Ellyn Wexler knows what you like.
Sure, she’s Brooklyn born and bred, but the arts and entertainment writer-editor has made it her business to know exactly what’s going on all over Montgomery County—literally. And for nearly three decades, Wexler has used what she knows to get as many people as possible excited about the MoCo arts scene, most recently as the founding editor of CultureSpotMC.
“When we moved to Maryland in July 1984—it was Friday the 13th!— my husband took me to two places hoping I’d love it here,” Wexler recalled. “The White Flint Mall, where I couldn’t afford anything, and the Ag Fair, where there were farm animals and a tractor pull.”
It was a “Green Acres” kind of experience for the transplanted city slicker and mother of two, but Wexler, who had written feature stories for her high school paper, studied English and American literature at SUNY Binghamton and worked in advertising on Madison Avenue after college, soon became accustomed to her new surroundings, co-founding a community newspaper, The Stonebridge News, in 1985.
“A friend of mine said, ‘The Gazette is looking for community writers,’” she remembered. “I was hired part-time to start a lifestyle section for the new North Potomac paper.”
At The Gazette, Wexler went from part-time lifestyle editor to part-time reporter on the Poolesville beat in 1989, to features staff writer in 1990 and then to features editor in 1994. (Full disclosure: she hired this reporter as an arts and entertainment writer in 1999.)
“They started throwing stories at me: ‘Would you like to do this? Would you like to do that?’” she said. “One of the first stories I did was about the man who was faculty advisor of the award-winning Rockville High School newspaper, Kevin Keegan. That spurred me on, and the more I met people—musicians, actors, writers—the more I loved it.
“I just think their stories are fascinating, and they’re essentially good human beings!”
Post-Gazette, Wexler started her own freelance business. “I saw that Jim Eppard—who just wrote a piece for CultureSpotMC and I’m thrilled, he’s a brilliant writer—had written an article for Montgomery Magazine.”
She, too, began writing for Pam Schipper at Montgomery Magazine and then, at The Town Courier, but in September 2015, the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County (AHCMC), an organization she had gotten to know well in her years on the arts and entertainment beat, contacted her. They were concerned about the dearth of arts coverage in the wake of The Gazette’s folding.
“There are a lot of creative people in so many spheres: in theater, in visual art, in music,” Wexler said. “This county is full of real creativity, and it’s always been supportive of the arts. Once The Gazette was gone, there was no place people could go to find out what was going on.”
Until, all of a sudden, there was.
“This was the brainchild of the Arts & Humanities Council’s marketing committee,” explained Joseph Frandoni, AHCMC’s deputy director. “They basically looked at the closing of The Gazette and The Washington Post taking the focus off local stories to become more of a ‘paper of record’ and less of a local newspaper. It was getting harder and harder for the arts to get coverage.”
From a marketing standpoint, Frandoni knew that the members of the arts community needed a separate entity to create quality content for them, an outside arbiter of taste to examine their offerings and let the community know what was happening across the arts spectrum. CultureSpotMC.com was launched, with Wexler at its helm.
“We don’t do reviews,” said Frandoni. “We do previews, interesting stories—it’s the meat, it’s what people want. We talk about what’s interesting, and we try to replicate the ‘bumps’ that our arts organizations once got from coverage in The Gazette.”
Frandoni said that although it is sponsored by the AHCMC, CultureSpotMC.com is objective, mainly because of Wexler. “Ellyn is the editor: finding stories, editing stories. We keep management at arm’s length so people can trust it.”
For her part, Wexler says putting together CultureSpotMC has been nothing short of awesome.
“That was like heaven to me,” she exclaimed. “The opportunity to start a magazine about the arts in Montgomery County.”
So what are Wexler’s preferences when it comes to the arts? First of all, she loves literature, reading about a book a week (mostly fiction and mystery) and keeping track of every last tome on computerized lists—arranged alphabetically by author and genre, with ratings. As a kid —favorite subject? “English, English, English!”—she loved Nancy Drew: “I aspired to be a detective until I realized it was dangerous!” she said. And she remembered that when she was dismayed about moving far from New York City, she found some solace in the knowledge that her favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was buried in Rockville with his family.
She has a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, too. “I have a typical, ‘uneducated’ taste in fine art,” said Wexler. “I love the contrast of the colors—the blues and the yellows and the greens—and the passion, the intensity.”
Formerly a piano student, Wexler said she has mixed taste in music, too, and loves a little bit of almost everything, including Bruce Springsteen and fellow Brooklynite Carole King.
“Classical music, too, because I was a pianist, though I’ve gotten more respect for jazz as I’ve learned more about it. And I love the popular music of each stage that I’ve gone through—contemporary music, including things that might be considered inappropriate for a woman of my age,” she added. “You know, all the stuff they play in the gym. I love anything you can dance to.”
Her first play was “Hamlet,” with Cleavon Little in the title role at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Even now, she said, she’s “looking for voices, looking for diversity.
“I’m trying to balance everything: the geography of the county, different areas and genres, music vs. theater. What I’ve loved about being a journalist has been the opportunity to explore the motivations and backgrounds of people who are passionate about what they do—mostly in the arts, but also in areas as diverse as politics and fitness.”
Oh, yes: fitness. A dance aficionado and self-described gym rat, Wexler breaks the cerebral routine at her local gym, and she revels in the anonymity it provides “I like to call it my ‘Cheers,’” she said. “Where everybody knows my name but not much else about me!”
Despite her vast experience interviewing people, Wexler observed, “I’m very comfortable asking questions, but not that comfortable answering them myself: I am a writer who hides behind my byline.”
But that’s about all the hiding she does.
“Ellyn is tenacious and thoughtful and thorough,” declared Frandoni. “If she wants a certain kind of story, she’ll find it.
“I really appreciate that,” he added. “I think it’s highly important. And we are very lucky to have her.”
Read Ellyn Wexler’s full bio and view her stories for CultureSpotMC here.