By Bruce Hammond
For The Rock River Times
With the passing of Karen Howard on Monday, Aug. 7, Rockford lost a truly iconic member of the local arts community. Along with husband Bill and daughters Lani and Jennifer, Karen (aka Ruby Skye) was the heart and soul of Charlotte’s Web for its first 40 years. But Karen was the dynamo that kept the machinery running for most of that time.
For the Baby Boomer generation, the name Charlotte’s Web will always call to mind the former synagogue on First Avenue that was home to the Web from 1972-92. Indeed, the two very nice commemorative pieces by Chuck Sweeny and Georgette Braun that appeared in last week’s Rockford Register Star understandably focused on that Web era. That’s entirely appropriate, for the reputation built by Karen and her family during those years certainly provided momentum for many of their subsequent endeavors in the arts and education.
I won’t repeat here the performers that Braun and Sweeny highlighted in their stories, but I would like to add a few names from that part of Web history:
The Runaways. Probably more significant in retrospect after the solo careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford took off. Since they were mostly performing as part of multi-act shows, they only had enough material for one set. To fulfill their contract, they played that same set twice.
Leon Redbone. Not that big of a deal now, although his voice still shows up in movie soundtracks and commercials (along with a lot of Redbone impersonators). During the late 70s he was quite well known, due, in part, to his numerous appearances on national TV (SNL, Tonight Show, etc.).
John Hartford. Made a lot of money for writing “Gentle on My Mind” then lived the rest of his life his way: playing the coolest bluegrass ever.
Tom Dundee. A songwriter’s songwriter. Most later Web folk acts had at least one of Tom’s songs in their repertoire.
Care of the Cow. Don’t be ashamed if you can’t recall this one, but if you didn’t see them then you missed something truly original. They were inventive—often downright odd. One review of their 1981 album commented that “the band’s relationship with melody often seemed entirely accidental.” They played the night of my first visit to the Web.
I had moved back to Rockford in the late 70s after about a decade of living elsewhere. I was working a temporary job at the Farm & Fleet on W. State. A co-worker who had tired of hearing me grouse about no longer living within walking distance of the Quiet Knight in Chicago suggested that I accompany her and her husband to a place called Charlotte’s Web to see a group called Care of the Cow.
Now, I had heard of the band. Friends in Chicago had recommended them before. They were Chicago-based and played some of my old haunts. I hadn’t heard of the Web but was told it was “pretty cool.”
So, I went, I saw, I was conquered. Somewhat later, I had much the same experience at a NAT production of Equus on South Main. I later found out that Jim Sullivan’s group had also started at the Web. After years of being involved with the performing arts on various levels in Chicago and elsewhere, like Dorothy, I was finding what I was looking for right in my own back yard.
Unfortunately, during the next few years of raising a family, working in retail management, trying to remain connected with friends in the music and theatre communities around Chicago, and eventually opening my own live music venue in Rockford, my visits to the Web and NAT were not as frequent as I would have liked. I only met the Howards in my final year in the bar business, located upstairs at the Old Rock River Café at State and Madison. The owner, Mike Leifheit, introduced me to Bill and Karen one evening.
Soon after, I was invited to join the On The Waterfront programming committee; a group that also included Karen. In relatively quick succession Karen joined Frank Schier, Gary Wilmer and myself on the RAMI Steering Committee; the permanent Web closed; and the production company that Dave Hedden and I founded after my bar closed began doing sound and lights for what I sometimes refer to as the Charlotte’s Web Travelling All-Stars and Music Kings.
Over the next 25 years of working for, with and around Karen and her family (yes, we played some too), I came to appreciate how their passion for the arts and the artists, their constant goal of professionalism and their unwearying drive to “make a difference” had combined to infuse the original Web – and all that followed – with its magical aura.
For that aura extended way beyond the physical space that was Charlotte’s Web. Karen volunteered for Waterfront for about 20 years. She spent about the same amount of time as part of the RAMI Steering Committee and RAMI Scholarship Committee. The Web was the incubator for NAT and played a crucial role in getting Jim Sullivan’s Hometown Holidays up and running. She was involved with the formation of the Rockford Area Arts Council and First Night. She co-promoted shows in conjunction with the Park District, the Coronado Theatre, the Crossroads Blues Society, the Swedish Historical Society, La Voz Latina and many others. She helped put together both the Rockford Legends of Jazz and Women of Jazz concerts. And that’s just what I can think off the top of my head.
I’ve been involved in the entertainment business for over 50 years and many of the finest musicians and nicest people I have ever worked with have been Web-related performers and volunteers. This stemmed, in part, from Karen’s low tolerance for divas, but also from the atmosphere of mutual respect between staff, performers and patrons that was the norm for Web shows. Everybody seemed to be part of a large, functional, extended family.
Since I’ve mentioned all the shows that went on outside of the “bricks and mortar” Web, I’ll have to list a few of them. It doesn’t include most of the people like Robin and Linda Williams, James Lee Stanley and Michael Johnson who have been part of the Web talent roster from the beginning. Some on this list became Rockford regulars, others were shooting stars, all of them made our town a “cooler” place to be for a few hours at least:
Adrian Belew & the Bears; April Verch; Baaro; BeauSoleil; Beppe Gambetta; The Blind Boys of Alabama; Branford and Ellis Marsalis; Bryan Bowers; California Guitar Trio; Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues; Eclectica; Fareed Haque; The Flirts; Fruit; Garmana; Irene Ferrera; Jennifer Berezan; Kurt Elling; La Differenzia; Laurence Juber; Liam Teague; Liquid Soul; Lisa Haley; The Mollies; Richard Thompson; Robert Cray; Susan Werner; Tanglefoot; Tarika; Tingstad and Rumbel; Tower of Power; Waterhouse; and Willie Porter. This short list, which doesn’t contain enough acts to fill a season of the “traveling” Web plus the Left Bank Stage at Waterfront, has performers from at least 14 countries representing a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds, lifestyle choices and sexual preferences. Karen had her own “rainbow coalition” before the term existed. (As a side note, with no research, I count 16 Grammys and one OBE won by performers from just six acts on this list.)
Finally, my family, Dave and the other techs at Sound Concepts and the members of the RAMI Committee all offer our deepest condolences to the Howards and want to extend a heartfelt thank you for all the love, sweat and treasure expended by Karen and her family to make our chunk of the world a little more interesting and a lot more beautiful place to be.
Good job, Ruby; you can rest now. R.