Friday, November 21, 2008
Carlisle volunteer guides the Union Hall Coffeehouse
You never know what Dian Francesca Cuccinello will come up with next, but you can be sure that she will never lack for a project, a career, or a way to make something happen. “I’ve
always been in show business,” she says, and in a broad sense, this statement applies to every stage of her life and career. Thanks to graduation from Boston University’s Culinary Arts program, she has had a career as a chef and caterer. Many of us in Carlisle first knew her as “Lady Di,” the owner and operator of a successful catering business that she ran out of her home on East Street. Lady Di’s parties featured imaginative and delicious food, and were often paired with thematic treatments of both cuisine and decorations which, depending upon the client’s wishes, could soar into the realm of theater. One party she likes to recall was a 40th birthday party for a client’s wife with a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme, in which Cuccinello transformed the party venue into a fairy forest of greens and twinkling lights and decorated the food stations with wands, floral crowns and exotic plants, as well as the flowers Shakespeare uses in the play. Food was flavored with fresh herbs and sweets and decorated with edible flowers. Now she continues her catering voluntarily, cooking lunches for Carlisle senior women that recall the flavors of France, Italy and other countries. She indulges her passion for antiques, books and themed gifts with her own business in gift baskets, which can range from simple and affordable baskets to high priced ones which might contain first editions of classic books or other treasures she delights in hunting down at her clients’ requests.
Latest venture: impresaria
The child of a musician, she has also been a performer since the age of three, dancing and singing onstage in the old Cavalcade of Stars show. An alumna of both the New England and Boston Conservatories of Music, she continued her career on stage and television. She met her husband, Bill, a television and film director, while she was the hostess and “movie reviewer” for one of the early cable channels, introducing and providing commentary on the movies the channel was airing. She sang professionally and continues to sing voluntarily, and, with her latest project, the Union Hall Coffeehouse at the First Religious Society, she has become an impresaria.
In 2007, the First Religious Society (FRS) had an “envisioning” meeting. Participants were asked to express in just a few words what they thought the church should do for the community, what role it should play in the community and where they saw the church going a few years down the line. Cuccinello says, “I had an idea, but of course, everyone who knows me knows that I’m anything but a ‘one-or-two-word’ answerer. They had to stop me and ask me to express what I wanted to say in one or two words. I said, ‘coffeehouse.’ Lots of churches have coffeehouses, and many of them are in UU [Unitarian Universalist] churches, but my reputation was really on the line here. I didn’t want to flop like a flounder.” She did not want to have one of those coffeehouses famous in the ‘60s, with single folksingers performing in rundown church basements, and neither did the FRS. The parish committee asked her to “draw up a plan,” and over the next three weeks, through a series of emails, Cuccinello gave them a map of her vision for a cabaret-style coffeehouse of “world music and dance.”
“I want to bring in really good stuff,” she says. “I don’t want to specialize in just folk music, nor do I want my audiences to have to suffer through [mediocre] performers. I want these people to have been around the block and be really top notch.”
Brave beginnings at the coffeehouse
The map of the new coffeehouse was initially daunting for the parish committee. To book “really top-notch” performers would take some serious money. The music industry, however, like most arts communities, is integrally connected. Cuccinello knew she wanted to start the coffeehouse with the acoustic trio, City of Roses, a crossover band that plays folk, rock, and jazz. “[My husband and I] know these ‘guys.’ We hang around with them. My husband’s brother was a member of the band Stompers with the lead guitarist in City of Roses. We knew they were good.” In addition, Cuccinello wanted to have a “little café” where audience members could buy beverages and desserts or appetizers to enjoy while they listened. It was an ambitious proposal. The parish committee wanted to know how she would bring it about, and her response was, “Leave it to me.”
Cuccinello says she is grateful that the parish committee was courageous enough to do just that, and she and her husband worked hard to book the band, arrange publicity, sign up a volunteer set and strike crew, procure light and sound and tables, tablecloths, candles and plan for kitchen prep. “Bill,” she says, “knows people in the film industry, so he has been able to get High Output in Canton to donate light, sound and stage curtains. I offer free tickets to people if they will serve on the setup or strike committee, so we can get enough people to do that, and I donate the food served in the café. It couldn’t happen without the kindness and work of a lot of people.”
Thus, the Union Hall Coffeehouse was born. The opening night on March 31, 2007, took in enough money to pay the musicians, cover expenses, and provide seed money for the next coffeehouse. Cuccinello says that she is proud of the fact that “we’ve never had to take a penny from the FRS. We’ve never lost a dime; in fact, we’ve always made money. People have really responded to this. Many times, there just aren’t enough seats!” Proceeds from the coffeehouse are distributed to the church’s social action projects, and to area charities like the Greater Lowell Open Pantry. The full-house performance of November 8 raised nearly $2,500 for the pantry in addition to the donation of many bags of non-perishable food brought in by audience members.
Continuing success requires variety and work
The continuing success of the coffeehouse, however, takes a good deal of hard work. Cuccinello spends the first three to four hours of every day online, checking booking agents, listening to demo music from different bands, and scheduling. “Agents,” she says, “are, of course, interested in making all this worthwhile for their musician clients and for themselves. They will try to set up a tour for their clients, and we try to become a stop on their tour. After we make the agreement, I talk to the artists themselves, and very often they become good friends. They really want to know what our venue is like, what our audience is like. They are great people – they really want to know how they can make each audience happy.”
The coffeehouse is large by coffeehouse standards. Union Hall will seat just under 200 people, compared, for example, to Harvard Square’s legendary Passim, which seats about 60. “Agents and artists get very excited about the size of our audiences,” Cuccinello says. Once the word gets around and the musicians and agents know about it, the coffeehouse gets some “traction,” and bookings become easier. “I book all our acts for a whole season a year in advance. We’re all set through 2009, and I’m beginning to work on finding people for the next year now.” Audiences, she says, are now becoming “regulars,” but each new act brings in “their own groupies. We get people from all over the New England area coming in to see some of these people.” Audiences will also request repeat performances. Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade, for example, performed at Union Hall a year ago in March and were brought back by popular demand. Scrumdaddy, a local band that plays all over New England, happens to include Bill Cuccinello on guitar, and can often be seen and heard at the Union Hall Coffeehouse. Recently Scrumdaddy played at the Greater Lowell Food Pantry benefit at the FRS and a benefit for Verrill Farm at the Main Streets Café in Concord. World folk music is interspersed with swing, jazz, reggae, and other forms, so there is a wide variety of international music on the schedule.
The “dance” element of “world music and dance,” Cuccinello says, is a particularly appealing part of the musical mixture at the coffeehouse. Sometimes bands will bring their own dance performers. Other bands will play music for the audience to dance to. Some groups will offer instruction for particular types of dance and get the audience participating in tango and other ballroom dances or folk dancing.
Coming up at the Coffeehouse
The Union Hall Coffeehouse happens once a month, and takes a break in December. The next performance in January will feature the Luminescent Orchestrii, an “amazing” band, according to Cuccinello. “Talk about world music,” she enthuses. “They play gypsy music, and punk rock, klezmer, hip hop, you name it.” They will be followed in February with Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, an “American roots” band that plays pop and jazz. The entire coffeehouse schedule is available at.
The volunteer impresaria is, not surprisingly, passionate about her latest project. “This is my baby,” she says. “I love making this happen. I want to bring joy to this town and this is my contribution. I want people to be excited about life again, in this tough time, and music can do it.” ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito