By JOHN DeMERS
There I was last week, recording a Houston ArtsWeek radio interview with June Christensen of Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts along with John Breckenridge of Theatre Under The Stars – and I found myself thinking about two strange things. One is that both of these arts professionals serve as CEOs of their organizations, which kinda made me wish I could be a CEO of something before I die. But the other, surely more profound, was the realization that both of these new friends are taking the place of old friends – in fact, of two of the very first people who welcomed me to Houston.
Toby Mattox and Frank Young are still very much alive, so this isn’t one of those columns; I see them now and again working the lobby at some performance or other. It’s what they did best in an older and probably simpler time, making Houston a much better city while they were at it. Each, in a sense, was an arts pioneer. And each left us, in retirement, with an essential part of our arts lives that might never have existed had they not been around.
Life works that way. We’re not given anything, as a country or a city or as individuals, unless somebody works hard and makes sacrifices to give it to us.
Long before I interviewed June about the work she now does at SPA (in fact, about the work she did alongside Toby for 18 years), I of course interviewed Toby. And first, naturally, I wanted to know what SPA actually was. What it wasn’t was a group with a specific art form to trumpet – not the opera, the ballet or the symphony, in other words. It was a collection of those things, and a whole lot more.
SPA was (and still very much is) a “presenting organization.” It – meaning mostly Toby for 25 years, and, since October 2007, June – researched what performing artists were available in the marketplace, what guarantees and other arrangements might lure them to Houston, what deals with Dallas, Austin or San Antonio might make travel to Texas less of a burden, and what dates on an ever-shifting calendar might serve all concerned. Everyone wants a sellout, for all the right reasons. Nobody wants an empty theater. And the daily flight toward the first and away from the second must be dizzyingly complex.
In some ways, I’ve always thought, I would love to do that job. In others, I’ve always known when reality set in, I should run fast and far the other way.
Toby didn’t run away. He rode herd on not only each season’s calendar full of diverse artists – and everybody knows how artists can be, and if not them, their agents – while also delicately balancing the demands of his local board. I’m sure the SPA board has no egos on it, naturally, but other boards I’ve worked with in my life certainly did. Navigating not one but two minefields, Toby helped pass on to June the honor of “Bringing the World’s Best to Houston.” Since its beginnings four decades ago, SPA has presented more than 750 performances – with 17 more scheduled this season. And I, for one, am grateful.
Appropriately, John Breckenridge worked almost the same number of years alongside Frank Young at TUTS as June worked alongside Toby at SPA – so much for questions about continuity, right? Still, if anyone was the face of his organization more than Toby was, it had to be Frank. TUTS was his vision from the beginning, back when the whole idea was to produce free performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Thus the name, Theatre Under the Stars, long since wrestled indoors to the old Music Hall, occasionally to the Arena (Miss Saigon in the round there was my first TUTS performance) and finally to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. It’s probably because of Frank, more than any other loud and persistent voice, that a public-private partnership was formed to give us the Hobby Center in the first place.
TUTS faces serious challenges these days, far beyond its upcoming six-show season, as of course does SPA. And sometimes, for John as indeed for me, the glory days of stars and Disney world premieres and TUTS shows heading for Broadway must seem ancient history. Money is tight for all the arts, impossibly tight sometimes – from the corporations who once funded individual shows or even whole seasons to the Houston families that now have to choose between season tickets and, well, you get the idea. Part of me wishes I had my old friends Toby and Frank back to help us through these hard times – or at least to give what would probably be their 1,784,413th curtain speeches and promise us in the audience it’ll all turn out all right.
At the same time, they faced their challenges and we have to face ours. These are, make no mistake, new and different challenges. Nearing the end of our radio interview, I glance at June and then at John – and I decide that as long as we have SPA and TUTS, it’ll all turn out all right.