When I first moved to Fresno from Santa Barbara many years ago my friends snickered, “Why Fresno? The only culture in Fresno is agriculture!”
At first, it seemed to be true — only because I was ignorant of Fresno’s vibrant small theater community, Art Hop, the symphony, the Broadway series, and the University’s Summer Arts. And nestled among all these opportunities I found one of the longest-lived cultural gems in the state, our San Joaquin Valley Town Hall. Ours is not a town hall in a political sense; instead it is a community forum for exploring cultural and intellectual ideas. For 83 years SJV Town Hall has brought world-class speakers to the Central Valley — speakers to enlighten and inform and broaden our point of view.
Look over the list of speakers posted on the Town Hall website going all the way back to 1938 and see how many nationally influential columnists, economists, scientists and artists are represented. In the last few years some standout speakers have been Steve Wozniak talking about the development of technology and Apple personal computers; four star Admiral James Stavridis, formerly Supreme Commander at NATO on trends in global security and risk; Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream on social responsibility and innovative business; Dr. Sarah Parcak, Egyptologist, on how technology is transforming archeology in Egypt and around the world.
For me the most striking aspect of Town Hall is how this community has nurtured and sustained it all these years. Audiences of 1,200 or more regularly attend the six annual lectures. The whole enterprise is completely run by volunteers and solely funded by ticket sales and local business donations. The board of 25 community members is a working board whose members do everything from selecting speakers and negotiating contracts, to mailing brochures and taking tickets at the theater doors. Fresno can be proud of how Town Hall reflects the values of community support and intellectual engagement.
One newer goal of Town Hall is to involve students in the pursuit of knowledge beyond the classroom and within the community. Student groups and college students are admitted free of charge. And high school seniors who attend as Town Hall scholars are eligible for a drawing of a $500 scholarship at each lecture.
For many, coming to Town Hall is as much a social event as it is an intellectual pursuit. The atmosphere of excitement and anticipation is palpable as you enter the buzzing foyer of the Saroyan Theater. Volunteers greet the guests, taking tickets, handing out programs, and giving directions to seats. Others set up coffee and put out trays of homemade cookies for those who come early to socialize, calling to each other and chatting in happy clusters. In the theater itself volunteers are connecting the power point announcements and doing sound checks with the guest speaker. The Town Crier is adjusting his revolutionary tri-corner hat and grabbing his bell, ready to call out the opening greeting:
“Hear ye, hear ye! The Town Hall is now in session!”
Jonica Bushman lives in Fresno. She is a Central Valley educator, retired from Clovis Unified and Fresno State University.