Where Angels Fear to Tread

When Kilgore College staged a gay play, administrators learned there were limits to a liberal education in East Texas

When Heritage Baptist Church members picketed the play on opening night, one carried a sign painted with two stick figures having anal sex. Caldwell and others thought this message, and other signs expressing a loathing for homosexuals, were more repulsive than any scene in Angels. W.N. Otwell, pastor of the church in Mount Enterprise that sponsored a protest, disagreed. "I guess it's because their minds are perverted. The stick figure signs had no sexual organs exposed." Otwell also disagreed with a counterprotester who carried a sign claiming, "God Doesn't Hate." Said the pastor: "God does hate. God wouldn't create hell if he didn't hate."

Publicity about the Kilgore College controversy made headlines in metropolitan newspapers across the country as a result of wire coverage in the Associated Press and Reuters. The Australian Broadcast Company contacted Caldwell for an interview. Kushner himself phoned Caldwell on three occasions and sent a letter of support to the students.

But neither the publicity nor the celebrity support could stop the fallout, which continued well after Angels took its final bow on the Kilgore College stage. The Overton-based McMillan Foundation, despite its 40-year relationship with the college, threatened to withhold the remaining $500,000 it had pledged to the school for the year. The gift, already earmarked for completing the Devall Student Center and renovating the Ivan Liberal Arts Building, was saved only after Holda met individually with each foundation trustee.

The college's board of trustees also urged Holda to put a new forum in place, a "notification policy," so college administrators could receive fair warning before controversial student programs reached the public. Though Holda has no intention of using the policy to dismantle the college's principles of academic freedom, Caldwell believes it's a thinly disguised mechanism for censorship.

The big wallop, however, came on October 28, when county commissioners, with one member absent, voted 4-0 to rescind the $50,000 gift to the Texas Shakespeare Festival's 2000 season. "I was disappointed. Therefore, I did what I had said I would do," said commissioner McBride in a faxed statement.

wThe Texas Shakespeare Festival began as Kilgore's contribution to Texas's sesquicentennial celebration in 1986 but has since grown to stand on its own. Now attracting patrons throughout north Texas, the summer festival features two works by Shakespeare, as well as a classical drama, and occasionally a musical. It has become an annual institution in the theater-starved area. "The festival has been compared to professional theaters in New York or California," Holda said.

Last summer, before the opening curtain, Caldwell told audiences about the festival's financial problems. He made a plea for support, explaining that his budget continues to shrink along with Kilgore College's oil-dependent tax base. Gregg County appraisal statistics show that while taxes on personal property have increased since 1996, revenues from the East Texas oil fields have consistently shrunk. In 1999 the festival's $332,359 budget was $52,000 less than the previous year. Caldwell learned the 2000 season would have to cut an additional $32,000 from the already lean 1999 budget.

During a matinee performance, Norman Shtofman, a clothier and former Tyler mayor, asked Caldwell if the college could continue to afford to sponsor the festival. Caldwell told him, "It's getting harder." Shtofman said he knew businessmen in Tyler who would jump at the chance to take it over. The next morning Shtofman phoned Caldwell to chat about visiting with his friend Bill Crowe, president of Tyler Junior College. Although Crowe was interested in saving the festival, he refused to make an offer, out of respect for Kilgore College. He didn't want people to think Tyler, a longtime civic rival, would steal the festival away from Kilgore.

That didn't stop the rumors. The public perception was that Tyler wanted to gobble up the festival. As a result of the potential takeover, Gregg County commissioners in September voted 3-2 to offer the college a $50,000 matching grant that required the school to raise an additional $50,000 from other sources. The city of Longview followed suit, directing $30,000 of its hotel/motel tax revenue to the festival. The city of Kilgore threw in another $15,000, or one-seventh if its anticipated hotel/motel income. All told, the $95,000 in gifts would make up the budget shortfall the festival had experienced since 1998.

"It wasn't out of a noble love of the arts that prompted these entities to come forward," Holda said. The college soon learned how fickle the commissioners were in their professed love for Shakespeare when, a mere four weeks later, they unanimously rescinded their gift. Although he was in Austin when the grant was voted down, Judge Smith explained that the September vote, a tight 3-2 majority, indicated that the commissioners were divided over the issue in the first place. The Angels scandal clinched the decision of the five-man committee to take back the money, Smith said. "It was the icing on the cake."

Two commissioners didn't like using county money to fund the arts, Smith said. Danny Craig, Kilgore's representative on the commission, felt it wasn't fair to give money to the Shakespeare Festival without also giving it to other cultural activities such as the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Craig admitted he'd never seen a Shakespeare production in his life. "What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears."

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