“Are you Sarah?”
Sarah Berendzen was startled when a man in a red-and-white striped hat and a Missouri Theatre sweatshirt approached her as she got out of her car on Bicknell Street.
“Am I wearing a name tag or something?” she asked, looking down at her clothes.
She wasn’t wearing a name tag, but David A. White knows how to make the most of an opportunity. On an earlier pass around the block, he’d seen a note friends had left for her on the door — and he made the connection.
And for White, who’s raising money for the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts by seeking door-to-door contributions, making connections is what he does best. He’s able, with ease, to engage passers-by with a friendly, “Hi! I’m David White with the Missouri Theatre, and I’m walking to 25,000 homes over the next eight weeks trying to raise $500,000 to restore the theater.”
That’s usually enough to draw people into a conversation — and White moves in, not with a seller’s pitch, but a believer’s zeal. He wants every person, in Columbia and beyond, to experience the arts through the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.
And if they can donate a few dollars, well, so much the better.
White’s campaign, “Home is Where the Art Is,” is the latest — and, organizers hope — final effort to raise $6.6 million to restore and expand the Missouri Theatre. In August, the fundraising, which has long been conducted in dribs and drabs, began in earnest. Since then, there have been three main phases: the silent campaign, in which corporations and selected donors were tapped and which raised over $1.7 million; the public campaign, including the “Take Your Seat” program, in which people pay to sponsor a seat in the theater and has raised $223,250 of its $820,000 goal; and, now, “Home Is Where the Art Is,” which is scheduled to last through the end of the month.
White’s thinking was that he could reach his $500,000 goal by getting $20 from each house. But that’s been a challenge; after three weeks hitting the pavement in his quickly wearing black Reeboks and specially prescribed insoles, he has only raised $4,300.
“I’ll walk half a mile and only have gotten to seven houses,” White said, referring to the distance between homes in some
neighborhoods. “I just look down the street and say, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’m feeling pretty darn strong, though.”
White is trailed by a volunteer-driven “support vehicle” provided by Cumulus Broadcasting. The black Scion xB takes him to and from the theater, bringing him back for a midday break at noon, when he checks e-mail, attends meetings, eats lunch and rests his feet.
White doesn’t keep track of the number of houses he visits, but he does leave a brochure at each door, and so far he’s left 6,300 of them in 19 neighborhoods. That leaves about 18,700 houses to go.
If White were to stick to his plan to visit 450 houses a day in two, 2½-hour chunks, he would have only 40 seconds per door. He said that when he was trying to determine how many houses were reasonable for each day, he timed how long it took him to walk past 450 homes and added two hours.
But he’s been considerably slowed by rain, wind — there have been dramatic scenes with an unruly umbrella — uneven sidewalks, excited dogs and the friendly doorstep exchange.
When White saw a “Beware of Dog” sign on a door in northwest Columbia, he chose to skip that house due to an experience earlier that day. “It says ‘Beware of Dog,’ and I’m going to believe them,” White said. “I rang a bell this morning that was like Westminster chimes, and suddenly every dog in the neighborhood just went off.”
Besides barking dogs, another surprise has been how hot that red-and-white knit hat is. White is wearing it to conjure the image of the “Where’s Waldo?” children’s series, and to support the “Home Is Where the Art Is” contest in which people who have their picture taken with him can win a lifetime pass to the Missouri Theatre.
“I’ve developed the same stupid expression in every picture,” White said of his open-mouthed, wide-eyed mug, after taking a photo with Joe Smith at 103 Glenwood Ave.
Even though it wasn’t Smith’s house, White insisted that Smith take a picture with him.
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard about you,” Smith said when he answered the door. “But I don’t live here. I just clean the place.”
Word has spread about White’s wanderings, as evidenced by the growing number of people who open their doors and tell White they’ve seen him on the news or read about him in the paper. Since the campaign’s kick-off ceremony on April 9 at Orr Street Studios, White has been walking in a different area of Columbia every weekday, and at least one Saturday or Sunday per week.
For White, every step is worth it.
“Nonprofit arts organizations, from children’s groups to the university, will be using this hall as their performance ‘home’ venue,” he said. “That, along with the symphony orchestra and the art league, on a local level, pretty much run the artistic gamut. I think that is what an arts center does — it provides variety.”
Since White became executive director of the theater in 2000, staff and board members have been trying to come up with ways to formulate a stable financial plan for the renovation project. Among the efforts was the 2002 “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime a Day?” in which community members were urged to help the Missouri Theatre by pledging a yearly contribution as small as a dime per day.
White helped start that campaign with a “Marquee Marathon,” in which he stood on the Missouri Theatre’s marquee 20 feet above South Ninth Street for a week, encouraging residents to pledge. The campaign raised more than $300,000 by June 1, 2002.
When the theater closes in August, its staff and board members will focus on developing programming to complement the restored historic building.
“What I need, and my staff needs, is for this building to close down so we can sit down and talk to one another about the vision,” White said. “This will be a welcome relief — to have the doors shut down as the construction workers transform this facility.”
But through the rest of this month, anyway, White will brave the elements, dodge dogs and take good care of his feet.
There are unexpected benefits, however. The other day, he was invited to a boy’s third birthday party.