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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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By the 1990s Phoenician leaders and residents had a renewed commitment to arts and culture, and with private and public help many of the groups stabilized to become fulltime, professional arts groups. Discussing each participant instead of moving the narrative chronologically allows for a focused discussion of how each group influenced the growth vision and modified their actions as the city developed, and highlights those changes over time. Though their histories are entwined, the fine arts will not be included in this study. In addition to spatial considerations, focusing on the fine arts does not provide the same discussion of local artists and consumers as the performing arts.

The performing arts groups featured in Chapter Two and discussed throughout include theater, symphony, and choral groups, but the Phoenix Little Theatre, the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, and Orpheus Male Chorus are featured prominently as they have the longest histories in the Valley and have had a greater opportunity to cultivate their audience and influence as local institutions. Other groups and venues will also be discussed to demonstrate the broader impact of performing arts on Valley development.

These groups’ challenges with developing performers, finding performance space, and professionalizing reflected the city’s level of development at a given time. Chapter Three examines the individual patrons, boards of directors of performing arts groups, local and state governments, and agencies and commissions who supported the arts, detailing who they were, what their role was, why they supported the arts, and what they accomplished.

Besides analyzing the role of individuals such as Jessie Linde, Newton Rosenzweig, Lewis Ruskin, and Terry Goddard, the chapter focuses on how all of these people used their positions within the Valley to bring the performing arts into the realm of civic affairs. Patrons procured funds, hired management, found facilities, and marketed these groups as part of their larger strategy of developing the city, and frequently readjusted their plans to meet the growing city’s needs. Chapter Four evaluates how well the groups from chapters two and three succeeded and profiles the audience early leaders hoped to attract and retain through the arts.

The final chapter assesses the more recent past and how effectively leaders promoted their vision, while raising new questions about the future of the arts in the Valley and the possibilities of analyzing a city within this framework. Various reports from civic and arts and cultural organizations, like the Arizona Town Hall and Maricopa Regional Arts and Culture Task Force, use the same arguments as postwar civic leaders to stress the economic importance of developing Phoenix’s culture. However instead of focusing on high culture, today’s leaders recognize a broader definition of culture and celebrate the Valley’s diversity, citing Florida’s research as evidence that if Arizona’s future lies in high-tech, they must court the creative class. Chapter five observes how postwar leadership’s goal is being carried into the twenty-first century.

This thesis examines how performance groups, civic leaders, city government, and residents cultivated Phoenix’s performing arts scene and evaluates its success in promoting the larger economic visions for the Valley’s future. It provides a case study for how the performing arts contribute to quality of life, which subsequently encourages the economy. Civic leaders did not necessarily support the performing arts because they personally enjoyed them (though many did), but because they had a deliberate plan for Phoenix’s development and the performing arts were one aspect of that plan. They wanted their town to become a big city, which required industry, jobs, transportation and communication infrastructure, housing, leadership, and culture and recreation. The performing arts contributed to many of these aspects and therefore the larger growth agenda either directly through their intrinsic cultural and economic value, or indirectly by promoting a better quality of life and meeting an urban cultural benchmark. This thesis is not so much a history of Valley performing arts institutions – although institutional histories are discussed and compared – but rather an examination of how civic leaders used these groups as one piece in achieving their larger goal of making the city economically competitive, first regionally and later nationally. They did not necessarily fail, but they were unable to see their vision through to the 1980s. New generations of leaders need that same understanding that the arts are an important for their intrinsic and economic value.



Although the story of Phoenix appears to be one of unbounded growth, the history of the performing arts reflect the constant battles for funding, audience, and credibility amidst an atmosphere of ever-changing population and politics. Groups had to adapt their development strategies and refocus their institutional and artistic visions to match the evolving expectations of their audience due to increased competition. This introduction to Phoenix’s performing arts groups contextualizes the later discussions of how civic leaders promoted the groups to advance their growth vision, and how the arts built audience and community. The struggles that performers and staff faced regarding organizing, recruiting, finding venues, programming, and professionalizing, are indicative of larger struggles Phoenix faced as a growing urban center. Just as Phoenicians sought their identity among popular, mass, regional, and ethnic cultures, the trajectory of performing arts reflects the struggle for culture and identity in an evergrowing city.

The Phoenix Little Theatre (PLT) and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra (PSO) are the oldest continually operating institutions and drive the narrative of the city’s performing arts history. Their origins, triumphs, and struggles best reflect the oscillating history of the performing arts over a long period of time. Both provide a platform for discussing various other groups, as these small organizations frequently shared venues, performers, stages, audiences, and funding. As the city grew, so did opportunities for performers and public expectations. Community outreach programs and arts education produced generations of talent within in the Valley, leading to a proliferation of groups varying in size, quality, and function. In practicing their craft Valley performers had to work around patrons’ squabbles and the audience’s whims, but their talent and quality of productions at a given time served as a cultural barometer for the growing city. This is not a complete history of these individual groups; rather, an avenue for exploring one aspect of Phoenix’s development and the role these groups played in a larger vision.

Early Entertainers The performing arts have existed in Phoenix since its founding, but performers’ aspirations were often quelled by the lack of opportunities. In the 1890s a theatrical stock company arrived in the newly incorporated city of Phoenix but failed to thrive for lack of an audience. One member, Fred B. Mussey, remained and staged the first performance of the Phoenix Players Club in October 1897. Records of the group’s activities are missing until 1920, when Harvard Drama School alumnus Harry Behn and speech and drama school operator Katherine Wisner McClusky organized the Phoenix Players, who held their first production of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shirley Christy’s School of Music. Two years later, Behn renamed the group the Phoenix Little Theatre, and in 1924 Maie Bartlett Heard, a PLT founder and wife of Arizona Republican owner Dwight B. Heard, offered the remodeled Heard stables as a venue. The PLT performed about seven shows per season during their twenty-seven-year occupancy of the stables, playing to sold-out crowds who braved the elements in the insufficient venue.

Although the PLT proved successful, they were among the first Valley groups struggling to survive in a city unprepared to support the arts.24 Tom Oldendick and Christine Uithoven, The Phoenix Little Theatre: 65 Years of Memories (Phoenix: The Phoenix Little Theatre, 1985), 2-4.

The frequency and quality of these early performances also depended on the number of performers in the Valley. Mrs. W. M. Nichols worried that capable musicians were neglecting their craft because there was no designated performance outlet. In February 1906 Nichols, then president of the Phoenix Women’s Club, gathered eighteen women in her home to create the Monday Musical Club, later the Musicians Club of Phoenix. The club began as an informal, weekly gathering of women (men often joined at performances, but were only allowed auxiliary status). The Valley’s best musical talent was associated with the club for over fifty years. This included persons trained in music, interested in music, or those who made a living from it, such as Eugene Redewill of Phoenix’s Redewill Music Company and Shirley Christy of the Arizona School of Music.

The club was instrumental in encouraging performers and composers by hosting study sessions, awarding scholarships, and providing recital experience. The group dedicated funds to the war effort during both world wars, earning two commendations for services rendered during World War II. The Musicians Club initiated many music organizations, including the Orpheus Male Chorus, Phoenix Symphony, and Lyric Club. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration music project sponsored several groups statewide, allowing unemployed musicians and performers to continue working while offering 2,500 performances over four years.25 The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra is similarly rooted in Arizona’s territorial days.

In 1902 Redewill organized and conducted an orchestra until 1928. In 1929 conductor Bertha Kirkland, “Musicians Club: Phoenix, Arizona,” [ca. 1952], Box 6 Folder 3, MS 6, Musicians Club of Phoenix Records, 1915-1917, Arizona Historical Society – Papago Park, Tempe, AZ; Mrs. W. R. Battin, “Remarks,” [ca. 1956], Box 6 Folder 6, Musicians Club Records; William S. Collins, “The New Deal in Arizona” (master’s thesis, Arizona State University, 1999), 341.

Benjamin King and violoncellist Montague Machell organized the Phoenix Civic Orchestra, providing free concerts at the Phoenix Union High School Auditorium (PUHS). A year later they renamed themselves the Phoenix Philharmonic Orchestra, and by 1933 new conductor Harry S. Marquis re-named the group the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. Like other early groups, the symphony was more a training ground for interested performers than a quality producing body. Romeo Tata, conductor (1938-1941) and music teacher at Arizona State Teacher’s College in Tempe (now Arizona State University), recalled the symphony had no salary, comprised mostly amateurs with some trained musicians and college students, often performed without everyone present, and never had enough money to purchase or rent music, despite the Symphony Society’s fundraising efforts. With the onset of World War II, musician and audience participation dwindled. The Musicians’ Club of Phoenix sponsored an orchestra under Montague Machell during the war, but by 1945 Phoenix no longer had a civic orchestra. In music as in theater, participation dictated viability.26 Another musical group with deep roots in Valley history is the Orpheus Male Chorus. L. Douglas Russell, a voice teacher at the local Arizona School of Music, wanted an opportunity to showcase his students’ work and created the Phoenix Orpheus Club.

The group debuted on the radio station KFAD’s 1929 Christmas broadcast and gave their

Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, “The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, 1947-1978:

Leadership, Criticism and Selective Commentary” (master’s thesis, Arizona State University, 1981), 1-4; Romeo Tata to Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, 20 June 1980, Box 1 Folder 1, MSS 103, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection, Arizona Historical Society – Papago Park, Tempe, AZ.

first concert February of the following year.27 It grew rapidly, with 104 members by 1937 and 155 local business sponsors. Like other performing arts groups, the Chorus also suffered during the war. Besides dwindling memberships, sponsors, and audiences, the military took many of its members, including director David N. Murdock, son of U.S.

Representative John N. Murdock, who was killed in action in Sicily in 1943. After the war, the Chorus required significant rebuilding to once again fill its ranks.28 The Phoenix Little Theatre survived the war, but only barely. The Arizona Republic reported how the PLT adopted the “‘first things must come first’” attitude as well as any civic organization: “its best male talent is now in uniform” and “all of its best feminine talent is engaged in Red Cross work, or civilian defense duties, and their time is no longer free.”29 The stage was dark from April 1942 through the end of the year, and the theatre only hosted small, informal gatherings and dramatic readings. Mel Fickas assumed presidency of the board in January 1943 and thrust the theater into supporting the war effort. PLT staged performances at the area’s new military bases, like Luke Air Force Base. Military personnel joined the PLT as audience members and as cast and The Arizona Republican started a joint venture with the owners of the sevenyear-old KFAD in September 1929, and on December 29, 1929 announced the radio station would be renamed KTAR at the new year. Editors of the Republic broadcast news thrice daily. Richard Ruelas, “When 1 Owner Ruled Major Media in City,” Arizona Republic, March 19, 2011.

“New Chorus Formed,” Arizona Republican, November 5, 1929; “Orpheus Club Members Plan Formal Concert in February,” [ca. January 1930], Box 5 Folder 110, MS 3, Orpheus Male Chorus Records, 1929-1992, Arizona Historical Society – Papago Park, Tempe, AZ; “The Orpheus Club,” 1936-1937, Box 3 Folder 56, Orpheus Male Chorus Records; “Tempe Burial Arranged for D. N. Murdock,” Arizona Republic, June 17, 1944.

“Little Theater Affected By War,” Arizona Republic, November 22, 1942.

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