June 11 2014 12:00 AM

Creole Gallery sale stirs vibrations of founder Robert Busby


Nobody feels the heavy vibrations pulsating from the Creole Gallery’s peeling walls more keenly than its new owner, Jamie Schriner-Hooper.

“It’s a sacred space,” Schriner-Hooper said last week after getting the keys to the Old Town art and performance shrine from former owner Ena Busby, daughter of the gallery’s founder, Robert Busby. “I get goosebumps even talking about it. It’s been the heartbeat of the neighborhood for years, since Old Town has been called Old Town.”

Meegan Holland, Busby’s life partner and booking agent for the Creole in its glory years from 1998 to 2007, said Busby would be “thrilled” to know the Creole is going to Schriner-Hooper and her husband, Al Hooper.

“I don´t think either Robert or myself could have thought of a better outcome,” she said.

Holland pointed out that Schriner- Hooper “is the force behind” the garden in Busby’s memory along the nearby stretch of the Lansing River Trail. When Busby was murdered in 2007, sending the city into shock, Schriner-Hooper quietly handled the memorial programs and events.

“She knew exactly what needed to be done to help us grieving folks at that time,” Holland said. “That’s when I came to love Jamie. Robert already loved her because he worked much more closely with her.”

The sale surprised the buyer more than anyone. For years, as director of the Old Town Commercial Association and booster of Lansing’s historic northern enclave, Schriner-Hooper told prospective business owners the Creole would probably never go on the market. Despite its largely dormant status after Busby’s death, the Creole was Old Town’s Plymouth Rock, Sistine Chapel, Independence Hall and Fillmore East rolled into one. The thought of it going into non- Busby hands and turning into an ordinary office or eatery was anathema.

Last fall, to Schriner-Hooper´s surprise, Ena Busby took her aside while the two were planning the Robert Busby memorial garden. Busby was ready to sell the gallery and wanted her to buy it.

“I was floored,” said Schriner-Hooper.

Since her father’s death in 2007, Busby kept the venue going with art shows, concerts and rented events, but the glory days when artists like John Sinclair, Wynton Marsalis and Mose Allison enthusiastically played the Creole were long past. She was raising three children and working full time while running the Creole alone.

Meanwhile, Schriner-Hooper had moved to Laingsburg from her beloved Lansing under a strict agreement with her husband that they would move back to Lansing “the hot second” his son graduated from school there.

“That hot second was coming,” she said.

Busby´s surprise offer mooted Schriner- Hooper’s house-hunting plans; she’s moving into the loft above the Creole this week.

“I feel humbled, more like a caretaker than an owner,” she said.

She promised that the new tenants will honor the the gallery’s legacy and Robert Busby´s “vision.” This summer, her husband, Al Hooper, will open a Cajun-themed bar/ restaruant, fittingly called the Creole, with his business partners Aaron Matthews and Sam Short. (See sidebar story.)

But the Creole Gallery started as an experiment — an invitation. The legacy talk came much later, in hindsight.

“Robert never had a vision there would be a huge Main Street, that this neighborhood would get organized all of a sudden,” Holland said. “He just wanted to respect the buildings and build a place where artists and musicians could gather.”

In the 1980s, Busby, a retired Oldsmobile sheet metal worker, bought and gradually restored five buildings on Turner Street, just north of Grand River Avenue. The area was clearly struggling, but its 19th-century buildings and odd isolation captivated him on his bike ride to work.

Artists and musicians were already infiltrating the rough bars and flophouses of North Lansing. Busby started his first gallery, Two Doors Down, across the street from the Creole; its name came from its proximity to the rough Mustang Bar, previously the center of North Town activity. Other art-minded pioneers, like Terry Terry of MessageMakers, were drifting onto the scene. Gays and lesbians were finding a haven there.

Busby was also working on a derelict building across the street, formerly the Creole Cigar Co. Behind it stretched a junkyard a city block long.

“It was pretty Wild West back then,” dramatist Fred Engelgau, an Old Town habitué from the 1980s, recalled.

After a fire nearly gutted the Creole space in 1982, Busby salvaged the old tongue-andgroove maple flooring. “It sat in a gigantic pile for a long, long time until he got the idea to build it into a stage,” Engelgau said. Busby asked Engelgau to design and build it.

Schriner-Hooper said the stage will stay the way it is, as will the peeling walls that absorbed countless musical vibration in the subsequent years.

In the 1990s, the Creole hosted the occasional art show and made a handy green room for JazzFest musicians, but Holland said it didn´t really get going until 1998, when artist Roxanne Frith and the Lansing Community College Art Department used it for classes and exhibits.In the next 10 years, art at the Creole took an astonishing variety, from student shows to head-benders and outliers like Sue Long’s brazen array of ceramic penises and Suellen Hozman’s texturally enhanced art for blind visitors. The gallery wasn’t a vanity project. Busby, himself a multi-media artist, only showed his work there once.

Like its predecessor, Two Doors Down, the Creole Gallery became a haven of experimentation and inclusiveness. Leslie Donaldson, former director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, said the adventurous spirit of the Creole influenced her ventures, East Lansing’s Art Apartment, and its successor, (SCENE) Metrospace.

Spoken word events and art openings made the Creole a center of local culture, but music took center stage when Busby and Holland started to develop a concert series in 1998.

She wryly recalls their business partnership as “the little sergeant” (her) and “the warm fuzzy.”

“I was the promoter and booker and housed the band, and he did all the logistics at the Creole,” Holland said. “He made sure the chairs were set up, the bands were fed, the lighting was right. It was an incredible team, and we just complemented each other.”

Many kinds of bands played the Creole, from folk to rock to blues to classical, but the Busby’s and Holland’s taste for jazz and the rise of Michigan State University’s powerhouse jazz studies program made for a special synergy.

The MSU Professors of Jazz was practically a house band at the Creole. “Truth be told, the Creole is really our main jazz venue,” MSU jazz studies chief Rodney Whitaker said in 2007. “When I go out and do things across the country, the artists all ask about the Creole, because they´ve heard about the place and the response of the audience.”

On two memorable nights in June 2003, the Professors played four shows with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Whitaker’s former colleague at the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and arguably the most renowned jazz musician in the world.

“That´s what really put us on the map,” Holland said. “The support of Rodney Whitaker and Wynton Marsalis.”

Early arrivers sipped coffee at the restaurant next door (now Whipped Bakery) and peeked through the door linking it to the Creole. Marsalis was practicing alone, as is his practice, on the stage Engelgau built.

People who couldn´t get into the gallery milled around in Turner Street just to soak up the vibe. The gallery’s front window was dotted with ear, nose and fingerprints the next morning.

The Creole provided Whitaker and his globe-touring MSU colleagues the hip local venue they craved. Touring acts that hit the Creole in the following years included the Moutin Brothers Band from France, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, California´s avant-garde Rova Saxophone Quartet, New Age piano god Alex de Grassi, guitarist Laurence Juber, bluesman Peter Madcat Ruth and blues legend Mose Allison.

Bluesman and activist Sinclair, who played the Creole in 2004 and 2006, called it a “world-class performance space.”

For Holland, it was a once-in-a-lifetime front-row seat. “Even while the Creole was happening, we’d just look at each other and go, ‘Isn’t this amazing?’” she said. “We realized what an incredible vibe this whole thing was.”

As the names got bigger at the Creole, the surrounding blocks of Old Town burgeoned with new businesses.

“We felt the Creole was coming into its own in the last year, and a lot of it was because the neighborhood was coming into its own,” Holland said.

After a run of sold-out concerts in 2006, it looked as if the Creole was about to join the nation’s top small clubs, a logical stop on the Midwest circuit between Detroit and Chicago.

But Busby, like a latter-day Moses, never lived to see the river Jordan. In February 2007, he was killed by an itinerant handyman he had taken in and given work.

A candlelight vigil with hundreds of mourners was the saddest assemblage the Creole ever saw.

For the last seven years, Ena Busby kept the Creole going with a variety of events, including WLNZ’s Grand River Radio Concert series, plays by Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., the Old Town Poetry Series and ongoing art exhibits. One of the most recent events was the Jan. 26 Winter Party with roots rock group Steppin’ In It.

Holland returned briefly to book a few concerts at the Creole, including an emotional return of the Professors of Jazz, but the weight of memory and tragedy shadowed the Creole, even as Old Town blossomed and expanded around it.

An infusion of new energy was needed, but the right caretaker had to come along.

Artist Maureen Bergquist-Gray, a longtime friend of Robert Busby’s who showed work at the gallery and created the sculpture dedicated to him on the River Trail, is elated about the sale to Schriner-Hooper.

“The one great thing about Old Town is that it is constantly changing, never stagnant,” Bergquist-Gray said. “Ena made the best decision she could have by selling it to Jamie. They understand that one of the most important aspects of the area is the feeling of family or community.”

For her part, Schriner-Hooper’s favorite memories of the Creole have nothing to do with concerts or art shows. Many mornings, while working at the Old Town Commercial Association, she would pop in to the gallery, find Busby busy on a project or sitting on the stage, paying bills, and they would simply talk.

“He was a friend and a mentor,” Schriner-Hooper said. “The Creole just felt like home. It embodies everything the Old Town community is.”

When you think of the Creole and its glory days, it all comes down to the welcoming and adventurous spirit of Robert Busby.

“He was the one who brought that whole community together,” Holland said.

In an email to City Pulse shortly after Busby’s death, Sinclair wrote the following:

“I hope the gallery will be able to continue operating in his memory and according to the precepts and principles Robert Busby so beautifully established during his time with us here on earth.”

That’s a heavy vibration to absorb.

Keys in hand, Schriner-Hooper promised the gallery’s newest phase “will completely honor everything that space is, has been and what Robert hoped it to be.”