Bruce Brennan

When asked how he got ‘sucked into’ one of the volunteer tasks he performed during his years on Capitol Hill, Bruce Brennan answered, “I like to be a helper.” Stories about his activities, as told during the interview, support that statement.

Bruce and his wife Louise moved toCapitol Hill in 1977. They subsequently raised three children and participated in the many activities of that era’s young families. They joined the babysitting co-op, and Bruce contributed to every aspect of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. His children attended several Hill schools, so he helped with—and eventually chaired—the Capitol Hill Classic (race) to benefit the Cluster School, as well as serving as auctioneer for Capitol Hill Day School fundraisers. Bruce received a Community Achievement Award in 2000 in recognition of his many contributions, then got deeply involved with Capitol Hill Village after it was founded. Bruce and interviewer Randy Norton shared many memories during the interview, including the Brennans’ discovering their eventual house during a yard sale, Bruce’s singing with the Jaynettes at his 40th birthday party, memorable people from the neighborhood like Jim Mayo and Veola Jackson, Eastern Market history, and the amazing Halloween festival atmosphere on East Capitol Street, during which President Obama’s daughters twice trick-or-treated at the Brennan home.

Read Transcript
Interview Date
January 30, 2024
Randy Norton
Betsy Barnett
Bernadette McMahon

Full Directory

NORTON: All right. This is Randy Norton. I am interviewing Bruce Brennan at my residence, 730 11th Street NE. It is January 30, 2024, and we’re starting about, oh, 17 minutes after nine in the morning. Good morning.
NORTON: Bruce, where are you originally from?
BRENNAN: I’m a New Englander. Southern Connecticut until [I was] nine and then I moved up to southern New Hampshire. Ultimately, I may have been [from] Peterborough, New Hampshire, which claims to be the town Thornton Wilder was writing about when he wrote Our Town. But, of course, he would say he was writing about, if you remember, the Western Hemisphere. A nice small town called Peterborough, which is where Thornton Wilder was when he wrote Our Town.
NORTON: All right. And how long did you live there?
BRENNAN: Went away to college in ’68 from there. And, I guess I was back for a year or two after college. By then I had met Louise [his wife]. She was teaching nearby.
NORTON: I see. And where did you go to college?
BRENNAN: Middlebury College. I can still remember getting that letter, though the letter that said I had a scholarship was the important letter to get. [Laughs]
NORTON: Was that your first choice?
BRENNAN: It was, it was.
NORTON: Now, all right. Well, how and when did you meet Louise?
BRENNAN: The story of that is that we don’t remember. [Both laugh] But, I do remember they were among the first colleges to have this winter term, where you took six weeks of sort of intensive study. And she had gone away.
NORTON: This is between the first semester and then it was over Christmas … [Cellphone chime]
BRENNAN: That’s to remind me of …
NORTON: All right. I am …Okay.
BRENNAN: I thought that was my alarm clock telling me to come and see you.
NORTON: Okay. Winter term. All right.
BRENNAN: Oh, okay. Winter term is, yeah, between January and February. Louise had gone off to London and I can remember her coming back. [Cellphone chimes again]
NORTON: All right. I am going to turn off the recording for just a second.
BRENNAN: So, I remember …
NORTON: Well, no, wait, wait, We’re back on the record. We went off briefly because Bruce had an important call and so we’re now back on. And we were talking about Bruce and Louise meeting and winter term.
BRENNAN: She had joined a program that went to London reviewing plays, sort of like real time, with her sister. And I can remember waiting for her to get back. But I don’t really remember meeting her. So, I knew by February it was going to be good to have her back on campus.
NORTON: So, this was February your first year?
NORTON: And she was also a student there?
BRENNAN: She was a sophomore.
NORTON: Oh, she was older.
BRENNAN: She was an older woman.
BRENNAN: We met in the mountain club. There was, you know, a hiking, camping group that—and neither of us were highly active but that was a good place for us to meet.
NORTON: You remember that, but you don’t remember the details.
BRENNAN: No. [Laughs.]
NORTON: Okay, all right.
BRENNAN: Do remember our first date, when you want to get to that.
NORTON: Sure, why not?
BRENNAN: Sly and the Family Stone concert over at Dartmouth.
NORTON: Okay. [Interviewee laughs.] All right. Now, how did you get to DC?
BRENNAN: So, after college, Louise went down and got a graduate degree. I finished up at Middlebury.
NORTON: And where did she get the graduate degree?
BRENNAN: In English at UVA [University of Virginia].
BRENNAN: But she wanted to teach and she got a job in southern New Hampshire. I was in the second to last draft. I think my number was 27. By then you could join something—you had 30 days after you got your notice to report to join something else. And I joined the National Guard. But it still meant—just like Dan Quayle and George Bush, little George—but it still meant you had to go away for basic training and advanced training for four months, basically. So, once I graduated, I sort of was just [doing] little jobs along the way until I went off into basic training.
NORTON: And when was that? When did you go to basic training?
BRENNAN: ’73. So, in ’74, Louise and I got married and I had applied to law school in mostly New England, but including Washington and Lee, which was in her home town. And that probably helped a good deal. [Laughs.] And that’s where I went to law school in ’74. August, we got married and September I was sitting down learning about torts and contracts.
NORTON: Down in Lexington, Virginia?
BRENNAN: Her parents had a nice house in town that had an old—the southern style was to have the kitchen separate from the house to keep the heat away, whereas in New England you wanted it right close to you. And that, in the 30s, had been turned into a cottage to live in. And, so, we lived right 20 steps away from her parents, which was very good at the end of the month [laughing] when the budget was tight and we could go and see what they were cooking for dinner.
NORTON: And Louise’s father was a professor at?
BRENNAN: VMI [Virginia Military Institute].
BRENNAN: English and music. So, he tried to put a little culture in those cadets.
NORTON: Okay. So, how long did you stay down—well, let’s see. When did you graduate from law school?
BRENNAN: Yeah. ’77. And we knew then we wanted to come to the city for three to five years. We would end up in a small town in either New England or the Shenandoah Valley, but we wanted to come to the big city for three to five years. And 45 years later, I’m sitting in your living room. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: It looks like you’re still trying to sort of move over to the small town in the Shenandoah Valley. But, still.
NORTON: Okay. And what sort of jobs did you apply for?
BRENNAN: Summer after my first year, I had worked for my senator, New Hampshire senator, on the Hill.
NORTON: Which was?
BRENNAN: Senator Thomas McIntyre.
BRENNAN: And looked on the Hill for an apartment then but didn’t find one I could afford. But, so, I knew the Hill then and I knew it was a comfortable place. And so Louise and I looked. We found a basement apartment at Fifth and A NE. Still go by it frequently.
NORTON: All right. And when did you move there?
BRENNAN: June of ’77.
NORTON: Okay. And where did you go to work?
BRENNAN: I learned about DC that way. Louise got a job, a secretarial job, while I was looking, at a place called IMDA, introducing us to the world of acronyms in DC. I got a job …
NORTON: And what does IMDA stand for?
BRENNAN: International Management Development Associates. They did contract work for US AID.
NORTON: Okay. And that’s Agency for International Development … [Both laugh.]
BRENNAN: Yeah, that’s right.
NORTON: … since we’re trying to—yes. Okay.
BRENNAN: I was looking around. I at first thought I would like to work in Congress and sort of padded those halls. But that’s a tough go. And ultimately got a job again learning about the world of contracting in the District, a sole-source contract to do research for a highway beautification billboard law for the Federal Highway Administration. So, looking at legal issues along with that and doing some sort of a report. So, that was my first job.
NORTON: All right. How long were you there?
BRENNAN: Probably a year and a half.
NORTON: Okay. And you’re still living at the Fifth and A …
BRENNAN: The basement apartment.
BRENNAN: Had the first child there. Kathleen came [in] December.
NORTON: All right. December of what year?
NORTON: And this would be your daughter Kathleen.
BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.
BRENNAN: She slept in a cardboard box because I hadn’t gotten around to finish painting the crib. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: Did Louise go back to work after Kathleen was born?
BRENNAN: I don’t know that she did. I don’t really remember. She ultimately began doing teaching again.
NORTON: Which is what she’d been trained to do.
BRENNAN: Right. So, I don’t know that she went back to IMDA.
NORTON: Do you remember when and where she went to work teaching?
BRENNAN: She did stuff at NOVA, I remember.
NORTON: Northern Virginia Community College.
BRENNAN: Right. She did stuff at AU [American University] ultimately, for a good six years. They made sure no one got seven year and could claim anything about tenure.
NORTON: What did she teach?
BRENNAN: English.
NORTON: And this was at the college level?
BRENNAN: At the college level. It was the freshman introductory writing course. At NOVA she taught a course on autobiography, a course on mystery writing. I mean mystery writers. A couple of different sort of literature based writing classes which she enjoyed.
NORTON: Okay, all right. And, then, during this time, then, so, what was your next job after working for the …
BRENNAN: I worked for a firm, Lawrence Johnson and Associates. I was doing—a government contractor doing research stuff, a lot of it sort of—8A minority owned firm. So, in some ways they were looking at some of those issues, I remember. But mine was a legislative history of a couple of bills in Congress. And then, a project on what’s called Section 504, the rehab act that President Bush had passed and sort of Americans with Disabilities Act kind of stuff.
NORTON: And when you say the rehab act, what is that?
BRENNAN: Americans with Disabilities Act and sort of the …
NORTON: As it applied to rehabilitating or fixing up buildings or the …
BRENNAN: No, no, no. That particular thing was looking at what kind of reasonable accommodations people had come up with, as required under the ADA, for people with disabilities. If you could do the job with reasonable accommodation, then you were qualified. And, so, I think the point of it was to survey all the kinds of accommodations that had been made in our survey area and then that would be examples that you could show to other folks. Like, it’s not so hard as you think. Look at these people. They’ve all done these kind of —there was a blind diving coach, I remember, that we [laughs]—and, you know, if he can do it …
NORTON: Right, okay. He couldn’t be a diving judge but …
BRENNAN: That’s right. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: So. All right, so, how long did you work for them?
BRENNAN: Probably two years.
NORTON: Until when? What are we talking about now?
BRENNAN: I started the District, I think, ’79.
NORTON: Okay. And this would be with the Corporation Counsel’s office?
BRENNAN: It was, no, again another good—we’ve had the acronym world of DC, the contracting world of DC, and this is the commission world of DC. As part of the Home Rule Act, the Congress, which did not want the District to be the one in charge of revising its criminal laws because they thought DC would be too lenient and …
NORTON: {Laughs.] And that applies to this day, doesn’t it?
BRENNAN: Yes, it does. And [U. S. Senator] Strom Thurmond had just gotten mugged and he was not about to let the District be in charge of rewriting the criminal laws. So, they set up this DC Law Revision Commission. And a Hillite was the head of it, Jim McKay. Well, he was the executive director of it. There was a whole commission. But, by then, they’d done the criminal laws when I started and they were, like—another good thing about DC commissions is, all right, they’ve fulfilled their mission but they tell us, let’s keep going, there’s something else we should look at. And they decided to look at updating the civil laws of the District of Columbia. So, I had a few projects there. Probably four years or so.
NORTON: That you were there?
BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.
NORTON: Working there. And is that when you moved over to the Corporation Counsel?
BRENNAN: Yeah. I moved over to the Corporation Counsel in the major case section.
BRENNAN: Which was, mostly that was a lawsuit against the asbestos manufacturers, which a number of …
NORTON: And that would have been in the civil area?
BRENNAN: Yes. Right.
NORTON: Okay. And when are we talking about when you started with the Corporation Counsel’s office?
BRENNAN: Mmm, ’79 and ’80.
NORTON: Okay. And, just for the record, it’s now the Attorney General’s office, but …
BRENNAN: Right. Then it was the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which was the counsel for the municipal corporation which was the District of Columbia. And, in the District building, before it was renovated, after the Hanafi Muslims had come in and gone.
NORTON: Right. So, all right. And how about in your living arrangements? How long did you live at …
BRENNAN: I was still with Louise.
NORTON: [Laughs.] I didn’t mean that.
BRENNAN: [Laughs.] Oh, okay.
NORTON: Were you still in the basement apartment at Fifth and A?
NORTON: When did you move from there?
BRENNAN: Louise said she needed sunlight. So, we moved by—Kathleen was born. We moved to Eighth and Maryland into a one bedroom apartment at 813 Maryland. Two apartments in that building, I believe. Maybe three. First of all, it was an old store front and down a long corridor was our one—two bedroom. Our bedroom and then Kathleen’s bedroom. And that was the spot until 1980 when we had a second child coming.
BRENNAN: And when the guy upstairs did his roach bomb and all those roaches came down to our apartment, [laughs] it was another good reason to move out.
NORTON: Okay. Where’d you go?
BRENNAN: We bought a house at 12th and C NE. 1214 C.
BRENNAN: It was a house that needed some work on it. Not major rehab but those—yeah, I don’t think we had any contractors do work. I can remember doing the floors, renting from the rental place up at Minnesota Avenue.
NORTON: The floor sander.
BRENNAN: A floor sander and then polisher.
BRENNAN: I don’t know what else we had to do. Probably painting. A lot of painting. We ultimately added a small bay window area in the kitchen back there.
NORTON: Now, were you doing all this work after Beth was born or is that …
BRENNAN: Beth was born in September of ’80. Yeah, we’ve got good pictures of the kids in their pajamas on the stairs sanding down plaster walls and stuff. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: To heck to worrying about the plaster dust and all that stuff. So, all right. Great. So, all right. How long did you live there?
BRENNAN: Four years. We bought the house we’re in now in ’84.
NORTON: Okay. So, you were doing the work yourself the whole time or did you pretty much—
BRENNAN: No, that addition somebody else did, that bay window.
NORTON: Now, I’m talking about the C Street house.
NORTON: Oh, okay.
BRENNAN: The rear bay window that we put in we had a contractor do. But the painting and the—you know, we did the wallpapering of the dining room on C Street. There was one corner we called “divorce corner.” [Laughs.] Because wallpapering can get the tempers going.
NORTON: Ah, yes. So, you actually did your own wallpapering?
BRENNAN: We did our own wallpapering.
NORTON: Do you know, it’s interesting, Linda [Norton, interviewer’s wife] and I, we did almost all the work ourselves. But we hired out wallpapering, so maybe we were wise. [Both laugh.] Okay.
BRENNAN: Well, we gave up gender stereotypes. Louise was much better at measuring and putting it up. I became the go-fer and that’s how we got around that corner. [More laughter.]
NORTON: Okay. So in ’84, you moved into your current house, which was somewhat of a famous house back then on East Capitol Street.
BRENNAN: Yeah, and it was not far from that first basement apartment. It was just around the corner. So, we had walked past it at that time and it was easily identifiable because the old crone who lived there …
NORTON: That would be Mrs. Norton.
BRENNAN: Mrs. Norton. Yes, Randy, indeed. No relative, right?
NORTON: Not that I know of.
BRENNAN: She had been out front swearing like a sailor at anybody who went by [unintelligible]. [Laughs.] And she’d taken Larry Molumby and Patricia Molumby next door and he had—he says he couldn’t wait when he was renovating his house to get rid of these old screens that had been in, rusty screens that had been in his windows. He put them in the back alley to be picked up. Before he knew it, Mrs. Norton had grabbed them, in her good, thrifty, Depression era raised state of mind, and wired them to the front of her wrought iron fence in the front yard so, that people couldn’t reach over the fence to harvest the tomatoes she was growing in the front yard. But we found it at a yard sale. I went out …
NORTON: You found the house at a yard sale?
BRENNAN: At a yard sale.
NORTON: All right. How did that happen?
BRENNAN: Saturday we were going to be in charge of coffee hour snacks the next day at the Presbyterian church, the next Sunday. So, I went off, probably to Roland’s, to get a few doughnuts or whatever it was I got. As I drove past, coming back, I saw a lot of hubbub around 509 East Capitol. Young men in red t-shirts and what turned out to be their spouses in t-shirts and a big crowd milling around outside and inside. Mrs. Norton had passed some time ago and they were getting rid of the contents of the house. And, so, I went in and looked and I went up to the third floor. She’d been running it as a boarding house, so there were, like, egg poachers for ten eggs at a time. There was an old crank wringer, laundry wringer, because she had sheets for all the rooms. She had signs that said …
NORTON: Like a mangle or whatever.
BRENNAN: A mangler. Yeah. She had little cards floating around that said “A sink in every room” and “Beautyrest mattresses in every room”. But I got up to the third floor, which was a mess. The plaster had all fallen. On the floor she’d put down yellow rain slickers to protect that floor. And there were newspapers piled high. And this was 1984. But the newspapers piled high on the third floor, the top newspaper was dated 1962 and it said “Kennedy to send advisors to Laos.” So, I thought, ooh, she’s not been upstairs for a while. [Laughs.] But, we knew we needed to be looking for a bigger house and I scooted home and I told Louise, “Come back and we’ll tell them we’re interested in the bureau on the third floor, and you can look through the house as we come down.” And Louise said “It’s got good light, it’s got good light.”
NORTON: That was big for her. [Interviewee laughs.] Well, good for her. But you also had to have a certain imagination in a place like that.
BRENNAN: At another point in the future, we had the architect couple, the Capen-Weinsteins, take a look at the house. And Judith said, “There are many design opportunities here.” [Interviewer laughs.] And that’s a phrase we’ve used [both laugh] various times. “There are lots of design opportunities here.”
NORTON: Nice way to put it.
BRENNAN: But we got Jean Wye, another Hill person. I hope they got her interviewed before … Jean Wye came in with the general contractor once we’d gotten the house. It was a little—when I left that yard sale, the entryway and, therefore, exitway radiator had a tray on it and it was piled an inch high with real estate agent cards.
NORTON: And, how did you know, I mean, well, I guess you realized it was for sale since she’d died, but was there some sort of indication, you know, when you were there, that the house was for sale? Other than the real estate cards?
BRENNAN: I must have had a conversation with one of the —so, those people in red t-shirts were her four grandchildren. Four grandsons.
BRENNAN: And I must have somehow had contact with them and said let me know. And they said, well, they were going to get it appraised. And, so, I called. Every few weeks I would call and see …
NORTON: Call the grandsons.
BRENNAN: One of the grandsons. I can’t remember which. And they were all in the trades and I think at first they thought maybe they would redo it themselves. But, then, there was a cousin [laughing] who wasn’t in the trades and wasn’t anywhere around to do any help. And, in any event, they had decided they would just go ahead and sell it as it was. And we’d kept up with them and, so, we—I can remember in August we found out we would get it.
NORTON: Did—I mean, was there any competition for it or was that …
BRENNAN: I am unaware.
NORTON: Really? So, you were just—you sort of ingratiated yourself with the grandson and you were …
BRENNAN: I called pretty regularly. And I did think when they gave me the price—my dad taught me to do some negotiating. But I knew not to this time, that, if I get into a bidding—some contractor would come through and bid more on it. I was having a good conversation with these people. I should finish that conversation.
NORTON: All right. So, you didn’t argue about the price at all.
BRENNAN: I hate to have this in the permanent record, Randy, but that’s true. [Laughs.]
NORTON: All right. Okay.
BRENNAN: Though when we found termites, when the termite sniffing dog went into overdrive in the back ….
NORTON: Is this the dog that worked for an inspector of some sort? I see. Go ahead.
BRENNAN: Sam the Wonder Dog. I did negotiate a little bit for repairs in that regard.
BRENNAN: I maintained my honor that way.
NORTON: In other words, asked the sellers to do some of the termite repairs.
BRENNAN: Well, to give an abatement in the price.
NORTON: Okay, okay, okay. So, now were you able to move in right away or …
BRENNAN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It had not—no, no, no. I mean it had 40 watt bulbs throughout, very low amps in the electric. All these iron beds throughout it because it had been a boarding house. She had only been in it since the 1930s, but it had been a boarding house since 1917. Yeah, there was, you know, an old porch that we incorporated into the kitchen. So, there was lots of work to be done. Though we moved in as the newly lacquered floors were drying. I mean, we could only go two rooms in when we first began to move stuff in because the back half was still drying. But we couldn’t keep doing two mortgages for any longer.
NORTON: So, how long did it take for you to do just sort of the basic renovations that allow you to move in?
BRENNAN: Three months for sure, if not four.
NORTON: That’s pretty quick.
BRENNAN: Yeah. They did have to go pretty quick.
NORTON: All right. And, so, once you moved in, what …
BRENNAN: But, of course, you know, I mean, we did—we’re simple folk. We didn’t need to have it too fancy. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: Okay. Now, were you doing a lot of the work yourselves on this when you were fixing it up?
BRENNAN: We did a lot of work, which is different than doing a lot of the work. We did lots of painting. I can remember a big, you know, a big pole and rollers to do the ceilings, and things like that.
NORTON: The ceilings are really tall, aren’t they?
BRENNAN: Yeah, tall ceilings. That’s probably why I didn’t do it  until they were done with their other work. They had to replace—it was a mess. And, so, there was a lot of replacing floors in the back half because this is a house unlike many. Dudley Brown came through and told us, oh, the back half of the house, which was wooden, he said, “This is earlier than the front.” Normally people have added on to the front of their house, [not] in the back. He said, oh, no, this frame structure—look at the nails. These are 1860 to 1870 nails.
NORTON: Oh, wow.
BRENNAN: Okay, Dudley. And, then, they added the front. So, there was a lot of repairs to be done there. And the electrical work and the plumbing work. I mean, so, we had the contractors—this is through Jean Wye—do that.
NORTON: And Jean was your contractor the whole time?
BRENNAN: Yes. And, again, we did it with the budget we had too. So, that we lived with a subflooring that was painted for about ten years. The day we got the press and peel tiles to put on them was a big day.
NORTON: Press and peel tiles?
BRENNAN: Put the press and peel tiles on top of that plywood. Fancied up that dining room like you wouldn’t believe. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: And, so, when Jean did work on your house, you know, she would do it as you essentially had the money to pay her or …
BRENNAN: No, no. She did the big “get it ready to move in” work.
NORTON: Okay, okay.
BRENNAN: New roof in the back, new floor in the dining room, putting in appliances. Louise went off to Northwest somewhere and found a nice old farm sink before they were popular and a set of cabinets out of some house up there.
NORTON: Now, I’m going to ask you a little bit about Jean Wye, just because we, unfortunately, didn’t get her interviewed before she died. Because she was something of a neighborhood fixture herself.
NORTON: How did you, you know …
BRENNAN: Louise does what she calls playground research. On the playground, waiting for the kids to get out, you talk to the other folks that are there, and you get recommendations. It was crowd sourcing before the internet. It was playground research she said, and Jean came to us with that kind of a recommendation and was great. You know, I admit I didn’t have any social interaction with her. I just knew her for that and then seeing her throughout the years on the Hill. But the way we met her was as our contractor and she was great and she had a good crew. The Poole brothers from Poolesville, Maryland. And she knew more about what was needed than we did, really. And that’s helpful.
NORTON: All right. Well, let me ask you this because I know at one point when we were preparing for this you talked about that we should talk about your kids as sort of a source of bonding with your neighbors. What do you mean by that?
BRENNAN: Well, that started even in that basement apartment, when we had Kathleen and we had a baby that needed to be babysat. Because we were going to get to the Folger or enjoy the city that we’d come to for three to five years. And, so, that was the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op. And I bet you’ve had a lot of people talk about that in their interviews, but it was a co-operative. You traded hours of babysitting. There was a coordinator for each month. There were little pieces of scrip in one-half hour increments. Nice. We still have some that ought to be framed.
NORTON: I have some myself.
BRENNAN: Yeah. So, you would trade your babysitting and get scrip. And, then, when you went out, you could pay the parent who was—there was a group of parents together and at some point there were four different geographic divisions of people.
NORTON: It got big enough for that, yeah.
BRENNAN: It got big enough for that at some point. We still have one of those rosters of the people. And that was some of our dearest friends we met that way. And, then, you had the kids either in a playschool—I mean Beth still keeps up with folks that were in some of her co-op …
NORTON: Where did Kathleen and Beth go to playschool?
BRENNAN: There was one at the Lutheran Church [of the Reformation], I think, in the basement of the Lutheran Church.
BRENNAN: There were, also, you know, women who took kids basically into their basement and watched the kids during the day when Louise did go back doing some part time teaching. That’s how we got to know the Daniels [Steve and Maygene] because Eddie and Kathleen were overseen by Mennie Rowe somewhere on Ninth Street.
NORTON: And Mennie Rowe was just doing this as sort of her own little business. Yeah.
BRENNAN: Yeah. It was daycare. It was not informal daycare, it was just not a full daycare operation.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: There was one right across from Peabody School. [Lenore] Riegel ran it and it had a rather pretentious—Great Minds or Little Einsteins or some sort of name like that. Supertots!
NORTON: Supertots.
BRENNAN: Supertots. We didn’t go there but, anyway, that was another place. And, then, kindergarten at Peabody was a good place to meet parents.
NORTON: And did they go to Pre-K, too, or …
BRENNAN: Yeah. Pre-K, K. I can’t remember the name of those teachers now, but they were much loved. I mean, Lois Kauffman was a kindergarten teacher. We never had her.
NORTON: Right. Did you have Debbie Murphy?
BRENNAN: Debbie Murphy was great. So, that’s how the kids helped us get to know the parents and get involved with things at schools—the Peabody race. Chris and Skipper Nelson, I think, were in charge of the first of the Peabody races.
NORTON: Which is the Capitol Hill Classic, what has now become the Capitol Hill Classic. Yes.
BRENNAN: I think the first one was to raise money for the playground.
NORTON: I think that’s right.
BRENNAN: And Val Lewton was the first male winner. Now, isn’t that terrible that I don’t know who the first female—I don’t know that I was involved in the first one. I can’t remember that.
NORTON: But you remember that Val Lewton was the first winner. That’s interesting. I mean, Val, of course, was a fairly well-known artist and husband, at that time, of Jean Kling Lewton and was also involved in the theater and that sort of thing.
BRENNAN: And their son has been an actor here.
NORTON: Yes, yeah.
NORTON: Ian, that’s right.
BRENNAN: No, that’s—Ian is …
NORTON: No, no. It’s Ian LeValley.
BRENNAN: Right. That’s Raye’s son. But, anyway.
BRENNAN: We digress.
NORTON: Yes, we do.
BRENNAN: We knew we would. [Both laugh]
NORTON: Yes. All right. So, you were involved in the babysitting co-op. What? Right off the bat?
BRENNAN: Yeah, pretty soon. I mean—kids these days tend to not go out for a long—they seem to be very nervous about having another adult watch their kids.
NORTON: When you say “kids these days”, you mean the young generation of adults.
BRENNAN: Of parents, yes.
NORTON: Yes, okay.
BRENNAN: Whereas we were pretty concern … You know, I think both sets of—my parents and Louise’s parents were both sort of like, by six weeks, you should get out of the house, you know, and take a break. So, we got into the babysitting co-op pretty early. And that, again, became a good way to meet other parents and see something other than a basement apartment. [Laughs.]
NORTON: And just sort of talk about sort of the logistics of the babysitting co-op. You talked about it a little bit but you would basically, if you needed to go out, you’d call the secretary, right?
BRENNAN: There were nine pages of by-laws. Clearly there’s lots of lawyers that live on the Hill and do legislative drafting. It was a sort of get paid in the scrip for every hour you went, except that Saturdays after midnight, Fridays after 11:00, and holidays was double time. So, it was good to take some of those. There was a secretary that was revolving every month. And that secretary was busy enough filling things that they probably couldn’t do babysitting jobs or didn’t have to. But you got 20 hours for being the secretary for the month.
NORTON: But it was a harder job back then because there were no answering machines.
BRENNAN: That’s true.
NORTON: Or just starting answering machines.
BRENNAN: That’s true.
NORTON: There was no email or no nothings.
BRENNAN: Right, yeah. It was one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingies. You were calling people on the phone. And day[time] sits were at the sitter’s place, night sits were at the kid’s place. And, so, you got to know some people just casually through that. But what you knew is you had other parents there watching your kid. You were not leaving your precious little bambino with a teenager at that point. You were leaving it with a presumably somewhat experienced parent, if they were in the babysitting co-op. They had kids, too.
NORTON: And that was basically all the qualifications you needed—in the babysitting co-op. [Both laugh.]
BRENNAN: That’s true, that’s true.
NORTON: It seemed to work pretty well.
BRENNAN: It did fine.
BRENNAN: I think it’s still going.
NORTON: You do? Why do you say that? Because I don’t think it is.
BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, a couple of years ago it was still going. It had slimmed down to a smaller group. It would be interesting to find out whether it did.
NORTON: I have tried and I have tried to find out whether it is still going and as far as I know it is not, but that’s …
BRENNAN: Uh-huh, well …
NORTON: I’m not the interviewee but—and there was an article in the Hill Rag in the, like, 2007 or something like that. But that’s now a little bit more than a few years ago and it had slimmed down at that point, but …
BRENNAN: So, it, yeah, it might. I will say if you do a Google search now …
NORTON: Oh, yes.
BRENNAN: You come up with that famous—somebody did an economics paper about the …
NORTON: Before either of us were members of the babysitting co-op, but I think we were all, you know, fat, dumb and happy ignorant about it. It was about the babysitting co-op as the model for the monetary policy.
BRENNAN: Yes, right. [Laughs]
NORTON: And it has become famous, by the way. The great Capitol Hill babysitting co-op problem, or whatever it is. And it is, apparently, you know …
BRENNAN: Probably Janet Yellen [U. S. Secretary of the Treasury] has read it. [Laughs]
NORTON: I bet she has. Because what was his name—Paul Krugman, I think, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. He says he learned everything he knew about monetary policy from reading this article that two members had written early on, you know, back in the 70s. So. In any event, that’s neither here nor there.
BRENNAN: Now CHAW [Capitol Hill Arts Workshop] was another way the kids led me in—well, that’s not quite true. Louise and I went to CHAW on our own. We brought Kathleen in her little child seat that you could sort of …
NORTON: Right. Prop them up in.
BRENNAN: Prop them up in, to go take tap dancing lessons.
NORTON: So, what got the two of you involved in the Arts Workshop?
BRENNAN: Tap dancing lessons. We’re coming to the city and we want to do something fun. There was a fascination among many people then to look at the old Astaire-Rogers movies of the 30s. Back then the Circle Theater had a little booklet of tickets. You could get ten admissions for ten bucks to the Circle Theater down there in Foggy Bottom. And, so, I can remember seeing Flying Down to Rio and a number of those. And Louise and I, under Sally Crowell, took tap dancing lessons with Kathleen sleeping in the corner there at the Presbyterian Church annex.
NORTON: Okay. So, when would that have been, roughly?
BRENNAN: If we got here in ’77, Kathleen was born in December, so, that was probably September ’78, ’79.
NORTON: Okay. And how did you hear about the Arts Workshop? How did you hear …
BRENNAN: I don’t know.
BRENNAN: I don’t know. Same way I met Louise. I don’t know.
NORTON: But that was before they had moved over to the French School.
BRENNAN: Oh, no, we worked hard in cleaning up the French School. We did things there. I’m trying to remember if we did classes anywhere else. I don’t remember.
BRENNAN: I remember being in the annex and doing the shuffle-step, step, shuffle-tap-step, shuffle-tap-step with …
NORTON: Shuffle-ball-step?
BRENNAN: Shuffle-ball-step.
NORTON:—ball chain, ball-change. [Both laugh.]
BRENNAN: Who knows? Maybe we were in the same class. I can’t remember anybody in that class. But it was Sally and, then, Ann Johnson who taught it. And what else did we do with CHAW then? We took a ballroom dancing class, but that was by the time they were in the B. B. French School.
NORTON: Okay. So, you said you were involved in the renovation of the French School, which is, you know, …
BRENNAN: Where it is now.
NORTON: Yeah. And that would have been what?
NORTON: Well, even earlier than that, I think. So, you know, early 80s.
NORTON: Jim Mayo?
BRENNAN: Jim Mayo.
BRENNAN: Kind of heading that up, he and Sally. A lot of plaster to be moved.
NORTON: So, how did you get sucked into doing, you know, the work, the sweat equity?
BRENNAN: No, there was no getting sucked into it. I mean, you—the Workshop made you part of the team. That was part of the ethos of the place really, I think. And it was just exciting to see it get the building and, therefore, have to fix it up. And Sally was a great corrall-er of people. I mean, she would—in that her arms were open and she would draw you in. [Interviewer laughs] And, with a “Come on. It’s going to be fun.” And you believed it. I guess I’d done a show with them. The first show I did with them was Our Town, interestingly enough. But that’s what attracted me to it. At the old Market Five [later called the North Hall of the Eastern Market]. Back then it had a stage.
BRENNAN: Backing up towards the …
NORTON: The rest of the Market.
BRENNAN: The rest of the Market. There was a stage back there.
NORTON: Yeah. They had a number of shows there. So, yeah.
BRENNAN: Well, Linda did her—I guess the stage probably was there. Linda did the Thornton Wilder play …
NORTON: Right. The Skin of our Teeth.
BRENNAN: Skin of our Teeth.
NORTON: Which you were sure she was in, but she was not. [Laughs]
BRENNAN: Okay. You’re right.
NORTON: No, you’re not going to believe me but …
BRENNAN: Actually, though, you proved it to me before. You showed me the program.
NORTON: [Laughing] Okay. All right. So, do you remember when you were first involved in Our Town?
BRENNAN: It was pretty early on. I just was …
NORTON: Was it before they moved over to the French School or …
BRENNAN: I believe so. Yeah, because they did a lot of shows, they did a lot of those revues at the Christ Church. But that …
NORTON: Yeah, but that was after the, you know, French School, too, so. Well, I’m just, anyway, all right, well, how did you get involved? How did …
BRENNAN: I’m sure it was in the Hill Rag or there were posters up. People did a lot more posters around the neighborhood then, to announce things. And, if they were having auditions, I guess I …
NORTON: And what made you think …
BRENNAN: I had done community theater. Well, I had done stuff in college and I had done stuff in high school. So, I wasn’t making a big leap. And I had about three lines in Our Town. I mean, I was Sam visiting the graveyard, so, it was …
NORTON: So, you’re in the last act there.
BRENNAN: Yeah. That’s right. I didn’t need to come early for rehearsals. [Both laugh]
NORTON: All right. And, so, after that, how did you get, you know—well, let’s just keep talking about the Arts Workshop. So, you were in that show fairly early on and you’re taking tap dancing classes. Then, what do you remember?
BRENNAN: Did the kids start some classes? I don’t know. They certainly did some of the plays. They would have been at least six or seven before they did that. I think Oliver! might have been the first show. King and I, Oliver! were shows that we did. But I did those with my daughters, too. They were the kids in those shows.
NORTON: Right. Okay. So, the first musical you remember was Oliver!?
NORTON: Okay. Okay. And both …
BRENNAN: Then, of course, the orphans were co-ed by then, you know.
NORTON: Well …
BRENNAN: No, they weren’t. They weren’t.
NORTON: They were not.
BRENNAN: They were not.
NORTON: They were all little girls. But, in Oliver! the orphans were co-ed. I think. I may be wrong. So, how did you get involved in Oliver!?
BRENNAN: I was there. You know. [Both laugh] I mean, it was just what CHAW was doing and I was glad to get … You know, I am not a singer. I was in a lot of those musicals but—if you remember Parker asking us to give a, you and I sitting next to each other in one of those, in Annie, he said give me an E and we all we did was say EEEE. [Both laugh] But I could …
NORTON: And this would be Parker Jayne …
BRENNAN: Parker Jayne.
NORTON: … just so we’re clear. Yes, okay.
BRENNAN: So, I was not a singer sufficient to have ever gotten a singing role, but I could be a part of a good chorus anytime.
NORTON: Okay, okay. And, as it turned out, an awful lot of the neighborhood kids ended up in those musicals.
BRENNAN: Because the schools didn’t have quite the afterschool programs or the art programs that we’ve all seen were important to have and now it’s disappeared a little bit more. But, then, CHAW was a place that all three schools that were on the Hill, the public schools, St. Peter’s, and the [Capitol Hill] Day School, kids all came afterwards to CHAW when there were—there weren’t as many two working parent families back then, but still the kids had activities at CHAW, at the B. B. French School. And a lot of what they were doing is these shows. Sally was smart enough to make sure that the kids’ afterschool activities sort of fed into what was happening, the singing and dancing that was going to happen in the plays. And, then, you needed the adults for it too, which is our tap dancing classes could lead us into those. I don’t know that there was a lot of tap dancing in either Oliver! or Annie, but, anyway, it sort of led us all into the musicals.
NORTON: You weren’t involved in Damn Yankees though.
NORTON: That did involve a lot of tap dancing.
BRENNAN: Yeah. I didn’t do Damn Yankees or South Pacific. So, you had different times in your career when you couldn’t be doing a lot of night rehearsals or whatever it was, you know.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: Or, if by then we had three kids, yeah, I did have a sort of a timeout from the CHAW musicals.
NORTON: That’s right. When was Thomas born?
BRENNAN: ’86. So, after we moved into the East Capitol house.
NORTON: Okay, okay. Well, let’s explore CHAW a little bit more. Early on, you were in shows. Your kids were in shows, right? They had children’s theater as well.
BRENNAN: Right. They did Jackson’s famous starring role in Babes in Toyland.
NORTON: And that would be my son Jackson. [Laughs]
BRENNAN: Yes, indeed. And they did …
NORTON: And you might as well tell the story about why you remember Jackson as having a starring role in Babes in Toyland.
BRENNAN: [Laughs] Because he and his female companion had to run through the woods.
NORTON: Which was Ellen Pfeiffer.
BRENNAN: Oh, Ellen Pfeiffer, indeed. All those Pfeiffers stayed very busy with it. The storyline had them running away from someone and spending a night in the woods. And she had already fallen for our hero, Jackson, Ellen’s character had. And, so, after he had made the fire and gotten them a place to lay down, she said “Good night”, whatever his character was. Ellen’s character said “Good night”, so and so. “I love you.” And he, in the most deadpan way [Laughing], said “Good night. Now go to sleep, Mary. I love you.” [Both laugh] You probably remember better than I now at that point. “I love you, too, Mary. Now go to sleep. I love you, too, Mary. Now go to sleep” is a phrase my family uses to this day.
NORTON: All right. Okay. And there were an awful lot of families on the Hill that, you know, somehow got involved with both the kids’ shows and the adult shows.
BRENNAN: Because it was a good use. (A) If you were going to spend four hours on a Saturday afternoon in a rehearsal or even two hours, sometimes domestic tranquility required that you not be leaving all the child care to someone else. And it was a good way to be doing some—Soccer on the Hill was not where I was going to be helpful often. And, so, it was a good activity to do together.
NORTON: Okay. And Sally seemed to have a gift for putting enough kids in there so that you got a good audience.
BRENNAN: Right. Yeah. This is why you had three—I’d love to know when she decided to have three casts of kids for Annie. And was it simply numbers? She had so many kids in the programs that that would be the way to do it. Or whether she knew it would mean there would be three sets of grandparents who would be coming to see the show. [Laughs.]
NORTON: All right. Well, let’s talk about Annie because you were big in Annie, I was big in Annie. We all had–—Annie was …
BRENNAN: You were F.D.R. [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], weren’t you?
NORTON: I was.
BRENNAN: A happy birthday.
NORTON: Well, happy birthday to F. D. R. …
NORTON: … but not to me. Yes, but, in any event, yeah, no, that was—so there must have been 80 or 90 kids in that almost anyway.
BRENNAN: If you think of the orphans, maybe there were 15 orphans at a time.
BRENNAN: That would be 45.
NORTON: Well, then, I’m exaggerating. So.
BRENNAN: But, yeah. And I was Drake the butler.
NORTON: Yes, you were.
BRENNAN: Again, not particularly a singing role. [Singing] “We’d like to thank you Herbert Hoover, for showing us the way.”
NORTON: That’s right. Well, all of us got to be in Hooverville, you know.
BRENNAN: Right, right.
NORTON: So, you know, that was—yes. So, yeah, okay. And both Kathleen and Beth were in it. Was Thomas in it or would that have been …
BRENNAN: No, Thomas never did any of those shows.
BRENNAN: He was coming up. He was too young.
BRENNAN: But you get involved in building the sets, too, and painting the sets. Mary Procter and Gerry Connolly and Jim Mayo building all the sets.
NORTON: And this was over at Hine.
BRENNAN: At Hine, yeah.
NORTON: Hine Junior High School, yeah. Which is now no longer there, so.
BRENNAN: No, it’s, yeah, The Residences.
NORTON: Yes, The Residences [at Eastern Market].
BRENNAN: What I like about theater and this was [unintelligible], besides being [fun], it’s teamwork. You know, you have a team that is making this thing go. I’m a helper. I like to help people. I was a helper. And I’m a kibitzer, you know. So, I can sort of riff off whatever the people are doing and it’s just a good melding, it’s a good team building, you know, that I always enjoy.
NORTON: And Sally was quite the leader.
BRENNAN: She was. Yes, she was. She was a herder of cats, too, and she was so patient with—she knew how to let the flow go, too. I mean, she molded those shows a great deal. She had Phil de Sellem.
BRENNAN: And Cora Lee Khambatta.
BRENNAN: Musical directors. But she knew the talent she was working with [laughs] and she was glad, really happy, to polish us up and let us shine a little bit, you know.
NORTON: And we all ended up being a lot better than we thought we would.
BRENNAN: That’s true, that’s true.
NORTON: So. All right. You weren’t in South Pacific.
NORTON: You were in Mame.
NORTON: You weren’t?
NORTON: Not in Mame. All right. How about, you were in The King and I though, right?
BRENNAN: The King and I.
NORTON: Which was before Annie.
BRENNAN: Yeah, yeah.
NORTON: What part did you have in The King and I?
BRENNAN: The Kralahome, some sort of advisor to the king. [They discuss spelling; transcriber found the correct word.]
BRENNAN: Besides [unintelligible], I don’t know if there were other big scenes that I would be in, you know. Crowd scenes. But what I remember is I had just started at the Office of the Corporation Counsel, having moved from the [Law Revision] Commission and then moving into a litigation phase, which was a little new to me. And I missed either the dress rehearsal or the opening night because there was a big brief due. And no one had told me about a motion for extension of time. [Laughs] Until my supervisor was working hard with me on this thing, on this motion for summary judgment, and I kept watching my clock and finally said something about it. I think he said, “Oh, my god, [knocking noise] motion for extension of time.” And I got there late, but Sally had already gone on in my place for the first act or whatever it was. I still feel bad. But she probably did a great job.
NORTON: Well, and that was, of course, the show that Sally tried to make all of these Capitol Hill residents look like they were Siamese or Thai, you know, which was sort of interesting.
BRENNAN: To Thai one on, yeah.
BRENNAN: Yeah, yeah. So, people don’t really understand, I think, how not only bonding those musicals were in making friends that lasted a long time but giving memories. Mary Weirich singing her song …
NORTON: In The King and I.
BRENNAN: In The King and I. They were great moments for us. Adele [Robey] crying out in Oliver!, you know, “Naan-cy”, when she was killed. Or Leo singing the Bill Sykes numbers, you know.
NORTON: Leo Surla.
BRENNAN: Leo Surla.
NORTON: Right. He was [Bill Sykes, in Oliver] …
BRENNAN: He then became Daddy Warbucks in Annie.
NORTON: Right, he did. And the king in The King and I.
BRENNAN: And the king in The King and I.
NORTON: His two head-shaving roles.
BRENNAN: “Some Enchanted Evening”, you know. So, they were—well, it was a team but it was a team that then has continued on with a strong sort of social network for all those years. You and I are going out on Friday night with people who were very important in all those musicals.
NORTON: Right. All right. Stage shows, non-musicals other than—we’ve talked about Our Town. You were also in what, Plaza Suite?
BRENNAN: Plaza Suite, with Mary Weirich.
NORTON: Okay. And that was the one-act play thing that DC or something. And that they divided up the acts into one-acts.
BRENNAN: So, it was another example of Sally taking something and dividing it by three. Annie had three things of orphans. I’d forgotten about that. DC Department of Recreation had a one-act play festival. I don’t think it’s still going. It was a great thing and ought to be revived. She took the Neil Simon Plaza Suite, which I just read that Sarah Jessica Parker and [Matthew] Broderick are in London now doing it. And I think that the way it’s staged often is that the same couple moves through each of the three separate acts showing three different couples at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Sally cast three different couples to do each act and then took each act to the one-act play festival. I’d forgotten that part of it. And Linda, of course, was with Gerry Connolly in one of the acts.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: They were the bickering, divorcing couple.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: Mary Weirich and I were the old high school flames and I had become a lecherous Hollywood producer and she was a suburban housewife with stars in her eyes about what might have been. And I had a glint in my eye about what might be in this hotel room. And I went up on my lines and that was the longest 30 seconds of my life. And Mary Weirich whispered the line to me or whatever, got me back on track, and …
NORTON: When you say you went up, you just blanked on them, right?
BRENNAN: I blanked on one line. As they say, it was 30 seconds.
NORTON: It probably wasn’t even 30 seconds. It probably just seemed like it to you.
BRENNAN: Yeah, yeah.
NORTON: So. Oh, gosh, oh, gosh. All right. What other shows were you in?
BRENNAN: The Butler Did It.
NORTON: Yes, The Butler Did It.
BRENNAN: That really might have been it. I’m not sure …
NORTON: Were you involved much in sort of the transition after Sally moved away and into the Theater Alliance sort of thing?
BRENNAN: I don’t think I was on the board then, as Sally left. I came on the board after Sally had left.
NORTON: The board of the Arts Workshop?
BRENNAN: The board of the Arts Workshop.
BRENNAN: I remember her going. I don’t remember who was the immediate successor to her.
NORTON: It’s easy to remember Sally. It’s harder to remember the folks that were the executive director afterward.
BRENNAN: Elizabeth Gill had a good run.
NORTON: Yes. She did.
BRENNAN: But she was not the immediate one after her. There was one fellow who had troubles and never lived on the Hill. So, you don’t need to go researching who that might have been. Then there came people after Sally who certainly had a great impact as executive directors at CHAW. But, yeah, I can’t remember. It was a hard transition.
NORTON: And it was hard in the theater part, too. Because Sally was such a force in the theater.
BRENNAN: That’s true. Paul Douglas, when he got found, Paul Douglas was …
NORTON: This is Paul Douglas Michnewicz.
BRENNAN: Yeah, Michnewicz.
NORTON: Michnewicz.
BRENNAN: Yeah. McNugget, as the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Branden Jenkin—three names. Branden Jenkins. Okay, anyway. A CHAW kid whose gotten a Pulitzer out of it, which I’m … He’s got a play on Broadway now. I’m sorry I’m blanking on his name. [Branden Jacobs-Jenkins]
NORTON: Anyway, he called Paul Doug …
BRENNAN: He called him Mr. McNugget. Or maybe Paul said, yeah, everybody can call me that. I can’t remember. Ana Gasteyer is a CHAW kid, too.
NORTON: Yes. All right. All right. Do you remember how The Butler Did It came to be?
BRENNAN: My preface to that would be …
NORTON: And The Butler Did It would have been—and let’s just see. I actually wrote down all my shows here. Let’s see.
BRENNAN: I can do a little checking on that.
NORTON: All right. Was in April of 2002.
BRENNAN: We were getting old. [Laughs]
NORTON: Yes, we were. Yes, we were.
BRENNAN: Well, here’s what I remember. CHAW, it is a little engine that could, that has risen and fallen in financial strength. I haven’t kept up with it for the last 15 years other than making my contributions. So, I’m not talking about anything immediate right now. But, during one of the times of some financial stress, the responsibility became everyone—each element, the art end of it, the music end of it, the theater end of it, had to make their own budget. Probably they were doing grants to do all of that. But that’s how the Theater Alliance came off, just like the Art League went off.
NORTON: And, also, the [Capitol Hill] Chorale went off, too.
BRENNAN: The Chorale. Did the Chorale come from [CHAW]…
BRENNAN: Okay. And they brought in the film series, if you remember that. And so, Theater Alliance began doing some—I don’t think at first it was called Theater Alliance. It was just the theater productions of CHAW.
BRENNAN: When it did become the Theater Alliance, my recollection is that there was both an aim to get higher level of production values. Which is what then went on to become the professional stage company that is now Theater Alliance.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: But then at some point, some perceptive woman thought that it would be good to get back to one that made money because people came to see their friends and neighbors in a play.
NORTON: And, plus, she liked the idea of community theater and …
BRENNAN: Right. And I think her name was Linda something or other.
NORTON: Yes, it was.
BRENNAN: It was. And we love her still.
BRENNAN: Linda Norton. And, so, she had been on the deciding end of Theater Alliance then, which I still think was connected to CHAW.
NORTON: I think it was at that point, yeah.
BRENNAN: They had some leadership …
NORTON: They had not split it off, yeah.
BRENNAN: They were all still children of CHAW, not yet launched into their independent adulthood. So, she did that show and I went for an audition. The Butler Did It was a show within a show. So that it was a play about people putting on a play.
NORTON: And not real high drama.
BRENNAN: No. It was high farce. My milieu is farce. [Both laugh]
NORTON: I’ve always said I think that the people that wrote it wrote it on a bet after a drunken evening …
BRENNAN: I think it was a father-son.
NORTON: I think it was … on the back of an envelope or something like that.
BRENNAN: And I’ve never known if the Peter Marks was the one who then went on to be a theater critic Peter Marks.
NORTON: That’s a good question.
BRENNAN: But, so, that was 2002, so, in fact, I was not the young kid coming to DC after law school then. I can remember trying to learn all those lines and to keep straight when I was …
NORTON: And you had a lot of lines.
BRENNAN: I had a lot of lines. And by then we did have Walkmen and I—one of the young kids, who was a good actor, one of the young fellows, said, oh, he had taped the whole thing and then he just listened to it and he left a blank for his line. And he would do his line. You know, he had the tapes that had all the lines on it. And then he had a tape that pauses where he was supposed to say his line. Well, I took that up and I walked from our house down to the District building, so, down to 13th and Penn, with my Walkman and doing my lines before people were talking aloud when they were walking as much as they are nowadays. People would look at me as I was going down and gesticulating [Both laugh], practicing my lines going down Capitol Hill for The Butler Did It. You may remember there was a series of not purloined letters but a series of secret letters that came out amongst the cast on that very farcical show, had a rather farcical behind the scenes …
NORTON: I still have them.
BRENNAN: Do you? Yeah. [Interviewer laughs] They were funny. I would love to see them. After this, I would love to see them again.
NORTON: Well, I have to find them. I’ve got them somewhere.
BRENNAN: Nice satires. And Linda’s claim came true. I mean, it was a good moneymaker for the fledgling Theater Alliance.
NORTON: Right. And, as I recall, she was happy to sort of point out to the serious theater people that they had made more money on this farce than community theater [often made] …
BRENNAN: Which helped let them to go on to become the very strong, high production value place they are.
NORTON: All right.
BRENNAN: Helen Hayes [award] winning.
NORTON: You were on the board at CHAW, right?
NORTON: And what other sort of administrative stuff did you do for them? I’m just trying to say, you know, other activities, other CHAW activities.
BRENNAN: Well, certainly we were a Revelry house twice. So, the Procter-Matuszeskis came up with another fun but fund raising—but, you know, when you think about all the hours and hours of work that went into the plays, that went into Revelry, Christmas Revelry, while they might have raised money, one would hate to think what the hourly wage that the people who planned and put them on got. But, in helping with getting the French School cleaned out, I don’t think before the board I had particularly administrative duties.
NORTON: There were galas and stuff. Were you involved in those?
BRENNAN: Yeah. Planning those. At the Botanical Gardens for a long time. I’d love to have something down there again. At least twice they did a river, on the Potomac River …
NORTON: One of those cruises—
BRENNAN: Yeah. Louise hated that. She said, you know, if I get bored, I can’t go home. I’ve got to swim for the shore before [Laughs.]
NORTON: That’s true. You can’t escape.
BRENNAN: You can’t escape.
NORTON: Yeah, no. That’s true, the Arts Workshop, at least back in the day, were always looking for ways to raise money. But they were doing it in these classy ways, you know.
BRENNAN: But I guess the other ways that you would support what CHAW was doing is, if you remember, Eastern Market Days.
NORTON: Oh, yes.
BRENNAN: And Eastern Market Days—I can’t remember. It was even before CHAMPS [Capitol Hill Area Merchants and Professionals]. It was even before Main Street.
NORTON: It was and it was in support of the …
BRENNAN: Oh, Friendship House.
NORTON: Friendship House, yeah.
BRENNAN: In support of Friendship House. And, so, it was the big festival and many of the other organizations—we would go. Steve Johnson would put his gymnasts on. We would probably have a sign-up sheet for classes there. So, I would sit at the table and take names. CHAW always had a presence at that to let people know what we were doing and for us to be supporting, making Market Day a fun event. You know. I remember a hundred violins showing up probably for a Revelry sometime but there was a presentation by the children’s—musical students—and things at Eastern Market Days.
NORTON: Oh, they always had something …
NORTON: … they would do. And I think one time in Oliver!, I think Linda and Walter Graham had to do one little scene as the Sowerberries. From Oliver! So, in any event, yes. Okay.
BRENNAN: [Telephone sounds.] I will turn it off. Again.
NORTON: All right. We’re having a little gap here while … All right. Well, let’s talk about the Revelry because that was a lot of fun. That was a big deal for several years.
BRENNAN: I’ll bet it went for ten years.
NORTON: I think it was longer than that. I think it was—do you remember that it started off being called the Revels?
BRENNAN: I do. Until we got sued.
BRENNAN: The Revels in Boston.
BRENNAN: Or was it—yeah, it was the Boston Revels.
NORTON: It was the Boston Revels.
BRENNAN: Though I think there is a Washington Revels.
NORTON: I know, which is interesting. But I think they may be connected with the Boston Revels.
BRENNAN: Right. They were the ones that probably had the rights to use the name of The Revels. And we didn’t call ourselves the Washington Revels. It was maybe …
NORTON: The CHAW’s Christmas Revels.
BRENNAN: Whatever it was. We weren’t sued. We got the threatening letter.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: And we took it seriously. But it was, you know, it’s two letters that we added to it and went on for a successful decade.
NORTON: Now, you say you did two Revelry houses?
BRENNAN: Same house. The same theme. One we did “To Grandmother’s House We Go”. And one we did “Annie’s Orphanage”. And since our house was never a glamour house, we played to being an orphanage and to grandma’s unfinished up house. And when it was “Annie’s Orphanage,” I think the first one, Linda did the decorations for and had the pictures for.
NORTON: And that was in the Washington Post. There was an article in the Washington Post.
BRENNAN: It was just gingerbread cookies and, so, they did gingerbread making at the house. To set the stage, those engines of creativity, Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski, ended up telling you what to do; [they] had come up with this idea of having at a variety of houses, not a house tour, not a garden tour, but an entertainment tour and a decorations tour. And at Christmas time.
NORTON: And it was a very CHAW kind of thing because it had the music and the entertainment.
BRENNAN: And each house had a theme and the entertainment and the decorations were for that theme. I can remember there was a French chanteuse one someplace and there was Vienna fin de siècle another year at some other house. So, Mary and Bill would have to find …
NORTON: Wouldn’t it be about a half dozen houses each time, right? Or six or eight, yeah.
BRENNAN: Six to eight houses with a series of entertainment. One of them, the World War II singing girls, the Andrews Sisters, is what became the Jaynettes ultimately, that was done at Libby Gitenstein’s house. It was a sort of “Home for the Holidays” or a Christmas remembered kind of thing with a World War II theme to it. Which is why the Andrews Sisters could play. Ours was “To Grandmother’s House We Go” and sort of homespun gingham and making cranberry and popcorn threads for the Christmas tree. And, so, people who came in could look around at the decorations, could participate in an activity, and we probably had some sort of music then. I can’t remember what it was. For “Annie” when it was little…
NORTON: The orphanage.
BRENNAN: The orphanage. It had been five years or eight years since the show of Annie. We gathered some of those kids back and had them—by then we had an upright piano in our house and our kids were taking piano lessons—but used that and people could come around and have a sing-along to the Annie stuff. And we had a fire, like a bum’s fire in a trash can out in the back and people could do marshmallows over that and stuff.
NORTON: The Hooverville look.
BRENNAN: A Hooverville look to it. Right, right. That piano, by the way—I just want the world to know that our piano then is the one that Joel and Pearl Bailes took. God.
NORTON: It’s their rolling piano?
BRENNAN: It’s their rolling—Rollo the rolling piano, that has had an—it’s kind of like Black Beauty who had had several sort of careers through the way. That piano went from being for our kids and for the Revelry, and it’s had a much more public life as the rolling piano to go there with the Capitol Hillbillies playing blues.
NORTON: Right. And watching Joel roll it down the street … [Both laugh.] All right. Any other shows that come to mind that you were in? Or any other CHAW activities before I shift gears here?
BRENNAN: Yeah, no. What I would say—I alluded a little bit to sort of the ups and downs. I remember being on the board and one of the—somewhere I’ve got a CHAW’s financial recovery plan kind of thing. You know, CHAW has been a very strong contributor to the community and a very strong asset to the community. But it, like too many arts organizations, it has to keep the fires going and, so it has kept going all that time. But there were ups and downs with all that finances and worrying about that and worrying about the building were recurring themes.
NORTON: Okay. All right. Let me talk to you about some of the other activities you’ve been involved in. You were involved with the Cluster [Capitol Hill Cluster Schools], or at least when it was Peabody.
NORTON: So, how long did your kids go to Peabody? Or which of your kids went to Peabody?
BRENNAN: Well, Kathleen and Beth both went. When Kathleen started, it went through fourth grade and I think she went—no, probably switched. Because she went off to Watkins probably for fourth grade. And, so, they started at Pre-K/K [Prekindergarten/Kindergarten] and then made the switch to Watkins. So …
NORTON: Okay. And, did both of them, both Beth and …
BRENNAN: Both of them. Yes.
NORTON: How about Thomas? Did Thomas go to …
BRENNAN: No. Thomas didn’t. By then, Kathleen had gone off the Hill to Hardy School. Beth had begun her hop, skip, and a jump through Watkins to St. Peter’s to the [Capitol Hill] Day School. So, Thomas started at the Day School.
NORTON: Okay, okay. And you were involved with those various schools. Somebody told me to be sure to ask you about being the emcee at, for example, the Day School auction. You tended to be an emcee at lots of different events like that.
BRENNAN: I was the shy boy when I was young. [Both laugh.] But I guess I can do schtick pretty well, I guess. Yeah. So, through Peabody I got involved with the race and Parker was the captain and I was a lieutenant one year. And, then, I became the captain. And I guess as his lieutenant had to get up on the back of the police car when it rained.
NORTON: This is in Parker’s year, the year before you were the head guy.
BRENNAN: I think it was the fifth one.
BRENNAN: The fifth one.
NORTON: What do you remember about that?
BRENNAN: Dan Balz putting flour out at 5:00 a.m., like baking flour to sort of mark out the route and then along came this drizzly rain that was washing it away. And the police not showing up in time, so that we could not start the race as planned. And there were all these runners, like a herd of horses, wild horses, trying to keep their bodies moving because they had done their warmups and they were ready to go. And Parker has got great wisdom, good manager. He said, well, there’s always a go-no go decision, so, we’re going to have to make the go—and we decided we would go, rather than cancel because of the rain and cancel because the police had not shown up yet on time. Back when they did it for free. And I can see why they might have been late.
NORTON: They did it for free except they all got t-shirts.
BRENNAN: Maybe so, yeah. I don’t remember. [Interviewer laughs.] Still, not worth getting up early for. But I can remember having to get up on the back of a car, so maybe it wasn’t a police car, and hold the crowd at bay until we could say get started. And, then, I did it the next year. And that’s when I over-ordered the t-shirts because Dale Denton, who was the biggest sponsor of it, had a very particular color.
NORTON: This would be Dale Denton Real Estate that—
BRENNAN: Dale Denton Real Estate. But Dale Denton himself had picked the color and you could only order in a certain, because it was so specialized. In any event, I had …
NORTON: It was kind of a funny blue, wasn’t it? Or was it another color?
BRENNAN: Yeah. I can’t remember if it was the teal or the raspberry.
BRENNAN: But it was …
NORTON: It could have been.
BRENNAN: Right now they’re still floating around Ethiopia, because I had so many left over. Louise made three quilts out of them that she gave away to people and, then, when there was some famine, we shipped a bunch of them over there. [Laughs.] They’d been in my basement long enough.
NORTON: So, how’d you get sucked into doing that? I’m just wondering because it …
BRENNAN: I like to be a helper.
NORTON: Yeah. I think that’s true.
BRENNAN: And there was a natural flow from being the guy who stood on the side saying “Keep running, keep running, you’re almost there,” to then helping out plan it and then, oops, it’s your turn to be in charge.
NORTON: Alrighty. You were also involved, I think, with the soccer and—or a little?
BRENNAN: I was a parent. I took over for Parker one time when he was away.
NORTON: As a coach?
BRENNAN: He had to be away. And he …
NORTON: That was—yes, I know the feeling.
BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, again, my kudos to Parker. He just said, “Well, Bruce, don’t worry. You just tell them, “Girls, play your position. Girls, don’t bunch up. Girls, keep your eye on the ball.” And I think I used it in one of my acceptance speeches. That works for so many things. Don’t bunch up. Keep your eye on the ball. Play your position. Fulfill your responsibilities. And, so, the game came and, you know, [laughing] I don’t even know the names of the positions, Randy. But those girls were out there running around and every now and then I would just sort of run through it in order. “Girls, keep your eye on the ball.”
NORTON: And it wasn’t just girls, actually. It was co-ed. The soccer teams were.
BRENNAN: They might have become. I don’t remember.
NORTON: Well, maybe.
BRENNAN: We’ll wait for history to fact check.
NORTON: All right. Well, that’s true. And it’s not my job to fact check you either, you know.
BRENNAN: I think Julie [Giulia] Barrow had an all-girls team. Julie Barrow and Barbara Black. They had an all-girls …
NORTON: That’s possible. Okay.
BRENNAN: … team that Kathleen was on.
NORTON: Okay, okay.
BRENNAN: And I guess it’s that kind of foolishness that got me into being the auctioneer at the Day School, which I actually—you know, I love a prop, I love a costume. And that was great. The Day School, Capitol Hill Day School, had a fundraising auction in the spring. Again, with a theme. “Under the Sea”, “Fly to the Moon”. I think the first one I did I came out in an astronaut suit with Frank O’Brien. [Interviewer laughs.] Another one must have had a desert theme or an African theme or something. I knew of a camel that I could get. It was a camel that had been used in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It sat on your shoulders. You could step into the body of the camel. So, it was only a two-footed camel because they were my two feet. But it would sit on my shoulders. And you had reins …
NORTON: It had its own rear feet, rear legs. Yes.
BRENNAN: And I came out with that. And I had great fun with it. It was mostly a question of gouging the grandparents who showed up to buy the goodies of their children that they had made in their art class. And, so, if you had ten sets of grandparents and only one decorated chair, they got fierce [laughs].
NORTON: And the whole class would have done the decorated chair so you’d have ten kids in the class … Okay, all right, okay. How about Cub Scouts?
BRENNAN: Again, a need. I guess Cub Scouts probably starts at six.
NORTON: I think that’s correct.
BRENNAN: So, first grade.
NORTON: And this would have just been Thomas, right? This was back when …
BRENNAN: This was Thomas, yeah. The girls had done Brownies. I went off to a Girl Scout camp out in Fairfax. You know, you’re in the woods but you could hear I-66 not too far away. [Interviewer laughs.] Having to tell stories and things. But really what happened is they started a den and the den has only got a certain number of kids it can have. And Thomas came to me and he said, well, you know, there’s more of us in the class, Dad. You’re not going to let us not have a den. Well, it’s hard to say no to that.
BRENNAN: And ours had kids from St. Peter’s and the Day School and probably one of them, Michael Kauffman probably from the public school. So, it was a nice, again, a way of mixing up kids who all were on the Hill. I eventually decided I should get an assistant. A Cub Scout must be patient. Oh, no, I was losing my patience a little too much with those rascals.
NORTON: So, who’d you get as an assistant?
BRENNAN: I just told the other parents, if this is going to work, each of you are going to have to rotate. And you’re going to have to come up with an activity. [Both laugh.] And, so.
NORTON: Okay. All right. Let me shift gears. You mentioned the Jaynettes. You’re sort of known as their biggest fan. But they also did, among other things, they would do birthday parties. And there is sort of the famous birthday party for you, as I recall, that, anyway.
BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, so, the Jaynettes all came out of CHAW. Peggy O’Brien, I don’t know how much she did for herself at CHAW. I don’t know, but certainly her son John had been the Artful Dodger in Oliver!. And they, through the Revelry, I remember singing some of those songs. Those were more Andrews Sisters songs, but somehow they got involved with doo-wop songs or the songs of the 60s. Oh, “The Silver Salute to the Sixties” revue that CHAW did also had us all singing some of those songs.
NORTON: Were you in “The Silver Salute”?
BRENNAN: What I did I can’t remember. One of those revues I had a good dance number with Carol …
NORTON: Carol Newell.
BRENNAN: Carol Newell. “Some Enchanted …” No. [Singing] “Come to poppa, come to poppa, do. You sweet embraceable you. Embrace me, you sweet embraceable you.” [Interviewer laughs.] But …
NORTON: And they sang all the girl group songs.
BRENNAN: They did. So, I don’t remember my first—see, I don’t remember the first of any of these things, Randy. I don’t remember the first Jaynettes performance. I just know I loved it and I loved—they were so invested in it and they thrilled us all singing that. And, as I think I said it, in one of those interviews, you saw them taking it from our singing at CHAW, doing a show at CHAW, to going just up another—out more in the public, up another fancier level. And it was just fun. You egged them on and were so glad to see them. And, then, of course I loved the music and I loved—you know, I love street jugglers. Their performance was just fun to see.
NORTON: So, what about your birthday party? What do you remember about that?
BRENNAN: Oh. My 40th birthday—was it a surprise?
NORTON: Could have been. I don’t know.
BRENNAN: I think it was. I think Louise put it together. But it was in our backyard. So, it couldn’t have been much of a surprise. And, yeah, the Jaynettes performed, except their birthday present to me was to let me perform with them since I had been such a good–it’s not quite a—a roadie carries things around, but I don’t know who the fans that follow you around are. I can’t remember what they’re called. But I think it was Guy Martin’s motorcycle …
NORTON: I think you may be right.
BRENNAN: … that was wheeled into my backyard. And, so, he started it. It could have been, you know, Parker had …but I think it was Guy Martin’s motorcycle and a leather jacket. And I got up on that motorcycle and got to do … the Jaynettes had “Leader of the Pack” as part of their repertoire and, if you’ll remember, it’s got some [sound ] effects. So, I did not need to sing and disturb their harmonies and all. But, at the appropriate point in “Leader of the Pack,” I revved the engine. [Laughs.] And I just had a blast. And the backyard was full of all of our friends. And, then, if you recall, there was an encore a couple of years later that you and Bruce Robey and Jeff Serfass sang. We had our own funny little name. “Who wrote the Book of Love?” did we sing?
NORTON: Lord, I can’t remember doing that but I’ll …
BRENNAN: There’s a picture somewhere.
BRENNAN: Adele will remember. And, then, another time I did get to sing with the Jaynettes for another birthday. They were the Raylettes or Rayettes and I was …
NORTON: Ray Charles.
BRENNAN: … Ray Charles and sang “Hit the Road Jack”. Those rehearsals—[laughs a lot] I’m unabashed but I’m not necessarily always in tune or on rhythm. So, coming in on “What you say?”, I did not always [say] “What you say?” at the right … but we had a blast. I certainly had a blast and I felt warmed by them that they let me participate at all.
NORTON: Now, you’ve been involved with the Capitol Hill Village, too.
BRENNAN: Yes. Isn’t it a natural progression? You know, CHAW, Cub Scouts, Day School Auction. Each decade has a different thing. Community Achievement Award recognize all that past stuff and, then, it’s a natural aging process [laughs] that you go to the Village. I got involved with the Village not as a member. I can remember when it was being started and I, like many people, said, oh, yeah, isn’t that great there’ll be something like that. I don’t need to join now. But we gave as just supporting it because it was a good thing to get started. Lois Kaufmann, again, asking people to sign up to be volunteers and Gary Peterson and Lewis, Geoff Lewis …
NORTON: Geoff.
BRENNAN: Geoff Lewis was really a fomenter and the Cannings, whom I got to know. I knew the Cannings, again, through Judy taking over as an executive director at CHAW. She’d been the board president and the director had to leave [unintelligible]. Anyway, she accepted, went in six months and was the director. But they were all quite active in the Village and I started again joining the team that was putting on the gala and becoming an auctioneer at that. Probably because of having been the auctioneer at the Day School. And they finally went on to hire a professional auctioneer [laughs]. You know, you need to change things up after a while.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: And I always prefer to get offstage before people ask me to get offstage. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: Which is wise. Yes.
BRENNAN: But, then, the gala—I think, actually, I was just helping and the president—or maybe I was going to do the live auction. They did a live auction, a short live auction, at that gala. But the president of the board was going to be the emcee for the evening or something, but he got sick. And, so, they said, you know …
NORTON: Who’s the natural?
BRENNAN: Yeah. The understudy could go on. Here’s your chance, lad. [Interviewer laughs.] And I’ve never given up that microphone or light easily.
NORTON: You won the Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award in 2000. Do you remember that?
BRENNAN: Right. Do I remember it?
NORTON: All right. First, do you remember why? [laughing] What wonderful things did you …
BRENNAN: I think the things we’ve been talking about, the Village, because …
NORTON: Okay. Yeah, yeah. Right.
BRENNAN: … I had been involved in them and because they’d run out of other people. No. Of course I remember it. If this is a history project, that award is one of the most meaningful things that I have received. We’re now of an age that we’re thinking about “I hope people will remember us, and what will our legacy be?” That came mid our time on the Hill, but it remains one of the most important and rewarding recognitions that I’ve had. And it also came at a time that Beth was in college. My two daughters were in college. Thomas was here and—they all went [to the Awards dinner]. They’d been putting up, and Louise had put up with me being away for all these things and manning the home fronts.
Now, you have to give a speech afterwards. You know, everybody thinks I do it with aplomb and I am off the cuffs perhaps too much of the time. But, even the auctioneering stuff, you have to think through ahead of it. So, I had my speech. And I sat next to my daughter Beth at the table. We’re being recognized and I had my speech. And she leaned over to me in the middle of the dinner and she said, “Go ahead, Dad. I know you want to rehearse. Whisper it to me.” And that was a—to see your daughter old enough—when your kids give you that first Christmas present that they’ve bought, that’s an important step. That leaning over was also very remarkable to me. There she was helping her dad in an observant, kind, and supportive way. But, so, there was that speech to give and it was fun.
What I remember, as well, are the times I had to introduce people. Phyllis Jane [Young] doesn’t forgive me for going on way too long for introducing Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski. She was out in the audience with her hand slicing across her neck with a cut it off, cut it off, cut it off. And several years later, when Parker Jayne got the award, then you got to ask someone to give you your introduction. He asked me to give that. Phyllis Jane had quite upbraided me after I introduced the—she said, “You know, we had to pay extra because we went overtime at the Folger [Shakespeare Library] because of you, Bruce.” [Laughs.] So, that time, I went downtown somewhere and I got one of the biggest old fashioned alarm clocks with the bells on top that would ring. And I held it up as I started my speech and said, “Don’t worry Phyllis. I’ll be done in three minutes.” And, then, just moved the hand around until I was done. So, those were my three speeches at that. And, you’ll notice that since then they have anointed Stephanie Deutsch to do all the introductions for everybody so nobody goes too long [laughs].
NORTON: I know, but it was nice. It was nice. I know Linda did the one for Adele, which was nice. So.
BRENNAN: Oh, yeah. Yes, she did, indeed. And did a good—funny. If you remember those, early evenings, Steve Cymrot would do a sort of review of the year on the Hill in a very funny, satirical way. Who’s the guy that does it—Dave?
NORTON: Dave Barry.
BRENNAN: Dave Barry.
NORTON: Oh, he’s in the paper, right.
BRENNAN: Does his end of the year thing. Well, Steve did very humorous reminders of all the things that had happened and that people had done during the year just to kick things off.
NORTON: Okay. Now, you are, as I gather, sort of slowly transitioning to being more out in the Shenandoah Valley or …
BRENNAN: It’s not slowly. It was always part—it became part of—well, as I say, we came for three to five years.
NORTON: Right. That was way back when.
BRENNAN: And Louise inherited the house she’d grown up with in the Shenandoah Valley and, so, we thought, as I retired and then she retired from Georgetown Day School, where she was a much loved English teacher—still has students interested in having coffee with her, calling her up—we thought we’d sort of split our time, six weeks there, six weeks here, six weeks there, six weeks here. And had started going to New Hampshire in the summer where I grew up in “Our Town.” When COVID came, we decamped and ended up staying down there. Even though we were thinking we would come back. Somebody up here had an exposure or there was a surge or whatever, and so we were down there for a good long while.
NORTON: And nothing was happening in DC, you know.
BRENNAN: Well, yeah, that’s right. It wasn’t happening anywhere. And there’s a big garden there to keep us entertained and it’s a nice, small, two college town. So, right.
NORTON: All right.
BRENNAN: But we’re keeping a foothold at—
NORTON: And you’ve sold or are selling your house and—no, you’re passing it on.
BRENNAN: Nothing is certain today.
NORTON: Okay, all right. Well, then I won’t put it on the record here. Who knows what you’re going to do. But you are at least maintaining a place here, so that …
BRENNAN: Yeah. Well, we’re glad to keep a foot on the Hill.
NORTON: And we’re glad that you are. So, you’ve been here now since …
NORTON: ’77. How’s the neighborhood changed?
BRENNAN: It still has a great interconnectedness. And I both feel it and I see it amongst other—Brent [Elementary School] now has got a very strong community. The Day School community remains strong. I can tell there’s a strong St. Peter’s community. It has certainly gotten renovated and richer. Even when we first moved in, worrying about this—it wasn’t really called gentrification. It was called—worrying about displacement of folks was a concern. It now becomes a sort of concern about making sure there’s affordable housing around. And I don’t think we’ve figured out quite how to do that. In fact, on that level, there were a number of big old buildings with rather unrestored apartments in them. They’ve all either gone back to single family houses or, if they were bigger than that, moved away from being those not fancy apartments. And I miss that. Because that gave you a better mix. The mix of sort of Hill staff and young couples and longtime residents is still here but it is not as broad a mix, I think, as it might have been then.
NORTON: Okay. Okay. All right.
BRENNAN: I don’t know how people—you know, we all talk about how can they get a house these days.
NORTON: Oh. How can our kids or young people get a house?
NORTON: Yeah, how can they afford it? Yeah. All right, I am …
BRENNAN: Yeah. How else do I think it’s changed? We’ve gotten older.
NORTON: [Laughing] Yeah, that’s true. We get older and crustier.
BRENNAN: Yeah. And, like I said when I was rehearsing it, if you saw somebody walking down the street talking out loud when we moved here, you went to the other side of the street. Nowadays, you know, it’s just somebody on their phone. [Laughs.]
NORTON: I know, I know. I know. And how the technology is just entirely different.
NORTON: Yeah. But, okay. But, yeah, okay. All right. Well, I have gone through pretty much my list of topics but I always like to give my interviewee, you know, anything else that you’d like to say? And, if you want, we can, you know, turn off the tape for a minute and think about it.
BRENNAN: Yeah. That’s a good idea.
NORTON: Okay. All right. While we were off the record sort of brainstorming topics. What do you remember about Jim Mayo, who was, you know, a stalwart at the Arts Workshop?
BRENNAN: He was always doing. He had energy and he—it wasn’t necessarily leadership. It was doing and you knew what he was doing was good, useful to whatever your endeavor was at CHAW or out in the community. And, so, you were glad to help with that. And, it was why—I did get involved with the Jim Mayo scholarship. He was so smart. Once he knew he had an illness that he knew would be terminal, and he said why should I wait until I’m gone and have people set up something in my—he set up the scholarship while he was alive, to provide money to a student to go off, a student interested in pursuing the arts, off to college. So, it had to be a DC—it could be any high school in DC. With a grant, a scholarship, that would help you pursue your arts education. And it’s because he had been accepted to an arts school getting out of high school and had the scholarship withdrawn when they found out he was Black. The scholarship was open to everyone, anyone who applied. It was that incident that led him to make sure he wanted to help others interested in pursuing the arts have that opportunity. And I thought that was great for him to set it up ahead of time. And it’s now been incorporated into a Duke Ellington scholarship for Duke Ellington students. But for a long time CHAW and Sally kept that going. And I just remember him being a leader by example at CHAW for so long. And, then, continuing to give by setting up that scholarship. And I thought that was great. And we also mentioned Veola Jackson, with whom I did not have lots of interaction. But she …
NORTON: Now, Veola was the principal of the Cluster—Peabody, Watkins, and Stuart-Hobson. And, okay.
BRENNAN: Starting out, our kids mostly had her when it was just Peabody. And I think she was just the principal of that. But an example, again, how—I don’t know that I think of the great person theory of history, but there are people who are great who do make a difference to history, and she was certainly one of those. Jim Mayo’s funeral at the [Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church] out on 14th and East Capitol. Louise said—she’s said many times,  but she came away from that one, she said, “When I go, I want a funeral like that.” They had the great chorus singing great gospel songs and people giving …
NORTON: Was that Jim’s funeral?
BRENNAN: Jim’s funeral.
NORTON: Okay, okay.
BRENNAN: But Veola was just a force. She was molding the teachers. I’m sure she led those teachers, which was a very good core of teachers at Peabody early on. And she stayed in charge, but she got the parents very involved. What else did we talk about? Oh …
NORTON: No, it’s all right. But you have a story though about Veola though.
BRENNAN: I don’t remember if it was the—so, one of the good things about the Hill I think we embraced was its cultural diversity, its racial diversity as we came along. There was always a worry about, as the Hill was being renovated, was it also being displaced? What would be happening to Eastern Market? What would be happening to people as those nice apartment buildings with affordable apartments emptied? We had not solved all that. But there are funny things that come out of some of the racial concerns that we had. I can, again, very—before we talked about “woke,” we just had an unthinking. I can remember the PTA [Parent Teacher Association] put out something as Halloween was coming up that wasn’t—“Calling All Spooks” is what it said, not really having a sensitivity to race—we didn’t know all the bad words people had used actually. I didn’t do that mimeographed sheet, but I can remember—I think what Veola—the big thing was that suddenly we had to call back all the flyers going home to school because Veola said, “Well, wait a minute. That is not going out of my school,” with an understanding of that. And it, therefore, was an understanding for whoever was sending out those messages, too. And, when I was in charge of the race one time or maybe assistant, I …
NORTON: This is then the Classic, the Capitol Hill Classic. Right. Which we always called the race.
BRENNAN: The Peabody Race.
BRENNAN: Right. Is how it started. I had to get permission from the principal for something, or just get her opinion on something. And I didn’t want to be heavy handed about—she’s the principal. She’s got lots of things to do other than whatever my silly question was about the color of the t-shirt or the … I don’t even remember what the question was. But I also did need an answer at some point. And I’d called and not gotten—I’d called and called and called, and, then, again, very unknowingly, I just said to the messenger, “Tell her it’s Bruce Brennan, tell her it’ll be quick. I just have a race question for her, a race issue to discuss.” Well, I had no more than hung up from that phone call than I had a call from her with not quite a quiver in her voice but a certain tentativeness about what was coming her way. And when I started talking about Peabody Race t-shirts, I could hear the sigh in her voice [both laugh] to see, you know …
NORTON: The relief.
BRENNAN: The relief that was there. And it was only her relief that let me know I had caused any discomfort. [Laughs.]
NORTON: Okay. You, also, I mean, we haven’t really talked much about sort of the, you know, the local politics on the Hill but I know that there was a point where there was a school board race with Bob Boyd that you remembered.
BRENNAN: Home rule came in before we were here, but it was still young. And, before home rule, the school board had really been the place where there was the greatest civic participation in electing board members. Marion Barry, Betty Ann Kane on the school board first. This is where you could get a start because you could get popular vote.
NORTON: Well, at that point, it was, early on, it was the only place that you got elected to anyway. So.
BRENNAN: Right. But the school system in those early days just was struggling, and special ed was getting lots of attention because they weren’t paying attention and they had lots of kids that needed it. And, so, Bob Boyd, who I’d not heard of before, but I think he’d had personal experience with the special ed system and how it had not dealt with a child. In any event, he was well aware of what its insufficiencies were. And he decided to run for school board and that was—we were still living over on C Street—and that was a civic engagement, going out and getting people out to vote. Vote for Bob Boyd, and that’s why you should vote for Bob Boyd. And I got to know my neighborhood that way because I was assigned a precinct to go and drop off flyers and to call people to get them running. When we were over on C Street, also, too, is crime—it’s a city. There are issues that come up, but the only real incident other than stolen bikes that I had with crime was when I was handing out notices of the meeting of our crime stoppers club. [Laughs.] On a dusky, rainy evening, I met three people who didn’t want—that was my only incident with being held up, but …
NORTON: And they weren’t looking for the flyers.
BRENNAN: They weren’t looking for the flyers.
BRENNAN: But Bob Boyd’s was a successful race to get on the school board and was someone that we knew was going to make a difference. He was not in it just for the political launching pad. And I’ve been reminded it was a very close race and we were down there to the wire counting it when he won by, someone has told me, 13 votes. Was I a city employee at that point? I don’t know. You know, we had to watch out for the Hatch Act.
NORTON: Hatch Act, yeah.
BRENNAN: But we could … Anyway. I don’t know where I was then.
NORTON: And you also mentioned, when we were off the tape, something about Eastern Market. What do you remember about, you know, the …
BRENNAN: From the early days, people were worrying about what the Market sale, worrying about what would be the future of the Market, and—Georgetown Park had opened and it had become an old building in Georgetown with lots of fancy Dean and Deluca shops and should we go that way? Or what should we do to be keeping—actually, working for the District, Market Five was in the North Hall.
NORTON: Right.
BRENNAN: I got involved with—and Harrod.
NORTON: John Harrod.
BRENNAN: John Harrod was running it and it was really quite a popular place. I think his success continued because he didn’t always pay the rent. [Laughs.] And, in some ways, was the District consciously underwriting it or were they just not paying attention? I don’t know. But worrying about what to go there. The flea market that was out where the vendors’ stand is now, Tom Ralls had this wonderful flea market that was there on Sundays anyway. And he did a few auctions even in the North Hall. But what would happen with the Market was a source of discussion and many too many meetings and concerns. Jim Mayo, again, very involved with that, I think. There was a Safeway right across the street still on Seventh Street where the …
NORTON: At least for a long while, yeah.
BRENNAN: For a long while. And, so, what to do with Eastern Market? And Sharon Ambrose, who had been Betty Ann Kane’s legislative assistant and then became the councilmember herself—I don’t know whether she did it as a legislative member, too. I think by then she was the councilmember and wrote the legislation that sort of righted the ship or just at least got the Market steered in the direction for solvency and stability, with setting up EMCAC and …
BRENNAN: [Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee] I guess it is. And beginning to get more up to date and in place leases with the vendors there. Even though the legislation was there, it took a while to do that. Then, of course, when the fire came, you saw how the fire that burned down the interior of Eastern Market—the exterior remained, but not too close after its 200th anniversary of the founding of an Eastern Market, not that building. But, that was a chance which you saw how the community rose to keep Eastern Market, to show how important it was to have that thing that we had all worried about for 25 years and what should happen with it. And then the fire, I think, just reinforced a recognition of how important it was and a determination to keep it. In fact, this was Dan Tangherlini, the city administrator, quickly getting in place an alternate building over on the Hine parking lot.
NORTON: The big ass tent or whatever.
BRENNAN: It was a metal building.
NORTON: Yeah, well, it was, yeah, but it was also a tent.
BRENNAN: Uh-huh. We were very lucky to have someone who could speak for us at the mayor’s counsel level and know of its importance to the community. Dan Tangherlini’s among Hillites I would—he’s a great public servant and he started out DDOT [District Department of Transportation]. I think he started out CFO for the metropolitan police. [He also worked] at Metro, GSA [Government Services Administration]. But, fortunately, he was the mayor’s administrative whatever, officer …
NORTON: When the fire happened.
BRENNAN: When the fire happened and could get that building in place quickly.
I think we still worry about Eastern Market now. Just to make sure it stays stable, because it is an important brick in the community.
NORTON: Now, what if any part did you have in all this goings on. Were you on any of the committees or commissions or anything like that?
BRENNAN: No, I’ve never been on EMCAC. I don’t want to be. It was the [Capitol Hill] Community Foundation that got very quickly involved in fundraising for it. Before there was the PPP and COVID [pandemic] that paid to keep employees hired, the Community Foundation was raising money to keep salaries going at some level for the many people who worked at Eastern Market and weren’t working. Because there was a lull even before Dan Tangherlini, City Administrator, before they could get the new building in place. And, so, they were very worried about the people, about the people that would have to go away and get another job and not be able to return to the Market when—the determination was to make sure the Market would come back to life. So, I think we had a PPP before …
NORTON: And PPP stands for?
BRENNAN: It was the COVID related protection plan—Personnel Protection Plan? I don’t know, but it was the way …  [ed: PPP stood for  Paycheck Protection Program]
BRENNAN: Oh, [Paycheck Protection Program], right, that allowed businesses to get money to continue to pay folks who might not otherwise, might not have been actually working but could get paid.
NORTON: Okay, okay. And, then, the final topic we discussed off tape was you know, the Halloween on …
BRENNAN: On East Capitol Street.
NORTON: East Capitol Street.
BRENNAN: Yeah. I guess I should remember East Capitol Street is marked by so many important icons with the Folger Theater, where Louise and I were assistants …
NORTON: Ushers?
BRENNAN: Ushers, which meant you get to see the shows for free if you were an usher. That was great. Come on down to Jimmy T’s, which has been there forever and is a meeting place for so many people. To Lincoln Park, which has been a gathering place for a long time. On to the Car Barn, which was nicely renovated during our time here. But one of the things that started slowly and, once we moved over to East Capitol, was by Hugh Kelly, who was a real estate agent. He was also on the CHAW board at one point. But he had this great idea of building community by having a contest. He gave money, first, second, and third prizes, to the house that had the best decorations.
NORTON: Halloween decorations.
BRENNAN: Halloween decorations. And it was to promote the neighborhood, promote good community. All you got for first, second, or third place was the ability to say which neighborhood school got the money. So, it also fed the community that way. And, you know, we had several public schools in the neighborhood—Brent, Peabody, Watkins, Stuart-Hobson, Hine, Elliott, and Eastern High School among others. But so Hugh promoted this contest and the Hill Rag, which is another great institution, would promote it and do pictures afterwards of all the decorations. And it got a lot of sort of the young Hill staff. I can remember on the 600 block there was folks who got really into making great designs. And, then, therefore, those decorations began to attract crowds [from] off the Hill.
NORTON: From off the Hill.
BRENNAN: From off the Hill. Hill crowds would come and do East Capitol and look at the decorations and also trick or treat. And, then, other people would come and look at decorations but [unintelligible]. That’s why I had the Obama girls twice at my house for Halloween.
NORTON: Is that right?
BRENNAN: Yeah. But I think it was all because Hugh Kelly’s first doing those contests—probably the contests only went five years or so.
NORTON: But it’s kept up.
BRENNAN: By then, even if—people certainly do decorations. I don’t think they do them to the fare-thee-well that they were doing during that contest period. But sure have to buy a lot of candy. [Both laugh.]
NORTON: Thank you, Bruce. I think I’ve now even run out of our supplemental list of issues. So, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
BRENNAN: I’ll say what my—so I started out, Peterborough was in New Hampshire where I grew up. Calls itself Our Town. And, as you enter, there’s a billboard that says “A good town to live in.”. I’ve gone from that town to Capitol Hill, which has been the reason the three to five years has landed to be 45. We’ve raised three kids here. It’s because it’s a good town to live in.
NORTON: Thank you.
[BM1]Started file 5/25/24 starting with v3 of my edits in Formatted Not Final folder. The additional edits are done at Bruce's request in his 5/17/24 email. This is saved in Formatted Final folder.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Bruce Brennan Interview, January 30, 2024

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