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85 years later, concert association still brings quality musicians to city

September 9, 2012
By JEAN HELLER - Special to the Sun-Gazette , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Before the Civil War, few professional musicians performed in Williamsport because suitable facilities for concerts were lacking.

However, that didn't stop Ole Bull, the great Norwegian violinist, from playing in Williamsport in 1852. He gave a recital in a courtroom of the first Lycoming County Courthouse, then the largest hall in Williamsport.

After the Ulman Opera House opened in Market Square in 1868, Williamsport became a regular stop for recitalists, instrumental ensembles and operatic troupes on tour.

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With the opening of the Academy of Music at the southwest corner of West Fourth and Pine streets in 1870 though, the really big names of the day began to appear in Williamsport. Such luminaries included Theodore Thomas and his orchestra, and Emma Abott and her Grand English Opera.

In 1892, musical stars of the world began to frequent Williamsport after the opening of the Lycoming Opera House at the southeast corner of West Third and Laurel streets.

Among the stars performing on its stage were Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the great German contralto; John McCormick, the eminent Irish tenor; and John Philip Sousa and his band. Appearances by such stellar artists in Williamsport reflected the high level of sophistication that area music lovers had attained by the late 19th century.

The Try-Out City

From the 1890s through the 1920s, young performers embarking on careers tried out in Williamsport before going on to the big cities. They knew that if they made good in Williamsport, they would succeed elsewhere, especially in New York City.

The presence of dozens of millionaires in Williamsport perhaps accounted for much of the community's cultural enlightenment that prevailed during that period.

After having made their fortunes from the area lumber stands, they and their families had both the means and the leisure with which to pursue the "finer things of life." And they took the pursuit quite seriously. In doing so, they set an example for the rest of the citizenry.

Some of Williamsport's wealthy families even acted as impresarios of sorts in that they occasionally sponsored or underwrote - often anonymously - local appearances of world-famous or nationally known artists.

By and large, however, the managements of the opera houses and theaters booked and financed the concerts of artists through various agents or agencies. They did so at great risk, more or less gambling on the public's whims, the weather or any competition. They often lost money on attractions because only a few hundred persons, instead of several hundred, showed up at the box office.

When the Lycoming Opera House burned down in 1915, Williamsporters recognized that it marked the end of an era. But the community's music lovers also wondered if the void that the loss of the opera house left ever could be filled, however slightly.

Concerts on

many stages

Over the past 84 years, the WCCA has presented its concerts in eight different auditoriums.

During the first two seasons (1928-29, 1929-30) the concerts were presented in the Majestic Theater at the southwest corner of Pine and West Church streets.

Through the years, concerts were performed in the auditorium of Knights of Columbus on West South Street; the gymnasium of the YWCA on West Fourth Street; and the auditorium of the Elks Club, then on East Fourth Street; the gymnasium of the former Williamsport Dickinson Seminary and Jr. College (now Lycoming College); a return to the Majestic Theater with a name change to Karlton Theater; and then to the auditorium of Roosevelt Middle School.

For the 1969-70 season, the concert association scheduled the then newly finished Scottish Rite auditorium on Market and Willow streets for its presentations. The acoustically splendid auditorium has served the association ever since - a total of 42 years.

In 1923, Williamsporter Oliver J. Decker inaugurated a Celebrated Artists Course under the auspices of the Williamsport Lions Club, of which he was the first president.

In five seasons, the course brought to Williamsport such attractions as the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch; the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Sokoloff; the English Singers of London; the Russian Symphonic Choir; Paul Whiteman and band; the New York Theater Guild Company; and others of equal merit.

Despite the efforts of Decker and the Lions Club, the Celebrated Artists Course found the going difficult. The risk at the box office proved great. Some attractions made money, while others lost money.

Some of the music lovers had heard of an Organized Audience Movement, developing around the country by the Community Concert Corporation in New York City. At a meeting, the city's music lovers discussed the possibility of investigating the Community Concert plan and establishing an association in Williamsport.

Decker was appointed to head the efforts to pursue the matter. He, in turn, named a seven-member committee to meet with a representative and either accept or reject what the New York corporation offered.

In mid-June 1928, Fay Hancock, a Community Concert Corporation representative, came to Williamsport to meet with the committee. The members accepted her proposal and a three-year contract was signed calling for the creation of the Williamsport Community Concert Association and the presentation of a series of programs by famous artists. Concerts would be by season membership only.

With the formation of the association, 17 men and women were appointed to work under Decker, chairman of the executive committee. Also, an advisory council of 66 members was created to assist the executive committee.

The first membership campaign of the Williamsport Community Concert Association began July 16, 1928, with a community luncheon meeting at the Park Hotel, which later became the Park Home and is now Park Place, at the northwest corner of West Fourth and Campbell streets. Members of all service clubs and women's organizations of the city attended the luncheon, which cost $1.

Principal speaker was Dr. Sigmund Spaeth, head of the Community Concert Corporation in New York City, who was a well-known music critic and author. His brother, the Rev. H. Douglas Spaeth, served as pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Williamsport for many years.

Dr. Spaeth explained the Community Concert plan in full and launched a week-long drive for membership. He and Miss Hancock of Community Concert Corporation remained in Williamsport during the week to assist with the campaign.

The goal of the drive was 1,150 memberships, the capacity of the Majestic Theatre at the southwest corner of Pine and Church streets, where the concerts were to be presented. Memberships for the 1928-29 season were $6, $8 and $10.

For the campaign, service clubs and women's groups organized into teams, headed by captains, to vie for enrolling the most members.

By Friday, July 20, 1928, the teams of the Clio Club and Woman's Club led in the number of memberships that were enrolled. The Lions Club was second, and the Business and Professional Women's Club was third.

Although the goal was not met, the 700 memberships assured a series. For the three weeks that followed, they continued to work on meeting the goal. By mid-August, they succeeded in attaining 1,000 memberships.

The program committee then began to consider artists for appearances in Williamsport. The four-member committee was headed by Louis Welker Jr.

Dr. Spaeth, of New York City, made a trip to Williamsport to advise the committee. The five attractions were announced, but before the season opened, two substitutions were necessary.

The five finalized programs presented were Doris Niles and her ballet troupe; a joint recital by Sylvia Lent, violinist, and Ifor Thomas, tenor; the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Nikolai Sokoloff; John Charles Thomas, baritone; and Lawrence Tibbet, baritone.

Six months later, a membership campaign for the 1929-30 season was conducted. Enrolled within several weeks were 1,000 persons, thus assuring another season of five concerts.

For the next five years, the association felt the effects of the 1929 depression. Memberships fell under 1,000 during 1930-31 and 1931-32 seasons, when the association could afford to present only four concerts.

Then as economic conditions worsened and membership declined to several hundred, the association could offer only three concerts for the next three seasons.

After World War II, the association received many more applications for membership than the Karlton Theater could accommodate with its capacity of 1,150.

Finally, the waiting list reached nearly several hundred, so the association began a second series of concerts in 1948.

To distinguish the two series, one was designated the white series and the other the blue series. Equal artistic merit was maintained by both, and the two series lasted three seasons. Many members belonged to both. In 1951, the annual membership campaign was scheduled in the spring instead of fall.

In February 1952, the Robert Shaw Chorale concert marked the quarter-century of the association. For three seasons, 1952-1955, the association presented five concerts per year, just as done its first two seasons. Then again, the next season's rising costs and financial limitations necessitated a drop back to four concerts.

During the next 20 years, costs continued to climb slowly, forcing officials to raise dues from time to time.

By 1975, spiraling inflation made balancing the budget increasingly difficult. Officials realized that membership dues could not continue to rise or the association would lose members, and if dues weren't high enough, the association would face financial trouble.

Finally, in 1976, the officers and directors realized that they could no longer rely on dues alone so they established an endowment fund.

While not a panacea, the fund was meant to keep the association solvent to help sustain the quality of the concerts, and to help keep membership dues at reasonable levels.

Local businesses, companies, corporations and individuals were solicited for yearly contributions to build the fund. In 1978, the association received tax-exemption status and approval for incorporation.

When the umbrella organization went under in 2002-03, the Williamsport Association continued on its own financing and selling concerts, and, in addition, selecting, after careful study, the programs of musical performance for Williamsport to enjoy.

Today, Williamsport Community Concert Association is the only organization, or at least one of a very small number of organizations in the country, to bring to its community musical programs of quality at an unbelievably inexpensive price.

On the eve of its 85th anniversary, the durability and well-being that the Williamsport Community Concert Association has enjoyed through the years are attributed to two groups: the 500 to 600 subscribers who annually buy season tickets; and the campaign, membership and executive committees of the Concert Association who pool their creative and physical resources without pay to bring seasons of quality entertainment to Williamsport.

Season tickets are now on sale for $50, $60 and $65.

For more information, visit wcca.

For ticket information, email wccatickets@gmail .com or call Dorothy Maples at 323-6012.



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