‘Cotton Club’ production wins award from Broadcast Education Association

Western Carolina University’s original production of “Echoes of the Cotton Club” has received a Best of Festival Award in the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts.

Cotton-Club-Poster-2014-04-03-at-7.49.55-AMThe 2014 show’s writer and producer Don Connelly, head of the Department of Communication, and musical composer/director Bruce Frazier, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music, were recognized by the BEA festival judges with the best of competition award in the “faculty audio, long-form production” category. Winners were declared in 16 other categories, with each entry competing for a $1,000 cash prize presented by the Charles and Lucille King Foundation.

“To be selected as the best of the festival and to receive the King Foundation Award is a great honor,” Connelly said.

One of a series of annual golden age of radio re-creation shows, “Echoes” was performed in WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center on April 24, 2014, featuring songs associated with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald as well as more contemporary artists inspired by them: Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Bruno Mars.

Performers included the radio cast members chosen through open auditions, the Catamount Singers, Electric Soul and special guest Mercedes Ellington, president of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts in New York City and the granddaughter of music legend Duke Ellington.

“Through her New York connections, ‘Echoes’ choreographer Karyn Tomczak was the spark that got Ms. Ellington involved in the project,” Connelly said. “Working with Ms. Ellington was the connection to the heritage of the Harlem Renaissance and what happened at the Cotton Club.  She was an incredibly gracious person and very giving of her time to everyone involved.”

Frazier agreed that her contribution to the production was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students and brought a high level of professionalism to the program. Ms. Ellington brought not only her expertise as a professional dancer and choreographer but added a personal touch – her recollections of working with her famous grandfather Duke Ellington and her father, bandleader Mercer Ellington. She shared anecdotes about her grandfather’s career and gave some insight into his music that elevated the experience for all of us. She came to campus in February and worked directly with our students, even performing with us in a concert of Ellington’s most popular songs.”

The effort pooled the talents of three departments, Frazier said. “Each one of the individual components work independently in planning, creating and rehearsing their part of the project, then come together to complete the performance,” he said. “Don’s script; music by the Catamount Singers and Electric Soul, directed by Jon Henson and me; the dancers trained by Karyn Tomczak and actors from Stage and Screen and the Department of Communication combined to recreate the atmosphere of the radio sound stage from the 1930s.”

Comments from three of the BEA contest judges included:

  • “The program element with Mercedes Ellington was very well done and extremely interesting. The actors in the diner segment were really believable and the SFX (special effects) were very effective. Production values were superb overall and helped make the program very enjoyable to listen to.”
  • “This program highlights the Cotton Club as a historically significant music venue in American history. The audio quality is very high throughout, with many different audio elements to depict the era (old radio sounds, juke box, etc.), brief humorous dialogs, live music, and Mercedes Ellington providing historical context. It was an excellent program!”
  • “Fantastic execution. (It was a) home run right from the beginning, from the recreation of the vintage broadcast, to the vignette pieces, Ms. Ellington’s narration, and the musical pieces. Bravo!”

Awards will be presented at the 13th Annual BEA Best of Festival King Foundation Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas on Monday, April 13, as part of BEA’s annual convention. During the ceremony, recipients will be recognized with a specialized screening of their winning project and delivery of the cash awards. Winners were selected from a pool of 1,300 entries from more than 150 colleges and universities in categories including audio, video, documentary, interactive multimedia, news, scriptwriting, sports, and two-year/small colleges. Connelly, Frazier and Henson plan to attend.

This is the third top BEA award that the radio series has earned. In 2010, “On the Home Front,” written and produced by Connelly, won the Best of Festival Award for faculty audio at the BEA Festival of Media Arts. In his words, “It was like lightning striking twice in the same place” when he was notified that he and Frazier had won for their 2012 production of “Dracula.”

“ I feel like what we do at Western is pretty special,” Connelly said, “ ‘Echoes of the Cotton Club’ is the kind of thing that happens at Western when students, faculty, and staff from two colleges and three departments come together in a collaborative, experiential learning event that is supported by so many people.”

Their latest production, “Robin Hood: The Legacy,” was performed Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Bardo Arts Center.

“Despite a week of snow and freezing temperatures, Robin Hood flung arrows, fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and wooed the lovely Marian as scheduled,” Frazier said. “It was a delight to see the efforts of the past year come together on the stage for the production.  And now on to the next extravaganza!”

Frazier and Connelly already are brainstorming about a production in 2016. “We are discussing several projects for our next foray into the Golden Age of Radio and will release the dates of the performance and details of the project soon,” Frazier said.

In addition to the BEA award, “Echoes” has been registered with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and is eligible for an invitation to a regional Kennedy Center festival to be considered, along with other honorees, for national awards recognizing outstanding achievement in production, design, direction and performance. Shows selected from regional festivals across the country receive an invitation to perform in KCACTF National Festival events in April in Washington, D.C.

The music of Duke Ellington (background projection) featured prominently in the production.

The music of Duke Ellington (background projection) featured prominently in the production.