Edwards residents Nancy Gage and Allen Finney have visited some exotic locales, thanks to the Vilar Performing Arts Center | VailDaily.com

Edwards residents Nancy Gage and Allen Finney have visited some exotic locales, thanks to the Vilar Performing Arts Center

Brenda Himelfarb
Allen Finney and Nancy Gage love the intimacy of the Vilar Performing Arts Center.
Charles Townsend Bessent |

Serendipity. Happenstance. Coincidence. Call it what you may — some things are just meant to be.

Thirty years ago, Nancy Gage, from Madison, Wisconsin met Allen Finney, from Stoke-on-Trent, England while on a cruise. Finney, a professional musician, was performing with the ship’s band. Gage was on the trip with her family.

It’s no surprise that Gage would be smitten with a musician. “My mother was a newspaper publisher,” she explains. “The arts and entertainment editor was older and didn’t want to go to a lot of the concerts, so I’d get the tickets and go instead. And my father owned a radio station, and I worked there filing records.”

Finney’s father was a big-band musician. “I was a trombone player until I was 12 years old,” he recalls. “But my life changed after my father took me to see Buddy Rich. He just blew me away! I decided, then, that I wanted to play the drums.”

In addition to music, the couple has always had a love of nature and animals and, since their marriage — almost 30 years ago — has traveled to Africa on a plethora of photographic safaris. So, when they were approached to underwrite animal expert Jack Hanna’s appearance at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, it was a given. They were in.

“The night Jack performed,” says Gage, “he was all over the place signing autographs. So we invited his wife, Suzi, to sit with us.” And, at the end of the evening, the couples said their goodbyes.

The next morning, Gage was at the Avon Starbucks. “In walks Jack,” Gage reflects, “and says, ‘Hi, Nancy, I understand that Africa is a passion of yours.’ Then he told me that he was putting together a trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda and asked if we would like to join him.”

“We had been to Rwanda in 1989 — and we thought that we would never go again, since the genocide happened in 1994. But, his was a great opportunity, so we decided to take the trip. We knew that the Hannas had a home in Rwanda and that they were passionate about helping with building its economy.”

The trip was much more than Gage and Finney could imagine. The group met with small businesses, like local beekeepers. They went to a school and an orphanage, culminating with a visit to the genocide museum, which Gage says “can absolutely bring you to your knees.”

“The Hannas have really walked the walk and talked the talk,” says Gage, enthusiastically. “We’d stop in a little village and everyone would walk out and hug Jack and Suzi to thank them. And on our last day in Rwanda, Jack got a call from President Paul Kagame who wanted to us to ‘meet him at his residence in 10 minutes.’ It was an incredible trip.

“We initially took the trip because of our interest in wildlife. But there’s something about Rwanda that’s very special.”

“It’s really because of our involvement with the Vilar that we went on this trip,” says Finney. “Talk about one thing leading to another — from the Vilar to Starbucks to an African safari to meeting the president of a country and having a life-changing trip.”

In fact, Gage and Finney have helped to underwrite many of the Vilar’s performances, including Al Jarreau, Michael McDonald, Boz Skaggs, Kenny Loggins with the Blue Sky Riders, Peter Frampton, Chris Botti and Robin Williams, to name a few.

“I always like to know something about the performers before I meet them. And, I had read that Al Jarreau was from Wisconsin and had grown up over a polka hall,” says Gage, with a laugh. “So when I met him, I told him about what I had read and that I was a fellow cheesehead. And with that, he grabbed me and we did the polka backstage.”

And, as a member of the Vail Jazz Board, Finney, after meeting Chris Botti, was able to bring him together with Howard Stone to arrange Botti’s appearances at the Vail Jazz Festival.

“Certainly everyone who supports the Vilar is not going to wind up on a safari,” jokes Finney. “But, because of our involvement with the theater, we’ve had some incredible experiences.”

“A couple of years ago, I was in the front row for a Bonnie Raitt show at Red Rocks and it was like being in the 25th row of the Vilar,” continues Finney. “Even the in the back row of the Vilar — the experience is incredible. Red Rocks certainly isn’t the Vilar. It’s very impersonal, even in a supposed ‘good seat’ at very big bucks. You still have a huge disconnect from the stage and from the music, and it’s a very impersonal experience.

“But, really, the eclectic mix of shows that are brought in to the Vilar rivals any theater of its size in the country. And the theater is like a private club for an intimate group.”

Recently Finney came across a Buddy Rich video on YouTube in which Rich, Finney’s idol, was playing the West Side Story Suite. “It was from 1965, “ says Finney, “and the guy on the piano was Bill Cunliffe, who has been on the Vail Jazz Foundation’s faculty for the last 20 years. And this year, I was playing with Bill Cunliffe at the Vail Jazz Festival.”

Serendipity? Coincidence? Seems meant to be.

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