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Honoring a musical hero

Before his death a year ago, Al Downing shared his love for music with children.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The 11-year-old master of ceremonies stood in the theater wings savoring the delicious feeling of butterflies in his stomach. He didn't hesitate when the man with the guitar asked him if he knew the blues.

"No," Devin Collins said, "but I'm sure you could teach me."

The guitarist told him to get his instrument.

The next thing Devin knew, he was on stage coaxing notes from his tenor saxophone. Nervousness turned to pleasure as he jammed with the Jazz All-Stars, the quintet founded by former Gibbs High School teacher and professional musician Al Downing.

"It felt like going down a roller coaster," Devin said later. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

On Friday night, Perkins Elementary Center for the Arts and International Studies dedicated its performing arts theater to Mr. Downing, who died Feb. 19, 2000. His family and friends were present, along with Perkins' teachers, students and parents.

Mr. Downing's relationship with Perkins Elementary started years ago, when he dropped by to visit the school at 2205 18th Ave. S.

"One day he walked in the door and announced, 'I would love to teach an after-school program to your children,' " Perkins magnet coordinator Pat Archibald said. "He had such a vision for helping young people fall in love with music."

Perkins principal Robert Lister remembers Mr. Downing bringing his keyboard on sunny afternoons, sitting in the midst of 10 or 12 children and sharing his love of jazz.

Lister also remembers Mr. Downing and his wife, Bunny, walking over to the school from their house around the corner to attend fall and spring festivals.

A neighborhood landmark since 1958, Perkins became a performing arts magnet in 1993 to attract white families to the predominantly black area. The arts, foreign languages and humanities program was so successful that by the end of its first year, it was no longer necessary to bus students to Perkins to achieve racial balance.

There was a waiting list by the end of the second year.

The school was bursting at the seams by 1997.

It took the School Board a couple of years to accumulate the land it needed to build a new school, said Tony Rivas, director of facilities for Pinellas County Schools.

One of the pieces was the neighboring Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. The congregation was experiencing its own growth spurt and needed a larger building.

"A decision was made that a theater would be an appropriate use for that building," Rivas said. "Perkins had a very successful program in the old school, but the facilities were very limited. It was very cramped."

"We were always begging, borrowing or stealing a place to put on a performance," Ms. Archibald said. "We kept bugging the architect that we wanted a real performing arts space, not the back end of the cafeteria."

Tim Topper, head of Perkins' drama department, had been working out of a "black-box" theater, a small space with the walls painted black, since he'd come to the school in 1993.

"It was great for theater exercises, but it could only hold 80 or 90 people," he said. The students -- and their audiences -- had to travel to St. Petersburg or Seminole high schools for large shows.

"If you had a school that was a sports magnet, you'd get the kids a football field," he said.

When the renovation of the church was complete in January 1999, the roughly 6,000-square-foot building combined the professional tone of a theater with the reverential feel of a church.

New sound and light systems were installed, but the pews and the vaulted wood ceiling were salvaged. The vestibule became the theater lobby. The body of the church became the auditorium. The altar became the stage.

But as the makeover progressed, Mr. Downing's health began to deteriorate. In 1998, his doctors found he had three blocked arteries. They weren't able to operate, and he visited the school less and less often.

A friend of his, Dr. James L. Wright, came to Perkins and told school officials that he didn't know how much longer Mr. Downing would be around. He wanted to find some way to honor him.

Perkins' administrators decided to name the theater after the man who had spent his life educating young people and inspiring them with his passion for music. They also commissioned local artist Herb Davis to paint a mural of Mr. Downing. The painting spans the wall above the double doors in the theater's lobby.

Mr. Downing never got the chance to play music in the theater, but Mrs. Downing brought him over to see it. Mrs. Archibald said he was very weak. She isn't sure if he understood that their intention was to dedicate the theater to him.

But she said the students understand. Even the ones who didn't have the chance to meet Mr. Downing, like Devin Collins, know about his music, about how much he loved teaching young people to appreciate it.

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