King of the Queen

Bill Taylor resurrected music in the most musical of cities, New Orleans, post flood. Now he’s resurrecting Wilmington’s most famous theater—and starting something much bigger.

The profile you are about to read is a play in two acts. It is the story of Wilmington native Bill Taylor, head of the Light Up The Queen Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funds to restore the old Queen Theatre on Market Street in Wilmington. The first act takes place in Taylor’s recent past, in a magical place called the Crescent City, and the second act is happening now in Delaware. It is a story about aspiration, tragedy, hope, and the power of coming home.

Photograph by Brian TruonoAct One | Entirely Indescribable 

When the levees gave way on August 29, 2005, Bill Taylor was nowhere near his apartment by Tipitina’s Music Club, the famed venue he managed at Napolean and Tchoupitoulas avenues in New Orleans. He was a nine-hour drive away, in Asheville, North Carolina. He had arrived two days earlier to kick around with his staff the idea of opening an artist co-op, similar to one he helped start in New Orleans.

The first call from home came from his friend Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, a legendary bluesman and member of the famous Mardi Gras Indians. “He told me, ‘My friend, it looks like the storm is comin’,’” Taylor says. When he woke on Sunday morning, an associate gave him the news, speaking through tears. “It’s not good, Bill,” she said.

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Taylor had gotten to know many of the city’s most famous musicians. They listened to WWOZ, a famed blues and jazz station where Taylor worked before leaving to run Tipitina’s. They’d go to the Tip as if it were a religious destination, a temple for the spirit, where the hottest acts in blues and jazz would play. Irma Thomas. Marva Wright. Marcia Ball. Cyril Neville. Tab Benoit.

Taylor had migrated to New Orleans a decade before. He learned almost immediately that the Zydeco and blues and jazz didn’t simply flavor the lives of those in the Bayou. The rhythms coursed through their veins and choreographed their steps.

Taylor and his staff spent six weeks in North Carolina, trying to save, by phone and email, the city’s musical soul. When he returned to New Orleans in October, the devastation was “entirely indescribable, an Armageddon, beyond ‘Thunderdome.’

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“There were tanks on the street and signs on the doors signifying what organization had visited, the date they came and the number of casualties found,” he says. “The first sign of hope I saw was in the eyes of the people. They’re dedicated. They’re resilient. And they’re survivors.”

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The Tipitina Foundation, which Taylor had begun in 1997 to support the city’s music community, was tapped for Katrina aid. Taylor made sure there were two hot meals a day for musicians and their families, and he found temporary housing for others. He got them gigs and instruments. He raised funds through donations and benefit concerts.

Most recipients were mere working musicians. Some were famous, like Taylor’s friend Fats Domino. Domino sprang into action, recording “Alive and Kickin’,” then donating proceeds from its sale to the Tiptinas Foundation.

Taylor followed Domino’s lead, becoming executive producer of “Goin’ Home,” a 30-track disc of Domino classics remade by New Orleans heroes from Allen Toussaint to Dr. John, as well as artists such as Tom Petty, Elton John, Randy Newman and Norah Jones. Proceeds helped restore Domino’s publishing house, establish a community center and music office co-op in the Lower Ninth Ward, and ensure that future New Orleans musicians would receive instruments and musical education. To date, the foundation has raised more than $1.5 million in post-Katrina aid and has donated more than $3 million in instruments to New Orleans’ public schools.

From August 24 through September 1 of 2008, Taylor took the New Orleans All Star Jam-baylaya, a collection of 40 musicians, on a tour to raise awareness and rebuild the Gulf Coast. The tour wound from the Democratic National Convention in Denver to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis and places in between.

“Bill put all of that together because he realized that, together, we musicians have a bigger voice speaking as a group rather than individually,” says Benoit, who performed with his band, Voice of the Wetlands, on the tour. “Bill is one of those people you go to because he knows the culture of New Orleans, and he knows that our culture is what keeps us together.”

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To live in a city being reborn is to witness change brick by one brick. The temper of New Orleans rose. The storms continued. Taylor was evacuated from his apartment three times. He needed a break. 

About that time, Buccini/Pollin Group bought the old Queen Theatre to rebuild as the centerpiece of its renovations on Market Street. Built in 1915, the Queen was a jewel, drawing the greatest performers to its stage and films to its screen. Yet when suburban flight eviscerated downtown Wilmington in the 1950s, the theater closed. For 50 years, the building has not been used.

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In 2008 a major announcement was made, one that would shake up the local arts and culture community: World Café Live, a venue for new music on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, committed to opening another World Café Live in the Queen, along with restaurants, stores and classrooms for arts education.

On a trip to Delaware last year, Chris Buccini and Hal Real, creator of World Café Live, invited Taylor to tour the Queen. They were looking for someone to head the new Light Up The Queen Foundation, a non-profit formed to restore the theater and draw diverse populations through quality programs in music, education, workforce development and mentoring. They wanted someone with music industry experience. They wanted a person who could raise money, and they wanted a person who had roots in Wilmington.

Real knew Taylor through the music industry. Buccini and Taylor went back to kindergarten, when they played for the Westover Wildcats pee-wee baseball team. They later attended prep school together in New Hampshire, then Princeton.

“It was a cosmic confluence of events when we decided to convert the Queen into a modern-day live music venue and a clubhouse for the community,” Buccini says. “I had been reading in the New York Times about what Bill was doing in New Orleans. I thought of calling him, but found out that Hal had already been in touch with Bill.”

Says Real, “The Queen Foundation was put together by well-intentioned people, but there was no one who was going to get up every morning and say, ‘How can I help get the Queen lit?’ We were looking for someone who was going to live and breathe it. We all felt Bill was the right guy at the right time.” 

Taylor stood on the stage and looked around. The purple cloth of the balcony seats had worn to a sooty gray. Birds flew in the rafters. Cats scampered through, and the walls showed 50 years of water damage. Early construction work had left five enormous holes in the orchestra floor.

“I didn’t know I wanted to leave New Orleans until I stood on that stage,” Taylor says. “I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t turn this down.’”

Taylor left New Orleans in October.

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The five-story Queen Theatre houses 2,000 seats on two tiers. It has been unused for five decades. Its rehabilitation should be completed within two years. Photograph by Brian TruonoAct Two |  A Cool, Stimulating Place

In the kitchen of The Exchange on Market, Taylor examines 90 pounds of crawfish that have just arrived from Louisiana. The crustaceans, alive and squirming, are going to be part of a crawfish boil that evening as part of the Light Up The Queen Foundation’s Spring Swamp Series at 605 Market St., across from the Queen. The idea was pure Taylor. He’d gotten his friends Trombone Shorty, Orleans Avenue, Cyril Neville and Eric Lindell to play in Delaware as part of the series. Tonight would be Benoit’s turn to rev up the noise.

Taylor hops in his SUV and blasts Benoit on the stereo as he drives through Wilmington. Concerts are the fun part of fundraising. It will eventually take $24 million to restore the five-story building. By June, Taylor and Buccini/Pollin had raised $20 million through contributions from local foundations, corporations, the city of Wilmington, benefit concerts and tax credits. Construction will begin as soon as funding of the tax credits is secured.

Buccini/Pollin’s decision to purchase and convert the Queen takes its cue from “Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment,” a study by The Reinvestment Fund in 2007. The study says the intrinsic value of arts and culture can be key to neighborhood revitalization and calls for investment in community-based creative activity.

“In looking at the future of cities, we think it’s essential to uncover and invest in those neighborhood assets that have great potential for transformation,” says Jeremy Nowak, chief executive of TRF. “We wanted to highlight the particular role community-based arts and cultural activity plays in this kind of revitalization and to propose an investment strategy that encourages and advances the self-organizing transformations of place that this activity creates.”

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The Queen Theatre, once completed, is expected to achieve these goals. “You can spend all the money you want in glass and concrete, but what makes a city come alive is the people it inspires through arts, culture and entertainment,” Buccini says.  

“I see this very vibrant, cool stimulating place that captures all your senses: your eyes, your ears and your taste buds,” Real says. “You walk in the door and come into a place that’s full of life and energy and welcoming for everyone, all ages and demographics, with all kinds of contemporary music. There will be a music hall, a restaurant, a second stage, event spaces, retail, programming for kids and seniors, day and night.” 

About an hour before Benoit takes the stage, his roadies slam drums and bash electric guitar strings in a quick sound check. The audience is buzzing.

Marion Sawczuk, an attorney in New Castle, sorts through one of the heaping piles of crawfish that chef Chris Baittinger has just dumped on each of the five dinner tables. “The blues pulls at my soul and speaks to me, and the best of it makes me want to contemplate life,” Sawczuk says. “I’ve got blues on Sirius. It clears my head. Once it’s built, the Queen will lend itself to the city becoming a more musically involved place.”

“The Queen is going to be a venue that will attract all kinds of music lovers, from blues to folk to classical to rock,” says concert-goer Michelle Schwandt. “It will compliment the DuPont Theatre and The Grand and establish Wilmington as a place of great venues, like another piece of the puzzle. It will help bring Market Street to life.”

As of late spring, two years from scheduled completion of the Queen’s renovation, Taylor could share nothing certain about his long-term future with the theater, but Real calls Taylor one of the Queen’s major parents, and says that, once its doors open, “There will be a place for him” to help run the facility. Buccini predicts Taylor will help run the Light Up The Queen Foundation—maybe even World Café Live.

Taylor’s third act is uncertain—he says his only goal now is to help get the $24 million raised—but to hear him speak is to hear the spirit of the producer, the one who finds ways to get the people to the art, the product. It’s all there, waiting to be built, to be linked with the DuPont Playhouse, the Grand, and the Christina Cultural Arts Center in an unbroken chain of music, theater, art and performance.

“There has to be a ‘there’ there,” Taylor says. “You have to show, not just tell. If we want to build the artistic community in Wilmington, we have to give them a reason to come to the city. There’s no magic switch you just pull. It’s a step-by-step process.

“The New Orleans community came back after the storm. Wilmington can and will re-invent itself, too. In the next couple of years, this city will be completely changed.”

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At 10 after eight, Benoit and band take the stage before 200 people, some still wiping Cajun spices off their faces. Two beats into the first of his two 75-minute sets, he leads his audience into a frenzy of slash-and-burn, can-I-get-a-witness blues.

In two years, an old theater will be resurrected across the street, and more moments like this will happen, in a place where schoolchildren will be able to take acting classes or learn how to draw, become inspired. 

Standing just behind the hysteria, about 50 feet from Benoit’s guitar, Bill Taylor flashes a smile toward the stage that seems to say, “This is why I came home.” 

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