Orchestra Hall

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.

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