Dr. Lisa: Having lived in Maine for many years, it’s been interesting to follow the career of Deirdre Nice who is now the Executive Artistic Director of St. Lawrence Arts up on the East End. She’s also the co-founder of Silly’s Restaurant on Washington Avenue, and she’s done many, many other things but it’s really fun for me to finally meet you because your reputation, it’s enormous really. You’ve done so much for this part of the world, and I thank you for that.
Deirdre: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It’s been a lot of fun. I love Portland.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about that. Tell me, how did you end up in this fair city?
Deirdre: My dad got a job at Cheverus. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. When we got back to the States, we moved for a short time to his hometown in Newburyport, Mass. He’s an English teacher and he was looking around for jobs. I remember that summer filling out a zillion, sending out lots of resumes, and he got a couple of hits. One of them was in Arizona, and that’s what I was pushing for because we had come from a hot climate. The other one was at Cheverus in Maine. I was like, “Oh, jeepers creepers,” but we came up here. I graduated from high school in Maine. I have gone away here or there on little trips and stuff, but it’s really nice to be able to call Maine home. I just love it.
It’s interesting because I have a lot of friends who grew up in Arabia as expats, and there’s a sense of not ever feeling at home anywhere, and I think that I’ve been able to somehow get over that. I think of myself as a Mainer; although, technically, I know I never will be because I wasn’t born here but my nephews are.
Dr. Lisa: I’m with you. My family is all from Maine, and I happened to be born in Vermont, the few years that my parents were out of state, get a good education so I’m actually not a Mainer either. Despite all of this, it doesn’t really matter. You’re right, but you came and you’ve been here a long time. I would say having been a resident on India Street, formerly, I think, it was the bottom of a church. Now, Maine Medical Center has a big, beautiful building across the way, but I was in the basement of that what I think they had turned it into a school by that time. I have seen so much change on the East End on Munjoy Hill. A lot of it, you’ve had a hand in.
Deirdre: I think me and lots of other people but I will say that like Silly’s where the Union Bagel Company is now and where Katie Made Bakery used to be as well, that used to be an old Jewish kosher meat market. I remember we were looking around, my sister and I, for a permanent location for the idea of a little restaurant. That little location was always closed. I drove by one December, and talked to the old guy, and we ended up there, and our rent was $125 a month for the first year. Then, it went up by 10% a year for the first five years. It was really amazing.
We’d worked at Sam’s Harbor Lunch down at the Waterfront. They wanted to have our own place, and we were looking at India Street back in the ‘80s. India Street was really expensive in the ‘80s, and so was Waterfront somewhat, but right around the corner, at the tip of Kennedy Park was this cute little spot, $125, and we thought we could do that and still be waitresses, and it totally failed. I think a key of my life is I’ve never been afraid to actually fall flat on my face and fail.
Silly’s was interesting. Ever since then, 1988, when we opened up Silly’s there, it’s been a thriving little corner on the corner of Cumberland and Smith. Then, we bought the building around the corner in 1995, and opened up the larger building, the larger restaurant in ’97. Wow, now you go up and down Washington Avenue, and it’s just amazing, all the ethnic restaurants and all the different choices. That’s a real huge change. We were there when Nissen’s was still there and when Vito’s Bakery where Coffee by Design is now, they would come over in their little cups, and we’d trade them, by the end of the night, pizza for some bread, and that kind of thing.
Then, somehow, I got into the St. Lawrence ones and then, it came for sale. I was able to buy it. When my dad died, I had a $15,000 endowment or whatever, inheritance, and I plopped it all down on that building. I have definitely been around that neighborhood enough to see it come from sketchy to really rejuvenated in so many different levels. It’s really a beautiful little neighborhood and still very diverse. It’s a lot of fun.
Dr. Lisa: I think you’re right about the diversity because it’s not as if it is entirely gentrified. There are still families who have lived on the hill, who have lived there a really long time.
Deirdre: Yeah, and I think gentrification is an interesting term because whenever anybody fixes up a building, you contribute slightly to the gentrification. It’s not a negative term. If you paint the outside of your building, your neighbor comes along and says, “Geez, I think I’ll paint my building.” There is certainly something going on up there with a lot of the condos and an idea that perhaps people are being priced out, but I would like to say that I think the diversity on Munjoy Hill hasn’t change that much.
The East End Community School, where I volunteer every week as part of their Rise and Shine Program, it’s a wonderful part of my life, I should have put that in what brings you joy in your question or whatever, it’s 79% free lunch and it will always be up there. Munjoy Hill can never actually ultimately just become a haven for the wealthy and well-healed. It’s always done this. I think, if you look back on its history, it always had changes, and that’s what neighborhoods do. I see most of the changes on the hill to be real positive.
I feel great about being involved in a project that will be part of fixing up an entire neighborhood block, and we’ve been at it for over 20 years now, and will serve everybody on the hill whether you have $5 to come into a … We do it now, but when we have the bigger space, bigger performance hall, $5 to go to a show, great, 50 bucks, we’ll have all of those shows. Gentrification is interesting. It’s a hot topic and what do you call it, one of those hot words where it can mean a lot of different things to different people.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about St. Lawrence Arts, and why it was so important to you that you take this former church and make something out of it.
Deirdre: It’s interesting. I’ve been asked that a lot. I can’t really be that specific about why it was important to me except for that I spent my life traveling when I was younger overseas, and although I didn’t come from a religious background of any sorts, we were in and out of churches all the time because when you travel, their community buildings, they are where people gather, and they often are just quite beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time in churches, not in a religious sense.
Then, when the St. Lawrence came for sale, and I’ve spent all those years down the hill, we delivered up there all the time. I was a pizza delivery girl and whatever. I just remember, it was such a beautiful building from the outside. I’ve never been in. as a matter of fact, a lot of people on the hill had never been in because it had been close for a long time. Before that, it had a dwindling congregation which I think is typical of these old churches. When the guy who was selling it came into my restaurant and said he was selling it, and it was 60 grand, it turned out to be 73, but I was like, “Wow, I could buy that.”
When I walked into the building, the architect, Arthur Bates Jennings, he has only designed two buildings in the State of Maine. It’s the Norumbega which is a bed and breakfast up in Camden and the St. Lawrence. He didn’t design a typical church. It was not very typically congregational either which are wooden buildings and not a lot of flash. This building was this incredible granite structure, and I love granite. It took up the entire city block. It was grand, and just it looked like a castle. It was magical.
When I walked in, I just thought arts. This would make a beautiful art center and it has actually. We’ve been open since 2001 in the Parish Hall. Just from the moment of opening up the building, not really knowing who would be the users which was something that we had said for years like, “If we build it, they will come.” They did and it rose. We haven’t had one season yet that isn’t absolutely chock-full of just every type of artistic endeavor that you can imagine.
The other side of the building was more of a challenge, and we continue to try to fix it, and the long and short bares that we have a beautiful plan. We got an amazing grant in 2005 from James Trust. Was able to pass that plan to the City of Portland basically. Sorry, we were in the middle of this great grant for $250,000 to redesign the other side of the building in places we had the Parish Hall, and it collapsed. We had to take it down.
One of the things about this project would be you just have to have a lot of faith, I guess, would be one way to put it and also perseverance. We took it down. We designed a building that basically replicated the old building. We got it passed, went out to the funding community, and they said, “Way too much money.” It was a $17 million price tag. We went back for the drawing board. Now, we’ve redesigned a beautiful modern building with some historic attributes that has relationships to the Parish Hall and we’ve reduced the price by $10 million. It’s a $7 million project.
Was the question why did I get involved? I don’t know. It’s just that it’s really interesting. You get to be part of the community. You get to be part of the art. You meet the most interesting people in the arts. They are what I think has, in some way, pushed our society in all of the cool directions it’s ever gone in. This is really a joy.
Dr. Lisa: I like that. I think that what I keep hearing from you, and my experience of Silly’s personally, is some sense of importance of community building. Your restaurant, I think when I was a resident, my special occasion was always the Falafel Wrap. I am a vegetarian. I would go to your restaurant and there were all kinds of things that I could eat. Even the food that you serve was very inclusive. Now, you’re describing the East End or St. Lawrence as just being very inclusive and anybody can come, “Come on, we’re happy to have you.”
Deirdre: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing. One thing for sure in my life is that money has never driven me. For me, it’s always been easy to make decisions because money hasn’t been a primary motivator. Also, the idea of not being afraid to fail. Silly’s is a good example because I don’t even know if anybody, unless they were from the Middle East, knew what a Falafel was. Certainly not in that neighborhood at the time. We had Shish Kebab. We had all these vegetarian stuff. We had Tabbouleh, we had Baba Ghanoush, and all sorts of stuff. It was a lot of fun. We ended up getting a lot of the vegetarian crowd. Then, a little by little by little, we would … But we didn’t know that that was something that would actually catch on so much is that we wanted to do it.
Certainly, the idea of building businesses that somehow involved being part of the community that you’re in has been I think really important. A community means different things for different people. It’s not like I want to be around people all the time, but without community or without getting involved in where you live, I love living here. I wouldn’t normally want to live anywhere else, and I love being part of my town, and I just see this a win-win because I have a great job, and one day somebody else will have my great job which is what I’m hoping for.
Silly’s, for example, the gal that owns it, she’s a great gal, Colleen Kelley, wonderful. Look what she’s done with it. We sold it back in 2003, and she’s just taken the reins, and ran right with it, and made it even better, and just this kitschy, and odd, and fun. She’s the perfect person to buy it. She’s a big community person. It’s fun to pass the baton to somebody who felt that urge as well.
Dr. Lisa: It’s also been interesting for me to see how my children have responded to things like Silly’s or the East End. My kids, I have 15-year-old, 20-year-old, 22-year old. I would bring them to places like Silly’s. We would go to Amato’s on India Street. Now, we would go. We would take advantage of the East End but at that time, it was like a new place for exploration for me being a kid from the suburbs, and it’s become a part of their fabric. They’re home from college and they’re saying, “Can we go to Silly’s? Can we take a walk on the Eastern Prom?” It’s become a multigenerational thing. It’s almost as if somehow their neighborhood, their sense of Maine has expanded just by virtue of some of the changes that have happened over the past several decades.
Deirdre: I agree, and I have to say it’s funny over the years. I run into people, and I’ve watched their kids grow up at Silly’s. I think I made a pact with myself that I’d stop asking them how old those kids were because they started to be 30 and 40 years old now but yeah. Silly’s had a huge impact on kids and their families because it’s very family-friendly. A lot of that stuff actually just developed. In some way, we didn’t really design it. It just happened because of our openness to just about anything.
The whole idea of all those photographs with Eat at Silly’s, I think originally my sister went somewhere, and she put a photograph up. Then people just started taking those stickers. We had one rule which is don’t actually stick it on the Mona Lisa or anything like that, but people started to send their photograph back from wherever they’re traveling around the world, and those photographs are still up there. I think kids, when they have a place that is not necessarily just a place you go in the mall that you can see anywhere and anywhere USA that’s unique, and recognizes them, and they contribute something. There goes their photo up on the wall. It’s a pretty neat thing to be able to do.
I think part of that is just being open, to not necessarily being rigid about what Silly’s is. For example, the name, it had nothing to do with being silly. It was actually just something we came up with. It turns out it was so much fun. It means so much to different people.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about some of your favorite artists that you’ve come into contact with at St. Lawrence.
Deirdre: Wow. We’ve had a lot of, in the early days of the St. Lawrence, we booked anything and everything. I don’t know that I could specifically come up with … some of those were my favorite ones. Slaid Cleaves has got to be one of my favorite artists. Also, he’s a friend. I have a funny little story with the Silly’s-St. Lawrence connection which was I had bought the St. Lawrence, and I owned it with a partner, and I kept on trying to convince this guy to be a nonprofit, and finally he got out of it and I was able to form a nonprofit.
We formed a nonprofit in ’96. Slaid Cleaves and Chris Moore did the very first benefit concert for the St. Lawrence in the backyard of Silly’s. We got a keg donated by David Geary. Geary’s one of my favorite beers. We raised 300 bucks. We hold that keg up to the St. Lawrence. I think that Chris Moore and Slaid Cleaves are the only artists that I know since I’ve been involved with the project that have ever played on the stage in the former sanctuary which now doesn’t exist. That’s neat. He’s definitely one of my favorite.
All those artists that are on the Greetings from Area Code 207 CD, all the local people that have donated over the years, I just really think that we’re so lucky to live here with all this talent right here. Often times, people think that you have to go away for the stuff and it’s like some geniuses live right around us. A lot of those folks are my favorite. Honestly, we’ve had so much stuff. It’s hard for me to really pick out.
David Mallett, I grew up with his music. When I moved to Maine, I was 16 years old. I started listening to David Mallett. Then, I tried to convince him to come and play at St. Lawrence for years, and years, and years. Then, finally I was successful some time, maybe eight years ago. Definitely one of my favorites. His kids are playing around and I got them to a few acoustic shows at the St. Lawrence.
Jeepers, we’ve had Cape Verde. Actually, folks that have flown from Cape Verde State with the Cape Verde and Friend, and played at the St. Lawrence. That friend of mine who do the radio show before mine, he’s married to a Cape Verdean woman, and he would bring these Cape Verdean artists over the years to St. Lawrence. I was contacted by this woman’s manager, and she said, “Do you know the artist Maria de Barros?” I was like, “Are you kidding? I named one of my cats after Maria de Barros.” One of my cats’ name was actually Maria de Barros, the whole name.
We’ve had a lot of world music, a lot of fun stuff, and it would be hard for me to actually pick and choose because it’s a great place to hear any kind of music, and a wonderful place for theater, spoken word. Really early on, a friend of mine, Madeleine Slavick, lived in Hong Kong, brought a Chinese poet, this was one of the very first years we’re opened, who did his poetry in Chinese. Madeleine translated it. There’s so much that we’ve done over the years. We’ve been busy for 15 years. I think we’re going to our 16th year.
Dr. Lisa: Who do you have coming up that you’re especially interested in?
Deirdre: I have to say, this is an interesting thing. Cidny Bullens who has been on a bunch of our CDs is now Cid Bullens, and he’s going to do a one-woman show in May. I’m really excited about that because like so many other issues in our society, there’s an issue that has come full circle, and Cidny Bullens was played at the St. Lawrence. Now, Cid Bowens will do a one-person show about that whole journey that he’s had as a mother and as an artist. I’m excited about that.
We have some interesting theater coming up. We’re booking a bunch of music this summer that I’m excited about that we haven’t necessarily confirmed but yeah, a lot of blue grass, and some acoustic Americana music, and lots of theater. There’s a flamenco show coming up in May as well. Then, another multimedia flamenco and dance show coming up in June. That’s going to be a fun summer over there.
Dr. Lisa: What is your favorite thing about working with WMPG?
Deirdre: I love WMPG. I started working there in the old days when the training was really rudimentary. That was a lot of fun and records were our primary source of how we were able to get the record up. Little by little, it’s been able to grow as a community radio station. I like the freedom. There wasn’t a lot of pretense. I do the music show and I can play any type of music I wanted; although my primary form of music was Americana, bluegrass, acoustic, folky stuff, but I did a lot of interviews and interviewed a lot of artists over the years, and got to talk to a lot of interesting people, but mostly, I got to play music for two hours a week. That was what I was doing. I got to listen to music for two hours a week, and just that.
That was a lot of fun because when you have a busy life, sometimes, actually taking the time out in your life to just listen to music which I think is incredibly important. I think music is the universal language. I love that about it. I’ll tell you a goofy little story. The old days, Peter Twitchell was our station manager and it was back in the days where we didn’t have a lot of money. We have hundreds of volunteers. Somebody had called up, and I made a joke like, “If anybody calls up, I’ll do my show in my underwear,” and it’s a radio show. My mother happened to be there. My mother does a show on WMPG on Sundays called the Eastern Sands Radio and she’s done it for 25 years now. She started the year after I did at 3:30 to 5:00 on Sundays at WMPG.
In any case, Peter, we were raising money for Begathon, and he goes, “Deirdre, somebody called in, and said they’ll give us 50 bucks if you do it in your underwear,” and I’m like, “Yeah, no problem.” I stripped down and did the remainder of the show in my underwear for 50 bucks.”
Dr. Lisa: I don’t know if you could do that today.
Deirdre: I don’t know if they’d go for it but back then, it was fun.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I can assure anybody who is listening, I will not ever do the Love Maine Radio in my underwear. They’re going to have to go up maybe for a little bit more for $50. Maybe I’d go for higher, who really knows.
Deirdre: That’s funny.
Dr. Lisa: Deirdre, how can people find out about St. Lawrence?
Deirdre: Our website is the best way to do it, stlawrencearts.org. We’re on the web obviously. We have a Facebook page at St. Lawrence Arts, and that’s a great way to keep up to date, but really our website, that’s where our calendar is, that’s where the history, the future, and just about anything you’d ever want to know, all the upcoming events.
I would actually just like to say, we are just about to finish up the planning process for the new performance hall which will be a 401-seat performance hall that will add to the performance hall that we have now which is about 100 seats with the risers. I would go to our website to look up the designs that we have. We have a beautiful room at the top of this performance hall that will be built.
It has that East End view that everybody has if you live in one of the fancy places but this will be a public facility and with that incredible 360-degree view of the harbor and the mountains and everything, with a beautiful new performance hall, midsized, which is something that’s hard to find in this town. We’ll have a 400-seat room. We’ll have a 100-seat auditorium. When you take the risers away, more than that. The room at the top probably will sit 200 people. We’ll have a nice variety of spaces.
Dr. Lisa: I encourage people to do that, to go out and find out more about St. Lawrence Arts. I’m really thrilled that you took the time to come in and talk with me today, as somebody having, as I said at the beginning, known about you for so many years, and watching your work from a distance, and seeing the great success you’ve had just basically following what it was that you felt you should be doing. I give you a lot of credit because you were out there doing things that maybe not everybody always understood.
Deirdre: So true. Who said it? Did Joseph Campbell say follow your bliss or was that Leo Buscaglia? I forget but …
Dr. Lisa: That was Joseph Campbell.
Deirdre: Joseph Campbell. I think that’s definitely something that I’ve done in my life. It’s nice to hear that somebody has been following me. I didn’t know that I had a follower.
Dr. Lisa: You’re like a little Maine superstar. There you go.
Deirdre: That’s sweet.
Dr. Lisa: We’ve been speaking with Deirdre Nice who is the Executive Artistic Director of St. Lawrence Arts, and she’s the cofounder of Silly’s Restaurant on Washington Avenue. Thanks for coming in today and for all the good work you’ve done.
Deirdre: Thank you very much. I appreciate you folks having me on. Thanks, Lisa.