«The Role of the Performing Arts in Postwar Phoenix, Arizona: Patrons, Performers, and the Public by Michelle Lynne Bickert A Thesis Presented in ...»
crew, but programming reflected the dearth of male actors, evidenced by 1944’s allfemale production of Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women.” Phoenix mayor J. R. Fleming named December 10-15, 1945 “Little Theatre Week,” honoring entertainers’ wartime efforts. Fickas boasted that the Little Theatre not only provided entertainment to servicemen; it also made military personnel and their families feel connected to the community. By adapting their strategy to fit the needs of Arizonans at war, the Phoenix Little Theatre managed to survive and reached new audiences who had come to love the theater and the Valley.30 Composing the Players The end of the war meant the end of the artistic lull, and now there were far more Phoenicians, with varied tastes, cultures, and expectations. Phoenix needed groups that would both entertain its new audiences and signal its maturity to the region and to prospective residents. It needed regionally – if not nationally – recognized groups representing the city’s unique culture. The problem was no one knew what that meant.
Phoenix leaders promoted Western and outdoors cultures to encourage tourism, taking advantage of the Valley’s desert environment and agricultural history for attractions like rodeos and hiking. Although that strategy remains successful, Phoenix needed fine arts and high culture to gain urban status. Leaders believed fine arts would retain and attract the skilled employees necessary to realize leaders’ economic vision of Phoenix as a Oldendick and Uithoven, Phoenix Little Theatre, 20 – 23; “Little Theater Affected By War.” technology center. Phoenix needed more institutions contributing to the arts scene, requiring local and sometimes imported talents for performances.31 The reincarnated Phoenix Symphony Orchestra opened its first four-concert season on November 10, 1947 under the direction of John Barnett, the first of many conductors tasked with building the amateur group. Barnett, who graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, had an excellent reputation, great recruiting ability, and sympathy for a Western orchestra’s struggles.
Barnett commuted between Phoenix and Los Angeles, where he was associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leaving the musicians to rehearse with his assistants and bringing eight to fourteen Los Angeles musicians for each PSO concert. After two successful seasons the PSO board, the Phoenix Symphony Association, felt the symphony was large enough to require a conductor handling business between shows, and for Barnett’s successor the board unanimously selected Robert Lawrence, who held the baton from 1949-1953. Lawrence, who studied at Juilliard, was a fine musician, but still developing as a conductor. Lawrence later described his tenure, as “adventuroustrial-and-error:” his own musical talents still needed developing, and the musicians were more ardent than skilled Lawrence resigned in 1952 to take a job with the Metropolitan Opera.32 VanderMeer, Desert Visions, 164-167.
Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 5, 12-13, 17; Norma Townsend, The Symphony Picture of Phoenix, 1900-1970 (Phoenix: privately printed, [1970?]), 4;
Robert Lawrence to Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, February 1, 1980, Box 1 Folder 1, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection.
The PSO finally had stable leadership with the arrival of Australian Leslie Hodge, who had a seven-year tenure. Hodge brought a fun personality and unique leadership style, though some PSO performers felt that the group needed a stricter leader. The musicians varied on their assessment of his conducting ability. Some found his free and eccentric style exciting, while others thought he lacked the necessary fundamentals.
Regardless, Hodge provided the consistent management that allowed the PSO to grow.
One reporter enthusiastically deemed the 1953-54 season, Hodge’s second and the PSO’s seventh, “the most successful in the symphony’s history, both in box-office receipts and general interest.”33 This harmonious relationship ended with Hodge’s resignation in 1959.
His replacement, Guy Taylor, was also a Juilliard alumnus and an experienced conductor, having formerly led the Springfield (OH) and Nashville orchestras. His ten-season tenure would prove critical to the PSO’s artistic development.34 The Orpheus Male Chorus (OMC) also revitalized in 1947. After three directors in the previous five years, and a membership as low as twenty-eight performers, the Chorus had to rebuild its connection with the community. As in the PSO, many of its members were local educators. Murdock had been Glendale High School’s band and glee club leader, and during his tenure the club had become part of the Adult Education program at Phoenix Junior College. In 1947 Ralph Hess, a music educator in the “Symphony’s Progress,” Arizona Days and Ways, October 17, 1954, 4.
Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 20-22, 26, 33; Floyd Denton, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, March 26, 1980, Box 1 Folder 2, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Lawrence Cummings, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, January 28, 1980, transcript, Box 1 Folder 1, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection.
Glendale and Phoenix school systems, became director, marking the beginning of a thirty-four-year tenure with international success.35 The quality of the performances was the product of the talent Phoenix groups recruited. Until the mid-1960s, Phoenix institutions were unable to afford professional performers, and although some had the talent, they had to devote their time to their day jobs. Amateur status signaled a lower stage of cultural development, but it allowed the community to create the performing arts scene collaboratively. PSO violinist Dr.
Lawrence Cummings observed, “[Phoenix] was one of the few places in the country where one could be an integral part of the beginning of the growth; you couldn’t see it so dramatically in some of the eastern cities.”36 Phoenicians wanted live theater, so they showed up at rehearsals, took turns directing, volunteered to sell concessions, bought season tickets, and tolerated inadequate venues until they could buy bonds for a new theater. Civic leaders wanted to demonstrate the city had professional, sophisticated culture; regardless of quality, the mere existence of these groups signaled to the community’s enthusiasm for the performing arts.
Groups found their performers among the ranks of community members. For the first few decades, performers’ backgrounds were varied; some were amateur aficionados, while others were classically trained in Eastern institutions. By definition the PLT was a community venture, hosting open auditions and offering acting workshops in addition to their School of Theatre. A few of its seasonal contributors were or became big names. Its “Tempe Burial”; Robert C. Butler, II, “A History of the First Fifty Years of the Orpheus Male Chorus in Phoenix” (master’s thesis, Arizona State University, 2010), 14Cummings, interview.
stage saw several Miss Arizonas in starring roles, honed the skills of such actors as Nick Nolte and Andy Devine, and produced works by Hollywood screenwriter Brenda Weisberg Meckler and ambassador and author Clare Boothe Luce. Orchestra musicians often applied their skills as instructors, working in local schools or providing private lessons. Some were very able and well trained, like Louise Lincoln Kerr, a skilled violinist and composer. Kerr proved herself in classical institutions back East before becoming a member, composer, and benefactor for the PSO. The PSA deliberately tapped into the trend of performers as local educators when they hired Lawrence as resident conductor. OMC members’ day jobs ranged from students to engineers to farmers, and the men hailed from almost every state and six countries. Doctors, lawyers, students, businessmen, and musicians joined in mutual love of music and performance.37 Veterans and manufacturers were not the only ones flocking to Phoenix and taking an interest in its growing arts scene. Industry professionals hoped to capitalize on what was a growing trend of decentralizing arts scenes, leaving the bright lights of Broadway for budding cities like Phoenix. Richard Charlton and Ann Lee arrived from New York in November 1948 intent on opening a stock theater. Charlton wanted the theater to be both a try-out stop for shows hoping to reach Broadway and a patron for promising playwrights, directors, and performers. The Sombrero Playhouse opened in March 1949 and immediately garnered attention from New York and Los Angeles. Kirk Douglas took the stage in 1950’s Detective Story as he prepared for the film version, and “Louise Lincoln Kerr, 1892-1987,” Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records, accessed August 23, 2013, http://www.azlibrary.gov/azwhf/women/kerr.aspx;
Joseph Stacey, “They Pay to Sing for Their Supper,” Arizona Highways, February 1965, 12.
in 1954 the Sombrero debuted Hollywood screenwriter and playwright Lenore Coffee’s The Open Window. When it was not featuring stars in the flesh, it functioned as a movie theater. Phoenix Little Theatre may have introduced the theater to Phoenix, but Sombrero Playhouse introduced Phoenix to the national theater community.38 Finding a Home Until 1964, the PSO offered concerts in the PUHS auditorium, the only city venue large enough to stage a concert. It found a venue befitting its growing size, quality, and stature when Arizona State University completed their new performing arts center, the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium. Gammage was the ideal building for an orchestra, specifically designed to host symphony orchestras and large musical performances. Gammage was the last project for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his only public building in Arizona, and his design team at Taliesin West created a stateof-the-art auditorium in which every detail was oriented around improving sound. The “flying” balconies are seemingly unsupported to provide space for sound and air circulation behind them, a soundproof wall divides the auditorium and ASU’s music school classrooms, and the floors have a steep slope to unify sound. Its most notable feature is the telescopic orchestra shell, which according to chief architect William Moyca Christy Manoil, “Sombrero Playhouse,” Arizona Highways, January 1958, 2; Vera Morris, “The Muse is Heard: The Idea Behind the Sombrero Playhouse,” Point West, February 1966, 26; “Kirk Douglas to Fill Stage Role,” New York Times, December 12, 1950; Edwin Schallert, “Phoenix Premiere Wins New Fame for Playhouse,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1954.
Wesley Peters, virtually extends the walls, ceiling, and volumetric space of the house to the stage itself and making “one great room.”39 Dr. Vernon O. Knudson oversaw the auditorium’s outstanding acoustical design.
He had to consider the range of performances Gammage would stage – large or small, symphonic or choral, operatic or musical – and ultimately gave more weight to music performances than speeches, using convex shapes throughout the hall to increase reverberation. The musicians loved playing in Gammage as the acoustics allowed them to hear and play better. Violinist Angelo Filigenzi said a larger auditorium made performances more comfortable and allowed them to reach a larger audience, and seeing a packed house made them play better. George C. Izenour, theater design and engineering consultant, summarized Gammage’s multifunctional capabilities as “three equals one:” the auditorium is simultaneously a concert hall, opera house, and drama theater, making it the ideal venue for Valley groups in the 1960s.40 The symphony’s first concert at Gammage on October 19, 1964, was one of the most successful in the orchestra’s history. Conductor Guy Taylor selected Robert Ward’s Jubilation Overture, Leroy Robertson’s Saguaro Overture (the composition’s debut), Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 to celebrate the occasion. The world-class venue attracted large audiences eager to see the new hall. The William Wesley Peters, “Remarks,” in “Convocation Dedicating Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium,” September 16, 1964, Ephemera Collection, Arizona Historical Society – Papago Park.
Ibid.; Vernon O. Knudson, “Acoustics: ‘We Have Reason to Rejoice,’” Arizona Days and Ways, November 29, 1964, 38, 40; Angelo Filigenzi, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, May 5, 1980, transcript, Box1 Folder 2, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; George C. Izenour, “Stage Provides Flexibility,” Arizona Days and Ways, November 29, 1964, 36-37.
Orpheus Male Chorus also moved into Gammage from PUHS in 1967, giving their staging and costuming committee much more opportunity to realize their artistic visions at the annual concert in March. Despite playing in such a grand hall and sharing the stage with local and national legends, many Phoenicians were annoyed Phoenix groups had to play in Tempe. As a compromise, the PSO played Monday nights at Gammage, and performed an encore on Tuesdays at PUHS. Still, it was embarrassing the growing city could not even host its own symphony. The PSA made plans in 1967 for a bond election that would bring them back to their original city.41 The PSO finally had a suitable home in Phoenix when Symphony Hall opened September 29, 1972. One reporter gave an early review and raved the acoustics “may be the best money can buy,” but once the hall opened, it was obvious it did not lend itself as well to an orchestra the way Gammage Auditorium did.42 Conductor Eduardo Mata complained that although the building was handsome, “The acoustics are generally dry, uneven, reverberation time is very short and from the stage the impressions of the acoustics is quite deceiving.”43 However it was well suited to soloists like Richard Posner, who said with Symphony Hall’s acoustics, “There’s no forcing. It’s very Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 40; Butler, “Orpheus Male Chorus,” 63.
Jack Swanson, “Symphony Hall Bet: The Best,” Arizona Republic, August 6, 1972.
Eduardo Mata to Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, May 6, 1980, Box 1 Folder 1, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection.