Arvada Center Blog

A Conversation with Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical’s Gary Holmes

By Leslie Simon


Travel back to the time of the cultural hotbed that was the Harlem Renaissance – the music was swinging, bands were big, and the jazz scene continued to rise in popularity and influence. A funny and heartfelt look at love, Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical rediscovers the music of prolific songwriter J.C. Johnson in a story about love, set in Harlem when the culture defined cool and the scene was hot. We spoke to Gary Holmes, Co-Bookwriter of Trav’lin, about his inspirations, J.C.’s music, and the journey this musical has taken since the beginning of its creation.

Q: The Arvada Center is excited to produce the regional premiere of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical. Why do you think this story set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance is so appealing and resonates with audiences outside of Harlem?

A: TRAV’LIN is a story about LOVE.  That is what J.C. Johnson wrote mostly about and was the main factor in my determining what tales TRAV’LIN would tell.  The show delves humorously into the follies of love and then digs deep into the hurt that love can be. And those foibles and hurts go beyond a time and a place. The three couples of TRAV’LIN represent three different stages and aspects of love, with all of them are trying to figure what it’s all about! Add to that the energy and raw feeling of the music and era underlying it all and….

Q: It is almost one hundred years since the setting of Trav’lin took place. What is it about the songs of J.C. Johnson that make them so timeless, and why do they still resonate with audiences so strongly?

A: J.C. wrote very simply and directly. His lyrics go right to the core of whatever emotion the song required. And if he was just composing the music, as he often did, he had the ability to exactly match the tone of the lyrics, whether it be a big band, jazz or blues beat. He often said he learned his craft on the streets. I believe that’s where his got his ability to hone in on what the tune or lyric was about, and go right there. No flowery words or heavily intricate tunes. And he really knew how to write a tune!

Q: How has the musical grown and evolved since its debut at the New York Musical Festival?

A: I started developing the show while I was at the Dramatic Writing Department at Tisch. The basic structure, plot and characters in the show were pretty much set back then and are essentially the same to this day.

The New York Musical Festival experience was great. NOTHING helps you figure out what needs to be done with a show more than putting it up in front of an audience not made up of friends and relatives, and having it done with excellent actors and crew. This describes the presentation at the New York Musical Theater Festival, which was extremely well received. And while the basic structure, character and plots have stayed constant since the show was first conceived, that and succeeding productions have shown and allowed us to refine and deepen the show to balance out the lighter and more serious parts. We even changed some of the characters’ intentions and foibles.

We have been blessed to see several sets of excellent actors do full productions of the show – and each production and each actor has brought new revelations. Some were like “How did we NOT see that flaw in the writing before” to “Wow, that actor really opened up other possibilities. Let’s think about that and expand on it!” And we know that the wonderful actors at Arvada (under Rod’s direction) will teach us even more!

Q: What was the most important lesson you learned from your mentor, J.C. Johnson?

A: OH, this is easy! Respect your fellow human being and don’t be too quick to judge. Also, he enjoyed the little things in life, he noticed the little things in life – and he respected them, which is what made him such a good creator and person.  One interviewer of J.C. wrote about him: “He was a gentle flower of a man.” And he was.

J.C. Johnson

Q: What do you hope Arvada Center patrons take away from the musical?

A: I certainly hope they are entertained and enjoy the songs and characters’ roller coaster ride, but I also hope they are touched by J.C.’s music and his message about love. And while TRAV’LIN is anything but a history lesson, I hope the music and stories encourage folks to be open to discovering more about J.C. and the amazing place Harlem was (and is) and that era and the everyday folks who lived it.

Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical closes this Sunday, April 28.

Arvada Center classes aren’t just for kids!

By Leslie Simon


Ever since the Arvada Center opened its state-of-the-art Digital Creative Arts Lab (DCAL), patrons of all ages have been able to take a modernistic approach to the arts, learning and exploring new skills using 21st-century technology. Whether you are an adult hobbyist looking to get into the digital arts or an amateur artist who yearns to go pro- the DCAL studio is equipped to take your digital education to the next level.

Painting on iPad class

Once we graduate school, as adults it can often feel like our education is over, and work begins. Your time for learning is not over yet, though! Here at the Arvada Center, we believe that acquiring and becoming invested in new skills helps deepen our connection to the world around us, allowing for a more fulfilling life. This summer in the DCAL, we have many options for adults to learn the digital arts.

  • Looking to take your photography and editing skills up a notch? Explore everything from photo-editing to collage art with the Photoshop and Artmaking class.
  • Heard all about these 3D printers, but never had a chance to see one or experiment with it? 3D printing is changing design processes around the world, and at DCAL, we have TWO 3D machines ready to take a 2D sketch and breathe life into it through a simple CAD program to create a tangible 3D sculpture.
  • Do you own an iPad? You are already halfway to creating amazing works of art digitally, and you will learn video-making, green-screen technology and digital painting in our Digital Art with an iPad class.

We spoke with Digital Creative Arts Lab coordinator and instructor Tobias (Toby) Fike about the options and classes that DCAL provides to adult art appreciators of all ages.

Q: What advice do you have for an adult wanting to get into the digital arts (photoshop, filmmaking, 3D-printing)?

A: I guess, just go for it. I know it can seem intimidating, but the basics are easier than you might expect and you have to start somewhere. One of the great things that we offer is shorter workshops that can introduce you to some of our various options without too much of a time or financial commitment.

Q: Knowing Photoshop is a valuable skill to have in the Information Age. In what ways do you see it being used most effectively?

A: That’s a tough question. It can really do so much. I suppose I like using it to enhance and make photos look that much more polished and professional.

Q. What benefits do you see from drawing on a digital tablet versus paper?

A: It is different and might take some getting used to but first off, it doesn’t waste paper. You can also undo anything so there is no fear of messing up. You don’t treat it as precious and that is liberating and freeing, allowing you to try more and get experimental with your art making.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you have seen come from using the 3D printer?

A: There is so much potential with the printers, it is fun to discover new things to print all the time. Right now I’m trying to find ways to make molds for slip casting in ceramics.

Q: What do you hope to see in the future of DCAL?

A: I want to have even more talented instructors to diversify the things we can do and offer beyond what I can even imagine right now. Besides that, I want to keep having fun with the students who are already taking classes.

The Real Life Inspirations Behind the Characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical

By Leslie Simon


The Real Life Inspirations Behind the Characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical

Harlem in the 1930’s was filled with lively music, delectable soul food, and most of all- larger-than-life inhabitants that not only inspired people around the country, but also the characters of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical. We spoke with Gary Holmes, Co-Bookwriter and personal friend of J.C. Johnson to talk about the real-life inspirations behind these warm, funny characters.


Gary Holmes: I will tell you about the characters, but first, this: J.C. told me many stories about Harlem that helped form the whole structure and feel for the show, not just the characters. These range from the heavy presence of and respect for the church, to the idea of a successful businessman helping out others (this was VERY BIG in J.C.’s life). The church suppers, the ballrooms, the migration from the South, the Tree of Hope, the Renaissance Ballroom- all were parts of stories J.C. told me and I then did research further on…..


THE CHARACTERS: Well, I also got most of the characters and their names from the stories J.C. told me about folks he knew or worked with.  I used them as jumping-off points for the stories told in the script, but never intended for them to be ‘documentary-style’ representations; more of an homage to J.C. and his world.


GEORGE – J.C. told me many stories about him and his best buddy, Fats Waller, with whom he co-wrote (sometimes with Andy Razaf, as well) over 50 songs, among them the famous “The Joint Is Jumpin.” J.C. was quiet and reserved, Fats was always the life of the party, and as J.C. put it, “Wherever Fats was, there was a party.” So, I tried to think of George as being halfway between Fats and J.C., a mix of fun, very gregarious and the thoughtful and reflective.  Which, by the way, is how I always saw the whole show; a lot of fun, but also thoughtful and heartfelt.

By the way, George is named after George A. Whiting, who, while not a Harlem composer, was a great friend of J.C.’s and collaborator on dozens of songs, as well. J.C. (and J.C.’s wife, too) told me stories of Mr. Whiting and of his total intolerance of intolerance and how kind and true a friend he was to J.C. I did run through all of J.C.’s collaborator’s names, from Fats to Chick Webb, and not only was George a perfect name for that character, but it honors Mr. Whiting, as well.



BILLIE – Named in honor of Billie Holiday. The first song she sang (a whole story to that) was J.C.’s “Trav’lin All Alone.” However, the character’s story came from a lady named Pigfoot Mary, who was a street cart purveyor of boiled pigfeet. She came up from the South and eventually, through her entrepreneurship and good cooking, became a very rich lady, ultimately owning her own restaurant in Harlem. Pigfoot Mary, however, was a person from the 1910s into the 1920s.

It was my friend Micki Grant,  who directed the first staged reading of TRAV’LIN at the York Theater in NYC that got us from pigfeet to fried pies. While directing the reading, she advised me on many aspects of Harlem and African American life that I would not be directly familiar with. Among the gentle suggestions she gave was that the whole idea of pigfeet being a street cart item, especially in the 1930s, was wrong. And a modern audience would not respond to them well.  And that we should instead make them fried pies. Which we did – and it works extremely well, not only in a historical context but in fitting the idea into the script as a whole.

Natalie Oliver-Atherton (Billie) and Milton Craig Nealy (George Walker), Matt Gale Photography 2019



ARCHIE – Is based on J.C.’s own numbers runner (who may have been named Archie, but it could have been Eddie). J.C. described how he was a nice guy, just a neighborhood businessman, really. And how he would come by every Monday (I think) morning and how J.C. would be waiting for him. That the stage Archie is a scamp came from J.C.’s stories about the fighter Joe Louis, with whom J.C. had a great friendship.

Joe Louis

Archie is a bit of a lady’s man, as very much was Mr. Louis, but not to the same extent. Archie is more of a flirt and a big talker, but far less real action.  (TRAV’LIN is a 1930s style romantic musical comedy, after all!)


ROZ – Is modeled after Rose Morgan, a very well-known and successful hairdresser who worked her way up to owning the most successful hairdressing salon in Harlem. AND…she was also married – for a time – to JOE LOUIS! (The rough template for Archie!) However, Roz and Archie make out much better and happier than Rose and Joe did, so it’s just the basic set-up that I copied.

A side note: For a time, we tried to have Roz also be based on Madam C.J. Walker, who was a very successful businesswoman in the early 1900s in creating various hair straightening formulas (popular at the time) and fashion items. But it was dropped for two reasons – all of her success happened 20 years before the time frame of the show (so it was old hat) and also the whole “inventing a formula” sub-plot was slowing down the main love storylines. So, we stuck with Roz being the nascent shop owner and dropped the Madam Walker storyline.

Erin Willis (Roz) and Ian Coulter-Buford (Archie), Matt Gale Photography 2019


NELSON – Started out theatrical life as Darryl (the name of a good friend of J.C.‘s, as I recall) – an insurance man.  J.C. told me stories about buying weekly insurance from him; He would stop by J.C.’s apartment like clockwork.  This storyline changed, as there was little development in what we could do with that character. So we created a new character, this one NOT based on  J.C.’s stories, but for plot reasons had to be a “trav’lin man,” one who George could help along, and it would be good to tie him into the church. So the Bible salesman came to be. The name Nelson is to honor my own best buddy, Nelson, who passed in a car accident, and who was always helping with TRAV’LIN and anything else I needed help with. And it turns out the name “Nelson” fits the character perfectly.

Nick Gordon (Nelson) and Tavia Riveé (Ella), Matt Gale Photography 2019



ELLA – Is named in honor Ella Fitzgerald, three of whose first recorded songs were written by J.C. and who not only co-wrote a song with him, but also recorded several more. However, Ella started out her stage life very briefly as Alberta.  This was in honor of Alberta Hunter, who also sang many J.C. Johnson songs. The whole idea of Ella going to nursing school comes from Ms. Hunter’s own later-in-life decision to give up singing and go to nursing school herself and in fact become a nurse for something like twenty-five years before going back into a much-heralded late-life return to the stage.

Alberta Hunter

Finding Our Center – the Arvada Center’s New Brand

The new visual identity of the Arvada Center represents the multi-faceted and dynamic work that takes place in our building every day.

Conceived by local Denver agency AOR, the new visual identity of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is a multi-faceted, dynamic representation of who we are and what we do. The bold colors illuminate the vibrancy that the arts and humanities bring to the lives of our visitors, while the starburst shape emulates the energy and varied nature of our cultural landscape.

As the Arvada Center celebrates our past, we simultaneously look forward to the future.

With a record of excellence spanning over 40 years, the Arvada Center maintains our commitment to curating, creating, and producing national-caliber arts, humanities, education and entertainment.

“We truly believe that there’s something for everyone when you step through our doors,” says President and CEO Philip Sneed. “We are proud to be truly multi-disciplinary and offer programs that you can not only relate to, but programs that resonate – no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from.”

Visitors of all ages and backgrounds experience the power of the arts and humanities at the Arvada Center. We embrace and leverage the power of these experiences to expand our reach to more patrons, students, teachers, volunteers, and community members.

With a new brand as our backbone, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities continues to act as a beacon of creativity in our community. Our vision is to enrich the lives of our visitors through powerful experiences in the arts and humanities – helping others to see, hear, feel, and think a little deeper. Here, you can truly find your Center.