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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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international stage. Their first international performance was in February 1954 at the University of Sonora, and the group continually gave performances in Mexico in honor of Mexican holidays until 1957. Julius Festner, an officer and member, sent footage of their 1956 Guadalajara concert to a friend in Cologne, Germany who aired it over the Cologne radio station. As a result, the group was invited to the Third Annual Austrian International Song Festival, held July 17-20 in Vienna. The tour would expose the groups to audiences in Shannon (Ireland), Heidelberg, Augsburg, Salzburg, Vienna, Landeck, Geneva, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.57 This tour was a huge opportunity for a Southwest organization to compete with Old World classical groups. Group members were required to travel and perform in “authentic” Western wear donated by Levi Strauss and Company: jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and red bandanas. They spread Southwest culture at every stop, performing for airplane passengers and hotel staff. The European crowd arrived en masse to see Pima Indian Victor Manual perform the ceremonial chants of his tribe and the cowboy attire they’d only seen in the movies, but they forgot about these attractions when they heard how well the eighty men sang. The huge success brought recognition from numerous European organizations, and Arizona’s civic leaders honored the OMC for their international public service. The OMC continued to tour Europe and the US under the leadership of director Ralph Hess until 1976, appearing at such events as the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and the Rotary International Convention in Toronto in 1964. The OMC increased their success while other amateur groups faded because of strong Butler, “Orpheus Male Chorus,” 29-33; William H. Gooding, “High Spirits Prevail as Orpheus Songsters Start 5,500 Mile Trip,” Phoenix Gazette, July 22, 1958.

leadership, commitment to their vision, and a genuine love for their art not as a career but as a hobby. The OMC’s clearly defined mission and altruistic mindset brought them the recognition and respect other groups could not maintain.58 Starving Artists Michael Vetrie arrived in April 1977 as the new managing director for the Phoenix Little Theatre. He had the difficult task of trying to restore PLT’s image after the failed merger left the company in debt and with a reputation for poor quality productions.

After one year at the helm, Vetrie made drastic improvements. Enrollment in the Theatre Center’s school increased dramatically, providing more competition between better actors for roles. Because of the increase in quality, they were able to attract new qualified staff members dedicated to establishing a regional theater.59 Vetrie developed the Phoenix Theatre Concept, a professional/amateur hybrid model. Professional actors retained on annual contracts staffed the theater school, training amateur actors for PLT performances as well as starring in their own performances. The professional faculty and amateurs worked together on community outreach programs, and occasionally on PLT performances, for which the theater compensated contracted staff. The success was shortLevi Strauss Correspondence, 1958, Box 1 Folder 14, Orpheus Male Chorus Records; Gooding, “High Spirits,” July 22, 1958; Stacey, “They Pay to Sing,” 10-13, 34Trip, 1958, Box 1 Folder 20, Orpheus Male Chorus Records; Michael Foley to Ralph Hess, November 10, 1964, Box 3 Folder 47, Orpheus Male Chorus Records;

Marlin K. Tabb to Orpheus Male Chorus, June 1964, Box 3 Folder 47, Orpheus Male Chorus Records.

Michael Vetrie, “Goals Realized 1976-1977 Season,” 13 March 1978, MS 39, Phoenix Little Theatre Records, Arizona Historical Society – Papago Park, Tempe, AZ.

lived, and by December 1979 Vetrie and five key staff members quit, citing financial difficulties and artistic differences with the board.60 By the 1980s, the PLT was able to take its first major steps towards professionalizing. The board hired Tom Oldendick in May 1980, who brought back the momentum by mixing popular musicals with hit Broadway dramas and comedies, staging a summer mini-season, and performing in other venues like the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. He signed the first agreement with Actor’s Equity, bringing in experienced, union actors. Oldendick's successor Michael Mitchell dropped ‘Little’ from the name in 1993, rebranding as the Phoenix Theatre. He explained though the group was no longer a community theater, “we will always be the community’s theater.”61 Theatre alumnus Bob Sorenson observed, “Phoenix used to be a place that performers left when they graduated college. In the ‘90s, it became a place to stay. A lot of very talented people stayed.” The PLT had grown into a professional organization befitting Phoenix’s size and status, but remained committed to its community theater origins.62 The Phoenix Theatre is one example of the professional theater renaissance occurring in the city. The Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) formed in Tucson in 1966 as the Arizona Civic Theatre and professionalized in 1972, when they began hiring Actor’s Equity performers. Its first Phoenix performance was in 1978, the year they became the Michael Vetrie, “Theatre Phoenix Concept,” 1977, Box 2 Folder 19, Phoenix Little Theatre Collection; Hardy Price, “Phoenix Little Theatre Director Resigns Over Dispute,” Arizona Republic, September 12, 1978.

Kerry Lengel, “Arizona’s Rock of Ages,” Arizona Republic, August 15, 2010.

Oldendick and Uithoven, “Phoenix Little Theatre,” 64-68; Lengel, “Arizona’s Rock of Ages.” Arizona Theatre Company, and five years later it began offering full seasons in Phoenix and Tucson. In 1990, Governor Rose Mofford designated ATC the State Theatre of Arizona. They perform classic and contemporary plays and musicals, as well as premiering new works. Similarly the Actors Theatre Phoenix formed in 1986 using Actor’s Equity performers, hoping to become Phoenix’s main professional theater group.

According to the group, critics were prejudiced against the company in its early seasons because they used local performers; it was hard to imagine any talented actors had remained in the Valley. At first they were forced to keep casts small to cut costs, as salaries were the highest costs in a production’s budget. In 1989 both groups moved into the new Herberger Theatre Center, located just north of Symphony Hall. Professional actors had two more opportunities to perform for Phoenix theaters, and the city could cultivate the top local talent and attract more professional actors, improving theatrical quality. 63 Through the 1980s, other groups, like the PSO, pushed to create professional, fulltime organizations that retained top talent, but the process was shaky. The PSA hired conductor Theo Alcantara in 1978 to implement a seven-year plan upgrading the PSO to a full-time, professional operation, reflected in quality and salary. The symphony managed to operate successfully through 1983, when it made the transition to three-year contracts and daytime rehearsals. The contracts cost an additional $6.5 million, but the board only planned to fundraise for $5.4 million, creating a deficit that spiraled so badly “Decade by Decade: An Overview of ATC’s 35 Years,” Arizona Theatre Company, accessed July 15, 2001, http://www.arizonatheatre.org/; “Our History,” Actors Theatre, accessed May 3, 2002, http://www.atphx.org/; VanderMeer, Phoenix Rising, 117.

the symphony would fold by March 1985. After several administrative changes, bank loans, community fundraising, donations from real estate developers, and pay cuts, the symphony survived.64 Other professionalizing groups faced similar crises, though not as severe, and for many groups every season could have been the last in the late 1980s through early 1990s.

The problem was not unique to Phoenix, and in 1983 the Ford Foundation formed the National Arts Stabilization Fund, contributing $7 million towards helping theater, dance, symphonic, and opera groups find firm financial footing. The Andrew W. Mellon and Rockefeller Foundations also contributed $1.5 million and $500,000, respectively. In 1986 the organization brought the National Arts Stabilization program to Arizona, its only statewide venture. Arizona’s Flinn Foundation and business leaders allocated the funds to eligible institutions statewide without help from public funding. The program had rigorous standards and brought experts to teach leadership business strategies and long-term planning, providing the city not only with professional arts groups but economically vital programs.65 The program benefitted nine institutions including the PSO, Arizona Opera Company (AOC), ATC, and Actors Theatre Phoenix, totaling $5.7 million statewide. In 1991, the AOC received a five-year, $323,000 grant, helping with some of the $100,000 debt it accrued by the end of the 1990-1991 season. Despite the grants, the AOC and Michael Dixon, “Securing the Symphony’s Success,” Phoenix Magazine, February 1985, 87; Michael Dixon, “Saving the Symphony,” Phoenix Magazine, July 1985, 58, 140.

Kathleen Teltsch, “Fund to Stabilize Arts is Organized,” New York Times, July 25, 1983; Edward Lebow, “Edifice Complex,” Phoenix New Times, March 1, 2001.

ATC had not retired their debts by 1996, and both turned to the community to raise the remaining money funds ($100,000 for Opera and $83,000 for ATC). The PSO was able to recover its $700,000 debt by 1999. According to one board member from the Arizonans for Cultural Development lobby, “Basically, they forced these institutions into being good business people.”66 A combination of the NAS fund, other arts grants, government funding, and community support saved Phoenix’s professional groups.67 Where there were once only a few opportunities for performers to practice their talents, the Valley grew to host a rich variety of performing arts groups. The Arizona Opera, originally the Tucson Opera Company, was founded in 1971 and began offering programs in Phoenix and Tucson in 1976 in Symphony Hall. In 1986 three struggling ballet companies from Phoenix and Tucson – Phoenix Ballet, Arizona Dance Theatre, and Ballet West Arizona – merged into Ballet Arizona, which now joins the PSO and Arizona Opera at Symphony Hall. Additionally, the area had developed a flourishing choral music community over the years, featuring the Orpheus Male Chorus, ASU Choral Union, Phoenix Symphony Chorus, Arizona Masterworks Chorale, Phoenix Bach Choir, and Phoenix Boys Choir, many of which formed midcentury or earlier.68 Phoenix had Lebow, “Edifice Complex.” James Reel, “Arts Groups Holding Up, Yet Seek New Ways to Bang Tin Cup,” Arizona Daily Star, April 12, 1992; James Reel, “Arizona Opera Company Gets $323,261 Stabilization Grant,” Arizona Daily Star, January 24, 1991; Raina Wagner, “Arizona Opera, ATC Explore Paths to Escape Budget Pinch,” Arizona Daily Star, June 26, 1996; Christopher Reardon, “The Arts Mean Business,” Ford Foundation Report (1999), http://www.creardon.com/archives/FFR/FFR22.html.

“About,” Arizona Opera, accessed November 5, 2013, http://azopera.org/about/; “About the Company: Ballet Arizona,” The Kennedy Center, accessed November 5, 2013, http://www.kennedydeveloped a corps of dedicated artists by the 2000s, but organizations still struggled to find a consist support system beyond their love for their craft. They needed major support from all segments of the community.

Conclusion By the 2000s the older groups were well established as long-standing Valley institutions, and new groups and venues continued arriving. When artists arrived in the Valley before the war, there were few opportunities for professional development and hardly any groups or venues to showcase performances. Early performers and music educators created groups like the Musicians Club to help students hone their skills. Establishing a performing arts culture in the early decades made it easier for postwar groups to find some trained amateur talent, but only when Phoenix had a critical mass of performers could it host professional, full-time operations. Once the city was large enough to sustain multiple groups, venues, and audiences, performers had a variety of avenues to explore, ranging from the professional Phoenix Symphony Orchestra to the offbeat Nearly Nude Theatre to groups that serve specific communities like the Black Theatre Troupe.

Phoenix’s performing arts were as good as the artists, and as the city grew it was better able to foster that talent and signal cultural maturity. Civic leaders and cultural stewards have always known that performing arts groups are key to making Phoenix cosmopolitan;

however, the definition of “performance art” is a constant negotiation between performers, patrons, and audiences. As was the case with all of these groups, artistic vision was only as good as the support behind it.

center.org/explorer/artists/?entity_id=56511&source_type=O; VanderMeer, Desert Visions, 328.



Important aspects of Phoenix’s development can be traced to a few key individuals with the resources and influence to create the city they wanted. They took advantage of postwar prosperity to shape their ideal city, inspired by regional and national urban models. Civic leaders hoped to create a city based on Eastern definitions that would impress the nation; however, Phoenix’s history, size, ecology and economy made its urban development different than in those older cities. The vast amount of surrounding land discouraged vertical growth, population density, and a centralized downtown. Although these conditions made it difficult to build a concentrated city center, the desert attracted the defense industry, which used the relatively uninhabited areas to test products – particularly useful for aeronautics companies like Goodyear. After the war these companies shifted to producing consumer electronics, encouraging thousands to relocate to sunny Phoenix for its job opportunities and recreational adventures. Civic leaders wanted to expand these prospects and created a deliberate and strategic vision to continue Phoenix’s economic and cultural growth until it became a major urban center.

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