Provincetown’s Vanishing Fringe

For the past 16 years, my partner and I have vacationed in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He grew up in the Boston area, and we always planned our vacation to coincide with his family’s, so that we can spend time with them.  A lot has changed in 16 years.

Our visit to P-town usually began with a  stop by Muir Music, though I still called it by its original name, Yvette’s Cassettes and Didi’s CDs.  I typically bought female vocalists, and the proprietor, whose name was actually Nancy, always introduced me to the best of the old and the new.  Whatever we purchased became the soundtrack for the visit that year.  Ella, Lena, Melody Gardot, they all provided comfort as we prepared dinner in the kitchen of the little apartments we rented.  (Nancy sent out word last year that the store was closing, but it may have moved to a new location.  UPDATE:  Muir Music is indeed alive and well and yes, I bought the new Melody Gardot CD.)

I remember the Provincetown Fringe Festival which stationed itself every year at the Provincetown Inn at the far west end of town.  The festival consisted of Marj Conn and her group of fellow travelers which she dubbed the Conn Artists.  She wrote most of the plays and appeared in all of them.

She played Gertrude Stein in one of her productions and voiced the oft quoted line about Oakland:  “There’s no there there.”  Around that time, the Oakland Tribune ran a story which put the quote in a different light.  Rather than a slap against Oaktown and it’s lack of glamour as compared to its bigger neighbor to the west, the line expressed Stein’s lament that traces of her childhood, the family house and other familiar surroundings, had vanished.  No there there, in other words, using classic Stein syntax.  In connection with the story, the Tribune sold “THERE” flags, with its own iconic building printed behind the word.  We bought two of them and sent one to Marj Conn.  She loved it.

The Fringe Festival left town in 2007, a final act fueled by a real-life drama.  Marj had lived for years at The Figurehead House, paying very low rent.  In preparation for a sale of the property, though, all eleven residents of the Figurehead, including Marj, were evicted.  A debate raged within the Town Hall about affordable housing in Provincetown, but nothing could save the former Figurehead residents from losing their home.  Unable to afford Provincetown’s higher rents, Marj decamped the Provincetown Fringe Festival to Asbury Park, New Jersey.  We still miss the theater she produced, and nothing has really taken its place.

When prices go up, the fringe fades away.  Good, inexpensive dramatic theater is hard to find these days in P-town, likely because actors find it difficult to afford the rents, no matter how many day jobs they work.  Tennessee Williams famously lived and worked in Provincetown.  He once stayed at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a group of small units on an aging pier that juts out into the bay.  I’m sure he paid little or nothing.  Nowadays, the cheapest unit runs well over $1000 a week.

Theater has historically been Provincetown’s bread and butter, and for years we’ve enjoyed many productions.  Though some of the edge seems missing.  The fringe has faded, and not just from the Provincetown Inn’s rented theater room.  Three-star wannabes have pushed out good cheap eats.  There was a Thai restaurant we frequented for years until they felt the need to charge $15 or more for pad thai.  I still can’t imagine what one could do to pad thai, vegetarian pad thai no less, to cause it to be worth $15.

Yet, the town maintains an ethos which has drawn us year after year.  Kate Clinton still produces belly laughs while reinforcing community and celebrating our lives.  I still like to get my workout climbing up the all granite Pilgrims Memorial, all 116 steps and 60 ramps of it.  In a good year, one can still spot long-time resident John Waters ride through town on his Margaret Hamilton-inspired bicycle.  Street performers still fight for space in front of the Town Hall — sometimes the fights over who’s turn it was to use the square upstaged the eventual performance.  And most importantly, the purple sunsets over the beach still enchant.

Provincetown still has a there there.  But I do miss the fringe, and know that with prices ever rising, it will likely never return.

© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.

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