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Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service
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Book finds spirit of vaudeville key to Minor League Baseball's success

Wed, 04/02/2014

LAWRENCE – Major League Baseball teams aren't the only ones throwing out the first pitch of spring this week. Thursday marks opening day for minor league baseball, and with it comes a season of zany promotions. From animal acts to the appearance of B-list celebrities, minor league baseball teams have found success in using vaudeville-like tactics to drive ticket sales, a University of Kansas writer and film director says.

David Sutera, a doctoral student in film and media studies, traveled to minor league ballparks around the country for his book “Vaudeville on the Diamond: Minor League Baseball in Today’s Entertainment World.” From California’s Modesto Nuts to Maine’s Portland Sea Dogs, he encountered epic mascot races, "Star Wars" theme nights, Thirsty Thursdays and Mr. Belding, the principal from “Saved by the Bell.”

“These teams are just looking for a way to get people to come to the ballpark,” Sutera said. “And, this down home approach of going back to old style, live entertainment is still a viable model. And minor league baseball teams are able to remain solvent because of it. And, that’s amazing.”

The book is part travelogue and part study of the often overlooked, but always entertaining minor leagues.

A baseball fan who grew up attending Omaha Royals games, Sutera grew interested in the intersection of vaudeville and minor league baseball soon after he uncovered his father had once performed in the vaudeville act “Sammy Lane and the Skatin’ Aces.”

“I started doing a little digging on vaudeville and discovered there were animal acts, jugglers and comedians. And, I saw a connection between what they were doing in minor league baseball and what they did in vaudeville,” Sutera said.

The connection goes well beyond live novelty acts. Both minor league baseball and vaudeville rely on family-friendly entertainment, giveaways and b-list celebrities to draw a crowd. Each chapter of Sutera’s book focuses on how each of the ballparks he visited embodied the spirit of vaudeville.

At first grass-roots efforts, promotions in minor league baseball have become so successful that there is an annual conference each year for promoters to share ideas, Sutera said.

“It has now become standardized, so you have a lot of the same promotions all across the country,” Sutera said. “But they keep a local flair.”

Minor League Baseball even has annual awards for team promotions, which are named in honor of Bill Veeck, the former Chicago White Sox owner who in 1979 presided over perhaps baseball’s most notorious promotional stunt, Disco Demolition Night. 

The wildest promotion Sutera saw on his trip was in Davenport, Iowa, with the Quad Cities River Bandits. That night the headliner was Team Ghost Rider, an act with monkeys dressed as cowboys riding border collies that were herding sheep.

“People went bananas over it,” Sutera said. “That was one that really brought it home to vaudeville. In vaudeville there were a lot of animal acts.”

Sutera is working on a documentary film scheduled to come out this fall that will complement “Vaudeville on The Diamond.” The book, distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, can be purchased on Amazon.com.



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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