaYorker or any other bi-locational hybrid, send your story to me (seriously) at firstname.lastname@example.org or post your story to Facebook.com/NoogaYorker.
—Additional reporting by Bill Ramsey