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Front Row Seat: How I became an arts writer

"Front Row Seat" is Jay Gabler's weekly column with a personal perspective on arts and entertainment.

Yellowed newsprint image shows image of teenage Jay Gabler next to column heading FRONT ROW SEAT, with text "By Jason Gabler, St. Agnes High School"
The header for Jay Gabler's "Front Row Seat" column as it originally appeared in the High School High 5 magazine, 1990.
Contributed / Jay Gabler
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DULUTH — It's fitting that I'm writing this in the downtown building where the News Tribune is based, because my journey to becoming an arts writer started just a block away, at the Duluth Public Library.

Growing up in Duluth in the 1980s, I'd leave my younger siblings browsing in the children's section of the library while I proudly walked up to the adult nonfiction section. I loved movies, so I'd look through the books on Oscar history and special effects. It was there I found the original 1985 edition of "Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion."

The book, a compilation of Ebert's reviews from the Chicago Sun-Times, was published for the benefit of America's rapidly growing population of VCR owners. While Ebert made clear in the book's introduction that "television is just not a first-class way to watch movies," he acknowledged that many of the best movies only had limited runs in major cities: You probably couldn't count on seeing every new Ingmar Bergman movie in the theater if you lived in, say, Duluth.

My family didn't own a VCR yet, though our Chester Park neighbors did — along with a "Purple Rain" tape they kept tantalizingly shrink-wrapped. My siblings and I mostly watched movies on cable, where the HBO rotation included some films we were allowed to see ("The Muppets Take Manhattan," "Cloak & Dagger") and lots more we weren't ("Revenge of the Nerds," "Midnight Express").

I became fascinated with Ebert's book, and as soon as we did get a VCR, I used it to tape episodes of "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies." Although I couldn't actually watch most of the movies the critics discussed, I was captivated by the idea that a movie was something you could have an opinion about. It seemed like such an awesome power to be able to look at something that might have cost $20 million to make and say, "You know what? This could be better."

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My family moved to St. Paul during the summer I turned 12. On my first day at Saint Agnes High School, I walked up to the newspaper adviser, Senora Cowan, and told her I wanted to be the movie critic for the school paper, the Hi-Times. Her response was to set me up for a rom-com meet-cute with one of my new classmates. "You and Andrea can go see a movie," she said, "and then talk about it over an ice cream sundae!"

Andrea became a good friend — in fact, we became co-editors of the whole paper by our senior year — but our would-be romance didn't work out the way our matchmaking Spanish teacher hoped. Andrea and I saw "Parenthood" (the 1989 Steve Martin movie) separately, then wrote a joint review over the phone.

Hoping to spread my wings as a critic, I started writing for a St. Paul magazine called the High School High 5: by high schoolers, for high schoolers. There, I debuted a movie review column called "Front Row Seat," although my most dramatic contribution was to suggest that since nobody seemed to know what our magazine was, we should pique their curiosity by publishing an issue where the cover art was literally a giant question mark. The fact that the publisher actually went for it was a sign of how hard up we were.

The cover of the High School High 5, dated Nov/Dec 1990. A large question mark is seen against a green background, with the text, "See page 12!"
If you were a Minnesota high schooler in 1990, would you open this magazine? The feature on page 12 invited teenagers to write for the magazine, or submit articles previously published in their school papers.
Contributed / Jay Gabler

Now we get to the part of the story I've had to explain in every journalism job interview for the last 15 years: the part where I go to Boston University, don't even attempt to write for that school's excellent student-run newspaper, and major in early childhood education. What can I say? I wanted to try something different.

After 14 years of "something different" that morphed into graduate study in sociology, I decided to collect my Ph.D. (they call it a "terminal degree," maybe because earning it almost kills you) and get back into journalism. After a couple unpaid internships at Minneapolis publications that no longer exist, I landed a position as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a nonprofit citizen journalism publication.

The Twin Cities Daily Planet is presently inactive, but back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I zipped around like Clark Kent, going to every arts event I could get a press pass for. Around 2010, METRO magazine named me the most ubiquitous person in the Twin Cities. (Sorry, Scott Seekins!) I was absolutely hooked on the cycle of see, write, repeat. I used to get home from a show, as late as 1 or 2 a.m., and immediately write my review, racing against my own self-imposed deadline.

Things got a little less frenetic when I moved to Minnesota Public Radio, where I wrote about music and other topics for The Current and YourClassical. I did volunteer myself to stay up all night on the day Bruce Springsteen's memoir was released, going on The Current the following morning to share my sleepy take. I also pulled an overnight as a stunt to make my way through a box set called "The History of Classical Music in 24 Hours" — in 24 hours.

While journalism of all descriptions, arts journalism included, can feel like a sprint, in reality it's more like a marathon. As much as I enjoy jumping on breaking news or fresh reviews, the truest satisfaction in this work comes from showing up, day after day, to look, listen and learn. When you've gathered enough information, you share it with your readers (or, as the case may be, listeners), then jump right back in.

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That's what I'm doing here at the News Tribune. Although I've only been on the job for a month and a half, I've already been to the Depot more times than I can count, covering the arts and heritage organizations based there. I've been to the DECC , and Sacred Heart, and even the Lake Superior Zoo. (I decided that zoo babies definitely count as "entertainment.") And, yes, I've been back to the library — many times.

It's a privilege to be able to take all this art in, and then to pass on what I've picked up. In addition to my ongoing reporting, I'm reclaiming the name "Front Row Seat" for this new column, where I'll bring a more personal perspective to arts, entertainment, and life in general here in the Northland. By this point, I go back over three decades with that column name, which I also used at the Daily Planet, and it's apt: When given a choice, I always do pick a front row seat, even at the movies.

What can I say? I just want to see the biggest picture possible. Plus, there's more elbow room up here.

Short cuts

In this section of each week's column, I'll touch on a few topics that are on my mind and that I won't be covering elsewhere.

The St. Louis County Historical society has "reinvigorated" its Depot display on the area's forest industries, and is inviting the public to a reception at the J. C. “Buzz” Ryan Forest History Room this Friday, April 8, from 4-6 p.m. A curator and designer will be on hand to discuss the new permanent display, which promises "multi-level experiences" for visitors to learn about our long history of logging. Which reminds me: Tom's Logging Camp is reopening May 1!

Above, I mentioned Prince's movie "Purple Rain." That 1984 movie was followed by cinematic outings including "Sign O' the Times," a concert film featuring songs from arguably Prince's greatest album. As St. Paul music writer Michelangelo Matos points out in an essay at TheCurrent.org, the movie "Sign O' the Times" has been hard to come by in recent decades, but that's starting to change. There were a couple recent screenings in the Twin Cities, including one at the North Minneapolis theater where Prince played his first-ever solo show. It's also currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, a subscription service for prestige-film buffs.

Speaking of streaming, if you've been watching Lizzo's Amazon show "Watch Out For The Big Grrrls," you've seen a Northlander in an important role! Grace Holden grew up in Bemidji and attended the University of Minnesota Duluth before successfully auditioning to become one of Lizzo's backup dancers in 2015 — when Lizzo was still based in Minneapolis. "We’re all very close," Holden told the Bemidji Pioneer in 2019 about being in Lizzo's squad. "We pretty much live together over a huge chunk of the year."

Jay Gabler covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact him at 218-279-5536 or jgabler@duluthnews.com .

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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