Michael Jenkins started working for Dallas Summer Musicals when he was just 14 and took over as its president in 1994. He was fired in May. Photo by Jonathan Zizzo.

Dallas Summer Musicals’ Next Act

After firing its longtime president, can the Fair Park mainstay return to relevance—and profitability?

The Dallas where Michael Jenkins describes first encountering Broadway theater as a young boy sounds more like something out of a fairy tale than the city we know today. Jenkins would ride a streetcar from Oak Cliff to Fair Park and buy a ticket for the Texas Star Ferris wheel. When his gondola reached the top, the operator would pause the ride, allowing the young Broadway enthusiast a brief bird’s-eye glimpse at the rehearsal excitement in the band shell where Dallas Summer Musicals began.

By age 14, Jenkins had a job as an usher at Dallas Summer Musicals performances. Just three years later, he became the assistant to the company’s first producer and managing director, Charles R. Meeker Jr. Jenkins would follow Meeker when he left in the early 1960s to help launch Six Flags Over Texas, but returned in 1994 to become DSM’s president. By the organization’s 75th season, in 2015, Michael Jenkins’ name had become synonymous with Dallas Summer Musicals. The anniversary was marked with a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and the Dallas Morning News dubbed it Jenkins’ “fairy tale moment.”

Indeed, his life in showbiz is a kind of Cinderella story: the only child whose mother began taking him to see Broadway shows in Fair Park at age 4 grew up to become an accomplished, Tony Award-winning producer with the very organization that had stoked his love for the stage. It’s that success, longevity, and sweetness of Jenkins’ life story that made his sudden dismissal from Dallas Summer Musicals in May all the more shocking.

But the reality is that, in recent years, Jenkins’ beloved Broadway tour company had started to look less than a ball-bound carriage and more like a pumpkin. The roots of discontent can be traced back to 2009, when the AT&T Performing Arts Center opened in the Dallas Arts District. In addition to flashy new venues designed by name-brand architects, ATTPAC introduced to Dallas a second Broadway tour company, underwritten by title sponsor Lexus. Initially, there was some concern over whether Dallas could support two organizations with such similar missions. But doubters were assured that the city was plenty big enough to handle all the Broadway the two organizations could parade through town.

The last seven years, however, haven’t borne that out.

In the aftermath of Jenkins’ ouster, Dallas Summer Musicals board members have admitted that, since 2009, the Fair Park-based organization has generated $6 million in operational loses, with one show, last year’s The King and I, responsible for a half-million-dollar loss alone. And while ATTPAC’s Broadway Series scored popular and critical hits in its first half-decade of operations—with shows like The Book of Mormon, by the co-creators of South Park, and Spring Awakening, a rock musical about teenage sexuality—Jenkins, who once interned for the Disney brothers, kept Dallas Summer Musicals focused on family-oriented entertainment.

But the reality is that, in recent years, Jenkins’ beloved Broadway tour company had started to look less than a ball-bound carriage and more like a pumpkin.

Jenkins and Dallas Summer Musicals did find some success co-producing award-winning Broadway hits like An American in Paris, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Legally Blonde, but tension between Jenkins and the DSM board began to mount. More than a year ago, the board commissioned a forensic audit. After they were presented the results, in May, all but four of more than 30 members of the board’s executive committee voted to terminate Jenkins.

“Everyone felt it was our fiduciary duty to act,” board chairman Ted R. Munselle told the Dallas Morning News.

Given Jenkins’ lifelong relationship with Dallas Summer Musicals, it is not too surprising that things got ugly after he was fired. Jenkins filed an age discrimination complaint and blamed his dismissal, in part, on the board shirking a six-figure loan Jenkins made to the organization from his deferred compensation. Then, a few days after being fired, he was hospitalized for stress-related heart trouble. When the dust settled, board members stopped returning media inquiries and Jenkins would communicate only via email submitted through a spokesperson. When I asked him about how competition with the Lexus Broadway Series may have affected Dallas Summer Musicals’ bottom line, Jenkins defended his fiscal management.

“DSM has a large number of subscribers and its ability to attract audiences has been significant,” Jenkins wrote. “Each show or production that I put on the stage was financially successful. Of course, DSM also includes day-to-day operating costs, which rely on the development department’s ability to bring in additional donations.”

But comments that board members have made to the media suggest that the organization’s financial issues extend beyond operational costs and fundraising. A statement issued by the board spoke of a desire for a “new generation of leadership” and a need for expanding programming at Music Hall to include more concerts and corporate events.

It isn’t difficult to read between the lines. Regardless of the success of any individual show that Dallas Summer Musicals has produced over the past seven years, the organization’s board seems to have recognized that in order to continue to succeed and remain relevant, Dallas Summer Musicals cannot rest on its laurels. The fact is, during those 75 years, Dallas has changed.

Jenkins’ own story helps illustrate just how much this city has evolved. When he used to take the streetcar with his mother to watch Broadway shows in Fair Park, the park was the center of this city’s cultural scene. Over the past few decades, the Dallas Museum of Art, the science and history museum, the Dallas Opera, and other institutions have all left Fair Park. Today, Dallas Summer Musicals is one of only a handful of groups, including the Dallas Historical Society, the African American Museum, the Children’s Aquarium, and Texas Discovery Gardens, that still call Fair Park home.

Dallas Summer Musicals finds itself in a situation where figuring out how to stay in the black while producing quality Broadway tours may not be enough of a core mission. Because it is one of the few entities outside of the State Fair that attracts a significant audience to Fair Park, Dallas Summer Musicals’ future success is paramount to the future success of Fair Park. Since Jenkins’ dismissal, DSM board members have been emphatic in their desire to remain in Fair Park. They say they see tremendous potential in expanding the programming of the Music Hall, which has upgraded its interior and sound system over the years, and hope that Dallas Summer Musicals can find more ways to collaborate—rather than compete—with the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

In the meantime, they have tapped David Hyslop—an arts management consultant and headhunter who helped the Dallas Symphony Orchestra dig out of its financial troubles in 2009—to serve as interim director and help find the next Dallas Summer Musicals president. Hyslop is something of an arts organization emergency room doctor. When I spoke to him on the phone, he was finishing up a stint in Idaho, where he was helping yet another arts organization, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, pull out of a financial bind and find new leadership. Hyslop said it was too early to comment on Dallas Summer Musicals’ financial or management issues, but, using the example of his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul, he did say that he didn’t think the presence of two Broadway touring companies should be a problem in a city as big as Dallas.

Perhaps that kind of outside perspective is exactly what Dallas Summer Musicals—and Fair Park—could use. Jenkins’ deep relationship and history with Dallas and Dallas Summer Musicals helped build an organization with a loyal core audience. But the city that Dallas Summer Musicals has served for so many years has changed. A nimble, inventive, experimental, challenging production company charged with rethinking how to best manage and program Music Hall could play a significant role in realizing the future potential of Fair Park. It could be a way to lure people back to a city asset that, during the past 75 years, Dallas has otherwise largely ignored.

A version of this column appears in the July issue of D Magazine.

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