Remembering Metropolitan Park and Chloe

If you read my rambling bio on the About page, you will see that I worked at WJCT for many years, Jacksonville’s Public TV and radio stations, now branded as Jax PBS. Highlighting that time were the eight years I produced the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Once hyped in terms that would have made writers of fiction blush as “the largest free  jazz festival in the world,” the music of jazz greats blasted out of WJCT’s backyard—Metropolitan Park. The City of Jacksonville launched the event in 1980 as Mayport & All That Jazz, staging it in the tiny fishing village of Mayport, Florida, with performances by Della Reese, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Buddy DeFranco. The Festival returned to Mayport the following year with headliner Dizzy Gillespie. WJCT became involved that year, producing a one-hour PBS special despite the rain that washed out some of the afternoon acts.

The City of Jacksonville partnered with WJCT to produce the Festival in Metropolitan Park the following year, although, at the time, the park was nothing more than acres of riverfront land used mostly for Gator Bowl event parking. Between the 1982 and 1983 Festivals, Metropolitan Park received a major facelift with the construction of the Florida National Pavilion and added amenities. It also came with a name change—Jacksonville & All That Jazz. WJCT celebrated with eight hours of live coverage hosted by Billy Taylor and Steve Allen.

Mike Tolbert produced the Festival for the City for the next few years until WJCT became the sole producer in 1985, and Dan Kossoff became the executive producer. Dan handed the producing responsibilities to me in 1993, and I was welcomed by “the year of the great monsoon.” We had some great times, despite the weather, and over the next eight years, we expanded the scope of the event, brought in more outstanding performers, and kept the music going through the year 2000 when WJCT decided to return the event to the City of Jacksonville.

I didn’t mean for this to be a history lesson on the Jacksonville Jazz Festival when I sat down to write this blog post, but when I read that the City of Jacksonville, which had moved the event to multiple sites in downtown Jacksonville starting in 2022—none of them named Metropolitan Park—was moving one of the stages back to the park for the 2024 Festival, I was overcome by nostalgia. It’s true that the covered pavilion is gone, but memories of the park are still strong. Not only was Metropolitan Park the venue for many jazz performers, but other entities, like the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, used it for a series of concerts titled Starry Nights with star performers like Tony Bennett. Other stars gracing the pavilion stage included the Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill, Chicago, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. And that Carpenter concert in Metropolitan Park is where the idea for this blog began. It triggered memories of our first feline companion, Chloe, and a column I wrote for a local newspaper about saying goodbye to Chloe. So, I’ll cut to the chase. Here is that 1993 column.

Time to say goodbye to Chloe

           Like Dorothy, who was swept away to the mythical Land of Oz, nothing would ever be the same again. Once Chloe padded into our lives that Saturday morning seven years ago, the change in our household was so drastic that we might have welcomed a visit by a cyclone.

            Little did we know that a show of compassion for a malnourished calico would lead to the DiGenti family opening a hotel for wayward felines. Perhaps if I hadn’t looked into those unwavering melancholy green eyes I might not have felt compelled to give her that bowl of milk. After a brief absence, she surprised us by moving all her furniture into our garage, along with five kittens. How could we turn our backs on this feline? We found homes for her kittens, but Chloe was now our cat. From years of petless living, we had taken the plunge, and with a cat of all things – it was beyond belief to me and everything I held sacred.

            Chloe was special, though. She was our cat, and she remained our cat even as four others entered our lives over the next five years. Like the lady of the manor who sees younger courtesans brought into the royal household, Chloe was not amused by our transgressions. We endured her fits of temper and her periods of surliness because we knew it was only temporary. And, sure enough, as my wife and I would sit watching television, our catless laps would beckon her and she would suddenly appear, her purring generator turned up to maximum intensity.

            Over the years, we watched Chloe grow into a major league fat cat approaching fifteen pounds, and I gave up trying to smooth out the claw marks she left on every piece of wood molding in the house.

            Then Chloe changed. She lost weight, and withdrew into herself. Tests revealed that our feisty pet had kidney failure, and nothing could be done to save her. The changes continued, and we watched her weight plummet to less than six pounds.

            Our devoted house cat now wanted to go outside for the first time in seven years. Each time a door opened she would rush out to explore the yard. We let her roam a bit during those last days, sometimes watching her emerge from the canal behind our house muddy and wet. Finally, she looked at us and cried as if asking us to take away the pain, and my dear wife, who loved this animal more than anything, bundled her in a towel and comforted her lovingly like a baby with colic.

           Chloe’s seven years with us were special, but the time had come to say goodbye, and we did that last week. The next night, I dragged us off to see Mary Chapin Carpenter in Metropolitan Park thinking, in my insensitive man way, that it might get her mind off Chloe. Of course it didn’t.  She was lost in her sorrow and I knew she would rather be home than here among the hundreds of people on blankets and lawn chairs. But in the middle of the plaintive song, “Only a Dream,” something funny happened. An orange balloon, illuminated by a full moon, climbed slowly above the sold-out crowd. I watched it spiral upwards over the pavilion until it was just a tiny speck glinting in the moonlight, and I thought of Chloe.

            “Goodbye, Chloe,” I said to myself. “Thanks for picking us to spend your days with, and for touching our lives and our hearts. You did your job well, and now you can rest.”

            Then, with a final twinkle, the balloon disappeared in the night sky like an ember taking its last breath.