by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Every museum values its dedicated visitors and fans, those guests who regularly attend events, tell others about the institution, and form the core public support we need and nurture.
Some of these “regulars” we know by sight and some by name. Often we enjoy talking with them as they express their enthusiasm for the Homestead generally or for a particular program or tour specifically.
I see it as an integral part of my job as museum director to seek out and to get to know as many of these mainstays as possible–both to be sure they know they’re appreciated and to get insights as to why our programs work. These dialogs and exchanges don’t happen as often as they should when times get busy and it’s easy to hurry along during an event and not stop to take a moment to talk.
On the first day (Saturday) of our recent Ticket to the Twenties event, we were very busy and the parking lots at the Homestead and next door at the El Encanto Habilitation and Healthcare center were full and I was hurrying over to work with security officers on setting up impromptu parking arrangements in the dirt field adjacent to the pond and Pio Pico Memorial Walkway.
As I skirted around the northern edge of the pond, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a group of people letting go of a bouquet of balloons. Stopping to watch as the white balloons ascended toward the sky, I noticed writing on each of them. First, though, I had to communicate with the officer about how to get those cars lined up as efficiently and cleanly as possible.
With that accomplished, I turned back toward the pond and saw a younger woman and an older man dabbing their eyes and staring up at the balloons as they began to recede from view. I approached and asked them what was happening and what I learned was unexpected and remarkable.
The woman’s fiancee and the man’s son, Eric Sandoval, who was just 42 years old, passed away from cancer last December. His fiancee told me that Eric was a big fan of the 1920s musical offerings held at the Homestead, first with our summer Concerts in the Past series and, then, with Ticket to the Twenties.
She said he was so enthusiastic about these performances that he attended them for some fifteen years and always tried to get a seat right up front to soak in and enjoy all the amazing sounds from the different performers the museum has hosted over the years.
The tears flowed freely as she told me this and she asked Eric’s father to come over and greet me. There were probably some two dozen family and friends who gathered at the event that Saturday to enjoy the event and to remember and honor Eric. It was really amazing to see the outpouring of feeling for Eric and humbling to know that the Homestead was such a special place to him that the group decided to gather there in his name.
After talking with them for a few minutes, I mentioned to our director of public programs, Alexandra Rasic, what had happened and she asked the event photographer, Gary Leonard, to take photos of the group. As Gary was getting ready to set things up, Eric’s fiancee mentioned to me that she thought about asking the band to play a song in Eric’s memory, but that she didn’t want to bother them.
I promptly went up to the band’s leader and told him what had been happening and he instantly told me they’d be happy to play a song. He asked if there was a specific tune. When I asked the fiancee, she simply said, “something happy and upbeat.”
The song they played in Eric’s honor was the fourth of the set. It was the classic “I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin, which was originally a slow tune in a 1928 musical called Treasure Girl before a peppier, snappier version was brought out in 1930 for the musical Girl Crazy. Before the band launched into its version, I was off somewhere else and couldn’t be present to see how Eric’s family and friends responded–I can obviously assume it was with great joy and emotion.
This was an exceptional situation and one that will remain firmly in my memory for as long as I am with the Homestead and beyond. When Eric’s fiancee gave me a couple of printed cards done in his memory, I instantly recognized his face, though I can’t recall if I’d ever spoken to him.
As I said above, this is something I’ve been trying to do since I became museum director. Getting to know regular visitors is, as I said, an important part of the job. With the chance occurrence of running into his family and friends and learning about Eric and his love of the museum and the music played there, it makes it even more imperative that I get out more and talk to people like him whenever I can.