Stories about events in 1961

Orchestra Hall (2)

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on August 14th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser-known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come. That‘s not how it worked out.
In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.
Harry Zelzer, the man who controlled the classical music market in Chicago, would always come out in front of the audience to present his shows. He knew many of his regular concert-goers by sight, even by name. I tried to do the same. I would be in the front of the house before each show, taking care of problems and misunderstandings. After the business really exploded, I couldn’t keep up with that personal element any more, but I kept at it for as long as I could.

Tickets by mail

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on July 18th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The ticketing process was a terrible bother. In 1960 this was still a handicraft business — no Ticketron or Ticketmaster to take care of it for you. People would send in a check for their season tickets, and we would laboriously record their names and addresses by hand for our mailing list. I had lifted the method from Harry Zelzer, the classical impresario, whose business depended almost entirely on his mailing list. It worked, but it was not the most efficient way to run a business.
Usually we sent the tickets out before the checks cleared. Those records are all lost now, but I think our bad checks amounted to half of one percent of the total, if that. When someone sent you a check, the check was presumed to be good, and you sent out the product by return mail.
I was interested to note that most of the bad checks we did get came from what I thought of as the newly-rich areas of town — not the establishment or middle-class neighborhoods, and not from where the poor lived, but from the new suburban developments that were springing up all over. That‘s where they tried the hardest to beat you. As time went on this began to get out of hand, and in the end, when Ticketron came along, I got out of the ticket business altogether with a sigh of relief.

Orchestra Hall

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on July 14th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony, was one of the three major concert venues in Chicago, along with the Opera House and the Ampitheatre.
It was a rather austere-looking room, but its acoustics made it one of the finer symphony halls in the country. The Symphony played there Thursday nights, Friday afternoons (for the dowagers and the retired gentlemen), and Saturday evenings. Occasionally, when the Symphony was out on tour, there would be a Saturday open, but the only thing you could program very far in advance was acts that drew on Friday nights. That was perfect for folk music.
I built my first folk concert series around the availability of those Friday nights at Orchestra Hall. I had no cash to operate on, but I knew a few of the artists I wanted to book. You couldn‘t work that way forever, of course. I knew I had to find a way to get more tickets sold in advance, so I could build up some cash up front. But that would have to wait. For now, the performers and I were both winging it. They needed the exposure I could give them as much as I needed them.
By the middle of 1961, the Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba had agreed to come and play Orchestra Hall in the fall and winter. Harold Leventhal, who I knew from the Pete Seeger concerts, sent along Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We were off.
I designed the series to look just like the classical series that were all the rage. As far as I knew, I was the first promoter outside the long-hair world to launch a subscription series like this, and that quickly gave me a degree of respectability that often eluded the lowly pop promoter. Many of the artists, not incidentally, liked the way some of that cachet rubbed off on them.

Lineball

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on December 8th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

In June of 1961 I moved to 156 East Superior. This was my second move since I had left the steel mill and embarked on my show business career, and like the first move, it was somewhat symbolic. I must have been confident that I was going to make it, because my rent doubled, to $200 a month. I was moving to the other side of Michigan Avenue, into an apartment in an old thirty-two-flat building, seven rooms instead of two, with an old-fashioned elevator with a grate that you had to close by hand. I used the place both as a living space and as an office. It was nothing approaching luxury, but it was comfortable.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was running a business. Until now, I’d done everything myself: put together the advertising, delivered the tickets to the record stores that were selling them for us, handled the maiI-order sales. On show nights, I ran the backstage operation and the front of the house, and was in my seat by fifteen minutes after the curtain went up. The most help I ever had was a part-time secretary. There just wasn’t any more going on than I had the energy to cover.

This was still a very small part of the entertainment business, and it was no strain to attend all the concerts. And I would have gone anyway. I understood the music and the performers, all of whom were my contemporaries, give or take ten years. Some were my friends. I respected what they did, and I believed in them — at least I believed they were sincere about what they thought they were doing. Whether they were indeed doing what they thought they were doing is another question, which history will have to judge. At a minimum, they were offering what I thought of as listening music, music that located its message in the lyric, not so much in the rhythm or the effects.

I had no social life to speak of, but I did find time to play steady lineball for a while. A handful of men about my age were getting together occasionally at Lakeshore Park, about four blocks from my office. One of the hip young priests at Holy Name Cathedral who I’d met hanging around the Gate of Horn invited me to join them. We could get a spot in the park at odd times during the day, because we all worked mostly nights. A couple of the guys owned saloons, another was a bartender, and the priest, of course, could play any day except Sunday. For about a year and a half we kept a casual six-team league going.

Lineball was a very fast·moving, quintessentially Chicago game that I think has died out by now. You played with a 16-inch softball. It was the ideal game if you only had enough people for a pitcher, an infielder and an outfielder. Not being the greatest of runners, though, I liked it better than regular softball. The field was a narrow slice of a pie: you didn‘t cover the whole 90-degree angle, and you didn‘t run bases. You hit the ball a certain distance for a single, a double, a triple or a home run, and you only got one strike. lf you fouled once, you were out.

The Vegas Tonic

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on October 8th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

You would have thought that if Pete Seeger could do so well, all was going to be easy from here on out. It was not. I always seemed to be operating on the margin, and I was having a distressing number of flops interspersed with my successful shows. There just didn‘t seem to be enough concert product to sustain that side of the business.

The management side was not doing too well, either. By this time it was becoming clear that the Gateway Singers were not going to make it, and the Coachmen, another promising folk group I had taken on, broke up before they could go very far. I was about ready to throw in the towel on this whole business when I went to California, with a stop in Las Vegas, to do some business for the Gateway Singers. I had scheduled a concert with Carlos Montoya, the flamenco guitarist, when I got back.

I’d never seen anything like Vegas before. Jerry Lewis was playing either the Sands or the Flamingo, and I asked the pit boss how Lewis was doing. “Very poorly,” he told me. “He brings a bad kind of clientele in here.” My antennas perked up — I thought maybe I was going to get a revelation. And he said, “He brings in people with children.”

lf you could resist the tables, Vegas was an incredible deal. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie in a lounge and there wasn’t even a two-drink minimum. I had never seen gourmet food in such abundance. The traces of the social psychologists were very much in view. Everywhere you went the idea was to get you to pass the tables and play. Playing poker, I remember asking a woman next to me what time it was, and she just looked at me and said, “There is no time in Vegas.” lt’s a little like pornography: the expectation is always better than the reality.

It‘s the sterility of the city that gets to you. It was a much warmer place when the so-called hoods were running it. Now that a more corporate breed of gangster has moved in, you don’t get a very good show. You don’t get very good food. The accommodations are glitzier and a little more sterile. The basic motivation is still to get you to spend as much money at the tables as possible, only now they don’t want to give you anything back.

When the old mob ran it, it at least seemed like you got something for your money. I think when the corporate world saw how much money was being made in Vegas, they decided it was too good for the mob. They were like Queen Elizabeth in that old joke, asking Prince Philip on their wedding night, “Milord, is this what the masses call fucking?” “Why, yes, milady.” “Well, rnilord, it’s much too good for the masses.”

Vegas was a tonic, though. When I returned to Chicago, much to my surprise, I had made two thousand on the Montoya concert. My spirits were up, and it was onward and upward.

Orchestra Hall

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on April 2nd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

By 1961 people were coming out in pretty fair numbers for folk acts, and whatever the case had been a few years before, it was no longer politics that was selling the tickets. What the audiences wanted to listen to was happy, engaging, relatively depoliticized music, and in most cases I had what they wanted.

Of all the pop-folk acts I booked, the Chad Mitchell Trio was perhaps the most political, and even their sharpest stuff was really light social satire, chosen more for its attention-getting features than anything else. Folk artists were there to entertain, and there was nothing wrong with that. (Of course, some purists on the left looked down on it. There was always some theorist willing to try to rein in this irrelevant, frivolous pursuit with some line or other.)

Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony, was one of the three major concert venues in Chicago, along with the Opera House and the Amphitheatre. It was a rather austere-looking room, but its acoustics almost certainly made it one of the finer symphony halls in the country. The Symphony played there Thursday nights, Friday afternoons (for the dowagers and the retired gentlemen), and Saturday evenings. Occasionally, when the Symphony was out on tour, there would be a Saturday open, but the only thing you could program very far in advance was acts that drew on Friday nights. That was perfect for folk music.

I built my first folk concert series around the availability of those Friday nights at Orchestra Hall. I had no cash to operate on, but I knew a few of the artists I wanted to book. You couldn’t work that way forever, of course. I knew I had to find a way to get more tickets sold in advance, so I could build up some cash up front. But that would have to wait. For now, the performers and I were both winging it. They needed the exposure I could give them as much as I needed them. By the middle of 1961, the Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba had agreed to come and play Orchestra Hall that fall and winter. Harold Leventhal, who I knew from the Pete Seeger concerts, sent along Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We were off.

I designed the series to look just like the classical series that were all the rage. As far as I knew, I was the first promoter outside the long-hair world to launch a subscription series like this, and that quickly gave me a degree of respectability that often eluded the lowly pop promoter. Many of the artists, not incidentally, liked the way some of that cachet rubbed off on them.

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser—known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts, but that‘s not how it worked out. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come.

In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.

Dick Gregory

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on August 27th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Dick Gregory came to me in 1961 to promote a series of concerts for him at the Opera House. l think Dick already had an idea where l came from, or at least he understood the wavelength l was on. When l met him, Dick was picketing Mayor Daley’s house every day to protest the mayor’s opposition to integrating the Chicago public school system. A number of people were doing that — my wife Francoise was out there with him all six weeks — but what set Dick apart was that he was playing an engagement at the Hungry i in San Francisco at the same time. Every night after his show he would get on the red-eye flight and show up at Daley’s house to resume picketing. Dick was a very unusual man, but we understood each other well.

Dick wanted to produce his own shows right then, to take charge of his own career. The problem was, even though Dick had zoomed out of nowhere — and he did put on a good show by this time — he and his people had an exaggerated idea of how far he had zoomed. Papering the house was not what I was hired for, but by the day of the first concert that’s what l was doing. It was part of the game: when the show doesn’t sell, you discreetly give away seats to fill it up. This house was especially difficult to paper, because Dick had scheduled three nights, which was ambitious at best.

The traffic cop who worked the Opera House beat in those days used to make his money by letting people park in the ubiquitous no-parking zones on show nights and collecting a fee for not ticketing them. He sent for me to come out of the lobby the night of the second concert. “Are you the promoter?” he demanded, glaring down at me from his saddle. l admitted it, and he began to chew me out for bringing in this kind of show. l was thinking he must have racist objections to Gregory’s material, until he pulled out a sheaf of complimentary tickets and said, “l can’t even sell these.” Someone had given him a handful of tickets in lieu of parking money, and he had thought he’d be able to double his take. A guy had to make a living, he explained to me, and he couldn’t afford these shows that didn‘t sell. Didn’t l have any brains? Didn’t l know what l was doing?

l gathered that this was the way one worked with the police in Chicago. On this level, the corruption was wide open. This man regarded himself as a businessman who had been given the franchise to the Opera House, and l was putting his franchise in jeopardy.