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A resurrected Rochester in ‘fLOUR CITY Interactive ROCgarden’

Sep 20, 2021

Seven voices boomed across the East Avenue garden space alongside Rochester Contemporary Arts Center, in the shadow of Christ Church. The voices of the dead.

These were actors, playing seven significant Rochesterians explaining their roles in the city’s history. All the meandering audience members who came to check out“fLOUR CITY Interactive ROCgarden” had to do was push the red button at the faux-granite pedestal on which each notable Rochesterian stood.

There was Al Sigl (1883-1966), explaining how he went from newspaper journalist and radio broadcaster to creating selfless movements that at one point made Rochester — as Sigl claimed, in “fLOUR CITY Interactive ROC Garden” — the top blood-donating city, per capita, in the country. Today, the Al Sigl Center serves special needs children and adults throughout the community.

While some of her older siblings were slaves, Anna Murray Douglass (1813-1882) was a Black woman born free. She told of helping Frederick Bailey escape slavery, their eventual marriage — when the couple took the name Douglass — and her own role working behind the scenes, enabling her husband to focus on his writing and abolitionist work.

In a city that’s an assembly line of musicians, Cab Calloway (1907-1994) was born here, but his family left for Baltimore when he was 11. This is the Calloway we know from his later “Minnie the Moocher” years, resplendent in white tuxedo.

Morrie Silver (1909-1974) is best remembered as the longtime owner of the Rochester Red Wings. But as he pointed out at “fLOUR CITY Interactive ROCgarden,” before that he owned the highest-grossing music store in the country.

An interesting cross-section of upbeat Rochesterians so far. But there were the usual suspects as well.

H.H. Warner (1842-1923) told of his rise as a businessman through the sale of “Log Cabin Remedies.” But financial ruin led to the demise of all of his philanthropic work, including the demotion of his private Warner Observatory, which at one time offered $200 to anyone who discovered a new comet while using the equipment.

“It wasn’t long before word got around that I knew the healing property of snakes,” said Peter Gruber, better known as Rattlesnake Pete (1857-1932). During his soliloquy, he had three snakes wrapped around him — all rubber, under close inspection. There’s also a suspect part of his legacy: While you could get a drink at his Mill Street snake museum, Rattlesnake Pete confessed in the Interactive ROCgarden that he actually does not like saloons.

Leah Fox Fish (1814-1890), holding a human skull, was the eldest of the Fox Sisters. “To this day we are heralded with giving rise to the spiritualism industry,” she explained. It did not end well, she admitted, as her younger sisters’ confessions that their spirit rap sessions were all faked led to Leah dying as an alcoholic in poverty. Now in a position to report with some authority, she assured her present-day audience, “There is no death, there are no dead.”

Of course, “fLOUR CITY Interactive ROCgarden” could evolve into an entire festival of famous Rochesterians. Start with Susan B. Anthony. Golf-course designer Robert Trent Jones. Pro wrestler Gorilla Monsoon.

And we need more of that dark side as well. Francis Tumblety, who makes the Top 10 suspects list compiled by most researchers on Jack the Ripper. Slave owner Nathaniel Rochester, for whom the city is named. Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens, as a couple from Rochester trapped on a capsized ocean liner in “The Poseidon Adventure.”

The final free, all-ages presentation of "fLOUR CITY Interative ROCgarden" takes place on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 6 p.m., at Rochester Contemporary Art Center's side lawn, 137 East Ave.

The complete festival schedule is available atrochesterfringe.com. Go to “Find a Show,” create a list of events by date, venue and genres, then hit the “Filter” button. Tickets to each event are available at the web site, by calling (585) 957-9837, or at the venue one hour before the start of the show if they are still available.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.