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«The Role of the Performing Arts in Postwar Phoenix, Arizona: Patrons, Performers, and the Public by Michelle Lynne Bickert A Thesis Presented in ...»

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Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 42.

had the Backstage Club Restaurant behind the theater, where guests could mingle with Hollywood elite after the show, and later The Islands Polynesian restaurant next door.157 The top criteria for the Convention Center site were a central location, adequate highway and public transportation access, sufficient parking, and close proximity to hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. Symphony Hall benefitted from being part of the Convention Center project because the primary concern was the space’s use as a convention destination; symphony patrons had the same benefits of nearby restaurants, retail, and lodging intended to attract visitors.158 Beyond providing a home for the symphony within Phoenix, the Civic Plaza/Convention Center development was part of a broader initiative starting in the 1960s to revitalize downtown. Postwar suburbanization left downtown ignored, with residents and eventually retailers avoiding the congestion and blight and favoring free parking and convenient shopping centers in the suburbs. This phenomenon was common across the country, and many cities built special activity venues, such as convention centers and stadiums, throughout the 1960s and 1970s to bring people (and money) back downtown. These venues were meant to encourage more businesses to return to the area, with hotels and restaurants hoping to capitalize on new tourism.159 The strategy worked Reynolds, Golden Days of Theaters, 111; Justin Levine, “Sombrero Playhouse,” Cinema Treasures, accessed August 25, 2013, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/11158.

Duckstadt and Raymond, A Study of Auditorium and County Office Facilities, 80, 87.

Kent A. Robertson, “Downtown Redevelopment Strategies in the United States: An End-of-the-Century Assessment,” Journal of the American Planning Association 61, no. 4 (1995): 433-434.

somewhat in Phoenix: after the Convention Center’s completion in 1972, the Adams Hotel (1974) and Hyatt Regency (1975) were constructed nearby and retailers and restaurateurs moved back into downtown. Downtown redevelopment also eliminated Phoenix’s skid row, the Deuce, cleaning up a blighted city block which remaining business owners blamed for discouraging consumers. Although this did not eliminate Phoenix’s poor and homeless problems, the area became more attractive and safer for tourists and suburbanites visiting downtown; however, for the first few years Convention Center facilities coexisted with dive bars and flophouses across the street. Downtown Phoenix started to regain its prewar status as a destination for Valley residents and visitors alike.160 New complexes were important to revitalizing downtown, but leaders and developers also capitalized on the city’s past by preserving and reusing its historic built environment. In September 1968 Phoenicians returned to the “new” Palace West Theatre.

Some residents had been there earlier when it was the Paramount movie theater, and some even earlier when it was the Orpheum vaudeville house. An August 1968 Phoenix Magazine article about Palace West raised some concerns, particularly regarding parking and performance quality. Manager Phyllis Robbins assured theatergoers they would readily find parking for the 1,800-seat theater, as she counted the spaces herself.

Additionally the article clarifies the performances will be touring Broadway productions – not the “stock company productions which have too often played here in the past!” Danette Turner, “Area’s Dark Past a Part of Phoenix History,” Arizona Republic, June 21, 2008; Edward H. Peplow, Jr., “The Downtown Vision,” Phoenix Magazine, August 1973, 78, 139; Jay Brashear, “Time for Community to Plan Redevelopment of Skid Row,” Phoenix Gazette, October 23, 1974 VanderMeer, Desert Visions, 273.

Having Broadway shows in a theater managed by a New York family (the Nederlanders of New York’s Palace Theatre) signaled a returned interest in downtown. The article claims Palace West was the status symbol downtown so desperately needed, and Robbins agreed, “We’re here to stay. We’re investing in the future of Downtown Phoenix.” 161 The first Orpheum/Palace West restoration did not signal a major change in downtown vitality, and the theater was once again in disrepair by the early 1980s. Palace West was an early example of the preservation and adaptive reuse projects in Phoenix in the 1980s. Preservation programs benefitted performing arts programs either directly with new venues or indirectly by developing the cultural and historic character of downtown.

Before the city had a formal preservation program, Phoenicians preserved their historical and natural resources through outright purchase with public and private funds.162 Instead of focusing specifically on preservation, City Council’s Ad Hoc Downtown committee looked to create a cultural-historic district using Phoenix’s built past to house its cultural present. The most notable example is the city’s restoration of Palace West, which went out of business in the 1970s. The twelve-year project returned it to its glory as the Anita Welch, “Palace West: Blazing the Trail,” Phoenix Magazine, August 1968, 15.

The Camelback Mountain Foundation, a private nonprofit backed by Senator Barry Goldwater, and the State of Arizona through its Department of the Interior, purchased Camelback Mountain to stop further development in 1968. The Junior League of Phoenix and the City of Phoenix under Mayor John Driggs purchased and restored the Victorian structures in Heritage Square, including the Rosson House, in 1976. Ian Patrick Johnson, “Historic Preservation in the Phoenix Metro Area: History, Current Challenges, Ongoing Stuggles” (master’s thesis, Arizona State University, 2007), 21, 24.





Orpheum Theatre, now home to the Phoenix Metropolitan Opera.163 Architect and committee chairman Rod Engelen expressed urgency over finding homes for museums and performing arts groups: “We’ve got a number of (cultural) institutions footloose and beginning to feel antsy. They’ve outgrown their facilities and are saying, ‘We’ve got to do something.’” Renewing downtown would also spur private investment and create nightlife in the area. The council needed to show voters why renovating buildings for cultural use was important. Scottsdale had a performing arts center and Mesa was pushing for one. Citizens’ committee member Marilyn Hinkins stressed, “We’ve got to keep Phoenix the center of the state and downtown the center of Phoenix.”164 Finding the Fan Base By the 1960s eighty years had passed since the wild saloon days, and Phoenicians were learning how to be a sophisticated audience invested in its cultural offerings.

Subsequently, their expectations grew. Guy Taylor explained the whole point of audience growth is exposing people to the music, and during his tenure he had adults telling him they saw him years earlier at the student concerts, thus building a more appreciative audience with potential for lifelong support.165 The Arizona Republic was surprised at how well Gammage’s opening night crowd behaved themselves, writing, “The audience was what is usually termed a society audience, but it arrived for the most part on time and The Phoenix Metropolitan Opera, though representative of the city’s high culture performing arts offerings, arrived after the period of study, in 2006.

Deborah Shanahan, “Cultural-Historic District Proposed for Downtown,” Arizona Republic, Feb. 20, 1986.

Taylor, interview.

it behaved with more politeness than average.”166 Audiences, critics, and donors equated professional groups with quality groups, reasoning artists who were able to devote themselves to craft full-time produced better work. Professional companies were typically interested in staging artistically significant or challenging performances, or debuting new works, not musicals and pops. Tension between popular culture and high culture increased as performing arts groups grew in number and size, spurring more competition for a growing audience with varied tastes.

When the Phoenix Little Theatre finally had a grand stage at the Phoenix Civic Center in 1951, they had the resources to expand operations. Season ticket sales peaked in the late 1950s, when programming featured mostly comedies, an artistically boring but financially successful choice. As America entered the turbulent 1960s, attitudes changed.

Critics and audiences praised dramas like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1961) and the theater’s first all-black production, A Raisin in the Sun (1963). Despite these two hits, PLT continued staging “fluff” productions like Marriage Go-Round (1961) and Cinderella (1963). Reporter Tim J. Kelly bluntly said of PLT’s annual (and locally praised) Shakespeare Festival, “Now let’s be sensible. Is it likely that any Bard lover, who can afford the travel expense involved, is going to forego the Shakespeare Festivals of, say, Stratford, Conn., San Diego, or Ashland, Oregon, for us? If the argument is that these are professional companies, then what business have we to give the William J. Nazzaro, “Gammage Auditorium Passes Test,” Arizona Republic, September 19, 1964.

illusion that ours is anything but an amateur effort?”167 Serious actors and cultured audiences were ready for bolder, more mature programming.

Theater programming choices were based on anticipated popularity and guaranteed income; a proven comedy was a safer bet than a challenging or controversial play. By the 1960s the Valley hosted numerous performing arts groups, each claiming to fill a cultural void. The Phoenix Musical Theatre and Scottsdale Chamber Opera Theatre both formed to present Grand Opera but soon switched to musical theater, which proved more popular.168 Kelly observed that meeting public demand is not tantamount to fulfilling its cultural needs. He explained that commercial theaters, focused on profit, typically performed popular but trivial works while community theaters developed local talent with works of literary value. In Phoenix, the opposite proved true, as ART was committed to serious dramas and PLT stuck to formulaic comedies. The PSO followed a different strategy. It held pops concerts featuring big names like Eddie Arnold, Jack Benny, and Liberace, but they were less frequent than regular season concerts, and revenues from those sold-out performances allowed the PSO to continue classical Tim J. Kelly, “Aren’t We Wonderful! An Unpopular Look at the Amateur Stage in Phoenix,” Point West, February 1962, 36.

Grand Opera features large-scale, elaborate productions that include a ballet episode, choral performance, and lavish scenery. The Paris Opera popularized the style in the nineteenth century. It is also an informal term for highbrow opera, implying it is a more legitimate art form than operattas or musicals. The New Penguin Dictionary of Music Online, s.v. “grand opera,” last modified 2006, http://literati.credoreference.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/content/entry/penguinmusic/grand _opera/0.

programming. If groups wanted to continue performing, they needed to offer what people were willing to purchase.169 The professional theaters remained committed to challenging productions, but were ultimately unable to continue operating. The Sombrero had a big year in 1962, selling 34,569 tickets, twelve thousand more than the previous year, with many of them to students. It debuted William Inge’s Natural Affection, a tense drama about a mother and her illegitimate son that climaxes with the random murder of a young woman – hardly a trivial comedy. It also staged The Complaisant Lover, a Graham Greene comedy about marriage and adultery. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the Phoenix production, remarking it was “an odd choice for a community of upper middle class respectability, even one with the sophisticated fringe that Phoenix has.”170 The Sombrero challenged audiences, but it could afford to take financial risks because it had support from Richard Charlton’s wealthy wife.171 ART followed the Sombrero’s lead. In 1965 they staged Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play about his dysfunctional family. Arts critics predicted Arizona was not ready for this type of performance, or that ART was not the company to stage it. It debuted in Sedona to rave reviews, but Phoenix was less receptive. Phoenicians arrived in droves for 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Kelly, “Aren’t We Wonderful,” 36-37; Lombardi, interview.

James Powers, “Play Reviews: The Complaisant Lover (Sombrero Playhouse)” The Hollywood Reporter, March 20, 1962.

Sombrero Playhouse attendance breakdown, 1962, Ephemera Collection;

Helen Wallace Younge, “Arizona Theater’s Growing Up,” Arizona Star, January 21, 1962.

earning ART $9,181 in ticket sales over three weeks, as opposed to PLT’s poor turnout for Doll Face the same season, which garnered only $1,954 in box office revenue.

However, Virginia Woolf was the exception, and comedies were often financially safer choices. Ultimately, neither ART nor the Sombrero survived the 1960s: serious works could not sustain ART, and Charlton could not find enough successful programming for live performances. Phoenix audiences were raising their expectations, but they were still unwilling to attend more serious dramatic pieces.172 Guy Taylor’s dismissal in 1968 prompted the Phoenix community to engage publicly in a discussion about quality culture. This terribly controversial decision inspired numerous letters to the newspapers both supporting and opposing the decision. The PSA opted to ignore the protest, believing a series of guest conductors, a national trend, would appeal to audiences and help stale box office numbers which had spiked with Gammage’s opening. One letter argued the drop in numbers testified to the growing culture in Phoenix: with so many options for music, theater, and sports, expecting a sell-out crowd was unrealistic. Twenty-seven concerned citizens petitioned the PSA’s decision, and president Wade Hampton argued only two of those people were donors and four other were season ticket holders; therefore, they must not be very committed supporters.



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