Salt City arts reviewer Joan E. Vadeboncouer makes a too-early exit
Syracuse journalism legend Joan E. Vadeboncoeur left us last week, dying at home after a brief, painless illness. She was 78 and still busy at her keyboard a few weeks before the end. As a scribe for Syracuse Newspapers, she had been on the job since 1954, and, according to city room lore, without ever taking a vacation and barely ever having a sick day. There cannot be another American journalist who produced as much as she did in that time. In the last years of the evening Herald-Journal, where she was entertainment editor, her byline could be found on as many as five stories running across two broadsheet pages. Her total output runs to uncountable millions of words, easily exceeding that of the great 19th-century novelists like Balzac, Dickens or Tolstoy, and filled with even more eccentric and colorful characters.
Like another 19th-century figure, Walt Whitman, she contained many multitudes and readily embraced all the performing arts and Syracuse University sports as well. That meant ballet, opera, live theater and above all, the movies. Not for nothing was she awarded a commemorative seat in the multiplex at Great Northern Mall. Where she was really unsurpassed was her knowledge of anybody in the arts with any connection to Central New York, even if only passing through for the weekend. If a man had carried a spear in a 1967 production of Aida but showed up as, say, a second-tier executive at Warner Brothers, Joan would pounce. Christine Lightcap of the Talent Company reports latenight calls from Joan seeking leads on performers from long-ago productions who had now moved on, not only to Broadway or Hollywood but also to regional theater productions. This was legwork that gave her scoop after scoop.
Although a short, thin person, she projected a presence that intimidated many, at least at first. This arose from her sharp, dismissive comments about performances that disappointed her, even from first-timers in community theater productions. “She didn’t sugarcoat her words,” is the way Frank Fiumano puts it. Using her first name in conversation, Bill Molesky allows, “was like being on first-name basis with the pope.” Perhaps because “Vadeboncoeur” was such a mouthful, it was as “Joan” she was most often referred, but never with a sense of bogus intimacy. “Joan’s here!” or “Joan’s in the house” was a cry that spread panic backstage.
As someone who covered much of the same beat for 26 years, it took me a few years to get on that first-name basis. It was easier on those bleak evenings when we were the only two people in the theater. Once when we shared a late plane to Los Angeles on a film junket, she led me (a fast walker!) to exactly the right cab that knew a shortcut to the preview venue. She did not tell jokes often, but if she did her timing could milk the maximum laughter from even meager material. Before the opening of Murder at Howard Johnson’s at the Glen Loch restaurant, actor Len Bilotti sent her a drink, which she graciously accepted. Then, impishly narrowing her eyes, she added, “This does not change the review.”
Perhaps because she was facing a midnight deadline, she could always exit before the curtain call. As WSYR-Channel 9’s Tim Fox put it, “You always wanted to say hi to her on the way into a show, because by the time the lights came up her seat was empty. You could almost see the Road Runner vapor trail heading for the door.”
Despite her boundless appetite for movies many of us choose to avoid, Joan was a child of privilege, the local equivalent of an aristocrat. If Syracuse were Florence, her name would have been Medici. Joan was the only daughter of E.R. “Curly” Vadeboncoeur, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town, and a glamorous former Ziegfeld girl, Orletta Vadeboncoeur, later known for philanthropy. Joan grew up in the Chateau D’Or (castle of gold), one of the finest residences in Central New York, and attended the Burlingame School, when mere admission was a mark of social distinction. After graduation from Sarah Lawrence College, she began work with the family business, Syracuse Newspapers. After a brief stint with grungy assignments, she moved on to arts and entertainment. When the still-functioning Herald and The Post Standard introduced the CNY section in the 1990s, she moved away from reviewing opening nights to become a freewheeling arts columnist.
In person Joan was congenial but never schmoozy. She never did lunch. Boasting was alien to her, and she never said anything to impress or win favor from a listener. What is rare among journalists and even rarer in show business types, she never betrayed any need to be liked. Any small favor, however, would be warmly acknowledged. When I sent her a postcard from Egypt, at her request, she thanked me three times.
The granting of her favor, however, counted a great deal. Since her passing Jan. 4, more than a dozen local performers have told me their careers began under her critical lash. In his first performance in Salt City Center’s A Man for All Seasons, Bill Molesky so feared her disdain that he used a pseudonym in the program, Harry Feller Hodge. Molesky’s parents never went to the theater, but they always read Joan. When Joan praised the performance and a picture of “Hodge,” whose name was misspelled “Lodge” by a caption writer, Molesky’s father noted the resemblance to his own son. Petrified, young Bill owned up to the imposture. At this point Molesky senior allowed, “You must have been good—she liked you.”
For such a public person who wrote so much, Joan Vadeboncoeur revealed little about herself. She was the polar opposite of Oprah, born the year Joan joined Syracuse Newspapers. About her phenomenal drive, her steel-trap memory, and her unquenchable curiosity she gave only hints. And those hints pointed to a fuller persona we never quite perceived. Take the not trivial matter of the loud socks she favored in her later years, subject to as much commentary as her unapologetic chain smoking.
Marguerite Hickernell of the Wit’s End Players recalls talking to Joan in the lobby of the Cazenovia College Theatre when Joan was sporting a bright yellow shirt above khaki slacks. Looking down Hickernell noticed equally bright yellow socks with Tweety Bird motifs on the side, implying an identification. After some laughter at the incongruity, Joan added, “You should see the ones I have at home!”