Transcription of Gardiner Drama & Dining #284

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Michael Giberson: It’s really a great little community. We’ve kind of watched it struggle. Of course when I was a kid it was a thriving community because there were three big shoe factories; the downtown had everything you could imagine. You didn’t really have to go anywhere to get anything in the 50s and 60s. Then those towns, all those mill towns started to die and fade away, and when we got there the downtown was pretty bleak. Slowly, over the last 29 years, we’ve seen it come back.
Neil Andersen: I think to live in Maine you have to be really creative anyway. We have the changes of the seasons so extreme, and you’re always, you’re preparing. You’re always preparing. You’re either preparing for winter, getting excited for this… We don’t have mud seasons anymore, but we used to. You’re always trying to prepare and get ready, so you have to be multifaceted. I think that sets up people that we learn a lot of things. Then you have lots of months that are like cold and dreary, and what are you going to do, stay inside? Create something.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio. Show number 284: Gardiner, Drama, and Dining, airing for the first time on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Located on the Kennebec River, the town of Gardiner is one of Maine’s hidden gems. Originally a center of industry and known worldwide for exporting ice in the 1800’s, Gardiner is now home to the iconic A 1 Diner and the up-and0coming Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center. Today we speak with Michael Giberson and Neil Andersen, who have owned the A1 Diner for almost three decades, and with Michael Miclon, the executive and artistic director at Johnson Hall. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: Anyone who’s ever been through Gardiner is aware of the A 1 Diner, which is quite the landmark. Today it’s my great privilege to have with me Michael Giberson and Neil Andersen, who own the A 1 Diner in Gardiner. In April they’ll celebrate 29 years of ownership of the diner, making them the longest-running owners of the 1946 Worcester dining car. Pretty impressive.
Neil Andersen: It’s hard to believe.
Michael Giberson: We think so.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. Well, thanks for coming in and talking to us about this, because it’s kind of an interesting subject, I think.
Neil Andersen: Thanks for having us.
Michael Giberson: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Why diners?
Michael Giberson: Well, my dad owned the diner, and he bought it as a retirement business and soon found out it was not a retirement business. He owned it for nine years. Neil and I had lived together in Boston, and we had wanted to open a little breakfast restaurant in Boston, but neither one of us had two pennies. I had moved to LA for a short time and Neil was still in Boston, and I called my dad one day and he said, “I’m going to sell the diner.” I said, “Well maybe I’ll come home for that.” That’s kind of where it all started.
Lisa Belisle: Michael, you were actually born in Gardiner when there was a regional medical center there?
Michael Giberson: I was, yeah I was. I’m a native.
Lisa Belisle: How did you end up, how did the two of you end up meeting? You said you spent time in Boston. You were both out of the state of Maine for a while.
Neil Andersen: I grew up in Massachusetts. I was born in Massachusetts, and we worked together at, shall we say? At Legal Seafood, yes. That’s where we met, and we worked together there for a while. Then we worked together at another restaurant that is now defunct. That was what was happening. Yeah. It was in the blood.
Lisa Belisle: It’s kind of a commitment to work in food and food service and hospitality. It’s something that it has to be a conscious decision if you’re going to do it as long as you’ve done it.
Neil Andersen: I think it was kind of an unconscious decision at the time, because we were both pretty…. It would be conscious now.
Michael Giberson: Yeah. I grew up in the restaurant business. My aunt and uncle owned a restaurant, and I worked there when I was a junior high, high school kid. I learned a lot of different stuff from my aunt who taught me bookkeeping and doing the payroll and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of in my blood, plus I’ve always cooked since I was a kid. There was really no conscious intention to end up in a diner. We just, just by chance, we ended up there.
Neil Andersen: Right, and my grandparents were caterers on the South Shore. I grew up in a house that had catering equipment in the basement, that I would play with pots and pans and stuff. My grandmother was a great cook. Then I worked as a bartender and scooping ice cream at Friendly’s, just from the ground up, absolutely.
Lisa Belisle: Were there detours before you got to the place of deciding, “Okay, this is what we really want to do”?
Neil Andersen: I mean, just the path of life that you take along until you’re, I was 25 or 26 and you were 36, so still both relatively young. I think ownership wasn’t, you know, we had talked about it would be fun to do something, but it wasn’t like, “Oh we’ve got to own our own place.” It just sort of came upon us. Then you seize that opportunity.
Lisa Belisle: There’s something really special about diners that keeps us interested, I think. There’s a really rich history there. How much of that did you know about before you started this business?
Michael Giberson: I think we knew a little bit, I mean, I did from my dad having the business, but I wasn’t around when he had the business, so I wasn’t really into the history of the whole thing or didn’t know that much about the diner industry as a whole. Then once you’re in it, then all of a sudden you become aware of, oh, there’s all these books about diners and people that are interested in diners. It’s kind of like a cult of diner with some people. They’ll travel 100 miles out of their way to go to a diner.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, and I think it’s cyclical. I think when we started it, it had faded, because it was big in the 40s and 50s, when the cars were just starting and people were traveling. Then in the 70s and the early 80s it had sort of faded out but it was almost starting of the renaissance of people buying old diners. There was a place called the Flash in the Pan that we used to go to on Route 1, that was one of the early places, and we were like, “Oh, diners can be cool. You can serve good food in a diner. This place is great.” That was a big inspiration to us. Then I think we’ve seen it sort of cycle. Then coming up now with Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, that’s, I think the renaissance is in full bloom again, which is wonderful because these are historic places that are special, I think, and they need to be saved and appreciated.
Michael Giberson: They are special because we’ve seen whole generations cycle through that diner. We’ve seen young couples get engaged there, have kids. Their kids have worked for us.
Neil Andersen: Then they have kids.
Michael Giberson: We’ve heard so many stories from people, tell us how special it is to come to the diner as a child and then come as a teenager and come as an adult. I mean myself, I hung out in that diner, it was the junior high after school hangout when I was a kid, because you’d go in there with very little money and you’d get a coke and you’d play the juke box and you’d get some french fries, and that was the place to be.
Lisa Belisle: What is it about your diner that keeps people, aside from obviously the social element and the culture of it, what keeps them coming back? What’s the mystique of the diner?
Neil Andersen: Food. Let’s say first and foremost, I think, food. I think we serve good food, and we serve honest food. We have a great variety of things. I think we’ve sort of found that sweet spot between diner classics and interesting contemporary food. It’s a restaurant, people come there to eat, most importantly.
Michael Giberson: It’s important to have a variety. We have everything you’d expect to find in a diner, but in a small town in Maine, in midwinter, you have to do everything you can to encourage every customer to come in. Having a real variety on the menu does that, and keeping it fresh.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, and vegetarian food, ethnic food, regional food. That’s something that we were always interested in. That was, we knew from the start that what we would have to do to keep us interested and to keep us there we couldn’t just do the standards. We had to hopefully step it up a little bit.
Michael Giberson: Plus we watched my dad struggle because his business was kind of dying because it was very traditional. His clientele was elderly. His biggest time of the month was when social security checks came out. We obviously knew we had to change that business model in order to succeed. We managed to do it. First, we just kind of tweaked his menu and made better quality of what he was doing. Then we started introducing our own type of cooking.
Lisa Belisle: If someone were to visit the diner today and, say as a vegetarian myself, and I haven’t been to the diner for a few years now, but what could I expect to see there?
Michael Giberson: Well there’s always the ever-changing menu boards on the wall, and they have a bunch of vegetarian stuff on them usually. There’s a lot of vegetarian stuff just permanently on the menu. There’s some Asian noodle dishes. There’s a variety of salads. There’s a veggie burger. Then a lot of the soups are vegetarian, and of course we try to keep a lot of the specials vegetarian too. Because even though there’s a ton of carnivores in the world, even the carnivores want to eat less meat now. They like to mix it up just because they know it’s healthier.
Neil Andersen: There’s always curries, vegetable stews, we’ve got these Gorgonzola rice cakes that have grilled Portobello mushrooms on them. There’s all sorts of stuff.
Lisa Belisle: Well, now I can’t believe I haven’t been there in a while.
Neil Andersen: We can’t either actually.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. I’m going to have to make a trip up there very soon, just to have the vegetarian food. Now a lot of people know Gardiner as, it’s kind of a place in between. There’s a lot of people who will drive through, and obviously you can’t really drive through Gardiner without seeing the A 1 Diner. To you, Michael, this is it, this is where you were born, this is where you’re originally from, you spent the first 17 years there and then you’ve come back there. Neil, you’ve made a conscious decision to be there.
Neil Andersen: Since ’86, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: What’s so special about Gardiner?
Michael Giberson: It’s really a great little community. We’ve kind of watched it struggle. Of course when I was a kid it was a thriving community, because there were three big shoe factories. The downtown had everything you could imagine. You didn’t really have to go anywhere to get anything in the 50s and 60s. Then those towns, all those mill towns started to die and fade away. When we got there, the downtown was pretty bleak, and slowly over the last 29 years we’ve seen it come back. The community itself has great housing stock. There are beautiful old homes, quiet neighborhoods. It’s really a beautiful town situation on the river and on the Cobbossee Stream. The city has done a great job building new waterfront area, connecting to the rail trail to Augusta. We’re building a new trail up the Cobbossee Stream. It’s a great community, and Johnson Hall is a huge factor, a huge factor.
Neil Andersen: It’s a member of the Gardiner, of the Main Street Community in Maine, which we’ve been involved in in the beginning. It’s sort of like quintessential small town Maine that’s sort of reinventing itself. Absolutely, and it’s really wonderfully centrally located. I love the fact that we can get to Rockland or Camden or Brunswick or Portland, there’s any number of places you can go. It’s very centrally located. Without having to drive. You can get to Bar Harbor or Belfast. It’s terrific.
Lisa Belisle: Michael, your family, how did they come to be in Gardiner?
Michael Giberson: My mother’s family has been in Gardiner for generations. My dad’s family, his parents both came through Canada and into the US. My dad’s father died when he was a kid, but they met and….
Neil Andersen: High school sweethearts, right?
Michael Giberson: Yeah, my parents were high school sweethearts. My dad was the captain of the football team. They were married for, until my dad died, for 60 years. They’ve always been Gardiner people.
Lisa Belisle: What about you Neil? As somebody who’s not originally of the Gardiner community, obviously now very much a part of the Gardiner community, how has that felt, to come in from the outside?
Neil Andersen: Terrific. It’s funny, now that I think I’ve lived the majority of my life in Gardiner, as opposed to the town that I grew up in. I was just in Massachusetts and in Boston dealing with my mom and stuff, and when I come back I’m always so happy that I made this decision. I think the time was right. It feels very much like home to me. You lay down your roots and when you’re 25 you haven’t really quite decided who you are and then it sort of unfolds in front of you and this is where it’s happened. No, I’m thrilled to be there. You got to love what you do and be happy where you are.
Lisa Belisle: The restaurant business can be challenging, especially if you’re talking the middle of Maine in the middle of the winter, but there’s something about what you’re doing that’s kept you interested, not only for the 29 years that you’ve had the A 1 Diner, but prior to that in the time that you spent in the other restaurants. I think, Neil, you still also work in another restaurant.
Neil Andersen: Yup.
Lisa Belisle: Why do you keep coming back? What is it that keeps drawing you?
Michael Giberson: Well, I think the basic thing is the love of food and the community that happens around a diner, around any restaurant, is great with the staff, with your customers. Most of the people we know in Central Maine, we know through the diner. You meet friends that way, you meet new acquaintances, you meet famous people, you meet travelers. It’s very, very interesting just to go out into the diner. You know, I’m isolated in the kitchen most of the time, but I do wander out front and I strike up conversations, and it’s always amazing to hear people’s stories and where they’ve come from and where they’re going.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, you’re either cut out for it or you’re not, and you know that. There are people that get into it and they realize, “I can’t do this.” You have lots of, you know, people that use it as a stepping stone to get somewhere else, waiting on tables, things like that. Then there are those of us that are kind of lifers, and it is, it’s in you, it’s your personality. I think you have to have an affinity for people and hard work and the challenges that they present you. It’s certainly not for everyone. I mean I know I couldn’t imagine myself working in a cubicle or an office or being really isolated, I’d lose my mind, it would just make me crazy. You just figure it out I think.
Lisa Belisle: Are those two of the characteristics? People that have an affinity for others but also people who are used to hard work?
Neil Andersen: I mean it helps. It doesn’t mean that people who don’t work in the restaurant industry aren’t hard workers, but it’s physically grinding too. It takes its toll on you, and it’s non-stop, it never really stops.
Michael Giberson: When you’re the owner you’re really married to it. I mean we luckily live less than a half a mile from the diner, so if there’s a problem I can be down there in a couple minutes. My crew knows that and they don’t hesitate to call, which is great because I want to be involved and I want to help them out in situations. Everything from the credit card machine not working or a leaky pipe, or whatever. You really are a slave to your business when you own something like that.
Lisa Belisle: Well, it sounds like it’s almost like having a child.
Neil Andersen: That never grows up.
Michael Giberson: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: That never grows up.
Neil Andersen: Never.
Lisa Belisle: Okay.
Michael Giberson: Gets older, but never grows up.
Neil Andersen: Right.
Lisa Belisle: What are some of the things that you’ve learned specifically from owning your own business versus working within the industry?
Neil Andersen: That’s a tough one.
Michael Giberson: Yeah, really.
Neil Andersen: I mean, I feel like staying focused on what we do best. We’ve tried to branch off and do other things and they’ve been somewhat successful, but we’ve always come back to the core of the diner, and that’s when we’ve been the happiest and the most successful. I really feel like just having that focus on the thing that you do and do it as well as you possibly can. I mean, I think the working for other businesses, other restaurants, have helped me be a better owner. I think they work in tandem. I don’t see them as sort of completely separate entities. To me. I think being a diner owner makes me a better employee for someone else, and being an employee for someone else hopefully makes me a better diner owner, because I see it from both angles.
Michael Giberson: It’s been so long since I’ve been an employee I don’t really remember.
Neil Andersen: He’d probably be a terrible employee now, because he’s worked for himself for so long.
Michael Giberson: Yeah. That’s true.
Lisa Belisle: Well, but it’s interesting because I know owning your own business, I mean, it’s great because you’re your own boss, but then you’re it, the buck stops with you.
Neil Andersen: Oh, completely.
Lisa Belisle: That’s it own set of stressors, because there’s nobody else to wake up in the middle of the night and worry about whether the pipes are frozen.
Neil Andersen: People don’t understand that, yeah, that your whole life is on the line and everything that you have and you own and you do, it rises and falls with the success of your business.
Michael Giberson: Really, that’s another driver to make the business successful, because that’s a huge chunk of our retirement, is when we sell that business. We have to maintain it. We have to keep improving the building, the kitchen. I mean we have two old buildings, the diner itself, 1946, but our kitchen building is from the late 1800s. They used to work on Model T’s in our kitchen. It used to be a garage. There were gas pumps out front. It’s been a challenge, and when we inherited, not inherited, but when we bought that building it was really ancient and decrepit, especially the kitchen building. It’s taken us 30 years to modernize it, and we’re still working on it.
Neil Andersen: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I’m wondering, when we have people in we always ask, who do you think should get some recognition for what they’re doing in their community? You actually suggested Thom Harnett, or maybe it’s Harnet.
Michael Giberson: I think it’s Harnett.
Neil Andersen: Harnett, sure.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, so you suggested, and you called him Gardiner’s great mayor.
Neil Andersen: Yeah. We’ve actually had a couple of great mayors.
Michael Giberson: Yeah, we have. We’ve had a bunch.
Neil Andersen: Andy MacLean, who was the mayor before this, was terrific, great, and Thom has been now.
Michael Giberson: Brian Rines.
Neil Andersen: And Brian Rines, who have done a lot for the town. Just good, even people.
Michael Giberson: Solid people.
Neil Andersen: Yup, even keeled. Inclusive. Wonderful people who care about their community, but are like the best of what a politician can be, I think.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that. In a small town there must be some, well, I guess you’re not that small, but in a small-ish community there must be some challenges with being the mayor, and to be able to maintain the kind of relationship that he obviously has with his community and deserve this recognition, how does he accomplish that and still move things forward?
Michael Giberson: Well, being in a small town, it’s just like being in a bigger political sphere. There are the people who want to do stuff and the people who don’t want to do stuff. There are the people who cling to the past, that don’t want anything to change, and that’s always a challenge. I was on the council for two years and I saw that, living proof of that, that there are people who, no matter what you want to do, there are people who really don’t want to do it or they want to drag their feet doing it. That is a challenge, and I think Thom and the previous mayors have realized that and worked towards goals that were achievable and built coalitions that made that happen, and worked with the council to do that.
Lisa Belisle: In a town like Gardiner, which has been evolving since it’s not any longer dependent upon industry the way that it once was, what do you see the needs as being? You said that you’ve worked with Main Street, and this is all about trying to evolve small towns in the state of Maine. What do you perceive needs to happen so that Gardiner, and other towns like it, can move forward?
Neil Andersen: Well, I think it is happening. I mean there’s a new medical center that’s being built that’s going to have some housing, that will be a big deal. Of course, the other side of this interview is Johnson Hall, which I think will be a huge key part in the cultural center. When that’s up and running, when the big theater is running and they’re having a constant stream of great shows in, it’s going to be bringing people into the community. Then that, I think, organically grows small businesses and other restaurants and things of that nature. To me, the arts part of it is huge.
Michael Giberson: I mean there are people in any town who don’t care about the downtown, they don’t think it’s necessary, but it really is the heart and soul of the community. If you have a downtown that really is dying, that says a lot about the community. I mean the building next to us used to be a drugstore, and for years after the drugstore went out of business, it was boarded up. What signal does that send to people who pass through the community when….
Neil Andersen: That was the first thing they would see would be a boarded….
Michael Giberson: The main building at the main intersection in town is a boarded-up building? There are a lot of things that are challenging to a small town, in a downtown like that, that need to be resolved and it takes the work of the whole community to do that. It’s very incremental. It does not happen overnight, as we’ve seen. It’s like two steps forward, one step back. All the time. Slowly it is turning around. We’ve got a brand new co-op in Gardiner. We have some new businesses opening. People are developing the upper floors of the Main Street for housing. All of those things are important.
Neil Andersen: I think it’s tinkering with the mix of sort of retail and a downtown, of what is necessary that can be supported 365 days a year, and then other smaller businesses that are a little more specialized. It’s got to be a mix, I think. That’s challenging.
Lisa Belisle: When you have a town like Gardiner, that is not coastal and it does attract people during the summer, but I’m guessing there isn’t quite as much of a shift, from a tourist standpoint, as some parts of Maine. How do you, I guess, try to convince people that you’re still open for business in February?
Michael Giberson: Well, I think one of the things that’s really helped us is both the highways come to Gardiner. The old coastal route, before they built the new bridge in Augusta, was to get off the highway in Gardiner, and if you’re going on Route 9 or Route 17, you drive through Gardiner. I think that’s one of the things that’s really helped the town itself. It is really touristy, unlike the coast, which is always touristy, tourists have discovered Central Maine more and are branching away from the crowded areas of the coast a lot. A lot of people who come back year after year want to explore more, so they discover these towns that are away from the coast. All of those things have helped.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, and where we are there’s a ton of lakes and ponds, so there’s a ton of summer people that come in that have summer camps and homes. You see a big swell. I don’t think it’s as dramatic as it is, say in places like Boothbay, where it just closes down and goes to nothing. That’s actually to our advantage, I think. We are a year-round community. Also using things like social media, and we’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great press and we have an Instagram account and a Facebook account. People like to be in touch that way. There’s tons of people who will comment or follow us that live on the other side of the country, or somewhere else, but they come here in the summer and they want to keep in touch and see what’s going on. I think that is a constant reminder and that’s worked greatly to our advantage, and being on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was huge.
Michael Giberson: Well, and we did have a ton of crazy media coverage, which was amazing. Like I said before, you need everything you can get in a small town in Maine in the winter. We’ve been in The New York Times, we’ve been on the Food Network, we’ve been in major magazines. It’s been amazing. It’s kind of a snowball thing, because we don’t go looking for any of that publicity, it just kind of happens and it’s great. I think part of that is the resurgence in the popularity of diners.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, people are interested.
Michael Giberson: You know, people are interested, and plus it’s a great building, it’s a beautiful building just to come and look at it. When you think it was built in 1946 and it’s been used hard every day and it’s still standing, it’s pretty amazing.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that you, in addition to getting people who come back because they have some nostalgia about what’s happened in their past, do you think that you’re also getting a younger generation that really never knew any of this stuff?
Michael Giberson: We are seeing more and more of that. I see so many young couples in, and teenagers and 20s, it’s amazing. I’m always so happy, because I didn’t ever want it to be the stodgy old folks place, you know, where the old guys came in and sat and had coffee all afternoon and smoked cigarettes. We see more and more young people, it’s great. I always just am so happy when I see that.
Neil Andersen: Yeah. I mean it is a great mix and we certainly have lots of elderly clientele that we love.
Michael Giberson: Oh, yeah.
Neil Andersen: They’re the heart and soul of the lunch crowd, and they’re wonderful and they have the time to spend. I think there’s young people making their own memories now and creating their own experiences, and I think they want a more genuine experience, as opposed to sort of a generic, cookie cutter fast food, faux chain, you know what I mean? That’s the same everywhere. This is something that’s kind of unique and a little bit more individual and hopefully a little more special. I think they’re staking that claim for themselves, which is great.
Michael Giberson: I think that’s some of what’s driven young people to move to Gardiner too, from out of state and southern Maine, is a lot of people who grow up in big urban areas don’t want their kids to grow up in that same situation. They want to move somewhere where they can have more of a sense of place and have a downtown that they can call their own, and raise their kids in a small community. I think we’ve seen a pretty large influx of people from away who are doing that.
Lisa Belisle: You’re celebrating 29 years in April, and you probably have a few really good years ahead of you, quite a few I’m guessing, because you’re both young.
Michael Giberson: A couple.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, well from a couple to many.
Neil Andersen: Probably a lot of years and at least a few good ones.
Lisa Belisle: Okay. What would you like to see happen? What is your hope for yourselves and also for the A 1 Diner?
Michael Giberson: Well, we have a challenge coming up, because the bridge that the diner sits on is going to be replaced in 2019, and it’s a huge project because all the utilities for the power company and the phone company and the gas company, all run under that bridge.
Neil Andersen: We sit right on that bridge.
Michael Giberson: Right. We’re going to be closed for a little bit in 2019. We don’t really know the details of it yet, because the final plan isn’t don’t. We’ll be closed for a couple months maybe. We’re not really sure. That’s going to kind of give us a chance to reassess where we are and what the future is. I’m coming up on wanting to retire, and probably after the diner is reopened after the bridge thing happens, we’ll put the diner on the market. We have two or three people who are already interested, and I’m sure if it was public we’d have even more people interested. My goal is to turn the diner over to someone who loves it like we do. I wouldn’t sell it to just anyone. I want to sell it to someone who loves it for what it is and wants to continue the tradition of great food there.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, it’s going to have to be someone very hands-on, owner-operated, I think. I would agree. Yeah, that sounds reasonable to me. I’ll probably continue to work elsewhere for a while. Yeah, I think we’ve earned it.
Lisa Belisle: I would say you have.
Neil Andersen: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I’ll make sure that I make it back over there before you close down in 2019.
Neil Andersen: You’ve got plenty of time. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, trust me.
Lisa Belisle: Then before you retire.
Neil Andersen: Yeah. You definitely have plenty of time.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Michael Gibersonn and Neil Andersen, who own the A 1 Diner in Gardiner, and who in April will celebrate 29 years of ownership. I really appreciate your taking the time out of your very busy schedules to come and have this conversation with me. I also appreciate the community that you have continued to contribute to and create within your own diner, so thank you very much.
Neil Andersen: Absolutely, thanks for having us.
Michael Giberson: Thank you. It’s great fun. Thank you.
Neil Andersen: Yeah, terrific.
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Lisa Belisle: Today in the studio with me I have Michael Miclon, the Executive and Artistic Director at Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner, who has been a professional entertainer since 1982. Thanks for coming in today.
Michael Miclon: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You really have a lot of things on your list. You’ve done and been, done so many things, been so many place.
Michael Miclon: Yup. Sure.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Buckfield.
Michael Miclon: I did, and that’s really, it was a huge opportunity to grow up in that little town which really didn’t have a lot else going on. Celebration Barn Theater is about 15 minutes away and some performers, people came from all over the world to study there. Luckily for me, two of them landed in Buckfield, decided to build a house there, Benny and Denise Reehl. They had a traveling show called the Buckfield Leather and Lather Traveling Variety Show. It was a remake of an old vaudeville show, where they actually made leather products and sold those and then did live shows, a la, like old medicine shows. They were just amazing, and so I grew up watching them.
Then Denise in 1982 decided to teach the drama class at my high school, and so I was one of those naughty class clown kids that no one knew what to do with, and they were like, “Maybe if we get him into drama it’ll give him something to do.” I did and actually that same year Patrick Dempsey, Dr. McDreamy, we both were encouraged to take her class and both, like I always say, our careers have just paralleled each other right along.
Lisa Belisle: Are you a different sort of McDreamy? Are you like entertainer McDreamy?
Michael Miclon: Yes, I’m a Miclon, he’s a McDreamy. Yeah. I love live theater more than, that’s really what my goal was, was I wanted to do what Benny and Denise were doing and I really focused on that. I really started performing right away. I started an apprenticeship with them. At the end of that year they asked me to apprentice with them. I had no idea what that meant, but I said yes immediately. Basically what it meant is they trained me in performance and juggling, comedy, mime, vaudeville, improvisation, you name it, and I would stack firewood and paint their deck, babysit their kids, do all that in trade. It was amazing because I could have never have afforded to pay for the education that I got. I did that for six years with them. It was great.
Lisa Belisle: Why live? Why a live theater versus going the McDreamy direction?
Michael Miclon: Sure. I love that connection with a live audience, I’ve always loved that. That you get to affect the people that are coming into the room. I do love film and I love that kind of work, but it’s a very different experience. I also love that for the audience, they get to affect you. See, that’s the other part, is that their laughter and applause, or lack of laughter and applause, makes a difference, makes you work harder, makes you try to find that connection. I love to find the connection with a live audience. It’s just always been… I did it any, I was the youngest of five kids, so I was sort of born with an audience, so I always wanted to get that reaction. Then went to school and found a bigger audience, so once it was actually controlled and I could actually use techniques and actually learn, it was great, I love to do it.
Lisa Belisle: Well I’m kind of interested to hear about this because I don’t think of, well, tell me a technique. What would be a technique for trying to connect better with an audience?
Michael Miclon: Connect with an audience. There’s a variety of different things you can do. One is that as you approach your audience, how you come out onto the stage is one of the key things. In a lot of ways you come out, try to sort of seek permission to be there. You come out and you look for ways, as quickly as you can, to make a connection with either a specific audience member or as the group, but you go out and you really are looking. It’s very different than standup where you’re just, it’s like battle. You got to go out and you got to strike first.
This is more, the style of entertainment I do is you go out and you’re really trying to get permission, you’re trying to get a buy in from your audience. You find different ways, whether it’s to come out you do a trick for them or you come out and you, you know, do an introduction that really is just designed to make a connection with your audience. Then once you have it, once you’ve gotten that first step then you go a little further, little further. A lot of the live stuff that we do involves actually pulling people from the audience right up onto the stage and interacting with them there. Really, I always look at, everything I do is what they call fourth wall down, there is no barrier between us and the audience. Like a play is fourth wall up. Everything we do is fourth wall down, so really getting out there and making that instant connection.
Lisa Belisle: Is there a relationship between the type of work you do and improvisational theater?
Michael Miclon: Absolutely. Improv is key, because you have to be able to change direction if it’s not going the way you want it to. If you’re not making that connection you’ve got to be able to shift gears as quickly as you can. Sort of trusting, one of my main teachers was Tony Montanaro and he always talked about, fortunately he said, “When you start to recognize it you get hundreds of impulses a second. You’re getting all kinds of options and as you train, you start to learn to take the best ones.” If you’re trying to do comedy you’ll take the ones that lean towards the quickest laugh. I’ve really been able to hone that skill over the last, you know, few decades of really trying to get it so that as quickly as possible. People talk, “You’re so quick.” It’s like, well it’s really a training. It’s about doing it over and over and over and trying to find those best impulses that come in.
Lisa Belisle: Is part of it trying to understand what’s going on behind the eyes of the people that are in front of you?
Michael Miclon: Exactly. I mean you learn to…. We always talk about, we’re mimes, and mimes have such the worst, they’re given the worst rap in the world, but mime really is about studying humans. Whether it’s their emotion, and being able to mimic it, that’s the term. You really learn to read people, so that’s one of the key things is being able to look at your audience and body language is huge.
I always, for me personally and it’s become sort of the mission as I go, I look for the guy that’s not laughing, that’s got his arms crossed, that’s not sitting up, and my goal is as soon as I can to have engaged that person, got them to minimally uncross their arms, because crossed arms is such a sign of like, “You’re not getting to me. I’m protected.” Then once they relax and they realize it’s not a standup show where you’re trying to zing them, you’re just trying to build a relationship. I’m always looking for that. It’s really about building and understanding body language and seeing what they’re doing. Laughter is easy, because if they’re laughing it’s great, but I’m always looking for the people that aren’t and see if I can get to them.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in this because when I give presentations, I give talks, and often times to doctors. They are very much known for the crossed arms. Not all of us, but you know.
Michael Miclon: Yup exactly. Crossed arms.
Lisa Belisle: They’re known for the crossed arms. A little bit skeptical. Very much in their heads.
Michael Miclon: Exactly. Yup, yup.
Lisa Belisle: If you’re dealing with a doctor who’s doing that, and maybe I’m that doctor in the audience.
Michael Miclon: Right, right.
Lisa Belisle: How would you approach it.
Michael Miclon: Well that’s why, you talk a lot of times it’s like talking about leading with a joke, so laughter is so wonderful because laughter really is a surprise. We laugh because we’re surprised at something, and once you’re surprised, you’re rocking people off, I feel like you’re rocking them off their defenses, once you’re surprised. It’s really trying to find that opening, that opening line, that opening connection that you can make. If you can get to them, if you can give them that and get them to laugh, nine times out of ten they’ll start to, they will relax. Their arms will drop and they’ll start to be like, “Okay.” It’s really about going, “Oh we’re on the same team.”
If an audience feels like it’s a combative situation or if they feel like they’ve got to defend themselves, it’s a tougher road. That’s why I don’t do standup. I love standup. I don’t do standup because it’s not in my nature, because a lot of comedians talk about you’ve got to… Jerry Seinfeld always says, our terms are, “We slayed them. We killed them.” Those terms are really specific because it’s like, if we don’t, they’ll do it to us. In the style of family, I call it family entertainment, but it’s really it’s just a, it’s cleaner material, it’s more audience-oriented rather than just one liners. It’s about connecting. I try, I’m always trying to find that way to get that connection. That’s why I love that style of entertainment.
Lisa Belisle: Where does something like juggling come in?
Michael Miclon: Yeah. Well, for me juggling was the reason to get on stage. I didn’t have all the jokes yet, I didn’t have all the stuff, but maybe if I could impress you. Juggling was initially for me, when I started learning it, and that was one of the first skills that Benny and Denise Reehl taught me, was to juggle. Of course, then that gave me all kinds of confidence because it was something I’d seen, it was something that seemed so difficult, and then once I learned it I was like, “Hey, maybe I can do other things.” Juggling is a great way because you can come out with the idea, “I’m going to show you something.” Then you can practice everything from when you walk out to when you throw that first trick is your opportunity to try those jokes and try those connections.
Then sometimes if you just do a trick…. Like my oldest son is an amazing juggler. He can juggle seven of anything, and has worked on nine and he’s incredible. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody. He doesn’t want to talk on stage, doesn’t want to do it, so he says, “I go out and I do it with the tricks. I do something really difficult.” Then he’ll stop and look at the audience to try to go, “What did you think?” Actually asking them, in a nonverbal way, “Did you enjoy that?” That’s his way of getting that connection. Juggling for me was a way to get out on stage, and then try all the comedy parts, but for him it’s the reverse, it’s like it’s a chance not to have to say anything.
Lisa Belisle: Where does he fall in your line up of children?
Michael Miclon: He’s my oldest. My oldest, he learned to juggle when he was five. He watched me from a baby. I have tons of video of him before he could walk, he would grab two of anything and try. He would throw them, but he would mimic the motion. From zero to five he was really living it, but wasn’t actually doing it. When he turned five, and it’s very hard to teach young kids to juggle, but it was just in his body, so within a week he’d learned how to juggle three balls at age five. Now he lives in New York City and does, he’s going to be in an episode of Mozart in the Jungle, as a juggler.
Lisa Belisle: I love that show.
Michael Miclon: Yeah, so he’s in season two, episode nine.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, I’m going to look for that now.
Michael Miclon: Look for that. That’s Shane Miclon, he is like Randy the Ring Juggler or something. I don’t know, but it’s cool. He gets lots of work. He does lots of circus, like artistic circus, Cirque du Soleil type of performances. He was on Rachel Ray, which was an odd experience, but fun. You know.
Lisa Belisle: I’m assuming if you have an oldest, you must have other children.
Michael Miclon: I do. My middle son also lives in Brooklyn, and he just graduated from the New York Conservatory of the Dramatic Arts a year ago. They live there and they do duet work together and do shows. Then my youngest actually is not in the performing world at all. Can juggle seven balls, can do all kinds of stuff, has no desire to be on stage at all.
Lisa Belisle: What does he?
Michael Miclon: He is a butcher. Yup. Has a baby and a baby on the way, and very happily married and likes to watch his brothers, but doesn’t want to get on stage himself.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting, because I was thinking about what you said about the youngest and how you’re the youngest of five, so you’re watching and you’re interacting and that engagement’s really important for you. Did that in any way play itself out with your youngest?
Michael Miclon: No, because…. Well, the interesting thing was is that, so they grew up in the Oddfellow Theater, that was my theater in Buckfield. They grew up there and for the older two, we had people coming from all over the world that ended up in Buckfield doing shows at my theater. We had people that were in Cirque du Soleil and people that were on Broadway. That’s just with the connections that I had there, we would get people to come in and just do guest spots or do their shows. My older two saw that as inspirational. They saw that as like, “Wow, I can do anything. These guys have shown me the way.” My youngest son saw it as, “I could never be that good.” Which is very strange, because usually youngests are like me. He is funny, but he gets panicked being on stage. It just, it eats him up, he can’t do it.
The other two just live and breathe it. They don’t even…. What my oldest son does on stage, I mean the ridiculous difficulty, and he mixes it with a lot of dance and movement so it’s not just coming out and juggling, it’s whole full routines, it’s thought up choreography. I’m a juggler, I mean I can juggle five but I can’t do anything to the extent he can do it, but I watch him and I often wonder, he’s making it look so smooth that when the audience watches it they don’t understand the level of difficulty. Which is great, which is what our job is supposed to be.
My youngest just sort of sees it all as like, just knots him up. Even from when he used to do high school plays. He basically did those just so he could be around who was going to be his future wife, but he didn’t really want to do it for me. For me I just wanted to be on stage all the time. Any opportunity. When I did that first here, we did three plays. I got a lead in one, but they needed a dead body in the other one and I was the only person that volunteered. That’s how Denise knew that I was destined to stay in the arts, is I was willing to be dead.
Lisa Belisle: Because you so wanted to be onstage that you were willing to be a dead body.
Michael Miclon: I didn’t care what capacity. I was good too. I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything.
Lisa Belisle: I find this so interesting because it seems as though there are kids that it’s just like from the moment they like pop out, they are somehow inclined to be, whether it’s in the arts or music, theater, photography, whatever it is, that’s where they are. If they’re fortunate enough to be in a family where that’s the business, then they can kind of….
Michael Miclon: Yup. That’s what they can do. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: They can do that. If you’re not, then it’s very interesting.
Michael Miclon: Right, then you have to…. My parents were, my dad was a teacher, my mom worked at the local phone company, but they were very, my dad I always say, he could tell a story better than anybody. He was fantastic, and they both have a really good sense of humor but didn’t really do…. My mother was a dancer when she was younger and all that stuff, but basically by the time I came into the picture they were just two working people with five kids, so it wasn’t…. I really had to, I knew I had a spark for it, but I didn’t even know, I didn’t know what to do with it. That’s why I just thank God that I came across Benny and Denise, because they knew. They saw it and were like, “Okay, you’ve got to do this.” Then I took on apprentices myself throughout the years, going, “I’ve got to be able to pass that on and do that same thing.” All the people that I chose to work with are all doing it professionally now, so it’s great.
Lisa Belisle: Does this drive you in the work that you do with the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner?
Michael Miclon: Sure, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You told me that you need to raise, I think, it’s 4.3 million dollars?
Michael Miclon: 4.3 total. Yeah, we’re about 1.8 in. Yup, and we have to raise 4.3. The connection to that space is I had run my theater, and I decided to close the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, thought I was done running a theater. I decided to make a film, so I made a feature length film, a comedy, which was really fun. Then I had heard through the grapevine, the theater grapevine, that they were looking for a new executive director for Johnson Hall. They had gone through about a year and they had narrowed it down to a couple of different folks, and in the end neither one of them panned out. The two people that they chose, one lady decided last minute she didn’t want to move to Maine, and the other guy, I don’t know what the details was but he didn’t take it.
They were still looking and I said, “You know what …” They had already gone through this whole process. I had never put my name in and then I made a connection, they brought me in, I interviewed and then they hired me the next day. The cool connection is that Benny and Denise Reehl had left Buckfield in the late 80s to go, and they actually purchased Johnson Hall. They were part of that whole resurgence, formed the non-profit that I now work for now. Denise actually stayed on working there for about 25 years. Benny passed away in 2005, but had been a major part of that program. I went there to go like, I want to continue their work and I want to get their theater done.
All of this stuff, and definitely improv is a major part of it, but the work that we do there is, because I believe that live arts are essential to humanity. I think it is that thing I was talking about, is that you put, it’s this weird agreement that you go hundreds of people are going to come together in a room and not like rush the stage. We understand, “I’ll sit here, I’ll watch, you do stuff. If I like it I’ll slap my hands together and we’ll call it good.” It’s an amazing, I think it’s an incredible exchange. What our job is, my job is, is to bring in really great people. When I was in Buckfield I was in about 80% of the shows. In Gardiner I don’t, I barely perform there. I introduce all the shows and do that, but I really wanted to concentrate on the producing end of it and really….
Before I got there we only did about 12 shows a year, so now this year we added films in, we’re doing about 70. It was really about expanding the program and getting it up to a standard. That’s been huge because we do everything that we do on the first floor of Johnson Hall, but the actual theater, it’s the oldest opera house in the state of Maine, is on the third floor, and it’s been sitting untouched basically since the 50s. That’s what we’re working to renovate, so we’ll go from about 125 seats on the first floor to 400 seats on the third floor. Then we’ll run both theaters at the same time. It’s pretty neat.
Lisa Belisle: This is Gardiner, which is certainly busier than Buckfield.
Michael Miclon: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Just geographically and….
Michael Miclon: It has street lamps and restaurants.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, exactly, but that’s still a lot of seats that you’re talking about. Have you been successful in drawing the numbers that you’ve wanted so far?
Michael Miclon: We have. Yeah. Again, before I started there we averaged about 450 people per year. With 12 shows, wasn’t great. My first year we did 32 shows, we got a little over 1600 people. Next year we had 37 shows, we had about 2200 people. Last year was 42 shows, we had over 3000 people. The numbers just keep growing and growing and growing and growing. Now we’re getting to the point where people are like, “Man you can’t get tickets.” Which is awesome. It’s where we wanted to be, because everyone was saying, “Why do you need a third floor theater if you’re not filling the first floor?” Now we’re fortunately packing it in at the first floor theater.
We had to elevate the level. We’ve got Dar Williams coming in. We had John Gorka, Chris Smither. We try to really upgrade. Really, my first year was sort of figuring out, what do people even want? I’m very much a, like I say, that vaudeville style performance, but what sells the best, what really does it is the music. We really, people just love to come out for the music. We still do a lot of the live variety stuff, and we have standup and improv shows and things like that. We really have become a really solid music house. It’s cool.
Lisa Belisle: I’m fortunate on this show, because I get to interview people who are artists and musicians and actors and entertainers of various sorts. I’m constantly amazed that the arts are so alive and rich and present. It’s not like we have a history of arts in Maine. It’s we have a history and we have a present and we have a future. We’re still a relatively rural state, and you’re not talking about Portland, you’re not talking about Bangor, you’re talking about Buckfield, Gardiner.
Michael Miclon: Yeah. It’s incredible to me, and I have a lot of people that come to Maine, from places like Indiana or I even have some friends that moved from Maine to Austin, and if you’re in the music world that’s great, but if you’re in the live theater realm, he was just saying, it’s really hard to find work let alone get work. Maine has a network of, people have just sort of grown up over the years knowing that, sure whether you’re a corporate group, you hire entertainers.
There’s these little thriving theaters, and theaters pop up in every form. Mine was an old Oddfellows building. If there’s a place where people can gather…. Portland, what I love about Portland is they don’t care, they go, “90 seats, great. We don’t care. If that’s all we can squeeze in.” It works. Traditionally if you’re under 300 seats you’re asking for it. To succeed financially it’s almost impossible under 300 seats. We’ve proved around here, it’s like, throw a theater in your living room, and that’s actually a growing thing that’s happening in the state is these living room concert things that people are doing. I just think that….
The Maine Arts Commissions, years and years and years ago, used to have a great thing called the Maine Touring Program. I don’t know if they invented it, but it was new to us in the state. What it was is that anybody, if you were hiring Maine artists and you were connected to a non-profit, you could get these artists at a reduced rate. From Kittery to Presque Isle, everywhere in between, people could bring in artists and there was this book and you’d have to audition. I remember getting into the Maine Touring Program was a huge, like that was like a stamp. That meant, within us as performers or whether you were, it wasn’t just limited to live art, it could be sculptors and painters and whatever too. You could bring them in and they could do work and workshops. It created this idea that you could get these people at a reduced rate. The performers were still getting their pay, but the Maine Arts Commission assisted with that. It just built this.
Then after that program went away, the networks didn’t stop. People were like, “Well I still want to bring artists in.” School shows and all that, it just built and built and built and built. I think it’s really the legacy of a lot of the work that the Maine Arts Commission did back in the day, because it built this expectation of, “Oh you’ve got to have art.” I think it is unique for us because like I said, people that live in New Hampshire, live in Vermont, and it’s not as easy to find this steady stream of work that you can get.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think as an artist that there’s also something about the mental space that’s available in Maine? As opposed to some of the larger metropolitan areas?
Michael Miclon: Sure. What else is there to do? Create. I think to live in Maine you have to be really creative anyway. I mean, we have the changes of the seasons so extreme, and you’re always, you’re preparing. You’re always preparing. You’re either preparing for winter, getting excited for this, getting through…. We don’t have mud seasons anymore, but we used to. Always trying to prepare and get ready, so you have to be multifaceted.
I think that sets up people that we learn a lot of things, and then you have lots of months that are like cold and dreary and what are you going to do, stay inside? Create something. I’m always amazed, and I think that’s what attracts people from other places to Maine, is that there is this wonderful solitude when you need it, and then there’s just this amazing connectivity throughout the state all year long, but particularly when it warms up you can just, there’s so many places to go and do. You can recreate yourself or be a part of someone else’s recreation. It’s awesome. I think it’s awesome.
Lisa Belisle: As the executive and artistic director at Johnson Hall in Gardiner, you have a very specific role, and you said that you weren’t doing any performances there.
Michael Miclon: Right.
Lisa Belisle: It’s still in you, because obviously if you’re doing a New Year’s Eve performance….
Michael Miclon: Right, I still perform. I still do shows in other places. I just found, it was weird, when I was in Buckfield I was more performer than executive director. Then when I came to Gardiner I really realized the need to be more focused on the executive director part, and actually building the organization and helping to fortify what we were going to do. Because if we were going to get to this bigger goal of running a, I’ve never run a 400 seat theater, I’ve always run theaters under 200 seats, and that’s a different animal. I told them very honestly when I took the job that the whole reason I was taking it is that I, A, wanted to see Benny and Denise’s theater get done, but I also wanted to experience what it’s like to run a 400 seat theater myself.
I want to know, what’s that like, the level of act that I can bring in starts to go way up. We can start to get some really serious, with 400 seats you can really start to, your pool of artists starts to get a lot bigger, and that’s really exciting to me. You can really begin to pull some really interesting acts in and different groups from around the country. Whereas we’re a little bit more limited with a small amount of seats. I was like, yeah, really focused on the idea that I really have to build, I have to be more the businessman with an artistic sense rather than the artist who’s trying to do the business. I had to switch my focus a little bit.
Lisa Belisle: Yet both require you to be able to read people.
Michael Miclon: Yup, exactly. It really does.
Lisa Belisle: You’re using the skills….
Michael Miclon: Yeah, I feel like I perform a lot. We do a lot of what we call house, road shows, where we are always trying to get…. One of the things that we realized with Johnson Hall, and a lot of organizations have this, but it’s like even in your closest proximity, that’s where people tend to not know about you. They know of you, they don’t know you. Yet we pull people from Portland, from Bangor, from Lewiston-Auburn to Gardiner all the time, but our general area they’re like, “Yeah, I know Johnson Hall, that little place over there.” Maybe they’ve never been in. Maybe they went in once and didn’t like it. You never know. What we’re trying to do is get into people’s homes and actually talk about what we do. We call it friend-raising, not fundraising. We feel like the dollars will follow if they like us, if they’re willing to come visit us and see that we’ve changed, or just understand what we do.
Lisa Belisle: Well we will put information about the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner on our show notes page, and I wish you all the best in raising the $4.3 million for your renovation by 2019.
Michael Miclon: 2019 is when we hope to open, yup, so we’re hoping to start construction as early in 2018 as possible, if not late 2017.
Lisa Belisle: For people who are listening, don’t hold off on sending money now.
Michael Miclon: Right, right now.
Lisa Belisle: You should send it right now to Mike Miclon over at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center. Thanks so much for coming in.
Michael Miclon: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: It’s really been a pleasure learning about your craft.
Michael Miclon: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 284, Gardiner, Drama, and Dining. Our guests have included Michael Giberson, Neil Andersen and Michael Miclon. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa, and see my running, travel, food and wellness photos as bountiful1 on Instagram.
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