A Man for All Performances

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2008)

Richard Magat

Danny Newman, who died last year (2007) at the age of eighty-eight, was a major post- World War II patron of the arts, but his contributions were not personal checks. Rather, they lay in helping arts companies—theaters, orchestras, dance groups, operas—build strong, committed audiences, providing the sound financial basis they needed to survive and flourish. His major tool was the promotion of subscriptions, a wide-ranging effort embodied in his book Subscribe Now! Building Arts Audiences through Dynamic Subscription Promotion. Published in 1977, it is used in thirty-one countries and has been printed in ten editions.

“He worked tirelessly on behalf of arts companies through the world,” said William Mason, general director of Chicago's Lyric Opera, of which Newman was a godfather. A more expansive tribute was paid by W. McNeil Lowry, late vice president of the Ford Foundation and creator of its Humanities and Arts division. He said of Newman, “Danny has done more for performing arts in this country than ten foundations. His extraordinary achievements will be written in the history of the performing arts of our time.” He described him as a one-man foundation.

Lowry and Newman were an odd couple. Lowry, a former college teacher of English and journalist, was an aesthete. He edited Accent, a literary journal, and contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Progressive, and Antioch Review, among others.

Newman was an impressario who navigated both the genteel circles of boards of directors of orchestras and opera companies and the rough and tumble of press agentry. He beat the drums for top vaudeville acts, including Laurel and Hardy, Jimmy Durante, and fan dancer Sally Rand.

Schooled in the Yiddish Theater, over the years Newman was also an actor, script writer, modern-dance impresario, vaudeville, radio, television and legitimate theater publicist, advance agent, house manager, general manager, and producer. He owned three motion-picture theaters in the pre-television era (including a twenty-four-hour facility in the Chicago Loop), pioneered a celebrity radio show, and promoted drive-in movie theaters. He also acted in radio dramas with John Huston and other notables, and he publicized the Chicago premiere of Citizen Kane, which Orson Welles attended.

Newman drew on his experience with far-flung clients to perfect his techniques—the use of telephone sales tactics, for example, with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Even in the Internet age, he made a case for the effectiveness of door-to-door solicitations. And he helped the Theatre Communications Group and others lobby for the preservation of third-class nonprofit postage privilege, a vital subsidy for theatrical sales promotion.

A Proselytizer for Subscriptions
Newman sold his first subscription when he was fourteen years old. The beneficiary was the Mummers of Chicago, a civic theater group, and he went from house to house, apartment to apartment, ringing doorbells and convincing the residents to signup for his season.

He didn't invent subscription sales, however; the Theatre Guild organized a subscription audience in New York in the 1920s and toured their best plays to audiences in many other American cities. Columbia Concerts demonstrated the power of subscription to draw audiences to classical music. But Newman promoted a dramatic increase in the use of the technique both through his book and, as importantly, through seminars and visits to artistic institutions throughout the country and as far away as Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories. A profusion of professional nonprofit theaters sprang up wherever he broadcast his message.

He created subscriberships for more than 500 performing-arts companies. Many of the new subscribers also became contributors. He spread his techniques through a dozen European and Asian countries. He established the first subscription drives for opera and theater in Britain—the Scottish Opera and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Learning of Newman's prowess in building audiences, Lowry in 1961 persuaded him to leave commercial show business and focus on nonprofit professional arts. For twenty years then, as a consultant for the Ford Foundation, Newman proselytized the use of subscriptions, which entice people to buy several tickets at a time and fills seats and company coffers. His techniques were recounted in another of his books, Tales of a Theatrical Guru, published in 2006.

In an epilogue to Subscribe Now! Newman gave proof of the success of his subscription promotion efforts by including a partial list of results. (See chart above.)

Newman was an astute analyst of theatrical dynamics. He once replied to managers who were spooked by the rising cost of mailing brochures by pointing out that ticket prices were rising even more, so the performing group was doing better than the cost of mailing. His advice was often commonplace, e.g., comparing the costs of various selling techniques to the cost of “acres of empty seats.” In his fourteen-year stint for the Chicago Lyric Opera, the company often enjoyed a sales rate over 100 percent, as subscribers who couldn't attend returned tickets to be sold a second time.

Newman's lessons were rich in humor. He once compared symphony orchestras that relied primarily on the same subscription holders year after year to Civil War statues of long-gone heroes that serve mainly as pigeon roosts: “Often they've been in their communities for generations; 99.9 percent of the populations would pass them by daily and never attend their concerts.”

Newman was scathing in his criticism of buyers of single tickets. In a chapter titled “The Slothful Fickle Single-Ticket Buyer vs. The Saintly Season Subscriber,” he complained:

The single-ticket buyer doesn't buy when it's too hot or too cold outside. He stays at home if it snows, if it rains, if there's ice on the road, sleet in the air... He is so perverse that he doesn't even come if it is a beautiful day, claiming that he must be outdoors, in communion with Nature...he doesn't make it to a performance if he feels tired. Or if out-of-town visitors appear, or if he isn't ‘in the mood.’ If we happen to be producing a serious work at the moment, he'll say he hankers for light entertainment. He is deflected by reading what he interprets to be a negative review in the press. And even if the notices are unanimously splendid, he conveniently remembers one of six years ago that was bad.

Once in a blue moon he cracks and appears at the box office. Why? It's his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and he's promised the L'il Woman that he's going to take her to the theatre. [Then] the box office manager informs him that the fifth row, center seats he requested are, of course, in the hands of subscribers. He is at once surprised and annoyed. After much argumentation he finally accepts the best available locations and enters the house with an it-had-better-be-damned-good attitude. Yes, he is the very model of a contemporary single-ticket buyer, and must be counted, I suppose, as one cut above those who never buy tickets.

Newman also notes that the success of subscriptions has countered the life-and-death judgment of critics. Especially in nonprofit theaters, a company that has sold most of its seats for advance performances can weather a negative review of its opening venture. One critic who was a target of many a Newman promotional campaign, Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune said of him, “He was Mr. Hard Sell himself, but he did it in a very ingratiating way.”

Artists of Infinite Variety
As a prodigious teen-age theatrical manager/press agent, Newman fancied himself more emotionally connected than older professional colleagues: “I saw myself, somehow, romantically, as fighting for the actors, singers, dancers, musicians, conductors, directors, choreographers like a medieval knight in combat for the honor of the ladies fair.”

As The Wall Street Journal recalled, several opera companies had closed in the decades before Newman took over publicity and marketing for the Chicago Lyric Opera: “A splashy three-week opening season at the Lyric featured a publicist's dream, Maria Callas in her American debut.” Ms. Callas was the star again in 1955 for a triumphant return as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. After her final performance, federal marshals converged on Ms. Callas to serve her with legal papers in a dispute with a former manager. Newman, tipped to the lawmen's presence, connived to have photographers on hand. The resulting photo of an enraged diva still in her stage kimonos ran in newspapers through-out the world.

The figures whose careers he advanced were a Who's Who of the entertainment world: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, Woody Herman, Danny Kaye, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, Lawrence Welk, Xavier Cugat, David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Renata Tebaldi, Gladys Swarthout, Alicia Markova, and Joe Papp. He carried out exotic assignments—Kabuki Dancers of Japan, the Dancers of Bali, and the annual Kelly Bowl Games in Soldier Field.

In an autobiographical effusion, Newman once wrote that he had been involved with:

...artists of infinite variety, horse operas, soap opera, light opera, comic opera, and grand opera; with crooners, pop singers, liturgical singers, calypso singers, torch singers, jazz singers, choral singers, and opera singers; with guitar and banjo strummers, mandolin pickers, and harp pluckers; tap dancers, ballet dancers, soft-shoe dancers, ballroom dancers, modern dancers, adagio dancers, and exotic dancers.

I've been associated with movie producers, radio producers, television producers, legitimate stage prodders, and all of their actors, dancers, choreographers, photographers, directors, and designers. I've come up through those melodramas, musical shows, sports shows, wild western shows, circus shows, tent shows, carnival shows, Wild West shows, vaudeville shows, and minstrel shows. puppet shows, touring theaters, stock theaters, burlesque theaters, revue theaters, Yiddish theaters, variety theaters, cabaret theaters, Broadway theaters, off-Broadway theaters, and avant-garde theaters, too...I count 8890 motion pictures in my promotional background.

“Danny Appleseed”
Newman once described his own career as his “'Danny Appleseed'” performing arts odyssey of many years.” In Studs Terkel's introduction to Newman's Tales of a Theatrical Guru, Terkel observed, “No matter what the milieu—grand opera, symphony, burlesque, wild west show, ballet, circus, theater, pageant, whatnot—Danny Newman has been there, a Joshua blowing his trumpet and all the walls of resistance came tumbling down.”

He was a writer as well as a speaker in great demand. He wrote book reviews for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times, drama-page articles, and articles for journals. In Tales of a Theatrical Guru, Newman chronicles the foibles of innumerable characters in the arts world—Milton Berle's overweening insistence on top billing, Jimmy Durante's mangling of the English language, Laurel and Hardy's hilarious encounter with traditional Jewish food, Ohio-born Roy Rogers transformation to a Wild West star, Frank Sinatra's ferocious reactions to ethnic slurs, the craftsmanship of the pin-up-girl artist Alberto Varga, Sam Wanamaker's campaign to restore England's Globe Theatre.

He was married for forty years to a leading lady of the Yiddish theater, Dina Halpern, whose family had been wiped out in the Holocaust. One of the Chicago Lyric's biggest stars, she was a featured singer in South America as well as the United States. She was so punctilious about her share of the box office, Newman recalled, that she traveled with her own full-sized adding machine.

In World War II he fought as an infantryman in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and was a highly decorated survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He was knighted by the Italian government, received the prestigious Gold Baton Award of the American Symphony Orchestra League and many other honors.

In a tribute to Newman's gargantuan energy, the Ford Foundation's Lowry observed, “Newman displayed humility in the presence of the true artist, or in the company of any person equally dedicated to a cause...Finally above and beneath all is the moral universe in which Newman (found) his being: There is hope for everyone.”

Richard Magat, former president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation and communications director of the Ford Foundation, is the author of Unlikely Partners: Philanthropic Foundations and the Labor Movement (Cornell University Press) and many other books and articles.