“Venice Never Changes.” That is the watchword of natives of Italy’s famous city of canals, I was told ten years ago by American-born, Venetian-resident, Samantha Durrell, over coffee in her apartment during a break in a private tour of the back streets and alleys of her adopted hometown that she was taking me on. They don’t want change, not any change at all. They want their city to be just as it was when the first Doge ruled the Venetian Republic.
Alas, although I loved my time in Venice, and have been to Europe twice since my stay there just days after 9/11, the flight path of my travels and that of the pigeons of the Piazza San Marco have not crossed for more than a decade. But during that time, and the thirty previous years, I have traveled to Ashland, Oregon so many times it almost feels like a second home to me.
But has Ashland changed since I first wandered down into it from Crater Lake National Park, at the crest of the Oregon Cascades, 90 miles away? Or is like Venice, where nothing ever changes?
Forty years ago, men wore suits and women donned dresses, gloves, high-heels, and maybe even a hat, when traveling by air. Today, its only the pilots and cabin crew that are “dressed to the nines” while passengers often show up in polo shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes.
Likewise, the garb of Oregon Shakespeare Festival playgoers has evolved over the last four decades from sartorial splendor to tres casual. T-shirts, shorts, and tank-tops have become the costume de rigueur, at least during summer-time matinees. “Aloha” shirts are about as dressy as guys get. When the days grow cooler as falls fades into winter, fleece and down, blue jeans and Vibram-soled boots, are likely to be the clothing of choice for evening performances.
Steak and potatoes, pasta and pizza, can still be found on the menus of Ashland restaurants. But Thai and Pan-Asian cuisine, French and “California-French,” wraps, vegan and vegetarian dishes, have found their way on to the table in the town’s eateries.
The local bookstore, the travel store, the movie theater, haven’t disappeared. The shoe store still exists, where Ernie The Cat gained nation-wide fame, from where his evil successor was exiled for “greeting” customers in a less than friendly manner, and where the present resident feline is fluffy-furred Athos (a “mouseketeer”?). But for the first time in my memory, there are vacant store-fronts on Main Street. And one of my favorite pre-show dining venues, where I’ve had great meals at reasonable prices, may have served me its Last Supper: A cold and tasteless pile of barely edible chow that suggests a change in management, a change in chef, or a fatal decision to use cheaper ingredients.
Duane, the owner of the inn where I’ve stayed on my last few trips to Ashland, has moved to Grants Pass, along with the inn’s “fat cat,” Chester. The frog, whose pleasant croaking from the pond near or room, appears seems to have relocated, too.
Several years ago, the Festival built a new theater (appropriately enough, named the “New Theater”) where it stages somewhat more avant-garde plays, often by new playwrights, largely unknown to American theater patrons. So these days, Shakespeare is a more minor figure, rather than the major writer, of the plays performed each season. Not all fans of the Festival may have welcomed this change, but performances tend be sold-out, and you’ll find playgoers sporting Mohawks and body piercings, as well those with Blue Hair and Medicare cards sitting in the audience.
Downtown has different businesses and restaurants than it did forty, thirty, or twenty years back, but has retained the same overall look it had back in middle to latter part of the last century and still has a small-town, rural feel to it.
So like Venice, Ashland never changes. And when it does change, it changes slowly.