Sunday in the park with gays

For the last decade, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's free Easter concert on the greensward of Lee Park in the heart of Oak Lawn traditionally has been a marriage of the ridiculous and the sublime.

This year's concert was no exception.
As always, the event began with the Pooch Parade--dogs of all sizes and shapes dolled up in costumes so elaborately tailored they would make Wishbone jealous. A Labrador retriever perched inside a giant Easter egg on wheels; one dog and its owner donned matching leather ensembles, while another pooch was dressed as a lion.

The frivolity then gave way to the sobering strains of the symphony. As a piece from Tchaikovsky wafted on the warm spring winds, families munched on picnic-basket goodies, while groups of friends and couples--straight, gay, bisexual, whatever--sipped an assortment of libations.

A certain uneasiness, however, also marked this year's event. This was due to the earnest young men circulating petitions and handing out fliers warning attendees that the concert was in danger of being moved to a "more suitable location." According to the flier, some people had found the high number of homosexuals in the audience at a "family event" offensive, particularly on a religious holiday.

As it turns out, the fliers were wrong. Sort of.
Ed Ishmael, a gay lawyer and a big fan of the Easter concert in the park, orchestrated the petition drive and flier campaign. Several months ago, sources inside the Dallas Park and Recreation Department told Ishmael that members of the symphony board were trying to move the concert because the board received angry letters after last year's concert complaining about the crowd.

"I was told there was a behind-the-scenes campaign to move the concert because there were too many gays in Lee Park," says Ishmael. "I was told that if we didn't do something, it would definitely be moved next year."

Rufus Shaw, a former park board member who negotiates the community concert series between the Park Department and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, confirmed to the Dallas Observer before last week's concert that there were in fact discussions about moving the concert to the Dallas Arboretum next year.

"No park has an exclusive on the community concerts," he told the Observer several weeks ago. "The symphony board [on which his wife, Lynn, sits] just felt it was time for a change."

A few days later, Shaw called back to say it was the Park Department that wanted to move the concert, because it was getting flak about "the gay environment" at the concert.

"It wasn't us," said Shaw. "The Park Department wants to move the Easter concert to the Arboretum and then have a 'lifestyle' concert at Lee Park next year."

Much of this was jibing with what Ishmael was continuing to hear from his sources inside the Park Department, and it was making him angry.

"I've gone to the concert for years," Ishmael says. "They are an important part of my feeling about the Dallas community. When you grow up gay or lesbian, you have a skewed vision of the world. You are paranoid that people think you are less than human. When I was first coming out, I attended this concert, and seeing all these gay and straight people at the same event, enjoying themselves and each other no matter who they were, I realized Dallas could be an enjoyable, safe place to be gay. It was a very empowering thing."

And Ishmael wasn't going to sit back and let anyone ruin it for him. The petitions Ishmael helped circulate collected 900 signatures supporting the concert remaining in Lee Park. Dozens of people have called and written City Hall and the symphony to voice their support as well.

But was the concert in any danger of really being moved? That depends on whom you talk to.

According to Paul Dyer, director of the Park Department, this issue erupted several months ago when Lynn Flint-Shaw, vice president of the symphony association, called to discuss a litany of problems the symphony had with last year's concert. Both the symphony and City Hall had, indeed, received angry letters about the crowd.

In addition, KVIL-FM, which sponsored the symphony's community concert series, had gotten in a tussle with some members of the Turtle Creek Association, the group that sponsors the Pooch Parade and raises money to help the Park Department keep Turtle Creek blooming. It seems that KVIL started broadcasting in the middle of the parade and was so loud the parade announcer could not be heard. A miffed parade organizer pulled the plug on the broadcast, which led to heated words between the organizer and a KVIL disc jockey. Then the symphony began a sound check, and someone pulled the plug on the speakers.

Lynn Flint-Shaw asked Dyer about moving this year's concert, Dyer says. He told her that maybe they could come up with a compromise that the Park Board would agree to. The compromise Dyer and Flint-Shaw thought might work was to have a Lee Park concert a week before Easter and move the Easter concert to another location, perhaps the Arboretum. But the symphony didn't have a date available the week before Easter, so they decided to table the idea for a year.

Flint-Shaw says it wasn't the hostile letters that concerned the symphony. It was that KVIL had pulled out as a sponsor. "Without support and sponsorship, there is no free concert series," says Flint-Shaw. "Sponsorship, more than the angry letters, was our big issue."

The symphony found a new sponsor in Texas Instruments and, after meeting with the Turtle Creek Association to iron out some differences, it decided to give Lee Park another shot this year. The Turtle Creek Association decided to hold the parade an hour earlier, which helped avoid conflict this year. The concert, agree Dyer and Flint-Shaw, was a rousing success.

"The Dallas Symphony is committed to going to Lee Park again next year," says Flint-Shaw. In fact, Dallas Symphony Association president Gene Bonelli is sending letters to that effect in response to all the letters Ed Ishmael's campaign drummed up. Bonelli's letter does point out, however, that every year the Park Board and the Office of Cultural Affairs has to approve each concert in the park location.

Ed Ishmael is glad that the symphony and Turtle Creek Association have ironed out their differences and that the Lee Park Easter Concert is no longer endangered. But he still plans on submitting all the signatures he's collected, just to make sure the Park Department and Dallas Symphony Orchestra know just how much support this concert has.

"I applaud the people who worked to resolve these issues," Ishmael says. "But I'm still concerned about the angry letters from people who disapproved of the crowd and about how much behind-the-scenes effort there was to try and move the event this year. For those reasons, I think people need to be on their toes, aware, and vigilant.


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