Thursday, September 02, 2004

Forgetting to Go to Queens

NY Times
September 2, 2004
Forgetting to Go to Queens

The food was ready and so were the little ballroom dancers. The exhibits were open, the panorama of the city was polished and the Unisphere was shining, all for 50 Republican delegates and guests who had promised to spend a morning at the Queens Museum of Art.

Problem was, nobody showed. With workers at the ready, a buffet of South Asian delicacies waiting and a group of grade-school students itching to tango, the planned private tour of the museum was called off after the delegates failed to appear.

All of which left Matthew Mo, an 11-year-old from Forest Hills, feeling a little less than psyched about the G.O.P. "I was pretty excited to see the delegates for the Republican Party, because I could see someone who actually had a sort of power and was really special and important to our country," said Matthew, one of 10 dancers from P.S. 144 in Forest Hills who had come to showcase their ballroom stylings. "We were going to give a show for them, so I was surprised that they weren't here."

The event at the Queens Museum was one of several outings - some well attended, others much less so - organized by the New York host committee for the Republican convention to show off cultural institutions around the city, including the Apollo Theater and the Bronx Zoo.

And while some sites proved more popular than Queens - the Bronx Zoo was quite a draw, the organizers said - the head of the Queens Museum found the appetite for culture a little lacking. "What was so great was that the host committee and the Republican National Committee thought it was a good idea to go see the boroughs," said Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director. "But nobody showed up for the buses."

Ethan Davidson, spokesman for the host committee, said the delegates had planned to go to Queens but that their plans "had just changed."

"It's not uncommon that people change their plans when they go on vacation," he said in a statement. "We offered a number of options and are happy that our convention guests are enjoying themselves, eating in our restaurants and shopping in our stores, and we are confident that they are experiencing some of the best New York has to offer."

That may be true, but delegate apathy also seemed to rule at the Apollo tour, which was briefly canceled after only a handful of people showed up to board the tour's bus in Midtown at 9 A.M. By 9:45, organizers, discouraged by the turnout, had decided to give the event the hook, but then decided to push forward after several more boarded.

At least one young Republican said he was not surprised by the meager turnout. "I knew people were going to drop out," said Bobbie King, 19, an alternate delegate from the United States Virgin Islands and a student at Princeton, who sat at the front of the nearly empty bus. "It's an older crowd. They are not used to being up late. They can't hang. Too much wine and Champagne."

Once in Harlem, those on the bus were treated to a tour and a performance at the Apollo, which included a creaky James Brown impersonator in a well-worn wig doing a well-worn rendition of Mr. Brown's signature tune, "I Feel Good." From there, the group made a brief visit to the Studio Museum of Harlem, where they looked at work by the photographer James VanDerZee and up-and-comers like Wangechi Mutu, whose Pollock-esque painting "Tumors: Inside My Sanctum, Defecating, Satin Death" drew quizzical looks.

"Don't go upstairs," Mr. King said to tour comrades. "The artist up there has a very vivid imagination."

Their final stop was Sylvia's, the legendary soul food restaurant on Lenox Avenue, which served up coconut shrimp, fried chicken, collard greens and ribs. Before lunch, another alternate delegate, Eustis Guillemet from New Orleans, took the opportunity to announce to the small assembly, "My vote is going to make a difference and put Bush back in office again!" The room erupted in applause.

There was similar applause inside the Neil Simon Theater, where former president George H. W. Bush, was in the orchestra of the matinee performance of "Hairspray" with his wife, Barbara, and a half-dozen Secret Service agents. Mr. Bush sat on the aisle checking his BlackBerry and smiling politely even as the show's characters cracked wise about American politics.

"Where do you go after Special Ed?" asked Tracy Turnblad, the show's hero, in the first act.

"Congress!" one of her schoolmates responded, getting a huge laugh from the crowd.

After the show, the Bushes mingled with the cast backstage and took a few questions from reporters. Mrs. Bush defended her granddaughters Barbara and Jenna for poking fun at her on the convention floor on Tuesday night. "I thought they were funny, but apparently the press doesn't have a sense of humor," Mrs. Bush said. "I always rib them."

The former president, meanwhile, asked his opinion of "Hairspray," said: "Fantastic. A wonderful show."

While some producers have blamed the convention for scaring off tourists, Jed Bernstein, the president of the League of American Theaters and Producers, said that several special matinee performances on Sunday proved very popular with delegates and other conventioneers, with some 13,000 people attending eight productions.

Which, as it turned out, is about 12,999 more people than showed up yesterday at the Queens Museum. Undaunted, the P.S. 144 dancers - decked out in sequined dresses and other natty dance attire - toured the museum and even performed a little for the workers.

And while the children put on a brave face, at least one teacher felt put out about being stood up.

"The caveat of politics aside, we thought it was a wonderful opportunity to show off our cultural resources and let the kids meet delegates and people from other parts of the country and understand a little of the process," said Lois Olshan, the arts coordinator at P.S. 144. "So it was really going to be win-win for everybody. Except it turned into lose-lose."