We do not die of old age.
This was the name of Larry Cumbo’s senior-year photo project at the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies in Daytona Beach, Fla. He grew up a self-proclaimed shutter-bug, tagging along with his dad, a former football coach who eventually decided to give up the sidelines for a career making films about the sport he loved. It wasn’t long after the younger Cumbo made it to age 12 that he convinced his father to allow him to record the fourth quarters of the games he was working.
From there, the Baton Rouge native was hooked. Florida State University was his first stop out of high school, though something didn’t click after he felt pushed into a fine arts program. Discouraged by the prospect of where his educational tract was heading, and encouraged by one of his FSU professors to seek out education elsewhere, Cumbo decided to make the jump to the Southeast Center, where he felt he could focus his passion and put it to good use.
He loved people. More specifically, he was drawn to older people, the kind of people who would live their lives long enough until they decided they didn’t want to live them anymore. That’s when they would move to Florida, Cumbo observed, not only to retire, but to fade away into a sea of nice weather and nursing homes. Digesting what happened to his grandmother after she broke her hip, the filmmaker felt the impact of age-fueled limitation first-hand and wanted to chronicle the stark images of the human condition winding down.
Thus his project: We do not die of old age.
The title would prove at least the slightest bit ironic when decades later, he would buy the Opera House in downtown Shepherdstown, W.Va. Originally built in 1909 by the town’s mayor, Cumbo first set his sights on the building when his family moved to the area in 2002. Touring the town for the first time, he almost immediately fell in love with the building’s history, making a mental note of how neat it might be to one day own the place.
Well, as it goes, that one day would come soon enough: Returning to America after a stint living in New Zealand as part of a film shoot, Cumbo struck a deal with Rusty and Pam Berry, the Opera House owners, in October 2010 for both the building and the business. A documentary filmmaker by trade — with a very clear and very honest affinity for the idea of a thriving local music scene fully in tact — Cumbo immediately went to work, upgrading the sound and light systems as well as remodeling the upstairs green room in an attempt to lure national touring artists to play his new theater.
And, for the most part, his vision worked. It wasn’t long before Cumbo’s longtime acquaintance, New Orleans legend Dr. John, agreed to perform at the venue as part of a television special, “Rocking The Opera House,” that premiered on the Smithsonian channel in March. Half concert, half NOLA-music-doc, the film ultimately opened doors for the possibility of bringing more big names to Shepherdstown for a potential full-season run of the one-off event.
The operative phrase? “For the most part.” Because no more than four months ago, as the calendar switched to 2014, it seemed as though the possibility of selling anything at 131 W. German St. would be quite the task in and of itself. It seemed as though the nights colored by the sweet and spicy aroma of Cumbo’s signature gumbo might be in danger of ever hosting any other musical act at all, let alone one that’s already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seemed as though a building that has hosted a seemingly infinite amount of movie, music and theater sounds for more than a century now could be in danger of being silenced, perhaps for good.
And, maybe most strikingly, it seemed as though the entire notion that something could indeed die of old age was far more plausible — and far more real — than Larry Cumbo could have ever imagined.
You might not have noticed it, but in January, the Opera House was forced to close its doors and Larry Cumbo wasn’t quite sure when or if they would open again. Ever. The problem, as the business owner now tells it, was an amalgamation of bad luck, worse weather, and an impossible business model when it came to screening movies.
“It was very scary around January. We have tried everything we can to keep the doors open,” Cumbo now says on an unseasonably warm Thursday night in early April. “This place has been doing films for a long time and I’m a filmmaker, so I was desperate to hang on to that film programming. But we lose money every time. We’re a small, single-screen independent theater, trying to battle for prints with the big boys that can order 2,000 prints in a phone call. So we closed down in January. We just shut down.
“We made a decision that in order to keep the doors open,” he continues with admirable levity, “we can’t keep paying these huge advances for films, then getting them here, and then giving up 60 percent of the door, when we have four or five people show up.”
Cumbo is like a teddy bear, if the teddy bear was stitched together on a second line. A face that’s wide with interest and a larger smile to match, his teeth are straight, his beard (subliminally peppered with salt) is perfectly cut and his thick frame suggests muscle that was earned and not learned. Think a former high school wrestler … if the high school wrestler was a teddy bear that happened to be stitched together on a second line.
Couple that with his outstandingly Southern, Southern charm — fully equipped with a fainter-by-the-minute Cajun accent — and what you have is someone for whom your heart breaks. Especially when you hear how close he was to losing the one thing he mortgaged his life and career for. Especially when you realize how present that possibility remains, even after he made the decision to phase out movie-showings at the Opera House earlier this year.
“It wasn’t just that we were losing too much money,” he responds when asked why the movies were bringing his business to a halt, “but it was also too hard to confirm a booking. I had to call on a Tuesday to try and book a film that opened on a Friday, so how would you promote it? How do you know what your programming is going to be if you don’t get a yes until Tuesday? And then if you have a bomb of a movie, you have to hold it for two weeks and I have an advance on it. It got to be, we either need to play to our strengths, which was growing the live entertainment portion of what we do and the community-based portion of what we do, or … .”
His voice loses its ability to match the sound of his stocky frame, and the thought’s ending, it appears, proves too tough to tell.
The decision to nix film screenings hasn’t gone unnoticed, he explains. There was backlash when the announcement came that the community’s beloved art house movie theater was going to veer away from its recent roots. None of that, however, is supposed to imply he won’t stop trying to make it up to those who remain disappointed.
“We had to transition from a place that mainly did films, almost exclusively,” the filmmaker reflects. “I know we upset a lot of people in that film-going crowd. When we talked to our staff in January, we knew we were going to get some push-back, but it didn’t last long, we answered every email, and they seemed to understand. That was a very loyal audience and we hope that they will give us a second chance and come back for a different form of entertainment: live entertainment.”
So far, that switch in focus has been met with a mildly promising outlook. National acts such as Zach Deputy and Charles Neville are both slated to perform at the Opera House in July, and while Cumbo refuses to go on the record about the names that have committed to a “Rocking the Opera House” run, should the Smithsonian pick up an entire season, it’s clear that his targets reach even further beyond the weight attached to a name such as Dr. John.
“It’s got a lot of legs,” he asserts in reference to the momentum gained from that first television special. “And that’s what networks like.”
THE KITE AND ITS STRING
Behind every teddy bear is a sturdy object that props it up, even after the years make the act of slouching its natural pose. Not that Cumbo doesn’t continue to exude vibrance on his own, but there’s a palpable sense of comfort that accompanies his wife Julie whenever she walks into a room. The rapport between the two is both admirable and loving, a type of weightless dialogue that hasn’t lost even the slightest color of love through the years.
About seven years his senior, Julie and Larry met at a friend’s wedding. He saw her on the dance floor and to this day swears it was nearly love at first sight (that abstract notion officially announced its presence on their first date, according to both husband and wife). She went home that night, butterflies flittering through her bloodstream, told her mother he was the man she was going to marry, and then, in a plot twist not unlike a romance that unfolds on the screens the family business can’t show as much anymore, did just that.
A teacher by trade, Julie freely admits how scared she was when Larry initially decided to make an offer for the Opera House. It wasn’t long, however, until her concerns took a back seat to Larry’s ambition.
“I fell in love with the artist in Larry,” she says, grinning. “When we first bought this, I was super scared. It was a risk. But how am I going to say no? Everything he’s done, he’s been successful with, and he sees things through to the end. I admire him for the risk he took and the work he puts into it. Everything he tackles, he finds a way to make it work.”
Making it work from this point forward means having help from not only the Cumbo family but also the Opera House workers. Having been through his share of misfire with hires, Larry says he’s confident in the staff he has around him currently.
Leading that staff is Nicola Larsen, the operations manager. A well-traveled Englishwoman who might bleed actual grace and beauty, she joined the Opera House in August after hearing about an open position. It wasn’t long before the title was hers — Larry was so impressed with her interview, he says, that he wanted to offer the job at its conclusion.
“I’m really impressed with the quality of music that comes through here,” Larsen notes. “There’s some amazing talent in the area.
“It’s like a little family,” she continues, reflecting on the love she has for her job. “Larry has big goals and he’s a great guy, kind of like a big bear, you know?”
A big bear with a solid foundation, that is.
“I always fall back on, he’s the kite and I hold the string,” Julie says with a smile. “And I’m happy to hold the string.”
It’s a tad past 7 p.m. and that renovated light system makes the concert room dark. Past the lobby, where an iPad serves as a de facto cash register, and up the handful of steps that separates the entrance from the event stands local bluegrass singer Chelsea McBee on the tiny stage that once hosted Dr. John.
A few months ago, she began working in conjunction with the Opera House to curate the First Thursdays artist series, which is pretty much exactly how it sounds: The first Thursday of each month, McBee will open for and join onstage a local headlining act. Tonight, along with help from her mother and sister, she’s opening for singer Kara Hansbarger.
The house is full but not packed. Earlier in the evening, McBee proclaimed that at least 80 people would be filling the stiff, old-movie-theater-esque seats, and by the looks of it, she shortchanged herself just a little. With capacity at just more than 200, there are only a handful of stray seats left unoccupied as the McBee family takes the stage.
“How y’all feeling?!” she asks and the crowd responds louder than it looks. In fact, the noise generated between the slanted walls that play home to a line of glow currently taking a break only increases in power as the night goes on. The people love Chelsea McBee. And Chelsea McBee loves the people.
“I’m hopeful, I’m very optimistic,” Larry will say upstairs in the tiny kitchen between the two artists’ sets while his wife enthusiastically adds, “I’m more hopeful now than I was through the first two years.”
“We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes,” the teddy bear eventually says. “And we have forged these great relationships. It’s karma, it’s whatever you believe in, but they (the artists) come back.”
As he’s saying this, it’s hard not to think about the time Larry Cumbo almost died. It was Sept. 6, 2005, a mere handful of days after Hurricane Katrina paralyzed New Orleans. Along with a crew on Tulane Avenue, he was shooting footage for a film on an air boat. A helicopter was on a rescue mission above a shotgun house near where his crew was, and after seeing how the winds sunk a fishing boat in front of them, the pilot of the air boat put the pedal to the floor to get out of the way. Almost immediately, it collided with a submerged concrete wall. Cumbo suffered a hairline fracture at his C4 vertebrae.
“I kept working,” he remembers. “There were no hospitals, there was nothing open. They were just setting up EMS stations, so there was a nurse and a doctor in the back of an ambulance and I had a concussion, I went blind. They woke me up by pouring water on me and said, ‘We need to EVAC you.’”
Instinctively, he told the medical personnel that he could go to his parents’ home in Baton Rouge that night and head to the hospital in the morning. That wouldn’t work, the medical professionals told him: The nearest hospital that was taking patients was in St. Louis. He refused treatment, he says. He needed to keep working.
There’s something poetic about that anecdote as McBee runs through her blend of bluegrass during the opening set. Everybody in the room is sitting, except for two young children, a boy and a girl. For whatever reason, they can’t sit still, and in addition to providing an extra layer of entertainment for the crowd, the artists onstage oftentimes smile and engage the toddlers running back and forth on the dance floor, sometimes sprinting through the main aisle.
Somewhere in the building, Larry Cumbo is running the light system, following each adorable movement as the boy and girl explore the depths of his vision for Shepherdstown’s Opera House. Nobody knows for sure, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that something from Cumbo’s formative years is swirling through the air, invisible to the naked eye, exposed to only the soul. It’s the very adage that began his career. It’s the very sentence that on this night has more meanings than anyone in the building could possibly care to consider. It’s simple. It’s strong. And as the children contniue to sprint back and forth, it’s certainly present.
We do not die of old age.