Eastport is the easternmost city in the United States and the smallest city in Maine. Its 1,300 residents are connected to the mainland by a causeway.
But don’t mistake its isolation for detachment.
“We may be geographically isolated, but we don’t let that define us,” said Gregory Biss, chairman of the Eastport Arts Center. “We consider ourselves part of the world, and we want to demonstrate that and live that.”
Toward that end, the Eastport Arts Center will host New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for a talk on Saturday afternoon that serves as a fundraiser for the tiny arts center, which provides year-round programming in a former Baptist church that was built soon after Maine became a state.
De Blasio’s 92-year-old aunt, Jean Wilhelm, lives in Eastport and is active at the arts center and with the community theater that performs there, Stage East. The mayor of New York will be in town to celebrate Wilhelm’s birthday, which was Jan. 10.
De Blasio is known for his tall frame – he stands 6 feet 5 inches – progressive politics and loyalty to his aunt. He’s a frequent visitor, and came to Eastport for a birthday visit and similar fundraising talk a year ago. “He called me about a month ago and said he was coming to town again for her birthday, and would we be interested in having a similar event,” Biss said. “I said, ‘Twist my arm a little harder, please.’ ”
He’s going to talk about progressive politics in the half-century since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Wilhelm said her nephew fell in love with Eastport after he began visiting her when she retired there more than a decade ago.
“He’s been just terrific to me all my life, so it was sort of natural that he would come visit after I moved here,” she said in a phone interview Saturday. “He fell in love with the place just as I did. Eastport is a remarkable town, full of an interesting array of people, lots of whom like me have come from other places, but also loads of people who have lived here all their lives and are firmly rooted. It’s a nice combination.”
The mayor of New York travels with a security detail. That amuses Wilhelm. “It’s quite hilarious. He and I go off and do our things, and there are always these mysterious vehicles following us,” she said. “He likes to just get out and walk around and talk to people. He’s a great guy. I am so impressed with him as a human being. It’s a nice feeling.”
The celebrity of the guest aside, de Blasio’s appearance is a big deal for the arts center, which has an annual budget of about $150,000. The arts center will raise at least $3,000 from de Blasio’s talk, and more if people are generous. The arts center can seat about 125 people and is asking for a minimum donation of $25 per person, up to $100. Ten seats are being reserved for students for $15 each.
“This will help us a lot,” Biss said. “Money is a big issue for us. Coming up with that nut every month is a big deal.”
Famous New Yorkers helping tiny arts centers in Maine may be a new trend. In October, Maine-bred actor John Cariani recruited his castmates from the musical “The Band’s Visit,” including Tony Shalhoub, to do a benefit concert in New York for the Wintergreen Arts Center in Presque Isle. Cariani grew up in Presque Isle.
Wilhelm arrived in Eastport just as the Eastport Arts Center was preparing to move from downtown into the newly acquired former Baptist Church on Washington Street. She was instrumental in the purchase of the church, which was built in the 1830s, and designed the theater for the second floor. She remains active in Eastport’s community theater, Stage East, though her directing days are likely over.
“Oh, I’m too ancient now,” she said, shrugging off the notion of directing again. “I can’t believe I am still kicking around, at this age. But I would give my eyeteeth.”
Wilhelm has worked in theater most of her life, including for several years in Australia. She taught theater at Gaucher College and also worked at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She got involved with Stage East as soon as she arrived in Eastport. Theater, she said, brings a community together. “It’s extraordinary as a community builder, among other things. There are a lot of people around who have always had some sort of hankering to get on stage, not professionally but because putting on plays is such an interesting thing to do, and it’s a chance to make great friends,” she said.
De Blasio couldn’t be reached to talk about Eastport, but last year he told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) that he liked Eastport because it was “down home. Eastport is a nice, mellow place, unspoiled. I love it.”
In a statement released by the Eastport Arts Center, he said, “Where I go in the country people yearn to restore a sense of community. I find that the Eastport Arts Center achieves that goal in exemplary fashion.”
Wilhelm is the sister of de Blasio’s late father, Warren Wilhelm. When de Blasio was 18, his father killed himself. When de Blasio graduated from high school, he began using his mother’s maiden name and legally changed his name in 2001 after a winning a seat on the New York City Council, according to The New York Times.