The Orchestra Hall people had none of the problems I’d expected with the incongruity of playing folk music on their stage. Richard Dyer-Bennet had played there, Robeson had played there, the Weavers had played there.
The truth was, I found out, that these classical fans overlapped heavily with the folk audience. WFMT, the radio station that pioneered the folk boom in Chicago with a program called the Midnight Special, identified its own listenership as the Lakeshore area, the poshest white Jewish and Protestant neighborhood in Chicago, plus a little section in Hyde Park for the liberals and the middle-class Jews. Studs Terkel weighed in weekly with an interview program that defied McCarthyism on the cultural and literary levels and, not incidentally, drew a broad spectrum of affluent, educated listeners.
That’s always been who comes to hear classical music, and it was pretty much a section of that audience, along with a section of the surviving old left, that came to support folk music, once they found out about it. Those were the first people I had to sell myself to: the Symphony fans, the intellectuals and the socially ambitious.
Walter Hendel, the assistant conductor at the Symphony, was a good example of that classical-to-folk music crossover audience himself. I met him early on while booking Orchestra Hall, and over time he began to come regularly to the folk concerts.
Hendel was chosen to become the music director at Ravinia, the Symphony‘s outdoor venue, which always had a modified pop schedule alongside its classical bookings. This was a big deal for a conductor. Conductors were paid quite well, but the way they made their real money was by hiring a colleague for ten grand or so to be guest conductor for a week, and then collecting an invitation back to the guest‘s home turf in return.
Somehow Hendel had had conceived the notion that I would have a better idea of how to produce non-classical concerts at Ravinia than the people who were doing it already. He also figured, l’m sure, that my presence would enhance his own prestige. That was fine with me — in fact, I was very excited about it. I was increasingly aware of the value of that sort of prestige.
What I didn’t know was whose toes Hendel had stepped on on his way to Ravinia. Earl Lutgen, the chairman of Ravinia, was also on the Symphony board. He ran a big advertising company and was every inch the refined WFMT sort. Being on the board of the Chicago Symphony is, for those who are concerned with those things, a terribly prestigious thing in the establishment pecking order. That meant there were a lot of second- or third-generation heirs and heiresses who had an interest in classical music and the money to back it up. It took longer then to buy your way into respectable society than it does today.
Lutgen called me late one night and in very unrefined language warned me I should have nothing to do with Hendel or I would never get to use Orchestra Hall again. In the end, the fight meant the deal with me was off. It was not that much different from the corruption and strong—arm tactics that characterized the pop world, the only difference being that this variety had several more centuries of refinement. The manners were better, because old money has had time to wash.