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Bert Askwith: Victor for UMS

Editor’s note: This piece is a collaboration between Truly Render and Bennett Stein.
Photo: (L) Bert Askwith with “Thank you” card from U-M students. (R) U-M Alum Bennett Stein.

We bump into a particular name as we walk our well-worn central campus routes: Bert Askwith.

If you’re a student, you’ve met study partners in Bert’s Study Lounge, creating new neural pathways over a much needed coffee from Bert’s Café. As you scurry to classes through the frost-tipped leaves of the diag, you’ve noticed posters curled around lamp-posts for “Bert’s Tickets,” a new program for first year students and new transfers that offers a free ticket a UMS performance this season. At the end of a long week, you’ve lost yourself in the endless Friday night movie options of the Askwith Media Library, (over 25,000 movie titles). Bert Askwith makes life on campus a well-rounded one.

But who is he?

Bert Askwith is a true Victor. At 102 years old, he still goes to work every day. Bert runs a charter bus company in New York. The humble roots of his company began right here at the University of Michigan at the start of the Great Depression. He is a proud U-M alum, Class of ’31. While work keeps him busy, Bert is prouder than ever to be a Wolverine.

This fall, Bert Askwith worked with UMS to ensure that every first-year student and new transfer student gets an introduction to world-class artists that UMS brings to the University of Michigan campus. Through a program called Bert’s Tickets, new undergraduate and first-year transfer students can chose to attend a UMS performance free of charge.  In only two short months, Bert’s incredible gift has garnered over 300 responses; 300 new students have experienced an incredible presentation of professional music, theater, or dance.

We asked a past UMS intern and recent U-M graduate Bennett Stein (Ford School of Public Policy, class of ‘12) to pay Bert Askwith a visit and report back on the big-hearted man behind the legend.

A resident of Brooklyn, New York, Bennett Stein works for the American Civil Liberties Union and enjoys many of NYC’s cultural offerings. He spoke to Bert Askwith in Bert’s office recently, joined by Bert’s daughter Patti Kenner.

Bennett Stein (BS): Were you born in Ann Arbor?

Bert Askwith (BA): Battle Creek.

BS: Have you been back to Battle Creek at all?

BA: Once or twice. Great cereal town. My father worked for Kellogg.

BS: What did he do for Kellogg?

BA: Vice President.

Patti Kenner (PK): But he wasn’t in the Kellogg company. My grandfather, who was born in Boston, worked for Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the first in the United States. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg delivered my father! My grandfather went to Harvard, but one of his first jobs was being the vice president to the assistant to the PR guy […] at the sanitarium. So when it was time [for my dad] to go to college, my grandfather was like, well are you going to go to Harvard like me?

BA: I said no, I’m a Wolverine, I was born in Michigan!

BS: Did you always know you wanted to go to Michigan?

BA: Yes.

BS: Same with me, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I only applied to the University of Michigan. The University Musical Society was a big part of life in high school and then also in college. I interned with UMS, and met some of my most important mentors there, so that’s why UMS has asked me to interview you about the Bert’s Tickets Program. It sounds like it’s been a really great success so far. So I guess my first big question is why are the performing arts important to you?

BA: Well, I feel that there is too much emphasis is on the technical aspects of a college education, and not enough for an all-around better person, you know. Life should not be concentrated on the aspects of a future occupation. […] When my father went to Harvard, he was doing some cultural classes, oral, vocational.  If you’re a well-rounded person, you can’t be that limited.

BS:  Were you an economics major?

BA: Yes.

BS: So did you have that kind of outlet? Did you have a balance for the economics?

BA: My sub-major was journalism.

PK: Tell them what you did for the paper.

BA: I was on the Michigan Daily. I was an editor on the Daily.

BS: Did you have a beat?

BA: Yeah, the screen editor. I got to see all the movies.

BS: At the Michigan Theater?

BA: Yeah.

BS: Still going strong, the Michigan Theater.

BA: I remember back, in those days, they used to have some vaudeville. They used to have a movie and an onstage performance. An hour of vaudeville and an hour and a half or so of a movie. So it was a well-rounded thing there.

BS: Would there be local performers or would they be touring?

BA: No. Bing Crosby came.

BS: You saw Bing Crosby?! At the Michigan Theater?

BA: Yeah.

BS: [Laughing] That’s pretty awesome.

BS: Did you review both the art and the performance?

BA: Yeah.

BA: I reviewed them with an A, B, C, like getting a mark in a class there. I would give them an “A”, a “B”, a “C”, and so forth, and I was the first one to ever do that.

BS: Where did your interest in movies come from?

BA: Just, no special reason, I just sort of gravitated towards it.

PK: You took your sister to the movies as a kid, how much did it cost? [laughing]

BA: A nickel. [laughter]

BS: And so, how did you continue your connection with the arts once you graduated?

BA: I just maintained an interest in them. When I went into business, there was no connection there. It was a part of a well-rounded education and a life interest, and there’s something lacking if you’re 100 percent vocationally marked, no room for life or arts, the cultural aspect.

BS: Did you continue to go to films when you entered the work world?

BA: I was in New York, I went mostly to business, and I still maintained a great interest in movies, but that was a side issue, not a part of my mainstream.

BS: I assume that you had to work extremely hard to build the business. Did you have time to go to shows?

BA: I made room.

BS: Why were your four years on campus so important to you?

BA: Well, I feel like Michigan gave me a lot, and I’m trying to give back. I owe them, I feel like I owe them my college education, I owe them my current vocation too, they gave me a great start in life. The least I could do is show some gratitude. What Michigan did for me, I’m trying to do something for Michigan.

BS: Do you have any advice for students?

BA: Well, I’m a great believer in a well-rounded education and not a narrow one. We’ve got to enjoy all aspects of life, not just be a great mathematician or economist, enjoy all aspects of modern life.

BS:  For me, my work with UMS and the campus radio station, having that outlet to be creative, it’s really important to me.

PK: I think my father also likes the students to have a good quality of life, working, working, working, that’s why he built the café. While they’re in the library, get a cup of coffee, relax, it’s not all intense. So with Bert’s tickets, and the study lounge, and the café, he should work on the quality of life for the kids at Michigan.

BS: Are there any movies or performances that stand out in your life as important?

BA: I’m a great Western fan.

PK: What’s your favorite movie, don’t you have a favorite movie?

BA: To Kill a Mockingbird.

BS: One question that I had that’s not arts-related, I’m wondering how you kept things interesting for so many years.

BA: My business is a people-oriented business, you know, so I’m dealing with a senior one day and a professor another day and an artist another day. Being in the business […], no two days are ever the same. There’s a whole wide spectrum of people, all kinds of people doing different things, so there’s no chance of being dull.

BS: Did you choose busses because of that or was it a lucky happenstance that you were able to do it for so long?

BA: It was a great opportunity, I was able to be there at the right time and the right place and take advantage of it.

BS: Did you expect that it would last so long?

BA: Not when I first started, but it grew.

BS: How did the industry change?

BA: It was becoming much more, many years ago riding busses was sort of third-class travel, now it’s becoming a more, having a better place in the transportation spectrum. Busses are much more luxurious. We have lavatories, we have much more comfortable air conditioning and so forth, so the bus business has graduated from a third class travel to a second or first class travel.

BS: I think that’s all my questions, I mean I can ask questions all day, but this has been really nice to speak to you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for our school. I spent a lot of time in these spaces named after you, and they’re important to me. So thank you, I appreciate the talk.

Interested in learning more? Find out about our Bert’s Tickets program, or about how you can become a Victor for UMS.

Rhino as Participant

Utilizing the expertise and enthusiasm of odd-toed herbivores in the family Rhinocerotidae to invite participatory experiences with the performing arts.

We all have work heroes. Someone our career-selves aspire to be, someone whose philosophies resonate with us on a personal and a professional level. My work hero happens to be Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum.

Nina’s philosophy, paraphrased Truly-style, is this: if a cultural institution wants to maintain relevancy, it has to stop treating audience members as passive faces in the crowd and start inviting and utilizing community collaboration, participation, and expertise.

Every community member has something special to bring to the table — be it a doctoral thesis or a really great Netflix recommendation — and thanks to social media, we’ve all grown accustomed to sharing. Simply put: cultural experiences that “stick” for many of us are those that allow us to do something hands-on.

So what does this mean for UMS? It means the umsLOBBY. It means Tweet Seats. It means UMS Night School. It means the UMS Student Committee. It means Rhinos.

In order to understand the Rhino Project, you’ve got to get to know the UMS Student Committee. An official University of Michigan Student Organization, this committee works tirelessly to promote student engagement in the performing arts on campus. Comprised of roughly 30 student volunteers, UMS works closely with this group to plan and execute our student Arts & Eats events, design and create UMS advertisements  and represent UMS to the student population in a variety of other ways.

This October (11-13), UMS presented the Parisian theater company, Théâtre de la Ville, performing Ionesco’s Rhinocéros. If you didn’t have the pleasure of seeing this production at the Power Center while it was in town, the play was influenced by Ionesco’s time in Romania as a young man, when nearly everyone around him converted to fascism.  Being the theater of the absurd classic that it is, replace “fascist” with “rhino” and you’ve got Rhinocéros.  

The UMS Student Committee really got behind the concept of a real-life rhino occupation. Equipped with rhino masks and flyers, students took to the streets and for the two weeks leading up to the Théâtre de la Ville performance, rhinos invaded Ann Arbor.

My favorite part of this project was watching the students really run with the idea and take it to entirely new levels. During the campaign, students became actors, buskers, art directors, photographers, and social media animals. Using their expertise and natural enthusiasm, the UMS Student Committee took the campaign and really made it their own.

Sure, the campaign worked for UMS on a purely promotional level but more importantly it invited deep, meaningful participation and collaboration from the students on campus. This is the kind of project that might even make Nina Simon proud. Plus, Théâtre de la Ville loved it. The actors clamored for souvenir rhino hats and the management requested images of our rhinos to be used in company communications efforts.

Rheme Sloan, UMS Student Committee President, did a fabulous job of getting buy-in for the campaign from the students and organizing the efforts on campus. UMS Marketing Intern Anna Piotrowski did a great job of rhino-acting herself and organizing other layers of the rhino campaign, including postering and sidewalk stenciling.

Here, Rheme and Anna talk about what it was like to be a rhino and what this type of participatory project means for student engagement.

UMS: Please introduce yourself. What’s your role at UMS? What interests in you in performing arts?

Rhemé Sloan: I am a junior Voice Performance Major in the School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. I am a Marketing Intern for UMS as well as the President of the UMS Student Committee. I live for the performing arts.  They challenge me to think outside of my own world and explore the beauty in all things.

Anna Piotrowski: My name is Anna Piotrowski, and I’m a junior Violin Performance Major with a Performing Arts Management Minor at U-M. This is my first year as a marketing intern at UMS. Since I have been playing the violin for 15 years, I definitely have a passion for the performing arts. I’ve always enjoyed going to a variety of concerts and performances where I can see or hear something that I’ve never encountered before.

UMS: Could you describe your role in the recent Rhinoceros guerrilla marketing campaign?

RM: I was in charge of organizing all the volunteers who went around Ann Arbor and U-M in rhino masks. At several happenings we had photographers come out and take pictures so it was crucial to make sure we had solidified plans. I also organized and participated in the photo shoot that took place at landmarks across central campus. We had a blast taking those photos.

AP: I was in charge of creating a “street team” of 10 people to cover the campus sidewalks with spray chalk Rhinoceroses, as well as getting volunteers to post different flyers promoting the performance. We had a political style campaign poster as well as a traditional informational poster that were posted.

UMS: What did you like about this campaign? What were some surprises along the way?

AP: I liked the mystery behind this campaign – the Rhino masks and spray chalk stenciling and vague political posters were all very attention getting and got people talking! I also liked that it was accompanied with other tactics that were more informational, so people could really get a sense for what type of performance this would be.

RM: I loved how innovative and weird the campaign was. When my supervisor first told me about this project I’m sure my face read “You all must be out of your mind.” But when I saw the posters I was filled with glee because I had never seen anything like it. The biggest surprise along the way was the Saturday morning we did the photo shoot around campus. We had finished taking pictures in Nickels Arcade and were walking across the street to take pictures with this guy playing the accordion. To our disbelief this random accordion player was wearing a rhino mask and had our “Rhino is Listening” flyers in his money box. We couldn’t believe what was happening.

UMS: What kind of a response did you get from other students about this campaign or the performance?

AP: Other students seemed to be excited and willing to participate in this campaign. There were many different ways that students could help out and I think that everyone found something they could enjoy.

RM: Students responded positively to the rhino campaign. We did our best to make Rhino as visible across campus as we possibly could and I think we were very successful. Once the tour came to town there was so much hype around the show and students’ expectations were very high. I think the show really rose to the occasion and many found it very relevant during this election season.

UMS: Did you have the chance to go to the performance? If yes, did working on this campaign affect your experience of the performance? 

AP: I did see the performance, and working on the campaign definitely affected how I experienced the performance. It gave me background knowledge of the plot and history of the play, among other things.  Working on the campaign also allowed me to go into the performance with a good basic knowledge of what to expect in terms of style, genre, and themes, while still retaining a level of uncertainty as to how it will be delivered. Over all, working on the campaign was a positive contribution to my viewing experience.

RM: I went to the last performance of Rhinocéros.  Having worked on the campaign I knew to expect something incredible and major and the show totally delivered. It was difficult to get a full grasp of the play since I was hearing it for the first time in French, but the action and storytelling was so on point that it didn’t matter. Now all I have to do is read it in English!

Check out the November issue of The Ann Magazine for more on this campaign!

Did you see rhinos around town? Would you like to see more campaigns like this one?