Maui OnStage goes over the rainbow with The Wizard of Oz
photos by Jack Grace
Taking on an iconic film as a play is something Broadway has been doing since 1968, when the film The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, opened as the Broadway Musical “Promises Promises.” That was followed by the 1950 Betty Davis classic All About Eve, which became the Tony Award winning “Applause” in 1970. Note the change of title to maintain the separateness between stage and screen. That ended in 1980 when the Warner classic 42nd Street opened on Broadway as 42nd St.
Since then, the situation where Broadway led to the movies has come to almost a complete end. Broadway is too expensive for try-outs. Now the movies drive Broadway with eleven movies for Broadway in the pipe this season.
The biggest problem with this trend is that the strength of theater is the opposite of film. Also audiences have such strong memories of great films, it tests the creativity of the performers.
I’m here to report that Maui OnStage’s current production of L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wizard of Oz” may make you forget about the movie. This adaptation by John Kane from the screenplay for the stage is like watching movie come to life.
Alexis Dascoulias has put together a marvelous cast and production team and provides a great night at the theater.
Dorothy Gale is the main character and the story whirls around her imagination, obstreperous behavior, and unconditional love for her dog Toto. Whether it’s all a dream or really happened in an alternate dimension called OZ is academic. What it comes down to is you cannot do this show without Dorothy. MOS and Maui is blessed to have the amazing Marissa Godinez.
In her program bio, Marissa says she intends to pursue acting as a hobby and train for a photography career. From what I saw on opening night and from what I have consistently seen from this actor over the years, and she's just a senior King Kekaulike high school, that wish could cause Thespis, the God of the theater, to commit suicide. She is such a fine actor. She drives the show. She is quite simply a great actor, who has instincts that actors train years to achieve. She is present completely and totally.
A director once said, "Never perform with dogs or children. No one will see what you do." Marissa performs with both and I never had a problem seeing what she was doing. In fact, she was more interesting than them. THIS IS GREAT WORK GO SEE HER!
But if there was only Dorothy there wouldn’t be much of show. You also need her dog, Toto. For this role Dascoulias was so lucky that Hoku Pavao Jones and her husband Ricky came back to Maui, because their child, Frederick Harlem Schnoodle Jones quite simply has the audience in the palm of his paw. They ooo when he crosses the stage all by himself. They ahh with deep affection when he leaps into Dorothy’s basket and they are in awe of how mellow Jones is.
There’s also another Jones in this show. Direct from his triumphant performance in MAPA’s Macbeth, Ricky Jones has taken on the role of the Tinman, who is also the farmhand Hickory. A NY trained actor, Jones training is evident in the clarity of his delivery and truthfulness of his characterization.
But wait! There’s more family affairs going on in this production. Chris Kepler and his theater veteran children all appear to marvelous effect. Chris is teriffic as the Scarecrow and Hunk, and his children, particularly Pua’s Tough Ozian in “The Lollipop Kids” were spot on.
There is so much to commend this Wizard of Oz. Not a weak note in the show! The Munchkins are one of the true highlights, especially, their singing.
Lisa Paulson, is stunningly beautiful and perfect as Glinda. Her kindness and tenderness are palpable and her singing is so glorious if Arlen and Yarburgh were still on the planet, they would write more songs for Glinda.
Rochelle Dunning channels Margaret Hamilton's laugh and vocal mannerisms. She really has it down. Both her Miss Gulch and Wicked Witch of the West are like echoes of the character actor, who defined the characters for ever.
Chino LaForge as the Lion and Zeke is doing a real homage to Burt Lahr's vocal quality and mannerisms
I Loved the Jitterbug it was Marissa's best vocal number and the best dance number in the show. I never understood why it was cut from the movie.
Beth Garrow continues to carve out a niche for herself as one of our finest and most reliable character actors. Her performance re-defined Aunt Em.
The complexity of this production cannot be overstated. It is a bear. There are so many locations, so many numbers. Kudos to Greg Mitchell for the great set and production design. I do wish the balloon lifted off and the tornado was a little more magical, but these are very small quibbles. I loved the poppy fields, the witch and wizard projections. The lighting by Mari Cannon was also exceptionally well done.
Finally, Sarah Loney, who has been designing costumes for years at MOS has out done herself on this one. GO SEE THIS SHOW. You only have till December 9 to catch it. Go to www.mauionstage.com or call 242-6969.
GO TO REVIEWS Page for Full Review....
Seabury's Voice of the Prairie a must see!
Forgive the baseball metaphor, but the World Series recently concluded and Director Sally Sefton, in her first time up at bat in Seabury Hall’s newly constructed A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center, has hit a grand slam completely out of the park. Perfectly cast and beautifully played, The Voice of the Prairie” is a Mark Twain esque story that has great wisdom and marvelous writing such as this one from Frankie the blind girl played by the outstandingly accomplished Zoe Harrelson, “Being blind is wonderful, every breath is a new world.” or this one, “I can see better with my ears than most people can with their eyes.”
The play is about the relationship between a boy and his dad, Poppy (Todd Van Amburgh) and how their adventures would turn him into a Garrison Keillor like tale spinner in the early days of radio.
It’s also, a marvelous love story between a spunky, plucky blind girl Frankie (Zoe Harrelson) who later becomes Frances Reed (Ari Glauser) a school teacher in Arkansas and
Davey (Kaimana Neil) who grows up to be David Quinn (Ryan Noufer) the radio story teller.
David has been convinced to take up with an itinerant radio salesman Leon Schwab (Zeb Mehring). In the early days of that medium hucksters would set up shop for a day or two recruit as much of the local talent as they could broadcast and sell as many radios as possible and then move on to the next town.
David’s stories about his adventures with Poppy and Frankie the blind girl make him something of a sensation. Frankie, who he lost when they were discovered by a lecherous man (Kevin Lewis) who plies them with food, has been listening to the stories about her youthful adventures and when Leon finds her, she is entangled with a Methodist minister (Taka Tsutsui) who is infatuated with her. Leon convinces Frances to return with him to Kansas where he promises to reunite Davy and Frankie. Unfortunately Leon didn’t tell David and the reunion doesn’t quite go as expected. You’ll have to go to find out whether it all works out or not.
The story shifts between 1895 and 1925 seamlessly, and at times simultaneously. It’s a very effective convention. The performances by these young Thespians are confident and mature. if there were a tony award for high school actors Zoe Harrelson , Ari Glauser, Kaimana Neil, Ryan Noufer and Zeb Mehring turn in award worthy performances.
Harrelson’s Frankie is imbued with an intensity of spirit and vitality that is utterly beguiling. she literally attacks Neil and you love her from her first moment to her last. Glauser, as the grown up Frankie, who now goes by Frances, is as restrained as Harrelson, is exuberant. It is clear that the loss of Davy in her childhood has had a detrimental effect on her joie de vive. We learn later, in a touching scene, she has been looking for him as he has her.
Neil’s Davey is wide eyed and naïve, with a survivalist spirit that is enhanced by his relationship with Frankie, who has attached herself to him to escape from her abusive father also played by Taka Tsutsui.
Ryan Noufer is perfect as David he is thoroughly believable as the grown up boy we saw at the beginning of the play. We understand his humility and shyness and we rejoice at his success and new-found fame.
Zeb Mehring is a veteran actor, who has appeared in plays throughout the community including a memorable performance in Maui OnStage’s To Kill a Mockingbird a few years back. First, I loved the physical difference between the lanky Noufer and the less imposing Mehring. However, what Mehring lacks in physical stature he more than makes up for in chutzpah. Ever the shrewd businessman Mehring’s Leon, rails against the socialist Marxist FCC and is constantly scheming to survive.
Taka Tsutsui in the duel role as Frankie’s drunk father and her frustrated minister suitor turns in his best performance yet. Other’s in this very good cast include Celina Bekins as Susie, who lusts after David and whose delivery is as rapid as a machine gun, Sophia Hill, Ashley Chen and Rhiannon Hernandez.
Andre Morissette has captured both the 19th and early 20th century with his costumes and the simple set by Van Amburgh is enhanced by the late John Baldwin’s antique radio collection generously lent to the production by the late philanthropist’s son, Jeremy.
Voice of the Prairie runs until November 4, Friday and Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 3. For more information go to mauitvnews.com and click on the link to coming attractions or visit www.seaburyhall.org . DON’T MISS IT!
Here is the Sunset from the new Seabury Hall A'ali'ikuhonua Creative Arts Center.
MOS Producer's Major Hit
photos by JACK GRACE
Maui OnStage's summer musical is one of the biggest shows ever produced on the Historic Iao Theater stage. Under the able direction of Jennifer Rose, 31 actors, singers and dancers portray 51 characters! In a three hour long laugh fest everyone will enjoy.
The Producers is one of my all time favorite films. It was Mel Brooks' first movie in 1968 and he cast Zero Mostel as the once legend in his own mind, Max Bialystock, who produced such theater disasters as Funny Boy, a musical adaptation of hamlet. In the role of Leo bloom, the nebish accountant, who comes up with the central plot element scheme, Brooks cast Gene Wilder. Bloom, while doing Bialystock’s books muses that “Theoretically, one could earn more money with a flop than a hit.” Bialystock realizes the genius of this and lays out the scheme.
"Step one: We find the worst play ever written, a surefire flop.
Step two: I raise two million bucks. One for you one for me; lots of little old ladies out there.
Step three: You go back to work on the books, two of them - one for the government, one for us. You can do it, Bloom; you're a wizard!
Step four: we open on Broadway. And before you can say step five, we “close” on Broadway!
Step six: we take our two million bucks and fly to 'Rio!'" That’s how they come to produce “Springtime for Hitler.”
Steven Dascoulias is practically perfect as the conniving, libidinous, over-the -top producer. Max Bialystock. He is in excellent voice and his tour-de-force recapitulation of the entire show in the song Betrayed was done expertly and with verve.
Michael Pulliam's take on Leo is so understated it borders on the morose. In, what I can only presume, is an effort to distance himself from Wilder and Matthew Broderick he turns his Leo into a one-dimensional nerd who never successfully gets out from Max's shadow.
As Ulla Inga Tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom, Bialystock and Bloom's receptionist, MOS brought in a ringer from the mainland. Laura Lee Cole is a welcome addition to Maui's ingenue corps. She's another quadruple threat, sings, acts, dances and is exceptionally easy on the eyes. Let's all hope she decides to stay.
With the plethora of talent in this production, it's hard to imagine anyone stealing this show, but Francis Ta'ua as the transvestite director Roger Debris does just that from the moment he steps on the stage and says, "I'm supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look more like the Chrysler Building!" to his side splittingly hilarious "Heil Me," Ta'ua owns the stage. "Keep it Gay" is the show stopping moment and Rose, who is doing excellent work directing her first musical, has them milking it for everything they can.
In the category there are no small parts only small actors Joyce romero as Hold Me Touch Me is absolutely fearless and portrays a true nympho maniac with a twinkle in her eye. Rebecca Narrowe is another scene stealer. Her rejected chorus girl is brilliantly realized from the Imogene Coca school of comedy performance.
On opening-night some of the production elements had not yet been completed but you could tell that this show was going to be up to the quality of what we expect from set designer Caro Walker and Maui Onstage since the Dascoulias's arrived. I loved the Kawahara and Marks set with the “unhappy accountants.” Special awards have to be given to the "Fabulous" Marsha Kelly who created more than 400 costumes for the show an unbelievable feat. She was assisted by Doug Kendrick who was responsible for the outrageous headdresses that the chorus girls wore in Springtime for Hitler and also the eagle that Ulla sports.
Other notable performances were turned in by old faithful Dale Button as Franz Liebkin,the always amazing Kalani Whitford as Karman Ghia, and Dylan Bode who has one of the best voices in the show and we all know what a terrific actor he is from pro arts ' The Mousetrap, was underutilized.
When Ali Cardinalli left last year, everyone wondered who would step up to do the big summer musical. Never fear, a Romero is here. The wonderful Camille Romero had the unenviable task of choreographing this show and she did outstanding work, with help from Susan Strohman, the Tony award winning director and choreographer of the Broadway musical. I especially loved the June Taylor-esque rotating swastika.
Steven Haines did a great job with the music. The ensemble Haines put together added tremendously to the professional feel of the show. However, the night I was there the trumpet player was having a little difficulty. The producers runs till the 29th don't miss it.
MAPA and Auriole Flavell's NARNIA
It’s been ten years since Maui Academy of Performing Arts mounted a production of Narnia, an adaptation of c.s. Lewis’ book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by Jules Tasca, Thomas Tierney and Ted Drachman. The last one was in the Castle Theatre and I still remember Joie Lee as the White Witch, she was marvelous. In fact I said at the time “It is one time when the audience may have wished evil would triumph over good if it meant she would continue to perform.”
Now, under the inspired direction of Sally Sefton, MAPA, with assistance from their angel, Auriole Flavell, has remounted the show in the much more intimate setting of Steppingstone Playhouse in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. With 52 young performers, this production bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. It’s truly remarkable what MAPA does each year with a large group of young people; training them to act, sing, dance and put on a high quality production in just four weeks. It’s a professional level experience for these young people that they will be able to take with them for the rest of their lives whether they pursue a show business career or not.
As in the previous production, the White Witch is the juiciest part and Sydney Roberts savors every evil moment. She commands the stage with maturity far beyond her years. Inhabiting fully the regal role, she manipulates, orders and seduces all around her to do her bidding. She is featured in four songs and when she is singing they are without doubt the musical highlights of this show.
That is not to take away from the other singers, they are all very good; Especially, Haley Jernaill as Lucy, Arianna Glauser as Susan and Joshua Elldred as Tumnus, the Satyr. Hats off to Kirsten Otterson, musical director. The orchestra as well as the choral numbers, both on and off stage were well done, particularly the four part harmonies. Music has been a casualty of shrinking budgets in the public schools and it’s great to hear young people harmonize in a choral setting. The musical accompaniment was provided by volunteer students from Baldwin H.S. Doing an excellent job, Reid Ishikawa, piano; Sharon Nakama, synthesizer; Alexandra Underwood, flute; and Skyler Mendoza, percussion.
Another kudo has to go to choreographer Amelia Nelson. It is such a gift that this wonderfully talented young lady has returned to maui to share her skills with the next generation of performers. After graduating from UCLA School of the Arts she could have gone anywhere. I especially liked TJ Inemoto’s beautiful balletic interludes. This young man reminds me of one of Maui’s best male dancers Kalani Roselle. His lines are lovely, his leaps and turns exciting and his physical sense is highly controlled. I look for big things from him in the future.
Lewis, who was a devout Christian, wrote the story as a thinly veiled parable about the coming of Jesus, his sacrifice and resurrection. Aslan, played by Joshua Berman, the lion who is talked about but not seen until late in the show is supposed to be Jesus. Berman looks great.
Annika Otterson the show’s costume designer under the mentorship of the inimitable Kathleen Schulz, created the lion outfit and all of the other great costumes. Kamalei Warrington’s wonderful makeup transform Berman into the character and his understated performance reminds us of the power of subtlety. When he brings himself to be sacrificed it’s the most powerful moment in the show.
Isaac Rauch as the Dwarf, is another young actor who fully, completely and convincingly inhabits every part he plays. His dwarf is at once both evil and funny. The beavers played by Casey Hearl and Kiegan Otterson also do very nice work. as the older brother, peter, Shane Borge, made me believe he couldn’t lift that sword and I saw the moment he got the strength to not only lift it but wield it lethally in battle. Kudos go to fight choreographer Daniel Vicars for staging the huge war scenes so excitingly.
Young Nathan Sullivan, as Edmund, understands both the character’s mendacity and transformation and pulls them both off. No mean feat.Narnia is a big show and it takes a most creative effort to make it work in a small setting like steppingstone. Sefton said the set was designed by committee demonstrating exceptional creativity in handling multiple settings with minimal sets by their ability to infer where we are
Narnia has a sold out run this weekend and no doubt will be the toughest ticket in town. don’t miss it.
MAPA'S The Secret Lives of Girls
MAPA'S The Secret Lives of Girls
The Secret Lives of
The Secret Lives of Girls
going to tell you a secret—and I don't want you to tell. The secret is about
me—about my life—how it will never be the same again." So says Abby, the
protagonist, in Maui Academy of Performing Art’s (MAPA) latest production of
Linda Daugherty’s snapshot of female teenage angst The Secret Lives of Girls playing until Sunday at Queen Kaahumanu
Center’s Steppingstone Playhouse. Under the direction of Sally Sefton this cast of nine; seven
girls and two adults takes the audience on a ride most parents have been on,
are on or will soon be boarding.
The playwright lets us in on all the girls’ secrets; the bullying in the form of gossiping, keeping secrets, using friendship as a weapon, name-calling, exclusion, spreading rumors, backbiting, gathering in cliques and manipulation. These are the overture to such dangerous conditions as depression, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and accelerated sexuality. While the female style of bullying is less violent than male, it is none-the-less meant to inflict as much pain as physical attacks and is just as cruel and aggressive.
The behavior is exacerbated and facilitated, by email, instant messaging, cell phones, camera-phones, social networking sites, etc. In the hands of these teenagers they become lethal weapons and instruments of deceit. Modern technology allows them to spread their lies and distortions at the speed of light to a much wider audience than old fashion gossip. This play reinforces the adage put forth by Judge Judith Scheindlin, “You know how to tell when a teenager is lying? When their mouth is moving.”
In the lead role of Abby, Kathryn Adler takes the audience on the journey as she convincingly, travels from victim to victimizer. We see how easy it is for one who was the butt of the jokes and an outsider to willingly inflict pain on others when she is taken on the inside. The playwright demonstrates how capricious, superficial and cruel female teenagers can be.
Playing Stephanie, the prettiest girl, who is always at the center of the storm, Ashley Hudson demonstrates a deep understanding of her character’s manipulative nature and her undercurrent of insecurity. Her telephone conversations with her mother are very revealing of the turmoil her life is in and the anger she portrays is frightening.
The other five girls, Sutton (Christy Fell), Rebecca (Kirsten Gilchrist), Anna Marie (Ruby Riker), Kayla (Madison Spurgin) are at time enablers of all the drama and at other times the targets of the wrath of the in-group. One of the ways in which the playwright stretches credulity is to have us believe these girls comprise a championship volleyball team. It’s highly unlikely that the kind of drama these queens were playing would make for much successful teamwork on the volleyball court.
Late, in the slightly more than one hour drama, a new girl arrives on the scene. Chandler (Casey Hearl), is from California and she befriends the ostracized Abby and helps to bring her out of her depression.
Carolyn Wright, as Abby’s mom, understands this character intimately and brings all of her life experience as well as her estimable acting talents to give us a finely nuanced performance of a mother desperately trying to hang on while her daughter takes her along like a second person on a one person luge. The recent winter Olympics bob-sled track provides a perfect metaphor for the girls’ down ward slide with all of its treacherous twists and turns.
As the Coach and Suttons’ mom, Jeanette Rucci created two distinct characters without much support from the playwright.
Caro Walker and Ted Hatcher combined to create one of the most interesting settings of any play put in Steppingstone Theater. Through the use of a projector, the emails sent between the characters were made visible to the audience. It was as if they were writing to us. The photos of backdrops allowed the scene locations to change without a pause. The school uniforms, created by Maui’s answer to Edith Head, Kathleen Schulz, evoked a private school and they easily transformed into volley ball uniforms.
Ms. Sefton has taken on an explosive subject and unflinchingly explores all of its darkest aspects. We feel like voyeurs watching an atrocity and there is nothing we can do about it. However, MAPA knows these subjects are difficult and thought provoking so they have brought in a series of professionals to lead post curtain discussions. These include Dr. Virginia Cantorna, Maribeth Theisen, Mitch Berman and Susan Pirsch who will offer insights into the real world that the play portrays.
The Secret Lives of Girls continues March 27 at 7:30 p.m and March 28 at 2 p.m.. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for seniors and students. They are available through the MAPA box office at 244-8760, ext. 228, and at the customer service kiosk in Queen Ka'ahumanu Center's center court. For group tickets call Carolyn Wright at 244-8760, ext. 221, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Janes-Brown can be reached at email@example.com.
Drama is the stuff
life is made of
In the last few years, how many dramas have been produced by local theaters? It’s one musical after another followed by a comedy. That’s the Maui formula for a full house. Well, I’m here to tell you that something really amazing is happening at the Iao Theater in Wailuku and you only have another week to see it!
It’s Maui OnStage’s (MOS) production of Christopher Sergil’s theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There hasn’t been a better serious, straight play production by adults on Maui since “Wit,” which broke the mold.
Alexis Dascoulias has assembled as perfect a cast as you are going to see anywhere. This is top-notch work by amateurs. That name is often considered a pejorative, but if one looks at the word’s etymology, it comes from the Latin root amo, which means to love. These people aren’t doing this for money, they do it for love; and it shows.
The play is about injustice, parenting, racism, ignorance and love; the love of a father for his children, for his profession and for his community. Atticus Finch (Don Carlson doing brilliant work owning a character everyone associates with Gregory Peck) is a lawyer who believes that the law is the great equalizer. He says in his jury summation the law is, “An institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the ignorant man the equal of any president, and the stupid man the equal of Einstein.”
Carlson’s spellbinding delivery of this seminal moment in the play is such a delight to experience. Here is an actor of exceptional skill, at the height of his powers who has been keeping his talent from the Maui audiences for seven years. But, let’s face it, there hasn’t been a part for him until now.
This play cannot be done without having three great children actors. Most of the play is seen from the children’s point of view and the success or failure of any production rests firmly on the shoulders of these three children. MOS is blessed to have three remarkable child actors in the roles of Scout (Marley Mehring), Jem (Zeb Mehring and Dill (Kellan Welch channeling the young Ron Howard as Opie).
These young people understand who they are, who everyone else is, what their relationship is to each character and never miss a beat. They are thoroughly in command of their characters and every moment they have. They never look like they are reciting lines from a play, you really believe they are saying these words for the first time. It is astonishing to watch them.
Rueben Carrion plays the part of the wrongly accused Tom Robinson and it is without doubt his best performance ever. Carrion has found a voice and a physical manner for Robinson that is pitch perfect.
If you know Charlie Dungans, who plays the red neck low-life Bob Ewell, there’s not a nicer, more personable man on this island. However, I guarantee you will hate this character. Dungans isn’t afraid to go to the dark side with this character, but he never becomes a stereotype. The bitterness, anger, hatred and mendacity all come through in a tour de force performance.
As his daughter Mayella, Hana Valle has the right combination of ignorance and naivete. Her tantrums and emotional outburst propel the courtroom drama.
Jennifer Rose as Maudie Atkinson is Harper Lee’s alter ego. She carries the load of exposition and narration and like Little Sally said in Urinetown, “Nothing can kill a play like too much exposition.” In the hands of a lesser actor, this character could commit dramacide, but Rose is one of our finest actors and she effortlessly tells the story like a good neighbor over a back yard fence.
There is an old theater adage, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Suffice to say there are no small actors in this show. Joyce Romero, as the mean old racist Mrs. Dubose and Ute Karolina Finch (no relation to Atticus and the kids) as Miss Stephanie, the town busy body, both are clearly having a great time becoming and breathing life into their characters. As the great New York acting teacher, Suzanne Shepherd used to say, “If the actors are having fun, then the audience will; that’s why we call them plays;” and we are.
In the role of Sheriff Heck Tate, William Mackozak has one of the best moments in the show at the conclusion. Mackozak, who is a consummate professional, knows when it’s his turn and he takes it with authority and sincerity.
Other cast members include Lou Young as Judge Taylor and Mr. Cunnigham, Kevin Wilson as the prosecuting attorney Gilmer and Boo Radley, Bryant Neal as Rev. Sykes, Sandra Shawhan as Calpurnia and Ikaika Ahina as the clerk.
Since the Dascoulias’ have come to town the production values at MOS have been exceptional. Caro Walker’s set is a work of art; beautiful and functional. Mark Collmer actually created moods, focused attention and even let us know that the evening was coming in one of the best lighting designs we’ve seen in a long time. There’s a new costume designer in town. Lynda Timm has served notice that she is to be reckoned with.
Do not miss this show! There is only today, Sunday March 14 and next weekend to catch it. It plays at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com.
Banking for the People
Even if financial services reforms are finally
enacted at the federal level, it is unlikely they will create a banking
system that serves the interests of Main Street America or
the great mass of citizens who do the work and pay the taxes yet
reap few of the benefits of this nation’s immense wealth. But
what if that great mass of citizens owned the banks?
That’s a question that a growing number
of candidates and legislators across the
country are answering with proposals to
create state-owned banks. Though these initiatives borrow from
an old model—North Dakota has run a successful state bank
since 1919—they are a response to a new reality: the hundreds
of billions of public dollars plowed into big banks by the federal
bailout have done little to free credit for job creation or economic
development in recession-ravaged communities. So, taking a cue
from Nobel Prize– winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and other
critics of private-bank bailouts, latter-day populists are proposing
to put public money to work for the public good.
Oregon Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury is
calling for the creation of a Bank of Oregon, which would keep
money in the state and invest in sustainable development. “It is
time to declare economic sovereignty from the multinational
banks that are responsible for much of our current economic
crisis,” says the former State Senate president and secretary of
state. “Every year we ship over a billion dollars in Oregon taxpayer
dollars to out-of-state and multinational banks in the form
of deposits, only to see that money invested elsewhere. It’s time
to put our money to work for Oregonians.”
Michigan’s Virg Bernero, a leading candidate for the
Democratic nomination for governor in that hard-hit state, is
another public-banking proponent. “We can break the credit
crunch and beat Wall Street at their own game by keeping our
money right here in Michigan and investing it to retool our
economy and create jobs,” says the populist mayor of Lansing.
In Illinois, Green Party gubernatorial nominee Rich Whitney,
who won 10 percent of the statewide vote in 2006, proposes depositing
all state tax revenues and pension contributions in a state
bank. “Instead of using state funds as a means to further enrich
private banks, a state-owned bank could earn additional revenue
for the state while at the same time help spur economic development
in Illinois ,” he argues.
It is not just candidates who are talking up bold remedies to
the challenges created and perpetuated by “too big to fail” banks.
Legislators from Vermont to Virginia, from Michigan to Washington
State, are proposing to start state banks. They take inspiration
from the Bank of North Dakota, created ninety-one years
ago by radical Non-Partisan Leaguers to serve as the depository
for all state tax collections and fees. The nation’s only stateowned
bank avoided subprime lending and the derivatives markets
during the recent real estate bubble and now has $4 billion
under management. It maintains the faith of its founders and, in
the words of bank president Eric Hardmeyer, continues to “plow
those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form
of loans. We invest back into the state in economic development
type of activities. ” What that means, according to Ellen Brown,
author of the book Web of Debt, is that North Dakota has avoided
the credit freeze “by creating its own credit [and] leading the nation
in establishing state economic sovereignty.”
That sounds good to Massachusetts Senate president Therese
Murray, who wants her state to look into creating its own bank.
Washington House finance committee vice chair Bob Hasegawa,
a Seattle Democrat, has formally proposed a State Bank of Washington.
“ Imagine financing student aid, infrastructure, industry
and community development. Imagine providing access to capital
for small businesses, or otherwise leveraging our resources
instead of having to do it with tax incentives,” he says. “Imagine
keeping our resources local instead of exporting them as profits,
never to be seen again—that’s what this bank could do.”
The movement to create state-run banks is part of a broader
push to put public money to work for the people. In Los Angeles
the City Council voted unanimously on March 5 to ensure that
taxpayer money is invested only in banks that have established
track records of helping families stay in their homes, lending to
small businesses that create jobs and eschewing toxic interestrate
“swaps” that saddle communities with excessive fees and
interest rates. Pennsylvania’s auditor general, Jack Wagner, is
leading a campaign in that state to get local governments and
school boards to stop risking public funds with investment
banks that engage in deals Wagner describes as “tantamount
to gambling with public money.” Urging these initiatives on is
the Service Employees International Union, which is waging a
national campaign to stop investing in unaccountable banks. “It’s
time for Wall Street banks to stop focusing on their profits and
start doing their part to help our cities and families recover,” says
SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger.
The prospect of what might be done with all the money
that has flowed from the federal Treasury to private banks
has some players talking of taking the North Dakota model
national. At a Nation magazine “Meltdown” event a year ago ,
Stiglitz suggested, “If we had used the $700 billion to create
a new financial institution, allowed it to lever 10 to 1, which is
very modest compared to the 30 to 1 that we were doing—10
to 1 would have generated $7 trillion of new lending capacity,
far in excess of what our country needs. So the issue here is not
about lending. It’s really about saving the bankers. And what
we confused was saving the banks versus saving the bankers and
their shareholders.” Yet as Washington struggles with the task
of imposing basic regulation on big banks, the action will be in
the states. How likely is that? Hardmeyer used to doubt that the
North Dakota model would ever be adopted elsewhere. Now,
he says, “when I look around the country, it’s not quite as far a
leap as I once thought it was.” JOHN NICHOLS