Applauding a movement:
Nearing 100 Years of Civic Music

by Christopher Sampson

Today, in a world of music on-demand, personal playlists, and competing concert venues, such scarcity seems the stuff of a distant century.

Crowds of citizens line up to pool their scarce dollars, hopeful of luring far-away performers to visit their towns, thrilling at the very prospect of hearing professional-caliber musicians, live and in-person.

It was a different, if not distant, century. It was “civic music,” an important grassroots cultural and commercial movement of smalltown America in the 1920s, and its melodies and business model still echo in places including Green Bay, Fond du Lac, and Sturgeon Bay.

One such survivor is the Brown County Civic Music Association, which approaches its 100th anniversary in 2027. “Long before the Weidner Center,” summarized one newspaper columnist several years ago, “the Association served as the cultural heart of this area.”

Its birth was heralded by a small notice in the local newspaper in January 1927.

An early 1960s photo of former president Don Poh with Beaux Arts Trio
An early 1960s photo of former president Don Poh with Beaux Arts Trio

“…There is to be formed in Green Bay a new organization which promises to become an important factor in the civic life of the city. It is to be the Civic Music Association of Green Bay, an organization fostered by a group of music lovers of the city. Every man, woman and child will be invited to membership, and it is expected that this membership will make it possible to bring to Green Bay the world’s greatest artists and famous musical attractions, thus, it is hoped, putting Green Bay on the list of metropolitan cities which are doing artistic things on a big scale.”

April 13, 1932 - Photo of a season kickoff dinner held each spring at the Northland ballroom to rally volunteer solicitors to sell subscriptions for the next fall's concert series.
April 13, 1932 – Photo of a season kickoff dinner held each spring at the Northland ballroom to rally volunteer solicitors to sell subscriptions for the next fall’s concert series.

More was explained days later at a kickoff dinner at the Northland Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom. The Green Bay club would be affiliated with the Civic Concert Association of Chicago, a “brokerage house of all New York artists that will send any city in the United States those artists who are desired by the community.” Proceeds from a one-week membership campaign, at $5 per person, would determine the number and nature of the performers to be booked.

Several hundred lined up to join on the spot, even before a Mr. Ward French of the Civic Music parent office arrived by train to drum up additional interest and welcome Green Bay to “the league of 103 cities.” French made his pitch to the Knights of Columbus, the Gyro Club, the Catholic Women’s Club, the Lions’ Club, the Green Bay Women’s Club, the Little Theatre Group, and others.

Sales-team organizers announced, ambitiously, that “every home in the city will be visited.” The designated dropoff point of Nicholson Hardware Store at Washington and Cherry streets indeed proved a busy place as, within days, nearly a thousand paid memberships poured in.

Conditions were right. In Green Bay as elsewhere, the general public was hungry for professional-quality performing arts after a first taste through radio, film and the phonograph. This new co-op model would make live entertainment a reliable commodity, no longer a risky promotion at the whims of the public, the weather or competition from other local events. Fees could be lowered if concert tours expanded to include nearby towns. What’s more, families who had been indifferent to “highbrow” single concerts were attracted to a whole season with varied offerings at a reasonable price.

So it was, with cash in hand up front, the Green Bay chapter led by founding president H.A. Barkhausen moved quickly to secure a concert by a star of the national Civic Music stable, a “prima donna” of the Chicago opera.

In the March 23, 1927 edition of the Press-Gazette, tucked alongside more prosaic advertisements for the likes of Horlick’s Original Malted Milk, Allenrhu’s remedy for “the torturing pains of neuritis,” and new full-size cars for $750, was this:
“Edith Mason
In Concert
Columbus Club Auditorium

Interestingly, the notice was placed not by series organizers. Passes had been distributed only to members weeks earlier; no tickets would be sold at the door. Instead, the ad by the local Brunswick Records store (“Panatropes and Radiolas,” too) rode the pre-concert hullabaloo by encouraging members to stop for a free, recorded preview of Miss Mason’s vocal stylings, and perhaps even purchase a disk for posterity.

The concert’s day-after review, on the Press-Gazette front page, was glowing to the point of incandescence:

Edith Mason Scores Triumph in First Civic Concert Here
March 25, 1927

“Edith Mason’s concert in the Columbus Club auditorium last evening was a double triumph: a triumph for Miss Mason and Isaac Van Grove, her pianist, and a triumph for the Green Bay Civic Music organization, whose first concert it was.

Miss Mason, the review continued, demonstrated her versatility by singing classical works with equal facility in Italian, French, German and English. Her encore included such popular contemporary numbers as “Oh, No, John,” “My Curly Headed Baby,” “The Little Irish Girl” and “Oh, Didn’t It Rain.”

A “huge” basket of roses was carried to the stage as the artist basked in cascades of adoring applause. A crowd estimated at 1,000 — seated by general admission (a populist tradition that continues to this day, as classical music lovers of even modern means can claim prime seating by arriving early) — filled the auditorium’s ground floor to overflowing.

Two more touring shows, the Chicago Little Symphony and the violin-piano duo of Gordon and Eschaniz, would soon follow. By the second season, 1927-28, demand swelled membership from 950 to 1,204 and provided working capital to expand to a four-show series.

In Green Bay, the printed program for Season Two’s opener —baritone John Charles Thomas, who had sung for the Coolidge inauguration — congratulated subscribers on their participation in the “organized audience” movement:

“(Nationally) Civic Music is now serving, through its associations, more than a million people in the progress of music in the United States. These organizations are distributed from Maine to California and from Canada to the Gulf. In commenting upon this accomplishment, a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune states: “Miss Dema E. Harshbarger (organization founder) is doing for music what Andrew Carnegie did for books.”

“The Association has been criticized for its refusal to sell tickets for individual concerts, except to house guests of members. The point is hardly well taken. After the members have had the foresight and initiative to bring the artists here, and have guaranteed their expense, they cannot be justly censured for not welcoming the casual visitor who has done none of the work, and whose interest does not extend beyond the few cents represented by a “single ticket.”

Subscribers were exhorted to recruit others, as additional dues-payers would mean more buying power and big-name acts. Members were also advised they were eligible to attend, at no additional charge if seating was available, concerts in sister cities with Civic Music chapters. Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, and Appleton were among those early affiliates.

In year three, the Green Bay series expanded to five concerts including the much-anticipated return of native flower Lucille Meusel, a soprano with the Chicago Civic Opera. Of that performance, a reviewer wrote, “the Columbus Community Club Auditorium was filled as never before. Paderewski, Galli-Curci – no one has attracted as large an audience as the dainty little Green Bay girl, who went out into the world and sought the Golden Fleece and brought it home to her people.”

The giddy mood was about to change, however. It was 1929.

A newspaper editorial celebrating the season finale (the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) felt it necessary to remind readers that prior to the advent of Civic Music, independent concerts had often lost money.

The music played on during the early years of the Great Depression. Green Bay and its papermaking economy fared better than other industrial centers, and the membership fee remained a low $5 per year. Still, attendance dipped.

Organizers moved the concerts around. An April 1933 show at the glittering new Orpheum Theatre in downtown Green Bay featured the National Chamber Orchestra and its esteemed director Rudolph Ganz. It was a critical success, but the Association’s volunteer board was sounding the financial alarm. President Milton F. Smith won low-price rental of the East and West high school auditoriums only after telling the School Board:

“The existence of the Civic Music Association hangs in the balance. Because of a falling off in memberships… we are faced with the absolute necessity of cutting our overhead. We will not economize on the type of program arranged, and the only way we can reduce our costs is to cut the price paid for an auditorium.”

“At the time, it was the only act in town,” she said. “There certainly weren’t programs like UW-Green Bay or St. Norbert have now, and the (Green Bay) Symphony wasn’t as formally organized.”

It was to no avail. At the end of 1933-34, the series fell dormant, for a decade.

It wouldn’t be until mid-1944, with optimism returning to the Midwest (and the world), that the Green Bay chapter stirred again. A representative of the national Civic Music Association, now based in New York City, visited and sold local leaders on the affordability of resuming a series. Annual membership remained only $5.
The ensemble Argentinita was the first concert.

Nationally, the network now known also as “Community Concerts” would expand quickly to an all-time high of 1,008 affiliate cities. Brown County Civic Music (also a name change) joined the boom.

During the 1947-48 season, a record membership enjoyed the local debut of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Just 27 years of age, he would be a full-fledged international sensation by 1954, when his tireless touring brought him back for a return engagement.

Stern would write later of those days, “The audiences in the small towns got to hear some of the best talent, artists they would never have heard had they not been brought in by the Community Concerts. In a tour of about twenty-five concerts a year… people became my friends, true friends. I would meet them, in the coming years, each time I returned to play in their towns.”

With the likes of Stern, even the Green Bay Fire Department grew interested, if only with regard to the potential fire hazard of standing-room-only crowds. President Peter Chiuminatto’s membership report for 1947 noted that “the capacity of West High School auditorium was sold out early in the week of the drive.” It became customary to sell 1,750 memberships despite a listed capacity of 1,575. If there weren’t enough “no-shows” to relieve the pressure, board members and their families were expected to surrender their seats.

Sylvia Kaufman, a 1952 transplant to Green Bay from Manhattan, recalled years later she was initially annoyed the classical music scene here came with a waiting list. With patience and entry to membership, however, she became a believer.

Audience preferences and fashion choices were different then, too, as described in board minutes of the day.

In April 1949, there was discussion about “the dissatisfaction of (booking) concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings – Thursday evening being choir rehearsals for many and Friday evenings, the stores being open.” Chorus and commerce won out, and Thursday and Friday nights became unofficially off limits.

The next year, the records show, “a complaint was given that the hats worn by women during concerts was very annoying. A suggestion was given that Mrs. (Elsie) Ansorge have a rubber stamp made with ‘Will you please remove your hats during the concert?’ and stamp this on each (printed) program. Mrs. Donovan offered to have her daughters take care of this.”

(There was no mention of ringing cell phones, of course, or other contemporary and perennial pet peeves such as loud crinkling of candy cough drop wrappers during pianissimo passages, or applause between concerto movements.)

The year 1954 marked further formalization, with incorporation as a non-profit organization officially dedicated to pursue “educational work in the field of music, to foster and coordinate civic interest in music and to that end to present each season a series of concerts by outstanding artists and musical organizations and local talent.”

A total of 70 civic-minded music lovers lent their support to incorporation as founding directors. Among them was Mrs. Kaufman, the former New Yorker, who remains a member today and for many years was the organization’s top recruiter and subscription seller.

The 1960s ushered in the “Glory Years,” a period in which it was demonstrated Green Bay’s Packers weren’t the only national-caliber performers in town.

1961 is illustrative. That December, five-year-old City Stadium hosted its first National Football League title game, and the Packers destroyed the visiting New York Giants, 37-0. A few weeks earlier, another New York City visitor, the great Metropolitan Opera tenor Richard Tucker, got a much friendlier reception.

That year’s lineup featured not only Tucker but the Winnipeg Ballet, the Beaux Arts Trio, Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet and the St. Louis Symphony, all for a season pass costing only $7 for adults, $4 for students.

Whether it was Tucker’s recommendation or not, two fellow Met superstars, sopranos Birgit Nilsson and Roberta Peters, added Green Bay tour stops in subsequent years.

The Nilsson recital, on Friday of Thanksgiving Week 1962, was “most spectacular,” Don Poh, president of Civic Music at the time, recalled years later. “That was the first spontaneous standing ovation I had ever seen in Green Bay. At that time, she was recognized as the greatest Wagnerian soprano in the world.” (F)

The following year the Milwaukee Symphony played what was billed its first out-of-town engagement. A year later, the Norman Luboff Choir, the Minneapolis Symphony and San Francisco Ballet anchored the series, and the St. Louis Symphony with visiting conductor Arthur Fiedler would pass through in 1965.

Green Bay’s organization was praised as a model. The tradition of series sellouts even had at some officers feeling choosy: “Tickets should not be passed out too freely or indiscriminately to non-members,” was a president’s comment at one 1960s board meeting.

Over the next several decades, now a fixture of the local cultural scene, Brown County Civic Music faced change.

Some shifts were subtle. The former 8:15 curtain time became 8 and then 7:30 p.m. in response to concertgoer preference. Folk-music acts like the New Christy Minstrels (1975) occasionally made the schedule. The all-volunteer concept was amended with the decision to allot a stipend of a few thousand dollars per year to an executive secretary for administrative tasks.

Other developments were major. Audiences were no longer asked to front money during a spring membership drive without knowing what concerts they were buying. And, in the 1980s, the Brown County group decided to cut out the middleman and deal directly with performers and their agents. This was a break from longtime partner Community Concerts, a division of Columbia Artists Management Inc., one of the successors to the national Civic Music booking business founded in the 1920s.

This declaration of independence put talent evaluation, booking and artist relations entirely in local hands. For Roger Bintz, a retired school band director who became the point person, the shift proved fascinating.

Bintz had the pleasure of hosting famed flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who performed here at his peak, in 1992. Now only was Rampal a charming and humble man, Bintz recalls, his concert was exceptional, highlighted by “an unbelievable audience welcome.”

“He had to take three bows before he was even allowed to sit down. He had them in the palm of his hand.”

Though reluctant to name a favorite, Bintz says the most magnificent music might have come from a relatively unknown ensemble one memorable night in 1987.

The Georgian Chamber Orchestra made Green Bay and the Civic Music series its first stop on its first American tour. At the time, the Soviet Union had not yet dissolved. “It was interesting,” Bintz remembers. “I got a call they needed an extra hotel room because the KGB agents (one man, one woman) didn’t want to double up… During the performance, the man stationed himself near the (West High) auditorium door, we assumed so he could keep anyone from defecting.”

Despite any tension, the orchestra and its concertmaster performed spectacularly, earning extended “bravos” and standing ovations.

That night’s entertainment also signaled a trend that accelerated with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Excellent ensembles and soloists previously unknown to the West entered the market, and with cheaper air fares and a strong dollar (trends now since reversed), top European and Asian performers became more accessible.

“We could get international groups from the other side of the world cheaper than from Minneapolis,” Bintz recalls.

The economic changes continue today. With costs now rising, few full symphonies and large ensembles are touring. Also, classical music’s market share has diminished in a varied, multi-faceted and highly segmented American music scene. Audiences are aging. Subscription prices creep upward as artists’ fees are spread over a smaller membership base.

It has been several years since a Civic Music campaign “sold the house” in advance. That was the year of Rampal and a second big draw, the Canadian Brass.

It was also the year the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts opened and began offering single-ticket sales for top attractions, and undeniably dampened Civic Music’s subscription sales. Even so, Civic Music’s low-overhead model, special niche and fervent support base gave it a tenacious presence. Within a few years, the Weidner Center had backed away from heavy classical programming to focus elsewhere. (It has since pared operations greatly.)

Meanwhile, Brown County Civic Music, operating on a different scale and expense basis, has experienced a slight rebound, stabilizing at about 600 subscribers for each of the last three years. In recent years, the St. Olaf Choir, pianist Lilya Zilberstein, and the eclectic Quartetto Gelatto have been popular repeat attractions.

According to Bintz, directors are committed to classical. “We feel we would no longer be contributing anything special to the local music scene if we (pursue “pop” performers),” he says. “You can’t chase away the purists… That has been the downfall of other civic music organizations around the country.”

Such perseverance was a byword during the leadership of the late Bob Schroeder. Another New York transplant, the former Macy’s exec came west for H.C. Prange and was the Association’s longest-serving president, from 1986 to 2000.

With carefully chosen concerts, an upswing in donations, no media advertising but a devoted person-to-person volunteer sales staff, Brown County Civic Music maintains enough cash flow to demonstrate that serious live music remains viable.

As a story of boosterism, entertainment economics, and commitment, it’s familiar across Northeast Wisconsin, whether today’s fine arts presenters trace direct lineage to the “organized audience” movement or not.

And, in Fond du Lac, the Brown County story is most familiar, especially to the membership of what is now known as the Fond du Lac Concert Association. They, too, offered their first concert in 1927 and it, too, featured the incomparable Edith Mason. Their own rich history traces the same arc: a post-war boom with membership of more than 1,200 and fabled guest stars including violinist Artur Rubenstein, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. (An excellent Web site by club historian Bob Shirak describes it in depth at http://www.fdlconcert.com/history.htm)