Arts’ Watch: Remembering Uncle John

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, December 17, 2022

By Bill McCann


My uncle died on November 22. He laid in state in the capitol rotunda in Frankfort; the following day, a very lovely service was held to memorialize and remember him. And now, as was said of another Kentuckian, John Y. Brown, Jr. belongs to the ages, and I’d add, to the historians.

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For his term in office, 1979-1983, Uncle John will be long remembered for the AA Highway, which bears his name; for encouraging legislative independence; for encouraging his wife, Phyllis George, to market Kentucky crafts to the world; and for “running government like a business.” In the sports world, he will be remembered for owning the Kentucky Colonels, which his wife Ellie ran, and the Boston Celtics basketball teams. And in business, he will be best remembered for popularizing Kentucky Fried Chicken worldwide.

In decades to come, former Governor Brown, Jr. will likely be the subject of many biographies, articles, and John Y stories—some likely even true—to be told among family and friends. But two areas that may be slighted are what he did for the arts and what he meant to family members.

Uncle John, called Big John by his grandchildren, made a crucial arts contribution to our state by creating the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville during the 1980 Kentucky General Assembly, which was dedicated during the final month of his term.

The mission of the center is to “build lifelong relationships with the arts.” Today the organization’s resident companies—Kentucky Opera, StageOne Family Theatre, PNC Broadway, Louisville Ballet, and Louisville Orchestra—are vital in helping carry out that mission.

Brown declared The Kentucky Horse Park a white elephant during his campaign for governor. But once in office, he was instrumental in reviving that facility and helping turn it into a showplace. I include this among his arts achievements because though the focus of the park is on the horse—from various horse shows and events to the Parade of Breeds to trail and pony rides, polo, and three-day eventing—there is also an excellent museum that is worth your time, containing horse artifacts, a history of the horse, and fantastic horse-related art.

Indeed, it is interesting that during his active career, it is particularly fitting and appropriate that Brown was supportive of the arts because his family members were very involved in the arts.

Brown honored the life of his sister, Pamela Faris Brown, an actress who lived a “That Girl” struggle for existence in New York for most of the 1960s. She was part of a national advertising campaign for Dove products but never experienced the show business success she worked so hard for. So in honor of his sister Pam, Uncle John donated money to build the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Finally, years after his term as governor, Brown produced a play written by his first cousin, Jim Inman, a screenwriter and playwright in Los Angeles. The play, “Appearances to the Contrary,” starred Susan Clark (who co-starred in the sitcom Webster) and received a lovely review in Variety and another in the Los Angeles Times.

During his working career, my uncle was not a family person. His eldest son, John Y. Brown, III, spoke about this during his eulogy. He mentioned how his father was named national Parent of the Year, and JYB Jr. asked John III, “what does it feel like to be a child of the national Parent of the Year?”

“John III looked at his father and said, ‘Honestly, congratulations, but if you’re the best, I’m really concerned for all the other kids in the world.’ And he gave me a high five and said, ‘you’re right!’ because he had a self-effacing sense of humor.”

My cousin continued, “in the last decade of his life, which was the sweetest, the most touching to all his children, as a grandfather, he became the sweetest, most touching. [My dad] really became a wonderful parent to us. And it was a wonderful gift that he gave to us. When we go to collect his things in the next few days, when I find that plaque, “Father of the Year, I’ll polish it and hang it somewhere proudly because he earned that, too.”

Besides JYB Jr.’s best-known accomplishments, he should also be remembered for what he did for the arts, and for supporting the artistic endeavors of those close to him.

Finally, Uncle John should be appreciated for becoming a true father and a beloved family patriarch, who attended my 2021 wedding partly because he thought it was important to represent the Brown family.