​The Outside Inn Returns This Weekend

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

The Outside Inn was a performance haven from 1972–82, where like-minded student artists bonded and entertained through coffee and cabaret—and echoes of those moments return this weekend.
The Inn, located in what is now the Ayres Multicultural Center, was a coffeehouse and venue for Sewanee Arts, a student-run troupe of actors, poets, musicians and the like.
“We were a group with a mission,” said Carol Ponder, who sang, told stories, and played guitar and spoons. “We were devoted to the performing arts with all the fervor that drives emerging teenaged artists. It was ‘our’ space, student run and staffed, on and off stage. It was a home.”
Today (Friday) and tomorrow, June 10, performers from the Inn will gather for the Outside Inn Rendezvous, a reunion starting each evening at 6 p.m. at Cravens Hall. The event, which will feature music and other performances, is open to the public.
The theme is “Moulin Rouge” and folks are encouraged (but not required) to dress like they live in Paris in the 1920s, said Hank Selby, president of Sewanee Arts from 1974 to 1977 and the main organizer of the Rendezvous.
The evolution to the Outside Inn and Sewanee Arts started when student Dave Coniglio founded a beatnik coffeehouse in the Thompson Union building, dubbed “The Labyrinth.” Replete with images of Jimi Hendrix and wine bottles and candle wax all over the place, it was a groovy venue, Selby said.
“People who believed in truth and beauty and love, and make love not war, that’s what we were all about in those days,” Selby said. “People would just go in and play guitars and recite poetry and stare at blacklight posters.”
With Coniglio’s initiative paired with student Christopher Paine’s vision for Sewanee Arts, performers started doing cabaret shows at the EQB Club in spring 1972, before creating the Outside Inn at what was then the Independent House on Willie Six Road, Selby said.
Coffee was 25 cents a cup, snacks and tea were available from “garcons” and “garconettes” and the performances, like the musical revue “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” were first-class, Selby said.
“The people involved in this were totally dedicated to making this be as professional as possible,” he said. “It was all volunteers, but professionalism reigned.”
The troupe was so good that some members took the shows on the road throughout the South. Sewanee Arts members also became producers and roadies for student performances around campus, including groups such as Purple Masque, the Jazz Club and the Sewanee Popular Music Association, Selby said. In addition, Sewanee Arts helped make outside shows on campus possible, such as performances by Pure Prairie League and jazz artists Chuck Mangione and Mercer Ellington.
But by 1982, the energy captured to create Sewanee Arts and the Outside Inn was almost expired, and the experiment faded to black. But when the curtain goes up again this weekend, the Outside Inn’s house band will be back, in addition to a number of other alumni, some of whom became doctors and lawyers, while others still perform professionally, like Ponder. Ponder is a nationally-recognized performing artist who works as an arts consultant with Pre-K through college students, as well as with adults in “Creative Aging.”
On Saturday at 7:04 p.m., the Rendezvous will feature a performance of Ponder’s acclaimed play, “My Father’s War,” based on the life of her dad Herschel, a WWII fighter pilot.
Ponder will perform with her husband Robert Kiefer, who she met through Sewanee Arts. Kiefer sang regularly at the Inn with “The Stoned Guest Trio.”
Outside Inn held its first reunion last year, after Selby decided to get the troupe back together. He said it remains to be seen if the Rendezvous will continue each year, but the passion is still there.
“We’ve all remained in close contact; you can’t go through four intense years like that without deep friendships…You just never know, we’re all getting so old we may be dead next year,” Selby said laughing.
In addition to music and drama, Outside Inn alum Tony Winters will display his paintings inspired by the Sewanee area. The event will also offer a silent auction of themed baskets to assist marginalized youth in Southern Appalachia. The Rendezvous runs from 6 to 11 p.m. each night and is free, but donations are appreciated. A full performance schedule is available at sewanee.edu/newstoday/arts.