Cole Porter is a legendary composer who evokes images of urbane banter and big-city nightlife.
However, his life and music are celebrated annually at a summer festival that takes place in a small, unassuming Indiana town with a rich circus history.
The creator of pop standards such as “Night and Day” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was born and raised in Peru, which now has a population of about 11,000 and is located some 70 miles north of Indianapolis.
A paean to Porter’s June 9 birthday, Peru’s Cole Porter Festival runs June 5 through 8 this year http://www.coleporterfestival.org/.
On June 7, Chicago cabaret singer Joan Curto will salute Porter’s extensive music catalog at the Peru High School Auditorium.
Bus tours include stops at Porter’s birthplace at 3rd and Huntington streets, and his burial site, which is at Mount Hope Cemetery in Peru. A multimedia presentation, a musical revue presented by a local theater troupe, and the Cole Porter Classic Car, Truck and Bike Show will also add to pride-filled activities for a famous native son.
“It’s good for a town like us to see that you can do anything — you don’t have to be limited — just because you’re from small-town Indiana,” said John Kirk, chairman of the Cole Porter Festival and owner of Peru’s Cole Porter Inn. Kirk said the festival is in its 23rd year. “It brings a lot of people from all over the world into our little town,” said the 35-year-old Kirk, noting that attendees from Holland, Belgium and Sweden have made the trek.
From a national standpoint, Porter fans from Chicago, Texas and Ohio have showed up to visit points of interest, such as the Miami County Museum, which displays Porter’s 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood and a Grammy Award he won.
The museum’s collection also has art bookshelves with brass and black-lacquered wood that were commissioned by Porter in the 1950s for his Waldorf Astoria apartment at the famous hotel in New York City http://www.mcmuseum.org/.
Kirk is hopeful that attendance for this year’s festival will edge past the 2,000 mark. “It’s not a big festival, attendance-wise, but it’s quadrupled in size over the six-year span since I’ve been involved,” he said.
The Cole Porter Festival keeps people who are related to the late composer apprised of developments. “We work closely with the Cole Porter Trust; we also work with the family,” said Elise Kordis, director/curator of the Miami County Museum and Historical Society. “There are some family members in our local area, and we work closely with them every year regarding the festival.”
Porter had already begun writing songs when he left Peru in his early teens to attend Worcester Academy, an elite Massachusetts boarding school, according to the Indiana Historical Society.
Porter’s songwriting legacy includes cheery tunes such as “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Be a Clown.” The theme of “Be a Clown” ties into the history of his hometown. “We’re known as the circus capital of the world,” said Kordis, heralding a claim that’s posted on Peru’s website http://www.cityofperu.org/.
The community is home to the International Circus Hall of Fame, which touts Peru’s background as a place where various circuses — dating back to the 19th century — set up winter quarters as a base before heading out for a new season when the weather got warmer http://www.circushalloffame.com/.
Kordis, 30, said her town still keeps the big-top tradition going with its “amateur performing circus.”
The 2014 edition of the Peru Amateur Circus — which runs July 12-19 — showcases the acrobatic talents and other three-ring feats of many youths from Miami County, where Peru is located http://www.perucircus.com/peru_amateur_circus.asp.
Just as its circus past is celebrated, Peru also remembers its Porter connection with a garden stop on its festival bus tour.
Some Indiana guidebooks indicate a garden at his boyhood home inspired him to write “Old-Fashioned Garden,” according to a historical book included with the “Cole Porter Centennial Collection” CD box set released by the Indiana Historical Society and Koch International Classics. The same collection includes “By the Mississinewah,” which reflects the name of an actual river near Peru. The collection’s companion book states the river’s name “had fascinated Porter from boyhood.”
As a young man, he attended both Yale University and Harvard University. Although he was in law school at Harvard, it was music that truly fueled his interests. The pianist and lyricist went on to write compositions for the Broadway musicals “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Can-Can” and “Anything Goes.”
Porter died in 1964 at the age of 73. The Peru festival that pays homage to him includes the revue “Kountry Fried Cole,” which has performances June 5 through 7. June 7 activities include street-music performances, a “Swell Party” beer and wine tent, and a free late-night cabaret.
Tickets to see Joan Curto perform Cole Porter hits are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. There are varying prices for other paid-admission events.