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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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comfortable.”44 Over the following decades Symphony Hall would twice be refurbished and remodeled, and the new venue helped increase ticket sales for the next few years.45 Growing Pains Professionalization was a major step in development from the 1960s through 1980s, signaling well-funded organizations with quality performers. If Phoenix wanted quality performance art, its groups needed to make the transition from amateur to professional by paying a competitive salary for the top talent. After an exciting season at Gammage, the PSO had more income than ever and was finally able to retain its performers through contracts. Douglas Richards, Managing Director of the PSA, Lawrence Cummings, Chairman of the Orchestra Committee, and Cecil Armstrong, President of the American Federation of Musicians Local 586 negotiated a master contract in 1965. The contract required six events (rehearsals or shows) a week for a minimum of twenty-six weeks for a salary of $60 per week. During the first year sixty musicians signed contracts, but despite greater compensation, quality did not improve.

Before contracts, musicians were paid based on how often they attended events, and often spent no more than eight hours per week with the symphony. With the new contract terms, they now had to commit fifteen hours per week for a salary that could not fully support players. In 1965 the Ford Foundation announced an $85 million grant program for American symphonies, which would advance quality by allowing musicians to devote Jim Newton, “But Where is All the Ballet, Guys?” Phoenix Gazette, September 29, 1972.

Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 267; “Symphony Hall – Designed for Varied Cultural Events,” Phoenix Convention Center and Venues, accessed November 13, 2013, http://www.phoenixconventioncenter.com/venues/symphonyhall/history.php.

their full energy to their craft and attracting young musicians to professional careers. The foundation awarded the PSO $850,000 over ten years pending $600,000 matching community funds. The musicians said the award was largely due to their new semiprofessional status and not their actual quality. Compensation made the PSO seem professional, but the pay was still not worth the time requirement, forcing some of the best musicians to leave.46 Professionalizing was a common problem for Phoenix’s performing arts groups.

Many of the organizations were twenty years old in their postwar incarnations, and the city had grown too large to continue valuing amateur community productions. As residents watched the city mature, they held its artists to the same rising standards;

however, professionalizing brought new problems. Donna Lederman, writing in the local magazine Reveille, wrote, “The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra is well into an extended crisis, a period of convulsive change, which could leave it five years from now either an excellent musical organization or a dead one.”47 She noted most organizations cannot afford to professionalize in one step, and the results are often “cataclysmic,” offering the failure of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra as an example. Other Valley performing arts groups would soon learn the same lesson as the PSO: professionalizing was necessary to demonstrate growth, but often an artistic gamble.48 Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 43; Lee Dirks, “The Phoenix Symphony,” National Observer, November 1, 1965; Donna Lederman, “Will the Orchestra Survive?” Reveille, January 1967, 9.

Lederman, “Will the Orchestra Survive?” 8.


In Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (1973), Joseph Wesley Zeigler documented the spread of regional theater beyond the bright lights of Broadway from the 1940s through the 1960s. As the country grew, so did the theater community. “Theatre people” moved to other metro regions, bought houses, raised families, and invested in their communities. Thus the repertory theater movement created its own larger theater community outside New York City. Yet Ziegler points out these “resident professional theatres” were “too rarely resident and too often not nearly professional enough.” Zeigler’s focus was on cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, but Phoenix was also part of the regional theater movement in the 1960s, just as it hosted the little theater movement at the turn of the century. In Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience (2004) Dorothy Chansky argued that the theater community rejected Broadway fifty years earlier during the little theater movement because of progressive idealism and the desire to reform, a classic example of art imitating life. Midcentury audiences disliked the urban hierarchy that only allowed quality entertainment in certain cities and wanted it transplanted to their regions, just as they had done with housing and shopping. Phoenix audiences also wanted quality arts nearby, but had to wait until population and infrastructure grew to support more groups and venues and larger productions with quality performers; therefore, the same events occur in Phoenix as in other cities, but at a later date.49 Richard Charlton, still the producer at the Sombrero Playhouse, had realized this potential a decade prior and caught the trend early. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Joseph Wesley Zeigler, Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973), viii, 1.

Sombrero offered star-studded, professional theater, bringing in such notable celebrities as Tallulah Bankhead, Ginger Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Mickey Rooney, and Vincent Price. Its first pre-Broadway tryout was 1962’s Natural Affections by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright William Inge, starring Academy Award winner Shelley Winters.

Charlton also capitalized on another, earlier trend of promoting Phoenix as a getaway for celebrities. The theater and its Backstage Club allowed performers to continue working while enjoying Phoenix’s weather and recreational activities during winter vacation. The Sombrero afforded Phoenix national prominence, but it was a local venue for mass culture: traveling acts, New York shows, national celebrities, and Hollywood films. It was not a place where amateur performers honed their skills by joining a community production. The Sombrero’s vision for performance art in Phoenix involved bringing established performers to a new audience. The Phoenix Star Theatre brought a similar caliber of talent, hosting touring Broadway shows and celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr., Wayne Newton, Liberace and Nat King Cole. Charlton and Phoenix Star Theatre’s Buster Bonoff were both East Coast transplants, trying to recreate Eastern institutions in Phoenix. Although other groups also replicated other community programs, they wanted to be unique to the city, organically formed by their own local talent.50 In 1964, several actors left PLT and created the Arizona Repertory Theatre (ART), a professional organization formed in the tradition of the regional theater movement. They performed in a renovated church on Fourth Street and Fillmore, where they staged successful and quality productions of serious works like The Lower Depths, Sombrero Playhouse clippings, [1960s], Ephemera Collection; Bob Stout, “PreBroadway Production Scheduled to Open in Phoenix,” Phoenix Gazette, January 5, 1962;

Phoenix Star Theatre programs, 1964-1972, Ephemera Collection.

The Lady’s Not for Burning, and Rashomon. In 1965, the PLT hoped to capitalize on ART’s success and suggested a joint venture called the Phoenix Theatre Center, housing both groups at the Civic Center, where they would build another stage. One theater housing a professional and non-professional group was unconventional but mutually beneficial: PLT would have another group to share costs of maintenance and improve the theater’s reputation, while ART would have a permanent home and better resources. The Phoenix Children’s Theatre joined a few months later.51 Although the concept seemed promising, problems soon arose. The three tenants did not share the same artistic vision. Competing egos hurt theater development before construction even began. PLT board members doubted ART’s professional status, claiming their actors were unpaid, and accused them of being a clique, while one ART member retorted at least they did not produce “a stale re-hash of tired comedies.” Phoenix Children’s Theatre managed to stay out of the fray, staging three productions in the 1965-1966 season with a child/teen cast. PLT and ART could not overcome their pride, and the trio dissolved their relationship before the second stage was finished.52 Critics, audiences, and performers were ready to see theater groups mature and professionalize, but without substantial community support and strong leadership, they entered the 1970s struggling to survive. After a futile search for another permanent home ART dissolved in 1967, challenging other groups to fill the void as the “professional” Phoenix theater. PLT was stuck trying to finance the Theatre Center, causing them to suffer artistically and financially over the next decade. Despite the Sombrero’s starOldendick and Uithoven, Phoenix Little Theatre, 50.

Ibid., 50-52.

studded attractions, it did not have the community support to generate enough revenue and closed in 1968. The building remained as a movie theater, but it was demolished in 1981 and replaced by an office complex. The acting community craved professional theater, but the necessary cultural support from patrons and audience was still not available despite Phoenix’s rapid growth.53 As in theater, leadership troubles continued to plague the PSO, but Guy Taylor did the most to improve the symphony in its first twenty years. Taylor explained that while the PSO featured great musicians, when he arrived they did not know how to play together as a symphony. Phoenix Gazette critics Serge Huff and Phillip Nelson both recognized Taylor’s ability to extract what he needed from his musicians and to tap into the orchestra’s potential. Orchestra member Lawrence Cummings described Taylor as “the single most important developmental agent in the history of the orchestra,” providing the leadership necessary to bring the symphony to maturation.54 Taylor oversaw the shaky transition to professionalize in 1965, and popularity remained, even if quality declined. He signed a new three-year contract that season for almost double his salary.55 Ibid., 52; Jerry Reynolds, The Golden Days of Theaters in Phoenix: A Dramatic Tableau of the Theaters and Amusements in Greater Phoenix from 1877 to 1982 (Glendale, CA: Associated Media Services, 1982), 122, 138; VanderMeer, Desert Visions, 169.

Cummings, interview.

Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 33, 45; Guy Taylor, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, 19 March 1980, Box 1 Folder 3, transcript, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Serge Huff, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, 21 April 1980, Box 1 Folder 3, transcript, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Phillip It was a huge shock, then, when the board voted not to renew Taylor’s contract after the 1968-1969 season. PSA president Wade Hampton announced the PSO would feature guest conductors throughout the 1969-1970 season, claiming it would stimulate interest among musicians and concertgoers. Taylor’s dismissal was extremely controversial among PSO patrons and the audience, and many musicians disagreed with the decision. They spoke highly of Taylor and largely sided with him during his controversial last season. Though disappointed, some recognized that Taylor had served the average term for a conductor, and Richards pointed out Taylor was not fired, the PSA simply informed him they would not renew his contract and gave him a year to find employment. Assistant concertmaster Eugene Lombardi believed Taylor would be reinstated, and for a while so did Taylor, but when Taylor left so did Lombardi, recognizing the board’s desire to move in a different direction.56 The Orpheus Male Chorus avoided the budgeting and leadership issues of other groups during this time because they had a different mission. Although their organization and audience steadily expanded after the war, they remained committed to serving as a community group. Yet rather than present themselves as a professional group serving the Valley, they decided to function as a community group representing Phoenix on an Nelson, “Symphony Displays Positiveness Which Augurs Well for Future,” Phoenix Gazette, October 28, 1959.

Bina Breitner, “Board Reaffirms Firing of Taylor,” Arizona Republic, September 13, 1968; Cummings, interview; Jack Ratterree, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, April 28, 1980, transcript, Box 1 Folder 3, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Douglas Richards, January 29, 1980, transcript, Box 1 Folder 3, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Eugene Lombardi, interview by Bryan Carrol Stoneburner, April 22, 1980, transcript, Box 1 Folder 3, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection.

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